W.E. III: TO SPEAK OR NOT TO SPEAK?...THAT IS THE QUESTION! But how does one even choose when her truth is not even an option?

couldntthinkofanoriginalname's picture

While reading Eva’s Man, initially, I did not find her silence troublesome.  She sounded like another sexual assault victim who was too traumatized by the abuse and the act of killing to verbalize the effects of them. It was not until I read Freedom’s Silences by Wendy Brown did I begin to realize the complexities of Eva’s silence—as if the fragmented narratives in the book did not hint at them already. I now realize that Eva’s silence, in both being quiet and omitting vital information about her past and the murder, throughout the book  is not as simple as her choosing to be quiet and choosing when to speak just for the hell of it. Better yet, I find that her silence, or lack thereof, speaks to the dangers, mentioned in Brown’s essay, of codifying someone’s experience when one chooses to break silence….or remain in it. Thus, I wish to explore the consequences of Eva breaking or maintaining silence, in regards to her sexuality, through the lens of Brown in hopes of relating her story to a larger, much more pressing issue in the African-American/Black community.

In her essay, Brown argues that when silence—normally perceived as an oppressive force—within a discourse is broken, one is not freed from the reigns of that discourse as one might believe; instead, “…breaking silence can metamorphose into new techniques of domination…” (Brown 91).  Moreover, using the example “sexual violation” of women in the legal system, Brown goes on to explain that highlighting one story in a particular discourse, consequently, becomes the story for all. When that happens, stories that do not uphold that truth are silenced while those that resemble that truth are forcibly categorized under that one truth for an entire discourse (90-91). Given the complexity of Eva’s story and the raised questions about her sexuality, I am convinced that Eva was stuck. Although she was a victim of sexual abuse on account of the many men who abused her, I believe she was also a victim of a much larger issue: social perception and judgment.  Had she answered the incessant questions of “How did it feel?....How did it feel?” from her cellmate, Elvira or addressed her psychiatrist’s questions with more words than silence; Eva would have satisfied the notion that she was, perhaps, a mad woman—a common stereotype of a seemingly unbalanced, damaged woman (Jones 77, 81). However, on the flipside, had she stayed quiet, which she often did, Eva would have easily been the stereotypical hapless victim so many of us in the 360 described in the first discussion about her life.  Therefore Eva was stuck because, whether she chose to speak or not, she always risked being umbrella-ed under a “truth”—a lie for Eva. It is possible that these truths were not necessarily a lie, Eva might have been an unbalanced, damaged woman; but, in not having agency to choose her own truth—perhaps, one that was more pressing and accurate—she was left with no options other than the ones forced on her.

On page 92 of Freedom’s Silences, Brown explains that when people do break the norms of his or her culture by breaking silence, for instance about “childhood sexual experience,” and completely reject normative perceptions that pertain to a “truth” in their culture (i.e. Eva being the hapless female victim), “these figures are excluded as bonafide members of the identity categories that also claim them” (Brown 92). For instance, a gay man from a religious family might be shunned to be with other “rejects” of those same characteristics once he “comes out;” ultimately, breaking free from his cultural silence.  However, in Eva’s Man, Eva is not even given the opportunity to be excluded—not that it is a welcoming experience—because what would cause her to break silence is never directly named.

 I can only speculate that Eva is a lesbian because it is not mentioned outright by other characters in the book and it is definitely not named by Eva. For instance, on multiple occasions, Elvira insinuates at Eva’s true sexuality with remarks like, “I know you ain’t had to go to the toilet that much…scared to do it in here….Naw you aint crazy….it’s easier for them to keep on thinking on it…What’s the matter Eva?...I know what’s wrong” and “…’It don’t take that long to pee…’I seen the guard get a feel…you could be so sweet to me, if you wanted to’” (Jones 41-42, 45, 50). The most tangible evidence in the book that hints at Eva’s true sexuality is at the end when Eva is having a sexual encounter with an unnamed female, Eva says, “I leaned back, squeezing her face between my legs” (Jones 177).

While unclear evidence suggesting that Eva is a lesbian confused me as the reader, I would like to argue that making her sexuality unclear—omitting the word “lesbian” from the book, the mouth of Elvira, even the mouth of Eva—played a participatory role in the silencing of Eva. As said by Jason Stanley who wrote, The Ways of Silencing, “It is possible to silence people by denying them access to the vocabulary to express their claims” (Stanley 1). Therefore, Eva’s silence might have been because she was not given permission to name her identity; better yet, an important part of it given that it might have been essential in her sexual encounters with men.

Which then raises the question of why didn’t Eva have “access to the vocabulary to express [her] claim?” Did the psychiatrist not ask the right question because it just didn’t occur to him that Eva’s sexual abuse related to her sexuality or that her sexuality was as a result of her sexual abuse?  Why didn’t Elvira—even Charlotte later in the book—who seemed openly lesbian, just call Eva for what she was? In saying the word was it taboo? I think it was a combination of both.

When I was reading Eva’s Man, it never occurred to me that Eva might be a homosexual—the thought simply did not cross my mind until Hummingbird suggested that she might be. To be honest, I think this overlook had a lot to do with my African-American/Black discourse. Eva’s homosexuality did not catch my attention because it is not a story that is openly common in Black culture as I see it in others; and if it is, generally those who are homosexual must be on the “down-low” because “gayness” is not tolerable.   Now, when I re-read passages in Eva’s Man, I am reminded of my sister who both shocked and upset the hell out of my family when her homosexuality was revealed. I, along with my family, had missed the signs, whatever they may be, because, due to our discourse, we never had to look for them nor were we expected to.

And so, when I think of Eva and how her story is a reality for many Black women, I am now deeply troubled by her story even though I was not before. I needed to “miss the signs” in order to recognize the way in which I participate in the silencing of Black women in my culture—my sister being one of them—directly and indirectly. But now that I am aware of an issue that is much larger than Eva’s story, the question now is, what do I do? It is not enough for me to just be aware…it’s a cultural conversation that needs to be had or, perhaps, to be more vocal.



couldntthinkofanoriginalname's picture

Whoa this is deep...you

Whoa this is deep...you really have a talent for capturing the essence of my papers. I agree that "'making her sexuality clear' may also have played a participatory role in the silencing of [my] classmate;" however, in the case of Eva, a black female, would it not be important for her to possess and to use the vocabulary if it meant shattering the assumption in black communities that individuals are heterosexual from the get-go (well, unless their "mannerisms" supposedly say otherwise)? Yes, I see the danger--her sexuality can become her defining characteristic and, perhaps, make her "the other." But it is a risk that should be taken if it gets black communities to be more accepting and/or more aware of homosexuality. Also, this is not to say that all black communities are not sensitive to the LGBTQ community. Does this make sense?

Anne Dalke's picture

Reading the Signs

I think you are doing something very interesting--and very important!--here. Let me see if I can name it. What I hear you saying is that the question of whether speaking or being silent (as posited by Wendy Brown, among other writers we have read this semester) is empowering or disempowering begs a larger question: what is the cultural narrative already in play, into which the silent-or-speaking woman steps? Whether she chooses silence, is silenced, chooses speech, or is forced into it, what really matters here is less what she says/doesn't say than what her culture already "knows" her to be saying, what you call "social perception and judgment": "whether she chose to speak or not, she always risked being umbrella-ed under a 'truth.'” So a woman who knows she is a lesbian, for instance, can choose to signal that in silence or voice; but if her culture doesn't know the "discourse"--in your terms, doesn't know how to read the "signs"--then it doesn't really matter whether that woman chooses silence or speech: she will be "read" as straight, because straightness (again in your terms) is already "codified."

I would also add another complication here. Whether an act of sex w/ another woman "makes" or "signals" that one is a lesbian is of course an open question, perhaps particularly in institutions, like jails, which are single sex; on-campus "LUGS" (lesbians until graduation) have their counterpart in prisons: "LURDS" (lesbians until release date). So the question you raise about Eva's "true sexuality" has no clear answer, is not really solvable in the terms of the novel.

Something similar happened in one of our early visits to The Cannery, when one of your classmates said, in a small group, that "not all of us" love men. Urged to "write that down," as "what was unique" about her, she demurred. She wasn't denying the identification, but rather refusing to allow it to be made the single characteristic by which she would be identified, and thereby distinguished from others in the room.

Her silence was not a denial of her "true identity"; it was a denial that she could be identified, and singled out, by her sexuality. So, yes, as you say, "it is possible to silence people by denying them access to the vocabulary to express their claims." It is also possible to silence them by forcing a vocabulary on them, in order to get them to express those claims. Sometimes silence can be an effective way of avoiding such tagging. "Making her sexuality unclear" may have "played a participatory role in the silencing of Eva," as you say; "making her sexuality clear" may also have played a participatory role in the silencing of your classmate's larger sense of who she was, and how she wanted to be read by others.

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