Archive by Author

Amazon Review: Blending the Personal with the Historical in Pamuk’s Istanbul

16 Apr

Orhan Pamuk’s “Istanbul: Memories and the City” is a brilliant mixture of autobiography and memoir of the city. Told in the first person point of view, he blends his own past into Istanbul’s past to give his text a more personalized history of an “end-of-empire melancholy” that both surrounds his life and his city. He discusses Istanbul’s fate as his own fate and proves this through the linking and intertwining of constant doubles that he introduces, including: past with present, city with individual, other Turkish writers with himself, imagination with reality, and the positive and negative sides of melancholy (defined as Huzun). How he accomplishes this is best described through his childhood game which he admits to using in his novels; he explains this game as, “I would push the two wings of the mirror inward or outward until the two side mirrors were reflecting each other and I could see thousands of Orhans shimmering in the deep, cold, glass-colored infinity” (78). In a way, his novels contain multiple sides of himself that are represented through real or imagined doubles. In this case, the doubles are represented through Istanbul as an intriguing means to captivate the deep history of a fallen empire struggling between a modern and traditional identity.

The structure of Pamuk’s novel varies throughout the chapters. The reader is taken back and forth through time, and back and forth between his past and Istanbul’s history. One of the chapters titled “Don’t Walk Down the Street with Your Mouth Open,” is structured much like Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project. We are given a random assortment of passages taken from various newspapers over the past 130 years. Pamuk experiments with different ways of presenting history in order to provide his readers with several angles to Istanbul’s identity and past. One constant element continued throughout the text is his use of photographs. In describing his house as a museum filled with old photographs, Pamuk explains, “it seemed plain to me that my grandmother had framed and frozen these memories so we could weave them into the present” (14). The framed memories of his “museum house” mirror the black and white photos that weave throughout his book. The reader is able to see images of his family, the city through time, and old paintings of Istanbul, which is paired with Pamuk’s written stories, descriptions and analyses. He is very clever in using so many structural elements to draw the reader into not only understanding Istanbul but also feeling a part of the process and the melancholy associated with the city.

Having traveled to Istanbul on several occasions, I find Pamuk’s novel surprisingly accurate. I say surprisingly only because it’s so difficult to paint a picture with words of a city so deeply ingrained in its past and yet struggling to move forward. It’s difficult for people to envision why a city holds so close to its past and how that past reflects on individual lives. Istanbul is modern and globalized culture in many aspects and yet its visible past keeps the city in a state of being in between—not quite traditional and not quite western. Pamuk is very prideful of his city, but also very truthful and not afraid on shedding light onto both the best and worst sides of Istanbul and his own life. It is a confession, a celebration, a labored struggle, an opening of self-consciousness and an effort for change. I would suggest this book to anyone interested in learning about Istanbul. Once you begin the journey through Pamuk’s Istanbul, you wont be able to put the book down.

Amazon Review:

Sex as Metaphor: Violence and Identity

5 Apr

In a few of the novels we’ve read, sex is described through a metaphor. In Season of Migration to the North, Lalami explains Mustafa’s sex scenes as “a theatre of war” (29). Sex becomes a symbol to the bigger picture of Mustafa’s attempt to conquer Englishwomen and regain masculinity to the African identity. Mustafa explains, “I would stay awake all night warring with bow and sword and spear and arrows” (29). His identity transforms throughout the novel as he performs identity through name changes and sexual metaphors.

In Chamoiseau’s Texaco, the sex metaphor is very different from Mustafa’s violent battles. Sex in this case is described through images of the water—-birds, the tide, a shipwreck and canoes. Oselia is “a starving bird pecking at his skin, pecking his sweet juice, pecking a bit of his blood and the rest of his soul” (66). He becomes a shipwreck that continually needs to be saved from the depths of the water. The violence of Mustafa’s sexual encounters is not seen in the same sense here. The water is a source of violence and in a way can be seen as a reason why Oselia can’t repeat this act with the narrator’s father. Metaphors and phrases of water are continued through the novel. Yet, going back to this specific scene, at the end of that same paragraph the narrator makes herself known again and says that she can only “make a sketch of what happened” because her father “hadn’t done school.” This break in the metaphor shows the reader that the identity of the novel is not fixed—there are tales of others, of herself, and in other voices. Sex in a way, is a means to invoking violence and challenging identity.

In the big picture of this novel, identity is a main concern. As we began reading Texaco, it was at first difficult because it seems natural to ground identity to understand where the novel is going. Chamoiseau makes this attempt difficult for his reader. In “Re-Imagining Diversity and Connection in the Chaos World,” Chamoiseau explains identity as, “In the past, people thought a cultural identity was powerful when it enclosed and defined what belonged to me and not to others; today it is powerful when one is—and recognizes that one is—in relationship with the diversity of cultures. And the more a cultural identity is capable of putting itself into connection with diversity, the more powerful it will be—that’s our big issue, that’s what we want to examine today in our literature.” This is what we see in the structure and voices Chamoiseau uses in Texaco.

Videos: Saro-Wiwa

25 Mar

Here are some videos of interviews with Ken Saro-Wiwa and his son. The first one I had shown part of in my presentation. The second is an interview with his son; it’s pretty long, so I would suggestion just watching the first five minutes or so to get a better idea of his understanding on his father’s work.

Slow Violence, Edward Said and Ken Saro-Wiwa

19 Mar

In Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Nixon references Edward Said’s “The Public Role of Writers and Intellectuals” while discussing the role writers take in slow violence. Said’s view of writers is more broad and centered on the general sense of violence rather than slow violence associated with the environment. He describes two sides of writers: the select individuals that have control and power, and those “independent intellectuals who actually form an incipient community, physically separated from each other but connected variously to a great number of activist communities shunned by the main media but who have at their disposal other kinds of what Swift sarcastically called oratorical machines” (28). These two sides can be seen as the sides that Nixon represents of the oil companies and Ken Saro-Wiwa. The writer that Said focuses on is the second category that wishes to create awareness and movement. In the diverse range of violence, Said suggests that writers have three main roles to open up the eyes of those who are unaware; I will summarize his points briefly: 1.) presenting true (rather than distorted) perspectives on history 2.) building up areas of peace and coexistence 3.) stressing the need for human rights and redistribution of power and resources (34-5). In these goals Nixon seems to use Saro-Wiwa to indirectly provide a face to Said’s basic structure for writers. However, the two authors seem to emphasize different areas in the value of speed in today’s world. For Nixon, the negative aspects of speed include the audience’s desire of the spectacle that slow violence does not contain and therefore is harder to justify. Furthermore, technology has shortened stories to get them out faster, which also has a negative effect on producing stories on slow violence rather than something that is more exciting and eventful. The negative elements that Said points out are, not knowing one’s audience because the internet creates a wider range of readers, and the inability to control what is recirculated. However, the acceleration of communication enables freedom for writers to be heard all over the world, and this expansion of viewers is what Nixon also stresses that writers of slow violence need to take advantage of. For both general forms of violence and slow violence, “The intellectual can be perhaps a kind of countermemory, putting forth its own counter discourse that will not allow conscience to look away or fall asleep” (Said 35).

In Ken Saro-Wiwa’s A Month and a Day, the diary-like entries give a more real and personal face to the points that Nixon makes on writing about this type of violence. At one point, Saro-Wiwa explains why he continued to write a weekly column in the Sunday Times, he says, “The newspaper column widened my reading audience and spread my ideas to a considerable extent. Week after week, I made sure that the name Ogoni appeared before the eyes of readers. It was a television technique, designed to leave the name indelibly in their minds” (45). The specific moments that this writer explains his techniques, shows his moves and call for others to move with him in seeing slow violence as a major threat. The book leaves us on a rather negative note in his son’s letter to his father ten years after Saro-Wiwa’s death. His son writes, “Ten years have passed and, despite all the public outrage and grief, it appears that the world hasn’t learned anything from your death: we still live in a world where corporations rank profits well above their value to people and the planet” (215). Yet, even with this negativity, his son is still hopeful that more people will write and the world will one day see slow violence as it truly is.

Victims and Destruction

1 Mar

In Season of Migration to the North, I was particularly interested in delving into what roles women play into Mustafa’s life. Throughout the novel we receive pieces of information on Mustafa’s relationships, but everything seems to come together once the narrator examines his locked room. In most of his relationships, Mustafa plays with the idea of being a savage, wild African man as a way to seduce the white woman. This tactic works as a means to reverse roles of colonizer versus colonized, master versus slave. Yet, the only one who doesn’t seem to fall for Mustafa’s tricks is Jean Morris. She physically destroys all the props that he uses in his false facade with women (the vase, Arabic manuscript and prayer rug). In this way, she strips him of his false identity and yet the only material object that was meaningful was the prayer rug, only because Mrs.Robinson gave it to him. Jean has control because she doesn’t look at him as a black man, but as a man. The fact that she is able to see beneath what the other women were blind to enables her to really destroy him. Her power over Mustafa makes him so angry that he is able to murder her; yet in a way Jean is also the cause of his destruction. This is especially explained when Mustafa says, “She was my destiny and in her lay my destruction, yet for me the whole world was not worth a mustard seed in comparison. I was the invader who had come from the South, and this was the icy battlefield from which I would not make a safe return” (132). Throughout his life, he has kept her memory alive through the narrator and the locked room which holds her picture. While most of the English women he seduces are Mustafa’s victims, isn’t he really a victim to Jean? Furthermore, the narrator names Mustafa’s wife Hosna another victim; he states, “for after all those victims he crowned his life with yet another one, Hosna Bint Mahmoud, the only woman I have ever loved” (117). What does it mean for Hosna to be a part of the group of white victims? And can the narrator really love her?

Additionally, I wanted to discuss the ending. The narrator swimming out to sea most obviously mirrors Mustafa’s suicide, but it is also very similar to Chopin’s The Awakening. In Chopin’s novel, the main character commits suicide by drowning because that is her only means of freedom. The narrator seems at first to consider this but then realizes that there is more to live for and that he can choose to be free of Mustafa. While the narrator realizes he has a choice, does Mustafa not recognize his own ability to choose or be free in any other way?

Triple Existence and Language

22 Feb

“However painful it may be for me to accept this conclusion, I am obliged to state it: For the black man there is only one destiny. And it is white” (Fanon 10).

In Black Skin, White Masks,Fanon’s main point is stated in the introduction; the identity crisis of a black man is his inability to be anything other than that which is seen by a white man. He states several times the incapacity to uncover an authentic identity. Fanon writes, “For not only must the black man be black; he must be black in relation to the white man” (110). As long as there is white, you are defined through those differences. An authentic identity is unachievable because of the simplification others denigrate. Although he attempts to lift himself up to some more complicated form of identity, he is unable to succeed. Throughout this reading, I couldn’t help making connections with Eugenides’ Middlesex. The main character, Calliope, struggles with identity- not only ethnic and cultural identity, but gender identity as well (she/he is a hermaphrodite). In a similar way, Fanon is trying to show the complexity of his identity crisis when it keeps being reduced to an issue of black and white. While Calliope has several elements to identity, Fanon explains “a triple person,” as “I was finding febrile coordinates in the world. I existed triply: I occupied space” (112). The three places include: body, race, and ancestors. I read this as having three elements of identity that he can’t mend together like Eugenides’ character. There is the self that is the interior, the race which is the exterior, and the ancestors which is his bond to others. Yet he is only seen in one simplified light- that of race.

In the last paragraph he writes, “I refuse to accept that amputation … I am a master and I am advised to adopt the humility of the cripple” (140). The language he uses throughout the chapters, and especially the ending provided more of an image to what is lost in identity. The image of amputation gives the feeling that a limb is taken from you through the simplification of identity; that a big piece of you is gone. Then to be a ‘master’ of one’s identity plays with the slave-master dichotomy. Even as a master, someone else is a master over you. He ends stating, “without responsibility, straddling Nothingness and Infinity, I began to weep” (140). He is in the middle of two extremes, capitalizing both to emphasize the ideas they represent. It is a nothingness that leaves you internally empty, and an infinity that makes you completely in power of the self.

Narrator: Dead or Alive

15 Feb

“The main defect of this book is you, reader. You’re in a hurry to grow old and the book moves slowly. You love direct and continuous narration, a regular and fluid style, and this book and my style are like drunkards, they stagger left and right, they walk and stop, mumble, yell, cackle, shake their fists at the sky, stumble, and fall …” (111).

The structure and style of the narration in The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas struck me as following as similar path of several Russian novels. Dostoevsky, Gogol, Nabokov and so many others tease the reader by self-consciously playing with words/thoughts/ideas. While in Speak, Memory Nabokov starts his memoir before his existence with the image of a crib before his birth, this narrator starts with the end of his existence. The narrator is not dying, but already dead, which makes the reader question his intentions from the very beginning all the way to the final page. Throughout my reading, I’ve been trying to figure out what this element adds to the story. Is there a significant change in a narrator who is dead or alive?

There are two types of unreliable narration: the naïve and the manipulative. This narrator is more than the manipulative unreliable narrator because of the fact that he is dead; it’s almost as if death has given him a step back by not only relating past events but looking at it knowing that nothing can change or be added. But as he says that death has allowed him to express his memoirs without a filter, doesn’t he still have a filter? And isn’t Cubas exactly the same as before he died? As we mentioned last class, there is a “nonproductiveness of time” in the novel that Schwarz discusses. When we believe a thought it about to be explained, it is turned around; when we question an idea, the next chapter takes it back. So is there really value in having the narrator tell this story “not exactly (as) a writer who is dead but a dead man who is a writer” (7)? Or is this an element solely used to stress the volubility of the novel?

Doubling and Naming

8 Feb

Last class we discussed the double effect between Antoinetta and Tia. The two scenes that we talked about were when the two switch roles as Tia takes Antoinetta’s clothes, and the second when Tia throws the stone at her, showing tears and blood mirroring each other. The double here shows the confusion of identity and the struggle with Antoinetta being seen as both white and black, which is worse than being one or the other (“black nigger better than white nigger”).  This doubling I believe is continued throughout the rest of the novel, which becomes more confused as she loses herself- her name and identity.

Amelie seems to be another double, but the double is created through Rochester rather than Antoinetta. Amelie is dark, lower class and mean to Antoinetta in a similar way as Tia. The beauty Rochester sees in Antoinetta he transfers to Amelie. Taking Antoinetta’s place, Amelie sleeps with Rochester. However, as soon as the act is over, Rochester erases this double and sees Amelie as she was; “Her skin was darker, her lips thicker than I had thought” (84). The ‘whiteness’ of Antoinetta dissolves in the blackness of Amelie. As soon as the double vanishes, so does Amelie leave the novel. The fact that Antoinetta is nearby and able to hear everything is another step toward her own loss of self; her place as wife is transferred.

In the end, Tia is brought back to life as a double figure to Antoinetta. The last page of her dream vision reads, “Tia was there. She beckoned to me and when I hesitated, she laughed. I heard her say, You frightened?” (112). It is the double that beckons her to her death. The last step to her madness happens as she wakes up calling ‘Tia!” Antoinetta’s other half (Tia) lies over the edge. If she jumps to her death, she will have a full identity again rather than pieces of it scattered in various characters.

It may be too far to say that Rochester is some form of a double, however, there is some form of madness that takes over his thoughts. This is especially present after talking to Christophine in Part Two. Rochester says, “She’s mad but mine, mine. What will I care for gods or devils or for Fate itself. If she smiles or weeps or both. For me” (99). While naming seems to be a prominent issue in the sanity of characters, it seems to me that the doubling element has a lot to do with madness as well. Naming may be a trigger to the loss of identity, but doubling provides no return to sanity.

Narrative Time and Imperialism

1 Feb

In the introduction to Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism he writes, “stories are at the heart of what explorers and novelists say about strange regions of the world; they also become the method colonized people use to assert their own identity and the existence of their own history” (xii). In this way, literature is how people understand and make sense of colonialism and imperialism. Narratives are what connect people to nations. However, if we look back to Heart of Darkness, it seems that this narrative confuses identity and picks away at the cohesive element that establishes nations to people. Said explains later, “Conrad wants us to see how Kurtz’s great looting adventure, Marlow’s journey up the river, and the narrative itself all share a common theme: Europeans performing acts of imperial mastery and will in (or about) Africa” (23). All three aspects of the novel also contain different time, which distances us to these stories. While we get parts of Kurtz’s story, parts of Marlow’s story, and step back once more to the narrator, who is listening to this inner story, we end up not getting a complete story with a definite understanding of the author’s views, the narrator’s views or any of the characters’ own views. Moreover, none of the outside world of the novel– the ‘natives’– don’t have a voice, so their thoughts are never captured. Said makes an interesting point to this, saying, “Conrad’s realization is that if, like narrative, imperialism has monopolized the entire system of representation – which in the case of Heart of Darkness allowed it to speak for Africans as well as for Kurtz and the other adventurers, including Marlow and his audience – your self-consciousness as an outsider can allow you actively to comprehend how the machine works, given that you and it are fundamentally not in perfect synchrony or correspondence” (25).  So we as readers understand the workings of imperialism through the imperialism of the novel. The point is no longer to understand the identity or thoughts of the characters, author or narrator, but to instead focus on how imperialism works. Then my question is, does the ending of Heart of Darkness with the sudden mixture of time [Marlow saying, “ ‘I saw her and him in the same instant of time—his death and her sorrow’” (69)] change anything for our understanding of Conrad’s narrative? Does a “world being made and unmade more or less all the time” influence our understanding of imperialism in the novel?

Ambiguous Darkness

25 Jan

“Africa is to Europe as the picture is to Dorian Gray – a carrier onto whom the master unloads his physical and moral deformities so that he may go forward, erect and immaculate. Consequently Africa is something to be avoided just as the picture has to be hidden away to safeguard the man’s jeopardous integrity. Keep away from Africa, or else!” (Achebe 7)


Although I agree more with Brantlinger’s view of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, I found Achebe’s argument to give some interesting points. Especially his comparison of Dorian Gray to what he believes Conrad’s Africa to be. You’ve probably all read Dorian Gray, or at least know the basic story line. If Africa is like the picture, slowly decaying while Europe strengthens, then Conrad’s message in his novel would definitely be “keep away from Africa” because that is the hiding place to Europe’s own shortcomings (if I’m understanding this correctly). But then Europe can only improve if Africa deteriorates. Is that really the message Conrad is giving? I believe Conrad to be much more ambiguous in his message to his readers; he is not telling us what to believe or how to view Europe or Africa. We take what he gives us and make our own evaluations. As Brantlinger states, “At what point is it safe to assume that Conrad/Marlow expresses a single point of view? And even supposing Marlow to speak directly for Conrad, does Conrad/Marlow agree with the values expressed by primary narrator?” (Epilogue 2). Achebe seems to think Conrad’s novella is straight forward – black and white. However, not only does the distancing narration make this idea problematic, but also the characterization of Kurtz complicates this; he lives in the middle of black and white, quite literally in fact. Brantlinger discusses Kurtz as divided between two desires: to change/correct the ‘savages’ or identify with them. He states, “Kurtz is a product of this painful division. Yet not even Marlow sees Kurtz’s going native as a step toward the recovery of a lost paradise; it is instead a fall into hell, into the darkness of self-disintegration.” Kurtz has lost himself in this split. He has both a life with a ‘savage’ woman and a life with a European woman. If the ‘idea’ of colonialism (that Conrad discusses on page 4) is development and progress of (possibly) both Europe and Africa, then can Kurtz be seen as the embodiment of this idea? Does Kurtz’ death symbolize the death of progress in colonialism or at least the death of the redeemable quality of this idea? Even if this might not be the case, I think it’s safe to say that Brantlinger is correct is saying, “Ambiguity, perhaps the main form of darkness in the story, prevails.”