WoMan: The Inescapable Patriarchy
Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes and Rupi Kaur’s poetry and prose collection, Milk and Honey, may cover vastly different topics, but both works have one thing in common – a female narrator. While The Book of Negroes follows African girl Aminata Diallo and her experiences after being kidnapped and sold into slavery, Kaur delves into the subjects of sexual abuse, love and femininity in her series of works. Both Hill and Kaur touch on the struggles of a female trying to create and maintain her own narrative in a society that has been male-centric for so long. In many ways, Aminata is a character that subverts gender expectations and manages to resist male dominance over her self. However, even this breakthrough from the patriarchal tradition is not a complete one, and Kaur’s poems further problematise the issue. While Aminata and Kaur’s positions as authors attempt to repossess the female narrative in a male-centric society, Milk and Honey complicates this attempt by suggesting that it is not possible for the female to completely break out of the patriarchal tradition.
As a character who resists her subordinate position in a patriarchal society, Aminata is shown to defy the male gaze, the act of “looking at women from a man’s point of view” (“Male Gaze”), on multiple occasions. Early on in the novel, she expresses to her father a desire to “travel, and cultivate [her] mind” (Hill 25). Her father expresses his disapproval, stating that her “task is to become a woman” (25). Here, Aminata’s desire for knowledge is presented as something that deviates from what a woman is expected to be by the males in her community. However, despite her father’s disapproval, Aminata still harbours the wish to “[learn] to read and write”, hoping to “be the only woman […] in [her] entire village” who has the ability to read the Qur’an and write in Arabic (27). Knowledge is presented as a power that is not readily available to women, and Aminata’s resistance against molding herself into the woman that her father expects her to be marks her first attempt to defy the male gaze and patriarchal values, as she refuses to adhere to masculine expectations of femininity.
This resistance against the male gaze is seen once again in Aminata’s interactions with the medicine man aboard the ship that she is captured onto. During the sequence in which the medicine man introduces himself to her as “Tom”, he also attempts to get her to say the word “Mary”, “scrunch[ing] up his face” in disapproval when she introduces herself as “Aminata” (Hill 83). By attempting to rename her, the medicine man literally threatens her identity and self-agency; he revisions her as the pious Christian figure that the name Mary suggests and completely erases her personal history. Aminata’s true identity, the African girl Aminata Diallo, is erased and neglected in the medicine man’s eyes. However, Aminata protests the erasure of her identity by “[telling herself] it would be the last time [she] would ever say [the name Mary], or his name” (83). Here, Aminata decides to deny the medicine man of his identity just as he has denied her of hers. Notably, she has no power to stop the erasure and remodelling of her self in the medicine man’s eyes, but she resists his dominance over her by levelling the playing field – the medicine man has no more power over her than she does over him.
Indeed, Aminata is shown to be a figure who manages to transcend the male-female power imbalance and maintain self-agency in her relationship with her lover, Chekura. Aminata is a female and a slave – doubly oppressed in the slave system with no ownership of her body; this is made clear when Georgia warns her that “Master Apbee owns [her] from head to toe. And anything [she] make[s]” (Hill 190). While she has no control over her own body in a system that consists of not just men, but men who own slaves like her, her relationship with Chekura serves as a subversion of this power dynamic. When Chekura comes back to find Aminata after a long separation, he seeks her permission to make love to her, saying: “A husband needs his wife, […] would you love me now?” (251). He does not order or demand her to surrender her body to him – instead, he asks for her permission to access her body, thereby acknowledging her body as her possession and returning self-agency to her.
Here, the balanced relationship between Aminata and Chekura is one that operates outside of the traditional discourse of love, in which males are normally prized as the lovers, and females are coined as the subordinate beloveds. Kaur’s poem illustrates the female resistance against a passive role in love:
i will not have youbuild me into your lifewhenwhat i want isto build a life with you (117)
While having the male “build [the beloved] into [his] life” (117) suggests a lack of agency on the part of the woman, as she is not the one taking action, the speaker’s suggestion that what she wants is “to build a life with [him]” hints that an ideal relationship is one with a more balanced power dynamic. Building a life together suggests cooperation between both parties and the presence of self-agency for both the lover and the beloved, instead of having the man “build [her]” (117), oppressing the woman’s personal identity and literally recreating her to suit his fancies. The seemingly ideal, balanced relationship that the speaker advocates is reflected in Aminata and Chekura’s relationship, as Chekura and Aminata treat each other as equals; Chekura accepts Aminata’s possession of her own body instead of seeing her as something that belongs to him.
In her poems, Kaur, too, attempts to recover ownership over the womanly body in a love discourse that has for so long privileged men as the lovers and women as beloveds who belong to the men. In one of the poems, the speaker urges the reader not to meekly accept things if a boy comments on the hair on their legs:
[remind] that boy your bodyis not his homehe is a guestwarn him tonever outstephis welcome again (Kaur 165)
By labelling “that boy” as “a guest” (165), the speaker negates any power the male may claim to have over her body. The woman is the powerful being here; the speaker’s use of the word “warn” highlights that in the space of her body, the speaker is the authoritative figure who has the ability to punish or reject the man for overstepping his boundaries. By describing his comments about her bodily hair as “outstep[ping] / his welcome” (165), the speaker also suggests that the man only has access to her body at her allowance. Through this poem, Kaur subverts and rejects traditional patriarchal notions about men and women’s roles in a romantic relationship – instead of being a passive figure, the woman is the one who is attributed with active verbs such as “remind” and “warn” (165), and she is the only one who wields power over her body.
However, although both the speakers in Kaur’s works and Aminata appear to successfully reject male-dominated narratives in favour of crafting their own, their resistance against female oppression in the patriarchal ideology is still a problematic one. According to Louis Althusser, ideology is “a dynamic process constantly reproduced and reconstituted in practice” (Fiske 1269). He suggests that ideology is not simply imposed onto an individual, but perpetuated by institutions “such as the family, the educational system, language, the media, the political system” and others (1269). Through these institutions, people are taught to “behave and think in socially acceptable ways” (1269). This means that no one person can truly escape from ideology, as they are born into a system that constantly instils in them what a particular ideology’s views as the correct values and traits, whether they are aware of it or not.
This theory poses a particular problem for women when resisting patriarchal ideology, as they also have to overcome the definitions of women that are engrained in them since birth. Kaur acknowledges this issue in the poem, “the idea of shrinking is hereditary”:
trying to convince myselfi am allowed to take up spaceis like writing withmy left handwhen i was bornto use my right (Kaur 29)
The word “hereditary” in the title of the poem itself suggests that women are born into the thought that they should not be seen. The speaker emphasises the struggle for women to overcome the patriarchal values that they are born into by comparing it to writing with the hand that she was not born to write with – to the speaker, it is an act that defies nature. It may not be impossible to train oneself to write with the hand that they were not born to write with, but it will definitely not be an easy process, and the speaker suggests that it is the same when trying to overcome patriarchal values that permeate the society that one is born into.
Indeed, Kaur herself appears to struggle with writing within a literary tradition that is so dominated by male voices, so much so that she occasionally slips back into a subordinate role. In one of her poems, the speaker says that “every revolution / starts and ends / with his lips” (Kaur 48). This is a problematic depiction as it negates the message in Kaur’s other poems where the speaker “want[s] to be full on [her] own” instead of having her lover “fill the empty parts of [her]” (59). While the second poem advocates the speaker as a separate and whole entity on her own, the first poem suggests that the speaker literally revolves around the man’s lips; the man is the centre, and the speaker can only really exist in relation to him. In the first poem, Kaur appears to regress back into ideas that stem from traditional patriarchal thoughts about love.
Even Aminata’s resistance against male-dominated narratives cannot be seen as completely successful. It is notable that while Aminata insists on “writing [her] account. All of it” by herself at the beginning of the novel, she is still prepared to pass things over to “John Clarkson – one of the quieter abolitionists”, if she dies before she finishes” (Hill 7). Although she claims to “trust” him to “change nothing” (7), she is, nevertheless, placing her narrative in the power of a man with no actual guarantee that it will stay completely untouched and unedited. At the end, Aminata refuses to use the abolitionists’ publisher as that would mean that her narrative would undergo edits in order to correct “allegations that cannot be proved” (525). While May offers her fiancé as a potential publisher, Aminata merely answers vaguely that her story “will be published by the one who lets [her] words stand” (525). The reader never finds out who gains the publishing rights to the novel in the end, but it is clear that whichever way things go, the narrative would have to go through a man in order to be published, and there is no absolute guarantee whether the publisher will leave Aminata’s words unedited. Here, Aminata’s attempt to give the literary world a pure, unadulterated female voice is ultimately still marred by the male-dominated publishing industry – any one with any power to give her voice can still only be male. The reader has reasonable grounds to believe that Aminata’s words would have gone through some editing at some point, which makes the ending less satisfactory and suggests that in a world where the power of voice lies with men, giving women a voice is a much bigger struggle that cannot as of yet be overcome completely.
Aminata and Kaur are both women narrators who attempt to rewrite the female narrative with a female voice, and in many ways, both manage to subvert the traditional power dynamics between men and women, resisting patriarchal ideology and the subordinate role attributed to women by society. However, their narrative also reveal the struggles that women face in attempting to write their own narratives – not only do they have to contend with the patriarchal values that are embedded into their consciousness, the privilege that men have within the literary tradition also acts as a strong obstacle towards the female writer. While they are able to reject male dominance to a certain extent, ultimately, breaking out of the ideology completely is presented as something that female authors still struggle with.
Fiske, John. “Culture, Ideology, Interpellation.” Literary Theory: An Anthology, edited by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan, 2nd ed., John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, Chichester, West Sussex, 2017, pp. 1268–1273.
Hill, Lawrence. The Book of Negroes. Toronto, HarperCollins, 2011.
Kaur, Rupi. Milk and Honey. Kansas City, MO, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2016.
“Male Gaze.” Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary & Thesaurus, 4th ed., Cambridge University Press, 2013, Accessed 15 Mar. 2017.