Tag Archives: Identity

Amazon Book Review: An Ambiguous Quest for Identity in Tahar Ben Jelloun’s ‘The Sand Child’

15 Apr

Tahar Ben Jelloun’s The Sand Child is the story – or more accurately the legend – of Hajj Ahmed Suleyman’s eighth daughter, whom he raises as a man during Morocco’s French Protectorate period to circumvent Islam’s inheritance laws. Throughout the novel Hajj Ahmed’s daughter struggles with the issue of gender identity, oscillating between being the male Ahmed and female Zahra. This ambiguous and fluctuating identity coincides with a confusing and often difficult to follow narrative structure that resembles the oral narrative of the traditional Moroccan storyteller reciting the legend of the life of “our character” Ahmed/Zahra to a crowd of listeners in the square of Marrakech. But halfway through the novel, the storyteller suddenly dies, leaving the story of Ahmed/Zahra unfinished. In an attempt to finish the story, three of the storyteller’s most dedicated listeners `take turns completing’ Ahmed/Zahra’s legend. Each telling results in a different ending, undermining the possibility of one true ending, just as Ahmed/Zahra never attains one stable identity. Instead, our character, in all of the tellings of his/her life, confesses at the end of the novel, “`After all, I don’t even know who I am!'” (146). While the convoluted narrative structure and rapid cycling of narrators make The Sand Child overly complicated at times, these narrative strategies are indispensable in conveying Ahmed/Zahra’s tortuous journey for identity.

Ahmed/Zahra’s ambiguous status between male and female reflects Moroccan society on two levels. First, Ahmed/Zahra’s ability to function as a male in Morocco despite being born a woman critiques the patriarchal society of Ben Jelloun’s home country. Simultaneously, this confusion of gender reflects Morocco’ struggle to establish a fixed identity in relation to the European influences of the French Protectorate and post-independence period after 1956. One apparent shortcoming of The Sand Child is its lack of character depth, yet the difficulty, if not impossibility, of obtaining a solidified identity is precisely the point of Ahmed/Zahra’s legend.
Ben Jelloun further reflects Morocco’s identity crisis by brilliantly challenging the bildungsroman’s conventional coming of age story through Ahmed/Zahra’s unresolved quest for identity. The narrative invokes Morocco’s rich and often romanticized nomadic tradition, and ultimately mirrors the challenge many Moroccans face in rooting their identities in the midst of modernization. In one rendition of our character’s story, Ahmed/Zahra joins a circus troupe, which Abbas, the circus’s master of ceremonies, likens to a nomadic tribe: “`We are nomads… Everything is false, and that’s what we’re about. We don’t hide it'” (91). Like the circus, our character lacks a rooted identity, constantly wandering as a stranger, “Sometimes a man, sometimes a woman” (96). However, Ahmed/Zahra’s unresolved gender identity reveals the paradox of searching for identity – our character journeys to other places to “return to [him]self,” but by constantly wandering through other lands and other stories, Ahmed/Zahra never finds a place for identity to take root. Instead of a rooted identity, Ahmed/Zahra only finds more questions: “`Am I a human being or an image? A stone in a faded garden or a stout tree? Tell me, what am I?” (34).

Written in 1985, The Sand Child’s theme of uncertain identity remains as relevant as ever in post-Arab Spring Morocco. The revolutions of 2011 across the Middle East echo the continued struggle to find an identity in Morocco and across the Arab world, especially for those who do not fit in with modernity, like the storyteller of Ahmed/Zahra’s tale who was cleared away from the square in Marrakech for “a useless fountain” (104). Ben Jelloun’s novel is ultimately the story of wasted lives – those who have lost both their voice and a narrative to make sense their lives, either in Morocco’s patriarchal society or path to modernity.

Amazon Book Review Link: http://goo.gl/avuQU

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.

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.

Cesaire, Fanon, and the Irreducible Identity

22 Feb

In “Leaves of Grass” Walt Whitman comments, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” Franz Fanon evokes a similar concept of identity in Black Skin, White Masks, but while Whitman exults in his utter complexities of being, Fanon seems to become completely mired in them. Fanon seems to be concerned about irreducibility – he writes on page 13, “I belong irreducibly to my time,” and throughout the essay he struggles to categorize himself or anyone else as anything but utterly complex. And yet, at the same time, his description of the world’s vision of him is entirely reducible- he is called almost exclusively “nigger” or “negro” in the dialogue portions, and the people he discusses seem preoccupied with defining people by their skin color before anything else. While Fanon seems desperately to wish to break out of this categorical process of identifying, we find that ultimately he feels he has failed. He concludes chapter 5 with the thought, “without responsibility, straddling Nothingness and Infinity, I began to weep” (140).

            In contrast, Cesaire struggles with some similar identity issues in his poem. His conclusion also falls to a reducibility of sorts, but he reduces his own identity past categories into “the essence of things.” The racial term that he uses to define himself, “negritude,” breaks itself down into something that is essentially nothing (the repetition of “it is not,” “it is not,” on page 35) except for the root of everything (“it takes root in the red flesh of the soil / it takes root in the ardent flesh of the sky”). In this way, Cesaire solves the problem by universalizing a “canvas” for identity – the canvas being “the essence of things” – and allowing people to build their pride in themselves upon that rather than basing it purely in something visual, cultural, or historical. Ostensibly, Fanon is against this type of universal identity, as he writes on page 135 “I am not a potentiality of something, I am wholly what I am. I do not have to look for the universal.” And yet, he declares himself “the poet of the world,” only a few pages earlier, showing that even as he makes bold statements, he cannot quite hold them together. It seems to me that he wants what Cesaire finds, and yet still cannot be satisfied by it.

            Thus, these vastly differing concepts of what it means to be black – arising from similar problems, and yet diverging in their ultimate conclusions – reveal the concept of identity to be both utterly essential and yet fundamentally broken in the aftermath of colonialism.