Layne Parish Craig on "Sharpened Edge"
Sharpened Edge: Women of Color, Resistance, and Writing
Reviewed by Layne Parish Craig
Sharpened Edge: Women of Color, Resistance, and Writing questions established discourses of human rights, economic development, and feminism and their inadequacy to address issues specific to the most oppressed groups of poor women and women of color in the developed and developing world. Stephanie Athey has collected an eclectic group of essays documenting women’s experience with and response to the political and social forces of colonialism and neo-colonialism. She states in her introduction, “for progressive movements for economic, political, and social justice to be effective and enduring, their work must be conceived with an emphasis on the status on women of color and must be undertaken via the analysis, participation and leadership of these women.” Athey set out to bring together voices from various disciplines, professional backgrounds, and cultures into conversation about the possibilities for women’s resistance writing. The collection’s insistence on the interdependence of different disciplines and perspectives is evident in its inclusion of a variety of articles utilizing different research methods, academic genres, and disciplinary foci, as well as in Athey’s overt criticism of the domination that university institutions exercise over research and analysis of racism, colonialism and resistance: “To build a culture of politically engaged popular education, we must look carefully and critically at forms of education that take place within universities.”
Sharpened Edge is divided into three loosely-themed sections. The first, “Documenting the Political and Historical Context of Women’s Resistance,” takes as its starting assumption Barbara Harlow’s argument that active discussion about who controls the historical record is vital for the success of resistance movements. The two most compelling articles in this lengthy section are Asgedet Stefanos’s “An African Vantage Point on Feminist Research: Contemporary Eritrean Women and Revolution” and Betty Joseph’s “Subaltern Studies and Female Militancy: The Case of Preetilata Wadedar.” Both challenge conventional historical narratives by researching women’s perspectives on major political events: the Eritrean Revolution in Ethiopia from the 1960s to 90s and the Indian Revolutionary Army’s activities in Bengal in the 1920s, respectively. Stefano interviewed female members of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front to gauge their perception of the effects of the EPLF on traditional gender roles; the variety of perspectives she encountered offers both a critique of the continuing paternalism of the State of Eritrea and a hopeful message about women’s eagerness for political participation. Joseph, on the other hand, uses only one woman’s narrative, Kalpana Dutt’s Chittagong Armoury Raiders: Reminiscences (1945), to scrutinize Chittagong military leader Preetilata Wadedar’s seemingly inexplicable suicide; her study challenges academic bias about what constitutes a “coherent” act of resistance. Also included in this chapter is Michelle Grijalva’s “Between Silence and Sanction: Yaqui Diaspora,” which is the most generically aberrant of the essays in the collection, falling between a historical narrative about the plight of the Yaqui people in Mexico and America and a personal narrative about Grijalva’s family’s experiences as Yaqui-Americans. Grijalva’s creative contribution conforms to Athey’s ideals about the variety of voices and experiences vital to the study of women’s experiences with oppression and resistance.
The second, and shortest, section, “Tension and Transformation in Feminist Practice,” is meant to critique the white-dominated focus of feminist scholarship and activism; as Athey puts it, “The chapters in this section study power struggles between and among women.” This section contains only two articles, Michelle Joffroy’s “Variations on a Theme: Four Voices in Contemporary Chicana Feminist Criticism,” which compares the work of Rosaura Sánchez, Sonia Saldívar-Hull, Norma Alarcón, and Chela Sandovál, and Daniel Cooper Alarcón’s “Deadly Desires: Cinema, Seduction, and Racialized Masculinity,” which analyzes Yvonne Sapia’s novel Valentino’s Hair (1988). Joffroy’s article is particularly interesting, as it identifies connections and disjunctions between Chicana feminist critics and literary writers, but the reason for the inclusion of Alarcón’s essay in this subsection is less clear, since its discussion of the fetishization of Rudolph Valentino by white women is secondary to its literary analysis of masculine sexual development in Sapia’s narrative. This section seems the least developed in its reflection of Athey’s mission in the collection, perhaps because of its brevity.
Sharpened Edge’s final section, entitled “Artistic Practice as Political Strategy,” contains three of the strongest articles in the collection. Maureen C. Heacock’s “‘The ‘Sharpened Edge’ of Audre Lorde: Visions and Re-visions of Community, Power, and Language” analyzes “From the House of Yemanja,” the poem from which Athey’s collection takes its name, in the context of a discussion of Lorde’s fraught relationship with the Black Arts Movement. David J. Labiosa’s “Ana Lydia Vega: Linguistic Women and Another Counter-Assault or Can the Master(s) Hear?” examines two of Vega’s stories to parse their linguistic challenges to neo-colonialism in Puerto Rico. The final essay in the collection, Mary Pollock’s “Positioned for Resistance: Identity and Action in Michelle Cliff’s Free Enterprise” most directly reflects Sharpened Edge’s focus on resistance writing and identity in communities of women. It analyzes Cliff’s work through a discussion of her characters’ approaches to balancing their complex political identities with their history-making roles as supporters of John Brown’s 1859 rebellion against Southern slave owners. Pollock’s essay, like this entire section, makes significant, relevant connections between specific texts by women of color and the politics of resistance that these texts draw attention to as well as call into question.
The most obvious flaw of Athey’s anthology is that the collection as a whole does not maintain the clear focus of its final section. Though Athey includes a brief summary of each chapter in her introduction, her claims about eclecticism do not fully address the questions of audience that arise from the disparity of topics, disciplines, and research methods utilized in the collection. In addition, while the best essays in this collection are remarkably specific and well-researched, Athey’s inclusion of the very general piece by William E. Langley, “Women, Human Rights, and Development,” which lumps civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights of women in all developing countries into a broad treatise on the UN Decade for Women, is a disappointing contradiction to her claims to explore the intricacies of particular communities’ experiences with the positive and negative aspects of human rights and development. Another disappointing contribution is Sandra M. Grayson’s “Black Women and American Slavery: Forms of Resistance,” which is a tantalizingly brief and under-developed overview of articles about women in Frederick Douglass’s abolitionist paper, Douglass’ Monthly.
The title of Athey’s collection comes from a Lorde poem that illustrates the poet’s existence between clearly demarcated spaces: “I am / the sun and moon and forever hungry / the sharpened edge / where day and night shall meet / and not be / one.” Sharpened Edge’s project to collect academic writing that views women’s resistance to oppression as belonging in the kind of liminal space Lorde describes, never fully integrated by colonial or academic narratives, is its best asset. Though neither the anthology’s political goals nor its academic potential are fully realized, what Athey does lay out is an ideology of resistance writing that decentralizes and critiques the power of academic institutions and their representatives, lifting up a variety of texts and people as worthy of study while also critiquing a range of global and local institutions from the perspective of oppressed groups. This is an achievement in itself, and the unevenness of this collection is mitigated by the promise inherent to its call for radical equality and understanding in the academic study of colonialism, oppression, and resistance.