New York: Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, 70, a celebrity in academia whose work focuses on those marginalised by Western culture, including immigrants, the working class and women, won the annual Kyoto Prize, along with an American regarded as the father of computer graphics, and a Japanese molecular cell biologist.
The Inamori Foundation announced that US computer scientist Ivan Sutherland, Japan’s Yoshinori Ohsumi and Spivak will each receive a diploma, a gold Kyoto Prize medal and a cash gift of 50 million yen ($6,30,000) at a ceremony in Kyoto in November.
Spivak, a professor in the humanities at Columbia University, plans to use her Kyoto Prize money to do something immediate and practical about her old obsessions.
“It will go to my rural education foundation. I will probably keep $50,000 bucks for myself and let the rest enrich the foundation. My teachers need higher salaries,” Spivak told Firstpost.
Spivak founded the Pares Chandra Chakravorty Memorial Literacy Project, in 1997, to provide primary education for children in rural India. It runs schools in West Bengal and Spivak has been spotted over the years dressed in a sari and combat boots trudging out to villages to train teachers.
“I don’t really feel that I should be receiving this huge prize, but I am very happy I got it,” said Spivak, who is well-known in New York for her writing with strong intellectual moorings as well as sartorial splendour.
“I have been thinking of my parents because they laid a great deal of emphasis on not only the life of the mind but also on the ethical. Right from childhood I had a very intellectual and ethical upbringing.”
Spivak’s father was Pares Chakravorty, a doctor, while her highly intellectual mother, Sivani, did charitable work. She was an avid reader of her daughter’s writings.
Spivak, was born in Calcutta and educated in India and the United States. A brilliant student, she has a BA degree in English (First Class Honors), from Presidency College, Calcutta with gold medals for English and Bengali literature. At the age of 19 she arrived at Cornell University where she completed her MA in English and pursued her PhD in comparative literature, while teaching at the University of Iowa.
Spivak first made her reputation with her 1976 translation of Jacques Derrida’s De la grammatologie. Spivak admirers say she has done long-term political good, in pioneering feminist and post-colonial studies within global academia. In 1985, she published her famous essay Can the Subaltern Speak?, about the economically dispossessed. It is considered a founding text of post-colonialism. She is considered by many in literary circles to be the one of the world’s leading “Marxist-feminist-deconstructionists.”
Spivak has lived in America for 51 years, but still carries an Indian passport and hasn’t traded it in to circumvent the usual immigration hassles.
“Somehow the idea of changing the passport didn’t seem attractive to me. One doesn’t live just for convenience, it is quite inconvenient that is true,” said Spivak, who travels to India three times a year and is in demand around the world for talks and lectures.
“I think of myself as a New Yorker, not as an American for sure but as a New Yorker,’ she added.
Spivak is University Professor, the highest honour given to a handful of professors across Columbia University and a founding member of the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society.
Spivak has a mind like a searchlight, yet she works at Mozartian speed. She has written over 17 books including In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics, Outside in the Teaching Machine, The Spivak Reader, Death of a Discipline and An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization.
She is currently writing her memoirs and working on a book about American sociologist and civil rights activist, W.E.B Du Bois.
“I don’t see myself as someone who is sending a message to the world. I don’t take myself so seriously. I am a generalist thinking about things. I know a couple of languages, I read carefully. I write because I can’t not write. I write because I am obsessed! My thoughts are in all my books. I am going to write a book on Du Bois and another one on Derrida,” said Spivak.
In 1964, Spivak married fellow student, Talbot Spivak. They divorced in 1977. Talbot Spivak wrote The Bride Wore the Traditional Gold, a funny and charming novel where he worked in bits about the early years of their marriage into the autobiographical novel. The book was not only about Gayatri Spivak, but about Cornell, where they both were students, about Iowa, about pigs, and about one extraordinary cat.