Trinh.t.minih-ha: Nneither Black/red/Yellow nor Woman

Abstract: This paper focuses on the terminology ‘identity’ and what meaning it holds in a post-colonial world. The concepts of othering or otherness are looked into closely with respect to the status of women in a post-colonial third world society. Issues like the marginalisation of women writers, on different basis such as, their race is targeted. Poststructural and post feminist issues of postcolonial displacement, cultural hybridisation, decentred realities, fragmented selves, multiple identities and marginalising voices and languages of rupture are analysed.

Keywords: third world women, native women writing, postcolonial feminism, women of colour, women’s writing, women’s identity, other, othering, otherness, ethnic-feminism

But if I wish to define myself, I must first of all say : I am a woman In this truth must be based all further discussion.

– Simone de Beavoir

As a woman, I have no country. As a woman, I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.

– Virginia Woolf

The fundamental right to define oneself and the powerlessness of those who do not possess this right or the choice to exercise it and consequently get represented by others as the ‘other’ still remain political issues that are constantly debated and theorising. The above definitions of woman by pioneering feminists now ‘reviewed’ through postmodernist, poststructuralist and postcolonial lenses have been called into question. The category of woman whether deconstructed into diverse postcolonial identities as ‘women’, or post structurally destabilising into a fluid genderless performative identity has not ceased to be problematising. Theorising across the borders of a plurality of feminisms, critical theories and national and ethnic positionalities, feminist theorists of the last four decades have not reached a consensus regarding gendered identity. It is perhaps in this context that one must try to understand how women in different sociocultural and historical locations formulate their relation to feminism. Identity itself becomes problematising when there is an attempt at representing feminism as a homogeneous movement which consequently does not serve as a productive ground for struggle as far as third world women or women of colour are concerned. In her seminal work Woman, Native, Other : Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism (1989) Trinh T Minh-ha interrogates the various labels and identities that relegate women through either-or-ism to fixed binary locations with immutable boundary-markers. In either-or dichotomous thinking, difference is defined in oppositional terms. It also serves as a process of objectification where meaning is gained only in relational terms (Gould 160). Trinh consistently addresses the issue of the institutional power structures which define and circumscribe the lives of third world women. She identities herself as ‘neither black/red/yellow/nor woman but poet and writer’ (WNO 22). She recognising the principle of priorities on which every classification works and the consequent exclusions.

For many of us, the question of priorities remains a crucial issue. Being merely ‘a writer’ without doubt ensures one a status of far greater weight than being ‘a woman of colour who writes’ ever does. Imputing race or sex to the creative act has long been a means by which the literary establishment cheapens and discredits the achievements of non mainstream women writers. She who ‘happens to be’ a (non-white) Third world member, a woman and a writer is bound to go through the ordeal of exposing her work to the abuse of praises and criticisms that either ignore, dispense with or over emphasising her racial and sexual attributes. (23)

Trinh is ever conscious of the colour-woman status that makes it impossible for a writer to identify herself unconditionally with a profession or artistic vocation. The growing ethnic-feminist consciousness has made the specification of the writer as historical subject imperative as also writing as a practice located at the intersection of subject and history. According to Trinh, a woman like herself no matter what position she decides to take, will sooner or later find herself driven into situations where she is made to feel that she must choose from among three conflicting identities — ‘writer of colour? woman writer? or woman of colour? — — which comes first? where does she place her loyalties?’ (24). One of the more pervasive problems is that language which reflects the ‘white-male-is-norm’ ideology serves only as a vehicle to circulate established power relations. Trinh goes on further to explore how a writer finds herself at odds with her relation to writing which when carried out uncritically often proves to be one of domination. As holder of speech, she usually writes from a position of power creating as an ‘author’ situating herself ‘above’ her work and existing ‘before’ it, rarely simultaneously ‘within’ it. Thus the woman writer is often forced unconsciously to reproduce the hierarchical structure of western literary tradition and the patriarchal and colonial notion that the writer `fathers’ his text just as God fathered the world (Gilbert and Gubar 4). Trinh’s contention is that it has now become impossible for a writer to take up her pen without at the same time questioning her relation to the material that defines her and her creative work. Writing is positioned as the focal point of cultural consciousness and social change and the subject, caught between the problems of race and gender looks up to the practice of literature to counter social alienation (WNO 25). Deeply influenced by Derrida, Trinh boldly interrogates the poststructural and post feminist issues of postcolonial displacement, cultural hybridisation, decentred realities, fragmented selves, multiple identities and marginalising voices and languages of rupture.

Trinh. T. Minh-ha, film maker, writer, poet, literary theorist, educator and music composer was born in Vietnam in 1952. She immigrated to the United States in 1970. She lived and taught in Paris from 1974 to 1975, and in Dakar (Senegal) from 1977 to 1980. She studied music and French literature and musical ethnology in Vietnam and the Philippines, France and in the U.S. Trinh secured MFA and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Illinois, Champaigne-Urbana. She is currently Chancellor’s Distinguished Professor and associate professor of cinema, San Francisco State University. Trinh Minh-ha has travelled and lectured extensively in the States as well as in Europe, Asia, Australia and New Zealand on film, art, feminism and cultural politics. She taught at the National Conservatory of Music in Dakar, Senegal and at Universities such as Cornell, San Francisco State, Smith and Harvard. Her works include


• Reassemblage (1982)

• Naked Spaces: Living is Round (1985)

• Surname Viet, Given Name Nam (1989)

• Shoot for the Contents (1991)

• A Tale of Love (1996)

• The Fourth Dimension (2001)

• Night Passage (2004)

Un Art Sans Oeuvre (1981 )

African Spaces: Designs for Living in Upper Volta (1985)

En Miniscules (1987)

Woman, Native, Other : Writing Post Coloniality and Feminism (1989)

When the Moon Waxes Red : Representation, Gender and Cultural Politics (1991)

Framer Framed (1992)

Drawn from African Dwellings (1996)

Cinema Interval (1999)

Trinh.T.Minh-ha is the recipient of several awards and grants including the Maya Diren Award for film making, fellowships from the Guggenhein Foundation, the American Film Institute, the California Arts Council etc. Her films have been shown widely in the States, in Canada, Senegal, Australia, New Zealand as well as in Europe and Asia especially in Italy, Belgium, Spain, Sweden, Finland, Japan, India, Taiwan, Jerusalem with twenty four retrospectives in the US, the UK, the Netherlands, Slovenia, France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Japan and Hong Kong. `Reassemblage’ was part of the New York Film Festival (1983) and toured the entire country as part of the Asian American Film Festival. ‘Naked Spaces’ received the Blue Ribbon Award for Best Experimental feature at the American International Film Festival and the Golden Athena Award at the Athens International Film Festival in 1986. ‘Surname Viet Given Name Nam’ received a Merit Award at the Bombay International Film Festival and the Blue Ribbon Award at the American Film and Video Festival. ‘Shoot for Contents’ won the Jury’s Best Cinematography Award at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival and the Best Feature Documentary Award at the Athens International Film Festival. Her ‘Tale of Love’ was shown internationally in over twenty -four Film Festivals.

In her films as well as in theoretical works, Trinh manifests a resistance against categorisations and stable identities. She blends different forms of writing and narration, mixes the theoretical and the poetical, discursive and non discursive languages across ethnicities and cultures. In a 1990 interview published in her Framer Framed (1992), Trinh demonstrates that ‘disrupting the grand narratives of the human sciences’ that converge towards a homeplace and an identity is ‘a means to survival’ (155). Post colonial criticism in general had set the stage for a valorisation of the hybrid rather than the unified subject-identity figured in the dominant fiction of western discourse: it foregrounded the multicultural rather than the unified identity of the-nation-state and insisted on locally articulated criticism of the globalisation of the relations of power/knowledge (Clough 1994, 115). Trinh claimed ‘the irrespectful mixing of theoretical, militant and poetical modes of writing’ in her writing and her film productions (Framed Framed 122). According to her, ‘poetry is the place from which many people of colour voice their struggle and thereby radically contribute to the questioning of the relationship of subjects to power, language and meaning in theory’ (122). Describing her method, Trinh says, ‘I always work from the borderlines of multiple shifting categories. I expand the borders of things, learn about my own limitations and how to change them’ (125). She overlooks the predominant demarcations of discourse. Her first book Un Art Sans Oeuvre (1981) contains a chapter that relates the works of Jacques Derrida and Automin Artand to texts of Zen Buddhism. She explodes the immutable boundaries and replaces them with flexible borders. She replaces unambiguous identities with the idea of the nomadic self. There is hardly any attempt at denying or blurring boundaries. As she puts it, ‘for me the question of hybridity or cultural difference has never been a question of cancelled borders. We are permanently inventing borders which can be political, strategic or tactical and these should not be taken as an end in themselves’ (127). The dislocated self exposes the cracks in the construction and destruction of identities and for this specific but mobile borders are necessary. As she further explicates:

For example, when do I call myself a feminist, when do I not refer to myself as a feminist, when do I consider myself part of the east, when do I say that the west is also in me? When I talk about the west, I am not talking about some reality that is outside myself. It is not a matter of blurring or revealing borders. It is about shifting them as soon as they start to become limitations. (128)

During the 1970s both cinema and the Third World had become increasingly politicising and theorising. Ideology and style in what came to be lied ‘Third Cinema’ were subjects of much academic debate. Solanas and Getino in their essay ‘Towards a Third Cinema : Notes and Experiences for the Development of a Cinema of Liberation in the Third World’ (1983) analyse the impact of colonialism on the colonised society and on Third World Cinema. They point out that the survival of Third Cinema depends on the strategy of working outside the confines of the first cinema promoted by the colonisers and creation of a new set of structures.

The Third Cinema engaged locales in numerous countries of Asia especially South East Asia and South Asia like Japan, Korea, Vietnam, India and the countries of Africa, Latin America and the Middle. East. The most popular themes employed were questions of national identity, diasporic experiences, post colonialism and constructions of gender.

Today cinema is recognising as a powerful tool of cultural production and the film makers from the Third World continue to have an important role instigating social change through cinema. Third Cinema continues to challenge oppression and demand justice for underrepresented peoples around the globe.

An expert on avant-garde and third world postcolonial film theory, Trinh tries to describe her films as experimental narratives and poetic documentaries on culture, art and politics. She is passionately involved in designing courses at UC Berkeley that attempt to situate `women’s work in the larger context of cultural politics of postcoloniality, contemporary theory and the arts’ (Frames Framed 90). Her poststructural thinking is clear in her statement ‘Documentary Is/Not a Name’. She declares/hat meaning can neither be imposed nor denied. `Although every film is in itself a form of ordering and closing, each closure can defy its own closure, opening on to other closures, thereby emphasising the interval between apertures and creating space in which meaning remains fascinated by what escapes and exceeds it’ (96). Meaning is thus elusive and ever in a constant sate of flux. The text whether it be literature or cinema becomes the site where meanings are contested, The irrational monolithic view that visual and verbal constructs should yield meaning down to their last detail is rejected. Minh-ha explores how art is not a direct recording of reality, but a displacement. In documentaries, one generally tries to capture reality but the task here is to present reality without fixing it in an image or in time. Trinh suggests that the interval, the space between each frame is when meaning arises. The mechanics of framing in film often produces the content of the work. Reality is not outside there to be framed. The film maker is responsible for the images she produces, shaping truth and making meaning but the spectators are also implicated for they are responsible for what they see. The filmmaker is no longer master of one’s craft, of one’s subject or of one’s space. What is emphasising is the loss of self in the act of film making.

Trinh’s research expedition to Senegal which led her to work for three years as a professor at the National Conservatory of Music in Dakar inspired her first film `Reassemblage’ (1982). It is a controversial exploration of the lives of Senegalese women that challenged the Ways in which anthropologists view the traditional role of Third World Women, Colonial rule had depended heavily on the discipline of anthropology which contributed to the colonial power of naming and definitions of the self and the other. As Trinh.T. Minh-ha was to formulate it later in her theoretical writing, the racial and sexual basis of the object of anthropological study was based on `the conversation of man with man, mainly a conversation of `us’ with `us’ about `them’-of the white man with the white man about the primitive native man (WNO 64-65). The centrality of white, western masculinity as recognising by the anthropologist led to the study of a favourite object- the ‘primitive’ man or the native, Trinh sees a continuity between definitions of the ‘Native’ (male) and the ‘Third World Woman.’ Both draw on sexist and racist stereotypes to consolidate relations of colonial power. Gender and race (white men and white women) thus become central to the definition of superior/inferior or self/other. Thus the inter connectedness of racialisation and sexualisation contribute to knowledge production conducive to colonial rule. Anthropology and its ‘nativisation’ of Third World women thus form a significant context for understanding the production of knowledge ‘about’ third world women (Mohanty 52).

`Reassemblage’ is a complex visual study of the women of rural Senegal but here women of colour are the focus of the film but not the object of study. Trinh through the complicity of interaction between film and spectator also attempts a critique of documentary film making and ethnographic representation of cultures. Trinh says that the fact that the subject matter is located in remote parts of the non-western world and the images, bright and colourful, carry no immediately recognizable political agenda attached to them are often enough for some viewers to attribute the film’s approach to the more familiar one of National Geographic images. To these unenlightened audience, Trinh has just this to say ‘at), yes, for some people all reds look alike, and for them there’s no difference between the red of a rose, the red of a ruby and the red of a flag: nor s there any difference within the reds of blood flowing unseen in life and of blood spilled out conspicuously in death’ (http:/ trinhtminhha.html). In the film there is no rhetoric of postcolonialism or feminism. No purpose is stated nor any protagonist advanced. There is a continual readjustment on the part of both the definer and the defined in relation to the constantly renegotiated spaces. Trinh resists the appropriation of artistic control and declares ‘I do not intend to speak about/Just speak near by.’ There is no narration only a montage of fleeting images from Senegal. Trinh refuses to make a film ‘about’ something, refuses to speak about the images and unsettles the hopeful observer who waits for the opportunity to record, categorising and to assign meanings to an (other) culture. An intrinsic aspect of Trinh’s cinema is that her perspective is neither that of enlightened privilege nor of indigenous intimacy. Suspended between elements of objectivity and subjectivity, she employs a gaze that is neither of the cultural insider or the curious outsider. Having performed three years of ethnographic field research in West Africa under the Research Expedition Programme of the University of California Berkeley, Trinh is conscious of her status as both a non-native and a cultural authority. She is aware of the fact that there is no such thing as pure culture. All cultures assume a hybrid status and Trinh was acutely conscious of her status as a hybrid insider and an outsider to African culture, The encounter with African cultures became a catalyst for Trinh to think about questions of subjectivity and power relations. She could relate these African experiences to the aftermath of colonialism in the Vietnam she grew up in.

Conventional documentary filmmaking is more often than not a product of cultural imperialism. The linear, explanatory language deployed by dominant cultures merely serves to encapsulate information about marginalising cultures. The language can only reinforce established power relations. Trinh employs music and silence in her elliptical, rhythmic and untrutive films. Neither an exoticising slice-of-life cultural documentary nor an expository thesis framed within a logical structure, ‘Reassemblage’ is what Trinh calls in her book Cinema Interval, an interrogation. The film’s introductory sequence-a black screen accompanied by the sound of tribal drums, followed by images of Senegalese people without sound, fragmented into singular shots of limbs and torsos-illustrates the strategy of modulating, decontextualising and re-purposing seemingly familiar ethnographic imagery towards new ways of seeing (Cinema Interval 440). Through her interrogation, Trinh demystifies otherness as well as the application of binary logic in western society’s examination of non-native cultures. The first words spoken by the narrator in the film — — ‘scarcely twenty years were enough to make two billion people define themselves as underdeveloped’— — addresses the issue of externally imposed arbitrary classification of populations into first and third world stratifications as defined by global economics set by industrialising nations. The categories of sameness and otherness, progress and underdevelopment leading to inclusion and exclusion follow. Prefaced with the recurring comment first create need, then help’ the narrator recounts an encounter with a peace corps volunteer who attempts to teach the village women how to grow vegetables for profit in their garden. Implicit in this interaction is the spectre of colonialism with its mission of educating `savages’ and rationalising economic exploitation. The delusive image of the assimilated, enlightened ethnographer follows this. However hard he tries to immerse himself in the non-native culture he cannot do away with consumer artefacts from his own culture like a Sony Walkman.

`Reassemblage’ also seeks to subvert the myths about African people. Stereotypical images of famine and disease are subverted through shots of healthy children at play and women at work set against the emaciated animal carcass splayed on a deserted landscape. Trinh confronts the traditional ethnographic images of naked tribal women with the debate of what constitutes art and education and on the other side merely pornography and titillation. A perpetual state of dislocation and fractive is created to demystify iconic ethnographic images. ‘Naked Spaces-Luring is Round’ is also a film shot in Senegal. With the camera placed very close to the ground, the daily activities carried on in African villages are intuitively recorded. For her third film ‘Surname Viet Given Name Nam,’ she examined the role of women in Vietnamese culture after interviewing scores of women in Vietnam and in the U.S. While Trinh’s ‘Shoot for the Contents’ is a film on art, culture and politics in China and contains interviews with a Chinese film maker, ‘A Tale of Love’ serves as a paradigm for the postcolonial experience where elusive notions of home, nationality and identity are expressed through ephemeral, non-narrative devices of textures, rhythm and montage.

Trinh.T.Minh-ha’s work extends beyond film making and critical discourses on films. Her post colonial feminist criticism, particularly her books Woman Native Other, Un Art Sans Oeuvre and When the Moon Waxes Red are extremely significant in cross cultural studies and literary criticism. Trinh is inspired by writers such as Assia Djebar, Clarice Lispector and Zora Neale Hurston, critics like Gilles Deleuze, Helene Cixous and Roland Barthes and film makers Chantal Akerman, Valeria Sarmiento and Yvonne Rainer. Trinh’s Woman, Native Other is her best known work. It also employs a constantly shifting focus. Topics are brought up, dealt with momentarily and their echoes are revisited later in the text. The four sections of the text are marked by rupture and discontinuity. They deal with the linguistic mapping of women, the quest for alternative space, the `mis-taking’ of other cultures by dominant groups which attempt to tell other stories for their own benefit. Trinh keeps a dialectical swing in motion, refusing to highlight any monumental theory. In her ‘flat’ texts, the reader is at a loss, unable to gather up a few main points and file them away. She avoids any kind of socially dictated stasis. She finds the idea of holding fast to a feminist ideal as damaging as remaining within a misogynistic rhetoric, As Trinh puts it, to prevent this counter-stance from freezing into a dogma in which the dominance- submission patterns remain unchanged, the strategy of mere reversal is to be displaced further that is to say, neither simply renounced nor accepted as an end in itself’ (WNO 40). The constant shifts in focus have been compared by Trinh to the infinite play of empty mirrors. According to her, ‘a writing for the people, by the people and from the people is literally, a multipolar reflection that remains free from the conditions of subjectivity and objectivity and yet reveals them both. I show myself showing people who show me my own showing’ (22). Trinh’s style is effectively unsettling as it tosses about the reader’s focus which is constantly searching for a grounding. She takes care to see that in the dialectic of postcolonialism, oppression of women is not ignored, this she does by infusing the rhetoric of postcolonialism with the language of feminism.

In her theoretical works, Trinh emphasisings primarily the heterogenity of the feminist struggle and its plurivocal projects. It is a project of unsettling, unlocating territories and binaries. The notion of identity is deconstructed; in the context of a certain ideology of dominance identity is seen as the concept of an essential, authentic core that requires the elimination of all that is considered not true to the self-non-I, other. Identity, thus understood supposes that a clear dividing line can be made between I and not I, he and she: between depth and surface or vertical and horizontal identity. Thus identity refers to the whole pattern of sameness within a being and difference remains within the boundary of that which distinguishes one identity from another. According to Trinh, difference as understood in many feminist and non-western concepts is not opposed to sameness nor synonymous with separateness. Difference in other words, does not necessarily give rise to separatism. There are differences as well as similarities within the concept of difference. As she herself puts it, `Many of us still hold on to the concept of difference not as a tool of creativity to question multiple forms of repression and dominance, but as a tool of segregation to exert power on the basis of racial and sexual essences — the apartheid type of difference’ (http:// humwww.ucsc.cdu/cultstudies/pubsinscriptious/vo13-4). She brilliantly elaborates upon the creative notion of difference. She says that according to how and where women see dominance, both the act of veiling and unveiling have a liberating potential. When women decide to lift the veil, they do so in defiance of their men’s oppressive right to their bodies. But when they decide to put on the veil they once took off, they might do so to reappropriate their space or to claim a new difference in defiance of genderless, hegemonic standardisation and homogenisation. She also looks at the way silence is most powerful in its eloquence in the context of women’s speech. Silence can be subversive when it frees itself from the male-defined context of absence and lack in the inscription of femininity. Silence becomes subversive when it is seen as a will not to say or a will to unsay and as a language of difference.

Finally Trinh reinforces the notion of otherness as empowerment. She raises the question of people with hyphenated identities and hybrid realities. She wonders where the dividing line between outsider and insider, should stop-kin colour, language, geography, nation or political affinity. The moment the insider steps out from the inside, she ceases to be a mere insider, she looks in from the outside while also looking out from the inside. Not quite the same and not quite the other, she stands on the undetermined threshold where she constantly lifts in and out, undercutting the inside/outside opposition and reinforcing that `I,’ is not unitary nor culture monolithic. As another prominent theorist of colour Ooria Anzaldua articulates the experience of Third World women in her `Haciendo caras, una-entrada’ in her Making Face, Making Soul:

Theorists of colour are in the process of trying to formulate `marginal’ theories that are partially outside and partially inside the Western frame of reference (if that is possible), theories that overlap many ‘worlds’ […..] In our mestizaje theories, we create new categories for those of us left out or pushed out of the existing ones. (Anzaldua 1990: xxvi)

In the unending saga of the search for alternative spaces, the most challenging and creative discourse seems to be the exploration of what lies as the ‘in between of all defunctions of truth’ as Trinh,T.Minh-ha sees it.


Anzaldua, Gloria (1990) `Haciendo Caras Una entrada,’ Making Face, Making Soul, Hacienda Caras, Ed. Gloria Anzaldua. Aunt Lute, San Francisco i-xxx.

Cinema Interval (1999) Routledge, New York.

Clough, Patricia (1994) Feminist Thought : Desire, Power and Academic Discourse. Blackwell, Oxford.

Gilbert, Sandra M and Susan Gubar (1979) The Madwoman in the Attic, The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination. Yale UP, New Haven,

Gould, Carol C, ed. (1997) Gender Humanities Press, NewJersey.

Minh-ha Trinh.T. (1989) Woman Native, Other : Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism.

Indiana UP, Bloomington.

All references to the above are given with the text as under the WNO followed by page number.

Framer, Framed (1992) Routledge, New York.

Mohanty Chandra, Talpade (1991) ‘Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses.’ Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism, Ed. Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Ann Russo and Lourdes Torres, Bloomington India UP, 51-80.

Internet Sources

Trinh T. Minh-ha ed. Megan O’Patry Dec? 1998 PUB S/inscriptions/vol3-4/m inh-ha.html

Trinh.T.Minha- ed. John Longballa. May 23 2001 http// entries/trinhtminhha.html/>


ROSHAN THOMAS. Reader at the All Saint’s College, Thiruvananthapuram. Her special interest is feminist theory. Has published numerous scholarly articles in leading research journals.

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Reader at the All Saint’s College, Thiruvananthapuram. Her special interest is feminist theory. Has published numerous scholarly articles in leading research journals.

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