Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, born 1942 in Calcutta, India, possesses such a presence and continues to live a life of accomplishment that these few, humble words cannot begin to explain the gifts that she continues to give the world. Spivak graduated from the University of Calcutta at 17 years old, and received a PhD from Cornell University. She is best known for her translation of Derrida’s De la grammatologie from French to English (completed at age 24) and for her essay Can the SubAltern Speak? Although these works hardly represent the entirety of her intellectual contributions.
It is impossible to pin Spivak as one thing or another. She is a feminist, a philosopher, a literary critic, the founder of an NGO dedicated to education. Her work has such wide ranging impacts — from the fields of geography to medicine — that any singular label would fall short. In her own words, she “work[s] really to sabotage affirmatively liberal education, which usually has been used to produce comfortable classes.” The idea of giving “skin and time” is integral to her NGO, and inspires our own philanthropic aspirations.
Just to leave you with a few Gayatri gems:
On life-in-general: “think about other people, you will have a much more satisfying life”
After seeing Swan Lake and jokingly comparing ballet to perfectly synchronized Hatha yoga: “you have to be able to make your way through cultural translation in order to be able to recognize beauty in forms not inscribed by your national origin”
On truthfulness: “truthfulness is a quality in the individual of not being afraid to say what she thinks”
In conversation with the President of Columbia University: “Gayatri, your standards are too high, and I laughed at him. And I said I’m sorry your standards are too low. And I should tell you that my standards are the same at Columbia University as they are in my rural schools”
And to throw a few cherries on top, Gayatri is one of twelve University Professors at Columbia University, which makes her the only women of color to achieve this honor in the history of the university! In 2012, she was awarded the Kyoto Prize, and in 2013, she was awarded the third highest civilian award given by India. We encourage you to explore her life work more deeply!