“In order to gain your own voice, forget about having it heard.” 7
Of course, my retelling of Two Old Women is like the skin shed from a living snake; it holds a certain shape, reveals the faint imprint of a pattern, but it is not the breathing and moving original. Even the source text from which I’ve quoted is no more than a captured snapshot, frozen in time and place.
Written by a native Athabascan woman who had received the story in the traditional way from her mother, it borrows that degree of authenticity… but the truth of the story was in the telling of it, in the breath and voice of her mother, her choice of words and style of expression. The truth of it grew from the context of their family history and the nuances of their relationship. Written in English, published by Harper Collins, the book can only ever be a translation, for the tale itself lives within a different voice.
I am reminded of the writings of Viola Cordova, a Jicarilla Apache woman whose posthumously published collection of essays describes Native American beliefs and philosophy. She compares the conceptual frameworks of Native and Western cultures thus:
European thinkers pride themselves on being masters at the art of dealing with the mental art of abstraction…. But the Western thinker suffers from a tendency to reify all of his abstract notions, think of them as real things…. The Native American’s response to the terror and awe inspired by the universe is to call it sacred. Its mysterious qualities are maintained. It is sacred precisely because it is beyond reification. 8
Similarly, our dominant culture – “a world psychologically rooted and historically anchored in the experiences of powerful men” 9 – sets the parameters around which the different voice must negotiate, and determines the language into which the different voice must be translated. “Men and women tacitly collude in not voicing women’s experiences and build relationships around a silence that is maintained by men’s not knowing their disconnections from women and women not knowing their dissociation from themselves.” 10
It is not enough to issue invitations to participate through the channels of submission and attendance. In order to hear a different voice, one must listen in a different voice. Otherwise all one can hear from the other is the discordant sound of defiance and resistance, or the silence of disengagement. “Whether spoken, silent or enacted, disobedience constitutes a particularly feminine discourse, made necessary in a patrifocal…culture where a woman’s identity is defined and shaped through her relationship to the male world, and a man’s to a single standard of masculinity.” 11
Really, what greater offence can a woman commit than the disobedience of knowing and speaking her own mind? Smack her back down with the charge of ‘bad faith’ – it is the simplest ruse, to cover yourself with bluster and arrogance. Tell her that she is a nasty thing, this malevolent woman of bad faith who encroaches on your stage, who refuses to play by your rules. Turn the switch on her, put her on mute – like duct tape slapped across her lips to silence her angry buzzing, and –
Hush now. Step into my tent, come sit by my fire. Cover your shoulders with this woolen shawl that my sister knit by hand, stitch by stitch, row by row. Now take this cup of broth: its steam rises, it tastes of stones and onions and salty tears – it is nourishing. Sit still and stare into the fire, with its crackles and rising sparks, its dangerous warmth and reassuring light.
“Stories are light. Light is precious in a world so dark. Begin at the beginning.” 12
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8 V. F. Cordova, How It Is, U. Arizona Press, 2007, (p.108-9)
9 Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice, 1990 (p.xxi)
10 Gilligan (p.xv)
11 Lena B. Ross, in To Speak or Be Silent: the Paradox of Disobedience in the Lives of Women, Chiron Publications, 1993, (p.62)
12 Kate DiCamillo, The Tale of Despereaux