Archive by Author

Amazon Review: The Reluctant Fundamentalist

16 Apr

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid tells the story of a Pakistani citizen named Changez, his move from an undergraduate degree at Princeton to an NYC-based valuation firm called Underwood Samson & Company, and his relationship with the WASP-ish Erica, pre- and post-9/11.  Changez narrates the entire novel—at times in first person, but often in second person as well, as Hamid frames the story as a conversation between Changez (now returned to Pakistan) and an un-named American man in the Old Anarkali Bazaar in Lahore.  Changez invites the American man to try a cup of tea, which turns into a full meal and then dessert.  What begins as a seemingly harmless conversation slowly darkens as the novel progresses.

Just as Changez’s politeness masks something perhaps more sinister, the novel’s apparent stream-lined simplicity masks its depth and richness.  The novel resounds with the theme of isolation v.s. openness and appearances v.s. reality.  Obsessed with her memories of Chris, a childhood friend-turned-lover who has passed away, Erica retreats further and further into herself, preferring to live in her own fantasies rather than in the real world.  Her inward movement mirrors America’s growing mistrust of “foreigners” and increasing isolationism post-9/11.   Changez, on the other hand, moves from an isolated focus on solely “getting the job done” and appraising companies to realizing that the reports he and his company makes affect the companies’ employees—real people trying to make a living.  He begins as well to view himself as a perpetual outsider, and to connect these companies to larger flows of capital—capital that is disproportionately held by people of Erica’s complexion rather than his own.

Another theme in the novel, connected to that of isolation and openness, is that of control.  Hamid’s novel is very much a novel of “talking back” (à la Edward Said)—of insisting that one’s voice be heard in a world that so frequently ignores or talks over it.  The only voice we truly hear in The Reluctant Fundamentalist is Changez’s.  Changez holds his two layers of audience (the unnamed American and the reader holding the book) essentially captive.  While he includes dialogue between himself and other characters, one is always aware that this dialogue is filtered through Changez’s limited first-person report of the conversation.  As such, Hamid also conflates the reader with the uncomfortable American, who, twitchy and suspicious, views everyone around him as a potential threat.

Interestingly, however, the novel does not entirely reassure us that the figures of whom the American is suspicious aren’t, in fact, a threat to him.  The novel ends ambiguously.  Because we only receive the information Changez gives us, we will never know what actually happens on the dark road in front of the American’s hotel.  In other words, the novel itself is dangerously uni-vocal, warning us through its very structure against only listening to one side of any story.

Hamid’s novel thus utilizes a technique—oral storytelling—often explored in post-colonial novels, and with, I think, the intent of “talking back” against the dominant, hegemonic voices, and it explores post-colonial themes of fractured identity, diaspora, and flows of global capital.  But it does this so subtly, one might barely register the way it very faintly echoes sprawling epics like Patrick Chamoiseau’s Texaco or Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.  Hamid’s novel is like its narrator—intelligent, well-mannered, deeper than it may appear, focused, controlled, and sinister.  While giving a 3D portrayal of a (mostly) sympathetic man and telling what appears at first to be primarily a love story, it also raises questions that it doesn’t fully answer—not just about the text itself, but also about how to live ethically, fully, and also safely as an American, as a Pakistani, and as a global citizen post-9/11.


Parkour and De Gualle

12 Apr

When De Gualle comes to visit Martinique, Marie-Sophie runs after him through a stampede, foolishly thinking she’s going to invite him to her home for dinner.  She and a new acquaintance, Arcadius, end up chasing after De Gualle throughout the city:

We spend the day chasing De Gualle through City.  We went down long detours to cross his path…Arcadius rushed me down a strange shortcut to rejoin him at a so-called geometric point.  But each time he was elsewhere…at city hall…at the prefecture…at the cathedral…(331)

Although Marie-Sophie and Arcadius are not practicing parkour per se, they are certainly rushing through City as only they, as marginalized citizens, can, with their knowledge of City’s underpinnings and secret ways.  In “Light Reading: Public Utility, Urban Fiction, and Human Rights,” Michael D. Rubenstein connects the movement of parkour to the recognition of social existence in the bidonvilles of large francophone cities, as described in Texaco.  It’s an interesting connection–one I don’t think Rubenstein makes entirely convincingly–in part because Rubenstein describes parkour as movement of fleeing, rather than chasing:  “the traceur is generally running for his life, from authorities of some kind, often enough the police” (33).  In this scene in Texaco, however, Marie-Sophie and Arcadius are chasing something (as, in fact, the seekers of electricity Rubenstein discusses are as well).

What they are chasing, however, is never accessible, because De Gualle, symbol to the characters in the novel of the benevolent motherland, potential savior (to Marie-Sophie) of Texaco, is always elsewhere.  And that elsewhere is always a building of the ruling hegemony, the power structure–the government or a house of religion.  Although Marie-Sophie may know everything about the underpinnings and secret ways of City, she knows nothing of and cannot access these institutions of power, just as De Gualle can only know those institutions.  

Interestingly, in the mob scene/ stampede before Marie-Sophie meets Arcadius, the way in which she fights through the crowd could be viewed as a kind of parkour as well, from the way in which it’s described:  “…I howled with despair, leaping like a goat, insulting, knocking, beating, jumping, landing on heads…I began to run on four legs underneath…I ran in every direction” (330).  Marie-Sophie goes over, under, and through the crowd, navigating the mass of people in the same way she navigates City with Arcadius.  

While none of this is particularly insightful, nor actually parkour, these scenes in Texaco helped me better appreciate Rubenstein’s connections between movement and the search for (electricity as) social acceptance.  Both describe alternative ways of moving through a constructed landscape and highlight both exclusion and creative, productive ways of  navigating socio-physical spaces.

TEXACO as Rhizome

2 Apr

Patrick Chamoiseau‘s novel abounds with themes of the ties between nature and people; diaspora and search for a home; intertextuality; the constructed, written, and revised nature of history and storytelling; and the ones who history leaves out.  In her essay “Images of Creole Diversity and Spatiality: A Reading of Patrick Chamoiseau’s Texaco, (translated into English by Dorothy S. Blair), Christine Chivallon beautifully connects all of these themes under the explanation of Chamoiseau’s participation in the Creole literary movement of the 1980s.

According to Chivallon, Chamoiseau, along with Jean Bernabé and Raphaël Confiant, wrote Eloge de la créolité, or In Praise of Creoleness, in 1989 as a direct response to the négritude movement of the 1930s.  Chivallon quotes the work to define one of its goals, which is to use art “to present insignificant heroes, anonymous heroes, those omitted from the colonial chronicle, those who resisted indirectly and patiently and who have nothing in common with the Western or French heroes.”

The “Creoleness” the movement promotes is one of multiplicity, complexity, and chaos–not, as Chivallon says “any indescriminate chaos, not dehumanized confusion, but that of mobility, of lightness, in which nothing is fixed or rigid, but everything consists simply of traces, of salient outlines…” (318).  As such, it breaks both with previous sociological traditions, which consider the Caribbean tradition either from the viewpoint of alienation and incompleteness or the search for some kind of “authenticity” outside of the formation of Caribbean societies, as in Cesaire’s   Négritude (319).

According to Chivallon, Texaco is, essentially, “Creoleness” in action.  The novel, she says, is “astonishingly appreciative of the way identity comes to terms with space and place” (319).  She traces three major themes of identity in the novel:

  • Root identity, which “refers to unity and calls to mind the community whose continuity is linked to territorial belonging” (319).  This is the idea of the community as resulting from memory and/or from place, and leads to the ideas of an “us” v.s. a “them.”  An example of this in the novel is the collective that forms in the Mornes, which is “defined as the odyssey of a magical “Us”…the Nouteka” (322).  However, this cannot last.
  • Mobile identity, which “suggests an uncoordinated fragmentation, the absence of collective social norms” (319).  In this scheme, City is seen as an enigma, a riddle, a mobile, multiracial, multilingual, multi-historical, chaotic entity.
  • Rhizome identity, which “stands out as the image of Creoleness [Chamoiseau] celebrates” (320).  This final identity, that of “multiple roots,” combines elements of the first two.  This is a “kind of unity that transcends dispersal,” the “union of unity and multiplicity” (327).  It is “simultaneously order and disorder, unity and multiplicity, chaos and coherence.  In its relationship to space, it also unites these two opposing faces: that of taking root and that of wandering” (329).  This is Texaco.

Texaco’s major themes, therefore, act structurally as the rhizome–at times chaotic, at times contradictory or confusing, they combine in order to create a multi-vocal whole nonetheless connected, circling around the figures of Marie-Sophie and Texaco.


Light v.s. Light

29 Mar

As we have discussed, Helon Habila’s Oil on Water plays with the slippery nature of memory and “truth” and storytelling through its non-linear structure and its themes of smoke, fog, and water.  Another way in which the novel reflects on these themes is in its portrayal of light.  Rather than reproducing or simply reversing previous discourses of light= good, dark= bad, the novel represents light in multiple ways.  Similarly to the fog, light reveals only selectively, such as when it falls on only the non-scarred part of Boma’s face, rendering her suddenly whole and young again.  On page 212, Rufus watches the light on a militant’s face:  “the light fell on his face through the few tree branches, leaving blotches of light and shade where the shadow mixed with light.”  This mixing of shadow of light and the use of light echoes Habila’s  ambivalence towards the rebels and his attempt to show multiple sides of the same story, as Joellyn discusses in her post below.

Most interestingly, the novel presents two different ways of worshiping light: the Worshipers and the villagers described by the Doctor.  The Worshipers strive to live in harmony with their environment.  As Gloria tells Rufus, “They believe in the healing powers of the sea” (126).  The group was formed over a century before as a response to a terrible war that killed so many people that “even the water in the wells turned red.”  The land became polluted by dead bodies and “needed to be cleansed of blood, and pollution” (128). After the priesthood was established, the Worshipers began creating sculptures:

These figures represent the ancestors watching over us.  They face the east, to acknowledge the beauty of the sun rising, for without the sun there would be no life.  And some face the west, to show the dying sun the way home, and to welcome the moon.  (128).  

The Worshipers worship the sun, the ultimate source of light.

Similarly, Dr. Dagogo-Mark describes the way in which the people of a village in which he had served began to worship the flare planted near their village when oil was discovered there:  “That light soon became the village square.  At night men and women would stand facing it, lost in wonder, for hours, simply staring till their eyes watered and their heads grew dizzy” (152).  Soon, however, the doctor’s “remarkably healthy” patients began to die from pollution of the land caused by the oil drilling marked by the very orange flare they had worshiped.  

In these two representations, Habila does actually create a dichotomy and comes down more clearly on one side than he is wont to on other topics in the novel:  worshiping nature= good; worshiping oil/ the unnatural/ exploiting the land= bad.  Furthermore, the Worshipers and their emphasis on the land and on the people provide both Rufus and Boma a safe place in which to heal and grow at the end of the novel.  

Habila’s depiction of light in the novel, therefore, not only echoes themes of the shifting nature of perception and the impossibility of fixing one unitary notion of truth into a story–it also in part answers some of Nixon’s questions about how to illustrate the effects of slow violence in a captivating way.  Habilia’s beautiful descriptions and the direct parallel of these two scenes create a lasting impression on the reader, painting an image that lingers in the mind in the slow but pervasive way that slow violence affects its victims.  


Nigeria Mourns The Loss Of Chinua Achebe (NPR Story)

23 Mar 

You Can’t Go Home Again

1 Mar

Not to pick on her, but I’m going to go ahead and argue with Kathleen’s interpretation of the novel as “seeking to go beyond an understanding of a country in a post-colonial context.”  In fact, I believe the novel realizes that one can never do so–that the country has been and will continue to be irrevocably changed by its encounter with colonial forces.  For Salih, the question seems to be much less “how can we create our unique identity separate from our colonial past,” and much more “how do with deal with the situation of post-colonialism?”  (And, furthermore, as we have said, is the era of colonialism in Sudan actually over?  What about neo-colonial forces?)

On pages 82-83, the narrator and his close friend Mahjoub discuss their positions in the running of the country: Mahjoub is a farmer with a middle school education, who has never left the country, but who is very influential on the village council, while the narrator has been to Oxford to study poetry and now has a job as a minister of education.  The narrator says to Mahjoub, “It is you who have succeeded, not I…because you influence actual life in the country.  We civil servants, though, are of no consequence.  People like you are the legal heirs of authority; you are the sinews of life, you’re the salt of the earth” (82).  Furthermore, on the next page, Mahjoub tells the narrator that “The world hasn’t changed as much as you think”–despite such material changes as the water pumps, sending their daughters to school, drinking whiskey, listening to the radio–things aren’t that different.  One can easily read this quotation, along with Sa’eed’s apparent admiration for the narrator’s traditionalist grandfather, and along with Mustafa’s urge to the narrator to not expose his sons to “wanderlust,” as saying that the book argues for staying in one place, for sticking with traditional ways in relative isolation.

Yet, in the same scene, the narrator argues with Mahjoub, saying, “But the world’s changed…These are things that no longer fit in with our life in this age” (83).  In the end, the narrator is right–Hosna will not go along with the traditional role into which Mahjoub and the other village men attempt to fit her–she kills her husband and herself.  Whether or not the village men see it, the “germ of destruction” has begun to work on their village, and its effects will be irrevocable.  Salih seems to argue that the country cannot close its eyes to the changes happening within it due to colonialism and its linger effects post-independence–even the smallest village will be affected, not just by the technological changes colonization has brought, but by the  ideas that spread like a germ.  And Sa’eed appears to support the spread of some of those ideas as having the potential to bring positive change–for example, for the women in the village.

Sa’eed does seem to view the village’s collective as a better way to bring about change and improvements in the country than its new government, with its Ministry of Education building built with Italian marble.  His narrator praises the very real improvements the organization has brought for the village, including the caravan that now brings them supplies, cutting out the middle men and lowering prices.  Salih argues that the current government is simply a repetition of the colonial structure of oppression of the people, just with different figures standing in the old colonial places, and that the country should be governed more by local people like Mahjoub, who know their people and what they need and who will actually work to improve their lot.  But those people, too, must learn to change, both materially and ideologically.  Salih seems to argue, therefore, that the country, now that it is independent, has an opportunity to work with and learn from its colonial past, which can never be erased.

To Science or Not To Science, That is the Question

22 Feb

Aimee Cesaire’s Notebook of a Return to the Native Land is written as a poem, although its unusual amalgamation of shorter lines and solid blocks of text and its rambling style might make some skeptical of that label.  Similarly, in his introduction, Fanon, who was trained as a psychologist, calls his White Skins, White Masks a “clinical study,” although he refuses to explain his methods, saying “I leave methods to the botanists and the mathematicians.” (12).  In fact, throughout the book, Fanon’s style seems to echo Cesaire’s, albeit in a less “surreal” way–it rambles, it incorporates personal anecdotes and dialogue (using free indirect discourse), and it contains very little actual clinical language.  In fact, the majority of Chapter Three is an analysis of a literary character, Jean Veneuse.  While literary scholars are if course aware of the strong ties between early psychoanalysis and literature (that Freud sure does love his Oedipus and his Hamlet!), we are also painfully aware of the ways in which the study of literature is denigrated for not being “scientific” (an accusation that led Frye and others in the 1950s to attempt to systematize the study of literature through identifying an essential “thesis” prevalent in all literature).  Might, therefore, this incorporation of personal and fictional stories hurt, rather than aid, Fanon’s argument?  If he is trained in scientific research and language, why would he resort to this unscientific style?  

The text does contain clues as to why Fanon might decide not to stick to a clinical analysis when writing about race. In Chapter Four, page 111, Fanon says,

For several years certain laboratories have been trying to produce a serum for  “denegrification”; with all the earnestness in the world, laboratories have sterilized their test tubes, checked their scales, and embarked on researches that might make it possible for the miserable Negro to whiten himself and thus to throw off the burden of that corporal malediction.

Fanon appears to have invented the idea of this “serum,” which stands therefore as a metaphor for a process of “attempting to turn black people white” that he sees both black and white people promoting (making the particular universal, rather than allowing all particulars to be part of a larger universal).  But his bitter language about science and “progress” here reminds us that science is a human invention and has been used throughout history to subjugate those deemed “Other” (in modern history, eugenics, phrenology, social darwinism).  Fanon’s use of narratives, of stories, of dialogue, therefore, can be seen as a way for him to highlight his humanity–his membership in a universal human community.  Instead of making the discussion of race clinical, scientific, and therefore removed, supposedly unbiased and objective (again, see above for how that sometimes works out), he insists on speaking to us human-to-human, making his personal situation and stake in the discussion clear, and asking us to look him in the eyes and recognize his humanity.  As such, perhaps his style is more effective than a clinical study might be, after all.  

Bronte and the “Other”

8 Feb

Because I learned very little about the Bronte’s imaginary kingdom when I first heard it mentioned in my undergraduate classes, I decided to do a research post on the Brontes and their obsession with the “other,” which began in early childhood.

Apparently, Charlotte and her brother Bramwell were the primary creators of the fictional African colony of “Angria,” while Anne and Emily broke off and wrote primarily about an imaginary island in the South Pacific, entitled “Gondol.”  According to this website, Charlotte’s stories about Angria were influenced by current events, and featured complex “political machinations and romantic entanglements.”  As this website also says, Bronte was influenced, especially at first, by the “Arabian Nights,” which, of course, makes me think of Said’s “Orientalism.”

It proved surprisingly difficult to find information on “Angria” online, so I turned to JSTOR.  According to this article, the tales of Angria began when the children received toy soldiers; Charlotte had hers colonize the country, which she placed “on the coast of Africa, near the Niger river” (495).  The article says that Bronte’s colonizers founded a city there, and she has the Duke of Wellington elected ruler.  The kingdom subsequently expands under colonization and is peopled by “Byronic heroes.”  The article describes how Bronte eventually began transferring her characters to England in subsequent stories set there, “transform[ing] them into ordinary English men and women” (499).  Even Rochester and Jane Eyre, it seems, originated in Angrian characters, and “Rochester’s mad wife,” as well as other elements of the plot, also originated in Bronte’s cycle of stories about Angria.

The limited writing about Angria I have found so far praises the stories as evidence of Bronte’s incredible imagination, even from an early age.  I hope to do some further research and read some of the stories myself, as Tales of Angria is available on Amazon.  Obviously there is a lot of rich information here.  My impression about the imaginary country was that Bronte had peopled it with African characters, not with white colonizers.  However, she still apparently allows her white colonizers to give way to their passions far more than she does for her English characters in England.  Finally, what does it mean for our reading of Bertha, in terms of various potential post-colonial or feminist readings, if the trope of the mad woman in the attic appeared in a previous story, in a different setting and plot?  I shall have to investigate.

Reading the Individual

1 Feb

Jeremy brought up some very good questions in his post “How Should We Read?”  He asks,

Said rejects the idea of Germanness or Jewishness, etc. This seems important in finding the right lens through which to view literature this semester. But, in place of seeking analogs, if we look for the differences in literature, are we showing that there is no such thing as “Third Worldliness” or will those differences feed into the idea that there can be Dominicanness or Martininqueness? I can’t think of a way to start thinking about our post-Heart of Darkness readings that would not really piss off Said. Do we even need a lens or do we simply look at the subject matter and not the style or the form as evidence of how imperialism continues to exert control over various cultures?

I think Said gives an answer when he outlines his method of writing:  “My method is to focus as much as possible on individual works, to read them first as great products of the creative or interpretive imagination, and then to show them as part of the relationship between culture and empire” (xxii).

This holds true for any novel, not just the “Western” novels Said discusses. For instance, we read the novel I Do Not Come to You by Chance by Nigerian author Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani in the “African Writer” class. The novel, about 419 internet scanning in Nigeria, very much discusses contemporary issues in Nigeria (government corruption, poverty, the role of education), and assesses economic and cultural changes leading up to the 419 culture. Therefore, the novel is highly concerned with the nation-state of Nigeria and something that defines Nigeria in the minds of people outside of it–particularly “Westerners.” Yet, the “Nigerianness” it defines is, in fact, a “contrapuntal” writing in that the novel takes this common narrative about Nigeria and explodes it by writing the lives of individual Nigerians–giving them faces, lives, families, heartaches, and joys. The novel is also cognizant of ideological factors and the role of colonial emphasis on education and religion as well as economic factors in post-colonial Nigeria that lead to 419. In discussing the novel, we didn’t talk about the novel as compared to a “Western” novel–we interrogated it using many of the same methods with which we would interrogate a novel of the “Western” cannon, looking at history, the writer’s biography, and interviews. We were able to discuss the author’s writing technique in terms of the way in which it furthered her discussion of these issues.

In other words, to read a novel in the context of these classes and to ask the questions Jeremy has asked is already to question unitary presentation of ideas of  “German-ness” or “Nigerian-ness.”  Most contemporary writers that we read in “The African Novel” and will read in this class do so overtly anyway.  To read each author individually, to allow each one to have his or her own voice and own opinions, rather than looking for analogues or “differences” is to see each author not just as representatives of “Third-World Lit” or “Martinique-ness,” just as we view Conrad’s opinions both as his own and as reflective of a larger cultural narrative.


Color Photography in South Africa

28 Jan

Color Photography in South Africa

This article reminded me a lot of Conrad’s descriptions of the “savages” in Heart of Darkness, and the synecdoche that Emily discusses in her post below.   In terms of connections to the larger issues we have been discussing, the article illuminates the economic and ideological connection between a large “Western” corporation and apartheid in South Africa.  It also brings up questions of voice and representation–if you cannot be photographed or are photographed and do not appear clearly in the photograph, you are literally invisible and voiceless.

Articles: Food and Colonization

25 Jan

I saw these two related articles on NPR’s food blog, “The Salt,” the other day, and thought they were interesting and relevant to this class (particularly the second class).  Enjoy!

Out of Place

25 Jan

On page 50 of Heart of Darkness, Marlowe describes Kurtz’s blond, blue-eye Russian devotee quite positively—perhaps the most positively of any character in the book.  Marlowe says, “I was seduced into something like admiration–like envy…He surely wanted nothing from the wilderness but space to breathe in and to push through…If the absolutely pure, uncalculating, unpractical spirit of adventure had ever ruled a human being, it ruled this bepatched youth.”  The Russian seems to exist in a state of arrested development in which the realities of the world and of Kurtz’s “horror” have not touched him.  Unlike the “pilgrims,” the El Dorado Exploring Expedition, and Kurtz himself, the Russian appears to have no ulterior motive.

In some ways, the Russian seems to be more along the lines of a character in the adventure novels about Africa that Brantlinger mentions on page 189 of “The Mythology of the ‘Dark Continent.’”  The Russian believes in the imperial rhetoric Kurtz spouts, and, as Brantlinger points out, in the Protestant work ethic as presented in his precious book.  Even after witnessing all that Kurtz has done, he “remains calm” in the wilderness, at least relatively, even saying that Kurtz has “enlarged [his] mind” through their conversations (50).  Of all the characters in the novel, he doesn’t seem to belong—although he seems most at home with the local people and his surroundings, even telling Marlowe that he has friends among the “simple savages,” with whom he can stay.  Why did Conrad include this peculiar character?  Might he have written this character as an ironic poke at characters in adventure novels about Africa for boys?  Brantlinger does mention, on page 189, that Heart of Darkness fits ironically into the pattern of these adventure novels.  If this is too much of a stretch, what else might the Russian represent?