MARU LECTURE NOTES
These are my very rough and ready notes
for the Maru lecture series. Note
that reading these notes is not a substitute for attending the lectures – the
lectures cover a lot more ground much more thoroughly.
Daniel Roux, University of Cape Town, 29
are looking at Head’s Maru in
the context of postcolonial literature. What do we mean by “postcolonial”?
we now call “postcolonial studies” really started in the 1950s, when
European colonialism started dismantling. In the 1950s, France’s
involvement in Indochina ended, the Algerian
war broke out, the Mau Mau uprisings
took place in Kenya, and King Farouk was deposed in Egypt. Europe was
losing power over its colonies, and a new generation of writers and
theorists tried to understand the implications of the new world order, and
to deal with the damage done by the old. Frantz Fanon, the
Algerian philosopher and activist, published his seminal work Black Skin, White Mask. In the same
decade, the political theorists Aime Cesaire
and Albert Memmi
published their famous critiques of colonialism, and Chinua
Achebe published his novel Things
Fall Apart in 1958. This became a benchmark postcolonial novel and
in a sense inaugurated a new kind of literature, which now includes
writers as disparate as Ben
Okri, Gabriel Garcia
Ata Aidoo, Mariama
Rushdie, etc. etc.
definition of the word “postcolonial”, from Bill Ashcroft’s The Empire Writes Back – it “covers
all the culture affected by the imperial process from the moment of
colonization to the present day”. In this sense, a “postcolonial”
literature is any literature that “speaks back” to the processes of
(especially European) imperialism. Click here for a
more thorough definition of the term “postcolonial”.
do we mean by “speaks back”? Firstly, in an obvious sense – it “speaks back” by deploring
colonial practices, by speaking against the politics of colonialism.
postcolonial literature and theory are also involved in reclaiming our own
stories, our own way of seeing
the world, our own sense of reality, against an imposed European notion of
what is real. “Speaking back” becomes about insisting on a different epistemology.
is interesting because it deals with the oppressive power of ideas. There
are no overt European “colonialists” in the society that Head describes;
instead, the text looks especially at those places where European and more
traditional African beliefs and opinions collude to take agency away from
women and to fuel racism. Maru
also asks the question – how can these disempowering ideas be resisted?
Especially if one is doubly
disempowered – first because of race (the protagonist is a despised
Masarwa), and second because of gender (women are seen as less important
Cadmore’s mother, also called Margaret Cadmore, is a very complex and
ambiguous character. She narcissistically gives her daughter her own name,
divests her of her birth-culture and uses her in order to prove her theory
concerning the ascendancy of nurture over nature (p.15). In this sense,
she is a typical patronising colonial figure, treating her Margaret
Cadmore Jnr more like a servant than like a daughter (p.16). However, she
also resists racism, sometimes genuinely seems to love her daughter, and
tries to empower her.
Margaret Cadmore Snr leaves, her daughter is in a typical postcolonial
predicament. Her British education has empowered her, lifting her above the
abject slavery most Masarwa people are reduced to, but at the same time it
has dispossessed her. She therefore truly belongs nowhere – with her
British education, her polished accent, she clearly does not belong to
Masarwa culture, yet she is despised by the Batswana people in Dilepe for
being a Masarwa. As a woman, she is further relegated to the margin,
belonging everywhere and nowhere, forever between identities and cultures.
One can look at this “in-betweenness” as a site of plenitude (p.20), but
at the same time it is a kind of plenitude that impoverishes and exiles
a way, Margaret is paralysed by this lack of determinate identity. This
stasis and dissociation is prefigured by the lack of rain at the beginning
of the novel – its action takes place both literally and symbolically
during a “stagnant interregnum”.
Margaret have any agency in the novel? First, let’s look at what disempowers her, then at what empowers her.
being a Masarwa takes power away from her. Her ethnic identity renders her
radically “other”, both from a colonial point of view and, Head suggests,
from an indigenous African point of view: (p.12). The Masarwa are silenced
through other people’s racist projections.
Margaret Cadmore Snr appears to offer her a degree of status and freedom
through her Western education. But her education is a double-edged sword.
If it allows Margaret Jnr access to the dominant group, it cuts her off from her
own people, while at the same time placing her in a position where she
never really belongs to the dominant group because she is always seen as a
Masarwa. If people like the school
principal, Pete, is empowered by his English education, one can ask
questions about the extent to which this education empowers Margaret. This
is not just because she is a Masarwa, but also because she is a woman
– yet another disempowering category. Often educated women have to try
harder than their uneducated sisters to fit into their communities – a
great deal of African literature by women deals with society's patriarchal fear
of educated women.
- We also need
to be suspicious about the nature of an English education. While it
affords a certain social status, and translates into social and economic
power, colonial education always served to internalise the values of the
Margaret is disempowered by her “postcoloniality” – by the way in which
she belongs everywhere and nowhere. She cannot assume a determinate
identity because in a sense she always lives “on the border”, between
different states, different identities.
- Are there
any ways in which she does
exercise agency? Let’s start with her sense of being split. While it is
identified as a paralysing condition above, postcolonial interstitiality
or hybridity can also be liberating. It allows a kind of fluidity
of identity; we are never identified by our race, or our tribe, or in a
simplistic way by our nation. (p. 94) As hybridised postcolonial subjects,
we are skeptical of all ideology, and by nature self-reflexive. The worst
evil is perpetrated in the name of a determinate identity erected at the
expense of difference – but postcolonial fluidity allows for the free play
of difference (and therefore allows the possibility of change.) If there
is any moral dichotomy in the novel, it is between fluidity and stasis,
change and inertia – the good is always on the side of change and
Margaret finally declares “I am a Masarwa”, is she therefore falling back
into this conservative notion of identity? Is she returning to the world
of stereotypes and labels? No, precisely because when she says “I am a
Masarwa”, she in fact changes how people understand the term Masarwa:
in other words, she doesn’t say “I am a Masarwa” in a way that fixes
her identity, but in a way that makes both her own identity and the
identity of the Masarwa people complicated and fluid. We could say
that this statement, “I am a Masarwa”, is one of the powerful moments
where Margaret exercises agency in the text. Saying she is a Masarwa
doesn’t make life simpler for anyone – in fact, it complicated people’s
sense of reality.
important way in which Margaret exercises agency is through her art. If
Margaret is very quiet and passive, she does speak through her art
– this is where she finds a voice. Her art is described as a kind of raw,
rebellious energy: “Something inside her was more powerful than her body
could endure. It had to be brought under control, put on a leash and then
be allowed to live in a manageable form.” (p.102) In her art, she
transforms the ordinary and the everyday into a force for change: ( p.107
– p.108). In this sense, her art is revolutionary – a demonstration
of how art doesn’t have to be overtly “political” in order to carry the
message of political change. You might want to ask yourself – does art
really have this power? What makes this description interesting is that
she just represents normal things that she sees around her, but her art
transforms them into something sublime. This is quite a romantic idea of art.
It is interesting that she inherits this talent from her mother: another
example of the ambivalence of her mother’s legacy. The sense in which she
exercises agency through her art is complicated by the fact that Maru
seems increasingly to exercise control over her imagination – or at least,
he imagines he does. He secretly buys her art equipment, takes her
paintings for himself, eventually he even colonises her mind, confusing
her dreams and his.
while Margaret is painting, she seems more in control of her own life than
at any other point in the novel. She is happy, this is also the time she
starts painting seriously. It is significant that this is also a time of isolation.
Other people seem more often than not to disempower her. Where she
does draw strength from others, it is always in a fraught and doomed way.
Dikeledi is a kind of sister, a comrade – for instance, Margaret is known
as “Dikeledi’s friend”, which gives her at least some status. Dikeledi
protects her and provides company, ultimately helping to make her feel
human. But if Dikeledi helps her to feel alive, Dikeledi also kills her
(p.118). The novel is deeply
ambiguous about the value of community and the intersubjective
- The strength
that she finds in her isolation becomes embodied by the arrival of the
goats. They are like her spirit companions. The Queen of Sheba is a
powerful matriarchal figure, an embodiment of power. Margaret’s inner
strength is revealed through the figure of the goat. When she learns that
Moleka has declared his love for Dikeledi, her despair is echoed by the
death of the Queen of Sheba. It is nearly as if Margaret loses her
authority and potency by allowing herself to love: it almost seems as if
other people are always poisonous. A central question in the novel: do I
have power through others, through community and solidarity, or do
I have power only outside my community? In a way, the novel almost
suggests that it is either/or, it can’t be both.
Maru’s love seems to bring her back to life (p.123). Here it seems as if another person can
be empowering. But one can read this in another way: she becomes like his
puppet, and he exercises the power of life and death over her. An
important question in the novel is why he decides to marry her. Is
it to prove a political point, like her mother? Is she just another
experiment? Or does he love her for herself? “Being so highly
individualistic himself, he dreaded working out any conclusions along
those of tribe or race. But the conditions which surrounded him at the
time forced him to think of her as a symbol of her tribe and through her
he sought to gain an understanding of the eventual liberation of an
oppressed people.” (p. 108) He seems
to marry her at least in part to “change the world”. To what extent is
Margaret merely sacrificed for the freedom of a people?
- A final note
about the way power operates in Maru:
it deals with revolution on a micro-scale. It is a story about just a few
people in a small village, not about a large social revolution. It deals
with ordinary, domestic things. It is about people who refuse to
collaborate in the power game in small ways. Margaret refuses to pretend
she is coloured. Dikeledi befriends her even though she is a Masarwa.
Moleka eats with the Masarwa slaves in his home. Maru marries a Masarwa
woman. These events do not seem to justify Head’s claim at the end of the
novel that “the wind of freedom had reached the Masarwa people”. Her claim
seems to big, given the size of the events she describes. But the point
she is making is that change always starts in these small ways, in a shift
of perception and habits of behaviour. “They thought he was dead and would
trouble them no more. How were they to know that many people shared Maru’s
overall ideals, that this was not the end of him, but a beginning?” (p.
126) The point here is not really that Maru and Margaret somehow transform
society through their actions, but that society is slowly inexorably
transformed through the actions of many.
- Finally, a
few notes concerning schizophrenia.
Above, I’ve observed that the postcolonial condition is characterized by
schizophrenia. But how can a mental illness characterize a cultural
situation? Surely mental illness is a medical condition? In fact, no-one
can say with any certainty. For instance, hysteria has all but
disappeared in the modern world. It was really a Victorian disease,
in the same way that we can say schizophrenia characterizes our
postmodern, postcolonial condition. Certain social conditions
invite a specific psychological response. How we deal with mental
illness is also cultural – for instance, many people who would be seen as
schizophrenic in our society and treated in a mental institution might be
seen as visionaries in another culture and accorded a specific social role
- Maru is full of
“schizophrenic” descriptions. Maru himself is described as a kind of
schizophrenic subject. He hears voices (p.8), there is a strange paranoid
symbiosis between him and Moleka. (p.58): it seems as if he is
Moleka, they are the same person split into two (p. 35). He has
“indefinable ailments”. These schizophrenic characteristics become
associated with Maru’s visionary qualities. One way of looking at
schizophrenia, is to say it is a
failure to enter the symbolic order of society successfully. For Maru to
be a true leader, he needs to transcend his narrow social order, he needs
not to be symbolically integrated into the fabric of his community. With
Maru, we could say that his “schizophrenia” is a kind of strangeness,
almost god-like qualities, that place him beside the norm and allow him
the messianic potency to change the world.
- Margaret is
another “schizophrenic” character, constantly described as divided against
herself, split from within (p.71). Her split consciousness is a psychological
response to a social situation; a kind of “nervous condition” that
comes with her subject positioning, always halfway between worlds
- In addition,
it is as if the novel is itself schizophrenic; its strange, surreal
(and in some ways typically modernist) style reflects its status as a
postcolonial text. As readers, we are drawn into a kind of schizophrenic
consciousness – and this consciousness is intimately tied to the novel’s politics.
It is both a result of its postcolonial situation, and part of its
reaction to it – it resists the social order through the slippery, unreal,
dissident language of schizophrenia. To put it differently – the
characters, the novel itself, is driven to a kind of schizophrenic state
by the political conditions of its postcolonial context, but the
schizophrenia is also a form of resistance, a place of dreams, of
violence, of a curious, twisted form of freedom.
- One more
example – Margaret’s dissociation from her body. Often she seems to occupy
an almost cataleptic state, dissociated from her body (p.120) This is
significant, because she is torn between what her body represents to
other people and her own experience of her body. We can say there is a
search in the novel to belong to her own body, that she is denied
ownership of her physical self. Her comatose dissociation from her body is
therefore significant precisely because her body is so politicised.
It reflects the kind of damage that society inflicts on her. One could
even say that her “death”, her broken neck, is a form of resistance: both
to her heartache when she loses Moleka, and to attempts by society to
inscribe meaning on her body.
Emory University biography
of Bessie Head.
Online criticism of Maru
Stan Galloway, “San culture in
Bessie Head’s Maru”. The
representation of San people in Head’s novel.
Sunday Times, “Strange
mixture of Maru.” An analysis of
the “contrasting sides” of Maru’s character.
Sunday Times, “DAD will help
you to tackle study of themes”. An analysis of alienation in Maru.
Leon Marshall, “Busmen
driven from ancestral homes in Botswana”. Recent National Geographic news
article about the San people’s ongoing struggle for political rights and land
Neil Parsons, “A brief history of Botswana”.
Postcolonial literature and theory
The Postcolonial Web. Authors,
theory, links, etc.
website. Emory University.
John Lye, “Some issues in
postcolonial theory”. Brock University.