‘Maids’ and ‘Madams’ in Caribbean and South African Women’s Texts: Approximations of Feminist Solidarity?

This project engages with the possibility for solidarity between women across differences of race, class and sexuality as it is represented in a range of artistic forms (poetry, fiction and visual images) created by women from the Anglophone Caribbean and South Africa. It focuses on relationships between women who encounter each other in the intimate domestic spaces of ‘home’ as employer and employee – madam and maid – and explores the narrative and visual strategies used to convey the entangled and fractious intimacies of such relationships. It engages with the various ways that servitude is performed, subverted and narrated in the selected texts, and points to the moments of precarious solidarity that emerge in the process. In both the Anglophone Caribbean and South Africa, domestic work has long been a major source of employment for women and, given the intimate and affective nature of this work, has generated a dense repertoire of representations of servant figures. Colonial archives are replete with references to the great difficulty of managing ‘intractable natives’ as domestic workers: the so-called ‘servant problem’. The contemporary texts I discuss engage with the enduring legacies of this racialized hierarchy as they seek to expose and unsettle them. In a variety of forms and registers, Caribbean and South African writers and artists engage with relationships between ‘maids’ and ‘madams’ in ways that allow readers/viewers to recognize the injurious and inequitable structuring of these relationships while also glimpsing moments of solidarity and affective generosity between women.

The project will be informed by a wide range of postcolonial feminist and queer theorists, especially those working on domestic labour, affective labour and on the ethics of representation including, Mohanty, Spivak, Hemmings, Ahmed and Berlant, among others. The writers to be discussed include: Marlene Van Niekerk’s The Way of the Women and ‘Labour’; Zoe Wicomb’s Playing in the Light and a selection of storiesfrom The One That Got Away; Phyllis Shand Allfrey’s The Orchid House and ‘O Stay andHear’ from her collection of short stories, It All Falls Into Place; a selection of stories from Olive Senior’s Discerner of Hearts; Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy; Jean Rhys’s, Wide Sargasso Sea. The artists to be discussed include: Mary Sibande (selected images);Roshini Kempadoo ‘Sweetness and Light’; Annalee Davie ‘White Creole Conversations’.

Project leader(s):
  • Denise deCaires Narain (School of Humanities, University of Sussex)

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