Archive by Author

Leila Aboulela’s Minaret

16 Apr

Leila Aboulela’s Minaret is the story of Najwa, a Sudanese woman who was raised in privilege in Khartoum, until a coup forces her to flee to London with her mother and her brother. The novel follows her life as she transitions from a Westernized teen in Sudan, to a devout Muslim woman working as a nanny/maid in London. This novel examines issues of class, religion, culture, and gender, all through one woman’s personal journey. Despite tackling all of these themes, the novel is an easy read, with a plot that jumps throughout Najwa’s life to demonstrate how she as an individual is able to handle her fall in class and loss of country by becoming more devout, and joining a religious community in London to replace her lost family.

It feels important to read this novel to gain a perspective on a culture and a background, with its own standards and ideals, that is different from my own. After initially reading the story, I felt disappointment for Najwa, because the life she is leading at the end of this novel, her goals for herself, and many other parts of her character are so different from what I would want for myself, or even what I would expect for this character from the beginning of the story. That said, just because I find it difficult to initially relate to this character does not mean that reading this story did not make me take the time to see that my own standards and ideas are not universal. Reading this story is a chance to experience a life completely different from my own.

Many of the issues I had with this novel revolve around the issue of gender. Much of Najwa’s identity as a woman, and how she is treated by those around her is defined by her clothing. Aboulela utilizes clothing to show Najwa’s transition from a Westernized teen to a devout Muslim woman. In Khartoum, Najwa wears tight pants, short skirts, and other clothing that brings attention to her body. Her first relationship with a man is with someone who disrespects her, her family, background, and ideas, but who was drawn to her because of her revealing clothing. The story seems to say that she was asking for this disrespect because of the type of clothing she wore (representative of larger cultural choices.) This relationship ends on the day she chooses to begin wearing a headscarf; this piece of clothing is shown to give her the confidence to end this relationship. It is only later in the novel, when she is wearing hijab and more shapeless clothing, that she feels comfortable, not so much because she is respected, but because she is hidden and anonymous. The only time her more devout and traditional clothing causes her a problem in the novel is when she is taunted and attacked by Londoners on a bus. Within her own community (Muslim ex-pats from a number of countries and cultures) her choice to wear a headscarf helps her fit in and feel accepted.

Najwa’s transition to a practicing Muslim (rather than the secular Islam of her youth) is reflected in the story through her relationships with two men- the first relationship which began in Khartoum and ended with her wearing the headscarf, to a relationship she begins with Tamer, the 19 year old son of her employer. He is much younger than her, yet he idealizes her as a devout, subservient woman. The fact that she is subservient because she is his employee does not change the fact that he views her as a better woman and Muslim because she is simple compared to his sister pursuing a PhD, or his successful mother who travels the world. Much as he idealizes Najwa, she pursues the relationship with him because she respects how devout he is at such a young age- she frequently compares Tamer’s desire to study Islamic history with her own youth in Khartoum spent in clubs, where she was only at college waiting to get married. Their differences in age, social standing, and family will prevent this relationship from lasting, but at the end of the novel we see Najwa preparing to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca. She has no family or country left, her only community and identity is that of a Muslim.


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I, Holding the Quill, Measured the Abyss

12 Apr

The final segment of Texaco seems to cement [I’m seeing the pun now I’m rereading this, but I’m going with it] how by committing stories, memories, and ideas to the written word, we force nebulous ideas to take shape. By preserving these concepts, we entomb them; it is a tradeoff between conserving our history and making it stagnant. The narrator acknowledges as she is writing that she is killing herself, her memories, and Texaco as she puts their stories down on paper. She and Texaco have not yet finished evolving (and Texaco never will) but they will be in a way trapped as they were when she chose to write them down. For Marie-Sophie, filling her notebooks with memories reflects the transformation of Texaco into a more permanent, accepted settlement; as her memories of Esternome and his stories become transformed as she gives them permanence by writing them down.

Language, and its connection to the personal vs. the universal, is a major theme reflecting the power of cities both to disconnect people from their roots, but to interconnect them to one another. When Ti-Cirique compares Marie-Sophie’s Creole and French writing, his hatred of Creole writing is profound, to the point that “a hiccup of disgust shook his body: My God, Madame Marie-Sophie, this tongue is dirty, it’s destroying Haiti and comforting its illiteracy…” Ti-Cirique is so focused on the universality of language, that he ignores its power to be relative. Ti-Cirique is a man obsessed with the power of words, not only in their current meanings, but he is obsessed with the shifting meanings and historical roots of these words. By tracing words in his memorized dictionary, he is trying to create permanence and a shared history in language.

Reading a translated version of this novel only drives home these ideas of language and universality, it is only because this story has been transformed into English (as even the best translations lose nuances and subtleties of the primary language) that I am able to access this story and its characters. This story had to be put into its most universal form to be approachable by a wide audience.

Personal Decay in the Delta

29 Mar

I want to expand on many of the points Zack raised in his post, specifically in how these characters represent the physical decay of the Delta in their own deteriorating lives. A notable example of an individual undergoing this change is the camp doctor- he is introduced as smoking heavily, being overweight, and being physically repulsive to Rufus. Yet we are then shown this character as a young, idealistic man, working to improve the lives of his village clients. Yet when oil is found in the village (as had been desired by the villagers) he takes on the role of recorder- he notes the toxic levels of the water, land, and even the people themselves. But it is this information, and the lack of action it inspires- the oil company merely pays him, the government ignores his reports, and the international community publishes his reports, but takes no action to pressure either the oil company or government to improve the situation. In this situation, it is understandable how an individual can be worn down by circumstance, and the clear lack of opportunity to change these problems for the better.

On a larger scale, the kidnapping in this novel represents a larger change in the society of the Niger delta, what is considered normal or even necessary behavior by the people, normal individuals who are not members of criminal organizations see criminal activity as a legitimate action, as a means to make money and to get something back from the oil companies. Saloman is not a criminal, and before the despair of his fiancee’s affair, he likely would have not kidnapped his employer. Yet in these circumstances, he is easily convinced that kidnapping is not only a viable option to get revenge on him employer, but also an activity with little consequence- certainly not a dangerous crime with the outcome that occurs.

Even the criminal organizations in the Delta are degrading- the character of the Professor, or rather the idea of the Professor, is a man who was once a respected (as a rebel) leader in the Delta, who was killed and replaced by a weaker, more paranoid man. This new Professor is more violent, less organized, and more chaotic. This decline of the criminal organizations, to the point where they are a violent force acting on the people, rather than a force for the people, is demonstrative of the hopelessness and decline of movements in the Delta, much of which was demonstrated in the history of the region demonstrated in Sweet Crude. The history of the region, from peaceful protests quashed from the government, to the initial groups arming to defend themselves, to the number of criminal organizations and individuals now acting violently under the guise of freedom, shows that even the movements for freedom in the region become corrupted and lessened as they fight hopelessly in circumstances that don’t seem to be improving.

This novel has no satisfying conclusion- at least the expected ending of a mystery, where the kidnapping victim would be returned, Rufus would return to write his story, and the traveling villagers would find a new home. Instead, the ending of this novel seems to taper off- we are left with the impression of where the characters will wind up, but as long as the situation in the Delta does not have a clear resolution, there can be no clear resolution for individuals.

Moving Beyond a Post-Colonial Discussion

1 Mar

Over there is like here, neither better nor worse. But I am from here, just as the date palm standing in the courtyard of our house has grown in our house and not in anyone else’s.

The fact that they came to our land, I know not why, does that mean that we should poison our present and our future? Sooner or later they will leave our country, just as many people throughout history left many countries.

The railways, ships, hospitals, factories and schools will be ours and we’ll speak their language without either a sense of guilt or a sense of gratitude. Once again we shall be as we were-ordinary people-and if we are lies we shall be lies of our own making.

(pg 50-51 in the electronic edition)


As we began discussing in class on Tuesday, Season of Migration of the North not only reverses the tropes of colonial literature established by Heart of Darkness , but really seeks to go beyond the basic binaries of black/white, dark/light, etc. that have been discussed, flipped, and played out in many other works.

I found the above quote striking during my first reading of the novel, and after reading Zack’s post, I noted how well it fit with the discussion of Colonialism and Traditionalism. It raises interesting questions about the influences of a colonial legacy on the former colonies, and questions how much of what it attributed to the colonial presence (good or bad) should be credited to the circumstances and people in the country itself. It also strips many aspects of the standard colonial discourse- Europe being superior to its colonies and having a specific plan in the process of colonization. At what point will it be possible (or is it possible at all) to get beyond the post-colonial context and discourse to analyze countries in their own context.

The above passage is a refreshing perspective in that it truly seeks to go beyond an understanding of a country in a post-colonial context. And considering the era it was written, I can’t decide if this idea was ahead of its time, or too close to the colonial time period to understand the long-term problems (and neo-colonial practices) that would arise in the future. We may still find ourselves having to address post-colonial issues, but the idea of a time when we are post-post colonialism (or completely transcend this paradigm) as the new form of discussion is appealing.

I don’t know if the ideas expressed above are optimistic, or just the neutral nature of progress. I just like the acknowledgement that there will always be historical/colonial influences in former colonies, but these traces of the past do not need to be the defining factor of these countries’ present or future. 

A Snap of the Finger and Goodbye

15 Feb

Reading A Master on the Periphery of Capitalism following PMBC, I found myself questioning the style and motivation of Schwartz more than I did Machado de Assis. Relating back to Jeremy’s post, I find Schwartz’s viewpoint to narrow (with the Marxist lens) to do justice to the complexity (whether the stylistic choices de Assis made were affected or an attempt to relate deeper meaning) of PMBC. What Schwartz refers to as impudence, provocation, and profanation all seem to enhance the style of narration in PMBC, specifically of Cubas as a narrator. Such a character (one who has imagined having experienced the movement of time across centuries) would of course feel superior to the reader, and the dead would not find themselves so worried about the linear narration for the living. The interaction of the reader in this novel, and the aggressive style of the narration toward the reader (not only stating that he does not care if people enjoy his reading, but seemingly to challenge the readers enjoyment of his story as he tells it.


I found Schwartz to also be aggressive towards the reader- no room is left for interpretation of the story outside of the lens he is presenting, and he accuses the reader of potentially being complicit in allowing one of the largest paradoxes of the book (and, more significantly, of the Brazilian cognitive divide) to stand. In referring to the divide between being a slave trader and an religious, respected gentleman:


It’s true that they pay the price for this inconsistency on that moral front, but this has a more harmful effect on these moral standards themselves- mocked as being completely useless- than it does on them. Even so, the discrepancy cries out to heaven, and only some form of complicity will let it pass muster and escape protest- that same protest that will certainly be heard from those less well disposed to these characters, among whom the reader may well find himself. – Master pg 82


The reader is left to question whether they are among those who do not protest (or protest strongly enough) the moral and logical quandaries that de Assis has identified. Are the readers among those who mock the moral standards, even if they were simply unable to identify the inconsistency present? Cubas as a narrator draws attention to cultural absurdity through so many other layers of absurdity- the style of the narration, his own characteristics, that it is possible this large, seemingly glaring moral and cultural disconnect is drowned out by the other stylistic and personal inconsistencies the reader is exposed to.


I think the interpretation of PMBC cannot stand without examining authorial intent, which based on the irreverent nature of the narrator in the piece, would not care about Schwartz’s effort to place this work in his own favored lens, to dismiss the stylistic choices that seem designed to aggravate the reader, rather than to inform. After reading A Master, I feel as though anyone who strongly attempts to regulate and explain away de Assis’s choices may very well be a reader to whom he would give a snap of the finger and goodbye. 

White Privilege Taught in HS Class

1 Feb

Self-Defining Time

1 Feb

Said’s examination of imperialism, Fabian’s history of the conception of time, and Heart of Darkness all draw attention to the human habit/desire to define ourselves in opposition (and superiority) to an Other. One overall theme that all of these pieces contribute to is the notion that these conceptions of self (from the individual to the cultural level) are not static, they are influenced by past, and by self-interpretation of those past events.

What Said is able to note is that everyone in the world is now a product of the colonial past (and in his eyes, ongoing imperialist present). People from former colonies have moved to the imperial capitols, bringing their culture with them. No former colony can return to its cultural roots untouched by the language, culture, and practices of the former colonizers. As much as we may all try to define ourselves in opposition to an Other, we have all shared aspects of our cultures too closely for the lines to be clearly drawn. Of course, this phenomenon is not new- there have been empires in the past, and cultures have borrowed and integrated ideas from neighboring people.

What seems to separate the era of European global colonialism from any past time is the vehemence with which the idea of their cultural uniqueness and superiority was held. Said notes that there were records of Christians engaging in cannibalism during the Crusades, but that these records were suppressed when Europe began to explore farther than it had ever gone before. The obsession with non-Europeans as being savage, often represented in shorthand by having them be cannibalistic, is shown heavily in Heart of Darkness. Cannibalism is used to show the breaking of fundamental human taboos as a way to dehumanize the Other, yet every culture has stories or traditions of cannibalism at some point in their history. It is the ability to ignore or rewrite one’s past to ignore this fact that gives the sense of superiority necessary to subjugate the Other.

Fabian demonstrated the power inherent in defining history. How someone views their own history (both the stories within it and its relation to the larger scope of time in which they did not exist) is such a significant part of self-identity. What is striking about how time has often been conceived is the notion of destiny that is entangled within it- for sacred time, the goal is salvation, while for secular time, the goal is more nebulous. The goal is more- to see more, to explore further, to be faster, more efficient, more powerful. The goal is progress, however it is being defined. It seems time cannot be defined with progress, and progress cannot be defined without past times to compare itself favorably to. How could a people who define their time on Earth in such a way not find it necessary to expand and conquer?

Attempting to disentangle colonialism and the European attitudes that existed concurrently seems to be impossible. Did Europe’s view of itself and its place in history cause it to expand, or did a natural territorial expansion lead to the sense of identity that lead to world conquest as had never been seen before? It seems impossible to say, when these ideas and history are still being lived and still being interpreted by the various people that are a product of this time.

How to Write About Africa- Modern Authors Still Don’t Know

25 Jan

After reading “How to Write About Africa” I was reminded of two pieces I read earlier this week. The first is a Huffington Post piece titled “I Also Dreamed of Africa” and the second is a (humorous, but frustrated) critique of this piece titled “She Also Dreamed of Africa.”


In the Huffington Post piece, it is interesting to note how many of the tropes pointed out by Wainaina the author falls into- despite the fact she has never been to Africa. The entire point of her piece is how she has envisioned Africa since she was a child, and how she has fantasized about leaving her life to go live in the “wild” with the “natives.” One quote in particular came back to me after reading Wainaina’s piece: “Africa can be such an adventurous, dangerous and romantic place to be. Just the landscape is a vision — and there is nothing more breathtaking than an African sunset or sunrise.”

But at least this author thinks she could give back, by helping “the African tribes and communities thrive by teaching Western skills…” To this author, it is obvious that the people she would encounter in Africa are just waiting for someone like her to come teach them how to be better at surviving in their own landscapes and communities.

How is it in 2013 author’s can still be writing about Africa as a singular, exotic, destination waiting for their chance to experience it? I am glad that other publications were quick to point out the flaws in this piece, but the fact that it was published on such a mainstream website is telling of what is accepted when attempting to “write about Africa.”

Achebe’s piece, although originating in the 1970’s, still is able to explain why it is still common for authors to romanticize, criticize, and patronize Africa. The African continent (and its animals, as noted by Wainaina) are personified, while the various African people are stereotyped and marginalized. Achebe notes that the African people are not given the dignity of coherent language or individualism. The people of Africa only serve as foils to Westerners, much as the landscape only serves as a point of discovery and reflection for outsiders. For some reason, Western audiences still expect these stereotypes, and Western producers are only too happy to provide them.

Reading Heart of Darkness certainly gives a historical insight into colonialism, African exploration, and European perspectives of the continent and its people during the Scramble for Africa. What is surprising is how many of the ideas expressed in that book are still being expressed in modern works. It is unclear when realistic, multi-faceted perspectives on all the different people, environments, and circumstances in Africa will be produced by and for a Western (or at this point, global) audience. Maybe they will start by realizing they can’t write a single piece that encompasses an entire continent and a population of over 1 billion people.