book review

The God of Small Things: A Review

41iffjvqdQL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_In honor of the publication of Arundhati Roy’s second novel, I decided to read her first one. I was very impressed with The God of Small Things (1997). Roy tells a story in a way that I’ve never heard a story told before. It is as though she has invented her own language for the novel; she has written not in English, but in a playful, pleasing gobbledygook that describes how bilingual children think and communicate. It is also clear, from the way the story is structured, that this is the predecessor for Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, The Lowland (2013). The God of Small Things is not chronological, starting with an assortment of details spread out through time and space, and ending with the driving incident of the plot. This creates a sense of timelessness, a feeling that facts and memory are interchangeable and are rarely affixed to time. It also frequently creates an abrupt tone shift at the end, as though the incident on which the novel centers is a buried treasure at the end of a map.

You all should know by now, I include spoilers.

I deeply appreciate Roy’s sense of humor throughout the novel. I feel as though she would understand me when I say I have laughed in classes about genocide. She tells the story of a miserable family whose members (at some point or another in their lives) live in the town of Ayemenem in the state of Kerala, India. The novel takes place in 1969, when Communism was on the rise and gaining ground in India. In this setting, 9-year-old Sophie Mol dies. Rahel and Estha, who were 7 when she died, deal with the fallout of this incident well into their adult lives.

I love Roy’s sense of humor throughout the novel. She uses it as such a great vehicle for satire. For example, Roy likens Kochu Maria, the house maid, to “a bottled fetus that had escaped from its jar of formaldehyde in a Biology lab and unshriveled and thickened with age” (p. 162). This is hysterical. I think the formaldehyde is a great detail. Who goes that deep into detail to convey how ugly a person is? Apparently Roy does. Kochu Maria was basically the accomplice who helped Baby Kochamma lock Ammu in her room and falsely accuse Velutha of rape. The description of Kochu Maria is that of an antagonist, but perhaps also of someone who has so deeply internalized her own oppression, it has corrupted her very image.

I also like the radical potential of what Roy says about adults versus children. Many of the adults in the novel are hypocrites. For example, Chacko claims to support the Communist movement, but is a wealthy landowner. And Comrade Pillai, who leads the Communist party, is amicable to Chacko. Pillai compartmentalizes his ideas of Chacko by reasoning that “Chacko-the-client and Chacko-the-management were two different people. Quite separate of course from Chacko-the-Comrade” (p.115). Chacko reminds me of Yuri Zhivago of Doctor Zhivago (1965). Yuri, too, supports the communists and their movement in Russia during World War I, though he does not realize that if the revolution succeeds, it will have disastrous effects on his life. Chacko also naively supports communists from his ivory tower. Arguably, it is a Marxist (Velutha) who overthrows the balance of Chacko’s life. He loses his daughter after a chain of events that starts with Velutha and Ammu “breaking the Love Laws” (p. 311).

The children, by contrast, are transparent and logical in their belief systems. This is most clearly illustrated in the chapter when Sophie and her mother, Margaret Kochamma, arrive at the airport. Ammu repeatedly tells the adults to ignore Rahel, who she says wants attention, and gets mad at Estha for being shy (p. 139). However, these seem like perfectly reasonable reactions for children to have when meeting strangers for the first time. In Harvey Jackins’ theory of re-evaluation counseling, one would say this shows how little capacity parents (or any adult, really) sometimes have to think about children in healthy ways. The adults are so caught up in their own desires for how things should go, they forget that they are caring for very intelligent, observant young people.

As cruel as it may sound, the fact that Sophie Mol is the character who dies actually makes sense. Sophie Mol surprises Estha and Rahel because she is so not the perfect angel that all the adults make her out to be. She tells Chacko that she loved Joe more than she loves him (p. 180). She refuses all of Baby Kochamma’s advances (which pleases Estha and Rahel–she seems to be their least favorite relative) (p.180). She is also arguably the person who is most in the role of the observer, the “witness” so to speak. She watches the adults force the children to play roles in a ridiculous “Play” (p. 139). She watches Velutha display incomparable kindness to the twins, unlike any of the other adults (p. 181). Thus, when she dies, it is as though Roy is commenting on the nature of observers of injustice. The contradictions we need in order to believe that race, caste, and the hierarchies we enforce are not real exist right in front of us, if we just choose to examine them. Oftentimes, we choose to ignore them, and societal institutions are set up to get rid of the people who choose to look.

It is also interesting to compare the deaths of Sophie Mol and Velutha. A commentary seems to be made here, too. Sophie Mol is simply an observer of things she shouldn’t see, and thus goes quietly into the night, disappears, so to speak. Velutha is not only an observer, but is actively resisting hierarchy. He marches in the streets with the Marxists, he has learned skills that other Paravans have not, and he falls in love with Ammu. He is in turn actively stomped out by several police, society’s rule-enforcers and hierarchy upholders.

The only part about this book that I don’t digest completely (or perhaps I have truly become a curmudgeonly old person in my mid-twenties) is when Ammu and Velutha finally have sex. While it is described as the “fumble and rush of unfamiliar love” (p. 317), it’s very pristine. There is no awkwardness. I suppose one could argue that perhaps Velutha and Ammu are at an age where sex is no longer awkward, but I don’t believe that either. I think people who are unfamiliar with each other are always a little awkward, especially if they are dealing with each other physically. Human beings do not touch each other nearly enough in civilized society to understand their bodies well. Oddly enough, I think it is the description of how Velutha navigates that puzzles me the most. Perhaps this is my own prejudice coming through. It is not actually his class background that makes me think this–I am sure poor and working class men, especially men as gentle as Velutha, know exactly how to give women pleasure. It’s actually simply the fact that–at least as far as the novel is concerned–Velutha is a man. A straight man. And at least in my experience, men are clumsy. So self-hating and self-conscious that they couldn’t possibly be as deeply attentive as Velutha is to Ammu. That too, on their first night of sex. It was a bit of a stretch for me to believe.

Velutha is the most compassionate character, though. I think even I fell for him a little when he was playing with Estha, Rahel and Sophie when they dressed up in saris. Although they look like raccoons, Velutha treats them with the utmost respect, gives them coconut water, and talks about the weather (p. 181). As an adult, Rahel observes “It is after all so easy to shatter a story…To let it be, to travel with it, as Velutha did, is much the harder thing to do” (p. 181). It is both sad and beautiful that he was a much better parent to the twins than their own parents. It was a good thing he was in their lives. They had at least one kind, respectful adult looking after them. I think that is the real tragedy of the novel. That with Velutha, the twins had so little time.

 

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Impressions of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

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So today, after a two-month-long romp with Junot Díaz’s novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, I finally finished it. I am left with more questions than answers. For example, why did Díaz choose to write the novel the way he did? The lengths of some sections are curiously long, others curiously short, and I wonder if the emphasis or lack thereof are significant (they probably are, and I am left with the task of finding the answers for myself. That may actually be the point).

It is a curious novel, to be sure (“curious” in this context signifies “mysterious” and “peculiar”). I do love that Díaz chooses to begin the novel with fukú and zafa. It gives the entire novel that lovely magical-realism feel that I am so enamored of, à la Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I might say the resemblance ends there as far as the genre goes…I could argue Díaz does it in his own way. I also love his frequent footnotes, which are so long at times it feels as though I am reading two novels for the length of one. The act of physically separating the history of the Dominican Republic by footnote gives the novel a duality that isn’t usually present in narratives. One gets a sense of how much is going on politically in the macro-environment of the country, even while the main course of the book focuses on the trials and triumphs of one family, the De Leons. One could, in theory, choose to completely ignore the footnotes if they wanted to, and it would be a completely different novel. Being a complete dork, this was not the route I took.

There is a lot I love about Díaz’s insane descriptions of the Trujillo-era Dominican Republic (and subsequent Balaguer-ruled D.R. as well). Admittedly, I did not know much about the DR before I picked up this book, but Díaz makes Trujillo sound so scary, I fear retaliation from him even though he’s been dead for 60 years. This dude sounds like a classic fascist (no freedom of speech, violence against anyone who speaks against him) with the added perk of misogyny (rape, stalking, being a general asshole). It’s fascinating how Díaz connects this all-powerful dictator with the De Leon’s (Belicia’s affair with The Gangster, who was one of the Trujillo sisters’ husband). It makes the DR feel like a small place. Even orphan girls are just 6 degrees from the ruler of the country.

The novel felt oddly elastic sometimes with regard to what was easy to read and what wasn’t (perhaps this is because it took me 2 months to read, but perhaps there is more to it). Personally, “The Three Heartbreaks of Belicia Cabral” was one of the hardest sections to get through. Belicia is one of the most difficult characters for me to relate to, and I wonder if that’s just my feelings or if Díaz wrote about her that way on purpose. Young Belicia seems hard-headed and illogical in ways that seem to compliment her future son’s illogical passiveness. As a teen, she is belligerent to La Inca, the one person who really has her back, and seems to take the Aries approach to falling in love: be an asshole to people you have a crush on. It’s hard to watch her fawn over The Gangster, someone who is obviously so bad for her, and then brag to her friend Dorcas about how good he is to her. After she miscarries, it’s difficult for me to feel anything other than pity for her.

This is not unlike the pity I feel for Yunior, though for completely different reasons. Díaz does a great job of portraying Yunior as the fuckboy of the century. Yunior comes off like one of those dense dudes who only cares about the gym and screwing girls, until something actually serious and meaningful happens in his life. It’s interesting that he is the narrator and that he doesn’t appear until mid-novel or so, and the book is a manifestation of this sort of awakening he has after Oscar’s death–about how the experiences he has gone through have meaning, that the people in his life had meaning. After the events that happen, he seems to have the hindsight to wish he could change things, but he also seems surprisingly accepting of himself, explaining that he did in fact love Lola, but knowing he doesn’t deserve her nor could he give her what she really wants.

I love Díaz’s tone throughout the novel, the mixing of both Spanish and English throughout the story. He speaks in a familiar way (perhaps to me), that way of immigrants, which involves hilarious exaggerations, sarcasm, crassness. Perhaps one of my favorite lines in the novel is when Lola is crying over the death of Max. On the plane, “When the woman in front turned around and said: Tell that girl of yours to be quiet, [Belicia] said, Tell that culo of yours to stop stinking” (210). I swear, the first time I read that sentence, I put the book down and guffawed for a whole minute. Admittedly, old Belicia is also a much more compelling character in my opinion than young Belicia.

The run-ins with death are also compelling, not least because of the symbols. When Belicia is caught by Trujillo’s goons, and when Oscar tries to commit suicide, a golden mongoose appears for both of them. The mongoose is said to be a symbol of courage and protection, so it makes sense to me that it appears when these two are at their lowest point, and in need of guidance (both literally and physically. Both need to find physical safety and also to not succumb to the spirit world). The faceless man also appears any time a character is about to have a near-death experience. I didn’t feel like looking up this symbol because honestly, sometimes it’s more fun to leave it up to the imagination, or to try to interpret it myself, which I will attempt to do here. There’s something about the facelessness that suggests two things to me: a fucked system in which people can disappear without a trace, or becoming so much a part of a group (dead or alive) that faces don’t matter (this is an idea that’s kind of toyed with in Code Geass, no?). Both kind of apply. During the Trujillato (and arguably afterwards as well), humans lose some of their humanity. In the chapter about Abelard, we learn how people could be handed over to the government by their own friends. Disappearing is not unusual in the Trujillato, nor is losing things like one’s identity or sense of self, which is symbolized by the faceless man. The self-effacing aspect of national identity is kind of the other side of the same coin. To be able to do the sorts of things the Trujillato needed regular citizens to do, turn their backs on friends, snitch on one another, people had to forget the things that connected them to other people. The faceless man could also be a symbol of that dehumanization process.

Compared to the rest of the novel (these gruesome near-deaths and this tumultuous family history), Oscar’s death is very quiet, almost anticlimactic. It’s almost as though there was a degree of inevitability to it. I would even argue Díaz does this on purpose. I suspect that actually, Oscar had planned to die. Earlier in the novel, his suicide attempt fails, but we know that Oscar is not doing well. He isn’t happy. So instead of continuing to live in New Jersey and suffer, he plans to die for something he believes in–his love for Ybon. Arguably, his last days aren’t so bad, if Yunior’s account is to be believed. He finally gets to spend time with Ybon alone, he finally has sex. I would argue he knows he is going to die for it.

I think the last thing Oscar says is actually really deep and resonant. Díaz writes, “He told them that what they were doing was wrong, that they were going to take a great love out of the world” (321). If you think about it, it’s a pathetic thing to die for. Oscar dies because he has the feel-feels for a ho with a fucking mean boyfriend. That’s, like, really not what you want to see on your kid’s gravestone. But the meaning he gives it is so noble. It is wrong, killing someone who loves another person, so arguably, murder is always wrong. But you know, who is to say that one person’s love is any greater or less than any other person’s? Who is to say that Oscar’s affair with a taken woman is not as valid as any other person’s love? Oscar seems to intuitively know this. He seems to know that to break people’s connections with each other is cruel, to separate them by death is a crime. I think we need more Oscars in this world, at a time when institutions are hell-bent on deporting people, building walls, making it hard for the poor to live, and making sure military-grade weapons are easy to come by. I think an Oscar would know how sad that all is, and would at least have the words to help us name the problem.

Impressions of Custer Died for Your Sins

cdfysThis week, I finished reading Custer Died for Your Sins (1969, 1988) by Vine Deloria Jr. My reading coincided with our newest presidential administration’s violations of land rights and first amendment rights in the #NoDAPL protest at the Oceti Sakowin camp. White supremacy is rearing its ugly head in the worst ways because of the 2016 presidential election in the United States, and people of color are feeling it on every front. Deloria’s book gives me much to consider on how to fix these problems, and whether or not Deloria’s solutions, which he wrote in 1969, still apply today.

Deloria is quite the writer. I really appreciate his crass, part comedian-part philosopher style. He and Thomas King, author of The Inconvenient Indian, which I reviewed back in July 2016, write about similar material in very different ways. These differences I attribute to a number of things, of which the first has to be sun signs. Laugh if you must, but that King is a Taurus and Deloria is an Aries is quite striking in their writing. King treats writing as an art; as I said in my post, he is like a poet. It felt as though he revered the process of creating the work almost as much as he did the content. His book also came out in 2013, a time when many of the predictions that Deloria made in his 1969 book could be evaluated. Deloria, on the other hand, unapologetically bashed the United States government, Christianity, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), whiteness, white people’s accounts of history, anthropologists, and a great number of other things with a signature coarseness. His writing is more utilitarian–a way to clearly state ideas in a way that is credible and easily distributed.

King, while born in California, most recently resides in Canada, a nation of relatively liberal, friendly (albeit, super white) people who say “eh” a lot and are a lot more sympathetic to Native folks. Deloria resided in America during his life, a place where white people consistently tell other people to “go back to their country,” even though this land clearly wasn’t theirs to begin with.

To preface my analysis, I’m going to say here that there is no way in hell I will do this book any justice because there is so much in it that is so, so important. I’ll do my best with the parts I liked.

First off, I really appreciate how fucking funny Deloria is. His opening chapter is filled with too many good witticisms on the relations between American and Indian (Deloria uses the word “Indian” to refer to the indigenous people of America). Within the first ten pages, Deloria makes fun of both American values as well as old country music:

Like the deer and the antelope, Indians seemed to play rather than get down to the serious business of piling up treasures upon the earth where thieves break through and steal (1969, p. 6). 

The implication here is that perhaps piling up treasure in a capitalist frenzy is a folly after all, since all it does is attract thieves. Or perhaps the thieves exist precisely because there is an uneven distribution of goods?

Another gem was Deloria’s comment on the “paternalism” of whiteness.

Whites have always refused to give non-whites the respect which they have been found to legally possess. Instead there has always been a contemptuous attitude that although the law says one thing, ‘we all know better’ (1969, p. 8). 

Probably any non-white understands this sentiment. Deloria doesn’t say “the respect that non-whites possess”. Rather, they are “found to possess,” as though even the existence of the damn respect is dubious until white people say it is so. Thus white people think they are the arbiters of law, what people are worth, and basically everything and anything. In truth, white people know little to nothing of the lives of people of color and how different racialized minorities relate to one another.

I also appreciate how little Deloria does to shield the scholar-reader from poverty. For some reason, in more recent books, these descriptions are glossed over, though I can’t imagine why. Oh wait, yes I can. It’s to make sure Millenials don’t have a proper class analysis. Consider his description of the Wisconsin Menominees.

The Menominees had been so poor in comparison to other Americans that the only experience Watkins [a senator] could relate his reservation visit with was his visit to refugee camps of the Near East after World War II. (p. 68). 

This was in Chapter 3 on “The Disastrous Policy of Termination”. Termination was the process in the late 50’s (p. 60-71) by which the United States government tried to end government funding of Indian entities. This is not unlike the constant conservative backlash against providing welfare. The logic is, the government gives the tribes money over a certain period for things like healthcare, building schools, and constructing homes (p. 71) until the tribe’s economy stabilizes and it can support itself. It seemed an irony at the time that the United States was concerned with “keeping its promises” in Vietnam when it hadn’t kept even one promise to the Indigenous people of America (p. 76). If anything, it continued to break those promises.

Like King, Deloria talks a great deal about land. In chapter 5 on “Missionaries and the Religious Vacuum”, he states,

Most mysterious [to the missionaries] was the Indian reverence for land. When told to settle down and become farmers, most Indians rebelled. For centuries they had lived off the land as hunters, taking and giving in their dances and ceremonies (p. 103). 

In Chapter 8, “The Red and the Black”, he continues,

No movement can sustain itself, no people can continue, no government can function, and no religion can become a reality except  it be bound to a land area of its own…So called power movements are primarily the urge of peoples to find their homeland…(p. 179).

Most beautifully, in Chapter 9, “The Problem of Indian Leadership”:

But when they attempt to articulate what they are doing so that the white society can understand them, unity dissolves into chaos…Indians simply cannot externalize themselves. Externalization implies a concern for the future. Indians welcome the future but don’t worry about it. Traditionally the tribes had pretty much what they wanted…The land had plenty for everyone. Piling up gigantic surpluses implied a mistrust of the Great Spirit and a futile desire to control the future (p. 221).

While each of these three quotes alone serve their own purpose in the chapters where they are written, as a whole they also put forth a philosophy on land. Perhaps more, even, than a philosophy. The way Deloria talks about land reminds me of the way Desis talk about Hinduism or Hawai’ians talk about their religion. They are things appropriated by white people that simultaneously, white people will never understand. Even if they study these things for years in their classes on anthropology and human evolution, even if they devote their lives to these things, white people will never be descendants of the people to whom these things belong. Deloria talks about land as though it is a living entity, one that should be developed, but not in the way that Americans think. It should be developed the way a child is nurtured to grow older. Dividing up land for different purposes is as futile as claiming your arm does not belong to the same body as your head. Function does not determine entity.

Custer Died for your Sins is organized into 11 chapters of which my favorites, without a doubt, are chpater 4, “Anthropologists and Other Friends” and chapter 7, “Indian Humor”. In the former, Deloria scolds academia for its futile attempts at being useful. In the latter, Deloria comments on the many entities, human or otherwise, that plague Indian existence, though he makes them sound more like mosquitoes bothering a large creature rather than the life-threatening things they are. Arguably, that is the beauty of humor. The unthinkable and inhumane can be reduced to entertainment that Americans then actually pay attention to, hell, even pay money for.

While Deloria undertook an important task in writing this book, he is not without his faults. Although he gives ample commentary on the relations between white and black people, he gives little in the way of how Indian men and women relate to one another. Gender is not given a chapter, a weakness that King incidentally does address in The Inconvenient Indian. Deloria also has a tendency to generalize, claiming that “Indians” all feel a certain way, or do a certain thing, or behave a certain way about a great many issues (see the last of the three land quotes above). I do wonder if this is not so much a fault of Deloria’s as it is a symptom of the times in which the book was published, when identity politics did not dominate so much of academia and people were not yet compartmentalized into their little individual tribes. In 1969, divisions were still quite simple: you were either a woman or a man, a person of color or white (yes, I am aware that that is a generalization as well). These days, you must specify that you are an able-bodied, black, cisgender, heterosexual, working class, right-handed, woman, or not. If you are a person with the same social identities but you are left-handed, academia now dictates you have nothing in common with your right-handed sister.

In addition, Deloria seemed to have been very optimistic about certain outcomes when this book was written. On the revival of religion in the Northwest, he appears to have been right (p. 115). Upon rekindling their connection to their ancestral religions, the tribes of the Northwest are some of the most active at the moment (at least, it looks that way to me. All the Native activists I meet on the East Coast are from there). On how whiteness has endured (and I apologize, I can’t find my tab for this citation), he  was rather optimistic. I do wonder, though, if that is also a symptom of the times. The end of the Civil Rights, while tumultuous, was also a period of great leadership and uprising among many marginalized peoples. While we also see activism today in the Black Lives Matter movement and the #NoDAPL protest, both of the current organizations seem to be throwing pebbles at a fortress, where perhaps in the 60’s, organizers may have had flamethrowers. The playing field is not as even. I feel the actions of the movement are not making as much of a dent in the machine as they used to. Then again, I am still just discovering the whole picture, and may not be fully informed.

 

In spite of its shortcomings, Custer Died for your Sins should really be a requirement for college liberal arts degrees. There is far more in there that I did not talk about (the challenges of uniting people of a single group! The commentary on how Black and Indian relate!) that provides so much insight into community organizing and environmental justice. I now understand why this is considered a landmark of a book.

Works Cited

Deloria Jr., V. (1969, 1988). Custer died for your sins. New York, NY: University of Oklahoma Press.

Thoughts on The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar

Content warning: Sexual assault, abortion trauma, domestic violence

You know, before I go into talking about the book, which is commendable even as I critique it, I will say it’s been a hard week. In the United States, there have been a number of really depressing developments, which I wrote about in a previous post. The newest is the #MuslimBan. I cannot overstate how dehumanizing a move that is. At the same time, though, it has sparked some pretty spectacular protests all over the country. While I personally doubt the administration cares much about why people protest, I do think protests hinder normal operations. I think this is actually where our strength lies. Hinder the normal operation of things. Throw a wrench in the gears. If things are slowing down, that means the effects of capitalism and colonization come to at least a temporary halt. That means we can buy time to do more strategic planning.

tsbuSo I recently finished The Space Between Us, published in 2005which could actually provide some insight into the turmoil that is under way. If I’m being really honest, the plot is not unlike that of The Help, except the role of Skeeter Phelan is played by Umrigar herself. That is probably my biggest critique of the book; Umrigar’s role is not unlike those of well-intentioned anthropologists who think they are “saving” Native Americans by collecting data on their lives and presenting it to the world. In reality, they take from the community without really giving anything in return. Just as Skeeter plays white savior to Aibilene, Umrigar plays upper-middle-class hero to Bhima. Umrigar claims that the character of Bhima is based on a real person who served her family when she lived in Mumbai. If that is the case, did the Bhima of Umrigar’s life ever receive any compensation for basically being her inspiration? Was she given any credit for providing the details to fill the pages of this book? While I can understand Umrigar and the person she is writing about may not keep in touch due to social taboos in India or because of the passage of time, nothing is explicitly stated about the process by which this story was told in the interview that follows the text. I prefer a little more transparency.

In addition, the “message” of the novel is a little heavy-handed if you ask me, though perhaps understandably so. The experience of poverty (which, it should be noted, is neither mine nor Umrigar’s) is to have the effects of sexism and classism compounded in everyday life. Thus, Bhima’s family experiences AIDS, an industrial accident, alcoholism, separation and displacement, sexual assault trauma, and abortion trauma. The character Sera Dubash also experiences domestic violence. You’ll notice a lot of these are phenomena that disproportionately impact women. It does feel like every few chapters, Umrigar hits us over the head with the message “INDIANS NEED TO DO SOMETHING ABOUT THE STATE OF ITS WORKING CLASS WOMEN.”

By contrast, what makes this book radical is Umrigar’s descriptions of Bhima’s thoughts. The process is frequently laced with a humor that only the Previously or Currently Colonized will understand. In one example, Bhima describes her encounters with white people:

Serabai had once explained to her why these people had yellow hair and skin the color of a hospital wall–about how something was missing from their bodies…She felt sorry for them then and, seeing their long hair and shabby clothes, wanted to give them some money, but Sera laughed at that and said she needn’t pity them, they actually were very proud of their white skin. How can you be proud if something is missing from your body? Bhima wanted to ask, but before she could, Sera said they didn’t need money from her and that they came from places far richer than she could imagine. Now Bhima was sure that Sera was lying…one look at their dirty hair, faded shirts, and torn blue pants, and any fool could see that these untidy, colorless people were very poor. (2005, p.93)

Bhima has clearly never been around white people before, and her worldview reflects this reality. The beauty of her lack of (Western) education is that she does not think that structures of power apply to her (and in fact, they don’t!). Thus, she does not follow the narrative of being “less fortunate” or inferior to the white people she encounters. If anything, she truly believes she could be of help–to them! In spite of Bhima’s stubbornness, Umrigar’s description of her won me over with this passage.

Furthermore, Umrigar’s greatest strength is her ability to describe rare moments of humanity, especially those shared or experienced by women. The strength with which I relate to some of these moments is eerie. For example, this is a moment when Bhima is massaging Sera’s arm, after Sera has been beaten by her husband:

Sera recoiled. Bhima had never touched her before…Although Bhima’s thin but strong hands were only massaging her arm, Sera felt her whole body sigh. She felt life beginning to stir in her veins…Even at the sweetest moment of lovemaking with Feroz, it never felt as generous, as selfless as this massage did…When you got right down to it, sex was ultimately a selfish act, the expectations of one body intrinsically woven into the needs of another. (p. 108)

I am bemused by how Umrigar seems to know the inner workings of my head. Perhaps this is a common experience among Desis? Among women of color? Among all women, even? I am not sure, but this moment embodies the eroticism described by bell hooks, the kind that is not sexual, but life-giving. It is a kind of human connection I have only felt with other women. My tendency to intellectualize causes me to connect with people on more of a conversational level rather than a physical one. Even then, my discussions with other women make me feel more connected to them than I ever have during sexual encounters with men.

Bhima is capable of giving life with her hands. Moreover, Bhima seems to symbolize those whose humanity is still in tact to give this kind of care. She is a simple person–not stupid, but uncomplicated. While she massages Sera, her only concern is to keep the arm from scarring and to make Sera physically better; to stop what she is doing because of class divisions does not even cross her mind, though it crosses Sera’s. This seems indicative of how deeply Bhima, and people like her, knows her own and others’ humanity.

The eeriness does not stop there. Many of Maya and Sera’s experiences are ones that I relate to as well. After her abortion, Maya is described as

…stone-faced, as if the abortion doctor has killed more than her baby, as if he has…scooped out her beating heart, just as Bhima scoops out the fibrous innards of the red pumpkin that Serabai puts in her daal. (p. 129)

Maya refuses to go back to school or take a job after her abortion. Again, I question whether or not this is a universally Desi experience. It cannot be some mistake that I remember this feeling after my own abortion. I was told I would feel relief afterwards. I waited for days, weeks, and months to feel anything. I did not feel anything, and it was not until I found a therapist 9 months later that I understood why. My therapist said that a person who is allowed to mourn publicly will feel relief. This is how people move on after someone they love dies; they grieve, and their community comes together. But for many women who get an abortion, we are not allowed to grieve publicly because we do not want people to know that this is what we have done. Thus, we grieve alone and internally. No one comes to our side to comfort us. People treat us as though nothing has happened, as though we should be the same. It is not the same. Knowing I could have had a 5-month-old child right now is sometimes unbearable. My only consolation is that perhaps if I am lucky enough to give birth in this life, it will be under far better circumstances than the ones I’m in now.

Maya’s experience with sexual assault is also strikingly familiar to me. Viraf asks her to give him a back massage somewhat flirtatiously, but she is unaware of how powerless she truly is.

It felt good to be giving him so much pleasure. As her hands kneaded and caressed Viraf’s back…Maya felt important and strong–and powerful…But then he spun around so fast that for one confusing moment, her hands strummed air…and somehow [she recognized] she was the cause of that tension…And her awe turning to pride and the pride turning to panic…She protested; she did not protest. It did not matter, because it was inevitable what was about to happen…(p.277)

I admire Umrigar for the ambivalence of this excerpt. Sexual assault is rarely the violent, horrific act that Alice Sebold describes in The Lovely Bones. It is frequently much more gray. This passage is immensely complicated. On one hand, Maya seems to discover for the first time that she possesses an immense bodily intelligence–one that people who are more embedded into society’s upper crust or positions of privilege hardly know. I have a theory that because of capitalistic consumption, people in the upper strata of society cannot easily know that kind of intelligence. They listen too much to propaganda about what they are “supposed” to be doing, instead of listening to The Gut, which operates on a far more physical, sensory frequency.

At the same time, Maya’s discovery is not an invitation, and Viraf takes advantage of this moment when she is incredibly vulnerable. This is something men have done to me again and again. The power to unfurl the human body is terribly dangerous, simply because it puts one in close proximity to another person. When I was a much more naive person, men I hung out with asked if I would mind cuddling or if they could sit next to me when we watch a movie in their apartment, and somehow I never saw sexual assault coming. The word “sex” was never explicitly said, so I was never even given a chance to say “no”. And in the end, it was always me who walked away with a reputation for being “easy”. This is the power that men have–with the skills of a lawyer, they trap me in situations I cannot escape from, and then act as though it was my fault.

Sera’s experience with her abusive husband, Feroz, also reflects the hypocrisy of sexism. Her situation is complicated by the fact that she and her husband shared many friends, and these friends knew very little about the reality of her life. When her best friend asks her if she is missing her “dear husband”, these are Sera’s thoughts:

Sera looks at her oldest friend, unsure of what to say. She envies Aban her innocence, her simple way of dividing the world into love and not-love; good and bad…Does she miss Feroz? She is unsure of the answer. She does not miss the shame-inducing beatings…In fact, what she misses is not the marriage, but the dream of the marriage. (p. 160)

Sera has to deal with a complicated grief after her husband dies. Her friends and family remember him fondly as “loving husband” or “loving father”. She knows a very different reality, and is not able to share this with the people she knows because she has hidden the truth from them for the duration of her marriage. Arguably, the only person who actually knows what has transpired in her marriage are Dinaz, her daughter, and Bhima, her maidservant.

This is also a feeling I can relate to. Abuse can be convoluted when community is involved. I have avoided events, blocked people on social media, and blocked phone calls from people because of the abuse I experienced from men I used to date. I was stupid enough to choose men whose parents are friends with my parents or whose social circles intersect with mine somehow. On rare occasions (because I have mostly left these circles behind at this point) those people come up to me and tell me things like “You and that person seemed like such a great couple! Why did it end?” or “Why weren’t you at this event? We really missed you!” And I know I never give them a satisfying response because dragging the truth out in the open means defending myself against an onslaught. These people would feign confusion, defend my abusers and rapists, or tell me to get over my feelings before they admit to obvious facts–that sexism is a violent structure, that women are frequently abused by the people closest to them, and that I tell the truth.

On a last note, I think my favorite thing about this novel is the Pathan. This is a character from Bhima’s past, a man who used to twist balloons at a stall on Chowpatty Beach in Mumbai. A Pathan is a person of ethnic Afghan descent, and the word is synonymous with the Pashtun people. Bhima and Gopal would frequently encounter the Pathan when they were younger and went for walks together at the beach. This was one memorable exchange:

Gopal had said, “Compared to our Bombay, with the monsoons and all, your Afghanistan must seem as dried up as an old woman, no? All hills it is, dry as a bone, correct? I saw a picture of it once.”

She had expected the Pathan to be insulted, but he laughed, “Nahi, sahib,” he said in his low, dreamy voice. “My Afghanistan is very beautiful. A hard land, yes, full of mountains, but toughness has its own beauty.” (pp. 199-200)

I think it is no mistake that Umrigar evoked the image of a woman with this exchange. I think it is no mistake that the earth has always been called “Mother Earth”. Just as the Pathan defends his homeland as beautiful, I would like to think this exchange alludes to, in Warsan Shire’s words, “women who are difficult to love”.

I also think it is no mistake that the Pathan symbolizes a number of things, of which the most important are perhaps God (or a Creator of some sort) and diasporic people. He is depicted as a creator of beautiful, colorful things (his balloons) that give children joy. Yet, his life was probably not easy, as he says:

“Everybody in my homeland is a poet, sahib. The country makes you so…That is, everybody was a poet. Now the country is broken. Too many people fighting over the poor land, and the land is sick in its heart. Night and day it is weeping. Now it cannot take care of its sons and daughters…There is a saying in my community…They say that when something is very beautiful, the Gods of Jealousy notice it. Then they must destroy it. Even if it’s their own creation, its beauty begins to make them jealous and they are afraid it will overshadow them. So they destroy the very temples they have built.”(pp. 200-201)

This excerpt made me cry the first time I read it. I’m not sure I can even convey what it means to me, but I can tell you what images come to mind. I think of Natives fighting for their land, and for the right to live, and for a chance at creating a more meaningful life than the one the American dream offers. I think of all the immigrants that come to this country under the illusion that life is going to be better, only to find out being successful in this country is a pipe dream, and perhaps even to be turned away at the doorstep. I think of the land we live on being ravaged for its resources, in order to keep feeding a capitalist existence that allows for a select few to live in luxury that the vast majority of people will never know. I think of the wars of this century and the last, almost all of them started over colonial feuds, and which only colonizers have any hope of “winning” (what does that even mean? To “win” a war? At what cost are wars won? How inhuman do you have to be to want that?).

In short, I admire the depth and reverence that Umrigar gives to her characters. While I wrote a pretty lengthy post here, I still have a great number of thoughts on this novel, things I am still grappling with because I struggle to find the words to describe them.

Thoughts on The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

tcvContent warning: Self harm

Last week, I finally finished The Casual Vacancy, a recommendation that my mother made. For all the critique I’m about to throw at it, it was not bad overall. As always, Rowling’s strengths as a writer are most clearly illustrated in the characterization and dialogue throughout the novel. Some of the exchanges are quite entertaining, and admittedly, she kept my attention until the very end.

The damn thing started quite slowly, though. I’m beginning to realize that Rowling tends to follow a formula, granted it is a formula that I can forgive. (At least it is not the White Women’s Dystopic Future Novel formula. I’ve had my fill of Hunger Games, Divergent, nuclear bombs, zombies, and apocalypto-love stories. If I had my way, I would ban that particular formula for at least the next ten years). Rowling seems to be a Dickens acolyte; like him, she gives you minimal action until the last 5 pages, where she proceeds to stun the reader stupid with all the action she withheld for the last 495 pages. I may exaggerate slightly.

Another point that makes the book drag at first, at least to me, is that there is a grand total of one (out of some 12 main characters) who is a person of color. Okay, perhaps there are two, and a third plays a minor role, but we definitely see the nine or so white women feature much more prominently. It got somewhat tiring for me after a while to keep track of which Becky was mad at who, especially when all white girl names sound the same. After the introduction of the fifth one, I wondered how many Beckys’ lives I would have to keep track of in this damn book. The answer is too many.

And it’s not like the portrayal of the people of color is much better. Inevitably, since this is England, they’re an Indian family (as opposed to, I don’t know, a Nigerian one or an Egyptian one, or some other descendants of a country previously colonized by the British). So they’re a Punjabi Sikh family with the surname, Jawanda. The character that is given most prominence is Parminder Jawanda, a wife and mother of three. She is described as skinny, cranky, and with inevitably “almond-shaped” eyes (that particular cliche I could not forgive as easily. Rowling ought to be ashamed, relying on such a lazy trope for a main character). Her husband, Vikram, is described as far more easygoing and, in the words of Samantha Mollison, looks like “sex on legs”. Does anyone smell the casual racism here? The brown man is sweet and friendly and everyone approves. The woman is always grumpy and disliked by everyone. What’s that word that Moya Bailey came up with? Misogynoir? Does that apply to brown women, too?

What’s worse is the portrayal of Sukhvinder Jawanda, third child to Parminder. This poor girl clearly experiences her fair share of racism as well. Her hairiness and the shape of her body cause a particularly mean-spirited character to refer to her as a hermaphrodite. As a result, Sukhvinder cuts herself when she is alone.

Sure, sure, all this is allowed because this is a fictional novel, and besides, the good Tessa Wall and Gaia Bawden see the racism for what it really is. Get a grip, y’all. This is an example of trauma porn, the same kind you find on Orange is the New Black (so if I’m being honest, I didn’t get past the second episode of season two with that show. But the horror stories I have heard about episode twelve in mystery season hasn’t got me too excited to start again). White people can’t be bothered to portray people of color in a position in which they actually have institutional or radical power (or really any kind, for that matter). Thus, they stay in their roles as fuming examples of Things That Need Trigger Warnings (if you believe in that sort of thing).

At this point I must add a spoiler alert, for those of you who give a fuck.

I did find the end to be quite surprising, though. For all that seemed predictable about the first four fifths of the novel, the last was shocking. I don’t think it is any mistake that three characters who embodied the Fields are dead by the end of this novel. Before presenting my analysis, I must confess it may be somewhat patronizing. For all I know, there is some other message Rowling was trying to convey, and I am missing it. My class analysis is not as strong as it could be. However, from my point of view, it seems like the (slightly ham-fisted) message here might be that people of the working class are most affected by the decisions made by wealthier people (and if this was a message, I felt it could definitely have been strengthened if the working class characters had been people of color. That would challenge white readers to complicate their narratives a little more than they do currently, and it also would reflect the truth more accurately).

Another theme I could tease out was that Real Change does not take place unless violence occurs. Pessimistic as that may seem, it’s an outlook I can agree with more. I do appreciate Rowling for not coddling the reader with the ending. In my experience, people do not do anything to change the status quo until they see someone with whom they identify harmed as a result of current proceedings. Perhaps Krystal Weedon truly was a part of the community of Pagford. It is only after her death that people began to take action against the established members of the town.

~

Those of you who like my book reviews–feel free to suggest another book. Winter break is coming up and I’ll have time to do more writing soon! Leave your suggestions in the comments below. Thanks for reading!

Works Cited

Rowling, J.K. (2012). The Casual Vacancy. Little, Brown, and Company.

 

An Analysis of The Last Illusion by Porochista Khakpour

lastillusionContent warning: child abuse, sexual assault, suicide

My most recent read was The Last Illusion by Porochista Khakpour. I chose the book from this list of Asian American authors (and you’ll find I will probably read a few more from that list before summer is over). The list implies that Khakpour is on par with some authors whom I really admire, like Jhumpa Lahiri and Amy Tan, so I had pretty high expectations, which I am not sure the novel lives up to.

It should be noted, this book is based on a legend from the Persian epic, the Shahnameh, the Book of Kings. I personally have never read the Shahnameh, so there is a certain point of reference missing in my analysis.

To give her credit, Khakpour is a talented prose writer. The beginning of the book reminds me of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children:

His hair and skin were the color of–no use to sugarcoat it, Khanoom would snap–piss. He was something so unlike them, unlike all of nature. (2014, p.3)

This first description of the protagonist, Zal, reminds me of Saleem and his gargantuan nose from Midnight’s Children. I have always had a soft spot for ugly-baby descriptions. It thrills me that many writers of color do not want to portray their protagonist as attractive, that in some cases they are downright scary. It supports the idea that ugly people deserve to have their stories told, too.

Khanoom’s distinction between her birds and her son also reminds me of an excerpt from Clive Barker’s Abarat series. There is a story in Absolute Midnight about a mother who gives birth to two sons: one that is the embodiment of all of her good, and the other that is the embodiment of her evil. The good son is a homely thing that resembles a worm. The evil son is a beautiful creature, colorful and charming.

Similarly, Khanoom is enamored with her birds, which she refers to as her children. She cuddles them, sings to them, and makes sure they are fed and clean. She abhors Zal, whom she keeps in a cage with the rest of the birds. She calls him “White Demon” (p.5) and prays for his death. It is as though Zal, scrawny and pale as he is, is what little good Khanoom is capable of, and her numerous, glorious birds epitomize her cruelty.

Khakpour does a great job of commenting on the hypocrisy of able-bodied people and the mental health profession throughout the novel. I feel as though every time she wants the reader to think about what we are taught about disability, she uses the italicized word, considering. For example:

His father had set it all up…and would not have created an abnormal environment for his son…whom Hendricks so badly wanted to grow up as normal as he could, considering. (2014, p. 82)

These were Zal’s thoughts when he took Asiya into his apartment for the first time. The “considering” piece always refers to his history as the Bird Boy, and  how he made the “miraculous” recovery from a squalid, screeching boy to a relatively well-adjusted adult. Hendricks thinks it would be so great if Zal was just like everybody else, implying that the way Zal lives is such an inconvenience to able-bodied people like Hendricks, as though being “normal” is such a wonderful way to live. Khakpour invites us to question whether or not our “normal” is really as wonderful as we think it is. Is Zal better off as a harmless, insect-eating, asexual, bisexual person who is a little strange? Or is he preferable as an alcoholic, sexist man who passes for “normal” by our standards?

I think it also invites us to question the well-intentioned people who frequently live with, or are guardians of, people with disabilities. Is it really for Zal’s good that Hendricks is hell-bent on making him “normal”? Or is it more so to prove that he is a good father? Why doesn’t Hendricks approve of Zal when he behaves in a “bird-like” manner?

I also love Khakpour’s commentary on love. When Zal first meets Willa, he describes his feelings.

He felt, he though, maybe what they called love–THEORY NO. 4: Love?–but of course it wasn’t, he quickly told himself, love did not come so illogically. It did not do that at-first spell that was just a human joke…(2014, p. 92)

Perhaps my cynicism is showing, but I love how Khakpour gives voice to my skepticism toward “love at first sight”. I think Americans thoroughly exaggerate the role of physical attraction and infatuation in “loving” relationships. I personally believe the exaggeration is a natural by-product of capitalism, in which sex becomes a spectacle that people are willing to pay for, and which people then fervently rush to sell as per the laws of supply and demand. “Love at first sight” is not a truth, but a platitude we tell ourselves to pretend we are satisfied in mediocre relationships. Actual “love”, the act of caring for flawed and petty human beings and understanding they are not obliged to us in any way, is a lot of hard work.

In reaction to this first response, Zal gives us another description of Willa the second time he meets her.

He wanted to be nestled against her bosom. In what way? Like a child, he thought. Like a lover, he thought again. She confused him to no end. (2014, p. 119)

In a digital story I created last year, I said “love is unfathomable. If you understand it, it is not love.” Zal’s experience illustrates this sentiment. He doesn’t seem to know what he wants to be for Willa, or what he wants Willa to be for him, but it is more than just being a lover. He also mentions wanting to be a friend or guardian. His feelings resonate with me. I think it is more accurate for me to say I have felt love towards friends and family more than I have to lovers, or whatever you want to call them. Acting within constructs in relationships has obstructed love for me more than it has bolstered it.

Khakpour, however, does not use her strengths to her advantage. She makes great commentary on disabilities and traditional relationships, yet that is not what she focuses on. She instead turns her focus to the 9/11 attacks and tries to make a really cliché allegory about life. While I think her commentary on 9/11 itself is actually quite interesting, she takes a huge, wandering portion of the book to finally get there.

First, I think Khakpour makes the mistake of establishing the premise of the story too early. As soon as I found out Asiya is clairvoyant and the dates begin to seem very important about one third of the way through the book (with the Y2K New Year featuring as a prominent incident), I already knew to expect the book to end with 9/11. It literally takes the other two thirds to get there. After the New Year party, The Last Illusion seems like a long story about people who do nothing–the repetition is tedious. Asiya and Zal break up several times. Each time, Zal goes to Hendricks, who tries to pull him out of his misery. Then Zal makes the decision to go back to Asiya, and Hendricks tries to dissuade him because he doesn’t like Asiya. Zal leaves anyway, giving some platitudes about establishing independence. This occurs two or three times in the novel.

Toward the end, I really feel Khakpour is trying too hard to make a point. It starts to sound like a college application essay. Silber starts asking himself “What does it all mean?” (p. 254) over and over again, as if anyone needs to be reminded to find meaning. On page 267, Silber literally thinks, “Maybe money is the key.” She really loses me there, as if we need anyone else to point out any more cliches about greed and avarice and money. And then we have Manning calling Asiya a terrorist on page 270, and I just about gave up. Here is a book about 9/11 and the word “terrorist” is in the novel. How compelling. So original.

Asiya is one of the most grating characters in the novel (though honestly, Zal himself can be quite grating at times). I would almost be willing to forgive Asiya for her behavior (she has to put up with so much sexism from Zal–he doesn’t believe her even though she is right (p. 260), and he can be quite manipulative. Having sex with her just to prove he is normal (p.152)?) except, except, except, she is a white girl with an Arabic name. On top of throwing all these tantrums because she wants people to believe her and they don’t (what does she honestly expect? She’s a skinny little artsy woman. People are not kind to women in general, let alone strange ones) she gets arrested, and when asked if she has a Muslim name, responds, “Absolutely” (p. 279).

I suppose this was supposed to show how defiant and brave she is, but for me it rings so hollow. Asiya McDonald was born Daisy McDonald, and she got her name by dating a Muslim guy at one point in her life and then converting to Islam. At the end of the day, she is still a white woman, and still has all the privilege that that identity confers. When I think about the Muslim women of color I know, the hijabis, the ones who are told again and again to go back to their country, the ones who have cried over the things people yell at them, the ones who literally have eggs thrown at them, Asiya McDonald is like a bad joke. I’m still waiting for the punch line. I’ve said this before, but I have a hard time believing white women ever truly show “resistance”. They only ever seem to echo all that women of color have already done.

Of course, Khakpour might have portrayed Asiya this way intentionally. You never know.

Another piece that irked me to no end is the description of Willa’s sexual assault. On p. 124, I find out that the reason why Willa overeats and is obese is because she was kidnapped as a young girl and repeatedly raped by her kidnapper. This is actually a common response that women have to sexual trauma (as reported by the Atlantic). Yet, Khakpour is surprisingly euphemistic about it, describing only how he “hurt her again and again” (p. 124). In context, this is how Willa is explaining herself to Zal, so I suppose this conveys how hard it is for Willa to talk about it, but I felt this portion would have been so much stronger if the incident was referred to as “rape”, or “sexual assault”. Since she is 20, it is reasonable to assume Willa knows what these words mean. This was an opportunity to shed light on a really important issue, and instead of naming the problem, Khakpour hides it.

I was further irked by the explanation for Willa’s suicide. On p. 292, it is said that “Apparently only in depression was she losing the weight that had made her depressed in the first place, most likely.” This angers me to no end. It was Willa’s rapist who forced her to feel she needed to eat all the time, and it was her rapist who made her feel suicidal. However, Khakpour takes the route of blaming Willa’s weight for her suicide, which not only body-shames Willa, but also lets her rapist off the hook instead of holding him accountable. It’s a depressingly conservative stance to take.

Khakpour slightly redeems herself with her description of 9/11, the Last Illusion, though she makes me wait entirely too long to get to that point. It turns out like a dream, Silber’s last illusion.

The illusion had not gone right, but it had not gone wrong. It had gone real. (p. 315)

I remember the day, and it was quite dreamlike. I was 9 years old on 9/11/2001, just starting my first days of fourth grade. I remember coming home from school with my brother and my mom to see the image of the Twin Towers falling, on channel after channel, again and again. It was strange how easily I believed it was real, how there was no skepticism at that point in my life about CGI or Photoshop, that I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that I was seeing something real.

 

Zal realizes, after the illusion, that just like so many things, a smile is just another human trick (p. 319). There are some implications there about constructions, how even the ways our body is supposed to react to things are social constructions. Zal smiles on the day of 9/11. It would certainly explain why I sometimes laugh in classes about genocide.

An Analysis of Americanah by Chimamanda Adichie

americanahIn the last two days, I have been opening the copy of Americanah  that I checked out from the library, expecting there to be more for me to read, and feeling disappointed that there isn’t. Chimamanda Adichie has a gift for creating familiarity in her writing through meticulous pacing.

This book was not unlike The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (which I recently talked about here), though Adichie pursues characterization with the approach of extroverted intuition–through dialogue among groups of people, as opposed to Lahiri’s internal thought processes. The main characters in Americanah, Ifemelu and Obinze, emigrate to Western countries, and the impetus to make these transitions comes from political unrest in their country of origin, Nigeria. Both novels also portray the ways in which insecurity from political unrest affects people on an individual level–in Americanah, the way Ifemelu’s father loses his job, and how Aunty Uju has a child by The General.

Adichie differs from Lahiri because she leans more towards emoting than intellectualizing. I am fascinated with the way she narrates with an omniscience about other characters’ personalities. Here is an example:

Her skin prickled, an unease settling over her. There was something venal about his thin-lipped face; he had the air of a man to whom corruption was familiar. (Adichie, 2013 p.242)

Adichie has barely introduced the man referred to in the excerpt, but we already have an idea of the kind of person he is. One of my favorite examples of characterization is the description of the hairdresser, Aisha.

Aisha glanced at Ifemelu, nodding ever so slightly, her face blank, almost forbidding in its expressionlessness. There was something strange about her. (2013, p.22)

The way Ifemelu talks about other characters tells us a lot about her own personality. In the course of the novel, Aisha is a recurring character with whom Ifemelu becomes progressively more annoyed and, much later, more understanding. Ifemelu reminds me somewhat of Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice. She is a confident young woman who values genuineness from other people in her life. It is not unusual for her to be the most discerning person in the theoretical room. Thus, on the rare occasion when there is more to the story than what Ifemelu perceives, as in the case of Aisha, she is forced to revise her initial impressions.

The way Adichie writes about America brought up many thoughts for me. First, she does a great job of illustrating the ways that women of color experience microaggressions in everyday life, and how it simply isn’t possible to address all of them because that would completely drain any sane human being of energy. This is an example:

“What a beautiful name,” Kimberly said. “Does it mean anything? I love multicultural names because they have such wonderful meanings, from wonderful rich cultures”…”I don’t know what it means,” Ifemelu said, and sensed rather than saw a small amusement on Ginika’s face. (2013, p. 244)

This passage amuses me. Ifemelu receives her fair share of dumb questions from white people in the course of the novel. This one is self-explanatory. I have heard from a trusted source that even white people’s names mean something, though the significance might fade after meeting 9 or 10 people with the same name in one university department or one residence hall.

This reminds me of an incident that happened to me in first grade. After I told the class that I had gone to India over the summer, my white teacher asked me, “Is India very different from the United States?” In perhaps the first recorded instance of me being sarcastic, my response was, “No.”

I was also humored by Ifemelu’s stance on American health systems.

“…And now you cheat on Curt because at some level you don’t think you deserve happiness,” [Ginika said.]

“Now you are going to suggest some pills for Self-Sabotage Disorder,” Ifemelu said. (2013, p.480)

While I think mental health is certainly something that should be talked about in communities of color, I also love the critique of Americans in this exchange. I absolutely think people in the United States are too obsessed with medicalization (literally, I see a study every day about new things that cause cancer) as well as labeling perceived illnesses. For example, a friend of mine who works as a kindergarten teacher firmly believes that half her students have ADHD, and the other half are autistic. Could it be that maybe this is just how children behave in the age of technology? Could it be that maybe my friend is just overworked and should really have an aide because one adult can’t keep up with 20 children?

Furthermore, I think Adichie makes some radical implications about relationships in this novel. During her time in America, Ifemelu has two boyfriends: Curtis, a rich white guy, and Blaine, one of those hippie Black guys who eat quinoa and care about yoga and shit. I’m sure you’ve caught on that I didn’t particularly like either of them, and if I didn’t know better, I would say Adichie meant for that to be the case.

Curtis reminded me of this asshole-white-guy I used to date named Jeremy Jay Baker (full name included here to warn goodhearted women to stay the fuck away from him). Curt is described as being “happy, handsome, [sic.] with his ability to twist life into the shapes he wanted” (2013, p.482). Curtis was the kind of person who was only ever happy when things went the way he wanted them to, which was of course, all the time. Or so he thought, until Ifemelu cheated on him, and he called her a bitch (p. 482). It actually made me really angry when he said that to her. It reminded me of my last conversation with Jeremy, where I told him it seemed hypocritical to me that any time I expressed any emotion or dissatisfaction, I was being “volatile” or “dramatic”, yet when something bad “happened” to him, I had to hold his hand and pretend his little problems mattered. He responded by saying something like, “I don’t have to take this from you.” Then he never talked to me again. Charming, that one. I should have said something disapproving sooner, if that was all it took to get rid of him.

Ifemelu, on the other hand, was distraught when Curtis left her, which he really didn’t deserve. Ifemelu belongs in the category of boss bitches who are going to Achieve with a capital A. Curtis is a boring white guy.

Blaine is not much better. From his description, he seems like one of those men who gets very hurt when you don’t take his advice to heart. He exerts his power through influence:

She did not ask for his edits, but slowly she began to make changes, to add and remove, because of what he said. (2013, p.521)

During the course of the relationship, Ifemelu starts to eat differently, picks up more academic jargon, and takes on a lot of Blaine’s behavior. Not all of the changes seem harmful for Ifemelu–she gains insight into race and being Black in America by conversing with Blaine’s friends. Still, it doesn’t surprise me at all when the two break up because Ifemelu would rather eat a good lunch than stand outside a building and protest with Blaine and his poisonous sister, Shan.

In comparison, Obinze, who is Ifemelu’s first and last love, seems like a mature, mellow human being. Even if Ifemelu ever cheated on him, I have a hard time imagining him calling her a bitch. Not that either of them seem inclined to cheat on each other.

The action in Americanah speeds up toward the end of the novel, when Ifemelu goes back to Nigeria and meets Obinze again. Adichie barely graces sex with a few words every time there are sex scenes, but there’s still something arousing about them. Unlike Lahiri, who leaves you with stark impressions of body parts, Adichie gives you feelings.

She propped herself up and said, “I always saw the ceiling with other men.” (2013, p,. 737)

The explanation, which is also the origin of Obinze’s nickname, simply conveys that no one else could ever compare to Obinze. I felt it was radical of Adichie to put Ifemelu and Obinze together in the end. Ifemelu, who has never really identified with Americanness, chooses her Nigerian boyfriend over the men she meets in America. America, the Great Consumer Capital of the world, where you can get anything your heart desires, is not where Ifemelu found love.

It leaves me with a foolish sliver of hope. Maybe if I go to Assam, I can also find a mature, mellow human who will not call me a bitch if I cheat on him? I suspect all the men I know will have to age considerably before they reach that level of sophistication.

Works Cited

Adichie, C. N. (2013). Americanah. Thorndike Press.

The next book I plan to analyze: The Last Illusion by Porochista Khakpour

An Analysis of The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

lowlandAfter reading The Lowland, I’m interested in knowing what Jhumpa Lahiri’s Myers-Briggs type is. If I had to fathom a guess, I would say she’s an ISTJ based on her writing style. The dryness with which she describes people and settings makes me think she’s a sensing/observant person. There’s a certain habit to the way she comments on body parts–eyes, mouths, erections–that reveals a pragmatism rather than the curiosity about hidden meaning that intuitives express. The way she talks about characters in isolation, delving into their thought processes and the ways that they arrive at conclusions, makes me conclude she leans more towards thinking than feeling (though frequently, Lahiri reveals the complexity of emotions in these discussions about internal modes of thinking). It was hard to pick up on whether she’s a judger or a prospector from her writing style alone, but I felt that judging was more fitting because of the way she frequently writes about obligations–not necessarily the fulfilling of obligation, but the awareness that some kind of social pressure usually exists for people to act one way or another. Introversion was the most obvious of the characteristics I picked up on. If you’ve ever heard Lahiri interview, or even just notice the way her characters are so conditioned by loneliness, it’s not hard to “see” her introversion.

Of course, I myself am an ENFP, so that might influence this analysis. For all I know, Lahiri is an INFP who has a longer attention span for sitting still and writing than I do. In typical NF fashion, I am sometimes more interested in getting into an author’s head than analyzing content.

If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like spoilers, I suppose this is the point where I tell you to stop reading.

The Lowland spans a story of over half a lifetime, starting with the childhoods of Udayan and Subhash, the protagonists, two brothers with very different temperaments who were born probably at some point in the 50’s, and ending in the decade after the new millenium. If I had to compare it to another book that encompasses huge plots of time, I would say The Lowland is actually similar to The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold. Both novels revolve around the death of one of the main characters, both victims of violence, and both deaths are a result of systemic oppression in some form. Both novels delve deep into the internal affairs of the main characters after the death of a loved one. In addition, I would say both authors toy with the idea, though in very different ways, that humanity is more important than a cause.

In The Lowland, while Udayan’s naive willingness to follow the Naxalite movement over a cliff ought to be critiqued, I think he should be given more credit than Lahiri gives him. He was part of the movements of global student activists in the late 60’s and early 70’s that made governments everywhere wake up and realize things could not go on the way they always had. Granted, the government in West Bengal took a very reactionary stance in response to the students by killing them and then putting the bodies on display throughout the city to suppress the movement with fear. This was the proof the world needed that the government had become a cruel, sick, twisted entity that would do anything to protect its own power.

In due course, we learn that Udayan and his then-wife, Gauri, play a role in the murder of a local policeman in Calcutta. In turn, Udayan is killed by the police. Lahiri writes of both incidents matter-of-factly, as though if either were to occur even without the historical context, the other would still inevitably follow. She reveals the senselessness through which killing occurs. Life is taken and human beings, in their infinite nostalgia, are left to find significance on their own.

The killings, while they are conveyed without fanfare, hold deep political significance. A policeman dies on one end of town, his family mourns. The foreshadowing comes after the fact, an echo of what Udayan’s family goes through. Then Udayan dies on the other end, his family mourns, and the impact of his death resonates for three generations. This is a keen point, especially given the current state of affairs with the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and also the shooting of the five cops in Dallas. Death is death is death, which brings us back to the concept that humanity is more important than a cause. The moment at which Udayan became comfortable with killing a person was the moment at which he lost his humanity, a sad case considering he joined the Communist Party in the hopes of restoring humanity to those in the most need. Almost at the end of the novel, it is revealed that, “…only the policeman’s blood had prepared him [for death]. That blood had not belonged only to the policeman, it had become a part of Udayan also. So that he’d felt his own life begin to ebb, irrevocably…” (Lahiri, 2013, p.339). Ironically, the point at which he commits this inhumane act is the point when Udayan finds his own humanity.

This is also interesting considering the way Udayan is characterized up to that point. Even though he is the younger of the two siblings, it is in Udayan’s shadow in which Subhash lives. Udayan is the more mischievous of the two, constantly pushing the limits of his parents’ patience, while Subhash is quietly industrious, subscribing to filial piety and social obligation. The relationship is heavy with expectation. Udayan’s tendency to act before he thinks is a perfect foil to Subhash, who displays the inertia of those who think far more than they act. One could say Subhash is implicitly at least partially to blame for his brother’s death. Udayan implored him to stay, but he left for the United States, interpreting his brother’s request as a challenge to his own ability to make decisions. Udayan’s socializing is then left in the hands of the Communist Party. His comrades become his primary source of support.

On this note, Lahiri’s commentary on social activism is, at times, not so subtle. Here is an excerpt:

[Gauri] was thankful for [Subhash’s] independence, and at the same time she was bewildered. Udayan had wanted a revolution, but at home he’d expected to be served; his only contribution to meals was to sit and wait for Gauri or her mother-in-law to put a plate before him. (p.126)

Throughout the novel, I could feel that Lahiri has a certain disapproval for overt displays of support for a cause. She takes an almost patronizing tone, as though revolutionary movements are started by small children who have little capacity to follow through.

In the same breath, Lahiri shows an undeniably feminist critique of the ways movements are lead. Unrepentant violence, dogma, and militancy are certainly markers of toxic masculinity, traits that I doubt would exist in movements centering feminist principles. Lahiri points out the hypocrisy of militant movements–how on one hand, men can advocate for revolution of the working class, and on the other, are so comfortable with the subordination of women.

By the time I had finished one third of the book, I already found myself sympathizing with Subhash, the older brother who moves to America to study oceanography. It is somehow easy to commiserate with Subhash, who, in the course of the novel, becomes a single father to Udayan’s daughter. He is also portrayed as the more dutiful of the two sons. In contrast, Udayan is hard to relate to, portrayed as a rebel from a young age. His murder seems to have been brought about as much by him as anyone. Gauri, his widowed wife and mother to his child, is even harder to relate to. After the death of her husband, she becomes a cold, unfeeling person, plunging into the safety of academia. She has no qualms at all about leaving Subhash and her child behind.

The argument could be made that everything Gauri does is justified as a woman who realizes just how unreliable men can be. It makes no sense that in our modern society, or even in the 70’s when Gauri was married, women are still expected to marry men and be dependent on them in a social sense when they are as susceptible to death as women are. Gauri learns this at a relatively young age, and spends the rest of her life as an independent woman who achieves success as a professor, something that I think should be celebrated. Furthermore, she is the kind of woman for whom social expectations matter not at all. Gauri gives no fucks. She cuts her hair short. She wears tight clothes. She has sex with a woman. She drops meetings without explanation. She shows up at her husband’s house without calling. She does whatever she wants whenever she wants. Personally, I think that’s awesome. More Desi women should have the courage to live like that. Yet, she is portrayed as someone plagued with guilt, unable to forgive herself for leaving her child. I’m sure if it was a man leaving his child, he would not be portrayed in this way.

I digress. Oddly enough, I think the way Lahiri writes about sex is one of my favorite things about her writing, though it is not at all romantic. This is another trait of her writing that makes me think she is more sensing than intuitive. I, an incorrigible intuitive, cannot seem to write about sex without getting caught up in the significance of it: the romanticism of feeling another person’s skin, kissing, orgasms, cuddling. Lahiri does none of that. Here is an example:

She was wearing slacks and a grey sweater. The clothes covered her skin, but they accentuated the contours of her breasts, the firm swell of her stomach. The shape of her thighs. He drew his eyes away from her, though already a vision had entered, of her breasts exposed. (p. 141)

I still don’t understand how, in a passage where literally nothing happens, she expresses something lasciviously enough to get me horny.

Lastly, as one who loves the stars, I also love observing what commentary authors have on night skies. This is Lahiri’s:

He sees the wide beam of moon’s light over the water, pouring down. He is overwhelmed by the sky’s clarity, the number of stars. (p. 329)

It seems like the sky is a reflection of where Subhash’s life has finally come to land, so to speak. He is no longer haunted by the secret he kept from his daughter. He is no longer deceiving himself in an unhappy marriage. He has found some peace, and as of yet, some possibilities.

Many as my criticisms are, there are a lot of things I liked about The Lowland. I feel the novel says a lot about the curious constructions of memory and time, how peoples actions in the present can so closely mirror those of their ancestors, and how emotion is as important a factor as time in how well we remember events.

Works Cited

Lahiri, J. (2013). The Lowland. Toronto, Canada: Alfred A. Knopf.

 

Impressions of Snow Hunters by Paul Yoon

snow huntersThe second book I finished this week was Snow Hunters by Paul Yoon, a novel about a young Korean man named Yohan and his life in Brazil after the end of the Korean War.

Yoon uses beautifully simple prose. He writes so delicately about human relationships that I was brought close to tears several times. Yoon’s style is reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Memories of my Melancholy Whores. There is the same dream-like quality, but without the magical realism.

Granted, Yoon has a way of making the real magical. I particularly liked this excerpt.

–What stars, he said, and laughed, gazing up at that vast canvas above them, Yohan astonished by how it was possible that it was the same sky through all their years, in countries across the sea. How the sky never changed, never appeared to grow old. (Yoon, 2013, p.90)

At first, it seems like the same trite phrase about the stars that everyone writes, until the comment about oldness. It was then that I realized the excerpt was never about the stars, but the feelings Yohan has about his friend and mentor while he looks at them. We can understand the way he misses people (and will miss people) while he looks at stars.

In addition, I enjoyed Yoon’s commentary on love throughout the book.

But he had never known him, had never been close to him in the way he witnessed other sons and their fathers.

Perhaps it would have been different if his mother had lived. Perhaps his father had been someone else and a wife’s death had altered him.

Or perhaps his solitude was always there. He would often wonder about that. (Yoon, 2013, p.140)

On the surface, this is a straightforward description of Yohan’s father. However, the sentence at the end asks several questions of the reader. How much do we really know about the people we are close to? Even our own parents had lived lives unknowable to us before we were born. How much of people’s behavior is truly their own nature, and how much of it is done in reaction to being observed or as a product of experience? Yet, Yohan still believes in the love his father gave him. There is a duality there that is revealing of human nature: that doubt is a natural part of love.

 

In short, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It’s something I recommend for gloomy days, or perhaps gloomy times like these when nativists are looking for reasons to throw immigrants out of countries. It only took me a day to read, and there’s something about Snow Hunters that just lowers my blood pressure. It was a welcome respite from the chaos of modern living.

Works Cited

Yoon, P. (2013). Snow Hunters. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

 

Impressions of The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King

inc ind

I finished two books this week, one of which was The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King. The book is an account of relations between whites and Indians throughout the history of America, though this description alone does not do it justice. King is not so much a historian as he is a sort of poet. His style of writing is darkly humorous, and I admire the transparency with which he shares how he arrives at his conclusions. There are a number of passages I love in this book. One was from the prologue, in which King discloses that his first idea for the title of his account was “pesky redskins”. But the passage that really steals my heart is this one:

Land has always been a defining element of Aboriginal culture. Land contains the languages, the stories, and the histories of a people. It provides water, air, shelter, and food. Land participates in the ceremonies and songs. And land is home. Not in an abstract way. The Blackfoot in Alberta live in the shadow of Ninastiko or Chief Mountain. The mountain is a special place for the Blackfoot, and friends on the reserve at Standoff have told me more than once that, as long as they can see the mountain, they know they are home. (King, 2012, p. 218)

King is describing the fundamental struggle that Native people in America have gone through (and are still) to retain their land in the face of rampant capitalistic development. This has been a historic conflict, starting with the arrival of Europeans to the landmass that is now known as the Americas.

Even now, while I might obtain some significance from these words in a literal sense, I scarcely think I understand what the passage means. The paragraph resonates in my heart long after my brain has finished comprehension. It may explain why a second-generation Axomiya woman (me) relates to a history that is not of her own people. Natives in America have been uprooted from their ancestral homes and been pushed from one plot of undesirable land to another (King, 2012, p. 216).My family was not so much uprooted as it was drawn because of insecurity at home, and the illusion of opportunity in another place.

Yet, for all the rights I am guaranteed as an American citizen-by-birth, I have always felt like a stranger in the place I was born. “Home” is not so much a physical place for me as it is a concept. Home is where the people like me are. I might never know the land from which my family originates. It is oceans away and is slowly becoming more development than land as well. But in the Axomiya language, in Axomiya music, a semblance of the physical is retained.

In this manner, I think King has a particular gift. There is a simplicity in the way he writes that makes his narrative accessible, even to people with very different approaches to history. Unlike other historians, who wax grandiloquent all too frequently, his account reflects a refreshing humility. There is far more than content to be gleaned from King’s account, though the content is nothing to sniff at either. All things considered, I highly recommend the read.

Works Cited

King, T. (2012). The inconvenient Indian: A curious account of Native people in North America. Toronto, Canada: Dead Dog Cafe Productions, Inc.