TRANS Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 17. Nr. Mai 2010

Sektion 5.4.

Women’s Performances in Transnational Migration
Sektionsleiterin | Section Chair: Maria-Sabina Draga Alexandru (University of Bucharest, Romania)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Section report 5.4.

Women’s Performances in Transnational Migration

Maria-Sabina Draga Alexandru (University of Bucharest, Romania) [BIO]

Email: msdalexuk@yahoo.co.uk


The section started from the idea that in recent years migration has no longer been perceived as a one-way definitive move from an origin to a target-point, but increasingly as an always undoable and redoable process of redefinition within new contexts and value-systems, prompted by global processes of inclusion such as EU enlargement. As national boundaries are becoming blurred and people are travelling, studying and changing jobs across borders, national perceptions of identity are giving way to wider conceptualizations of selfhood as always in the making, always changing masks to fit within new contexts.  We explored the ways in which these processes of fluidization of boundaries affect women, their social performance in relation to the old public/private dichotomy and their knowledge-production, the ways in which women’s transnational migrant experiences vary across the world (e.g. in Europe as compared to America) and the extent that concepts such as nomadism and postcolonialism are relevant to them. 

Our papers explored the ways in which these experiences are reflected in the international media and literature, as well as in language. The section focused on the social and cultural practices that emerge in women’s transnational migration in literature, social sciences and the media, offering through the variety of the papers a complex view of how migration affects women, their traditional home-making capacity and their creativity. The concept of performance was defined broadly, starting from a theatrical model and extending it beyond stage boundaries to the “real” stage of the world around in order to study female selfhood on the move.

The speakers registered in the section offered a large variety of perspectives, which showed the complexity of the area involved.  In her paper entitled The Role of Women (Writers) in the Development of Ethnic Minority Identities, the first speaker, Ana-Maria Petecila (University of Bucharest) discussed women’s important contributions to the development of identity definitions with reference to two classics of women’s ethnic writing, The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston and The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan.  The paper articulated the part played by women in the relationships within and between ethnic groups, the development of a sense of belonging and the forging of a different culture and aimed to assess the different positioning of women and men in situations of migration.  The two novels were compared with reference to the ways in which cultural in-betweenness has implications on issues of language, the need to retell one’s nation’s history as seen through the lens of one’s personal life narrative, the double gender discrimination to which Chinese American women are subjected given their positioning between two different patriarchal systems, the changes that occur from generation to generation as the protagonists struggle to find their own voices.  The paper concludes that both novels tell stories of successful emancipation in ways that escape hybridization and assimilation in the creative ways offered by literature, an always successful promoter of intercultural/ transcultural dialogues and identity construction in the case of ethnic minorities.

The second paper, presented by Maria-Theresia Holub (State University of New York at Binghamton), entitled Seeing Through Eagle and Serpent Eyes: Transnational Feminist Practices, focused on the intersection of gender and transnational/ transcultural space.  The paper examined in particular the ways in which transnational space, as a space of and on the border, could work as a point of departure for (re-)thinking questions of sexuality and gender.  As the paper maintained, one of the challenges of contemporary feminist studies and practices is to allow for a multiplicity of voices without getting lost in their midst, i.e. to foster an understanding of difference and sameness that is dialogic rather than oppositional.  Thus transnational feminism (such as for example Susan Friedman’s geopolitical thinking) stresses the necessity of particular locations, while it also opens the possibilities of coalitions across and beyond conventional boundaries through transnational feminist practices that engage the imaginary through a kind of “transgressive imagiNation”, as Peter Hitchcock calls it.  Such practices do not necessarily work as a form of escape or denial of reality, but operate in the realm of imagination, which, especially in a transnational and transcultural frame, presents alternative forms of understanding ourselves in relation to the world(s) around us. Rather than viewing particular experiences and perspectives as ends in themselves, the transnational offers a more interactive sense of identity, a relational subjectivity. Imagination is not viewed in opposition to a so-called “reality”, but becomes an important tool for conceptualizing different possibilities, especially within the realm of feminist discourse. Discussing mainly the work of Hélène Cixous and Gloria Anzaldúa (with some side references to Sandra Cisneros and Emine Sevgi Özdamar) as instances of “transgressive imaginations”, the paper proposed that the transnational imaginary is an important tool of resistance that helps foster a transformative engagement with the world.  Through examples from this selection of very different texts, which are nevertheless united through the fact that all of them represent what in Anzaldua’s terms we can call borderland writing, the paper was successful in proving that literature can promote a form of transgressive imagination in which it is possible to look – to continue in Anzaldua’s jargon – both through the “eagle eyes” of the canon and the “serpent eyes” of indigenous knowledge.

The following paper, Transnational Borderlands in Greg Sarris’s “Grand Avenue” and Watermelon “Night”s by Ruxandra Radulescu (University of Bucharest) continued in this line by reading the indigenous as subversive in Native American studies.  The paper adopted Arnold Krupat’s transnational reading of Native American narratives in order to delimit a Native American urban postcolonial cosmopolitanism, successfully exemplified by the novels approached.  It was shown that critical positions with regard to the transnational dimension of American Indian literatures acknowledge the dialogic mode of interaction which has characterized the mutual shaping of Native and Euroamerican cultures since the first encounters. However, as Krupat and Teuton suggest, a transnational reading of Native American literatures must acknowledge the strength of contemporary (American Indian) nationalist critical interventions, which are suspicious of universalist-inclusivist propensities glossing over tribally specific traditions and assumed cultural authenticity.  From a methodological point of view, the paper used Greg Sarris’s novels Grand Avenue and Watermelon Nights to negotiate a useful approach between seemingly opposing critical sides – the “separatists” and the “cosmopolitans” – and argued that this mediating position best enables one to analyse Native American texts in an enlarged transnational perspective.

The two novels by Pomo Indian writer Greg Sarris were seen as examples of writing where the ex-centric positionalities occupied by mixedblood members of a displaced Californian Pomo tribe radically redesign the field of postcolonial inquiry in the multicultural environment of the city of Santa Rosa. Functioning within a space of ongoing U.S. “internal colonization”, Sarris’s female characters produce new transcultural identity narratives as they record their modern nomadic experience. The principle of interconnectivity, theorized by Sarris in Keeping Slug Woman Alive, was considered in the light of Inderpal Grewal’s notions of transnational connectivities and postcolonial cosmopolitanism and thus formed the basis of a critique of class and gender relations in the Filipino-African-American-Portuguese-Pomo-Indian urban ghettos. 

The paper presented by Elena Stoican (University of Bucharest), entitled Continuities and Discontinuities in Jhumpa Lahiri’sInterpreter of Maladies brought a slight shift of theoretical perspective from ethnic/ transnational studies to a postcolonial and diasporic perspective.  The paper investigated the construction of (Indian) female identities in Lahiri’s collection of short stories Interpreter of Maladies and aimed to conceptualize exile either as a rupture or as a step forward, as imaginary Indian homelands shape the transnational experience in various ways.  The paper discussed the ways in which the tension produced by the intersection of roots and routes – static and dynamic understandings of selfhoods – are reflected in each story. Since all stories capture moments of a woman’s life, the paper attempted to put all these experiences together in order to determine whether one can identify an overall pattern of identity negotiation or whether each case presents itself as unique. As the Indian female protagonists attempt to negotiate a relationship with otherness, their experiences of displacement and relocation become empowering ways of coming to terms with one’s own identity, with certain differences determined by generation, education, individual choice etc.  The paper concluded by showing that by deviating from normative conceptions of womanhood, the female characters in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies display a hybrid identity of an oppositional, dynamic nature.

The following paper, From the Subaltern to the Female Nomad in Narratives of Transnational Migration by Jhumpa Lahiri and Monica Ali by Maria-Sabina Draga Alexandru (University of Bucharest, Romania), maintained the focus on the area of postcolonial/diasporic studies as it compared two migration stories of young couples of Bangladeshi origin, living in the USA and in the UK respectively, in the novels Brick Lane (2003) by Monica Ali and The Namesake (2004) by Jhumpa Lahiri.  The paper started from noticing that definitions of migration have changed in the last decades as our increasingly global world has been shrinking. It employed Deleuze and Guattari’s distinction between the “migrant” and the “nomad” in A Thousand Plateaus as useful in distinguishing between different types of migration, showing that for the latter nomadic trajectories matter more than fixed points on them. This emphasis on the process rather than the state in identity definitions is repositioned by Rosi Braidotti in the context of a new millennium reinterpretation of nomadology precisely in relation to the female self. In her work 1994 Nomadic Subjects Braidotti defines nomadism as being “not fluidity without borders but rather an acute awareness of the nonfixity of boundaries”, which is tightly connected to the continuous becoming of the self that characterizes contemporaneity, and she envisages a wider spread of the concept as the world moves further towards globalization (as confirmed in her 2001 book Metamorphoses). 

Braidotti relies on the complexity and subversive nature of the female presence in culture when she points out that the feminist movement “has provided stability amid changing conditions and shifting contexts”, so that women are to her paradigmatic nomads. If to Judith Butler femininity was nothing but a matter of culturally-conditioned performance within the endless war of “gender trouble”, Braidotti’s female nomad takes this performance across borders. Migrant female identity thus becomes an instance of performance within a double subaltern position: both gendered and ethnic. In theorising a discursive/textual nomadism that can better express the “molecularisation of the self” which she sees as characteristic of the new millennium, Braidotti shows that this fluid female continuum provides ways to reflect what she calls “my desire for nomadism, that is to say, my desire to suspend all attachment to established discourses”. Such established discourses are the ones that entrap women within rigid subaltern categories that, as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak puts it, deny them the right to speak.

The paper discussed the process of acquiring a voice through a revaluation of a limiting migrant condition as a more empowered nomadic one in the narratives of female dislocation/relocation considered.  Thus the female protagonists in the two novels were discussed as characters who overcome their subaltern status (characterized, as Spivak si Guha defined it, by marginalization under a double set of oppressive standards) and move from a migrant condition, stuck in dichotomous thinking, to a nomad’s identity, whose inner stability does not depend on the places he/she goes through, but on the symbolic home he/she carries along on the journey.  The theoretical tools derived from subaltern studies were used to delimit an area of enquiry into the differences between a centre and its margins and therefore as a space of intersection between postcolonialism and gender studies. Through an analysis of the discourses built around and ultimately by the two female protagonists as they develop in relation to the different (British and American) contexts of their relocations, the paper showed that female migrants’ double subaltern position – as ethnic and gendered “others” – can be reshaped as a strategic point from which a discourse of emancipation is performed on the common ground between postcolonialism and gender studies.  If the novel’s proposition is to open up an imaginative space where important questions are asked about what is and what is not permitted, the paper concludes by showing that the novel successfully uses theatricality to open up subjectivity.

In Political Performance and Transnational Subjectivity in E. M. Broner’sA Weave of Women”, performance became a central concept in its proper rather than figurative sense.  Jennifer A. Wagner-Lawlor (University of Memphis) analysed the concept of theatricality in E. M. Broner’s novel A Weave of Women (first published in 1978) as more than a simple metaphor. The novel was shown to exemplify one way theatricality can open up or visualize a new logic for social transformation, through a theatrical agency that has already created a tradition of feminist conceptions of women’s agency (Judith Butler, Jill Dolan). In A Weave of Women theatricality and the freedom of private performance are tropes for the process of reconceiving boundaries of subjective space, of political space – even, for a disparate group of Israeli, European and American Jews, of national space. While Broner’s novel is structured “dramatically”, each chapter around a particular Jewish ritual, each ritual is rewritten and re-enacted by the group of women seeking a way of celebrating their Judaism in a way that also recognizes their gender. These women – Israeli, British, American, and German – come to live communally in Jerusalem in one large house. The novel traces in part how this group of individuals evolves into a community, when each woman – whether an immigrant to Israel or not – experiences herself as simultaneously “at home” and an exile in a city that is supposed to welcome all Jews. For both its natives and its immigrants, this city embodies, rather obviously, in its very streets and architecture an ancient political and (inter)national conflict, and a culture that is very highly codified and hierarchized. The paper stresses the fact that Jerusalem is itself a contested space, which also embodies in this novel a hierarchical sexualized space, with many areas in which women are not welcome or wholly prohibited. With female agency restricted, to varying degrees but in so many ways, the women decide to contest these walls and these hierarchies. Each chapter in the novel is therefore organized around the re-vision and transformation of a ritual that celebrates not only women’s more flexible Jewish spirituality, but also women’s bodies, spaces, consciousness; each ritual attempts to embody the fluidity of the women’s subjectivity and to enact women’s agency, in opposition to the ossified male hierarchies so powerfully instantiated in Jewish orthodoxies.

This novel’s powerful exploration of theatrical space as utopian space, and theatricality as imaginative agency, gives its readers a model for the enacting of subjective transformation. Furthermore, it highlights the experience of an immigrants’ experience – even the “long-time” Israeli residents have only been there for about 30 years, since the modern country was founded, and both old and new immigrants to the country contend with ideas from the “old” world that conflict with an evolving (post-)modernity. While the play-acting of each chapter’s new ritual begins as a private assertion of more fluid conceptions of subjectivity and agency, it importantly does not remain so, as the women become less and less tolerant of their own political ineffectiveness.

Costinela Dragan’s paper Romanian Women's Transnational Performances: Escapes from Communism inMemory as Dowry” by Nina Cassian (University of Bucharest) approached migration as a process of re-defining, re-shaping one’s identity within given systems of values which one has to learn to perform as one goes along.  The distinction between migration and exile is an important one as the paper emphasizes the pain brought about by the need to leave one’s country and the necessary strategies to get over it.  The paper started by assessing the role of an important wave of Romanian immigrants that arrived in the USA after World War II and continued under Ceausescu’s Communist regime in establishing a background for contemporary writing about migration. As the totalitarian governing system had a more and more traumatic impact upon the Romanian society, many people dreamt to escape from their lives full of constraints.  A good example is that of Nina Cassian, an ex-dissident who migrated to the New World to escape communism. Her approach to the exilic experience allows an incursion into the “diaspora” semantic field.  The paper shows how in her three-volume book Memoria ca zestre (Memory as Dowry) one can see how women’s performances are conditioned by the social and cultural practices that emerge in women’s transnational migration, how the New World is constituted as both a place and a narrative of displacement, always recreating the endless desire to return to “lost origins”. This nostalgia for lost origins, the “return to the beginning” is like the imaginary in Lacan – it can neither be fulfilled nor requited. Hence it is the beginning of the symbolic, the infinitely renewable source of desire, memory, myth, search, discovery – in short, the reservoir of Cassian’s cinematic narratives.

The paper analyses the ways in which the condition of migrant women – home workers confined to the domestic space in a totalitarian area dominated by a supreme leader, who redefine their freedom as they leave – changes across borders.  As migrant experience reshapes the self and return to the mother country is only possible when a negotiation between the two positions can occur, women’s national and transnational performances are directly conditioned by the social, cultural, political and educational contexts that cause them.

Before leaving the field of literature to briefly describe the two papers than focused on women’s transnational migration in the society itself, it seems to be the right place to describe a paper that, due to objective reasons, could not be presented at the conference in Vienna, yet has been submitted for publication.  The Asian-American Female Pioneer: Journeying towards Changing Gender Rolesby Madhubanti Bhattacharyya (University of East Anglia) sets off by noticing that women have traditionally been the keepers of hearth and home, the epitome of the domesticity for which men went out to earn, went to wage war, and to which they came back after all their strife with the external world.  As opposed to this enduring patriarchal tradition that virtually allowed women no freedom, the issue of women’s voluntary, independent migration is a vexed one, bringing up all the issues of violation of space demarcations, role reversals and so on. Women were perceived as even more threatening when they kept trying to set out on the Asian woman’s version of an American pioneer, traditionally male journey, garnering a new set of identities along the way, which are always defined in terms of, and sometimes in opposition to the identities that were before, and were shed in order to achieve this sort of emancipation. Having this different background to fall back on is both liberating and frustrating: it provides the “difference” whilst precluding complete effacement.

The paper focuses on Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s novels Vine of Desire, Sister of My Heart, Mistress of Spices and Queen of Dreams and analyses the ways in which they chart this kind of process or journeying: whether it be through literal journeying from place to place or continent to continent, or a leap of the imagination through a complete shift in lifestyle and perspective. Divakaruni’s writing is compared to Bharati Mukherjee’s in the novels Desirable Daughters and Jasmine, which show, as the paper maintains, that those who flee the furthest actually have travelled the least. The same parameters and the male gaze still bound the women: only, they now have the critical apparatus of thought to realize their limitations and boundaries and chafe against them. Women who seek real independence are reminded to be “thankful” for the “liberal” husbands and lifestyles they have access to. They still perform the same subjugated, circumscribed, sometimes essentially decorative roles: but the subjugation is now more subtle. Perhaps not all that much has changed.

Whilst the very fact that these books are being written, and more importantly, published and read can be seen as an indicator of the times, the very process of achieving publication means some kind of pandering to public ‘taste’: which in the crudest of terms could be called playing along to the perpetuation of stereotypes.  As the paper argues, the ethical dilemma of the female writer writing about other women whose fictional trajectories bear a resemblance to actual journeys and struggles implies a choice of writing about the representative cases or about the exceptions, ranging alongside the women who succeed in transnational migration or distancing oneself from them.

The last two papers of the session focused on the actual problems of women’s migration in today’s Europe, shifting the emphasis from literature to sociological and psychological research.  In these papers the concept of performance shifted from being an aesthetic category to being a culturally informed tool behind a whole set of migration-coping strategies. The paper entitled Culture and Psychology: A Research on Turkish Women Living in the UK and Their Stress-Coping Strategies, presented by Idil Kortantamer (Nottingham Trent University, UK), looked at the psychological impact of migration upon a defined group of female migrants – Turkish women living in the UK – as compared to English women.  The paper started by assessing migration as a process that involves significant changes in an individual’s life and pointing out that people’s experiences of migration may show differences depending on their environment, the host culture they come into, their native culture, gender and many other factors.  The theoretical background used was the transactional theory of coping (Lazarus and Folkman, 1984), based on a cognitive interpretation of events.  This consists of a primary appraisal (the assessment of the situation in relation to the person’s well-being: harm, threat, challenge) and secondary appraisal (the evaluation of the situation and the availability of coping resources), followed by a coping strategy.  This coping strategy can be emotion-focused (so that the meaning of the event changes for the person) or problem-focused (which involves trying to change the situation for the better).  The choice or one strategy or another is influenced by the culture.  As Bailey and Dua (1999) suggest, through daily interactions and socialising coping becomes a socially acquired behaviour. 

The paper showed that individualistic cultures prefer problem-focused coping and collectivistic cultures prefer emotion-focused coping and analysed the various implications of this as reflected in the specialized literature, in order to establish a theoretical apparatus that can be used to approach Turkish women migrants in the UK as compared to English women.  Idil Kortantamer’s research showed that both Turkish and English women use active coping, planning, positive reinterpretation and social support to cope with stress.  Yet Turkish women use more religious coping, which in the Muslim background involves delaying action (an attitude not favoured by individualistic cultures).  Yet Turkish women who stay in the UK longer are shown to employ active coping and planning more. The paper discussed the influence of native culture on the stress-coping strategies of migrant women and concluded that culture is an important factor in stress-coping strategies.  The results of the research undertaken show that Turkish women generally tend to apply religion, positive reinterpretation and restraint more than English women, but that the longer they stay in the UK, the more they employ active coping strategies.

The session was concluded by the paper entitled Romanian Women Migrating to the West: Challenging and Recreating Traditional Values in the Host Country presented by Madalina Nicolaescu (University of Bucharest).  The paper compared two different types of female migration – a political one, taking place before and shortly after 1989 and a more recent, economic one – the movement of a large number of Romanian women in the past 10 years. Whilst the first type of migration can be documented by biographical works published in Romania, being therefore shown to be already contained in easily classifiable narratives, the second type of migration – above which big question marks still hover – was treated on the basis of empirical research, relying upon case studies as reflected in the Romanian press. With respect to the migration undertaken for largely economic reasons, the paper focused on identifying approaches to values that Romanian women may have in common with other women migrating to the West, such as Indian women, whose stories, unlike those of Romanian women, have been amply researched.  Thus the paper attempted to fill a gap in knowledge by positioning the situation of Romanian female migrants in the last decade in a comparative light, using the experience of other groups of migrant women.

The paper distinguished between two groups of Romanian female migrants, characterised by different social statuses and by different ways of performing Romanianness abroad: the highly educated ones, who leave the country to study abroad (especially in widely marketable fields such as medicine, computer science and architecture) and then get jobs commensurate with their qualifications, integrate and move towards success quickly, and the so-called “strawberry-pickers” or domestic workers who migrate temporarily in order to save some money and then come back home.  The main destination countries have been mainly from the visa-free Schengen zone, especially Italy and Spain, and it is from there that the majority of stories about temporary habitation have originated. 

The paper went on to analyse a series of case studies from Romanian periodicals that feature stories of women’s migration: women’s journals such as Formula As and Unica, and daily newspapers such as Jurnal de Bacau and Evenimentul zilei.  The choice of sources was determined by the attitude towards migration. Formula As and Jurnal de Bacau display an anti-migration ideology, publishing letters from migrants – mostly low-skilled destitute women – that could dissuade other people from leaving Romania and insist on the stigma of being an immigrant and on the othering practices of host countries. In opposition, Unica and Evenimentul zilei tell success stories of highly skilled women who got scholarships, made a fortune quickly and whose process of acculturation (given their level of education) was anything but traumatic.  The case studies analysed in the paper were used to determine the various degrees of cultural hybridization triggered by the widely different situations of migration and the various attitudes displayed by different migrants as they position themselves between the motherland and the otherland and as they relate to their home family backgrounds (whose attitudes towards migration also vary).  Thus migration is shown to be a spectacularly complex phenomenon, whose impact on women’s lives can differ as the conditions, educational backgrounds, family environment and personal choices of women vary as well. 

At the end of the session the papers were briefly discussed once again, with hindsight, in a comparative perspective that proved the highly informative and reflective value of the materials presented.  The participants reached the conclusion that, irrespective of their being real or imaginary, women’s migration scenarios tend to be ultimately perceived as contained within narrative plots that are always, very importantly, culturally conditioned and that show the highly performative nature of identity changes in conditions of migration.  As our presentations and debates wavered between real and fictional such stories, we agreed that, whilst the statistic methods used in sociological research offer a picture of reality that can hardly escape a certain degree of generalization, fiction is a highly valuable space of reflection upon the problems posed by “real life”, to the point where it can also offer possible solutions.  The concept of performance proved very useful in providing ways to conceptualize women’s various strategies of coping with the needs to adjust to transnational migration, be it real of fictional, and to negotiate identity-defining categories such as nation, ethnicity, religion, family and other categories of belonging.

5.4. Women’s Performances in Transnational Migration

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For quotation purposes:
Maria-Sabina Draga Alexandru: Section report 5.4. Women’s Performances in Transnational Migration - In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 17/2008. WWW: http://www.inst.at/trans/17Nr/5-4_sektionsbericht17.htm

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