Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak was born in Calcutta on 24 February 1942. She graduated from Presidency College of the University of Calcutta in 1959 with a first-class honours degree in English. She then completed a Masters degree in English at Cornell University, followed by a year's fellowship at Girton College, Cambridge. Her doctoral dissertation was on Yeats. Her academic career began with the translation of Derrida's Of Grammatology (1977). She lives in the United States where she continues her academic career.
She is an eminent scholar concerned with the relationships between feminism, post-structuralism and the discourse of post-coloniality. She presents a feminist perspective on deconstruction, the Marxist critique of capital and the international division of labour, the critique of imperialism and colonial discourse, and the critique of race in relation to nationality, ethnicity, the status of the migrant, and what it might mean to identify a nation or a cultural form as post-colonial in a neo-colonial world. Spivak emphasises the intersections between race and gender, and sees a connection between women and colonised races, as both have been given the marginalised position of Other and both have experienced oppression and repression.
While Spivak's writing covers a broad range of topics, but two of her essays in particular are often cited. The first is “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (1988). This essay argues that “there is no space from where the subaltern (sexed) subject can speak”, meaning that colonised women experience a double subjection due to their race and gender, and are therefore silenced. (The “subaltern” means an oppressed subject). In response, Benita Parry argues that Spivak assigns too much power to the hegemonic discourse in constituting and disarticulating the native woman. She believes that “the subaltern cannot speak” is derived from general statements in which the subaltern woman is conceived as a single and homogeneous category, and that there are ways that these women have articulated their presence. However, in a later interview, Spivak explained that “the subaltern cannot speak” means the subaltern cannot be heard by the privileged of either the First or Third Worlds. If she were heard, she would cease to be subaltern.
The second often quoted essay is “Three women's texts and a critique of imperialism” (1985). This essay contains a critique of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, where she argues that Jane Eyre's progress throughout the novel is predicated upon the violent effacement of the Creole woman Bertha Mason. She places this as indicative of feminism's lack of engagement with the Third World.
Spivak seeks social change through her work. One of her most important arguments is about “unlearning” racism and privilege. She states that our privileges, whatever they may be in terms of race, class, nationality, or gender may prevent us from gaining a certain kind of Other knowledge: not simply information that we have not yet received, but the knowledge that we are not equipped to understand by reason of our social positions. To “unlearn” one's privilege is a vital step that marks the beginning of an ethical relation to the Other.
Spivak's style can be impenetrable and off-putting for those initially coming to her work. When reading Spivak, it can be useful to also read what other scholars have said about her work and how they have interpreted it. It is worth persevering with Spivak even if she can be difficult, as she has had a profound influence on multicultural studies, postcolonial studies and feminist theory.