NourbeSe Philip’s “The Absence of Writing or How I Became a Spy” can be discovered in her text “She Tries Her Tongue- Her Silence Softly Breaks,” which was published in 1988. This text is significant because it discusses how woman were never viewed as writers. Oh no, especially not women of color. She dives into discussing history, and how people of color were stripped of their language. Instead, these people had to speak English. There i-mage could only be created through the English Language. She goes on to show us how the African languages were viewed as an English that was “bad” or “broken.” Then, Philip discusses how a challenge the African Caribbean writer has is to use language to show the historical aspects these people had to go through. She talks about how language can re-create the i-mages as well. She, later on, poses two questions one being how can a language be obliterated? The second question is how does a person restore the image of a certain word? These are questions Philip doesn’t appear to have a solid answer to. She does end the text on an empowering note by calling women of color to write about their most painful experiences for all to hear.
Philip’s text is a powerful one that shows how historically people of color have not been treated fairly, and their language was looked down upon compared to the English language. Philip discusses words such as, “Bad English. Broken English. Patois. Dialect” (83) to speak about how the African language was viewed. She also makes a crucial point as well when she calls for more women of color to share their experiences with others because, “…we belong most certainly to the race of humans” (91). Philip informs women not only to share their stories with others, but shows them hey you’ll are human beings too. This is how she adds to what we know about our literary history.
The genre of Philip’s text is nonfiction. She tends to build on the generic traditions that come before it because she does it in a creative way. Philip never tells us in this text here is what happened, then this happened next. She discusses other people and the struggles for women of color to become writers. We see how difficult and messy the word “language” can be, “The African could still think and i-mage, she could still conceive of what was happening to her. But in stripping her of her language, in denying the voice power to make and simultaneously, to express the i-mage” (80). Philip shows us how African women could see what was happening to her, but once you take her language she will never be able to express her i-mage.
Now, let’s talk about the way Philip uses the word “i-mage” in her text. She isolates the i from the word image, and it appears to be because a person’s image has to do with them, hence the I. This is a notable moment in the text because usually most writers don’t play on a word as Philip does. She uses this word to discuss how, “…since there was no possible expression of the New World experience within any African language, the i-maging could only be expressed through the English Language” (82). It’s interesting how the experiences of these people could not be expressed in the African language, therefore it changes the i-mage when its discussed in the English Language. Unlike most nonfiction works, Philip never lectures us about this is how the African language was viewed compared to the English Language. She uses stories or examples, instead, to further her point.
Last but not least, the two interpretive problems this text raises is one women of color can be writers and two throughout history the African Language has been silenced to make way for the English Language. Philip asserts, “If someone has asked me when I was growing up to tell them what pictures came to mind when I heard the word ‘writer’ I would have said nothing” (76). This very bold statement is could be analyzed on the exam because it tells us one thing Philip wants to argue. It shows how the word “writer” wasn’t always one where women of color dominated, therefore Philip never thought she could be one. The irony in this is now she is a woman of color who writes. Then, there is language. She tells us how, “At its most simple, the dilemma can be resolved to an either/ or dichotomy: either one writes in a demotic variant of English, or one writes in straight English” (84). This is an important sentence because it shows that one had to write in English either in the English that’s well known or direct English. There were no exceptions, and this is a problem. We could use this sentence to analyze how important language was in discussing a person’s culture. Philip shows us how Africans were stripped of their language, and forced to write in English. A language that changed their i-mage.
Summary: In her essay, “The Absence of Writing or How I Almost Became a Spy”, NourbeSe Philip writes about the difficulties of being a “female and a black living in a colonial society” as a writer (90). While the first two pages are a semi-autobiographical piece on the writer/poet’s early exposure to writing as a potential career, the remainder of the essay argues for language and its usage in African societies. Philip attempts to “analyse [sic] and understand the role of language and the word from the perspective of a writer resident in a society which is still very much colonial” (77-78). While there are many definitions for the word ‘image,’ Philip uses “image” as a keyterm in her paper by defining it as “the irreducible essence the i-mage [sic] of creative writing” (78). She argues a writer, as opposed to other professions, has the ability to translate any given image into “meaningful language for her audience” (78). The audience a writer typically writes for is for the members of the environment in which he/she grew up, which for Philip is fellow Africans, both “Old World and New World” (81).
Historical Context/Literary History: NourbeSe Philip, a Carribean-born black female writer, originally published her essay in 1983 until she rewrote it in 1993. She writes from her experience as an African writer “living in a society [Canada] that is, in many respects, still colonial” (91). Considering the text was written during Apartheid times, the text’s significance in its historical moment still rings true today. Specifically, in America, the way in which some African Americans speak is still referred to as “broken or bad English” just because it’s not Standard form (86). Though her essay was written over twenty years ago, Philip’s argument for the writer’s power over creating “i-mages [sic] that speak to the essential being of the people among whom and for whom the artist creates” is still relevant (78). Only a black person can write on the experiences of black people in the world. For example, NourbeSe Philip writes from the perspective of a black Carribean writer living in a New World society. “The Absence of Writing or How I Almost Became a Spy” could not be written from the perspective of a white American, for instance, because they are the creators of English “in colonial societies” (77). The version of English whites speak are largely accepted while “demotic” variations (84), such as “Bad English. Broken English. Patois. Dialect.” (83), are mainly looked down upon. The way Philip’s article adds to our literary history is by identifying and defining a new keyterm: “i-mage” (78). She also invites her readers to see the literary world from the view of a black Carribean woman who decides against all odds to become a writer. The paper also reflects the concerns of its historical moment, nationally and globally, by including the struggles and allowances of language for blacks around the world. According to Philip, New World Africans, who lived in “North and South America, England, and the Carribean” (79), have especially struggled to create ‘i-mages’ of their own because of the environments in which they live. There are particular difficulties for blacks in these parts of the world because their “mother tongue” (85), or native languages, are shunned while variations of English are encouraged.
Genre: This text is part of the non-fiction, semi-historical genre of writing. As stated before, while the first few pages include details on the author’s life, the rest of her paper is an argumentative/analytical piece meant to analyze the role language and ‘i-mages’ play in the life of a black writer living in a colonial society. While non-fictional texts are typically fact-based, what is notable about the way the author uses existing conventions of the genre is that she not only includes factual information on writing as a tool for communication, but she also incorporates her personal feelings on the subject.
Theoretical/Analytical Questions: Do the problems that black writers face in colonial societies still exist today? (77) Are writers the only ones permitted to create the “i-mage into meaning and non-meaning” via languages? (78) What does the form(s) of language afford the writer? (77) Do the affordances depend on the race of the writer? The first full paragraph on page 79, “I-mages that comprised the African aesthetic… influenced Western music” states African contributions to art, literature, and music had “previously been thought to be primitive, naive, and ugly.” Has this sentiment changed? Why or why not?
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