Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Invisibility and Invincibility of Subaltern Minorities in Amy Tan’s Saving Fish From Drowning

Similar to the discomfited fates shared through national imaginings and constructions of postcolonial nations, the failure of Burma’s decolonization from the British imperial rule is determined by the wrongful privileging of a dominant nationalist group that deliberately displaces, neglects, and/or terminates the existence of its minority populations.

The trail of displacement for Burma’s subalterns – fictionalized as the renegade group of the Karen tribe known as The Lord’s Army (or Lajamee) – demonstrates how nationalist movements necessarily exclude, ignore, and/or extinguish subaltern minorities to represent and put forward the interest of a prevailing ethnic group using the state’s military apparatus.

In tracing the “itinerary of silencing” for these subaltern minorities, literary theorist Gayatri Spivak resolves that there is “no space from which the subaltern can speak” since they are already being represented or ventriloquized by the dominant discourses being forwarded not only by those who oppress them, but also by the seemingly “concerned” outsiders and other interested sectors in society.

However, for the supposed Lajamee tribe in Amy Tan’s novel, it is not enough to assert that subaltern minorities cannot speak; but that they cannot see as well – through their blinded faith – and that they are condemned, moreover, not to be seen by the dominant eyes of the state and the external populace. 

As subaltern minorities, the Lajamees are fated to be invisible. Their displaced and chartless existence – concealed behind the unnavigable jungles of No Name Place – liberates them, in fact, from being erroneously recognized, misrepresented, and manipulated by the dominant forces in society. With this, it is merely apt to contend that it is through the tribe’s initial invisibility – and their higher desire for a mystical one – that holds the key to their invincibility. In other words, making the tribe visible by hauling them out in the open will not, so to speak, “save them from drowning”.

Instead, as revealed in the novel, the tribe’s visibility suffers a predictive curse which, in fact, only emphasizes the tribe’s subalternity or the condition of being known “not as a subject, but existing in a subjected state of being” (Chakrabarty). At this point, it is perhaps helpful to transform Spivak’s “itinerary of silencing” into the Lajamee tribe’s “itinerary of ‘invisibilizing”— and contend that if ‘speaking’ does not belong to the subaltern, then ‘existing’ too does not equally pertain to them, but to the dominant and well-defined structures of historical existence. 

Indeed, as established in the novel, exhibiting the presence of the Lajamees not only allows a distorted representation of their existence but also a subsequent “instrumentalization” both by the state and interested outsiders. The newly refashioned nation of Myanmar, for instance, through its State of Peace and Development Council, denies the persecution and atrocities being done to the tribe and offers them truces and peace agreements, while luring them back to the same dominant and antagonistic relationship they had with the state.

The supposed “concerned” Americans, on the other hand, provide the means to exoticize and commercialize the Lajamees and their ways of living merely for Western consumption. Here the exposure and subsequent neglect of the tribe by Western media – and the botanical invasion for Balanophora and anti-malarial herbs at No Name Place – highlight the curse of the tribe’s visibility. 

This is not to say though that by pointing out the tribe’s “invisibility as key to their invincibility” is tantamount to saying that there is no hope for subaltern minorities to see the promise of existence. Rather, we can trace Amy Tan’s use of “Saving Fish from Drowning” to provide insights as to how mankind can gaze out to the sea but cannot assume the suffering of marine life — precisely since everything that we see, including those we cannot see in nature, have their own space and ways of adapting to life.

Narrowing this view into understanding the condition of fishes in the sea, it is essential to shove ignorance and recognize that there are those “mighty Nemos” who, by way of leaping through the bounds of nature and time, learn how to eventually crawl, walk, and even fly. 


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