Colonialism in Margaret Atwood's 'Surfacing'
Margaret Atwood's novel 'Surfacing' demonstrates the complex question of identity for an English-speaking Canadian female. Identity, for the protagonist has become problematic because of her role as a victim of colonial forces. She has been colonized by men in the patriarchal society in which she grew up, by Americans and their cultural imperialism, or neo-colonialism as it has come to be known as, and the Euro-centric legacy that remains in her country although the physical presence of English and French rulers have gone. This collective colonial experience of the protagonist, and the analogous nature of imperial and feminist discourses, is succinctly described by Coral Ann Howells, quoted by Eleanora Rao in 'Strategies for Identity',
'Women's experience of the power politics of gender and their problematic relation to patriarchal traditions of authority have affinities with the Canadian attitudes to the cultural imperialism of the United States as well as its ambivalence towards its European inheritors.' (P.xxiv)
Feminist and postcolonialist theories share much common ground due to their examination of the voice, and the position of, the subaltern in society. Their critiques of, and struggles against, domination by the white male has led to their alignment and relevant discussions about their similiar problems, affects and strategies. (It may be of interest to scholars in this area that, since the 1980s, there has emerged a divergent element to feminist postcolonial theory which has focused on the 'double colonization' that women colonized by both race and gender have suffered, leading to questions of which should be dealt with first, the discrimination they have suffered for not being white or not being male.) What is presented by Atwood's 'Surfacing' is the analogous nature of patriarchy, cultural imperialism and geographical colonisation and how this combined colonial experience has left the victim with feelings of displacement and disconnectedness from their language, history and culture, which in turn has led to a fractured sense of self and a desperate need to regain and reclaim identity.
The damage caused to those who have been colonized (which I use as an umbrella term to encompass the collective experience outlined above) is platformed by Atwood through her focus on how one individual has been affected, and just as the novel chooses to focus on certain effects and issues of colonization, so I choose to focus on those of language, history and culture. This brief examination of their problematic nature for the protagonist of the novel should demonstrate their role in feminist postcolonial discourse, their importance to an individual's construction of identity, and how vital our sense of self is to our mental well-being. 'Surfacing' does not deal with the physical act of colonising a country, but instead it focuses on the aftermath and the mental colonising that still exists, long after so-called decolonisation has occurred; this is a much more insidious form of colonization and control and it has left people with words that do not express their ideas, a displacement from the country or cultural group to which they belong and a past they feel disconnected from.
Feminism and postcolonialism have both been concerned with language because of its importance to identity formation and also its use as a weapon to subvert patriarchal and colonial powers. It is recognized as one of the most fundamental aspects of our being and therefore fundamental to these discourses that recognize the importance of identity. As the 'Post-Colonial Studies Reader' states, 'the colonial process itself begins in language.' (P.S.R P.283) The reason for this is its ability to control, either by displacing native languages or imposing certain standards and signs that become the 'norm'. Language is how we order, describe and know our world and if this is made problematic, or displaced, then our relationship with our world and our position within it also becomes problematic and displaced. The question then arises of how to overcome such control and there are two main answers, reject or subvert. Recently theorists and writers have tended to opt for the latter, using language as a set of signs that are invested with meaning, and if new meanings are assigned and new uses invested, then effectively it is a new language, but one that remains recognisable.
Atwood incorporates many of these ideas about language into her novel and from the outset we are made aware of the whole question of language for Canadians. The issue is initially presented to us, and indeed to all who travel from English to French Canada, or vice versa, by the sign that reads 'Bienvenue' on one side and 'Welcome' on the other. This sets up one problem of communication that exists for Canadians, who, because of their colonial history share a country but not a native tongue. The sign acts as a signal and prepares us for a more poignant and personal demonstration of this communication problem, which is presented in a vignette of the narrator's mother and Paul's wife: described for us are two neighbours sitting together in awkward silence because they have not the power to communicate to one another, they do not speak each other's language. Atwood then goes on to show that the inability to communicate and own a language is not necessarily that of speaking different tongues, as her fellow Canadian, Dennis Lee writes in, 'Writing the Colonial Space', 'the words I knew said Britain and they said America, but they did not say my home.' (P.S.R. P.398)
For our narrator this is further complicated by the fact that the words say male, but they do not say her gender. She constantly refers to her inability to communicate, even to those closest to her, 'the language is wrong' (P.70) and 'it was the language again, I couldn't use it because it wasn't mine.' (P.100) She feels alienated from the words that have been passed down to her, feeling they have not come from her own experience, her own values or ideas, but from the white European or American male who essentially has had a different set of experiences and invested different meanings and ideas in the words that have come to produce and explain, not only his world, but the world in general. The notion of language as a set of meanings is demonstrated in the novel through the cultural differences that words acquire and denote, highlighted by the narrator's examples; how the worst words in any language are those we are most afraid of, in French these are religious words and in English they are connected with the body and how in some countries the innocent Canadian emblem of a beaver has become a synonym for a female sexual organ.
The protagonist, who, feels that she cannot express herself and that language has been hijacked by those in control, she must choose between rejection or subversion. There are some convincing arguments for the former, perhaps most adeptly proposed by Audre Lorde who argues that, 'The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.' (P.S.R. P.264), but it has become accepted that realistically, subversion is the more effective and practical method, a notion that Chinua Achebe has been both criticised and revered for championing and one that, it would appear, Margaret Atwood agrees with. Her choice of appropriation rather than rejection can be seen in the picture she drew as a child, employing the ultimate in binary oppositions to illustrate the idea, one that Elaine Showalter also promoted in 'Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness', that in order to render the fight equal we must be equipped with the same resources, 'if the devil was allowed a tail and horns, God needed them also.' (P. 152), once we have them we can begin to use them to our advantage and appropriate them for our needs.
As with all problems the first step to solution is a recognition that there is a problem which occurs during the course of the novel and progresses to an initial rejection of language and words, a move to silence, a state that is presented as primitive, precolonial in every sense, and while it was necessary to visit this point to truly understand, there is a that remaining there will achieve and change nothing, for that is not how the world is any longer. We are left at the end of the novel with the anticipation of her new voice, one that she has chosen, appropriated and understands.
Language is not the only thing in the novel that needs to be appropriated by the oppressed; their history and their past must also be reclaimed, and in some cases almost completely rewritten. History is another means of control, developed by European nations during modern colonisation to explain and order a world, much of which they had little knowledge or comprehension of, but which nevertheless became, 'a construction of world reality.' (P.C.S. P.355) To have a history, in effect, legitimates us, it gives us the story of our existence, explains our role in the world and without it, it is almost as though we did not exist. What feminist and postcolonialist theorists have recognised, is that history has been written by the victor, the suppressor and the idea of history as a single narrative has now become defunct. The opinion today is more likely to side with Lyotard's revision of the world as now being explained through metanarratives, or many petite histoires instead of one grande histoire. It is generally accepted that there is more than one way to see things, including history and which complicates, but makes more necessary, the process of uncovering the truth, a process which can be slow and painful but will inevitably lead to a clearer understanding of ourselves and our world. As the narrator of 'Surfacing' demonstrates, a single version of history allows for falsehood and construction and as the feminists and postcolonialists must deconstruct those stories already told and reinstate those untold, so must we, along with our protagonist do the same with her story, because as Derek Walcott points out, 'History is subject to a fitful muse, memory.' (P.S.R. P.370)
Our nameless 'heroine' has marginalised the painful memories from her past and only reveals, to both the readers and her companions, what she deems necessary; because we have no other alternative viewpoint, initially we have no choice but to believe her tales of husbands and abandoned children. It is the literal journey to the site of her past that initiates the metaphorical one into her subconscious, which in turn forces her to confront certain ghosts and to re-examine what she has become convinced is true, the lies she has told herself and those that others and society have impressed upon her, such as there never having been any important women artists. Slowly, she becomes awakened to the fictionality of history and memory and thus begins the re-examination of her past, 'I must be more careful of my memories, I have to be sure they're my own and not the memories of other people telling me what I felt, how I acted, what I said.' (P.67) We have all heard the saying that if we are told something often enough we will begin to believe it and this is used to the advantage of those in a position to do the telling; just as the narrator, in her formative years, is consistently told, and therefore grows to believe, that all women should be housewives and that they should grow up to look like the pictures she cuts from the magazines. Once her awakening to the falsehoods that she has both invented and been taught we begins to witness the process of rejection and finally of, reclamation of those memories and histories that had been ousted. But before achieving this, she travels to a place beyond, or before, history that is reminiscent of a pre-colonial Canada and one of the major themes of Canadian literature, a place in the wilderness, a place of nature, a literal place her father chose so 'he could recreate, not the settled farm life of his own father but that of the earliest ones who arrived when there was nothing but forest and no ideologies but the ones they brought with them.' (P.53) and a metaphorical place from where she can retrace her/history's steps and this time from a cleansed and renewed perspective. She surfaces from her past and her acceptance and acknowledgment of it is presented as vital in her process of regeneration.
So, our protagonist reclaims her language and her past but she, and her fellow Canadians, are also in danger of losing all sense of a cultural identity in the face of the overpowering, neighbouring Americans. This cultural imperialism has recently come to be considered under the the term neo-colonialism, which was coined by Kwame Nkrumah to describe the condition of economic dependence that many post-colonial countries found themselves in. Although this is not explored in any detail in the novel, we are reminded of it when the protagonist is talking about her artistic freedom and that even though she is illustrating a book of Quebec Folk Tales she must make it appeal to the English and American markets, Canada's publishing industry is not economically sustainable alone.
The term, whilst still used its original sense, now denote any form of control over former colonies and, most recently, to describe the form of imperialism that the new superpowers of the world, most especially the United States, have inflicted including the global capitalist economy that it devised and the cultural domination that Atwood reacts against. Whilst America's global cultural and economic imperialism has placed a McDonalds in the four corners of the earth, and almost everywhere in between, it has bullied and oppressed Canadians most consistently and to great effect. Margaret Atwood writes in, 'Survival' that she only realised there was a problem with the Canadian cultural identity when she went to America to study, there she heard the comparisons that were being made, comparisons that left Canada looking dull, middle of the road and banal, a place devoid of any culture or literature of their own. 'Survival' seeks to change this belief and, along with her own fiction, it is fair to say she has helped changed the face of her country's literature. The rivalry between the two countries, cultural or otherwise is seen everywhere, South Park the Movie being one example that springs to mind, and there have been many attempts by Canadians to reclaim their cultural heritage through history, literature and art. But, as is evoked by the novel, this is not necessarily enough, it is not all about maple leaves versus stars and stripes but is, most crucially, a state of mind, 'If you look like them and talk like them, then you are them.' (P.123)
The unwanted presence of the Americans is consistent throughout the book, from the stuffed moose at the petrol station with the American flag to the constant reference to them as Other, them as the enemy. David, the character who is most prone to denouncing the, 'Bloody fascist pig Yanks' (P.3) is the one who is most like them, with his desire to control and desire for excess and his desire to control and capture that which is not his to take, like the protagonist's, and the many other women's, bodies and the 'random samples' he collects. He is of the same breed as the Canadians who are initially mistaken for Americans, and who have killed the herons, as though they were theirs to destroy, and the developers and holiday makers who take over and ruin the natural world and the wilderness, eventually turning it into their idea of how things should be, as though it were theirs to order.
Throughout the novel there is a definite condemnation of this Americanisation of people and places but it is most poignantly and symbolically demonstrated with the narrator's final rejection of her 'friends', her clothes and any food that is not natural. She rejects neo-colonialism in every form and travels to a precolonial space that she must visit in order to return with an understanding of herself and her identity as a Canadian and as a woman. Her surfacing is made possible by, firstly rejecting all that seeks to colonise her and then subverting the forces they use such as language, history and culture to reject her identity as a victim.
'This above all, to refuse to be a victim. Unless I can do that I can do nothing. I have to recant, give up the old belief that I am powerless and because of it nothing I can do will ever hurt anyone. A lie which was always more disastrous than the truth would have been. The word games, the winning and losing games are finished; at the moment there are no others but they will have to be invented, withdrawing is no longer possible. '
Atwood, Margaret. 'Surfacing'. London; Virago Press, 1972.
Aschcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin, eds. 'The Post-Colonial Studies Reader'. London; Routledge, 1995.
Atwood, Margaret. 'Survival'. Toronto; House of Anais Press, 1972.
Rao, Eleonora. 'Strategies for Identity: The Fiction of Margaret Atwood'. New York; Peter Lang Publishing, 1993.
Showalter, Elaine. 'Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness'. London; Longman Press, 1989.
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