“When we talk about language, we also talk about silence” : Trinh T. Minh-ha at Moe’s in Berkeley (delayed write-up)

By Your Salonniere

On Thursday, February 17, 2011, Trinh T. Minh-ha read and discussed her latest work, Elsewhere, Within Here: Immigration, Refugeeism and the Boundary Event at Moe’s Books, (2476 Telegraph Ave., Berkeley)

She introduced her latest work, which is about framing the colonial, the other, and focusing on absence, silence, culture, nation, and the boundary event, where clusters of events and concepts go together though they seem far apart. The boundary event can be found in:

Beginnings and endings, the material and immaterial. Twilight. War. Stranger. Migrant. Moment of day. The threshold. Wanderer and immigrant. Land and language. Mother and woman.

“When we talk about language,” Minh-ha explains: “We also talk about silence.” She discussed the the shift of territorial power, which is a matter of overcoming fear. Minh-ha recounted the aftermath of September 11, when the U.S. was determined to close down the country, essentially installing new check points, sealing an entire nation into restricted areas. In her book, she describes a fabled wall erected to protect the ideals of a country, a wall of mystery. In the east those who climb to look over are tempted to jump and never come back. One climber got caught though, and the others pulled him back, asking him what he saw on the other side, but this climber had lost his speech. Silence speaks more than words in this sense. Silence fills in the unknown and paradoxically gives shape and meaning to what we cannot understand.

She writes:

moments of visual encounter induces a sense of muteness. Fasting verbally and linguistically by learning how to speak again and again. The border wall tells the nation we are afraid and can be a symbol of new hatred. Its a quasi-neurotic state of self-inducing fear. Every immigrant is a potential terrorist. The line divide is an optical illusion. Native and adaptive, here, there, elsewhere. We are all wanderers across language. Our present age is one of exile. Today we can only exist as foreign. Edward Said had said modern culture is the work of exiles. True home is found in writing.

Her work focuses on the acoustic journey, finding a mode of survival, where adjustment and identity are constantly at stake. Where does one place one’s loyalty, she asks. The only way to survive is to refuse to become an integrateable element. She refuses to take for granted the naming process. Minh-ha notes the difference between refuse and refuse. “Is it the East or West that is dying? The world itself is coming to an end. The world as a concept for implementing a global society can only survive on hope and fear with windows open.”

Ultimately, her work concludes that knowledge is formless. The complexity of life is binary, diurnal, nocturnal, and the third term in a country of semi-darkness. She then explains the aesthetics of Asian art, where nature is given a prominent role, not symbolical, not the state of mind. Nature’s function is to incur rather than to illustrate. She speaks of the renown Chinese brush painter Li Xiaun (?) who demonstrates the importance of knowing how to return and how to let go.

Shen Xiua (?), another Chinese artist, who explains its easy to paint a mountain in clear or rainy weather or grasp taste of being and non-being. Minh-ha compares the two contrasting aesthetics of painting between Asian art and the Western notion of still art, which doesn’t exist in the East. Nature is not still. Even when a painter depicts a grove of bamboo in density, the chi animates, gives form or spirit to the life painted. Chinese paint a landscape in motion, the multiplicity and variance. Even considering the use of colors: “Chromatic, plain gray in Japan. Color or no color. All colors cancel each other out, new hue that is neither black or white. In middle where possibility is boundless. Gray is composed of multiplicity. When the two can’t be distinguished. Suggests more than a time of day, whether daily or eternal. An hour in which every being becomes own shadow.”

Returning to the original theme, Minh-ha traces us back to the point of entry: “Coming to a form and letting it go. Address the formless. Compartmentalized knowledge and experience. The notion of boundary becomes a passage.”

During the Q&A, I asked her about how she catches silence on the page, and she described listening to incense burning, a sensual realm. She spoke of the time she lived in Senegal and then coming to America, the vast and empty landscape that was silent. “Silence is always an imminent moment, what happened before guns fired or bombs were dropped,” here she references her childhood in Vietnam and then goes on to compare the landscape and sound in the U.S, where we have space for silence in the open country. In America, silent is read as not being friendly, displaying contempt. Silence represents being uncomfortable. “Writers can manifest silence through the tonality of a text. How a text manifests how you cut a sentence. Rhythm worked on, not just an aesthetic device but is about relationships, how we relate to one person to another or event.”

More info on her new book:

Elsewhere, Within Here is an engaging look at travel across national borders–as a foreigner, a tourist, an immigrant, a refugee—in a pre- and post-9/11 world. Who is welcome where? What does it mean to feel out of place in the country you call home? When does the stranger appear in these times of dark metamorphoses? These are some of the issues addressed by the author as she examines the cultural meaning and complexities of travel, immigration, home and exile. The boundary, seen both as a material and immaterial event, is where endings pass into beginnings. Building upon themes present in her earlier work on hybridity and displacement in the median passage, and illuminating the ways in which “every voyage can be said to involve a re-siting of boundaries,” Trinh T. Minh-ha leads her readers through an investigation of what it means to be an insider and an outsider in this “epoch of global fear.”

Elsewhere, Within Here is essential reading for those interested in contemporary feminist thought and post-colonial studies.



  1. Can I ask you a question?

    This citation: Coming to a form and letting it go. Address the formless. Compartmentalized knowledge and experience. The notion of boundary becomes a passage.”

    Is this from the book, or from her talk?

    Many thanks!

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