Musings on Stoler’s article and The Sleeping Dictionary

Before reading Stoler’s article, I had a rough idea about how native women were portrayed as sensual and exotic and how the native men were portrayed as emasculated, needing the hyper masculine European male to come fertilize the land. What I didn’t know was the role that the European woman played in the colonial enterprise and how she enforced the binaries of colonized vs. colonizer. I think that it is problematic that the government promoted concubinage because marrying a European woman and raising a household was considered expensive and having a native bed-servant helped in “quick acclimatization” (49) and was seen as a stable “political order” that promoted “colonial health” (48). Yet on the other hand, the European woman is used to “put new demands on the white communities to tighten their ranks, clarify their boundaries and mark out their social space” (55). There seems to be a disparity in values; one that sanctions European men to sleep with native women while using the so-called catch that the European woman has “delicate sensibilities” that calls for “”segregationist standards” (55) that required the maintenance of racialized rule. And these rules are basically set in place to benefit the white man.
On a separate, rather random note, I watched The Sleeping Dictionary over the weekend and a lot of what was mentioned in Stoler’s article was actually alluded to in the film. We have the native girl, Selima that teaches the European colonizer, John the native language, the metis child that John “demands legal rights of” (49), the “racially intolerant, socially vicious” (56) Aggie that forces John to marry her daughter, Cecil and Neville who represents the ugly side of colonialism in the abuse of native women.
A poignant scene for me was when John asks Selima to spend the night with him to which she replies that in Iban, if a sleeping dictionary sleeps with her master 5 nights in succession, it implies that they are engaged and it is something that he wouldn’t want. Hollywood happy ending aside, I think that the film does deal with the double standards of concubinage and how it is the white man’s way of fulfilling his desires without the responsibility and complications of marriage weighing him down. If anything, the film as with Stoller’s article raises the issue of the disparage state of women, native and European alike. They seem to be merely pawns in the white man’s game of chess.

One thought on “Musings on Stoler’s article and The Sleeping Dictionary

  1. Nice, Caroline! Thank you for your reading of the Sleeping Dictionary. An excellent relation to Stoler. Makes me think that I should assign it, next time.