Archive by Author

Amazon review: Moth Smoke

16 Apr

“When the uncertain future becomes the past, the past in turn becomes uncertain.”
― Mohsin Hamid, Moth Smoke

Moth Smoke opens with a court room scene, which is ironically quite a popular setting in vernacular soap operas produced in both India and Pakistan. Early on in the book, we are introduced to the defendant, Darashikoh Shezad (Dara for short), who is accused of killing a boy in a road accident, a crime that we are given to understand he might be wrongly accused of as the novel progresses. Hamid uses multiple narrative voices to move the plot of this crime novel, including those of his best friend Ozi (Aurangzeb), who is the son of Dara’s benefactor, and Mumtaz, Ozi’s wife who has an affair with Dara, and who stands for all that is glittering, upper class, air-conditioned Lahore, a particular echelon of the city that is painted as a center of light in the midst of poverty, sweat and toil. Mumtaz (and her undeniable portrayal as a personification of the city) is symbolized as a candle to Dara as moth—Hence the title of this book.
Dara is shown to us as a middle class man fallen from grace—he is painfully aware that the only reason he had a cushy bank job (as perceived from a lower middle class perspective) was because of the strings pulled on his behalf by Ozi’s father. A tortured conscience prevents him from fully engaging with the corrupt Nepotism that is part of the inflexible reality of Lahore at the time. This is not to say that Dara is without fault: an anti-hero in the Modernist tradition, he is characterized by his listlessness, ennui and general dissatisfaction with life. However, this characterization is a telling choice on the part of the author, considering the time (within the novel) is the summer of 1998, the year of nuclear testing in Pakistan, and a flexing of South Asian geo-political force between India and Pakistan.
Moth Smoke is a narrative set against the backdrop of the tension and ennui experienced by liberal Lahori society at a time when political and military forces pushed the economy into a downturn. The utilization of shifting points of narrative and multiple voices enhances this tension successfully. In addition, having access to the points of view of Mumtaz, Ozi and Murad Badshah enhances our understanding of the world Dara is forced to circle, as the proverbial moth to a flame.
Hamid does a remarkable job of setting up what goes on behind closed doors in Lahore high society. He also informs us how these secret activities affect the law and economy of the city, and the aspirations of the have-nots who live around the Pajero-driving, cordless phone-toting have’s. In this vein, Dara and Ozi are set up for comparison from the start; Dara was always more intelligent than Ozi, but it’s always been Ozi who has been more successful due to his family’s connections. They are old friends with an almost sibling rivalry, a fact highlighted by Hamid’s allusion to the historical Aurangzeb and Dara, brothers and sons of Shah Jahan, a Mughal Emperor whose dynasty’s contribution to South Asian cultural and political identity still echoes in the minds of Indians and Pakistanis who grew up within the British system of education.
This same allusion is actually what fascinates me the most about Moth Smoke as one of the early forerunners of the modern South Asian novel: Hamid very consciously chooses historical names and references to frame this very modern tale (relevant to the entire 2000’s, so far) within the confines of factual history that took place during the time of the nascent East India Company of the 1700s in Mughal-ruled India. This historical period is often considered one of the golden phases of South Asian history, and is discussed widely with a sense of pride across India and Pakistan. In an interview published in Duke University’s Chronicle (2000), Hamid stated that the reason why he chose this particular story line is because he wanted to pull from a moment in history that “bypasses the colonial experience”, which allows the author to direct the reader’s attention away from British Raj themes (ubiquitous in many South Asian narratives) and instead, towards the far more sinister and interesting forces of economic growth & stagnation, capitalist market tendencies and identity crises brought on by class systems in modern South Asia.
Ultimately, Moth Smoke is an ill-fated love story, as well as a Bildungsroman gone wrong in a way that insightfully captures the dysfunction and loss of self-hood experienced by Dara. In doing so, this novel speaks to the anxieties and disparities of a very specific time in the history of urban Pakistan, specifically Lahore, in a manner that many South Asians of my generation can identify with.


The Chronicle (2000) “Mohsin Hamid” Retrieved April 14, 2013 from

Link to Amazon review:

The issue of translation and time in Chamoiseau’s movement from Créolité to Glissant’s ‘Relation’

9 Apr

While gathering scholarly articles, I came across a 2012 interview with Chamoiseau conducted by Olivia Sheringham for the the International Migration Institute at the University of Oxford, as part of the Oxford Diasporas Program(me), in which Chamoiseau talks about how more recently, he has in fact moved away from Créolité, for very similar reasons as to why he first stayed away from Negritude.

According to Sheringham, Glissant’s concept of ‘Relation’ “… refers to the interconnectedness and interdependence of the world and seeks to move beyond atavistic notions of identity”, which is now a stance adopted by Chamoiseau, who was a close friend and collaborator of Glissant, who died in 2011.

In the interview, Chamoiseau discusses his reasons for giving up Créolité in favor of Relation, mentioning the dilution of the original term that was used to discuss Creole language, and the false binary logic of Negritude that feeds into Créolité. Throughout the interview, Chamoiseau points outs the role of language in forming identities, Creole or otherwise, which then speaks to the points on the limitations of translation raised by Maryse Condé, an important Caribbean writer, in an conversation with Emily Apter, published in the journal of Public culture.

Chamoiseau responds to Sheringham’s question regarding the origin of the term ‘Creole’, by stating that in its original form, it was only meant by (Glissant, himself and others) to refer to “… the mechanical constitution of the creole language” and that Glissant himself claimed once “… that the mechanical constitution of the creole language is an echo of the world – showing that the creole language is formed of a mosaic of multiple languages and lexical presences.”

However, Chamoiseau book-ends this statement by saying that historically, the term was used to designate any object, animal, artifact, social identity or food that was created in or “acclimatized to” the Americas, though it first began as a way of describing “… the descendants of European colonisers.” For me personally, this explanation brings us directly to the doorstep of ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, and fills in all the gaps left by Rhys in my understanding of the binary of white creole/black creole set up in her book.

Explaining why he prefers the concept of Relation as it allows for “relational identity, which is an identity that is defined by the fact that it changes all the time without losing anything or being distorted”, Chamoiseau states–

“… I would prefer to get rid of the term [creolization] and to use the term Relation instead. Because the idea of creolization presupposes that we are still in the former absolutes – racial absolutes, black/white, linguistic absolutes – all the former identity markers that elsewhere defined métissage: métissage is black/white that gives us grey.”

I feel that this concept of Relation really does bring the Post Colonial/Subaltern discussion directly into our current time, as it allows for a discussion of the influence of and relationship between multiple times and spaces that both Fabian and Nixon raise as issues faced by marginalized populations all throughout the Global South (in fact, it even challenges the static nature of the concept of the ‘Global South’!).

Chamoiseau stresses the fluidity allowed by Relation, and also when prompted by Sheringham, goes on to place ideas of Globalization, Fixed Identity and the falling away of Absolute concepts in this context of Relation. I feel that Maryse Condé raises many of the same issues in her discussion with Emily Apter of translating Caribbean writing, being as she is fully aware of the ‘Africa Chic’ co-opting within Euro-centric cultures throughout the 90’s and 2000’s.

When speaking with Apter about the translation of her work, conducted by her husband, Richard Philcox, Condé states–

“… if there is a phrase in Creole, he leaves it, but he also includes a translation in the notes (and most publishers resist this). And when he says his translations are market-driven, it really means only in this narrow sense of maximizing clarity and accessibility. He knows that I have resisted being “marketed” in America within the confines of the preestablished “black writers” niche.”

In response to Apter’s question regarding how her work is marketed, she responds with the following:

“Editors tend to see everything in black and white, and they have tried to target the African American reading public in marketing my fiction. But this really doesn’t work, since my books are concerned less with race and much more with the complexities of overlapping cultures, with conditions of diaspora, and with cross-racial, cross-generational encounters.”

Not to say that Conde agrees with everything Chamoiseau and Glissant claim regarding Relation– in fact, in response to Apter’s direct question regarding the Créolité manifesto penned by Chamoiseau and a few fellow writers in 1989, she claims that the term itself “… effaces the history of slavery, of the plantation culture, and the economic foundations of the island. The term créolité makes the cultural laboratory more important than the memory of a sugarbased economy.” While thus making a case for the inclusion of plantation memory in the discussion of the Creole language and culture, Condé still seems to be making a case for a movement away from binaries– It is easy to see how the very act of translation itself ensures that oral tradition, the heart of Creolite, “observes hierarchy as it can only be communicated in translation”, as claimed by Amy Emery in book, ‘The anthropological imagination in Latin American literature’. Emery states:

“The role of the anthropologist or the writer… is to transcribe the spontaneous richness of oral narrative with a minimal amount of authorial intervention. The positioning of the writer and his or her informant is meant to guarantee that the document will be an authentic expression of the informant’s voice, which the literate writer has facilitated, but not produced as such” (70).

This point raised by Emery speaks to the problem of allogenic time as raised by Fabian, which leads me to believe that more than any other sub-set (if you will) of Post Colonial writing, Caribbean Writing addresses the issues highlighted in ‘Time and the Other’ as well as Nixon’s ‘Slow Violence’ by discusses ways in which to decrease the distance between center and periphery caused by the binary oppositions within language and discussions about language, as well as resists the forced hierarchy of translation.


Amy Emery, The anthropological imagination in Latin American literature, 1996.

Emily Apter, Crossover Texts/Creole Tongues: A Conversation with Maryse Condé, 2001. Public Culture 13(1): 89–96.

From Creolization to Relation: An interview with Patrick Chamoiseau

Distinctly French: the Subaltern travel to and from City in ‘Texaco’ and ‘Pere Goriot’

5 Apr

Patrick Chamoiseau, in choosing to write ‘Texaco’ using shifting points of view, jumps in time, switches in tone and dialect and circularity, achieves what Spivak upholds in her seminal ‘Can the Subaltern Speak (1)?’, which is the creation of a multi-facted narrative where the multiple Creole identities represented (in ‘Texaco’) tell their own story in their own language, at their own pace and in a manner closer to their own oral traditions versus the format or style of western fiction. (Spivak’s criticism was that ‘benevolent’ Western intellectuals can silence the subaltern by attempting to speak for them).

In ‘Texaco’, City is evoked frequently, and one such time is when the “city which was not City” is described in opposition to the Quarter and its hutches—“There was a constant going and coming between the Quarter of the Wretched and the City’s heart. City was the open ocean. The Quarter was the port of registry” (172). We are also given Esternome’s own version of City—

“City’s a quake. A tremor. There all things are possible, and there all things are mean. City sweeps and carries you along, never lets go of you, gets you mixed up in its old secrets. In the end you take them in without ever understanding them. You tell those just-off-the-hills that that’s how it is and they eat it up: but City has just gulped you in without showing you the ropes. A City is the ages all gathered in one place, not just in the names, houses, statues, but in the not-visible. A City sips the joys, the pain, the thoughts, ever feeling, it makes its dew out of them, which you see without being able to point to it. That’s what City is and that was Saint-Pierre.” (173-174).

With this thought in mind while reading Chamoiseau’s ‘Texaco’, I was immediately struck by the similarities between its thread involving descriptions of movement to and from City, and a similar thread in works of French Realism, such as Stendhal’s ‘The Red and the Black’ and Zola’s ‘Germinal’, but for the purpose of this blog post, specifically, Balzac’s ‘Pere Goriot’.
While ‘Pere Goriot’ is not considered part of the post-colonial canon, I’d like to argue that the issues of class, economic status, place and identity raised by the inhabitants of Maison Vauquer, and Eugène de Rastignac’s own constant battle to enter and be accepted by the bon-ton in Paris, in an effort to move away from both the Bucolic South of his youth as well as from the stench of poverty of the neighborhood in which the Maison Vauquer stands, speak to concepts of Subaltern, a field of Post-Colonial studies that focuses on individuals and/or communities that exist outside the hegemonic Center, often but not always represented as City.
Balzac himself was said to have been influenced while writing ‘Pere Goriot’ by the writing of James Fenimore Cooper, who at the time was known for his representation of Native Americans and their often violent interaction with civilization, a theme that certainly influenced Balzac’s use of characterization and dichotomies within ‘Pere Goriot’. It is in the juxtaposition of ordinary citizens against an omnipresent, all-powerful, mysterious City that I feel contains some of the seeds of Subaltern Studies and literature.
At the end of Pere Goriot, the reader is shown an incredibly epic scene: Goriot is dead, and Rastignac finds himself on a hill (I believe he reached here after a walk through the Père-Lachaise cemetery, post-funeral) overlooking Paris, which Balzac lays before him as a glittering, beautiful entity. He starts off towards his dinner with Delphine de Nucingen (which has social implications all of its own) but not before (at least in Loesberg’s interpretation) yelling out, “À nous deux, maintenant!” (“It’s between you and me now!”), presumably directing this challenge at Paris.
Chamoiseau gives Marie-Sophie the ability to co-opt and subvert this idea of challenging a city:

We shoved our way about next to City, holding on to it by its thousand survival cracks. But City ignored us. Its activity, glances, the facets of its life (from every day’s morning to the beautiful night neon) ignored us. We had vied for its promises, its destiny; we were denied its promises, its destiny. Nothing was given, everything was to be wrung out. We spoke to those who looked like us. We answered their call for help and they answered ours. The old Quarters held hands, going around City, families joined them, exchanges linked them. We wandered around City, going in to draw from it, going around it to live. We saw City from above, but in reality we lived at the bottom of its indifference which was often hostile.

The descriptions of movement to and from City gives Chamoiseau’s characters the agency to vocalize what they win and lose in every movement, and allows for multiple narrators and identities in a way that creates a multilinear and thus more authentic subaltern narrative. This more authentic narrative is a feature that distinctly belongs to writing that arises out of the “Overseas Departments” of France, which according to the New Internationalist, Chamoiseau interprets as another form of colonialism (2). I’d like to argue that Subaltern Literature written from within these Overseas Departments (like Martinique) is uniquely placed to vocalize multidimensional stories and narratives in a way other colonies or ex-colonies are not, because of the outlier moving to City (outside moving in) aesthetic that is so firmly a part of French culture, including French colonizing culture, first written about by French Realism authors such as Zola and Balzac.


Making Time Spectacular: the slow, violent journey from Conrad to Habila

29 Mar

What made me feel the most excited about Helon Habila’s ‘Oil on Water’ was the fact that for me, this book marked a clear departure from “classic” post-colonial literature (in particular, Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’) towards writing that is far more grounded in the modern, multiple realities of post-colonialism as they exist today. Where the concern in the past was always the colonizing power of the center over the periphery, as well as the role (and use of) dichotomies and unsustainable positions, it can be argued that the concern of the modern post-colonial novel is with the newer forces of colonization, whether it is the privatization of public resources or environmental degradation brought about by the new colonizers: multi-national corporations, engaged in the age old post-colonial hunt for resources.

In a blogpost written for Nieman Storyboard, Rob Nixon points out effective storytelling techniques for approaching the issues raised by the slow violence of systematic environmental degradation or by association, socio-political corruption that has the most deleterious impact on populations that live on the periphery of society. Nixon places importance on these techniques by underlining the need to make unspectacular time spectacular, in order to create an impact on the reader.

For many of us I’m sure, the parallels between ‘Heart of Darkness’ (HoD) and ‘Oil on Water’ began with the opening section of Habila’s novel, which clearly situates the plot as a memory, recalled by the narrator (Rufus) in much the same way Marlow recalls the story he tells his companions as they wait for the tide.  In addition, this same retelling includes references to the role of fog, literal and metaphorical, that accompanies both first person narratives:

I am walking down a well-lit path, with incidents neatly labeled and dated, but when I reach halfway memory lets go of my hand, and a fog rises and covers the faces and places, and I am left clawing about in the dark, lost, and I have to make up the obscured moments as I go along, make up the faces and places, even the emotions.

When the sun rose there was a white fog, very warm and clammy, and more blinding than the night. It did not shift or drive; it was just there, standing all round you like something solid. At eight or nine, perhaps, it lifted as a shutter lifts. We had a glimpse of the towering multitude of trees, of the immense matted jungle, with the blazing little ball of the sun hanging over it—all perfectly still—and then the white shutter came down again, smoothly, as if sliding in greased grooves. I ordered the chain, which we had begun to heave in, to be paid out again. Before it stopped running with a muffled rattle, a cry, a very loud cry, as of infinite desolation, soared slowly in the opaque air.

Previously, we analyzed the mention of fog in Conrad’s HoD as a tool used by the author to convey not only the confusion felt by the white colonizer in attempting to navigate the “dark continent”, but also to describe how moving from the center (England) to the periphery (the African continent) within HoD constituted what Fabian described as a “denial of Coevalness”

Habila in ‘Oil on Water’ however, does not focus on the issue of center-periphery to arrive at a new discourse as much as he focuses on highlighting how the process of uncovering the truth about a situation (here, the kidnapping of James Floode’s wife) moves from a place of false assumptions and platitudes (physically– Nigeria’s urban centers, metaphorically conveyed by Floode’s own attitudes– “you people”– as well as the out-of-placeness of the Lagos journalists) through a “fog” of lies and corruption, towards the final truths revealed to the narrator by multiple voices— Isabel Floode, the kidnapped victim,  being just one– which are situated in Nigeria’s deltaic periphery, namely the island of Irikefe.

One of the storytelling devices Rob Nixon puts forth in his ‘Slow Violence’ is the use of “powerful analogies”, which Nixon suggests is effective when calling attention to the slow and violent fall-out of an occurrence of  environmental degradation. In addition, Nixon goes on to refer to the importance of rejecting “conventional narrative frameworks”, of telling stories “no one else can tell”, of “re-configuring big stories on a human scale”  and of using “striking” imagery.

Habila achieves all these approaches in ‘Oil on Water’, even while in some instances riffing off of Conrad’s HoD– there is a journey by boat undertaken; there are parallels drawn between the two primary characters, Rufus and Zaq, in a way that is similar to those drawn between Marlow and Kurtz; there is oil where Conrad had ivory, and the mysterious character who is overcome and changed forever by living with the natives is not Kurtz but Isabel Floode. There are also parallels between the light and the dark, the aforementioned fog, and the use of the first person narrative.

What I have come to appreciate most about Habila’s techniques and content is that unlike Rhys, who wrote Wide Sargasso Sea as an effort to “write back” with regards to the implications contained within the text of Jane Eyre and thereby was limited by this approach, Habila uses Conrad’s HoD as a jumping off point, linking to it in his writing only for the purpose of illustrating ways in which Nigeria is still being colonized in our supposedly modern and informed world. By doing so, I feel, Habila has successfully pointed out the still-relevant need to study and speak of Post Colonialism in new ways, bringing it out of (reflective, passive) literature and into the active world of International Development, non-renewable resource hunting and environmental degradation, while still having written a literary work that can hold its own comfortably in the Post Colonial canon.

Time Loops in ‘Season of Migration to the North’ and ‘Groundhog day’

9 Mar

The classic was on the tele the other day, and I couldn’t help but notice how Phil (Bill Murray’s character) first responds to realizing he’s confined to one time (the course of a single day) by bedding random women. He is successful in doing so because he is able to discover their secret desires and/or personal details, and uses this information to his advantage.

In Salih’s ‘Season of Migration to the North’, Mustafa Sa’eed is also confined to a time, in the way he is interacted with and perceived by the high society set; they see him as the First Civilized Black Sudanese Intellectual in London. According to Fabian, “there is no knowledge of the Other which is not also a temporal, historical, a political act”– this forces the Other to be separated from the West and thus controlled by the latter.

Controlled in this manner, Sa’eed turns to women in much the same way Phil does, except with far more dire intent and consequences. He uses information offered by these women against them, namely their ideas about his exotic identity, as well as their hinted-at attraction towards the periphery that he represents.

It’s interesting how a time loop is used in the ‘Groundhog Day’ story to force an arrogant, selfish, misogynistic character to confront his own failings and will himself into self-improvement– Phil is driven by a death wish very similar to that of Sa’eed’s, and is only able to move beyond his death wish and associated depression once he breaks through his time loop (by turning over a new leaf and winning over Andie MacDowell’s character, Rita).

Telling then, that the author does not allow Sa’eed to break his time loop– Instead, this character is made to suffer, and only achieves some gesture of peace through his mirror image, the narrator, who reveals the weakness and unsustainability of the position Sa’eed both chooses and is reduced to, and buoyed by the strength of this revelation, decides to go neither south nor north, but stay grounded in the people and tasks that matter to him the most– the choice that frees Phil finally, at the end of Groundhog Day.

Violence as liberation in ‘Season of Migration to the North’ and ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’

1 Mar

In Frantz Fanon’s ‘The Wretched of the Earth’ (available on google books), the author makes a case for the positive influence of violence in the anti-colonial struggle by claiming “at the individual level”, it is a “cleansing force” that “… frees the native from his inferiority complex and his despair and inaction” (94). Fanon also describes violence as “all inclusive”,  and calls it an “illuminating force” (94).

This reading of violence as a positive, proactive force for change can be applied to the ending of Rhys’ ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ as well as to the final pages of Salih’s ‘Season of Migration to the North’– In the former, Antoinette’s last words give the reader the impression that through the violence of a house fire, she will finally be able to reclaim her true identity– “the sky is red and all my life is in it” (Rhys 112). In Salih’s novel, the narrator describes his struggle in the water:

I was conscious of the river’s destructive forces pulling me downwards and of the current pushing me to the southern shore in a curving angle. I would not be able to keep thus poised for long; sooner or later the river’s forces would pull me down into its depths (168).

In keeping with the classic doppelganger trope often seen in Post-Colonial literature, the narrator mirrors Sa’eed’s own literal struggle with life when he almost drowns in the river, but survives when he gives up his struggle to migrate– figuratively and literally– from south to north.  On the final page of Salih’s book, the narrator appears to be claiming that by choosing to live, to engage with a community of his choosing and the discharge of his duties (168), he is choosing to not give into the struggle of belonging or being in either the north or the south– “Though floating on the water, I was not part of it” (168).

By placing violence in an active, positive context, Fanon seems to be suggesting that violence = action = agency = individualism = liberation. In ‘Black Skin, White Masks’, Fanon speaks of liberation again when he talks about freeing “the black man.. from himself”, and by association freeing him from the urge to seamlessly assimilate or mimic aspects of the colonizer. When Salih’s narrator vocalizes his yearning (a hunger, a thirst for a cigarette) and ceases to attempt to get to either north or south shore, and instead yells for help, he is eschewing the struggle Sa’eed faced before him, viz. being appropriated and objectified as an English Educated Black African. Similarly, when Rhys’ Antoinette lights all the candles she finds and makes plans for her final escape, she — through an act of violence– finally releases herself from the Othering forces of both her ethnic heritage and her white husband. It is only through violence and death (figurative for the former, literal for the latter) that both Salih’s narrator as well as Rhys’ Antoinette are able to escape the weight of their doubles (Sa’eed, the ghost/Tia) and truly return to their own sense of selfhood.

Cesaire vs. Ginsberg: Post Colonial Writing as Transgressive Literature?

25 Feb

I know this is going off on a tangent a little bit, but I had to blog this here– beg your pardon in advance.

So, Césaire’s poem (‘Cahier d’un retour au pays natal’) was originally published in French in 1939, while Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ was published in 1956. It’s not a huge stretch to take note of the similar treatments and themes throughout: exploitation, surreal imagery, the use of lists, choruses, invocations.

What made me think of ‘Howl’ was the introduction written by André Breton: here was a noted Surrealist, adored by the Beats, drawing attention to a writer who would become a forebear of Post-Colonial literature. In addition, Breton quotes a line from Isidore-Lucien Ducasse– “a howling of fists against the barrier of the sky”– and claims that Césaire thought highly of Ducasse and once published him in ‘Tropiques’, a literary review that Wikipedia says Césaire co-founded in 1941.

A quick trawling of the internet pulled up information on Ducasse, a poet and writer I had never heard of before. Ducasse was apparently a major influence on Césaire as well as the surrealists. What’s interesting is that  Ducasse’s most famous creation, the character Maldoror, is eerily similar to Ginsberg’s Moloch, both used to denote evil in total opposition to anything good in Humanity.

One Mark Spitzer (translator of ‘From Absinthe to Abyssinia’, a collection of Rimbaud’s poems) recounts an anecdote shared by one Steve Collins, who claims Ginsberg shared Ducasse’s ‘Les Chants de Maldoror’ with Bob Dylan, who was then inspired to create ‘Taratula‘ (google books link).

So, perhaps Ducasse’s large prose poem inspired Césaire’s long poem and possibly separately, Ginsberg’s long poem? Is Ducasse a grandfather of Transgressive Literature? If so, could it be possible that Post-Colonial literature is a type of Transgressive Literature?
And yet, I vaguely remember some Wiki page having to do with Post-Colonial Literary Criticism claiming that Edward Said analyzed Ducasse’s poetry and found it contributed indirectly to a sense of European-centric racial superiority!
(N.B– Went back to look this over: I didn’t find any specific text linking Said and Ducasse, except for book by David Bate, called ‘Photography and Surrealism: Sexuality, Colonialism and Social Dissent’ (available on Google Books), which discusses how Said criticized the scope of the Surrealists’ Anti-Colonial stance.)
Transgressive Literature broadly involves challenging some popular aspect of society or culture– I’d like to argue that Césaire does as much with his poem, and that this is the aim of of Machado de Assis and Jean Rhys in their respective books.
Wondering, has anyone seen anything that builds connections between Post-Colonial and Transgressive (perhaps even Beat) writing/criticism?

The unavoidable class conversation in “The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas”

15 Feb

Last semester, when we read Zola, Balzac, Stendhal and Flaubert for LIT 640, the one discussion that was unavoidable was that of the role of social climbing, in the greater context of social class hierarchies, in understanding the driving force of the novels and their protagonists.

Social climbing, a fear of judgement and a need to win over high-ranking individuals (and at one point an entire city, as seen at the end of Pere Goriot) mark the characterization of every protagonist in the French Realist Fiction novels we read, which made me think of the social currents that move the bourgeois society Cubas thrives in, and to an extent Cubas himself.

The connection with these French Realist authors (for me!) is further strengthened by the shout-out given by de Assis to Stendhal’s statement about his “hundred readers”– however, it’s interesting to see de Assis (via Cubas) subvert the traditional role of Realist Fiction by nonchalantly questioning whether his “Memoirs” would garner “even ten” readers, as if to avoid all traditional goals of Realist Fiction (relevant in terms of Post-colonial fiction goals). By doing this, not only does de Assis want to shed light on the complexities and hypocrisies of contemporary Brazilian society, but also seems to undermine the ever-present social climbing (traditionally, the main focus of writers such as Stendhal) by circling every situation without making a clear judgement. One such instance is the cock fight Cubas witnesses while in the company of Nha-lolo and her father.

It’s interesting that the chapter containing the incident is titled ‘Downhill’; descending Livramento Hill, Cubas tells the reader how he loses years coming down, till he is 20 years old, presumably back when he was as yet unaffected by social maneuverings. When he opens the parasol for his fiancee, after assuring us that the weather was beautiful, he refers to Borba’s philosophy, claiming that “Humanitas kissed Humanitas” (168). I interpreted Borba’s philosophy to be a sort of selfish, unscientific Darwinism that justifies all means to all self-serving ends, including broad social issues like poverty and war; this reading made me believe that Cubas is saying that in this passage, by being attentive to his fiancee, he is protecting his own interests, and in doing so, goes back to a time when he didn’t care about anyone’s needs as much as his own, and therefore feels so much younger.

At the same time, Nha-lolo herself, who is far younger than Cubas actually is, is shown to be anxious to leave the hill and the vicinity of the cock fight– We are told why in the following chapter: she is wholly concerned with the way her father reveals his (to her, as described by Cubas) low-brow fascination with the street cock fight (“A Very Delicate Intention”) that may seem “unworthy” to Cubas himself. In this chapter, Cubas finds in Nha-lolo’s discomfort and her continuous urge to better herself good reason to marry her, as if he would be doing her a favor. This again is a reference to the concept of Humanitas, and shows us just how de Assis turns the traditional idea of social climbing on its head.

At the end of “Downhill”, Cubas describes the two roosters who were in the fight. We are told that he is unable to identify immediately which bird won and which one lost, as both birds look defeated. The onlookers and bettors are elated however, and discuss the various triumphs of both roosters, who nonetheless are nothing more than commodities to them. This is ultimately the Marxist conversation on ownership of the means of production, and the bourgeois vs. the proletariat. However, what is really interesting is the final lines of this chapter:

“I went along in vexation. Nha-lolo was especially vexed.”

Here, the fate of the birds and what it metaphorically stands for is only a mere annoyance for Cubas and his fiancee– Nha-lolo in fact, is only vexed because of what her father’s enthusiasm reveals about her origins, which (to her) are far more humble than those of Cubas’. Cubas himself “goes along” with it all, abdicating all agency, criticizing and yet at the same time washing his hands of the inherent class-based bias at work, both within his relationship to Nha-lolo as well as within the group of onlookers and bettors. I believe that de Assis does such a fantastic job of subverting every possible for/against argument w.r.t. social climbing and class struggle that the very act challenges the entire idea of social hierarchy (as per Western European tradition) itself.

Controlling the Narrative: the relevance of “answering back” in Wide Sargasso Sea

9 Feb

One of the most interesting points raised by McLeod was the point of it being an error to apply Manichean aesthetics broadly to a reading of either Wide Sargasso Sea or Jane Eyre: he claims this is an error, as it wrongly imposes the concerns of the present upon the literature of the past, which completely undoes the concept of reading a literary work historically (181). McLeod goes on to argue that this kind of labeling fails to allow for the text to “potentially question” colonial views (182). I feel this point is no where more relevant than in discussing the concept of “Creole” as it develops through the text of Wide Sargasso Sea, and what it means to our understanding of Antoinette’s complex character.

According to O. Nigel Bolland in an article published in the Caribbean Quarterly, “… the term ‘Creole,’ referring to people and cultures, means something or somebody derived from the Old World but developed in the New” (1). Bolland goes on to state that “[i]n common Caribbean usage, ‘Creole’ refers to a local product which is the result of a mixture or blending of various ingredients that originated in the Old World.

Bolland suggests that the thesis which states that the “common people” in the Caribbean islands were “active agents in the historical process” expanded the understanding of Caribbean social history and “reconstituted… ways of looking at the dynamics of social and cultural change. Caribbean societies and cultures can no longer be thought of as the result of a one-way process, of the unilateral imposition of European culture upon passive African recipients” (2).

This brought the Fabian article to mind, and the discussion we had about the traveling back into history and time that Marlowe undertakes in ‘Heart of Darkness’– traveling back into primordial time, Marlowe meets Kurtz who has come undone after attempting this “unilateral imposition of European culture” during his ivory quests. In ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, Rochester is undone whenever he attempts to impose his idea of European social hierarchy on his wife and on his surroundings. In addition, he is unable to control or influence any of the servants; even though he exerts power over Amelie via the act of sex, she is able to leave free and easily of her own free will. Rochester is unable to comprehend his wife, and though he attempts to overpower her by Othering her, by the end of the novel it is Antoinette who reigns supreme over Thornfield Manor, invoking a return to her true identity through the metaphor of fire.

According to McLeod, the characters in ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ compete for the overall control of narrative by “answering back”– perhaps the very development of the term “Creole” during the course of Rhys’ text is an answering back to Rochester/European culture’s attempt to pin down the Creole identity to one set of stereotypes or concepts. Unlike the barbarians in ‘Heart of Darkness’, Rhys’ Creole characters defy European conventions by talking back regularly, and literally laugh in the face of them quite often, as Helle brought up in class today.

Considering the various approaches to understanding self-hood in ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, I feel that McLeod is right in suggesting that Antoinette escapes the parameters of European representation, because the definitions of ideas such as madness, Creole identity, as well as psychological concepts like the death instinct are left open to interpretation, allowing Antoinette to take on far more meaning than what she was allowed as Bertha Mason in ‘Jane Eyre’.

“Comforting Myths”: writing and reading beyond insidious race stereotypes

25 Jan

“When a writer while pretending to record scenes, incidents and their impact is in reality engaged in inducing hypnotic stupor in his readers through a bombardment of emotive words and other forms of trickery much more has to be at stake than stylistic felicity.”

– Chinua Achebe.

I’m not going to lie to you guys: it’s a new experience reading Conrad the way we are reading him, and I appreciate it. It’s been fantastic looking at his use of dichotomies (not ground-breaking nowadays– reading Conrad in 2013 feels similar to watching Aronofsky’s treatment of done-to-death virgin/whore, jekyll/hyde dichotomies in ‘Black Swan‘ but THAT’S a different conversation) as well as his choice of point of view.

Every other time I’ve read this book it’s been in Post Colonial Studies classes where Achebe’s perspective was what led the discussion– Wasn’t hard to vilify Conrad, considering his cartoonish description of The Black Barbaric Natives hit home pretty close: descriptions of Brown Babbling Hindoos filled every non-brown piece of writing on India that we looked at in High School and later, college.

Achebe brings up a sobering, valid point at the end of his 1977 essay; once stereotypes enter a language, they begin to stand for qualitative measures of concepts and tastes that insidiously affect how we discuss our world today, even if said stereotypes were first introduced in a creative work that by modern standards might be considered dated. One example that comes to mind is what certain folk in the development community (full disclosure: was and am one of them, though I no longer formally work in the field) called “the myth of conscious or cultural consumerism”, with regards to well-intentioned approaches to not-for-profit charity programs aimed at “improving the living conditions and future prospects” of low income families and individuals all over the Global South. [Aside: “Global South” was accepted terminology in 2010-2011. Not completely sure that it’s still PC now.]

Salvoj Zizek said it best, aided by the talented work of artists at the RSA in this fantastic live-animated video that criticizes the conscious/cultural consumerism advocated by Starbucks, TOMS and corporations of their ilk (here’s the transcript, if you’d prefer to skim). Granted, Zizek comes with his own politics and soap box. Also, Conrad did touch (lightly) on the economic outcomes of the scramble for Africa, and did in fact em-pathetically describe the piteous fate of the slaves/laborers who were required to dig till they keeled over and died. Of course, he didn’t go so far as to truly analyze the material and socio-cultural long term impacts of Imperialism—that wasn’t his responsibility, nor his field of expertise. He was writing an adventure! Through the eyes of a narrator who in turn repeated a rambling tale told by a ramshackle fellow named Marlow! Who may or may not have been an Imperialist sympathizer! Whew.

I feel Achebe is right about the danger of letting ideas and words linger without actively challenging them and what they stand for in this our shared language, today. In his video, Zizek  criticizes advocates of conscious consumerism in a such a way that you would think he puts these corporations in the same box as Brantlinger’s abolitionists and the greedy colonists that Conrad left-handedly decries.

The fact is, we are encouraged to believe that by buying a product or donating to Save the Children, we actively improve the life of a less privileged, non-white person living somewhere in “Africa” or “Asia” or “Latin America”—the language of this encouragement, the precarious act of “doing good”, the monolithic use of generalizations, the formation and deployment of modern mega-nonprofits and development agencies all smacks of the sort of missionary style imperialism that took place in the Africa Conrad wrote about ever so long ago. How do we write beyond these references that whirl about our pop consciousness (almost) daily?

I’m all for studying Conrad. But only if it’s an active point of beginning to re-learn how we discuss multiple identities and communities, not just in the “Global South” but in all our Souths, personal and public.