Ana Nenadović


"Sexualised Violence between Silence and Enunciation.The Madonna of Excelsior and Symphony in White”

Recently, and as a result of feminist activism in the media, sexualised violence against women has become a widely-discussed topic. In literature, however, it has been a prominent motif since ancient times, the rape of Lucrecia constituting one of its best-known representations. Furthermore, it has been an essential issue in feminist theoretical work for more than half a century. Its aims were, firstly, the visualisation of the persistency of sexualised violence in women’s lives and, secondly, the consciousness raising of harassment, coercion and rape as forms of violence and not expressions of (male) sexuality. Second-wave feminism was marked by the publication of two fundamental books: Brownmiller’s Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape (1975) and Higgin and Silver’s Rape and Representation (1991). Many of the more recent works on rape and its representations within and outside western academia draw on these works and develop further the ideas first expressed by Brownmiller and Higgin and Silver.

Sexualised violence is a relevant topic within postcolonial and decolonial (feminist) contexts because of its institutionalisation as a weapon of subjugation during colonialism. Angela Davis was among the first prominent theoreticians to pinpoint the inherent relationship between slavery and rape. Sexual coercion constituted an essential part of the social relations between master and (female) slave, as white men claimed property rights over black female bodies as a whole.[1] She, Pumla Gqola and Djamila Ribeiro, amongst others, affirm that the institutionalisation of rape during slavery and colonisation has had a determinative impact on rape culture and its relation to race in the postcolonial national states.[2]

This article focuses on two novels, Symphony in White (Sinfonia em branco, 2001) written by Brazilian author Adriana Lisboa and translated by Sarah Green into English (2010) and The Madonna of Excelsior (2002) by the South African Zakes Mda, and analyses them through a feminist perspective.[3] In the centre of this investigation stand the distinct uses of the unspeakable as a mode of alternative speaking about sexualised violence. Canonised trauma theories published first in the 1990s will be examined critically, especially in regard to the concept of unspeakability. These two novels were chosen for various reasons. On one hand they depict rape explicitly from a female perspective, consequently breaking the silence on the issue, while, on the other hand, silencing constitutes the predominant characteristic of treating rape on an intradiegetic level. Thus, they draw the reader’s attention – of those readers who are willing to listen to the female characters and hear their messages – to the silence surrounding sexualised violence. These novels highlight particular inheritances of colonialism which determine contemporary rape culture in Brazil and South Africa as well as the different social positions white, indigenous, black and mixed-raced women occupy in public. It will be demonstrated how colonial epistemologies constructed women of African descent as “unrapeable” and hypersexualised, by which means they deprived black women of their right to claim justice for violence they endured.[4]

In their introduction to Feminism, Literature and Rape Narratives (2010) Brigley Thompson and Gunne pinpoint the difficulties and dangers of representing rape without repeating patriarchal discourses of female chastity and guilt, or serving the male gaze by eroticising gender-based violence.[5] From a feminist perspective, the purpose of representing rape is to portray the experienced violence and its aftermaths without depicting women as mere victims unable to regain their autonomy and men as “natural”, and thus unblameable, rapists.[6] Furthermore, Brigley Thompson/Gunne and Roxane Gay, among others, stress the necessity to focus on the language itself when representing rape:

For second-wave feminism the primary objective was to put rape on the agenda in an effort to prevent it from occurring. Now what is at stake is not just whether we speak about rape or not, but how we speak about rape and to what end.[7]

We have also, perhaps, become immune to the horror of rape because we see it so often and discuss it so often, many times without acknowledging or considering the gravity of rape and its effects. We jokingly say things like “I just took a rape shower” or “My boss totally just raped me over my request for a raise.” We have appropriated the language of rape for all manner of violations, great and small.[8]

I am troubled by how we have allowed such intellectual distance between violence and the representation of violence. We talk about rape, but we don’t carefully talk about rape.[9]

In contrast to feminist claims and needs, public discourses on sexualised violence are characterised by a lack of consideration as well as strategies of tabooing and silencing. The latter are perpetuated by the so-called rape myths, which impose shame and guilt on the victims, both female and male, and doubt the reality of harassment, coercion and rape as forms of violence and expressions of power rather than sexual acts.  

The linguists Allen and Burridge define taboos as social regulations, restrictions, and prohibitions; violators have to face consequences for breaching or defying them. Transgressors are normally expected to confess their sins and submit to rituals of purification.[10] When sexualised violence is experienced and spoken about, when the usually male perpetrators are named and justice is sought, the focus of attention lies upon the victims and their narrations, it is them who are interrogated, whose behaviour and actions are questioned, and not the perpetrators’, as is the case with other forms of violence.[11] The legal framework and societies’ reactions suggest, thus, that the taboo is not the infliction of sexualised violence per se -even though it might be legally persecuted and sanctioned- but speaking about sexualised violence, the breaking of the prevailing silence.[12] It remains to stress that the two linguists fail to reflect on the inherent connections of taboos and silence, contrary to Aleida Assmann in Formen des Schweigens (Forms of Silence, 2013). She regards silence/remaining silent as a communicative act and differentiates between meaningful (bedeutungsvolles Schweigen) and strategic (strategisches Schweigen) silences in order to analyse their distinct functions. According to Assmann, meaningful silence can be either affirming, intimate or defiant, depending on both the communicative and the cultural contexts, whereas strategic silence is tightly related to guilt, shame, pain and trauma, and social pacts, be it either out of tact or because the issue is considered a taboo.[13]

The female protagonists Niki and Clarice in Zakes Mda’s The Madonna of Excelsior and Adriana Lisboa’s Symphony in White suffer the consequences of the taboo after they are repeatedly raped.  The traumatic events lead them to choose social isolation, self-mutilation and silence as strategies for survival. Meanwhile, the novels as literary texts break the silence surrounding the issue of sexualised violence and challenge the predominant notions of the unspeakability of trauma postulated by the interdisciplinary field of trauma studies throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. Caruth, Feldman and Laub, Hirsch and Hartman are among the principle defenders of the notion of trauma as an unrepresentable and unspeakable event. Even critics of this approach, mainly Luckhurst, Whitehead and Vickroy, still emphasise the relevance of narrative transmission of the delayed impact of the traumatic episode, thus remaining stuck within the concept of the unspeakable.[14] Stampfl suggests a pluralistic understanding not only of trauma itself but the unspeakable as well: “[W]e err from the start when we conceive of the unspeakable in the singular […] My starting point definition of the unspeakable as a trope, a particular kind of linguistic expression, is meant to be suggestive of the broad range of meanings potentially associated with this bit of rhetorical strategy.”[15] He further suggests considering the silence of unspeakability as merely one part of the process of healing from trauma, not its end.[16] The trope of the unspeakable is frequently employed as a strategy of “turning away” from the pain inflicted on bodies even when the trauma is provoked by a physical act of violence: “The role of the body is minimized when the unspeakable turns its searchlight on the question of what can or cannot be expressed, a redirection of attention that effects an unintended sublimation, causing the physical to retreat to the background.”[17] Regarding sexualised violence, such an approach seems rather paradoxical, as at the centre of the violent act is the body, usually a female or feminised one, and through its violation the person’s autonomy, self-determination and resistance can be broken. Symphony in White and The Madonna of Excelsior subvert the prevailing unspeakability of sexualised violence in literature by describing meticulously the rapes of the female protagonists and focalising through primary or secondary female victims the sections dedicated their portrayals. They concentrate on the female bodies, on what the perpetrators do to them, on the pain these bodies feel, on the marks the traumatic experience inscribes on them. In Symphony in White, the scars on Clarice’s wrists give a silent – a non-verbal – testimony of the pain left on the psyche after the body could not be harmed any longer; Lina’s deadly wounds recount the story of her rape and murder even after her death. In The Madonna of Excelsior, Poppy, Nikis mixed-race daughter, functions as an extension of Niki’s body and bears her pain and shame until she empowers herself and becomes an independent person. Thus, the novels prove that rape can be narrated, can be represented through language and that the unspeakability of sexualised violence is based on different assumptions. They indicate that it is the patriarchal and racist structures on which Brazilian and South African societies are found which make the speaking about sexualised violence a taboo and silence it.

On the intradiegetic level, silence is imposed on the protagonists frequently. Niki, at the beginning of the novel still an adolescent black girl, is raped by the Boer farmer Johannes Smit, she looks for support within her circle of female friends, but is disappointed:

Deep in the sunflower field, Johannes Smit pulled off Niki’s Terylene skirt. She tried to hold on to it, but he had the strength of ten demons. He threw her on the damp ground. Then he pulled down her panties and took them off. He sniffed them, which seemed to raise more demons in his quivering body. He stuffed the panties in his pocket.|Yellowness ran amok. Yellowness dripped down with her screams. He slapped her and ordered her to shut up. Her screams were now muffled with his hand on her mouth. […] Niki wept softly as his hardness touched her thighs. Intense heat sucked out his slimy seed before he could penetrate her. […] She heaved him off her body and jumped up. She grabbed her skirt and ran like a tornado […]. Johannes Smit’s accomplices [Niki’s friends Mmampe and Maria] called after her, ‘Niki! Niki! Wait for us!’[18]

Niki was not amused. ‘I am going to report him,’ she cried. ‘I am going to tell the police about what he has done to me.’/ ‘Don’t be foolish, Niki,’ admonished Mmampe. ‘Do you think the police will believe you had nothing to do with it? You took his money, didn’t you? They will arrest you and charge you with the Immorality Act. Haven’t you heard of black women who are in jail for sleeping with white men?’(ME, p. 18)[19]

The description of the first rape Niki suffers is explicit and the focalisation is through her character. Her fear, disgust, shame, the violation of her bodily autonomy is directly shared with us, the readers. Niki perceives Johannes Smit not as a male rapist, but as possessed by demons- as the embodiment of evil- who forces himself on and in her body against her will. Mmampe and Maria, Niki’s friends with whom she had a joyous time just moments before the rape occurs, are no longer defined as friends. On the contrary, they have turned into accomplices of the racist and patriarchal structures, push her into the rapist’s arms and force her to remain in silence about her traumatic experience. Mmampe and Maria become Apartheid society’s agents: they explicitly refuse to listen to Niki’s account of her experience and her claims of having been raped by the white man. Instead of using the verb “rape” as does the narrative instance while focalising through Niki, Mmampe and Maria use the expression “sleep with”, eliminating linguistically the violence and bodily violation felt by Niki. Thus, they lay part of the guilt on her and make her an accomplice of her own rape, perpetuating one of numerous rape myths.[20] On an extradiegetic level, however, there is no doubt as to the violence of the act and its traumatising effect on Niki.

In Symphony in White, Clarice’s rape is suggested covertly throughout the novel, the explicit representation is given only towards the end of the narration. The incestuous rape is, mostly, indicated through the focalisation through Clarice’s sister Maria Inês, who involuntarily becomes the witness of her sister’s being abused:

The door to the bedroom is half-open. The bedroom door is not usually half-open. Something moves inside, a monster with only one eye that drools and grunts and grits its horrendous jaws. The monster that devours childhoods. The half-open door reveals a scene that could be quite beautiful: the pale volume that the nine-year-old girl does not yet know in her own body. […] She looks, fascinated, as a masculine hand draws near and reaches that delicate piece of anatomy, while rigid fingers fondle the base of the breast […]|She sees. […] She wants to close her eyes and go back in time.[21]

A man who walked into her [Clarice’s] bedroom and sat her down on his lap and she wasn’t afraid, at first, because the man was her father. […]|He caressed her arms. Her shoulders, her breasts. | Clarice froze like a rabbit that has a premonition about its predator. […] She then tried to free herself but his arm was strong. And his lips on the base of her neck made her heart beat faster. […] The man’s hand on a very white breast. […] A man’s hand on Clarice’s smooth stomach and his breath panting hatefully and his slacks where a mass appeared. The zipper that he unzipped with his right hand while the left hand looked for something between her thighs. His eyes closed. Her eyes frozen wide open| […] He would do that again. And again. And in different ways. One day he actually lay on top of her and thrust his adult man’s body into her young girl’s body […] (SW, p. 163, focalisation on Clarice )

Similar to Johannes Smit in The Madonna of Excelsior, Afonso Olímpio, who rapes his daughter Clarice, represents embodied evil to both his daughters. He is the “monster” who violently ends their childhoods and traumatises them both, Clarice as his primary victim whose bodily and sexual autonomy is repeatedly violated and Maria Inês as witness to the abuse. Even though neither Maria Inês nor Otacília, their mother, silence Clarice as explicitly as do[22] Mmampe and Maria with Niki, silence still dominates their familial life. They do not mention or name the incestuous rape as such; it remains the unspoken monster that controls their household and the life within it. The brutal rape and murder of Lina, one of Clarice’s intimate friends, opens space for reflection on rape myths, the inherent relation between race and rape culture and the social silence surrounding sexualised violence both for the protagonists and the readers, because trauma and the (un)speakability of trauma should be considered alongside their social, political and cultural dimensions:[23]

They whispered, the following morning: | I always thought a tragedy like this would happen to that girl. | She didn’t have any sense. | Maybe she brought it on herself. Didn’t you notice how she dressed? |Sort of provocatively. | Sort of shamelessly. | Otacília and Afonso Olímpio declared Lina’s death forbidden […]She [Clarice] was not thinking about Lina, not specifically. She opened the door and vomited onto the dirt road, the same dirt road where her friend had been raped and murdered, those were the forbidden words. (SW, p. 54-55)

Speaking about sexualised violence is, as this quote shows, considered a taboo in the Brazilian society as described in Lisboa’s novel, and is passed on from older generations to younger ones. Harassment, abuse and rape is not penalised socially, it is not forbidden, but speaking out aloud the words “rape and murder” is. The internalised silence about her own experiences of sexualised violence can only become understandable to her once Clarice connects them to Lina’s suffering and murder.

At this point it is of the utmost importance to stress the considerable differences between the representations of the rapes of the two girls, Clarice and Lina. Clarice is the daughter of the owner of a large estate, and -even though various characters within the novel doubt his racial purity5- represents the elite’s tacit complicity with the Brazilian military dictatorship during which the novel is set.[24] Thus, Clarice belongs to a racially and economically privileged class. Lina is not only Afro-Brazilian and poor, she is also described as mentally disabled. Therefore, she is marginalised on grounds of her race, her class and her disability. Whereas the abuse of Clarice is narrated progressively throughout the entire novel, the rape of Lina is recounted on roughly two pages; Clarice’s experiences are portrayed towards the end of the novel, her surprise, fear and retreat into submission are described in detail. (SW, p. 163-164) The tragic ending of Lina’s life, on the other hand, is written through an external focalisation and concentrates on the unknown man rather than on his victim. (SW, p. 53-54)

In Symphony in White, Lina personifies the unheard subaltern. She is marginalised due to various social constructs (race, gender, ability, class), is considered unrapeable and her every-day traumatic experiences are dismissed entirely. In western trauma studies, as Stampfl explains, an event-based definition of trauma dominates, in contrast to an “alternative that is sensitive to the mundane, quotidian processes of traumatization” which reflect the reality of a colonised or formerly colonised society.[25] Whereas Niki’s (The Madonna of Excelsior) daily suffering from racism and sexism are given account throughout the novel, Symphony in White dismisses them almost completely and suggests that only an experience like rape should be considered traumatic. But even when this event-based trauma occurs, Lina’s position remains marginalised.  Her experience of rape, though relatively explicit, is very brief and its description is focalised through the anonymous perpetrator: 

The man came out of the bushes, from behind a grove of cypress trees. He was waiting for her. He knew a lot of things, even though he wasn’t from those parts. He knew a lot of things and was waiting for her, for Lina […] The black night made him dark and uniform […] Lina did not scream, because his first gesture, rapid and calculated, was to cover her mouth with a hand that was too strong, exaggeratedly strong. No one needed to be that strong to cover Lina’s mouth, to dominate her, to keep her from crying out.|It lasted half an hour and meant very little. Practically nothing. (SW, p. 53-54)

This choice of focalisation and form of depiction mirror the asymmetrical power structures between Lina and her perpetrator as well as public discourses on rape. The attention is on Lina, her every move and gesture are monitored, but she is denied spaces to openly talk about her experiences or to regain her autonomy. Covering her mouth, the perpetrator makes sure Lina’s voice is silenced even before she can decide whether to speak up, to scream and to denounce the violation of her body. The perpetrator enjoys invisibility, which he needs in order to prey on Lina, and rape and murder her without any consequences. He has the power of choice to reveal facts and actions or to keep them an uncommented secret, and society acts as his tacit accomplice.

Society’s complicity and silence are based, amongst others, on the assumption that there are certain “unrapeable” women, like prostitutes or black women, the descendants of slaves. In Women, Race and Class (1981), Angela Davis pinpoints the inherent relationship between slavery and sexualised violence:

Slavery relied as much on routine sexual abuse as it relied on the whip and the lash. Excessive sex urges, whether they existed among individual white men or not, had nothing to do with this virtual institutionalization of rape. Sexual coercion was, rather, an essential dimension of the social relations between slavemaster and slave. In other words, the right claimed by slaveowners and their agents over the bodies of female slaves was a direct expression of their presumed property rights over Black people as a whole.[26]

Like other feminists, Davis defines sexualised violence as an expression of power, not sexual desire, and that, in the context of slavery, it asserted the possession of black female bodies as property. The South African feminist scholar, Pumla D. Gqola, elaborates on slavery and sexualised violence in her book Rape. A South African Nightmare (2015). She states that the origins and the development of the social construct race are not only to be found in colonialism, Eurocentric race theories and slavery, but also in the systematic rapes of African women and women of African descent. European colonisers exercised power over both territories and human beings. Enslaved people were dehumanised, and degraded to being the property of others, who disposed of their -the slaves’- productive, sexual and reproductive work. The enslaved people lost their self-determination, their sexual autonomy and the power to consent to sexual acts, thus they were perceived as unrapeable. Gqola concludes that, due to this lack of freedom and self-determination, any sexual intercourse between a slave keeper and a slave is an act of rape, regardless of its object being reproduction, sexual satisfaction or exercise of power.[27] In addition to the loss of sexual autonomy and the power to express consent, the hypersexualisation of both female and male black people contributed to the concept of the unrapeability of slaves and their descendants.[28]

Thus, Lina’s marginalised class, her race and her disability position her as unrapeable and determine society’s choice to blame her for her fate: “They whispered, the following morning: |I always thought a tragedy like this would happen to that girl. |She didn’t have any sense. | Maybe she brought it on herself. Didn’t you notice how she dressed?” (SW, p. 54)

Patriarchal and racist structures interact in making the speaking about sexualised violence a taboo and imposing silence on the victims. Symphony in White and The Madonna of Excelsior defy the taboo because they explicitly represent rape, make it a speakable event, and pinpoint the silence that surrounds this issue by describing in detail how entire societies and individuals force silence upon victims. In the course of the narrations, both Niki and Clarice attempt to share with others the suffering they experienced, to disclose they are not yet healed, and to overcome their traumas, but the other characters refuse to listen to their efforts and to understand the meaning behind Clarice’s and Niki’s deeds.

Therefore, it is our task as readers to actively listen to the subtle ways in which both of them narrate their sufferings and to acknowledge their voices. We should, though, not dismiss the relevance of the context: both novels were written in the so-called Global South – with postcolonial backgrounds. Drawing on the theories of Allan Young, Anne Whitehead reminds us that “trauma is not a universal category found in many different places and times but rather a discourse of memory that emerged at a specific time […] and that is embedded in and inseparable from the particular concerns of western culture.”[29] She is not the only scholar to recognise and critically question the applicability of western concepts within postcolonial contexts. Recent years gave space to the emergence of the so-called postcolonial trauma theories, with, for instance, a special number of the journal Studies in the Novel (2008) dedicated to the exploration of trauma in postcolonial writing. They stress the violent colonial encounter between Europe and its others as the origin of trauma within these contexts. Whitehead affirms in this sense that

[p]ostcolonial texts invite readings in terms of trauma because they are concerned with articulating the ongoing after-effects of colonial domination and violence in contemporary society. Postcolonial writers often emphasize that the encounter between western and non-western societies remains a traumatic one, because the processes and systems of empire continue to inform and shape the present.[30]

In her article Journeying Through Hell: Wole Soyinka, Trauma, and Postcolonial Nigeria, Whitehead aims to demonstrate “that the inscription of trauma in postcolonial literature is both responsive to and reflective of the concerns of non-western commonalities”.[31] Or, as Craps and Buelens point out, “Western traumatic histories must be seen to be tied up with histories of colonial trauma for trauma studies to be able to redeem its promise of ethical effectiveness”.[32] For the analysis of Symphony in White and The Madonna of Excelsior the postcolonial approach to trauma theory implies taking into consideration the unequal colonial (race) relations and their potential for traumatisation and the “centrality in non-puncutal traumas of a moment of revelatory retrodetermination, in which signifiers previously experienced as neutral or benign suddenly come to be experienced as traumatogenic”, that is taking into account everyday experiences rooted in unequal power relations as possible traumatic events.[33] It also means to acknowledge the different manners in which the other (Niki, Lina, Clarice) try to speak and regain their voice and autonomy after suffering abuses.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the setting of the first part of Mda’s novel, Apartheid South African society is strictly divided by skin colour and black women occupied the most powerless and thus vulnerable position in society. Beside the daily racism and marginalisation as well as the deprivation of basic human rights, black women were raped frequently, blamed for their fate by the perpetrators and the justice system, and shamed by society. Niki’s trauma does not result only from being raped; rape is only one of the many expressions of the unequal power relations rooted in colonialism and institutionalised in Apartheid laws. In The Madonna of Excelsior, the Afrikaner men (the descendants of Dutch colonisers) claim their right over black female bodies just as they did during slavery:

The devil had sent black women to tempt him [Reverend François Bornman] and to move him away from the path of righteousness. The devil had always used the black female to tempt the Afrikaner. It was a battle that was raging within individual Afrikaner men. It was a battle between lust and loathing. A battle that the Afrikaner must win. The devil made the Afrikaner to covertly covet the black woman while publicly detesting her. It was his fault that he had not been strong enough to resist the temptation. The devil made him do it. (ME, p. 85)

Young Afrikaner boys were eager to taste what their fathers were eating on the sly. They went out on hunting expeditions for what they called swart poes. In the fields. In the veld. In the by-ways of one-street towns. In the farm villages. And in the kitchens of their very homes, where maids and nannies cooked them their dinners. (ME, p. 92)

Johannes Smit preying on Niki does not constitute a unique violation in South Africa, it is, on the contrary, the expression of power white men have gained through colonisation, slavery and the institutionalisation of Apartheid over black female bodies. The totality of the society, both white and black South Africans, recognises their power. Therefore, many black women, like Maria and Mmampe, accept the violations of their bodies tacitly and seek their self-determination within a context of violence and powerlessness by aiming to derive benefits from the Afrikaner men. Niki refuses to become an accomplice of her own submission and loss of sexual autonomy, even after she is raped. She survives her traumatic experience and becomes a rape victim-survivor, as defined by Jean-Charles. At this point of the novel Niki has overcome her trauma of being raped to the degree that she can go back to her life as a survivor, regain autonomy over her body and sexuality, without forgetting. She marries Pule and gives birth to a son, Viliki, but the rape and Johannes Smit haunt her over the years:

Six months ago she [Niki] had come home late from work. Stephanus Cronje’s unpaid overtime. Pule decided there and then that she was late because she had been sleeping with white men. “Stories are told of black maids who sleep with their white masters”, he said. “You must be one of them.” […] She was Johannes Smit in Pule’s eyes. She saw the uncontrollable yellowness of the sunflower fields. There was the overwhelming smell of Johannes Smit in the shack. (ME, p. 34)

Once again, Niki tries to speak up, to affirm her innocence to the world and her husband, anew silence is violently imposed on her. Her condition as an unrapeable woman is asserted by the black South African society as much as by the white, concurrently the blame and guilt of misconduct and miscegenation are laid upon her. The novel depicts in detail how patriarchy and racism interact in the oppression of black women and the ways white South African women act as accomplices to the sexualised subjugation of black South African women. When Niki is accused of stealing meat from the butchery she works at, the owner Cornelia Cronje forces her to strip naked in front of everyone, traumatising Niki once more: “She stood there like the day she was born. Except that when she was born, there was no shame in her. No hurt. No embarrassment. […] Here they [Stephanus and Tjaart Cronje] were. Raping her with their eyes.” (ME, p. 40, my emphasis )

Rage becomes Niki’s source of coping with the trauma of having been raped repeatedly, of having been charged with the Immorality Act and imprisoned for having a coloured daughter, Popi.[34] Her rage is directed against the unequal power structures in regard to race and gender in Apartheid South Africa, and it is directed against society as a whole. Her rage has a political dimension, a form of rage which is usually not conceded to women, as Soraya Chemaly explains in Rage Becomes Her: “Women’s anger is usually disparaged in virtually all arenas, except those in which anger confirms gender-role stereotypes about women as nurturers and reproductive agents”.[35] Niki’s rage and the silence imposed on her lead, ultimately, to her isolation from society. Throughout the novel, she is re-traumatised on various occasions and struggles to overcome the trauma, to become a rape victim survivor, as she remains caught in the process. Her condition of unfinished coping with trauma reflects the incompleteness of the process of decolonisation of the postcolonial nation.[36] It is only on the last pages of the novel, set in the aftermaths of Apartheid, that Niki claims the possibility to speak up to her rapist Johannes Smit and to demand an apology for the violation of her body and her sexual autonomy. However, not even in post-Apartheid South Africa have the power structures between white men and black women become equal. Niki can demand this only in a private space and is, once again, confronted with silence: “‘This is a strange way of asking for forgiveness,’ said Niki. […] You, Johannes Smit, wronged me. You stole my girlhood. […]’| It was Johannes Smit’s turn to be silent.” (ME, p. 252) Even in the post-Apartheid era, during which the second part of the novel is set, patriarchal structures dominate public discourses on sexualised violence. Niki, as a black woman, now has the right to publicly claim her human rights, to confront her perpetrators and reclaim her autonomy -unless rape caused the violation of her rights and of her body. The representation of rape and its aftermath in The Madonna of Excelsior contradicts what has been stated above in regard to sexualised violence and silence above: speaking about rape and denouncing the perpetrators publicly remains a taboo.

Whereas Niki tries to speak up again and again, to explicitly use the term rape to describe the way violence was inflicted on her, and to name her perpetrator, Clarice opts for a different way to confront her trauma and to speak of her suffering in Symphony in White: “With her thumbs, Clarice once more felt the twin scars left by the Olfa knife on each wrist. She usually hid them by wearing a watch and bracelets on those rare occasions that she was in public.” (SW, p. 13) In the novel’s present, she lives an isolated life in her parental house with only occasional social interactions. The speech acts of her body and her body’s wounds are, therefore, not directed towards the other characters in Symphony in White, but to us, the readers. It is the first indication the narrative gives us of an underlying trauma which determines Clarice’s trajectory, but it is our choice whether we want to listen to Clarice’s corporal voice. Assuming that Clarice is a female subaltern subject, othered not because of her race but her gender in a patriarchal society in the so-called Global South, we might conclude, based on Spivak’s explanation, that she cannot speak because she is not heard. In her essay Can the Subaltern Speak?, Spivak recounts the suicide of Bhuvaneswari Bhaduri in 1926 and the ways in which her family and friends do not understand her intended message (or what Spivak declares Bhaduri’s intended message):

Bhuvaneswari had known that her death would be diagnosed as the outcome of illegitimate passion. She had therefore waited for the onset of menstruation. […] She generalized the sanctioned motive for female suicide by taking immense trouble to displace (not merely deny), in the physiological inscription of her body, its imprisonment within legitimate passion by a single male. In the immediate context, her act became absurd, a case of delirium rather than sanity. The displacing gesture -waiting for menstruation- is at first a reversal of the interdict against a menstruating widow’s right to immolate herself; […] In this reading, Bhuvaneswari Bhaduri’s suicide is an unemphatic, ad hoc, subaltern rewriting of the social text of sati-suicide as much as the hegemonic account of the blazing, fighting, familial Durga. The emergent dissenting possibilities of that hegemonic account of the fighting mother are well documented and popularly well remembered through the discourse of the male leaders and participants in the independence movement. The subaltern as female cannot be heard or read. (SW, p. 308)

It seems opportune to employ this definition of “cannot speak” for the analysis of Lisboa’s novel. Throughout the narration, Clarice struggles to become a rape survivor, but contrary to Niki she does not fight to recuperate her self-determination and sexual autonomy. Instead, she concludes: “[…] Clarice could now recognize that she had never taken a single step. Overcoming her fears didn’t mean movement. It was more like a blank page where no word cared to be written”. (SW, p. 14) It is her mother who sends her away to Rio de Janeiro and thus ends the repeated rapes of Clarice; it is Ilton Xavier who decides that their platonic pen friendship should turn into marriage; it is Maria Inês who decides their father should be confronted and punished for raping his adolescent daughter. During marital sexual intercourse with Ilton Xavier, Clarice relives her memory of the rapes. (SW, p. 76-78) Being an adult at that point in her life, she still cannot find her voice and speak up against her paternal perpetrator but finds relief and oblivion in drug abuse and self-mutilation. Whereas her mouth remains silent, her body speaks of the unovercome trauma. This form of speaking requires a listener/reader able and willing to receive her message – like in the example Spivak gives in her prominent essay. Neither Maria Inês or Clarice use the word rape, not even when they explicitly talk about it before Maria Inês kills their father: “[…] Clarice asked the question she had put off for so many years, with words that almost sounded casual, you saw, didn’t you? That day those cypress seeds you used to hoard appeared scattered all over the hall floor.” (SW, p. 172) Like in The Madonna of Excelsior, the confrontation with the perpetrator is limited to a private space – speaking about rape remains a taboo in this case as well.

A comparative and closing reading of The Madonna of Excelsior and Symphony in White demonstrates how similar structures inherited from colonialism organise postcolonial nations and displays the manifold ways in which female or feminised voices are silenced. It also reveals how these silences are depicted, elaborated and negotiated in contemporary literary texts. The two novels pinpoint the fact that speaking about sexualised violence constitutes a taboo, while recognising the existence of inherent differences of speaking – when and if the taboo is broken – between white women and women of colour. Even though the novels analysed here depict rape in a detailed and realistic language – proving, thus, it is representable or speakable–, they emphasise the silences related to sexualised violence by making the silence itself a topic on the level of the histoire and employing it as a narrative strategy on the discours level. Through the characters Niki, Lina and Clarice, the two novels reshape our understanding of trauma because they represent it not as based on a single event, a definition western trauma theories favour, but pinpoint to a broader definition of trauma, one that is located in the particular historical and social contexts and includes daily expressions of unequal relations rooted in colonial structures which, in retrodetermination, may result in trauma for the individual characters. Furthermore, they show how patriarchal and racist systems interact to render the raped female characters defenceless to their perpetrators because of those unequal (power and race) relations and consolidate the tabooing of the speaking about sexualised violence – making it, thus, unspeakable once again.  

Lina, who is marginalised by her gender, race, class and ability, remains a permanent victim because she is killed before she can even attempt to give testimony of the violence and her subsequent trauma. Niki repeatedly makes the effort to speak up and claim justice for the violation of her body, self-determination and sexual autonomy, but silence is imposed on her again and again. She withdraws in her rage and isolation from society, recuperating her self-determination without completely overcoming her trauma. Still, she can be read as a rape victim survivor. Clarice, on the contrary, does not aim to use her oral voice. Instead, she uses her corporal voice to express her trauma unleashed by being raped by her father over a long period. The wounds on her body give testimony of her suffering, but they are kept secret on a homodiegetic level and only revealed to the readers, whose task it is to listen to Clarice’s message and not doom her to remain the female subaltern subject who cannot speak. In the novels silence is, thus, used as a subversive narrative strategy to pinpoint the silence surrounding sexualised violence.

Reframing trauma studies, not referring to the Shoah or the western concept of PTSD, opens new possibilities to remain in the historical and cultural contexts these two novels are set in. Thus, the focus can be set on the social structures inherited from colonialism and its impact on gender and race relations in contemporary societies. In conclusion, we can clearly detect that the speaking about sexualised violence is still restricted to private spaces, as rape and other forms of harassment and coercion are not fully recognised as expressions of power and dominance within a postcolonial context. The comparison of a Brazilian and a South African novel highlights the similarities regarding the unequal power, race and gender structures which derive from colonialism and are still present in the independent national states, and emphasises the manifold expressions of trauma in postcolonial contexts.

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 [1] (Angela Y. Davis, Women, Race and Class (E-Book) 1981, First Vintage Books Edition, 1983, p. 102

[2]  Davis 102-103; Pumla Dineo Gqola, 2018 [2015]. Rape. A South African Nightmare. Johannesburg: MFBooks Joburg, pp. 37-39, 50-53; Djamila Ribeiro, Quem tem medo do feminismo negro? (São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2018), pp. 116-118

[3] Throughout this article, the quotes will be taken from the English translation.

[4]  Gqola 40-43

[5] Zoë Brigley Thompson and Sorcha Gunne. “Introduction. Feminism without Borders: The Potentials and Pitfalls of Re-theorizing Rape.” in Feminism, Literature and Rape Narratives. Violence and Violation, edited by Brigley Thompson, Zoë, Sorcha Gunne (New York: Routledge, 2010), pp.1-20 [p. 3].

[6]  Brigley Thompson, Gunne, p. 3; see also: Joanna Bourke, Rape. A History from 1860 to the Present Day. (London: Virago Pr., 2007)

[7] Brigley Thompson, Gunne, p. 3, original italics

[8] Roxane Gay, “The Careless Language of Sexual Violence.” In: Gay, Roxane. Bad Feminist. Essays. (New York, London et al.: Harper Perennial, 2014) pp. 128-136 (p. 129)

[9] Gay, p. 132

[10] Allan, Keith, Kate Burridge. Forbidden Words. Taboo and the Censoring of Language. (Cambridge et al.: Cambridge Univ. Pr., 2006.), p. 6

[11] Bourke, p. 5

[12] In her novel Rape: a love story (2005), the US-American author J.C. Oates portrays in detail the gang rape of a woman, the subsequent trial and the public reactions to her breaking the silence and seeking justice for herself through the legal framework and the failing of the judicial system. [Oates, J.C. 2005. Rape: a love story. London: Atlantic Books]

[13] Aleida Assmann, “Formen des Schweigens“ Schweigen. Archäologie der literarischen Kommunikation XI, edited by Assmann, Aleida, Jan Assmann, Wilhelm Fink (2013), pp.51-68 (pp. 51-56; pp. 56-63)

[14] Stampfl, Barry. 2014. “Parsing the Unspeakable in the Context of Trauma.” Contemporary Approaches in Literary Trauma Theory, edited by Balaev, Michelle, London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp.15-41 (p. 16)

[15] Stampfl, p. 16

[16] Stampfl, p. 16-17

[17] Stampfl, p. 19

[18]Zakes Mda, The Madonna of Excelsior. (New York: Picador, 2002), p. 17; hereafter abbreviated to ME

[19] Immorality Act: act making sexual relations between white and black people, as categorised during Apartheid, a criminal offence (Welsh 2011:97)

[20] Bourke, p. 21-49

[21] Adriana Lisboa, Symphony in White. (Lubbock: Texas Tech Univ., 2010.), p. 39-40; hereafter abbreviated to SW; focalisation on Maria Inês

[22] For further details on the trauma of witnesses see Felman, Shoshana, Dori, Laub. Testimony. Crisis of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History, Routledge, 1992.

[23] Stampfl, p. 24

[24] It is important to emphasise that Symphony in White describes Afonso Olímpio as a mixed-raced man. The relevance of this fact for the narration remains unclear. It may be suggested, however, that such a characterisation perpetuates racist stereotypes of the hypersexualised black male rapist.

[25] Stampfl, p. 24

[26] Davis, p. 102

[27] Literary texts give account of more complex relationships between slave keepers and slaves. For instance, in Marlon James’ The Book of Night Women (2015), Lilith, a slave, desires her master, who sells her to a neighbour before she can satisfy her sexual needs. The new master abuses her repeatedly until, one day, she takes revenge by burning down his house and killing him and his family. In Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing (2016), the protagonist Effia is married off to the British coloniser James Collins and, eventually, starts caring for him, even after finding out about his involvement in the transatlantic slave trade.

[28] Gqola, p. 40-43

[29] Anne Whitehead, “Journeying Through Hell: Wole Soyinka, Trauma, and Postcolonial Nigeria.” Studies in the Novel, Vol.20 (1&2), 2008, pp. 13-30. (p. 13)

[30] Whitehead, p. 14

[31] Whitehead, p. 15

[32] Whitehead, p. 2

[33] Greg Forter, “Colonial Trauma, Utopian Carnality, Modernist Form: Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things.” Contemporary Approaches in Literary Trauma Theory, edited by Balaev, Michelle (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), pp.70-105 (p. 70); Stampfl, p. 31

[34] Coloured is used here as the race category during Apartheid, including mixed-race people as well as people of Asian descent.

[35] Soraya Chemaly, Rage Becomes Her. The Power of Women’s Anger. (Simon &Schuster, 2018), p. xviii

[36] I owe this conclusion to a remark by Dr Nicole King after a talk at Goldsmiths on Dec. 6th, 2018.