Jam Tomorrow

In Dirlek’s attempt to pinpoint the era of postcolonialism in his essay “The Postcolonial Aura”, he suggests three definitions: “literal description of conditions in formerly colonial societies […] “global condition after the period of colonialism” and lastly, “a discourse on the above-named conditions” (563-64).  Over the last weeks, we have focused on the last, learning about the discipline of postcolonialism as it pertains to literature—which, as we all know, means how it pertains to society. We have read narratives that attempt to convey life before, during, and after colonization and in them we can begin to piece together a sense of where postcolonialism fits into the other narratives of the world. (Note: I originally wrote “larger narratives of the world” as if I was suggesting that postcolonial narratives are somehow smaller than others. Perhaps in exposure, but not in meaning. My only caveat is that “larger” is the usual word to place in that type of expression, and now I’m questioning every time I’ve used it in the past.)

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Who decides what shape a “nation” takes? Image courtesy of  (http://io9.gizmodo.com/a-map-of-colonial-africa-just-before-the-outbreak-of-wo-1704165344)

 

Yet postcolonialism can also be expressed as a state of uncertainty, caught between the legacy of colonialism and global pressures to pass through nationalism straight into capitalism. The so-called First World countries went through a gradual progression from feudal state, to nation-state, to global capitalism. For the colonies, there has been an insistence to eliminate that second phase, the phase—though violent—that solidifies a nationalistic identity for a group of people before entering into the global realm. I am not arguing that this phase is necessary, but we are denying nations—a term and state of being that has been insisted upon by Europeans–the same societal evolution that we have had.

As a discipline, postcolonialism should have a number of targets, both inward and outward. Looking at the impact of colonialism upon a people, how those people then have to redefine themselves—through political action, art, violence—and, also, how the colonizers have to acknowledge their part in the process. Colonization is not a single direction vector; the impact of subjugating a people creates an ideology of superiority that has no justification in the real world outside of force. And when that force lessens, the justification for the First World’s sense of place disappears. Unfortunately, being on top means not working too hard to stay on top, so millions of willfully ignorant people do not understand why they are no longer “number #1.” Clinging to religion and guns, indeed.

Yet focusing on the colonizer as victim should only be a tiny, miniscule part of the discipline. Their suffering is pale in comparison to the millions of people oppressed, displaced, and killed through the process of colonization and settlement. We can look at this one section of the colonial mind and take notice, and understand, and somehow, prepare for the ultra-right-wing discourse that fills the void where global superiority once lived; and we should look long enough to remain vigilant against those forces gaining power. But in the end, the postcolonial discipline is about raising voices, voices in the present and past, and creating a tapestry that reflects those who have never had a voice in the global discourse.

The two stories I chose, at random, were “The Free Radio” and “At the Auction for the Ruby Slippers” from Salman Rushdie’s collection East, West. The true success of an anthology is if you can recurring themes across a sample of stories taken from anywhere within the text. Both “Radio” and “Ruby Slippers” deal with unfulfilled dreams, but they are dreams sold as lies. Ramani and the narrator of “Ruby Slippers” are both trying to obtain something just out of their reach. They have made sacrifices—some big and unimportant, some small and life-changing—and in the end their dreams are unsatisfied. Ramani is easy seduced by the thief’s widow and the promise of a free radio, an old compensation for vasectomy in order to curb the population in India. The reward was still rumored, still part of the fabric of society, even though the radio rewards had dried up generations before. Yet, for Ramani, this small token means access to the world, to All-India Radio, and the land beyond his small town. The dream of the radio unrealized, he leaves to take on another dream of becoming a movie star, and, with wife and her children in tow, takes leave. Another disappointment awaits Ramani, most likely, though he keeps up appearances in letters home. He is not smart enough to be nihilistic.

The narrator of “Ruby Slippers” sits at an action in some post-postmodern future, where commerce and cruelty are as commonplace as bombings in the streets. The magic aura surrounding Dorothy’s slippers has reached religious levels, as the fictional and the real collide. They hold a promise of “home” a place that, in the time of the story, holds no real meaning outside of a nostaligic place of perfection—in the same way that some people view 1950s America. For the narrator, the promise of home is a direct representation of the sexual relationship with his cousin Gale, and his desire to return to her. Yet in the frenzy of bidding, the excitement of the rising price actually frees our narrator from that desire. He is whisked away—like a tornado, as it were—from her hold on him and as he comes to his senses, he realized he is free. The dream unfulfilled is much smaller than Ramani’s, but the scene of crass commercialization and debasement of individuality is the true prison our narrator is in. The only person in “Ruby Slippers” that has a true sense of home is the astronaut stranded on Mars. Everyone else is pretending.

We see how often part of colonization is selling a dream; a dream/lie of modernity, education, progress, etc. Selling a dream/lie of a better life, but that is a life defined by someone else. Generation after generation the dream is postponed, and “soon, be patient, work harder” are the only consistent messages the colonized hear. Eventually, the magic of the dream/lie fades and perhaps that is where the postcolonial truly begins.

It’s not about the head scarf, it’s about who decides the head scarf must be worn.

If this were a film blog, I’d love to talk about the sound design in Persepolis. The ominous sounds of the tanks as they moved in, the wheels of the bicycle as the children chased after it, the frantic footsteps as the young men were chased across the roof; if you weren’t wearing headphones while watching this film, you missed at least a third of its artistry.

The animation, as well, would take center stage in this discussion. The black and white denoting the harsh separation between two worlds, nothing truly existing in the grey–where we all live, the flashes of color in the present-day scenes highlighting a more nuanced, though bleaker, outlook on the world, the homogeneity of the women in post-revolutionary Iran, nearly indistinguishable from each other; Persepolis uses visual narrative so effectively that it would work as a silent film.

“But in a way he loved his country, unlike his son who succeeded him.”

One commenter on Amazon, where I rented the film, complained that the film failed to mention the seizing of the American embassy. What this commenter gets blatantly wrong is that the film is under no obligation to mention anything. The first act of the film documenting the incidents leading up to the revolution are told from the perspective of our young protagonist, Marjane, and its her viewpoint that is important. Relegating this film to kowtow to the interests of Americans is negating the importance of the film entirely. Persepolis is a personal story, not a marionette play to allay a Western audience.

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Speaking of puppets, the terrible French of the British puppet should have been amusing, but it was terrifying, like sharpened claws on a chalkboard.

“They think we’re all violent, bloodthirsty fanatics.”

And this is the point where I want to bring in Spivak, at least incidentally, since its that commenter’s attitude that blocks the Western audience from seeing the true message of the film. We are somewhat confused by the tangled emotions seeing a young girl sent away from her family to Europe, only to return and find herself out of place in her homeland. Marjane is disconnected from her European friends over their misconceptions about Iran, and displaced from her Iranian friends over her time abroad making the transition to the heavily regulated society difficult. As a Western audience we can relate to her ennui in both places, her depression at being denied her sense of self, but, more importantly, we relate to her sense of guilt for living in the Western world while Iran and its people are being torn to pieces. Yet, our guilt isn’t the same as Marjane’s guilt. Our guilt should be about realizing our complicity in a system that plays a deadly game with entire nations of people in a quest for oil.

“Our torturers were trained by the CIA.”

Have I mentioned the trickle down effect of violence to the children? Or the snake like movements of the women trying to regulate Marjane’s dress? These subtle points of visual narrative may give some Westerners the idea that they are correct in their prejudices towards Iran and its people, but that is only because Westerners–mainly Americans–tend to be terrible at subtly. Marjane Satrapi is commenting on her own society from within. She is bound by the ideology of power, or the hegemony, and recognizes its hypocrisies and ambiguities. She is living this statement. Westerners, benefactors of years of colonization, have a much more difficult time commenting on their own ideology, mainly because it benefits them in many unrecognizable ways.

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Yet even as Marjane is privileged within her own Iranian society–progressive parents, an honest and straight-shooting grandmother–the pressure to conform upon her return at first sends her into a depressive spiral, but then she bounces back once she ultimately succumbs. She is living in the liminal space between two ideologies–black and white, Western and Iranian–and as soon as she begins to assimilate does she find a small amount of contentment.

“We were so eager for happiness we forgot we weren’t free.”

And that’s the point of years of pointless war. Remember the simple pleasures while your freedom is slowly fading away. Remember those who died while we make your decisions for you. Remember the fallen while we plan the next series of martyr-making escapades to keep the next generation from rising up their heads and saying “why?”

Just because Westerners don’t call thier fallen soldiers “martyrs” doesn’t mean we don’t treat them as such.

In many ways, Persepolis can be seen as a treatise against over-education. The more you know, the more you see through the world and the more simple happiness slips through your fingers. You feel less a part of the world around you by the simple fact that you can see more of it, more of the depth of it, more of the hues of the world instead of just the simple black and white. Yet the world is better in this view, full of more interesting people. The world of the over-educated is devoid of so many enemies and overflowing with stories, stories from everywhere, stories from everyone. In the end, Persepolis is also a reification of storytelling, not without, but in spite of ideology. If we can wrestle ourselves out of the stranglehold that Spivak argues suffocated the Western critic, then we get a little close to that Technicolored world. It is difficult, and it is discomforting, but it is glorious.

None are named “All of You”

Note: I apologize to my classmates for missing last week’s discussion. My time management skills apparently had not yet returned from break. I have since forcibly extracted them from the void and, battered as they are, am working diligently to get them ship-shape. Considering the time-stamp on this post, they are still a little…disgruntled.

The turtleLanguage is like clay. The one you are born into benefits from years of kneading, handling, molding, and is soft and pliable. If you are lucky, you spend your life creating different shapes with the clay, using examples of sculptures that came before you, refining your process. Then one day, another language beckons you, and you answer the call. A new, hard lump of clay is placed before you and the slow, arduous kneading process begins. It is frustrating, tiring, and, all the while you are kneading this new language you realize that you may never achieve the same malleability of your own language, but, at the same time, that even an approximation of that malleability will be ultimately rewarding. The two essays I chose to abstract for this week discuss the sculpture that Achebe creates with language and his ability to form a recognizable story with foreign–and often diminished–clay.

James Snead opens “European Pedigrees/African Contagions: Nationality, Narrative, and Communality in Tutuola, Achebe, and Reed” with a quote from Samuel Johnson: “Languages are the pedigrees of nations” (264). He spends a great deal of time deconstructing that statement and as well as our definition of nation. He questions our notion that nations are naturally formed geological separations between people, created independently and having a shared culture and history. But this definition neglects the naturally porous nature of all societies, the unnatural creation of borders by colonization, and the diverse populations that entertain ideas of national “purity.” He also argues that the larger an empire spreads its control, the more diverse it becomes and, therefore, the more insistent its “original” members become when it comes to a “pure” race. Rethinking the concept of “nation” and, by extension, the idea of a “national language” and a “people” also forces us to see nations as populations living within an imaginary boundary and consenting–or being forced–to exist under a single law. After the nation is created, the language established, then, Snead argues, literature takes hold as the signifying voice of that nation. We continue to see remnants of that process in our own course listings today. Snead also argues that as certain texts and literatures are elevated, they become synonymous with a sense of “universality” and as other texts are produced outside that national culture, the critic’s first instinct is to search for the universality of the piece. Yet, that instinct is entirely Eurocentric, and therefore, has difficulty recognizing the universality of a story without the common features of the national literature that came before. In a sense, this is where Achebe, as well as others, have succeeded–and in some cases, confounded–to the critics demands. By molding the English language into approximating the oral tradition of the Ibo, Achebe forms the language into an African sculpture–though the notion that any author can speak for all of Africa is an Eurocentric view as well. Snead suggests that, for Achebe’s novels, “their most interesting aspect is the almost casual manner in which they present African norms to primarily non-African readers” (278). Achebe uses the language most accessible to the European audience to render a story initially unrecognizable to them, yet one that slowly reveals its universal theme throughout the rhythm of the narrative.

That rhythm is discussed in detail in the next essay, “Rhythm and Narrative Method in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart,” by B. Eugene McCarthy. At times McCarthy delves into the analytical of scanning lines and marking repetitions, but they are all pointers to a larger pattern in Achebe’s book. He quotes Walter Ong’s definition of the oral tradition, citing that “thought must come into being in heavily rhythmic, balances patterns, in repetitions and antithesis, in alliterations and assonance, in epithetic and other formulary expressions” (428). The repetition, or “backlooping” is an integral part of the oral narrative–folklore, fairy tales, myths are replete with these patterns–but not necessarily a staple of the Eurocentric novel tradition. There may be cycles in theme or symbols, but, McCarthy argues, Achebe creates these cycles with the language itself, allowing the larger theme to be not only symbolically cyclical, but literally. As he progresses through his close reading, McCarthy shows how Okonkwo is bound by the cycles of the village and of nature, but ultimately rejects them. He is so absorbed into projecting his own masculinity, he rejects the natural cycles embodied in the feminine. While the masculine moves forward unrelentingly, the feminine recognizes seasonality. Ultimately Okonkwa’s inflexible push forward meets head on with another inflexible force, the white man, resulting in his committing the arguably unmasculine act of suicide. Achebe, in his use of the English language, showcases not only the cyclical nature of oral storytelling, but the cyclical nature of the life in which Okonkwa is bound. There is a danger of dismissal when likening written prose with oral narrative, as the Western tradition elevates the former over the latter, but McCarthy’s essay shows the beauty of this rhythmic storytelling in Achebe’s novel and the effectiveness of this long-diminished strategy.

“Because he’s naked and ashamed”

Your listening for this post:

When I read Dr. Clemens’ post about this week’s reading, I was worried that “the most depressing book they have read” consensus of Nawal El Saadawi’s Woman at Point Zero would unduly influence me. It prepared me, in some ways, to build up a wall against what I might find. Thankfully, Saadawi’s prose tore down any barriers I had to the story and in the end, no, I wasn’t depressed. Depression is a terribly selfish emotion, inward looking and isolated.

I was in awe. I was ashamed. I was angry.

In awe because of something we don’t spend as much time on in this class because of the flood of injustice presented in the texts. I was in awe of the writing. Saadawi has taken the honest and harrowing tale of Firdaus and turned it into a beautiful fairy tale. And a fairy tale not in the unbelievable, happy-ending, Disney sense of the word, because that’s just patriarchal condescension dressed up in technicolor and musical numbers. No, a fairy tale in that it tells truths that are difficult to hear in their pure form; though Saadawi is as close to pure, I’d argue, it is possible to get. The cyclical nature of the storytelling underlined not only the multitude of oppressive waters Firdaus tries to rise above, but the constant rotation of her experiences. How falling in love is akin to falling into someone’s eyes, as if into their soul—and how the other person’s feeling matter little in that moment; how the severing of her clitoris as a young girl is reenacted over and over again as Firdaus is forced to sever herself from her own feelings in order to survive; these moments turn in the wheel of fate that Saadawi’s psychiatrist kneels on a cold floor to hear, entranced and unable to pull away.

And I was ashamed, just like the woman in our story frame, for being able to put the book down upon completion, plug in my iPhone and try to sleep. I was ashamed for having been born privileged in skin, location, money, and ability. I was ashamed that I never had to work so damned hard, not just to establish myself as a success, but to establish myself as a human being, surrounded by a world—worlds upon worlds—whose intent to dehumanize me for their own exploitation had become so profuse that it was hard to recognize. (How does a fish explain when the water is oppressive?) The multiple layers of oppression I talked about in the last post are laid bare in Woman at Point Zero and when even your body is no longer your own—and for women, is it ever?—lashing out and denying another their body in death seems almost righteous.

Then I was angry, because little has changed. Firdaus’s only moments of agency are the times she left the homes of her abusers and wandered the streets. Terrifying and edifying, these repeating scenes when she is poured into the masses of people and becomes anonymous are her only moments of freedom. This freedom is always ripped away when  a man notices her and she follows. She follows because she has no other option and the only path to even a small sense of agency is money. Saadawi’s book feels like the fictionalization of Oyěwùmí’s essay, or better yet, the naturally outgrowth of relabeling an entire portion of the population. Re-categorizing community members as ‘women’ and therefore, subservient, allows a redistribution of power that makes the colonizer more comfortable in dealing with the colonized. We name things in order to control them, and in naming, we bring all the connotations from the colonizer’s language down upon the head of the named. Women are inferior because they have always been so. Women are unable to hold positions of power because in our imperial memory they have not—Her Royal Highness notwithstanding, since that’s ordained by God, who’s a man. The colonizer is so emboldened by his superior strength that he has no cause for reflection upon his own ideology—not even a recognition that he embodies an ideology, because it is the dominant one, and therefore, the right one.

Yet, Saadawi’s Woman at Point Zero eclipses all the other readings for this week. It’s lyrical prose exposed the background drumming of patriarchal oppression in clearer tones than any essay or video. Firdaus’s struggle—no, I won’t patronize her by calling this a struggle—her realization is that life is her true prison is the essence of the story, of so many of these stories. It is not about changing Firdaus’s choices, but about changing the very fabric of the world in which she, and all of us, live. It is reading this and recognizing that this oppression is all around us and we perpetuate by being sad and depressed and feeling grateful. We should be in awe of this book. We should be ashamed that this is not our life. And we should be angry that we are still fish underwater, surrounded by a system determined to force into inferiority.

Perhaps the only way for us to evolve is to leave the water and find a way upon the land.

Not All Women

Another post, another disclaimer. I am an atheist and have been all my life. I come away from this week’s readings troubled with how I can explain my distrust of indoctrinating children into religion without being disrespectful of an adult’s choice in their personal faith. In many ways Gyasi’s “Inscape” spoke to me, trying to make sense of my own connection to the universe without the tether of faith. That faith and religion are two separate things is something we forget. I believe, if you’ll forgive me the use of that word, that when religion is done right it is a process of writing that “Future Testament,” the story of the role of god in your life. Too often that story is written for us, in books and sermons and that predetermination is where I have to leave religion behind. Yet, I also have to explain that my distrust stems from the fact that it adds one more layer of patriarchy into which women have to navigate. A patriarchal organization will, by its very nature, have to make women subordinate. The flowchart of oppression:

  • Born into patriarchal religion – one layer of oppression
  • Born into patriarchal society – second layer of oppression
  • Born into colonized patriarchal society – third layer of oppression
  • Born into colonized and globally exploited patriarchal society – fourth layer of oppression

This layering effect renders the borders between these places nearly invisible. How does one speak against so terrible an edifice?

I’m glad I read Spivak first. She outlines this “wall” of separation between those who have no voice and those have the education and leisure time (not as vacation time, but the freedom from subsistence toil or constant exploitation to think abstractly)—direct beneficiaries of the legacy of imperialism—to supplement those without a voice. I liken her critique of Foucault and Deleuze as two men sitting by a window discussing the weather, never once acknowledging that they are inside. Derrida at least accuses them of ignoring the window, but he is inside as well. As is Spivak, as am I. We cannot speak for those out in the snow, yet only recently have we opened that window to listen.

But do they speak at all? Ahmed’s “Discourse of the Veil” highlights the danger of others speaking for us. By arguing over the forced veiling and unveiling of women in Egypt, the women never seem to be consulted as to their choice. It is a small example of how easy it is for an imperialistic power to subsume another—move one notion of patriarchy alongside another, swap out a few details, and instant colony. Sure there will be some rough patches, but once you “other” and therefore feminize the indigenous population, they will be too busy to regain their “masculinity” (read: power) that the continued subjugation of women (a quadruple oppression) will be merely a stepping stone on the way up.

Women’s bodies are the battlegrounds upon which men fight their wars.

And by saying “women” do I mean all women? Are veiled women silenced? Do they not have a choice in their veiling and unveiling? I cannot and will never try to speak for them. The veil is not representative of oppression if it is put on by choice. And as much as I want to, in some sense desperately need to define what choice actually is, I would fall short, for even though I am a woman, I am a small example of a large, disparate group of individuals who have to define themselves. The leisure and awareness to have that ability is probably the best definition I can offer for the word choice. In the absence of leisure and awareness, is there a choice?

And this is why I come back to religion, a convenient foundation upon which to build empires, colonies, and globally exploitative economies. The patriarchy is built in at the family level and arranging the patrons at the top does little to affect those at the bottom. White Western women are all too comfortable explaining another’s subjugation to them, never acknowledging that this act, in itself, is their own internalized sexism. We become easy foot soldiers in patriarchal oppression.

Just as the Orient was created to define the Occident, so to is the notion of “women” created to solidify the definition of “men.” We are back to Saussure’s definition by difference, we know what we are by what we are not. We are free women because we do not wear the veil. We are free women because we do wear the veil. The veil is a useful avatar for the fact that we, women, do not truly hold the power to fully define ourselves. We see our own freedom in the oppression of others, turning a blind eye to the economic engines that give us this view, but only seeing the visual signs of difference between East and West. The discourse between women—if we are to be grouped, so be it, we should speak internally then—must first be a discourse that recognizes our differences are vast and that each of our experiences are valid. We must recognize that improving the conditions of some women means listening to what they need, instead of insisting on some symbolic gesture of emancipation. We must deconstruct the patriarchies we are all born into before we insist that wearing the veil should be replaced with wearing makeup and heels. We must work first to improve the systems in which we already exist in order to give space—leisure time, as it were—for each woman to compose her own Future Testament and define herself as a human being.

In the pathways…

When I saw “hybridity” as one of our concepts this week, I was troubled, thinking that its association with biology may cloud its association with people living in contact zones, but Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin had that covered. As well when I approached “binarism” I felt an assumption of meaning but the book helped sharply define my thoughts.  “Palimpsest” and “Syncretism” were relatively new, as if I’d seen them in the hallways enough to recognize them, but not formally introduced. “Liminality” I had experienced before in doing my research on fairy tales and in a sense it is no different here, a place of existence–that Third Place as Bhabha calls it–where the colonizer and the colonized cultures battle for dominance. But when a person realizes that they are living in that third space, standing in the doorway between two cultures, how does that push-pull existence manifest?

http://www.deviantart.com/art/Where-They-Grow-584995759

Where They Grow by Chibionpu on DeviantArt

Perhaps it begins with that first moment in the mirror; when the binary is created for each us. The collapsing of ourselves into an “I” reflected back but not exactly. The reflection pushes back and says ‘I am you, but not you’. And in that space between the view and viewer is where we define ourselves. It is the first contact zone of our consciousness. The whole of our being is invented and investigated in the space between our gaze and the glass. When Walcott conjures up the image of the ape looking at its reflection on the stream as a possible spark of sentience, perhaps he was describing what happens to each of us. We see our mirrored reflection, we see ourselves reflected in our mother and fathers, brothers and sister, our communities and our friends and we continually redefine ourselves based on that push back, that luminal space where all the signifiers and signifieds converge and attempt to form signs. We formulate our self-knowledge in those few inches between ourselves and these reflections. These are the micro-binaries that first tell us who we are and who we are not. It is only later, when the reflection is unrecognizable that we succumb to the more powerful other, the other that insists and defines and refracts (bends the waves of our consciousness) instead of reflects. Nyasha is Tambu’s refraction. Jeremiah is, to a certain extent, Babamukura’s; images that present an awareness of ourselves, but continually trouble our assumed self-knowledge. 

Upon reflection, I found myself mixing up scenes between Nervous Conditions and Hamid’s story in The New Yorker. I couldn’t remember which character was sick on the floor under the cot, who rode either inside or on top if the bus…the colonizer had colonized my brain as well, showing me that distinctions between non-whites was not necessary. They are all so alien, it said, what is the difference. They do not exist in reality, it says, they exist in the liminal world.

When the colonizer approaches and the reflection is not imminent, the colonizer slips into that space and invents a new consciousness. Tambu sees a path before her (the convent) but Nyasha is the one to show her the path is actually a tunnel, with walls built by others. And even in knowing this, Tambu understand that while the far end of the tunnel is unknown, at the beginning is the image of her mother, her homestead and one possible future. She has no choice but to quickly sidle along the walls, heading for somewhere else,

The open ending of Nervous Conditions reminds us that there are no neat solutions for those who are colonized. Tambu has to persist, grasping at any shred of agency she can. Nyasha has become too aware of the doorway in which she exists, and her moments of true existence bring only anger, violence and despair from her father. He cannot provide for his family without living in the tunnel. He has accepted this and quite possibly, after so many years believes he belongs there. Nyasha suffocates, Tambu perseveres, and Babamukura oversees. The colonizer delegated his colonization.

Lean In

My thesis work and my postcolonial readings collided again this week. As I read an article about, of all things, the attitudes of Victorians toward the Japanese wearing Western clothes, Hami Bhaba and his assertions on mimicry and ambivalence came into play. The Victorian’s deprecating comments and attitudes toward people attempting to assimilate part of their culture was a perfect example of the disruption of mimicry. The reaction, on the surface, seems like the paternal condescension of a large empire to its new pupil, but deep down it is the uneasy realization of one’s own preposterous-ness when presented from the outside. It is also the disruption of that paternal state, equivalent to your child marching around in your shoes; one day they will fit and they will no longer need you.


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“Tourist photographs rarely depicted the Japanese in European dress, and, when this did occur, the intention seems to have been to critique rather than to flatter. In the photograph […] c. 1870s, entitled ‘The civilized Japs’ [sic], there is something uncomfortable rather than graceful in the appearance of the unidentified man and woman depicted; the man, for example, gnaws on an almost comically large cigar and his suit billows around him ” (Kramer 18).

Source: Kramer, Elizabeth. “‘Not So Japan-Easy’: The British Reception Of Japanese Dress In The Late Nineteenth Century.” Textile History 44.1 (2013): 3-24. Historical Abstracts with Full Text. Web. 24 Sept. 2016.


Ambivalence is one of those words I remember learning. Sometime in my early teens, around the same time I thought I knew what patronizing meant, ambivalence became part of my lexicon. But I only had a partial meaning, thinking that I had no clear opinion, or none at all, about a particular topic. “I’m ambivalent about the whole matter” meant that I didn’t care. Only upon reading Homi Bhaba’s use of the word, did I realize my initial relationship with “ambivalence” had been entirely wrong. My “ambivalence” did not exist between two conflicting feelings, those feelings didn’t exist at all. Only when confronted with an extended definition, one that seeks to highlight the muddy existence of people caught between two worlds, neither one metaphorically black and white, did I realize what I thought was ambivalence was actually indifference.

In Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions, Tambu exists in an ambivalent world, kneeling in the doorways between education and ignorance, urban and rural, girlhood and womanhood, Shona and English. She elevates one over the other at different times. When she begins menstruating her initial reaction is a practical one, duly educated by her mother, aunts and other female relatives, though still a matter too dangerous for male ears. She only experiences shame when confronted with the pristine bathroom of Babamukura’s house, anticeptic and porcelain white. The wholly natural process stands out in stark contrast to the construction of civilization – which would not exist without it. At this point in our reading, her cousin Nyasha appears as a possible guide to help Tambu navigate between all possible realities, though she has much navigating to do for herself. She, too, exists between two worlds, when recalling her visit to Tambu’s homestead upon their return from England:

“For [her parents] at least, because now they’re stuck with hybrids for children. And they don’t like it. They don’t like it at all. It offends them. They think we do it on purpose, so it offends them. And I don’t know what to do about it, Tambu, really I don’t. I can’t help having been there and grown into the me that has been there. But it offends them – I offend them. Really, it’s very difficult.” (78).

Nyasha finds some solace in books and cigarettes and, at least at dance-hall distance, boys. She also surprising enjoys church. Bhaba’s description of the portioned dispersing of Christian morality to colonized people is expressed in Nyasha’s attitude toward church, recognizing the “Christian cause, which was conformist but could clandestinely be translated into a progressive ideology” (98).

As we continue reading, I will be curious to see from which side of the doorway Tambu leans. Perhaps she will continue to remain there, standing rather than kneeling, leaning to and fro, gathering everything she can from both sides. Her position as an African woman insists that she never fully control her own life in either place, as exemplified in Maiguru’s lack of agency even while holding her own Master’s Degree. Will the ambivalence of Tambu’s situation force her to choose, and will she have the power to make that choice?

私の日本語はとっても悪いです!

Note: My apologies for the last minute entry. You can see why here.

Somewhere between Wilde and Derrida I realized that language was something I was thrust into. It filled the world around me and gave form to everything. As I grew and became a reader, language created a temporal gateway between myself, the writer and the world they created. Its nuances and inconsistencies—as exemplified by the apex of all word-play, the pun—gave me hours of delight. Language can bend, turn back on itself and surprise. Yet, like the air, it is invisible and, like the air, its contamination or elimination would be deadly.

Rushdie’s master manipulation in the short story “The Courter” is frustrating. Whenever I come upon a writer who can transform simple words into a colorful experience, my jealousy gland flares up and I fume. And what’s brilliant about “The Courter” is how the whole story turns upon the mispronunciation of one word. By changing “porter” to “courter”, Certainly-Mary introduced a new idea into Mixed-Up’s mind and sets the rest of the tale in motion. Language, so easily manipulated by those with nefarious intent, is also the means of communicating kindness and love, and its mishaps often express something we hide even from ourselves.

Outside of my own reading and writing, language takes shape as I work with students in the Writing Center. I am always impressed with how students learning English—and many times it is their third or fourth language—have such mastery of its form. English is a particularly difficult language to learn, from what I am told, though the world is infused with it from politics to pop culture, it must be difficult to steer away from it. The jealously gland throbs again when talking to a student who worries about their paper in English, all while juggling multiple vehicles of expression in their head. How does English explain our culture to someone learning the language? At what moment does the ELL student think, ‘oh, they arrange the words this way, well that explains a lot.’

Ngũgĩ’s essay gave me a small, safely-privileged sense, of what it feels like to have your own language rejected. His school experience was the pained twin of the experience of America’s indigenous people in our boarding schools; their language rejected, demonized and banned. And it is a brilliant scheme. Eliminate the language of a culture and you slowly eliminate the culture. Remove the barrier between communication entirely and sedition is slow to stir. Assimilation, with the necessary deference to the “proper” speakers of the master language, is key to maintaining an exploitable class structure. I admit, it was difficult to hear of how my language was used this way, but I am not so naive to think that English is not a terrible and effective weapon. We routinely use this weapon on ourselves.

This cat is serious.
All the other memes I looked at were either racist, pejorative or otaku-related. I am only one of those

When I started seriously pursuing learning another language, I didn’t realize all the small connections that would be created in my brain. Japanese in its syntax is not terribly different, though differently arranged, but the switch from alphabet to syllabaries and kanji appeared to be mountainous in scale. Yet, little by little, I see how certain ideas join together to form larger ideas—my favorite so far is that the kanjis for “certain” and “death” join together to make the word “frantic.”

capture
“Hisshi” This will never not be wonderful to me.

In learning another language you get a sense of those who speak it, and Ngũgĩ spelled this out beautifully when he said that language is the carrier of culture (Desai and Nair 153). They are impossible to separate, and while I may study for years, my upbringing in America will always prevent me from being entirely fluent in the cultural aspect of the language. My goal is to be able to read in Japanese, to get closer to the authorial intent of a text.

Walcott’s poems are another example of getting closer to the intent through language. Ironically, the pdf’s had some of the footnotes cut off, thereby rendering some of the references “untranslatable.” I will fully credit Dr. Clemens for doing this intentionally as a way to showcase how beauty may still be gleaned from a text even without a full context of the allusions or the culture to which it refers.

This is where translation gets muddy. Translation may open the door to many texts, but the view is more through a foggy window.

An example: a stanza from Pablo Neruda’s poem “Sólo la Muerte”

Hay cadáveres,
hay pies de pegajosa losa fría,
hay la meurte en los huesos,
como un sonido puro,
como un ladrido sin perro,
saliendo de ciertas campanas, de ciertas tumbas,
creciendo en la humedad como el llanto o la lluvia.

My preferred translation by Robert Haas, who I feel attempts to capture the lyrical nature of the original:

There are corpses,
there are feet of clammy stone,
there is death in the bones,
like pure sound,
like a bark without a dog,
growing out of certain bells, certain tombs,
swelling in the humidity like a lament or like rain.

A poorer translation, in my opinion, by Robert Bly, which can be found here:

And there are corpses,
feet made of cold and sticky clay,
death is inside the bones,
like a barking where there are no dogs,
coming out from bells somewhere, from graves somewhere,
growing in the damp air like tears of rain.

The “clunkiness” of English is clearer here. There appears to be less attention to the music of the poem as opposed to the more literal translation. Even an entire line is missing. Translation is an art, but a “lossy” one. Shapes and movement may be clear, but some meaning is lost. A desire to only read in your own language seems lazy to me—those time I want to learn French to read Derrida are fleeting, but I generally drown those thoughts in beer—yet there will still be a cultural barrier. Ngũgĩ highlights this in showing how the comprador class uses native languages—often forgotten and rejected by the intellectual elites—to heighten fear and superstition in the working class. His refusal of English in his own work, and his desire to speak to the working class in their own language feels like a repossession of discourse that some of the writers that came before him abandoned. We English-speaking, intellectual-elite should take note and remember that for the American working class, academic English reads as another language.

It’s time to translate.