Decolonizing Hybridity through Intersectionality and Diaspora in the Poetry of Olinda Beja
Decolonizing Hybridity through Intersectionality and Diaspora in the Poetry of Olinda Beja
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter considers how Beja, born in 1946 in the African archipelago of São Tomé and Príncipe, seeks to produce a signifying chain that emerges from the centuries-long impact of imperial power on the world, particularly on disenfranchised peoples and spaces. Beja, in this sense, takes a further step by reflecting on ways to enunciate identity and collective struggle in a decolonial fashion. The chapter reads select poems from three of her collections spanning her poetic trajectory and oeuvre: Bô Tendê? [Do You Understand?] (1992), No País do Tchiloli [In the Country of Tchiloli] (1996), and Aromas de Cajamanga [Aromas of Ambarella] (2009). In doing so, we shall examine what we may call a decolonial remapping; one that Beja carries out, I argue, in a poetic narrating/signifying of movement through time and space that re-orders imperial signifiers.
The works explored thus far in this volume have, in different ways and through different approaches, grappled with Empire’s signification of time, space, and bodies, confronting imperial taxonomies of human life while offering interrogations of the performance of subjectivity in relation to power. Following up on these examinations, the remaining two chapters map proposals for alternative, non-imperial conceptualizations of global time and space. These tentative forms of narrativization do not operate in terms of a utopian new beginning in a world untouched by Empire. Instead, they trace the emergence of alternative epistemologies over and against Empire’s field of meaning, particularly its categorizations of bodies and lands.
This has very much been the case with the oeuvre of Olinda Beja, which evokes, appropriates, and reworks Empire’s signifiers in order to remap the signified terrain of power while bringing about anti-imperial forms of local and global consciousness. For Beja, this project is closely tied to her own personal trajectory. An acclaimed poet, she is also the author of two novels and three collections of short stories, and is regarded as one the leading literary voices of São Tomé and Príncipe, the West African archipelago along the equator. Born in the São Toméan town of Guadalupe in 1946, she was raised under Portuguese colonial rule. She has lived most of her life, however, outside of São Tomé and Príncipe after a childhood move to Portugal followed by prolonged residence there and in Switzerland. This has undoubtedly contributed to her work both in terms of experiences to place on the page and a unique lens through which to perceive the world, beyond São Tomé and Príncipe and the former imperial metropolis.
Her first collection of poetry, Bô Tendê? [‘Do You Understand?’] (1992), offers numerous poems reflecting on the consequences of moving to Europe as a young African girl, and learning about herself and the world through imperial pedagogy. Within this particular collection, the poem ‘Visão’ (p.238) [‘Vision’] provides a visceral example of this, beginning with the very first lines:
- Quiseram fazer de mim uma europeia
- e por esse motivo me arrancaram
- das costas de mãe-África, minha mãe. (14)1
- [They wanted to make me European
- and for that reason they pulled me
- from the back of Mother Africa, my mother.]
Although the poetic voice never mentions specifically to whom the third person plural pronouns refer, she nonetheless underscores the subjection to interpellation, which stems from a particular desire: ‘they wanted to make me European.’ Becoming European, or Europeanizing her, as she goes on to reveal, implies the adoption of the Western site of knowledge and narrativization as her own, viewing the world imperially, or better yet, learning to learn imperially:
- Repuxaram meus cabelos, alisando-os
- dando-lhes nova forma, esquecendo como
- Medeia penteou os filhos de África.
- Deram-me um colégio por escola
- para aprender, enfim, boas maneiras e assim
- poder entrar na sociedade. (14)
- [They pulled back my hair, straightening it
- giving it a new form, forgetting how
- Medea combed the children of Africa.
- They gave me a college for school
- to learn, then, proper manners and thus
- enter society.]
The altering of her hair speaks to a praxis of corporal transformation according to both European standards of beauty and, underneath that, European standards of valid personhood articulated here as the appearance of ‘civilization.’ Such a change of appearance always goes hand in hand with European and imperially disseminated notions of social respectability, thus tying it together with the socializing goal of acquiring ‘good manners’ in (p.239) order to ‘enter society.’ This Europeanization does not, to be sure, suggest a racial transformation into whiteness, but a European re-textualizing of the black body. This is a learning to reinscribe the body and perform identity – at the intersection of race, gender, class, and sexuality – according to European knowledge of bodies (including the beauty thereof), time, and space, as the next lines of the poem illustrate below. As the above excerpt also suggests, the imposition of European ways of viewing and inscribing the othered body – part of the field of meaning through which the other is interpellated – also implies the displacement and erasure of non-European modes of knowing.
In this regard, Beja refers to Medea, the eponymous character of Euripides’ Greek tragedy, in which the discursive binary of ‘civilized’ versus ‘barbarian’ – an early example of orientalism and discourse of ethnic/racial difference – frames the action. As the plot of the play goes, Medea is a princess of the ‘barbarian’ (non-Greek) kingdom of Colchis, and is married to Jason. The latter divorces her in order to marry Glauce, princess of Corinth, a beacon of Greek civilization. In response, Medea murders the children she had with Jason in addition to his new wife. As Albert Wertheim’s postcolonial reading of Medea explains, ‘As a woman and an ethnic Other, Medea is the victim of a double patriarchy or double colonialism’ (337). A similar experience is evoked throughout Beja’s work, and the reference to Medea represents the celebration of an act against power. This is precisely what Wertheim extracts from the play:
The unexpected triumph of Medea despite her bloody deeds is the triumph not merely of a woman wronged but of female intelligence and, even more significantly, of the ethnic Other, who is always seen by the hegemonic culture as inherently less intelligent, less rational, barbarous, and literally or more often metaphorically female – and hence as an easy target for subjugation and exploitation by a masterful, intelligent, civilized, male ‘superior’ society. (377)
Here Beja deploys the figure of Medea in yet another related fashion – as a maternal entity that practiced motherhood through political engagement against Empire, that far exceeds any trite valorization of womanhood through motherhood. The act of filicide is an act of revenge but also bars the children from being placed into new modes of behavior and manners – like those experienced by Beja’s poetic I. Medea is thus evoked as a subversive component of an anti-imperial mythology that resisted the incorporation of her children into Empire’s realm of intersubjective meaning. Medea is, therefore, cited in the poem as a mother acting as a site of knowledge against Empire. Medea’s combing of her children’s hair, mentioned by Beja, speaks (p.240) to the decolonial epistemology which Medea bestows upon her offspring, a knowledge of their bodies and larger existence not subsumed by the forces of Empire. By denouncing the ‘forgetting of how Medea combed,’ Beja’s poetic voice underscores the erasure of non-imperial forms of knowing – an erasure she experienced through her own interpellation into Empire as other.
The experience of interpellation outlined in ‘Visão’ offers important insights regarding imperial subjectivation into otherness. The poem’s focus on Europeanization points to a process that begins with the cultivation of an imperial ideal ego of black femininity: the discursive formation of the sign which Beja is supposed to take on within Empire’s signifying field. This is the sign/body that is to be performed, prepared for, and consumed by the white heteronormative male gaze that guides imperial signification. From this hegemonic scene of writing and reading social bodies, the ideal ego of black femininity is thus the crystallization and intersection of various forms of signified otherness, namely those pertaining to gender and race – the double colonialism mentioned by Wertheim above. These figurations of otherness come from those who have been imperially inscribed over the ‘absolute otherness’ (Cixous and Clément 70–71) of non-European bodies through the monologism of imperial historicization and subsequent foreclosure of non-European voices from the global signifying process.
The brand of otherness into which the poetic subject is being interpellated is, more specifically, an assimilationist one – an image of otherness placed on the black bodies that are most in quotidian physical proximity with white bodies. This would pertain especially to the imperial post-slavery metropolis where the poetic subject finds herself, and to different ranks of colonial administration or business where employment for colonized natives was often contingent upon assimilation. The specular image that corresponds to the assimilated other is thus an imperial negotiation between the signified abjection of non-assimilated subjects and a consumable form of exoticness – a sign in flux across different imperial fantasies of otherness. Entering spaces of white presence and control thus entails an assumption of this particular sort of specular image of identitarian totality. As such, this assumption is always regulated through the surveying function of a society whose intersubjective relations are imperially negotiated.
The performance of this imago in the subjectivation of the assimilated other entails a reading of the body through the imperial forms of knowledge that formulated it – the imperial knowledge pertaining to bodies, both European and non-European. Beja’s poem thus brings to the forefront the pedagogical aspect of imperial subjectivation. It is not only the ideal ego/imago that is formulated by and embedded in Empire, but also the (p.241) regulation of the relationship between the emerging subject and the imago. This regulatory function is itself widely disseminated at the quotidian level, particularly through the role of institutions. In this regard, Beja’s poem underscores the experience of metropolitan schooling. Placement into Empire occurs, in other words, through Empire’s epistemology – a realm of knowledge that also stipulates how to know. The imperial signifying field is simultaneously text, reading, and reinscription. This is also the tripartite existence of the subject. Beja is thus taught how to read and understand the imperially formulated world in order to reproduce its field of meaning through her performance of imperially inscribed otherness:
- Obrigaram-me a cantar todos os rios
- montes, montanhas e até
- ganhei um belo prêmio por saber tudo
- sobre o mar e sobre a terra
- Fizeram-me decorar todos os reis
- seus nomes, cognomes, dinastias
- mas esqueceram que na terra do cacau houve um Amador
- que foi mais bravo que o mais bravo dos reis de Portugal. (14)
- [They forced me to chant all rivers
- hills, mountains and I even won
- a nice prize for knowing everything
- about the sea and the earth
- They made me memorize all the kings
- their names, nicknames, dynasties
- but they forgot that in the land of cocoa there was an Amador
- who was braver than the bravest of the kings of Portugal.]
For Beja, every piece of imperial knowledge implies the erasure of a piece of non-imperial knowledge or act of knowing. The last four lines above pertain to a piece of anti-imperial knowledge, much like the example of Medea. The Amador evoked is revered in postcolonial São Tomé and Príncipe as an anti-imperial figure who led a slave revolt against Portuguese colonial authorities in 1595. The erasure, or ‘forgetting,’ mentioned in the poem (p.242) speaks also to the function of imperial historicization of events – what is inscribed and what is omitted from the Western narrative of History, and for what purposes. In this case, the purposes are inevitably multifaceted. This erasure of an anti-imperial act maintains intact Empire’s representation of itself, and its European masculine core, as an impenetrable and superior entity while at the same time maintaining imperial fantasies of colonized subjects as inferior, needing of European presence, docile, or, on the flipside, ungovernable. The comparison here refers to a particular positive quality – that of bravery – which becomes an integral part of the discursive makeup of Western mastery (such as the European kings mentioned in the poem) while it is negated from the imperial articulation of otherness.
Like the imperial articulation of global terrains (rivers, mountains, and seas), the imperial articulation of blackness – as other – is thus the only one rendered accessible to the poetic subject. It is subsequently through this particular image of blackness that the subjectivized other comes to know herself. This encapsulates the fundamental predicament to which W. E. B. Du Bois refers with the term ‘double consciousness’: ‘this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity’ (3). The subjectivation into narrativized otherness within Empire implies an identity that has been constructed and is then observed and regulated from without. Du Bois’s theorization of the ‘American Negro’ notably begins with this split, which leads to others: ‘One ever feels his twoness, – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder’ (3).
The Du Boisian theorization of racialized subjectivity – experiencing the realm of social meaning as other – points to a hyper-awareness of the regulatory function of this symbolic realm, which is itself composed of interpellated subjects. As Fanon would further elaborate half-century later in Black Skin, White Masks, the gaze that regulates, disseminated among other interpellated subjects within Empire’s signifying field, is intimately tied to the imperial production of the othered body. Not only is the body regulated; it is a signifier palimpsestically formulated through the reproduction of imperial meaning, the reproduced fantasies of otherness over which fantasies of white/bourgeois/male/heteronormative superiority could be performed and inscribed. The regulatory function would thus serve to ensure that the body continues to fit the signifier of otherness into which it is interpellated.
The fundamental crux of double-consciousness can thus be unpacked via Fanon’s interrogations of ‘the lived experience of the black man’ (Black Skin 89) as one framed by imperial narrativization and knowledge, as (p.243) Beja’s poem also points out. Fanon notably speaks of the image of the body schema – ‘an image in the third person’ (90). In regard to how his interpellated body comes to move and perform, in the everyday sense, through the realm of intersubjective meaning, he pinpoints the ordeal of the subjectivized other:
I make all these moves, not out of habit, but by implicit knowledge. A slow construction of my self as a body in a spatial and temporal world – such seems to be the schema. It is not imposed on me; it is rather a definitive structuring of my self and the world – definitive because it creates a genuine dialectic between my body and the world.
(Black Skin 91)
Du Bois’s ‘looking at one’s self through the eyes of others’ implies, for Fanon and Beja, a living as a body/text whose movements and actions are inscribed a priori and are therefore part of a realm of meaning constituted as the product of Empire’s desire for reproduction. Fanon’s visceral awareness of the psychic experience of race is also an awareness that his body moves, thus producing meaning, in accordance with how it was taught to move by Empire’s pedagogy of subjectivity. It is this conclusion that he summarizes succinctly: ‘not only must the black man be black; he must be black in relation to the white man’ (Black Skin 90).
Beja’s body in her poem is thus guaranteed a place within Empire – as other – by following the identitarian roadmap that is implied by interpellation into the ideal ego. The voice behind the poem operates, therefore, through a fundamental cognizance that the body portrayed is one that has been narrated a priori. As such, the poem details how the body in question was placed into that particular text, as well as some of the significational mechanisms behind the formulation of the body/text. The following stanza of ‘Visão’ conveys more of the actions laid out for her body/text:
- Tentaram fazer de mim uma europeia
- e aconselharam até que quando um dia
- chegasse a hora certa do amor
- escolhesse alguém em cuja cor
- se notasse bem a nobre raça
- para que assim ficasse assegurado
- aos descendentes da minha geração
- o esquecimento total da negritude
- que resultou de uma loucura do meu pai …
- ‘tudo por bem eles disseram
- tudo por bem eles fizeram!’ (Bô Tendê 14)
- (p.244) [They tried to make me European
- and advised me that when the time
- came to fall in love
- I should choose someone in whose color
- one can clearly see the noble race
- so that it would be guaranteed
- to the descendants of my generation
- the complete amnesia of blackness
- that originated from my father’s folly …
- ‘all for the best they said
- all for the best they did!’]
Part of the text – Beja’s story written for her – formulating her specular image of subjective totality implies, of course, particular sexual mandates that will enable her to reproduce the symbolic realm in which she is placed. The larger mandate ascribed to her, in order to reside in the metropolis, is the erasure of negritude mentioned throughout the poem, for the sake of the European-sanctioned and ventriloquized formulation and performance of black identity. Negritude, as evoked by Beja, means not only blackness, but formulations of blackness and knowledge that contest or reside outside of Empire, those that have also been foreclosed by Empire. As a subject, Beja’s interpellation implies the synchronization of her desire with that of Empire by circuiting it toward the signifiers of white ‘superiority,’ formulating sexual and romantic desire as desire toward whiteness – the object of desire (sexual, racial, and social) for metropolitan life.
This portion of the poem points toward a transition in the imperial formulation of black subjectivity within the metropolis. The imperially inscribed specular image of blackness into which Beja and Fanon are interpellated must lead to a trans-generational erasure of blackness. This trans-generational signifying chain of the metropolis must lead, from one signifier to another, to the realization of the fantasy of a white Europe. Beja’s poem reveals interracial sex to be a dialectical mode of achieving this imperial absolute of Europe – the inscribed universality/whiteness of Europeanness which has never fully existed. It is in this sense that Beja’s poem mentions the ‘folly’ of her father – a European man who compromised this particular mission toward the absolute.
To be clear, the imperial goal of a white Europe operating within the poem never means an eradication of alterity, for the fantasy of whiteness operates in tandem with the palimpsestic and floating fantasies of otherness. Europe, though, as the geo-cultural and political core and phantasmatic origin of universality – what Audre Lorde has referred to as ‘the mythical norm’ (116) (p.245) – must be inscribed as the embodiment of such a core, the embodiment of the ideals of a global sphere of intersubjective existence purportedly molded by European civilization. In being mandated to act toward and desire this goal, Beja reminds us of Saidiya Hartman’s argument on the subjectivation of the slave: ‘the slave is made to speak the master’s truth and augment his power’ (22).
The Intersectionality of Subjectivation
The grappling with Empire in this poem, particularly its subjectivation and circuiting of the desire of the othered body, in many ways lays the groundwork for Beja’s larger oeuvre. It conveys the backdrop of imperial power and discourse against which her poetry, and especially her poetic site of articulation, emerges. More than touching upon different aspects of Empire and its modes of reproduction – imperial knowledge, foreclosure of non-Western forms of knowing, fantasies of sameness and otherness, formulation of sexual desire – ‘Visão’ provides a glimpse into the converging imperial categories that constitute the racialized and gendered subject residing within what Patricia Hill Collins has termed the ‘matrix of domination’ (18).
Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw has crucially named this intermingling of corporal categories that inform power and privilege ‘intersectionality.’ While her seminal essay ‘Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics’ (1989) focuses particularly on the confluences of race and gender and the challenges facing black feminism, the term has a notably broadened scope. Through the work of both Crenshaw and other theorists, namely within critical race theory, intersectionality has become a key framework through which to examine quotidian and institutional experiences of individuals across myriad categories such as ethnicity, disability, sexuality, class, education, age, and residence in addition to race and gender. From a legal perspective, Crenshaw’s work lays bare the institutional blindness regarding, and lack of protection for, individuals whose social experiences are informed by intersecting identity classifications. Citing a plethora of court cases implicating discrimination against black women in the United States in the realms of work and education, Crenshaw underscores the discrepancy between how privilege and disenfranchisement operate and are experienced intersectionally. Her interrogations of the legal system, particularly cases affecting black women, reveal how anti-discrimination laws operate under single-classification systems. In other words, discrimination, as both a symptom and a practice (p.246) of power, privilege, and disenfranchisement, is only judicially legible in terms of ‘race discrimination, sex discrimination, or alternatively either, but not a combination of both’ (Crenshaw 141).
Crenshaw’s work on intersectionally urges us to destabilize one particular category as the essence of social experience and thus approach the subject’s existence within the spectrum of power and intersubjective meaning by the way in which the different imperial classifications of bodies mentioned above interact in signifying one another. Beja’s ‘Visão’ offers an interesting case study in intersectionality by narrating the subject’s interpellation through such intersecting categories. The signifiers making up these categories are inscribed at the level of the specular image into which she is interpellated. The formation of this imago does not emerge spontaneously, however. It is, of course, the product of centuries of imperial historicization and imperial taxonomies of bodies. As an inscribed sign for the reproduction of Empire, the specular image emerges in response to the exigencies of the moment in which it is engendered. In this regard, the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality for her specular image are inevitably shaped by residing in the metropolis – a signified imperial space itself shaped by its claims to whiteness. The specular image at work in the poem also follows what is understood to be her European father’s ‘folly’ in having a child with an African woman. Her existence, pre-interpellation, is thus regarded as compromising the metropolis’s Manichaean ideals of whiteness.
The intersecting of categories at the level of the specular image is thus negotiated by the forces that inscribe, reproduce, and regulate imperial ideals. Imperial desire, that which must be reproduced, does not exist as a single embodiment. Rather, the ways in which meaning is inscribed at the service of imperial power varies by location and how that location is embedded within Empire. Beja’s poem deals specifically with the metropolis. In order to preserve the phantasmatic whiteness of the metropolis, and thus set her identity on a course toward retrieving that whiteness, her intersectional subjectivity is guided beginning with interpellation. Through her placement into the imago, this metropolitan desire for whiteness must become her own – as the famous Lacanian dictum tells us, ‘desire is the desire of the Other’ (Écrits 582). In becoming part of this economy of desire, she is taught how to think of her skin color through imperial discourses on racial otherness and sexual desire for white European men.
In circuiting her desire as a black woman with that of the imperial reproduction of metropolitan whiteness/Europeanness, she is to become the object of white heterosexual male desire. Her performance of the specular image must appeal to a metropolitan male gaze that is also interpellated into the desire for metropolitan whiteness. Her performance of womanhood, in (p.247) other words, always carries racial implications, for it must be a particular version of black womanhood in order to be desired; a version calibrated through imperial masculine heterosexual fantasies of African women and notions of whitening this same othered body. The intersectional inscription of the black female body by the significational forces of Empire highlight another element of the politics behind the imperial contexts of interracial sex celebrated in Lusotropicalist discourses. This would be the underpinnings of white supremacy and the trans-generational erasure of blackness at the heart of the championing of miscegenation.
The intersectional formation of the operative specular image in the poem lays the blueprint for the subject’s performance of identity as the response to Empire’s desire, namely that of metropolitan whiteness. In considering intersectionality as the confluence and interplay of signifiers of race, class, gender, sexuality, age, ability, and health, we must also examine how this interplay is guided and negotiated by the demands of the particular narrative in which the intersectional sign is couched. It is within the phantasmatic narrative of metropolitan whiteness that Beja and her poetic subject experience this particular interplay. We can thus think of this form of subjectivation as its own experience of hybridity.
A widely contested and oft-cited theoretical term within the study of colonial discourse and imperial power, both during and after formal colonialism, ‘hybridity’ has become an object of study and part of a critical lexicon.2 Homi K. Bhabha notably brought the term to the forefront of colonial discourse studies as a way of problematizing claims to cultural origins and authenticity – as a ‘partializing process’ (163) that calls for ‘the revaluation of the assumption of colonial identity through the repetition of discriminatory identity effects [… and] displays the necessary deformation and displacement of all sites of discrimination and domination’ (159). Bhabha reinaugurated the term from its colonialist origins of racial mixing as a way to think through identities, both individual and collective, as formulated through colonial discourses of race and ethnicity. In this sense, the term stands for a contestation of discursive binaries and phantasmatically fixed notions of sameness and otherness.
Since Bhabha’s introduction of the term in his essay ‘Signs Taken for Wonders’ (1985), numerous theorists have offered important dialogues and responses to the term’s implications and historical weight. Robert J. C. Young’s Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Culture and Race (1995) provides a book-length exploration of the term, offering a critical genealogy of its (p.248) use within colonial discourse and as a theoretical tool against it. Avtar Brah and Annie Coombes published Hybridity and its Discontents: Politics, Science, Culture (2000), a collection of essays dedicated to the topic with contributions from scholars including Donna Haraway, Jo Labanyi, John Kraniauskas, and Ann Laura Stoler. In Writing Diaspora, Rey Chow gets to the crux of the critical contestation toward Bhabha’s deployment of the term:
What Bhabha’s word ‘hybridity’ revives, in the masquerade of deconstruction, anti-imperialism, and ‘difficult’ theory, is an old functionalist notion of what a dominant culture permits in the interest of its own equilibrium. Such functionalism informs the investigatory methods of classical anthropology and sociology as much as it does the colonial policies of the British Empire. (35)
Bhabha’s development of the term is not, however, limited to emancipatory possibilities. In his elaboration of the ideological mechanisms behind hybridity, namely the Derridean concept of différance as the postponement of meaning (explored in Chapter 3), Bhabha does not fail to note how such a postponement is also central to the ‘productivity of power’ (165). Hybridity’s tones of functionalism, underscored by Chow, point to the fact that hybridity does not displace imperial power’s right to signify, itself reproduced through its own modes of hybridity and performance namely in the discursive (re)formations of otherness. Stuart Hall arguably best theorized this modus operandi of Western imperial power in his famous lecture ‘Race, the Floating Signifier,’ which approaches the sign of racial otherness as a palimpsest, constantly rewritten in order to fit the demands of imperial power.
In discussing the possibilities of decolonial resistance, I wish to avoid a utopian or even naïve understanding of the political impact of postcolonial literatures that contest current configurations of global power and imperial categories of human life. Such literary products reside, as we know, at the margins of cultural circulation, and this circulation itself depends largely on metropolitan readership and how such products are placed within metropolitan and Western narratives. Therefore, as much as a literary work may problematize imperial knowledge, in deploying Bhabhan notions of hybridity and instability, its global political impact is limited to some extent due to the continuity of imperial control over canonization and dissemination. A work derived from a colonial past and/or the intersecting modes of imperial power can, nonetheless, offer new and decolonial modes of global and intercultural understanding.
(p.249) In this regard, Beja’s poetry gestures toward an imagining of global space against imperial signification through her own intersectional experience of power, time, and space outlined in ‘Visão.’ While Bhabha’s use of hybridity contests the dichotomous foundations of imperial thought – self/other, inside/outside, civilized/savage – by theorizing the presence of one inside the other, intersectionality may offer a reformulation of hybridity as the intermingling of different signifiers of otherness in the subjectivation of the othered body. Like Bhabha’s conceptualization, this sort of hybridity also implies a constant postponement of meaning in how the subject is placed within the imperial intersubjective signifying field. Racial signifiers, for instance, postpone and rewrite signifiers of gender and class. In the portrayal of interpellation in her poem, Beja traces the relationship between racial signifiers of otherness, most notably those concerning hair, as manipulated and rendered toward a particular circuiting of sexual desire – for the sake of metropolitan desire; that is, the reproduction of whiteness and concomitant elision of blackness.
The intersection of imperial categories of corporal and subjective signification that marks social experience is one of floating signification, to borrow Stuart Hall’s metaphor mentioned above. What Crenshaw’s work on intersectionality teaches us is that imperial otherness, such as that into which Beja is interpellated, is never rendered by a single imperial category. Bhabha’s formulation of hybridity effectively points to the instability that characterizes imperial categories and figurations of phantasmatic otherness, floating from one figuration to another; hence his seemingly contradictory statement regarding the ‘productivity of colonial power’ as a series of ‘shifting forces and fixities’ (159). The temporary fixity of otherness, such as the moment of interpellation in which the individual is placed into the specular image/ signifier of identitarian totality, is predicated on the interplay and mutual postponement of signifiers of otherness. After all, the subject in Beja’s poem is not interpellated as simply black. The social experience she is to have in life – for Empire, in accord with Empire’s desire – is predicated on more than racial signifiers. In order to partake in the reproduction of the imperial symbolic toward its phantasmatic goals, she must experience it as a black heterosexual woman born in Africa, transplanted to the colonial metropolis, desiring of sexual relationships with European men, and desiring of a trans-generational return to filial whiteness.
In this sense, the intermingling of imperial categories of otherness at the intersection is contingent upon and guided by imperial desire and the demands of the particular imperial symbolic realm into which the subject is placed. ‘Visão’ concludes, however, with a response to this placement and the gradual erasure of blackness in which she is made to participate:
- (p.250) Conseguiram fazer de mim uma europeia
- só que se esqueceram de cortar
- o cordão umbilical que ficou preso
- nas raízes da velha eritrineira
- que meu bisavô plantou em Molembu. (Bô Tendê 15)
- [They were able to make me European
- only they forgot to cut
- the umbilical cord that remained tied
- to the roots of the old eritrineira3
- that my great-grandfather planted in Molembu.]
Part of Beja’s rejection of the trans-generational trajectory of black erasure implies her own resignification of a trans-generational past. In opposition to the realm of knowledge into which she is placed through metropolitan schooling, the final stanza offers a revised, decolonial map of time and space, which Beja further develops later in her work.
This final stanza can be read as a blend of resignation and triumph, the former in terms of her interpellation into a particular version of Europeanness, or at least as an other for the European phantasmatic self. Meanwhile, triumph is suggested in the resistance to metropolitan imperial desire – a political stance against the erasure of blackness by laying claim to a version of locality, identity, and culture that has not been signified by imperial power. In this sense, Beja’s poem gestures toward a formulation of non-imperial knowledge that had been foreclosed from the moment of imperial interpellation, by evoking a particular spatially and temporally localized act committed by her great-grandfather. The planting of the tree itself can be understood as an inscription on space, an act of knowing not based on larger forces of power. As such, Beja calls upon not only a sign of identity but also a form of knowing that fundamentally diverges from the version of imperial otherness which she confronts through interpellation. In addition to sidestepping imperial notions of non-Europeanness, Beja also avoids falling into essentialist conceptualizations of identity, evoking an unfixed site of knowledge that is itself always in negotiation vis-à-vis the impact of imperial power on the world.
‘Visão,’ one of Beja’s early poems, sets the political tone for her later work, particularly in its evocation of competing sites of knowing – pertaining especially to the imperial narrativization of Europe, and therefore, the bodies that circulate within it. From there, the poetic voice in ‘Visão’ elaborates what we may refer to as an emergent decolonial gnosis. The poem itself develops around these two sites – the imperial and the decolonial – and their inherent tension. It is through the budding decolonial gnosis in the final stanza, however, that Beja reflects decolonially on the process of interpellation that occupies the bulk of the poem. It is only at the end, in other words, that we begin to grasp the poet’s scene of writing as it dialogues against History.
At the core of this decolonial gnosis, from which emerges a particular mapping of time and space in Beja’s later poetry, is a reclaiming of the significational dynamics of her poetic voice’s intersectionality. Through this negotiation of the signifying process across imperial categories, Beja’s work gestures toward the undoing of such categories by destabilizing their claims to truth. In this regard, Beja’s poetry draws parallels in terms of cultural politics with those of Gloria Anzaldúa, particularly the latter’s formulation of la mezcla, Anzaldúa’s own version of critical hybridity. Anzaldúa’s term points toward a constant resignification of categories – ethnicity, gender, class, and sexuality – in order to open contemporary power’s spectrum of monolithic identities. Such a call to arms is based on each individual’s renegotiation of these categories. Where Anzaldúa’s la mezcla and Crenshaw’s intersectionality differ theoretically from Bhabha’s hybridity is in their approach to social and symbolic existence vis-à-vis imperial categories of human life and global time/space. Where Bhabha focuses on interstitiality, residing in the critical space between categories, Anzaldúa and Crenshaw focus on the overlapping of categories from which, for Anzaldúa especially, new identitarian spaces can emerge and displace those that have been established, fixed, and shifted by the spectrum of imperial power.
It is precisely this open-endedness regarding postcolonial identity that can be found in Beja’s aptly titled poem ‘Identidade’ [‘Identity’] from her collection No País do Tchiloli [‘In the Country of Tchiloli’] (1996). ‘Identidade,’ moreover, contains an additional important and related strand of Beja’s work – her relationship with São Tomé and Príncipe, whence she emigrated at a young age and returned later in life. The title of the collection is particularly relevant to Beja’s larger political project. The term tchiloli refers to both a São Toméan piece of theater and a particular approach to theater and performance originating in colonial São Tomé and Príncipe as a form of cultural resistance to Portuguese authority. Tchiloli was the São Toméan (p.252) Creole name given to the production by a local theater company of Tragédia do Marquês de Mântua e do Imperador Carlos Magno [‘The Tragedy of the Marquis of Mântua and the Emperor Charlemagne’], originally written in the sixteenth century by the Madeiran poet Baltazar Dias. The legacy of the original tchiloli continues today with the annual performance of Auto de Floripes [Act of Floripes] on the streets of Príncipe Island by its entire population. Considered a tchiloli, Auto de Floripes itself embodies the cultural politics of the original tchiloli, staging a medieval battle between Christians and Moors through São Toméan language and cultural signifiers in addition to improvised props and diegetic space.
In this regard, tchiloli has come to stand for a mode of cultural production based on the appropriation and resignification of previous cultural products from both Europe and Africa. Such a performance, moreover, represents a signification of European history by the postcolony. The tchiloli thus implies an act of knowing. Regarding São Toméan history and its cultural formation prior to and following colonization, Inocência Mata posits the nation as the result of various cultural encounters between identities and cultural expressions that were also products of dynamic political and cultural forces: ‘São Tomé e Príncipe, mestiça nação africana que concilia elementos de culturas já então mestiças quando da sua integração, é o resultado de um doloroso processo transculturativo que prolongou por muitos séculos’ [‘São Tomé and Príncipe, a mixed-race African nation that reconciles elements of different cultures that were themselves mixed-race when integrated, is the result of a painful transcultural process that lasted many centuries’] (18). As Mata indicates, thus avoiding a blind celebration of colonial cultural dynamics, São Toméan cultural expressions such as tchiloli are born of violence and resistance. It is the dialectic of struggle – political and cultural – that has engendered what is for Mata a postcolonial Atlantic, a ‘redistribuição do mundo atlântico, de nova configuração do mundo através dos Oceanos’ [‘redistribution of the Atlantic world, a new configuration of the world by way of the Oceans’] (18). Within the remapping of the world through European expansion, Mata underscores the ways in which local cultural practices of São Tomé and Príncipe, as part of the postcolonial Atlantic, have implied non-imperial forms of knowing, rethinking, and historicizing such a mapping.
In this sense, Beja’s work follows a particular São Toméan poetic tradition of simultaneously rethinking the nation, its imperial past, and its current imperial realities in the postcolonial moment. Clariane Crippa and José Pires Laranjeira point out the ways in which the poetry of Beja’s fellow São Toméan poet Alda Espírito Santo intertwines national redefinition and larger intersectional struggles of power: ‘mais do que instituir uma literatura santomense, corroboraria a criação de uma luta pró-feminina de (p.253) cariz político-ideológico muito próximo das ideias do marxismo’ [‘more than instituting a São Toméan literature, (Espírito Santo) would corroborate the creation of a pro-feminist struggle of a political-ideological brand very similar to Marxist ideas’] (5–6). Like Espírito Santo, Beja’s sort of decolonial nationalism carries implications far beyond the scope of nation, and addresses modes of power that exceed the political and historical framework of Portuguese colonial power by targeting global exercises of power expressed intersectionally.
Most importantly for Beja’s political stance, tchiloli implies a particular decolonial scene of writing, one of constant reinvention from which global events are inscribed outside of, or in opposition to, imperial modes of historicization. The very title of Beja’s collection – No País do Tchiloli – thus sets the political tone for many of her later poems, both in tracing an ethics of signification for emergent scenes of writing – such as that of the poet herself – and in carrying out a decolonial production of meaning that challenges and effaces the imperial categories confronted in Beja’s earlier ‘Visão.’ We can, therefore, observe a shift in cultural objective from one collection to the next, from a grappling with Empire and Beja’s placement in it, to a searching for decolonial modes of signification.
Like her notion of selfhood, São Tomé and Príncipe emerges, especially in ‘Identidade,’ as a sign in flux following formal colonialism and in its postcolonial relationship with Empire. In this regard, Beja’s poetic articulations regarding the postcolony carry a profound affinity with her own quotidian plight with colonial discourse, both having been signified by imperial entities and placed within imperial desire. As such, both appear in a state of postcolonial renegotiation:
- Por vezes procuro-me
- por toda a ilha […]
- farrapos de mim voam em círculos fatais
- no chão dos milhos e das mandiocas
- possuindo os ramos entreabertos
- das plantas rastejantes. (125)
- [At times I search for myself
- throughout the entire island (…)
- tatters of me fly in fatal circles
- on the ground of corn and yucca
- possessing the open branches
- of the crawling plants.]
(p.254) From the very beginning of the poem, Beja’s own identity and the postcolony/ sign are configured as overlapping terrains of unfixity and openness, a permanently incomplete project underscored by the ellipsis at the end of the first stanza. Moreover, the two incomplete signs inform one another, for consistently renegotiating herself and her scene of writing is contingent upon her persistent resignification of São Toméan space. More importantly, this space in flux emerges as the ideal setting to grapple with, and overcome, the intersectional imperial signification of her body. It is no wonder, then, that the second stanza is driven by potent imagery of the fragmentation of her body undergone at the moment of interpellation into Empire. In negotiating the postcolony for herself, from the subject-position of an exile raised in the metropolis, Beja seeks transcendence of Empire’s field of meaning, and of the ‘tatters’ left of her body and subjectivity.
This evocation of the interpellated other through an imagery of destruction and fragments caught in an infinite whirlwind of death – communicated by fatal circles arguably referring to the palimpsestic nature of imperial signification – offers yet another crucial insight into the conceptualization of power through intersectionality.
This particular stanza calls attention to Empire’s operation of intersectionality as centered on fragmenting the body and its actions, including skin color, genitalia, and hair. The fragmenting schema of the imperial signification of otherness operates by inscribing racial, sexual, gender, and socioeconomic meaning onto the fragments as they become fetishized pieces of otherness. In acting as a fetish within the societal life of imperial power, each fragment is attributed its surplus value. Like Marx’s reflection on the commodity, the othered fragment, or the fragment as signified kernel of otherness, ‘is, in the first place, an object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisfy human wants of some sort or another’ (Capital Vol. I 43).
Marx deploys his brand of dialectical materialism within this statement. The properties of the ‘thing’ to which Marx refers are signified through the dominant modes of production; hence his equivalence of the commodity with ‘crystallized social labor’ (Capital 202). As a result, for the sake of maintaining such modes of production and the capitalist balance of power, the ‘human wants’ to be satisfied through the commodity must be aligned with the fundamental desire of the big Other – its homeostatic balance. Therefore, the fetishized fragment of otherness, as a commodity to be consumed, also satisfies the desire of interpellated imperial subjects as circuited to the desire of Empire. The circularity noted in the poem also speaks to this imperial dialectic into which the othered body is placed. Beja thus establishes, furthermore, a parallel between the circulation of her body/sign within Empire and that of the former colony.
(p.255) It is, therefore, through the evocation of São Toméan space that Beja seeks to reclaim the fragments of her interpellated self, as well as the right to (re) signify them. The postcolony is not configured here as a sort of blank space for identitarian inscription. Rather, it seems to embody the postcolonial renegotiation sought by the poetic voice. In this regard, Beja’s relationship to São Tomé and Príncipe, as a locale of return, is more than a simple search for a lost origin in hopes of establishing a sense of identitarian totality. The fatalistic imagery deployed to convey imperial fragmentation seems to imply a recognition that such an objective is unattainable. In this regard, the poem, particularly the final stanza, appears to frame Beja’s search, not for a past lost at the moment of departure, but for a future to be inaugurated and reinaugurated:
- eu quero continuar a procurar-me
- na orla infinita das praias e das gentes. (126)
- [I want to continue looking for myself
- on the infinite shore of beaches and peoples.]
The allusion to an infinite margin, like the border as a site of negotiation between overlapping categories, emphasizes the permanent indeterminacy of postcolonial signification. Furthermore, the final line evokes this as an infinite interplay between an infinite number of shores (themselves margins) contained within the larger infinite margin at the beginning of the line. The endless number of shores and people reveals a space of collective articulation pertaining to time, space, and bodies. In this sense, the border or margin for Beja represents a metaphorical space constituted by subjectivities that are themselves borders – individuals located at the intersection of various epistemological categories and, thus, sites of signification in negotiation. Subsequently, the signification of space and self occurs through a dialogic negotiation with other subjectivities/sites of signification. This entails an open postponement without political grips over reality and monologic claims to truth.
This particular collection of poetry, No País do Tchiloli, can be thought of as enacting the infinite journey of postcolonial signification (of self, space, and community) and reflecting on the contours of one’s scene of writing. In this sense, many of the poems that comprise the collection grapple directly with the fragmented nature of an earlier imperial specular image of herself – a collection of pieces signified together through Empire’s desire. A potent example of this is centered on the gesture toward reconstituting the imperially signified body, in the poem ‘Forma Corporal’ [‘Corporal Form’]:
- quente. (121)
- [Full lips
- stagnant in spasm
The poem presents a sequence of adjectives pertaining to particular conditions, focusing on two entities – the lips as fragment in the first stanza, and the body as a tentative whole in the second. Both entities are, moreover, described via differing adjectives evoking divergent sets of images.
The first stanza appears to speak to Empire’s fragmentation of the body and imperial value ascribed to this ‘tatter,’ as the previously analyzed ‘Identidade’ would call it. Within the imperial process of othering, the ‘sensual’ and ‘marginal’ certainly overlap and mutually reproduce one another. The fragment, othered as sensual, always refers to an imperial grip on signification safeguarded by the marginalization of the other. This, of course, is a marginalization which signified otherness in turn helps to render. The stagnation alluded to in the proceeding line arguably carries a double meaning, referring to both the momentary fixity of the fragment within imperial schemas of otherness, as well as Beja’s experience of such fixity, experiencing the signifier of otherness as an imprisoning edifice within which the body may only spasm.
(p.257) The constrained movement implied by the image of the spasm in stagnation appears to contrast with the images through which Beja evokes the body in the second stanza. We can thus argue that the shift from the first stanza to the next, from fragment to whole, represents a reclaiming of the body or, more specifically, a reclaiming of the earlier fragment (lips) in the body that is in a state of reclamation. The divide, or the space between the stanzas, thus evokes Beja’s margin or border of transition against the imperial ordering of her body. What follows is an enunciation of the body after the fragmentation through images of movement, both large (ambulant or shifting) and small (quivering). While the fragment is articulated through stillness and momentary determinacy, the body, as Beja signifies it, is conveyed through images of unfixity and indefiniteness. As such, Beja renders the body and the modes of signifying it as a border entity in constant negotiation with the other borders/scenes of writing the body encounters.
The very signifying chain of the poem, moreover, is representative of this unfixity. The largely one-word lines comprising the two stanzas each bring forth a signifier in relation to others of the poem. The signified, however, is openly left to the act of reading due to the poem’s lexical scarcity. As such, the poem’s signifying chain is always incomplete, thus mirroring the act of decolonial signification proposed by Beja. In evoking just a few images, mainly through adjectives, Beja purposefully leaves the poem open to the reader’s own system of linguistic differences while also permitting the reader – also a border with which Beja seeks to dialogue – freedom to postpone each word in relation to the others, thus allowing the formation of different signifying chains. In this sense, the dialogic tone of the poem suggests that any scene of reading is always a scene of writing, a postcolonial/decolonial hermeneutics in which interpretation itself becomes an unconstrained form of inscription through which different forms of knowledge can exist. Beja’s deployment of decolonial dialogism thus challenges Empire’s ‘conception of knowledge based on the distinction between epistemology and hermeneutics’ (Mignolo, Local Histories 13). Such a distinction, as Mignolo argues, has ‘subalternized other kinds of knowledge’ (Local Histories 13).
Borders: Mapping a Decolonial Sign-System
The development of the poem, as read here, is predicated on a consciousness of the intersection, a mode of thinking in terms of race and gender, not as separate entities but as overlapping parts of a social experience within the power-driven realm of meaning. This is similar to Du Boisian (p.258) double-consciousness, an awareness of both as intersecting parts of the same tentative imperial whole that is the sign of the other. The space of the intersection, also a sort of border constructed by overlapping categories of humanity and personhood, always implies a thinking and performing through and/or against each category, not as its own freestanding entity but as a relational inscribing device of power. In this sense, Du Bois was, at the time of writing The Souls of Black Folk, already theorizing the effects of intersectionality. Frances Beale notably unpacks this intermingling of categories, particularly race and gender (and, to a lesser extent, class), by conceptualizing it as ‘double-jeopardy’ (Beale), not as ‘two thoughts’ (Du Bois 3) – as the yoking of multiple forces of power and social organization producing one form of thinking.
Olinda Beja’s evocation of borders or margins serves to articulate the intersectionality of her experience within and against Empire, in addition to gesturing toward an uncontained quantity of scenes of writing. As such, Beja’s poetry presents the various layers of power, privilege, and resistance that go into what Mignolo called ‘border gnosis’ – ‘a powerful and emergent gnoseology, absorbing and displacing hegemonic forms of knowledge into the perspective of the subaltern’ (Local Histories 12). Mignolo explains his use of ‘“gnosis” as a term that would take us away from the confrontation – in Western epistemology, between epistemology and hermeneutics, between nomothetic and ideographic “sciences” – and open up the notion of “knowledge” beyond cultures of scholarship’ (Local Histories 9). By ‘cultures of scholarship,’ Mignolo is speaking of course of those that have cemented their claims to global truth through and for Western imperial power. In recovering the terms ‘gnosis’ or gnoseology,’ Mignolo attempts to announce a space for subaltern knowledges outside of an imperial lexicon. For Beja, subaltern knowledge and its implied scenes of writing grapple with the forms of power that have marginalized them and/or engendered them, as is the case with her own border politics of intersectionality.
In one of her most recent poetry collections, Aromas de Cajamanga [‘Aromas of Ambarella’] (2009), one can find yet another step in Beja’s poetic engagement against Empire. Shifting from the engendering of an unfixed, ‘border,’ scene of writing to a decolonial articulation of time and space, Aromas de Cajamanga contains crucial examples of Beja’s border at ‘significational’ work. Like her earlier collections, the title, and indeed many poems within the collection, evoke significant imagery pertaining to the postcolony. As in No País do Tchiloli, the poems of Aromas de Cajamanga also labor toward a constant negotiation of São Tomé and Príncipe as a postcolonial nation/sign within global intercultural space. As such, Beja’s enunciatory work regarding São Tomé and Príncipe is never isolated from (p.259) a farther-reaching project of thinking global spaces against the grain of an imperial episteme.
This is particularly underscored in yet another aptly titled poem, ‘Terra’ [‘Earth’], where we encounter a reflection on postcolonial/decolonial signification and its possibilities:
- renasce das cinzas a água onde se espargem ilhas
- ilhas como flores
- ilhas que serão sempre deusas ignoradas grávidas de trilhos
- por onde sulcaram mágoas navegantes e náufragos. (136)
- [from the ashes is reborn the water where islands are sprinkled
- islands like flowers
- islands that will be forever unknown goddesses pregnant with paths
- through which navigating sorrows and shipwrecks may sulk.]
We can read the first line of this stanza as articulating the attempt at a postcolonial rebirth from the destruction left by Empire. Interestingly, Beja suggests that what is reborn is water itself, a substance that, due to its physical properties, cannot be burned, and therefore has no relationship with ashes. This would seem to imply a false destruction, or Empire’s inability to contain the existence of cultures and gnoses, merely foreclosing them from Empire’s textual universe. In this regard, Beja attempts to locate decolonial resistance by pointing out the limits of Empire’s symbolic power where the annulment of non-imperial scenes of writing leads to their cultural destruction under the imperial sign of otherness. We can also read Beja’s deployment of water imagery as standing for the perseverance of non-imperial signification and sites of articulation. In this indestructible material there are decolonial gnoses that give rise to islands, a potential metaphor for resignified terrains of collective identities.
Beja’s work has often been characterized as elaborating island identities or referring to a povo ilhéu [island people]. In many ways, ‘Terra’ problematizes such a statement, or even enriches this particular strand of Beja’s work, by working through the possibilities of decolonial signification by way of the imagery she evokes for postcolonial São Tomé and Príncipe. Importantly, decolonial narrativization, or the production of new meanings symbolized in the poem by the scattering of islands, is not portrayed through the formation of new islands, as the first two lines seem to suggest. Rather, the islands that will emerge will be born out of, enunciated over, the terrains of (p.260) suffering and oppression – the ‘seaborne grief and shipwrecks.’ This seems to call for a decolonial narrativization that does not strategically forget such a painful past. Instead, such a narrativization must inscribe through it, as in the case of the middle passage, formulating new terrains of meanings and identities that, according to Beja’s larger poetic oeuvre, are never closed off or contained. As such, her work opens the possibility of a decolonial rearrangement of desire, similar to that which Ana Margarida Dias Martins points out in the novel Niketche: uma história de poligamia [Niketche: A Story of Poligamy] by Mozambican writer Paulina Chiziane. More specifically for our reading of Beja’s poetry, Dias Martins suggests that such a rearrangement implies a reinvention of dominant structures of intersectionally based power (74).
We can argue that the poem’s title is inherently polysemic, pointing to both earth as planet and, more importantly, to the constantly emerging and renegotiated signified terrains that comprise it. In this sense, the poem seems to gesture toward a postcolonial remapping; the formulation of a postcolonial sign-system in constant renegotiation through the infinite interplay of borders, as seen in ‘Identidade.’ This particular poetic mission of Beja is enacted in her poem ‘Escuridão’ [‘Darkness’], also from Aromas de Cajamanga:
- A sinfonia do tempo dilata-se no areal
- da praia entontecida no teu ventre
- a cúpula das árvores espreita a névoa do Cão Grande
- envolto na orquestra da brisa
- o arco-íris multiplica as cores na vereda da chuva ciumenta
- por onde passa a memória da nossa infância agreste. (140)
- [The symphony of time is dilated on the sand
- of the beach dizzied in your womb
- the dome of trees peeks at the mist of the Cão Grande
- wrapped in the orchestra of the breeze
- the rainbow multiplies colors in the path of the jealous rain
- through which the memory of our rough childhood passes.]
The first line tellingly articulates a relationship between time and space – that which is to be narrativized as the poem progresses. The titular darkness (p.261) of night conveys, in itself, the overlap of time and space, the night sky being the spatial entity that envelops the immediate physical/visual field, but that pertains to a particular, albeit cyclical, period of the day. Equally notable is this rendering of time and space, particularly the night, in the feminine and maternal, itself in relation to the ‘dizzying shore’ that once again evokes a border imagery and Beja’s overarching approach to postcolonial/decolonial narrativization.
This eventually leads to the evocation of the rainbow which ‘multiplies the colors in the path.’ Beja’s deployment of the rainbow imagery and attributing to it a particular function – of multiplying colors – can be understood as the connecting of different identitarian terrains and intersections produced from Empire. This sort of rainbow, which implies also the joining of different sites of signification, will then multiply itself in accordance with the logic of Beja’s infinitely reproducing borders and shores. As such, the evoked path toward decolonial signification is never a monolithic one, but one that is composed and persistently renegotiated by the interplaying borders that form it. Beja ensures, moreover, that this path does not diverge from its grappling against Empire by clarifying that its indeterminate path is always tied to the painful content of the past and the present.
In the time-space of the night’s darkness with which Beja dialogues, and thus enunciates her own unfixed signifying chain, we come across the pain of the present, and its concomitant imperial pleasure and enjoyment:
- festejam-se insônias
- em tabuleiros de xadrez
- abrem-se mãos e desmembram-se veias
- onde perpassam sombras de Brasis longínquos. (140)
- [insomnias are celebrated
- on checkered trays
- hands open and veins are dismembered
- through which run shadows of faraway Brazils.]
Pain and pleasure in the context of Empire appear in intertwined, almost oxymoronic expressions such as the celebration of insomnia. Beja also performs a tentative mapping of imperial destruction by locating the ‘dismembered veins’ in ‘faraway Brazils.’ The plural form of Brazil is particularly curious as it refers to the early imperial Portuguese nomenclature for the colonial piece of land and circulating bodies therein. In this sense, Beja poignantly reminds us of the imperial epistemic violence of naming and signifying – the mapping of the imperial world is mutually potentiated by (p.262) the physical violence enacted over bodies and spaces. The persistence of the evoked shadows of these ‘Brazils’ also underscores the constant decolonial tussle against Empire and its modes of global signification.
The postcolonial mapping performed here, from a decolonial gnosis, can be thought of as Beja’s praxis of engagement with Empire. As a mapping, Beja’s formulation of a tentative sign-system operates through a free-flowing mélange of historical signifiers pertaining to the violence of imperial meaning and knowledge, geographic landmarks, and Empire’s subalternizing processes, including slavery. The ultimate goal of such a sign-system is to create a signifying field over and against that of Empire, one that fundamentally acts as a border space – a significational terrain where existing and emerging terrains and forms of intersectional consciousness (spawned from Empire or not) can rethink themselves and/or build new solidarities and open-ended collectivities. Beja appears to build on this sign-system in the next stanza:
- a aragem tépida do teu céu da boca
- traz à lembrança flores de algodão que se espraiam
- nos areais vermelho-sangue de Fernão Dias. (141)
- [The tepid air of the roof of your mouth
- brings to mind cotton flowers that sprawl
- across the blood-red sands of Fernão Dias.]
Much like the decolonial scene of writing at work in the poem, the titular night continues to bring forth meaning to the open-ended postcolonial sign system, in this case, the memory of African slave labor evoked by the ‘cotton flowers.’ Within the context of Empire, as rendered in the poem, slave labor operates in strong relation to imperial mapping; hence the mention of Fernão Dias, a frontiersman of colonial Brazil whose charting of vast tracts of territory permitted its incorporation into the Portuguese possessions as well as into Empire’s signifying field.
Beja notably uses the term espraiar, which can be translated as ‘to sprawl’ or ‘disseminate.’ The root of the word in Portuguese, praia [beach] is perhaps most interesting with regard to the poem’s political engagement. Beja utilizes once again imagery of shores and borders constructed, in the case of slavery and slave-based economies, through displacement, diaspora, and the subsequent formation of myriad intersectional subject-positions. Here, diaspora forced by Empire-driven slavery points to the disseminated site of subaltern articulation spread across the globe. Having contributed deeply to imperial historicization and the right to signify implied therein, Beja seeks to (p.263) rethink slavery, without eliding its profound consequences still felt today, by calling on the radical potential of the African diaspora within the proposed sign-system and decolonial path. For Beja, the slave subject-position, and the contemporary diasporic subject-position, always entails the potential for decolonial signification. The poem therefore attempts to open the border/ sign-system to slavery’s dissemination of subject-positions, again, as a signifying field over and against Empire, from where to rethink selfhood and global time-space. The use of espraiar reiterates that the path toward decoloniality must, for Beja, be in constant negotiation and thus function as a borderland for the interplay of emerging and existing borders.
We can thus see a sort of progression in terms of Olinda Beja’s political project and stance pertaining to Empire, across her poetry collections. Her first volume, Bô Tendê?, offers a multilayered reflection on the interpellation into imperial otherness from a nascent decolonial scene of writing. The contours of this scene of writing are then more fully fleshed out in her third collection, No País do Tchiloli, as a border entity in constant dialogic renegotiation with other borders/scenes of writing. Finally, her sixth volume of poems, Aromas de Cajamanga, formulates a praxis of decolonial writing, namely laboring toward a postcolonial sign-system from which to rethink global space and time away from and in opposition to Empire and its modes of signification. Throughout her work, Beja has laid a political trajectory deeply allied to decolonial forms of knowing and signifying, both local and global. The formation of a decolonial signifying field is thus predicated upon the constant exchanges and shifts between and among existing and future decolonial scenes of writing.
(1) All collections of poetry cited in this chapter can be found in the same anthology titled Aromas de Cajamanga e outras obras [Aromas de Cajamanga and Other Works].
(3) Eritrineira is a species of tree that is a ubiquitous presence in São Tomé e Príncipe’s biodiversity.