a journal in comparative literature

Author: Alexa Rae Barger

Javier Villafuerte: Revising & Rewriting History

Javier Villafuerte, San Francisco State University


Abstract forthcoming.

Revising and Rewriting History: Historiographic Fiction of Central America

“It is true that we [Central Americans] are not just trauma and sad stories. It is also true that trauma and sad stories are a crucial part of our histories and struggles.” –Polemicist, Twitter

         Whether it be in fiction or non-fiction, it is no surprise that the conflicts in Central America have generated a great response in the form of writing, especially fictional prose. From non-fiction testimonios to historical and historiographic fiction, there are a multitude of texts in a variety of languages that deal directly with the Central American wars. I will be closely looking at two distinct, yet related texts: The Weight of All Things (2000) by Sandra Benitez, originally written in English, and Insensatez (2004) by Horacio Castellanos Moya, originally written in Spanish. Both texts create a dialogue that speak to the same type of violence that was funded by the United States in similar capacities—they actively rewrite and contradict the realities (truths) that have been created by hegemonic narratives (state-approved truths) of events during their respective civil wars in the late half of the twentieth century. 

Sandra Benitez fictionalizes two major events in the Salvadoran Civil War: The Massacre at Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero’s Funeral in San Salvador and The Sumpul River Massacre on the border of El Salvador and Honduras. This narrative follows nine-year-old Nicolás as he attempts to flee the violence around his homeland with the protection of the Virgen Milagrosa, the Salvadoran image of the Virgin Mary. Nicolás in many ways becomes a proxy for the children that lived through (or even the children that were robbed of their chance at life because of) the violence and were seen with no recourse but to immigrate to the United States—the very country that funded their tragic and violent upbringing. The reader witnesses the brutal loss of innocence as Nicolás goes from not completely understanding the significance of death to being completely surrounded by it.

In parallel, Horacio Castellanos Moya writes as a Honduran-Salvadoran citizen and fictionalizes a moment in time after the Cachiquel genocide in Guatemala and before the publication of the book. Although the novel refuses to give a clear timeframe, the events depicted roughly places the book in the mid-to-late 1990’s. In this narrative, a man has been hired to edit a testimonial ethnography of sorts that brings together the fragmented experiences and memories of the indigenous survivors of horrific acts of violence. The man in charge of collecting all the documents slowly deteriorates in mental and emotional health because of the testimonios and the gruesome and inhumane tactics described in them. Even though the country Insensatez takes place in remains unnamed, it becomes self-evident by the description of the surroundings and the placement and mention of two presidents belonging to Guatemala. The narrative ends with similar violence and terror to that which The Weight of All Things speaks to.

Both novels in question are acting as historiographic fiction—fiction that attempts to rewrite or revise otherwise accepted, solidified, historical moments. History often requires and relies on fiction to fill-in the blanks left by the destruction and erasure of primary sources. While both texts are and should be considered what is known as “historical fiction,” they take the genre a step further by using moments in time that have conflicting “official” narratives by the people and by governments and solidify the truth as they know it by placing their imagined characters in the midst of the events being contested; the fictional text begins to function as its non-fiction counterparts in attempting to rewrite, remedy, and supplement the hegemonic historical narrative.

While the term “historiographic fiction” has not been very critically studied in academic writing, Polly Detels writes about “historiographic novels” in the chapter, “Geryon’s Tail: Historiographic Novels and Their Essential Selves:” “Historiographic novels may be set in any time period including the present, but they invariably explore, through elements such as style and structure, but chiefly through plot, characterization, and theme, the problematic relationships between past, present, and future” (35-36). The Weight of All Things interrogates the past through the use of its plot as it linearly follows Nicolás from one massacre into the next. The past is also used as a way to inform El Salvador in the 21st century and its current status as a nation that continues to experience high levels of violence and political instability. Insensatez similarly explores the past. It uses a present-tense narrator that is attempting to recreate—re-piece—an incredibly fragmented collective memory of the Cachiquel that were massacred in the 80’s. Similarly to The Weight of All Things, Castellanos Moya’s text elaborates on Guatemala’s hereditary, generational cycles of violence that make it part of the Northern Triangle, a region in Central America that is known for its high levels of murder and violence. Both texts are intervening with the understanding of the events and attempt to give a different perspective in an otherwise misrepresented history. They both attempt to explore the legacy of the violence in both countries as both protagonists carry the impact of the past with them into the future.

It is even more important that historiographic fiction, such as both novels in question, is being produced in different, hegemonic languages. Benitez writes in English while Castellanos Moya writes in Spanish—the two languages that largely dominate the continent. Benitez uses English, which is not the current national language of El Salvador, as a method to connect and convey her message to an audience based in the United States as it was the country opening its doors to Salvadoran citizens at the time, something that at this moment in time might have been forgotten by many United States’ citizens. In this manner, The Weight of All Things attempts to further explain and elucidate the reason for Temporary Protected Status being offered to them by allowing citizens of the US to sympathize with citizens of El Salvador by and through the novel. Castellanos Moya uses Spanish, the national language of Guatemala, and of the Northern Triangle, as an act of rebellion against the hegemonic historical narrative. He does little to disguise his thoughts and distaste of the way the Guatemalan government and the United States’ government handled the civil war. The fact that cultural production is occurring across languages in and about Central America illustrates how important the narratives become to the overall consensus of what really happened, or a more complete truth. 

To illustrate the way in which these fictional narratives attempt to rewrite history, I will also be closely looking at some key historical documents: excerpts from Salvadoran President Funes’ speech on the massacre of El Mozote and CIA reports of the United States’ involvement in Guatemala as well as theory on the production of history by Michel-Rolph Trouillot. The president’s speech is an active revision of a part of the historical narrative of which both texts take issue. The CIA documents conflict with hegemonic beliefs at the moment of publication about the ongoing genocide in Guatemala. Both the Castellanos Moya and the Benitez texts tell histories in order to remedy and edit hegemonic historical narratives that otherwise do not acknowledge their existence. In other words, these texts are in dialogue with the hegemonic historical narratives that contradict the events depicted in the fictions. It is through this fictive representation that healing can occur for communities that have been directly affected—by imagining realities in which someone survived to tell the story; by imagining what reality could have been for those that lived these horrifically traumatic experiences. This is why I will be interrogating the ways in which these texts function similarly to the way Michel-Rolph Trouillot lays out the Haitian Revolution as “unthinkable” in Silencing the Past.

Central America is not alone in conflicting historical narratives. Before the wars in Central America, the Caribbean Islands were the ones undergoing revolutions for independence. Most notably, the Haitian Revolution connects to the disbelief of the reports of the massacres and genocide in Central America. Michel-Rolph Trouillot writes on the Haitian Revolution and the way it was brought forth into history during its time:

The Haitian Revolution entered history with the peculiar characteristic of being unthinkable even as it happened. Official debates and publications of the times…reveal the incapacity of most contemporaries to understand the ongoing revolution on its own terms. They could read the news only with their ready-made categories, and these categories were incompatible with the idea of a slave revolution. (73)

Unfathomable is the status of the Haitian Revolution as it occurs in its time. Just as it happened with Haiti, El Salvador and Guatemala were entering their unfathomable and unthinkable moments in history that would be discredited for decades. As Trouillot points out, “ready-made categories” are the way we read and process news and stories. If the genre or “topic” of the news is something incompatible or incomprehensible it would be really difficult to imagine or to even accept as believable. For these events to be understood by the world as audience, new categories had to made. Humans do not wish to believe that other humans are capable of such violence and inhumanity. This is the case with the events that were officially erased from Central America for decades: they were too horrendous to be believed, so people assumed that the government version of the narrative was the truthful one even though there were many sources claiming otherwise while it was happening. It is here where historiographic fiction can intervene and allow the fictive space of imagination to take its course. Novels like The Weight of All Things and Insensatez allow for unthinkable histories to become thinkable within the framework of fiction and as a reader-response. It is precisely because of this imaginative space that fiction becomes so important in relationship to history and historiography. History often doesn’t allow for the space for imagination to run wild in attempting to piece a very fragmented event with lots of missing points, but it should. History requires the use of imagination and fiction to complete itself at times—it requires historiographic fiction. 

Trouillot provides further elaboration on the “unthinkable” aspect of the Haitian Revolution and in turn the “unthinkable” aspect of the Central American massacres, “some narratives cancel what happened through direct erasure of facts or their relevance. ‘It’ did not really happen; it was not that bad, or that important” (96). The voices of those living the violence were being canceled out by the withholding of official documents detailing the United States’ involvement with Central America. Again, it is because people do not want to believe such atrocities that the government is believed. With the idea of Mikhail Bakhtin’s heteroglossia in mind, one voice might be oppressive and silencing while the other is attempting to push back and revise. Both voices are attempting to be heard, but only one results in being accepted as the truth. These conflicting voices within the historical narratives of the neighboring countries are what paves the way for historiographic fiction to take hold and become a prominent form of cultural production in the region.

Coming back to Sandra Benitez and The Weight of All Things, the novel gives an English voice to those silenced during the civil war. The author reconstructs historical moments and the unthinkability behind them. In the very beginning of the novel, the main character, Nicolás, and his mother are attending the funeral of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero when the bombs and gunshots hit, “[Her mother] used rapid blows form her elbows to gouge a space around him. She dropped down upon him, draping herself over him as if she were a truce flag. She did it because she was his mother” (2). Benitez uses the third person in order to relay the experiences. The author is also the one attempting to connect the dots and fill in a chaotic and blurry time in El Salvador’s history. Nicolás’ mother, knowing more than her son, attempts to protect her son at all costs enveloping him with her own body as protection. Unfortunately for Nicolás, his mother is fatally shot at the funeral: “When the bullet found its mark, the impact caused her arms to flail upward for an instant before they flopped down…Years later…he would say, ‘Like water pouring over stone, that is how she slipped away from me” (3-4). The use of description and plot are being used in a historiographic way as they are retelling the occurrences at this massacre. The author depicts, through this little boy, how horrendous and confusing this event was in the moment. Even Nicolás cannot fathom that he has lost his mother as he cannot comprehend until “years later” when he finally reflects and accepts that this was the point in time at which he lost his mother to the senselessness of war and violence brought forth by tyrannical governments against its own people. This also suggest that history is something that is constantly being rewritten as Nicolás has to reflect “years later” on this very moment to understand the “truth” he was experiencing then. This, then, becomes historiographic in a personal sense to Nicolás as it first presents the confusion and misunderstanding of his mother dying, only to later rewrite his own history as, “Like water pouring over stone, that is how she slipped away from me.”

Moreover, as the novel progresses closer to the second and final massacre within the novel, Benitez sets up the intricacies necessary to take her narration and plot into the realm of historiographic fiction. Honduras being the closest neighboring country to El Salvador is the reason many refugees of the civil war attempted to flee there. They were in search of safety but were met with an equally violent border. Both the Salvadoran battalion and Honduran troops are getting ready to ambush the refugees of war:

[The Salvadoran troops] would wait until morning. Then they would pounce on these communist insurgents, for that was surely what they were. Why else would they be fleeing? If they were good honest citizens, they had nothing to fear and would have stayed in their homes….

[The Honduran troops’] mission: to prevent the thousands of Salvadorans camped across the river from invading their country. [Their] government held little sympathy for El Salvador and the turmoil taking place there. (221-223)

Neither government’s troops really understands the reason Nicolás and other refugees are attempting to flee. The Salvadoran troops are completely convinced that only rebellious individuals would have reason to flee, yet the reader knows and understands Nicolás’ truth as a person that simply wants to flee violence. He and those accompanying him believe that Honduras could be their saving grace. Benitez uses what are historical facts, the senselessness of each governments’ reasons and fuses them with this fictional moment she has created for Nicolás as he attempts to cross the river. Each government believes to be doing right by their own nationalistic standards and, for that, a lot of refugees become expendable—they even become a threat to the idea of the nation that each government has. Moreover, it shows how misunderstandings can have such dire consequences. The author allows for the plot to communicate with the past by including this passage in the novel that gives some context to all of the miscommunications surrounding this civil war.

From this image of each government deciding what to do with innocent lives, the narrative focuses on nine-year-old Nicolás again. The denial he lives in at the beginning of the novel is part of his innocence and incapability to understand the violence surrounding him; the case is no longer so at the end of the novel. In the penultimate chapter, the reader might realize that the promise of the final massacre depicted in the book has yet to actually occur. Nicolás wakes up to the sound of gunshots along the riverbank, “Tucked under the ledge, they witnessed everything…A mother holding a baby, the father in a straw hat, had almost made it to the top of the river slope when the bullets propelled them into heaps of blood and bone” (228). Again, Nicolás no longer witnesses events as a child, he is robbed of his innocence the moment he loses his mother and continues to be forced to mature and witness traumatic events such as these. In the short timeframe the novel takes place in, Nicolás has acquired the vocabulary and the forced maturity of understanding violence. He is no longer confused about those dying around him, he knows they are dead. Again, he is still just nine years old. The way the narrator processes the information for Nicolás is also different from the confusion he had at the beginning with the death of his mom. The description in this passage is clear and concise, unlike the confusion of the moment he lost his mother. “They [all] witnessed everything” and will continue to carry those images with them as long as they live. This idea is solidified on the next page when Benitez writes, “Under the ledge, the three witnessed what their memories would contain forever: River. Stone. Dust. Bone. These were the things they would carry. The things they would not forget” (229). Nicolás, as the protagonist of the novel, undergoes the most character development. In this case, Nicolás loses all traces of innocence as he is robbed of his childhood in essence. This is demonstrated through the difference in the way Benitez writes Nicolás’ emotions at the beginning and end of the novel. The constant state of war and violence his country is in does not allow him to develop and grow up as a child without these worries might—as a child here in the United States might grow up. The unthinkable in Nicolás’ case has become the norm. He is no longer phased by any amount of death and violence. He has been forcefully conditioned to constantly cope with death all around him. 

Similarly, with Insensatez, Castellanos Moya attempts to reconcile conflicting narratives in his native Spanish. The novel deals with translation as the main character has to sift and edit an ethnography. The indigenous people interviewed for the project do not speak Spanish, so communication was an issue until their stories were finally able to be translated. The narrator is greatly affected by the level of complexity and the poetic nature of the testimonio given by the Cachiquel. In the very beginning of the novel, the first report the main character reads is given by a Cachiquel man that he tries to understand:

Yo no estoy completo de la mente, me repetí, impactado por el grado de perturbación mental…de ese indígena testigo del asesinato de su familia, por el hecho de que ese indígena fuera consciente del quebrantamiento de su aparato psíquico a causa de haber presenciado, herido e impotente, cómo los soldados del ejército de su país despedazaban a machetazos y con sorna a cada uno de sus cuatro pequeños hijos en palpitantes trozos de carne humana. (Ch 1)

(I am not complete of the mind, I repeated, taken aback by the mental perturbation…of the indigenous man that witnessed the assassination of his family, due to the fact that the man was conscious of his psychotic break due to having witnessed, wounded and powerless, how the soldiers of his country’s army used a machete to tear apart each and every one of his four young children and turn them into beating chunks of human meat).

The first sentence, “I am not complete of the mind” becomes a recurring thought going through the narrator’s thoughts. It becomes a recurring theme that encapsulates the fragmented memory of the Guatemalan people as a whole. Not surprisingly, the narrator is struck by how poetic and meaningful the words of the indigenous are. The reader, along with the narrator, both experience the veil of ignorance being removed at the same time. Just as Benitez does with the two massacres she pieces together into one coherent narrative, here the protagonist has the job of piecing together the Cachiquel testimonios and filling in the gaps with his imagination. He is literally piecing together a fragmented, broken memory that was almost lost to history. Through this form of indirect characterization of the indigenous, Moya attributes humanity to the Cachiquel that were massacred by acknowledging their pain and suffering through the protagonist of the novel. It is through this character that a new history, or a new truth, can emerge—a history born from both fact and fiction.

         It is important for the collective historical memory to remember all of the wrongs in the world, however, this is not always the best path for healing damaged communities. Towards the end of the novel, in Chapter 11, the narrator finally deciphers one of the last texts:

Que se borre el nombre de los muertos para que queden libres y ya no tengamos problemas, lo que ponía en evidencia que hasta algunos indigenas sobrevivientes no querían ya recuperar la memoria sino perpetuar el olvido. (Ch 11)

(Let the names of the dead be erased so that they are freed and so that we won’t have problems, I attributed this as evidence that even some of the surviving indigenous did not want to recuperate their memory but would rather perpetuate forgetting it ever happened).

This illustrates how deep the wounds in the indigenous community are—so much so that some prefer to always forget rather than remember the horrible events. This could be because their collective historical memory is so far fragmented that it has become impossible to fill in any of the gaps with any amount of imagination. However, this is just one of many ways of coping with the tremendous loss they have experienced. In the final chapter of the novel the narrator remembers another entry, “Para mí recordar, siento yo que estoy viviendo otra vez (For me to remember, I feel as though I am living once again) (Ch 12). The phrase remains a bit ambiguous as to whether the person that wrote this wants to remember and live through memories, or if remembering causes the reliving of painful and traumatic moments in their life. In its essence, to remember is to relive and both sides of this argument have valid merit when it comes to those directly affected. This passage calls into question the ethics behind historical record and publishing against the wishes of a community to forget. Any type of work dealing with recording trauma needs to find a way to be respectful of the affected individual or community while remaining true to their work. There is no easy solution for any of this, but it is a conversation that must always be had between recorders and community members.  

The last lines of Insensatez depict the mood of the author and perhaps even of the movement for truth. As the narrator opens an email he receives from a colleague back in Guatemala that was at the presentation of the ethnography that he worked on, it reads:

Ayer a mediodía monseñor presentó el informe en la catedral con bombo y platillo; en la noche lo asesinaron en la casa parroquial, le destruyeron la cabeza con un ladrillo. Todo el mundo está cagado. Da gracias que te fuiste. (Ch 11)

(Yesterday at noon the archbishop proudly presented the work at the cathedral; that night he was assassinated at his parish’s home, they destroyed his head with a brick. Everyone in the world is fucked. Be grateful you left).

A little nihilistic in ending, the narrator has escaped Central America and its violence for the time being, yet he carries the trauma everywhere he goes even though he is displaced from the genocide at least by a decade. It is through his own character development and the metafictional use of having him create an ethnography of sorts throughout the novel that allows the reader to understand the toll the testimonios have taken on the narrator’s psyche. The message only reasserts that Guatemala and Central America as a whole is still not safe from the violence the narrator spent the entire novel reading about. The archbishop being killed echoes the death of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero for his sermons in freedom and peace against the totalitarian regime of the government. Both of their deaths are examples of the silencing of counternarratives to the current historical one.

         As time progresses, the truth does find its way out. In the last decade alone a lot of progress has been made in regards to the acknowledgement of Central America’s horrible past. In January 2012, President Funes of El Salvador traveled to El Mozote where he gave a speech that finally acknowledged the pain and suffering the Salvadoran government caused to its own people. The speech President Funes gave actively rewrote and revised the then-hegemonic narrative that erased any and all traces of pain and suffering at the hands of the tyrannical government of the 1980’s. President Funes says:

Quitamos un velo que nos encegueció durante tres décadas y nos sumió en dolorosa oscuridad…como Presidente Constitucional de la República…reconozco que en [el cantón] El Mozote [y a sus alrededores] los días y las noches del 10, 11, 12 y 13 de diciembre de 1981, tropas del Batallón de Infantería de Reacción Inmediata Atlacatl, de la Fuerza Armada de El Salvador, asesinaron a cerca de un millar de personas, la mayoría niñas y niños.

(Let us remove the veil that blinded us over three decades and plunged us into a painful darkness… as the President of the Republic…I recognize that in the town of El Mozote [and others neighboring it], on the nights of the 10th, 11th, 12th, and 13th of December of 1981, battalion troops of the Atlacatl Immediate Reaction Infantry, of the Armed Forces of El Salvador, assassinated near a thousand people, the majority of which were children).

This entire speech is an example of active revision to history. To acknowledge the pain and suffering texts like The Weight of All Things and Insensatez have been attempting to convey is something that was beginning to be unthinkable itself. From this point forward is where the true healing begins.

Though the process of healing for the communities directly will not occur immediately, it will certainly begin with the official acknowledgement and belief in the events by the world. In a recent interview with AJ+, a web-based video-journalism news source, Daniel Alvarenga interviewed descendants of the victims of the massacre at El Mozote, El Salvador’s deadliest massacre that killed almost one thousand of its residents. In 2018 El Mozote was finally able to create a final resting place for the remains of the lives lost. A cemetery where descendants and family members could finally visit their loved ones was made. This is another instance of historiography in action. In the interview, Reina Claros, a daughter of one of the many victims says:

Y para mí esto es muchísimo porque ya es parte de dar un cierre. Ya tengo donde llevarle flores, dónde ir a platicar con ella [mi mamá]. Uno siempre tiene cosas que contarle a su madre. Yo nunca la tuve pero ahorita ya va a haber un lugar dónde llevar [sus restos].

(And for me this is a lot because it is part of giving closure. I have somewhere to take her flowers, somewhere to talk with [my mother]. One always has things to tell their mother. I never had her but now there will be a place where I can take her [remains].”

With the construction of this new cemetery and with the giving back of the victims’ remains healing can begin. This will not happen overnight, but it will eventually happen. There is still

much more in terms of justice that needs to happen, and, at the time of this writing, the United States has yet to acknowledge or revise its official stance on its involvement in any of the altercations in Central America. It is also the country that is now attempting to block entrance to a large caravan of migrants from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. 

The Weight of All Things and Insensatez both do incredibly important work for history in their time of publication. They both function as historiographic fiction that attempts to rewrite and revise and reimagine the hegemonic narrative of history that conflicts with the truth each text is elucidating. El Salvador and Guatemala have acknowledged the atrocities of the nineteenth century, it is about time for the United States to step in and actually help these countries get back on their feet. The US needs to own up to the involvement it has in Central America and other developing countries around the world. As is repeated in the final chapter of Insensatez as the title of the never published ethnography, “¡Todos sabemos quiénes son los asesinos! (We all know who the murderers are!).”

Works Cited

Alvarenga, Daniel (_danalvarenga). “Mi video sobre la massacre de El Mozote, ahora en @ajplusespanol. Fue la massacre más grande en la guerra civil Salvadoreña y en la historia reciente de América Latina. Casi mil murieron y aún no tenemos justicia:” 21 December 2018, 7:50 AM. Tweet.

Castellanos Moya, Horacio. Insensatez. Tusquets Editores, 2004. Kindle Edition.

Benitez, Sandra. The Weight of All Things. Hyperion, 2001. Print.

 “Designation of El Salvador Under Temporary Protected Status.” Federal Register Publications, signed by Attorney General John Ashcroft, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, 9 March 2001.

“Discurso Presidente Funes en El Mozote.” Scribd, www.scribd.com/document/82577026/Discurso-Presidente-Funes-en-El-Mozote.

Detels, Polly E. “Geryon’s Tail: Historiographic Novels and Their Essential Selves.” When ‘the Lie Becomes Truth’: Four Historiographic Novels of the Twentieth Century, U of North Texas, 1999. ProQuest, https://search-proquest-com.jpllnet.sfsu.edu/docview/54354730?accountid=13802.

Farah, Douglas. “Papers Show U.S. Role in Guatemalan Abuses.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 11 Mar. 1999, www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/inatl/daily/march99/ guatemala11.htm?noredirect=on.

Polemicist (PalmTreesnGz). “It is true that we are not just trauma and sad stories. It is also true that trauma and sad stories are a crucial part of our histories and struggles. #CentralAmericanTwitter.” 14 December 2018, 2:07 PM. Tweet.Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Beacon Press, 2015. Print.

Ederlyn Peralta: Shifting Identities

Ederlyn Peralta, San Francisco State University


         When formulating a character analysis, readers tend to configure characters based on physical description, dialogue, actions, thoughts or feelings, and the reactions of others. However, in texts such as Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name., and Helen Oyeyemi’s The Icarus Girl, body swapping and spirit possession can misconstrue a reader’s interpretation of a character. As a result, we question the authenticity of a character’s actions and emotions due to the fact that they have been possessed by another character’s conscious. Are these actions and emotions genuinely benefitting the actual physical character or are there any secret intentions behind the actions that would benefit the spirit that is possessing the body, and what does this reveal about the personas of the characters who are switching bodies? I will explore how “body swapping” changes the way readers interpret characters, in their original bodies and when they astral project, and what the authors’ intentions might be for using “body swapping” as opposed to having characters maintain their original bodies? In my paper, I will examine how each text depicts body swapping through the characters’ point of views, how names are identity makers for characters, and how characters go on a self-discovery journey in a spiritual setting. In my discoveries, I observed that body swapping is used as a dramatic effect to demonstrate the tribulations that young adult characters experience while growing up. When characters body swap, they experience trials that test their identity and discover who they desire to be within their given social environments.

Shifting Identities: Interpreting “Body Swapping” and “Spirit Possession” in Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name. and Helen Oyeyemi’s The Icarus Girl

Usually, when reading about a character, the narrator would inform us about everything we need to know about that specific character either directly in the language or through context clues. For example, one way we construct a character’s identity is through the setting or environment that the character resides in, such environments include a political or religious discourse community, socio-economic class structure or an ethnic/cultural background. These environments are constructed through the author’s use of dialogue, narrative point of view, and other literary devices. However, in Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name. (『君の名は。』) and Helen Oyeyemi’s The Icarus Girl, both authors problematize the construction of a character’s identity through the use of “body swapping” or “spirit possession.” As a result, it complicates a reader’s analysis of a character: readers are now invited to contemplate on how will a character’s physical body with another character’s conscious react differently towards a given environment or situation in contrast to how they would react in their original bodies. When a character switches bodies, we have to evaluate not just the character’s actual physical presence that appears in the action and dialogue of the scene, but also the conscious that is occupying this character’s physical body simultaneously. As a result, the body swapping subtly unveils personality traits and habits about the protagonists that aren’t explicitly told by an overarching narrator to the readers. These traits invite a deeper evaluation of the characters’ overall identities as opposed to what you would receive from just a single narrator.

Aside from using “body swapping” and “spirit possession”  as a way to develop their characters’ personas and identities, both texts use these devices to propel the adolescent protagonists into self-discoveries about who they desire to be as adults. Usually, in young adult literature, adolescent protagonists are trying to navigate and understand the environment around them and are also learning to become responsible adults, despite making immature mistakes. However, in these two texts, I argue that body swapping amongst the young adult characters is a subtle device to demonstrate the identity struggles, particularly in a cultural and social context, that adolescent characters experience while growing up. For instance, in Your Name., the two young protagonists, Mitsuha Miyamizu and Taki Tachibana switch bodies, and through this act, they learn about traditional and modern Japanese lifestyles which unlocks a gateway into understanding their culture and how they see themselves as Japanese people. As for The Icarus Girl, the main protagonist, Jess, is biracial and she has trouble trying to navigate in two different cultural spaces: her British heritage and her Nigerian heritage. Body swapping illustrates the roller coaster moments that a young adult experiences when trying to grasp an understanding of his or her cultural identity based on an ethnic background or a social environment that they are situated in. In addition, while navigating the world around them, these young adult characters are also trying to find a sanctuary where they feel that they belong and are accepted as they are.

“Body swapping” and “spirit possession” are ways for young adults to navigate through their environments and uncover their true identities beyond the cultural and social backgrounds they associate with. In this paper, I will analyze how each author utilizes point of view and setting to impact a reader’s interpretations on these young adult protagonists’ view of themselves from internal and external standpoints. By discussing how Your Name. is in first person point of view and The Icarus Girl is in third person omniscient point of view, we will see how these characters’ perspectives on themselves and each other shifts as they learn to be “in each other’s shoes.” Similarly, by analyzing the spiritual spaces where the main protagonists met one another, both texts provide readers a sense of internal growth and maturity within these young adult characters. In addition, I will discuss how each author strategically misconstrued characters’ names in order for readers to see how these characters struggle to understand that who they are is beyond an identity marker given to them.  After analyzing these characteristics within the texts, I will formulate some reader conclusions about how “body swapping” is a form of identity construction for young adult characters. Lastly, I will compare and contrast how my readings and conclusions align with how scholars and critics view readers of each text.

Uncovering Identity Through Reading Methods

Before we start to analyze the literary methods in each text, I would like to  clarify the terms, “body swapping” and “spirit possession.” In regard to Your Name., I will use the term “body swapping” because the two main protagonists, Mitsuha Miyamizu (宮水 三葉) and Taki Tachibana (立花 瀧), occupy each other’s body: Mitsuha is in Taki’s body and Taki is in Mitsuha’s body. Shinkai does not mention the reason why Mitsuha and Taki started body swapping in the beginning of the story because it contributes to a plot twist later on in the book. As for The Icarus Girl, I will use the term “spirit possession” because TillyTilly is a spirit that occupies and controls Jessamy “Jess” Harrison’s body. Jess encounters TillyTilly when she explored an old servants’ quarters while on a family vacation in Nigeria. Unlike Your Name., there is no equivalent exchange: TillyTilly desires to live as a human while Jess’s soul wanders in the spirit realm.

  1. Point of View

Now we will explore how the literary techniques implement the concept of “body swapping” or “spirit possession” in each text. The first technique we will discuss is the rendering of the point of view. These stories are told in either first-person or third-person, but the constant shift of perspectives get readers confused about which character they are analyzing.

In Your Name., the entire story is told in the first-person perspective of either Mitsuha or Taki. However, there is confusion as to whose perspective we are reading in when the two protagonists start exchanging souls. In the English translated text of Your Name., there is ambiguity as to who the pronoun, ‘I,’ is referring to. In Japanese texts, a subject is usually inferred, but Shinkai uses this linguistic structure to his advantage. The ambiguity of the pronoun ‘I’ creates a suspenseful atmosphere where the reader wonders about why this ‘body switching’ phenomenon is occurring. Yet, in Japanese, some indicators to decipher the ‘I’ pronoun during “body swapping” include masculine/feminine actions, phrases (aside from pronouns), and cultural norms. When translating this text into English though, readers find difficulty in configuring whose perspective the text is in when the characters’ bodies are swapped because English does not use masculine/feminine terminology aside from pronouns. One example is in Chapter 3: the opening sentence is「知らないベルの音だ」 (Shinkai 46) (“I don’t recognize that ringtone, I think drowsily”) (Engel 33). There are multiple examples where the passage opens with an ambiguous ‘I,’ and so readers must use context clues to decipher who is talking. By not knowing the ringtone, it implies that the protagonists switched bodies: Mitsuha’s conscious is in Taki’s body. Soon after, I noticed how the latter sentences elaborate on Mitsuha’s confusion as she navigates in an unfamiliar environment. In addition, the English translation of Your Name. uses italics to indicate a different first-person narrator, which is helpful for an English-speaking reader. Without a proper pronoun or subject in a sentence, the first-person point of view can stir confusion within readers because they have to use context clues to figure out who is narrating, which happens throughout the novel.

Moreover, the first-person point of view creates a sense of empathy towards others. When Mitsuha and Taki switch bodies, they take mental notes about each other. While in Taki’s body, Mitsuha snoops around on his cellphone and finds a picture of  Taki’s coworker, Okudera-senpai’s back. She makes the assumption that Taki has a crush on her: 「…もしかしてこの子、奥寺先輩が好きなのかも」(Shinkai 69) (“…Maybe he likes Okudera-senpai”) (Engel 47). “Body swapping” can eliminate unreliable narration because characters are acting as one another: they are projecting a new  and honest perspective on how they see and how others see the person that they are embodying. In fact, these “body switching” characters can validate some information about a character from what they said about themselves or from what an omniscient narrator said about them. Unlike a reader, characters are actually experiencing other people’s lives rather than observing and making judgments from what they see. When the text provides us with multiple perspectives on one specific character, readers can make valid interpretations about a character’s persona, such as whether or not they are genuine or empathetic to others, because they are based on various viewpoints rather than just being told by one narrator.

As for critics, they praised the first-person point of view. Theron Martin, a reviewer from Anime News Network, enjoys the shifting of perspectives: “It smoothly shifts back and forth between Taki’s and Mitsuha’s perspectives, always relying on context for the reader to figure out whose eyes we’re seeing through rather than just naming the viewpoint character outright. This works in part because identity ambiguity is sometimes appropriate for the situation…” (ANN). Martin contradicts himself. He states that the narrative perspective is clear only if readers can piece together the context clues. Yet, Martin admits that the body swapping makes the narrative point of view ambiguous but does not necessarily indicate whether this is enjoyable for readers. I think a clear point of view can only happen when the narrator is distinctly presented to the reader, which is not the case within this text. However, the ambiguity of the pronoun ‘I’ immerses the reader into the text, where a reader plays a role in configuring out whose point of view he or she is reading in. The fragmented point of views are done purposely to get readers to experience confusion when it comes to “body swapping” similar to the protagonists’ own confusion in the text.

Yet, another reviewer had a different stance on the first-person point of view: “.…Internal monologues seem a little deep and wordy for typical teenagers, and the two leads don’t tend to talk about themselves a lot. An omniscient narrator likely could have woven details and descriptions a little more naturally” (Krystallina, The OASG). I disagree with this reviewer’s opinion. In the light novel, many of the monologues by the characters are used to explain cultural values and terms. Although the internal monologues are “a little deep and wordy for typical teenagers,” this could be seen as a misreading. Japanese cultural beliefs are embedded throughout this novel, such as the significance of knots and the concept of longing from waka love poetry. Now, as a foreign reader, these values may be unheard of or are too philosophical for a teenager’s mindset, but they are cultural aspects that Japanese people grew up with; hence as to why I don’t think such knowledge is too inappropriate for these characters. Also, if Makoto Shinkai had a third person omniscient narrator providing this information, it would ruin the ambiguity that body switching invites to this text. These internal monologues are confusing to read because of the body swapping, but this confusion is essential in character development. In fact, the body switching represents the adolescent time when teenagers are trying to figure out the types of adults they want to be. Hence, Mitsuha and Taki experienced the ‘real world.’ Mitsuha lived the life of a modern-day Tokyo boy and learned about Japanese modern society, and Taki learned about traditional Japanese culture while living in the countryside. They are learning about one another and their culture, but also they are questioning their identities and how they want to be seen by others, including the readers.

Unlike Your Name., The Icarus Girl is a mixture of first and third person point of views. The third-person perspective objectively informs readers about what Jess did and said in a scene, but also gives the readers a sense that Jess is not fully in control of her actions. One example is when Jess purposely ignores Colleen and Andrea: “Jess sat down, keeping her back straight, as if someone had attached a hook and string to her skull and was yanking the string taut so that her head went up, as she strove to ignore Colleen and Andrea’s glances prickling on her back” (Oyeyemi 88). In third-person point of view, the narrator describes what is going on in a scene, and the readers’ responsibility is to interpret the body language and mannerism of the character’s actions. In this case, the line, “…keeping her back straight, as if someone had attached a hook…,” has a connotative meaning: Jess is uncomfortable and is filled with fear and anxiety. She lacks confidence in confronting her bullies, and so, she passively ignores them. Yet, the third person perspective also provides us with the idea of Jess’s body not fully being in her control. The third person narrator is the one controlling her actions, which later on we will see how TillyTilly becomes the one controlling Jess’s actions and dialogue as opposed to the third person narrator. In The Icarus Girl, the third-person perspective progresses the storyline and provides us with literal and figurative language to describe what a character does or says, but also allows the reader to see the limited control the character has over her body and her identity.

            The Icarus Girl also uses the first-person point of view to describe Jess’s internal emotions and thoughts, even though her outward appearance and actions are controlled by someone else. Like Your Name., the first-person perspective is used in internal monologues. One example is when Jess describes how great TillyTilly is as a friend: “I have a friend an amazing friend who’s coming to see me soon and she’s better than the two of you put together and she listens to me I talked about a poem with her and I don’t care if you don’t like me and and and” (Oyeyemi 88). In this particular example, Jess views TillyTilly as an “amazing friend” in contrast to how her peers treated her in the previous example. When I first read this sentence, I instantly noticed the italics. Italics are used throughout the novel to indicate Jess’s personal thoughts and feelings. Also, Jess ends her sentence with a repetition of “and” which suggests that the example is written in a stream of consciousness format. Her thoughts are incomplete. In fact, her monologues are showcased as childish rants since she does not have the capacity to fully express her emotions like an adult. In the first-person point of view, Jess expresses her true feelings that she does not dare say to others, which may suggest the lack of control Jess feels in crafting her identity. She cannot express herself outwardly so she keeps her true feelings hidden within herself. As a result, readers must interpret her character by analyzing both her public identity and her conscious mind.

For instance, Christopher Ouma discusses the complexity of the third-person point of view in The Icarus Girl:

Her sense of self is deeply immersed in her psychic state and there is a thin line between her conscious and unconscious. The fluid movements between different states of mind problematize her sense of the boundaries between imagination and reality. Yet the form of the narrative, told mostly from an omniscient, third-person point of view, allows us in and out of her fluid states of mind. (Ouma 196)

Ouma believes that the third-person perspective allows readers to see the complexity of Jess’s character because she navigates between two different spaces: her imagination and her reality. However, I read this novel as having a mixture of viewpoints interworking at the same time. The switching of the first- and third-person perspective invites two different viewpoints on how we interpret Jess during that specific moment or scene. In the third-person perspective, we see how Jess interacts with others in real time and in the first-person perspective, we see her inner emotions that she does not express to others simultaneously. Similar to Your Name.,  readers have to take into account two different viewpoints in order to grasp Jess’s character.

In both texts, readers have to synthesize perspectives in order to get a comprehensive understanding of a character. “Body swapping” or “spirit possession” gives readers the opportunity to flesh out the characters in a different manner. Another character’s consciousness is making decisions for someone else and so, readers have to ponder on whether these characters may react differently to a situation if they were actually in their own bodies. In other words, readers are deciphering two characters’ personas simultaneously. Shinkai and Oyeyemi implicitly asks readers to pay attention to how the story is told and to whose perspective we are reading in. These reading invitations allows readers to explore the depth within characters: readers observe the characters’s adolescent lives as they struggle to formulate how they perceive themselves as well as how they want others to see them within their environments.

  • The Significance of a Name

            After looking at the point of view of each text, we will now explore the significance of “names.” Each author has a different view on the importance of “naming.” In fact, “the naming of characters” complicates how readers imagined characters’ identities and roles, especially when they switch bodies. In the case of Your Name. and The Icarus Girl, both authors purposely use the concept of “naming” to show how identity is misconstrued.

         In the original Japanese text, Mitsuha and Taki’s names in kanji have significant meanings, which is a concept readers would not receive in the English translation. In Japanese, Mitsuha Miyamizu name is written as 宮水 三葉. The kanji for Miyamizu (宮水) translates to “water shrine.” Miya (宮) means shrine and mizu (水) means water. Her last name relates to her occupation: her family takes care of an ancient mountain shrine in Itomori. As for Taki Tachibana, his name written in Japanese is 立花 瀧. The kanji for Taki (瀧) represents waterfall. Both Taki and Mistsuha’s names share a commonality, water, which represents life. Their names complement one another. There’s a scene where Taki drinks Mitsuha’s kuchikamizake (口噛み酒)—a rice-based sake that is fermented by saliva and is offered to the gods—because he believes that it is the only way to reunite with her. If a reader were to read mizu or water as the symbol of life, they can read this scene as Taki drinking the sake in order to return to the past so that he can save Mitsuha because she died when the comet destroyed her town. The comet is the surprise plot twist in the book and it is the reason why the two characters switched bodies: Taki from the future is in Mitsuha’s body in order to warn the townspeople of Itomori about the comet. Moreover, the naming of Mitsuha and Taki is not coincidental in the Japanese text, but rather both their names complement each other as if Taki is fated to restore life into Mitsuha through his warning and helping the townspeople evacuate. In this text, a person’s name is not just an identity marker, but one’s name can contribute to a person’s overall purpose in life and that also contributes to a person’s identity. 

Throughout Your Name., the question, “What is your name?” is constantly being asked while Mitsuha and Taki switched bodies. In fact, due to this constant query, readers naturally expect that there will be an answer by the end of this novel. However, readers are left to wonder at the end because the ending of the story is actually a scene where Mitsuha and Taki meet at a staircase and they both asked each other the same question: 「-君の、名前は、と。」 (Shinkai 252) (“What’s your name?”) (Engel 174). Although the ending is open-ended, readers can safely assume from the background context that the main protagonists will finally know each other’s name. Also, this question is the last line in the novel and is the only sentence on the last page. I thought that by having this as the last sentence in the novel, it brings the reader back full circle to the front cover where the title is also an indirect question: 『君の名前は』(“Your name is[?]”). At first, I thought that Makoto Shinkai kept bringing up this question to emphasize how a name is significant to a person’s identity because it is a marker of what that person wants others to address him or her by. However, when I reread this novel, I learned that there’s more to a name than just a marker of identity.

In Your Name., Taki and Mitsuha heard each other names when other characters directly addressed them or when they saw each other’s name written in notebooks, diaries, and cellphone messages but they forgot once they stop switching bodies. When they meet at the mountainside shrine, Taki suggests that they write their names on the palm of each other’s hands so that they do not forget each other. Before Mitsuha could write her name down, she disappears, but Taki was able to write what we assumed to be his name on her palm. However, it is revealed that he wrote 「好きだ」(Shinkai 228) (“I love you”) (Engel 156) rather than his name. As a reader, I was confounded. Since Your Name. is the title of the book and we have been constantly reading scenes about the protagonists asking each other names, I assumed that Taki wrote his name on her palm, but instead, he wrote his feelings for her. Moreover, this phrase, 「好きだ」, is formatted in bold in order to emphasize to readers that Taki’s feelings are more important than his name and to get readers to feel his sincerity. It is a simple phrase but so much emotion can be felt. Thus, Shinkai  seems to suggest that a name is not as important as the emotional impact a person has on others. Emotions seem to be what drives a character’s persona and so when addressing emotionally driven issues for young adult characters, it’s a sign of maturity.

A name is a marker of identity, but how we craft a person’s identity is based on the emotions and memories we have of that person. Rather than putting his name, Taki confesses his feelings for Mitsuha as a way for her to remember him. In fact, Maria Grajdian discusses how love confessions are used in Shinkai’s works: “…Shinkai’s depiction of the search for love as the underlying motivator is also portrayed in anthropological terms as a rite of passage that propels the adolescent into the adult world…” (119). Grajdian argues that Shinkai uses love as a gateway into adulthood for adolescent characters. Love confessions contribute to character growth and the crafting of a character’s identity. Yet for Your Name., I think that by writing personal feelings down rather than a name, it cleverly illustrates that a name is just a marker to address a person but does not necessarily mean you will remember that person. A person’s identity is created through the memories and feelings they share with another person, and it is those emotions and experiences that make you remember someone. In some way, this can apply to “body swapping” texts. A “body swapped” character creates new memories for the body they occupy. And so, these newly shared moments contribute to people’s overall characterization of that particular person, even though someone else’s mind is inhabiting that character’s physical body.

            As for The Icarus Girl, names are tied to cultural background: Jess’ and TillyTilly’s names are based on geographic location. While living in England Jessamy Harrison is addressed by variations of her English name, Jessy or Jess. Yet when she is in Nigeria, her grandfather calls her by her Yoruba name, Wuraola. Two scholars, Sarah Ilott and Chloe Buckley, discuss the significance of the name, Wuraola: “Jessy’s fear of a surplus of identity stems from a mixed heritage that leads her to identify as (at least) two people…In this manner, Jessy misidentifies her Yoruba heritage as Other and worried that by answering to that name she would thereby ‘steal the identity of someone who belongs here…’ (407). Even though Wuraola is her name, Jess feels uncomfortable being called that and does not feel like it belongs to her because she views her Nigerian culture as foreign. Furthermore, Jess’ disassociation with her Nigerian heritage is shown when she nicknames her “imaginary” friend as TillyTilly rather than her proper Yoruba name, Titiola. Some scholars suggest that there is great significance to Jess’ act of naming her friend, TillyTilly. Ake Bergvall states that the nickname “strips Titiola from the very thing that defines her – her name” (9). Another scholarly view of TillyTilly’s name is that “…she might be read as a cultural symbol, mediating aspects of traditional Yoruba culture…The name ‘TillyTilly’ actually results from Jessy’s failure to pronounce the Yoruba name, Titiola. As a signifier, then, TillyTilly…in itself signifies a lack—or failure—of signification” (Ilott and Buckley 412). Jess makes the unfamiliar “familiar” to her by giving her friend, Titiola, a more western name. Thus, Jess shows her unwillingness to understand or accept her Nigerian culture. With each new name, Oyeyemi creates separate cultural personas for Jess; as a result, Jess is hiding her true identity and must perform different roles depending on the circumstances she is in. Soon after, when TillyTily possesses Jess’s body, it physically symbolizes Jess’s British and Nigerian identities coexisting within her. Yet, the coexistence does not necessarily mean that Jess accepts both cultural backgrounds since both spirits struggle to control the physical body. 

            When TillyTilly gains control over Jess’ physical body, the separation of cultural identities is nonexistent and instead, the two cultures become one. When they switch bodies, Helen Oyeyemi uses the markers: “Tilly-who-was-Jess” and “Jess-who-wasn’t-Jess,” which are more like actions rather than real names. Here is an example of this strange naming: “Tilly-who-was-Jess was in bed now, her face turned away from Jess’s mum because she was having trouble working Jess’s face; it was as if she found Jess’s features–her lips, her eyelids–too heavy, and the expressions came out too exaggerated and stiff…” (Oyeyemi 209). In this scene, Tilly-who-was-Jess is trying to “become” Jess by imitating her facial habits. The spirit possession suggests the possibility that both cultures can coexist with one another and that her identities do not need to be separated: Jess does not need to separate her two cultural identities but rather she can be both at the same time. However, the names, Tilly-who-was-Jess and Jess-who-wasn’t-Jess, indicate that the two identities have yet to harmonize and just form one name. Ideally, a character’s true identity combines all the roles that a character projects on to others in the text and to readers.

            Both texts illustrate how “body swapping” puzzles readers on how to address characters. As a result, naming complicates readers’ interpretations of characters. Names are a marker of identity. However, in Your Name., a person’s name is not as significant as a person’s memories and feelings towards someone. Shinkai suggests that these memories and feelings help create a person’s identity. As for The Icarus Girl, a name is tied to geographic location and cultural background. However, a person’s identity is made up of all the multiple personas and cultural roles he or she presents to others. Both Makoto Shinkai and Helen Oyeyemi embrace the idea that a character’s name is a significant part of identity, but each of them has their own views of what it means to have a name. Therefore, when interpreting a character’s name, especially when he or she body swaps with another character, it provides an opportunity for characters to begin understanding their emotions and cultural background because they are seeing these notions in the eyes of another person.

  • Mystical Spaces: Encountering “Body Swapping” Characters

            Now, the last method I will discuss is the mystical and mysterious space which is used during the climax of each text. The texts use this space as a way for their main protagonists to meet the person that they have been embodying, and from this encounter, the protagonists find a new sense of enlightenment about themselves. In Your Name., there is a shrine on top of a mountain in Itomori, and this is the place where Taki and Mitsuha unite.  When the two stopped switching bodies, Taki travels to the shrine and drinks Mitsuha’s kuchikamizake. After drinking the kuchikamizake, he goes on a psychological and spiritual journey into the life of Mitsuha: 「俺はなすすべもなく濁流に流されるように、三葉の時間にさらされている」(Shinkai 150) (“As if I’m being swept along helplessly by a storm-swollen torrent, I experience Mitsuha’s time”) (Engel 105). The mysterious and spiritual Itomori mountain shrine is a special place between Mitsuha and Taki because this place connects the two souls together, which hints at a strong emotional bond between them. The drinking of Mitsuha’s kuchikamizake is an intimate scene where Taki witnesses a disarray of memory fragments about Mitsuha’s life. Although they are not body swapping, this scene is similar to it. I read this scene as Taki consuming Mitsuha’s soul, and she is now part of him. This consumption could be read as another way of acknowledging a person: Taki feels empathy towards Mitsuha as he witnesses and experiences every single moment in her life. We can read the events at the mountain shrine as a space to truly understand a person’s overall well-being, which is similar to how body swapping is a literal act of understanding a character by living and experiencing someone else’s life.

            Similarly, The Icarus Girl has a mysterious, supernatural space, where Jess and TillyTilly meet each other, called the Bush. After getting into a car accident, Jess enters the Bush: “The Bush. A wilderness. A wilderness for the mind” (Oyeyemi 330). While in the Bush, she confronts and fights TillyTilly: “She was going to get TillyTilly, and Tilly was big and strong…Tilly was the sun and the storm cloud that blotted it out. But there was a sister-girl now, one who could now call herself Wuraola where true names were asked for. Jess charged onwards…” (Oyeyemi 334). Throughout the novel, readers viewed Jess’s character to be inferior to TillyTilly. In this scene, we once again witness Jess’s inferiority complex when she describes TillyTilly as “big and strong.” However, there is a shift in how Jess views herself. First of all, Jess states that she is “going to get TillyTilly,” which is something she would never have thought of doing prior to this passage because when TillyTilly said “get” before, Jess assumed that it was something bad or scary, and so she refused to know what “get” really means. Yet, this time, she will be doing the “get[ting],” which suggests that she is not scared of TillyTilly anymore and is willing to take action. Also, readers can assume that Jess has accepted her Nigerian heritage because she finally takes ownership of her name, Wuraola. The Bush functions as a place of self-acceptance and self-discovery; thus, readers are able to see the dynamic changes in Jess’s character as she is able to confront TillyTilly.

            Many scholars also believe that the Bush is the area where Jess accepts her Nigerian identity by confronting TillyTilly. Diana Mafe argues that, “…The bush and its resident ghost, Titiola or TillyTilly, reflect Jess’s latent anxiety and curiosity about her (mixed) Yoruba heritage and become a primary means for her to articulate this aspect of her cultural identity” (22). Similarly, Christopher Ouma views the Bush as a mental space for Jess to overcome her anxieties and identity issues: “This image at the end of the text signifies an ambivalent conclusion to Jess’s identity struggle. She confronts her mythical and genealogical self…” (201). We all have read the Bush as the medium to which Jess will conquer her fears and formulate a strong sense of self, and she does that by fighting TillyTilly in the Bush.

            Both texts create a mysterious, mystical space for the main protagonists—who have been body swapping—to meet with one another. However, this space is used for different purposes within each text.  The mountain shrine in Your Name. is a space where the protagonists mature by gaining a strong sense of empathy and intimacy to each other. Before, Taki lived his life in the fast-lane by constantly working and attending school, but after drinking the kuchikamizake, he realized how much he cares for Mitsuha. As for The Icarus Girl, the Bush functions as a space for self-discovery. Jess obtains the strength to confront TillyTilly and she gains a sense of self by accepting her mix heritage. I think that both texts proficiently used a mystical background to create a sense of order after the constant body switching throughout each novel. Furthermore, these mystical spaces are used as a threshold into adulthood for these young characters. In Your Name., Taki and Mitsuha reunite and discover their love for one another and in The Icarus Girl, Jess explores how conquering personal struggles allows you to have a better understanding of yourself.

Reading Conclusions About “Body Swapping” Characters & Identity

            Your Name. and The Icarus Girl invite readers into rethinking how they formulate their perspectives of characters and their identities, especially when texts use the component of “body switching.” The first method we explored is point of view. Each story uses internal monologues to express characters’ true thoughts and feelings. Your Name. uses the first-person point of view throughout the novel, but there are complications in using this perspective because when Mitsuha and Taki switch bodies, it leaves readers in a state of confusion on who is talking. Readers must carefully read and decipher context clues to indicate which perspective they are reading in. Similarly, The Icarus Girl switches viewpoints, but readers can easily follow the perspectives because all the point of views are focused on Jess. Both texts illustrate the difficulty of constructing character identities when there are several perspectives that readers must consider as they analyze characters. Readers must not only analyze what the narrator tells them about each character but also look at the internal monologues, actions, and reactions throughout the narrative. Yet, Your Name. thoroughly demonstrates the complexity of reading characters because the point of view gets broken down and fragmented due to the constant switching of bodies. As a result, readers must closely read the context clues to figure out who is talking and what is being said about the actual character or the person whose occupying this character’s body. The switching of perspectives is one way to show how body swapping misconstrues a reader’s character analyses, but the body swapping can also be read as the confused mindset that adolescent characters have while they are growing up and becoming adults.

            Also, both texts emphasize that a name is an important part of a person’s identity, but each text cites different reasons for it. Throughout Your Name., the question, “What is your name?” is constantly being asked from the beginning to the end of the text. Yet, when Taki and Mitsuha finally have a chance to tell each other their names, Taki writes “I love you” instead. The text is purposely telling its readers that a name is not as significant as a person’s memories and experiences they share with that specific person. As a result, a person’s identity to some degree is crafted by another person’s memories and thoughts of them. As for The Icarus Girl, Jess has multiple names and each nickname she is called is dependent on the country she is currently residing in. The text purposely separates Jess’s cultural identities from each other rather than combining them, until TillyTilly possesses Jess’s body. Both of them were called either “Tilly-who-was-Jess” or “Jess-who-wasn’t-Jess,” and as a result, Jess became a hybrid of both cultural identities. The Icarus Girl invites readers to not view identity in separate roles or categories that depend on one’s circumstances but rather through a holistic lens: a character’s true identity is composed of all of these minor ones. Both texts successfully highlight different aspects on how readers should interpret a character’s name. A character’s identity consists of more than just a name by which readers address a character, but in these texts, one’s cultural background and other’s perceptions are factors on how a character’s name is perceived to readers.

            Lastly, the climax of each text presents a spiritual setting where the characters, who were switching bodies, finally meet in person. In Your Name., the shrine acts as a place to connect with loved ones and gain a sense of sympathy for others, which helps these young adult characters develop maturity. Meanwhile, in The Icarus Girl, the Bush is where Jess must overcome personal struggles and fears in order to find solace. These spaces allow the characters to obtain some form of enlightenment or self-realization. It is in these scenes that the characters are the most vulnerable as they must overcome an emotional struggle that will eventually lead them to a self-discovery. However, readers can use these climactic scenes to measure the growth of the characters. Also, self-discovery journeys invite readers to pause and reflect on the characters’ personal journeys to form comfortable and dynamic self-identities.

            Now scholars have different perspectives on how readers should approach body swapping” and its relationship with identity. Your Name. invites readers to evaluate adolescent identity through the lens of teenagers on the brink of adult growth and maturity. For example, Sarah Ward critiques the use of body swapping as, “[It] directly might provide the storytelling spark that ignites the feature, but becoming someone different in terms of growing, changing, reassessing one’s perceptions and learning from them proves the real outcome, helping the protagonists to confront the bigger trial that’s to come” (49). Ward suggests that the constant “body swapping” confusion is to prepare the young characters for life trials because they gain a sense of maturity that will prepare them for struggles that suddenly come their way. Furthermore, a majority of readers interpret Your Name. as a star-crossed love story. Many note an emphasis on love and affection as a positive source in adolescence since love can cause individuals to think about others rather than themselves which is a sign towards being an adult: “Shinkai’s notion of love exists as an important life-sustaining emotion in the process of individual human evolution” (Grajdian 118). Thus, readers are also invited to interpret the body swapping amongst the adolescent characters as an experience for emotional growth and maturity where teenagers become adults.

            As for The Icarus Girl, Jess’s mixed heritage caused a rift within her as she struggles to understand her cultural background. As a result, readers must navigate in two different planes of perception: how society perceives Jess and how Jess sees herself internally. In fact, Ouma suggests that Jess’s issues in understanding her heritage and cultural identity are told in many narrative snippets from peers teasing her to her adventures with TillyTilly: “Jess’ identity is therefore imagined as a network of narratives, both received and reflected on. The self-reflection, spurred by metafiction, allows us as readers to begin drawing connections between the narrative world and real and material states of the protagonist’s mind and body” (194). Through this lens, readers are invited to interpret Jess’s heritage through her real and imaginary experiences and how it affected her personal outlook on herself. In addition, by looking at these narrative stories, readers are called forth to piece together her full identity rather than separating her cultural roles. The Icarus Girl suggests that readers should see a person’s identity in a holistic view. Furthermore, like Your Name., The Icarus Girl also addresses the journey of a young girl into a young adult through her exploration of her biracial culture.

            Overall, Your Name. and The Icarus Girl engages readers to construct identity in a different manner when reading about characters who experienced “body swapping” or “spirit possession.” When we interpret characters, we use context clues from the narration and language, but our interpretations get rework when we have to analyze a different character’s conscious in another character’s body. These “out of body” moments allow characters to see different perspectives on their surroundings and how others see them, which adds a layer of depth when readers analyze characters. The “body swapping” in Your Name. and The Icarus Girl demonstrate that identities are not only formulated by our own creation, but by the environment we situate ourselves in and how others see us. Constructed identities are just snippets that form a bigger picture of who we are. These texts forces readers to not read characters in a linear fashion—where readers focus only on what the narrator says about a specific character—but rather to look at each constructed identity individually and then holistically in order to formulate a well-rounded understanding of a character.  By reading characters in this manner, we can apply this method to how we read people’s identities in real life, focusing not on what a person presents in front of us, but rather analyze the personas and actions a person shows to others.

Works Cited

新海 誠。『君の名は。』。株式会社、2016年。

Bergvall, Ake. “‘Jess-who-wasn’t-Jess’ Double Consciousness and Identity Construction in Helen Oyeyemi’s The Icarus Girl. Karlstads Universitet, 2010, pp. 1-21.

Grajdian, Maria. “The precarious self: love, melancholia and the eradication of adolescence in    Makoto Shinkai’s anime works.” Visions of Precarity in Japanese Pop Culture and           Literature, edited by Kristina Iwata-Weickgenannt and Roman Rosenbaum. London and  New York, Routledge, 2015, pp. 117-131.

Ilott, Sarah and Chloe Buckley. “‘Fragmenting and becoming double’: Supplementary twins and  abject bodies in Helen Oyeyemi’s The Icarus Girl.” The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol 51, 2016, pp. 402-415.

Krystallina. “your name. Light Novel Review.” The OASG, 3 July 2017,         https://www.theoasg.com/reviews/light-novel/your-name-light-novel-review/5284.  Accessed 1 May 2018.

Mafe, Diana Adesola. “Ghostly Girls in the ‘Eerie Bush’: Helen’s Oyeyemi’s The Icarus Girl as Postcolonial Female Gothic Fiction.” Research in African Literatures, Vol 43, No 3, 2012, pp. 21-35. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/resafrilite.43.3.21. Accessed 1 May  2018.

Martin, Theron. “your name. [Hardcover] Review.” Anime News Network, 16 June 2017,  https://www.animenewsnetwork.com/review/your-name-hardcover/novel/.116997.       Accessed 1 May 2018.

Ouma, Christopher. “Reading the Diasporic Abiku in Helen Oyeyemi’s The Icarus Girl.” Research  in African Literatures, Vol 45, No 3, 2014, pp. 188-205.          https://muse.jhu.edu/article/555718. Accessed 1 May 2018.

Oyeyemi, Helen. The Icarus Girl. New York, Anchor Books, 2005.

Shinkai, Makoto. Your Name. Trans. Taylor Engel. New York, Yen Press, 2017.

Ward, Sarah. “Be Careful What You Wish For: Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name.” Metro Magazine, pp.44-49.

Works Consulted

Bradshaw, Nick. “Trading Places.” Sight & Sounds, Dec 2016, pp. 40-41.

Downer, Lesley. “‘The Icarus Girl’: The Play Date From Hell.” The New York Times, 17 July 2005,            https://www.nytimes.com/2005/07/17/books/review/the-icarus-girl-the-play-date-from-hell.html. Accessed 1 May 2018.

McLean, Tom. “A Head Trip for the Heart.” Animation Magazine, Feb 2017, pp. 16-18.

Smith, Ali. “Double trouble.” The Guardian, 21 Jan 2005,     https://www.theguardian.com/books/2005/jan/22/fiction.alismith. Accessed 1 May            2018.

Stables, Kate. “Your Name [Review].” Sight & Sound, Dec 2016, pp. 92.

Jeffrey Achierno: Internet Memes and the Fetish

Jeffrey Achierno, San Francisco State University

Jeffrey Achierno is in his last year as an MA student at San Francisco State University. He has a wide variety of academic interests, including visual culture as well as Renaissance literature. He’s originally from Colorado.


In his 1985 article, “Photography and Fetish,” Christian Metz discussed both photography and film on their own merits of being viable fetishes. For Metz, film could not be considered a fetish because of the plurality, movement, and noise of many images. Instead, he felt that film played on fetishism. Photography on the other hand was very much capable of being a fetish, as it is a single image, lends itself to reality, and makes us focus more on one subject. Part of Metz’s decision was perhaps based on the physicality of the photograph, as a photograph can be kept in a pocket, held, and mastered, while “a film cannot be touched, cannot be carried and handled: although the actual reels can, the projected film cannot” (88). With over thirty years passing from when Metz wrote the essay to the present day and the changes in technology in that time, his argument that film is not a fetish may no longer be credible. Given these technological advancements and ever-evolving mass and social media, however, it becomes evident that there exists a need to examine new cultural objects as possible fetishes, and accordingly I will here examine one such example: the internet meme. The primary goal is to determine whether a meme is a fetish or, like Metz says of film, it is playing on fetishism.

Internet Memes and the Fetish: Critical Analysis of an Emerging Cultural Artifact

If one were to open the social media of any regular user of the internet, they would undoubtedly encounter at least one meme. Memes are an incredibly common presence across all of social media as well as the larger internet. Yet, despite this fact, there is a noticeable latency to study contemporary – and digital – artifacts of the present day, such as memes. Perhaps the novelty of these artifacts gives them the connotation of non-theoretical rigor or perhaps they seem like a passing fad unworthy of the same criticism applied to the great works of art or literature. Whatever the cause, as more time elapses, the more human culture turns towards the digital, and the more that a need arises for critical analysis into these digital cultural artifacts. In an attempt to rectify the lack of critical discourse on digital culture, this paper chooses to focus on internet memes, one of the most pervasive and proliferating cultural artifacts of the digital age, in relation to the concept of the “fetish,” or an object with inherent mystical power or value over a person. Perhaps such an assertion appears too obvious or simple to make. Certainly, there are qualities of the fetish to be found in many if not all cultural artifacts. However, critical analysis will allow investigation into whether the internet meme has the capability of being a fetish or whether it is only capable of “playing on fetishism.”[1] In the study of a novel cultural object such as internet memes, this question of fetish or fetishism seems a central one.

Before the question of fetish can even be approached, however, it is important that the concept of the meme be precisely defined. A memeticist, those who study memes or memetics, would define a meme as “a unit of expression that has cultural meaning. Memes are often ideas, jingles, catch-phrases, or images, that spread from person to person” (Hansen 239). The term meme, however, is older than the current usage of it, and this contemporary, memetic definition is not much different than when it was first used. Coined in 1976 by Richard Dawkins, the term ‘meme’ was an attempt to apply evolutionary theory to culture. Dawkins defined it as small units of culture that spread from one person to another through copy or imitation.[2] The word itself, “meme,” was derived from the Greek mimema, meaning “copy” or “imitation,” which Dawkins adapted to sound similar to “gene.”For Dawkins, memes were cultural analogies of genes – replicators that, like genes, are subjected to competition, selection, and variation; and like genes, only those that are suited to their (cultural) environment survive, while those that are not suited will die off. Cultural artifacts that Dawkins found to be examples of memes were fashion, musical tunes, and catchphrases. The only true difference between Dawkins’ and the current, memetic definition is the clear biologic theoretical analogy. This biologic metaphor, however, has certainly created an issue in the critical study and analysis of memes.

While the definition of meme makes them the cultural equivalent to the biological gene, it also, whether purposefully or inadvertently, makes them analogous to viruses (Schifman 11). Taking an epidemiological model, the meme-as-virus analogy views memes as infectious agents, which is problematic because it conceptualizes human interaction with memes as passive – vectors of trivial media infecting an unsuspecting host of humanity. Another model places more of an active role on the individual, not as a host, but as a participating actor in the creation and dissemination of memes. Rosaria Conte, in her “Memes through (social) minds” chapter of Darwinizing Culture (2000), is one of the first to suggest such a model. For Conte, the model of meme-as-virus does not account for the decision-making on the terms of the individual – mechanisms such as emotional expression, belief, and social conformity. In this new model, the questions concerning memes are not centered on their residence in the brain but how they’re implemented in the mind, or more simply put, not how a meme infects the individual’s brain, but how the individual interacts with the meme.[3] Henry Jenkins, and colleagues, employ a model that also focuses on the activity of the individual. His model, termed as a spreadable model, “emphasizes the activity of consumers – or what Grant McCracken calls “multipliers” – in shaping the circulation of media content, often expanding potential meanings and opening up brands to unanticipated new markets. Rather than emphasizing the direct replication of ‘memes’, a spreadable model assumes that the repurposing and transformation of media content adds value, allowing media content to be localized to diverse contexts of use.”[4] This spreadable model, then, does not view the individual beholden to the meme, but the meme as currency in a cultural economy. These models then accentuate the role of individual, consumer or ‘multiplier’, in the dissemination of memes, which is a key component in the production and proliferation of internet memes.

Internet memes are not memes in the memetic sense of the term. What is being examined here is the re-appropriated term “meme” employed by the participants of internet culture. These kinds of memes are considered by memeticists to be short-lived fads, an idea expressed in a mixed media – usually in some combination of text, image, movement, and/or audio. The application of this appropriated term “meme” is for observable content like YouTube videos and humorous images. It is very unlikely, according to those like Conte, that these memes will have serious cultural impact or even the shelf-life enjoyed by memes in the memetic, academic sense of the term.[5] Certainly, then, this raises questions of why one would give any cultural, or critical, importance to these short-lived, faddish, digital memes. The answer is arguable in two different points. First, in a reassertion of the opening point of this paper – that as more culture becomes digitized, the more dire a need for critical examination of these objects becomes; and two, despite assertions by “serious” memeticists, there is actual value in these memes, because, as any internet user will immediately tell you, they reflect current and immediate social and cultural emotions, moods, and desires. As Schifman points out, “Internet memes can be treated as (post)modern folklore, in which shared norms and values are constructed through cultural artifacts such as Photoshopped images or urban legends” (15). Most criticism on memes, particularly digital memes, focuses on their distribution and dissemination from person to person, such as the three properties of meme dissemination that Dawkins developed. That is not the focus of this paper. What is the focus here is the meme and its relation to the individual. In this way I am defining an internet meme as a digital item composed of mixed media, containing awareness of its position within an eco-system of similar digital content, created, distributed, imitated, and transformed across the internet by multiple users.[6] That idea brings up another important point, the specific genre of memes being analyzed here. ‘Internet meme’ is merely an umbrella term applied to large swaths of viral internet cultural objects – from photoshop images, to YouTube videos, to gifs. It would be untenable for a single paper to thoroughly analyze internet memes in their entirety, with all their various genres, as fetish. What may prove true for one kind of meme, a gif or YouTube video, may not prove true for another, such as a photoshopped image.

Figure 1.

Instead, I will narrow the focus of analysis here to internet memes that are single image, image-based, whether that be an image macro (Figure 1) or a screenshot of Twitter or Tumblr.[7] In analyzing these memes, I hope to emphasize the importance of singular images, as well as the uniqueness inherent to these kinds of memes. What is being analyzed are the qualities of memes that cause an individual to save them, hold onto them, removing them, in a sense, from circulation. A key aspect of these memes, arguably, is their humor. As previously stated, these memes are marked as identifying with the user, which causes them to be saved, and humor is the means through which this identification takes place. This paper is not concerned with virality of internet memes at all, and in some way, hopes to argue against internet memes as a biologic analogy, reconceptualizing the internet meme as an object of memory. Finally, there are other types of memes that exist which will not be analyzed in the course of the paper. Schifman discusses a few of them in her “Meme Genres” chapter in Memes in Digital Culture: flash mobs, lip-synch, misheard lyrics, and recut trailers.

In addition to defining the meme, and connecting the meme with the concept of fetish, the characteristics of the fetish require analysis as well.[8] The first key concept of the fetish is an irreducible materiality. All fetishes have a material embodiment – their value is tied to this materiality.  All senses of the term fetish – Marxist commodity fetish, psychoanalytical sexual fetish, and modernism’s fetish as art – are bound to the essentiality of the object’s materiality. This immediately presents a problem for memes, because there is no immediate, material tangibility to them, or any other meme – they originate digitally. The question then becomes whether a fetish can exist that has transcended materiality? The answer, I believe, is yes. As artifacts turn to the digital, they have a less tangible existence but still maintain a presence.[9] While there is undeniably an element of fetish that is tied to the material, the cultural concept of fetish would hardly disappear in a fully digital world.

Figure 2.

A second important characteristic of the fetish is that of the theme of singularity and repetition. In this characteristic, singularity has two meanings. The first is singular in the sense of a singular object. Pietz states that a fetish object is an object that “has brought together previously heterogeneous elements into a novel identity” (Pietz 7). From this, we understand that a fetish is always a composite object. This does not only refer to the material components of the fetish object, but also refers to the desires and beliefs and narrative structures establishing a practice which are fixed (or fixated) by the fetish (7). There is another sense to the singular, however, which is the singularity of the event. Fetishes are structured so that they are fixated on a unique, singular event. It is this idea of fixation resulting in repetitive compulsion which structures desire that is so specific to the psychoanalytic sexual fetish. In this way, the fetish object’s identity is tied to the repetitive fixation from the singular event. In relation to memes, the event is the moment of readability. When one encounters a meme, they read it, and should they relate to it, there is a moment of recognition and relation. A new identity is created in a sense, articulated from the mood or idea expressed by the meme. The viewer’s identity is at once remade as well as reaffirmed. They would then save it – either on their phone, laptop, or tablet – for the direct of purpose of being able to refer again to it, reaffirming this ‘new’ identity. The moment of fixation in this case is the moment that this ‘new’ identity came into being with the original reading of the meme. Presenting a concrete example, Figure 2 – the image is a screenshot from Tumblr, featuring a character from Thomas the Tank Engine with a dissatisfied expression on his face. The look of dissatisfaction is recognized by those of the internet which appropriate the image for their own mood. The evolution from homework to daily expression depicts the evolution of identification from a specific situation to personal characteristic.

The last two characteristics of the fetish are ultimately linked together – the theme of social value and the theme of personal individuality. Personal individuality is highly relevant because the fetish object is a deeply personal one. It is only a fetish when a material object’s power is established through the relation of desire and identity linked by the person, “experienced as a substantial movement from ‘inside’ the self…into the self-limited morphology of a material object situated in space ‘outside’” (11-12). So, we can recognize the fetish as one’s own identity projected onto a solid, material object which then is used for the personal purposes of the individual. What occurs in the interaction between object and individual is that the fetish is used as a catalyst to recall the identity of the self being ‘touched’ – the moment of ‘crisis’ – which results in the identity of the self being called into questioned or put at risk by this encounter with something outside itself. It is these crisis moments of singular encounter which become fixed, as the personal memories retain power over the individual. These encounters are stripped of all symbolic value – perhaps because such encounters lack any adequate formal code to transform them into meaningful communications or coherent narrations. Additionally, and paradoxically because of this degradation from any recognizable value code, the fixating encounter becomes a crisis moment of infinite value, expressing the sheer incommensurable togetherness of the living existence of the personal self and the living otherness of the material world. Memes occupy a space within internet culture, and the usage of them has resulted in a form of cultural capital.[10] While the images are free to create and have no value inherently, an individual who can accurately reflect the cultural moment through the use of memes themselves reflects this “objective illusion” inherent to the social value aspect of the fetish. Individuals collect, create, modify and share memes as a means of both expressing the personal and driving a social value that is well beyond the value of its components.

Pietz says that there are four fundamental categories linked to the fetish: historicization, territorialization, reification, and personalization. Fixation upon the singular event drives the historicization. The linking of the fetish object with the singular event, in this case the meme and the original reading moment, marks the object as a ‘historical’ object. This historical object is territorialized in material space – presented in the form of either geographic location, a site on the human body, or a medium of meaning through a portable or wearable thing. The phone is the obvious representation of this concept. This historical object is territorialized in ‘reification’: some moveable property or shape whose status is that of a self-contained entity identifiable within the territory. Its status as an object of social value within systems of a given society is what marks it as a recognizable, discrete thing – a res, according to Pietz. And personalized because of the deeply personal response that the object evokes.

Metz says that “fetishes exist in the world as material objects that ‘naturally’ embody socially significant values that touch one or more individuals in an intensely personal way: a flag, monument, or landmark; a talisman, medicine-bundle, or sacramental object; an earring, tattoo, or cockade; a city, village, or nation; a shoe, lock of hair, or phallus; a Giacometti sculpture or Duchamp’s Large Glass” (13-14). The very idea that a (cultural) object could make an individual identify with it, in sense extending their own identity onto said object, marks it as deeply personal. He also states that “the fetish is precisely not a material signifier referring beyond itself, but acts as a material space gathering an otherwise unconnected multiplicity into the unity of its enduring singularity” (15). Thus, the fetish is meant to be an entirely self-contained object, holding value ascribed to it by the individual. An example of this is in Figure 3.  The composition of this meme, two tweets together, literally refer to the image of the in the center. The composition creates an encapsulation of adorableness beyond that of the image itself – the encapsulation itself now a token to be coveted.

            Now that we understand the fetish a bit better, and have somewhat related it to internet memes, we turn to solidify the place of memes as fetish through a comparative analysis with photography and its interpretation as fetish.[11] The first thing to note is the spacio-temporal size of the lexis – the socialized unit of reading. The cinematic lexis is a gigantic amalgamation of images, sounds, and movement. The time required for its reception is predetermined by the length of the film. These two aspects are not so for the photographic lexis – a silent rectangular image, whose reading time has no set temporal duration. Between these two different kinds of lexis, the memetic lexis is most similar to that of the photographic – a rectangular silent image, whose reading time is not temporally predetermined. Another difference between film and photography is the literal, social use between the cinematic and the photographic. Film has been associated with entertainment or art as determined by both the work itself and the social group. This perception of film as art in turn associates film with fiction. While photography can also be art (and fiction), the accessibility of photography givens it a presumed relationship to the real and the private. Film and collectivity, photography and privacy. In such a dichotomy, the memes would seem to occupy a medium space. The literal social use of memes “is to pledge allegiance to your in-group… seen as a public declaration of your political positions and cultural identity, and, increasingly, an invitation for people with opposing viewpoints to come sass (or harass) you in the comments.”[12] Memes are already objects that are based in collectively, produced and spread by a multitude of people, like movies or TV. This harkens back to the already-discussed model of memes-as-viruses: they arise and spread. Despite this, image-based memes in particular share the deeply personal nature of the fetish object, as well as sharing the ability to be saved. As such, they have the potential to be like photographs – objects that are to be kept like a souvenir or a keepsake, a memento or memento (Metz 82).

            As previously discussed, the fetish need not be iconic. Metz says, “Peirce called indexical the process of signification in which the signifier is bound to the referent not by a social convention (= ‘symbol’), not by some similarity (= ‘icon’), but by an actual contiguity or connection in the world: the lighting is the index of the storm” (82). Metz argues that both film and photography are similar in that they are both indexical. He also says Peirce considered photography to be both index and icon, since it is a print of something real. Are memes indexical or symbolic? Metz says that Peirce considers photography to be both index and icon. Photograph is “closer to the pure index, stubbornly pointing to the print of what was, but no longer is” (83). Memes also lie between index and icon. They are frequently indices to emotion, such as in Figure 1 where the image shows a sense of disgust that the individual connects with internally.

            The last difference that Metz goes to compare is the difference in the nature of both expressions in film and photography. Film consists of both auditory and visual perception – a series of photographs, sound bites, and movement. Photography, on the other hand, is silent and immobile. Now memes in the full sense can include both visual and auditory components, such as can be found in flash mobs, lip synchs, and recut trailers.[13] Memes of concern here, however, share with the photograph the quality of being a single, silent image.

            It is these two aspects of photography – silence and immobility – which causes Metz to then turn the relation of death and the photograph. Photography is linked to death through the cultural practice of keeping photographs in memory of loved ones who are no longer alive. While Metz interprets this through the lens of death, I will focus more on the idea of memory. Here I want to repurpose the concept of the meme. Schifman, in his history of the term, states that in 1870 Austrian sociologist Ewald Hering coined a similar term to signify cultural evolution, “die Mneme.” This term, also derived from Greek, came from mneme, meaning memory (Schifman 10). Despite ‘meme’ originally having a cultural equivalent of biology, a critical reconceptualization of meme in relation to memory would fit better with the understanding that internet memes are seen as a reflection of social moods or idea – holding a memory of a sort – but also as fetish object, being a holder of a specific moment of repetition. In relation to this, Metz compares photography to a mirror – one that is more faithful than any actual mirror because it records our aging while a mirror changes with us. Memes are thus also mirrors, ones that reflect immediately the current social and cultural emotions, moods, and desires.

            A third aspect that Metz says photography has with death is that the snapshot, like death, ushers an object into another kind of world. “[Philippe] Dubois remarks that with each photograph, a tiny piece of time brutally and forever escapes its ordinary fate, and thus is protected against its own loss…the fetish, too, means both loss (symbolic castration) and protection against loss” (Metz 84). When one saves a meme, are they not cutting it off from the rest of the world, and in a sense saving it from their eventual fate of dying off? The saved meme is cut off from the cultural ecosystem, but it is the cultural ecosystem which will eventually kill it. Metz presents that film could be said to give back a sense of life to the dead, while photography “by virtue of the objective suggestions of its signifier (stillness, again) maintains the memory of the dead as being dead” (84). Memes are like the photograph in that they maintain the memory, but they also reassert their own demise. In an attempt to save the meme from death, are we not also hastening it on its way? The very act of saving the meme, turning it from an immediate and salient representation of a cultural moment into a saved image on one’s phone is nothing more than a pinned fly under glass. Like the photograph, the image-based meme is a cut off piece of space and time, paradoxically immortal but also dead.

            Metz explicitly discusses the psychoanalytic sexual fetish – the role of the fetish in this sense is to arrest the look, disavowing the child’s awareness that not all people have penises. The fetish thus operates in dual meanings – metonymically, it alludes to the nearby place of lack, and metaphorically, acting as an equivalent to the penis, as the primordial displacement of the look and it replacing an absence by a presence (86). Despite not being interested in the fetish in the psychoanalytic sense, it raises the question of whether memes can operate metonymically and metaphorically. A meme, metonymically refers to the expression of emotion that it indexes while metaphorically it represents an overcoming or mastery of that same emotion: self-awareness as self-mastery.

             What is markedly different about memes is that there is no off-frame space. Both film and photography have, according to Metz, off-frame space. For film, off-frame is part of the temporal flow, one object or character on frame in one moment may be out of frame a moment later. For photography, someone or something off-frame will never enter the frame. This, according to Metz, lends to the sense of lack found in the Freudian theory of the fetish. It is this off-frame aspect, for Metz, that fits into the (Freudian) fetish, figuring castration, where the look is averted forever. Thus, the photograph shares the “properties of the fetish (as object), if not directly of fetishism (as activity)” (87). Memes, in this case of comparison, have no off-frame space, implied or otherwise. A meme is a closed unit of presence, reflecting the mood of the one who saves it.

Film cannot be contained, both in the sense of its ‘more-than-a-moment’-ness and at the time Metz wrote this (1986), he talked of only being able to hold the reels. He says that “A fetish has to be kept, mastered, held, like the photograph in the pocket” (87). A meme, despite being digital, allows for this tangibility. You can hold on to it, save it, master it, keep it in your pocket (on your phone). Film is an activator of fetishism. It mimes the displacement of the look with the seen absence, despite the nearby presence. Memes do not have this. They are not activators of fetishism. They do not mime anything. They merely are fetish objects. Because of film’s largeness, it allows us to experience and believe in many things at once. Photography is able to limit our attention, hone it onto one thing, a single object, and concentrate our attention. The same is true of memes. It focuses on the mood or idea it is attempting to represent or evoke.

The last thing, in a comparative discussion of photography, that should be brought up in relation to the meme as fetish concept is Barthes’ idea of the punctum. Barthes presents two concepts in his reflections on photography, Camera Lucida – the studium and the punctum. The studium is the cultural denotation of a photograph that allows the viewer to participate: figures, faces, gestures, settings, and actions in the photograph (Barthes 26).  For Barthes, “the studium is that very wide field of unconcerned desire, of various interest, of inconsequential taste: I like / I don’t like. The studium is of the order of liking, not of loving; it mobilizes a half desire, a demi-volition; it is the same sort of vague, slippery, irresponsible interest one takes in the people, the entertainments, the books, the clothes one finds ‘all right’” (27). It is the studium which most of internet memes consist of. An internet user might encounter a meme – an image macro, in the instance of our discussions of images – laugh, share it, or alter it and share it, and then move on. It is the punctum which is so key to the concept of memes as fetish.  The punctum – so named because it stings or pricks the viewer – is the one aspect, or detail, which draws the viewer’s attention and holds it. This is the deeply personal component which is so essential to the fetish. In the meme it is a specific element which relates the mood or idea of the meme which allows the viewer to identify it, which makes them want to save, capture, and master it. If we return to Figure 1, this might be the image of the Thomas the Tank Engine character. Or it might be something less concrete, the image with text – ‘I look like this’. Whatever the case, it is the punctum of the meme which causes the viewer to save it.

            The discussion here of the internet meme as fetish is certainly not complete. Only tentative steps have been taken towards the idea of internet meme as fetish. Further analysis should branch off from this analyzing the additional ways that the changes in technology have impacted previous arguments defining what sorts of objects could constitute a fetish. For example, what Metz said of film was that because the film itself is unholdable it could not be a fetish – however, phones can now be “held” virtually on phones and as posts in social media. Additionally, social media posts themselves provide a certain physicality which could be analyzed in terms of the physicality of the fetish, the sensory experience now being attached to the “virtual self” of the social media profiles, timelines, blogs, and stories. However, by providing a deeper focus on the most proximal genre of meme to the photograph, the definition of fetish was incrementally expanded while simultaneously introducing the internet meme as a cultural artifact that merits critical interpretation and analysis.[14]

Works Cited

Hanson, Jarice. “Meme”. The Social Media Revolution : An Economic Encyclopedia of Friending, Following, Texting, and Connecting. ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2016.

Barthes, Roland., and Geoff. Dyer. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Pbk. ed., Hill and Wang, 2010.

Metz, Christian. “Photography and Fetish.” October, vol. 34, 1985, pp. 81–90.

Pietz, William. “The Problem of the Fetish, I.” Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics, vol. 9, no. 1, 1985, pp. 5–17.

Shifman, Limor. Memes in Digital Culture. The MIT Press, 2013.

Figures and Examples

Figure 1, “Evil Cows – They tipped us in our sleep. We burned them in their beds.”, Know Your Meme, https://knowyourmeme.com/photos/310347-evil-cows.

Figure 2, “Thomas the Tank Engine – Do you ever just look at your homework like this?”, Know Your Meme, https://knowyourmeme.com/photos/1121250-thomas-the-tank-engine.

Figure 3, “I’ll die for it too”, Imgur, https://imgur.com/gallery/cQDW6zc.

[1] This question is one that arises out of Christian Metz’s essay, “Photography and Fetish”, in which he examines the forms of film and photography as they relate to the fetish and fetishism. Stating at the end of his essay, “After this long digression, I turn back to my topic and purpose, only to state that they could be summed up in one sentence: film is more capable of playing on fetishism, photography more capable of itself becoming a fetish” (90).

[2] Dawkins presents three basic properties that allow memes to successfully spread – longevity, fecundity, and copy fidelity.

[3] See “Memes through (social) minds”.

[4] See “Memes through (social) minds”.

[5] This feeling is expressed by Michele Knobel and Collin Lankshear in the opening of their chapter in their co-edited book, A New Literacies Sampler. See their chapter, “Online Memes, Affinities, and Cultural Production”.

[6] I choose to break with Schifman’s definition where she defines an internet meme as “a group of digital items sharing common characteristics of content, form, and/or stance” (41). I can’t argue the inherent intertextuality of internet memes. For the purpose of considering meme as fetish, however, a meme does not, and rarely does I believe, need to be part of a group.

[7] Image macros are understood to be memes that feature a picture with superimposed text. The most common type of image macro is text centered on both the top and the bottom of the meme, the image in the center being understood by internet users to signify a specific joke or context. An example of an image macro would be the “Evil Cows” meme, which is an advice animal meme – a group of memes that feature animals with captions to represent the archetype that fits their respective roles as stock characters. The caption for this type of image macro is first-person confessions of revenge, usually including some reference to either the farming or fast food industries. For more information, see “Evil Cows” on knowyourmeme.com.

[8] All characteristics of the fetish presented here are based on Pietz’s discussion of fetishism in his essay “Problem of the Fetish”.

[9] Perhaps a pun on the psychoanalytic fetish which places importance on the concept of presence.

[10] Schifman turns to the work done by Asaf Nissenboim, who studied memetic practices on 4chan, an internet forum website where users post content anonymously. See Nissenboim’s “Lurk More, It’s Never Enough: Memes as Social Capital on 4chan”

[11] Obviously, this section relies on Christian Metz’s analysis of the fetish in relation to film and photography.

[12] Angela Watercutter and Emma Grey Ellis, “The Wired Guide to Memes”, Wired, April 1, 2018, https://www.wired.com/story/guide-memes/.

[13] See “Meme Genres” in Memes in Digital Culture

[14] The expansion was, at least I hope, in the material characteristic of the fetish, to included the digital.

Kaitlyn Medina: Broken Pitchers and Glass Houses

Kaitlyn Medina, University of Bayreuth,
MA, Intercultural Anglophone Studies

Kaitlyn Medina is currently pursuing her M.A. in intercultural anglophone studies in literature from the University of Bayreuth in Germany. Her research focus is on space, place, and movement in postcolonial and diaspora literature. She completed her B.A. in English literature at Regis University, during which she presented at multiple National Undergraduate Literature Conferences and the Metro State Literature Conference. She graduated summa cum laude in 2013 before traveling to Ghana, where she established a nonprofit organization called Untold International, which is focused on development and empowerment through literacy, literature, and language. She lives with her husband, Brady, and a stuffed mammoth named Martha in Bayreuth, Germany.


Nebulous and abstract, the concepts of both ‘home’ and ‘belonging’ exist somewhat elusively, always somehow limited when put to a definition. Yet for those at home in their belonging, the need to categorically define their status exists somewhere between the hypothetical and the absurd. Perhaps this is why these concepts resonate so centrally for writers of diasporic fiction and their hybrid characters – like Mukherjee’s titular Jasmine and Lahiri’s Gogol Ganguli. Indeed, rather than defining home as a delineated place and belonging as inclusivity, diasporic literatures question the very fabric of what it means to be at home, where home is, and who gets to belong.

Through a multifaceted comparative analysis of these two migratory novels, it’s clear that both The Namesake and Jasmine resist easy definitions of home and belonging, preferring instead to take a critical look at the way spaces and places arbitrate constructions of identity and belonging for the hybridized navigators of diasporic experience. While Gogol is legally an American citizen, as much a native of New England as the US itself, his unwieldy identity simultaneously constricts and enables him; he is an architect un-homed by his own interstitial self. Jasmine, on the other hand, presents a paradoxically unimpeachable identity to a vast and ambivalent world, constructing a home within herself that withstands the violent whims of fate, of movement, of multiplicities of belonging. I argue that it is exactly the often uncomfortable navigation evinced by these protagonists that must be entered into if true homes are to be built, belonging to all, and all belonging within.

Broken Pitchers and Lake Houses: Constructions of Home and Belonging in the Diasporic Narratives of Bharati Mukherjee’s Jasmine and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake

1.     Defining Home & Belonging

            Arguably two of the most widely-understood universal concepts, both home and belonging nevertheless evade precise definitions. Nebulous and abstract, they exist somewhat elusively, illusory in their lexical concreteness, always somehow limited when put to a definition. Ask a colleague or stranger if they know what home means and they’ll answer “of course.” A question about belonging, though slightly less defined, would elicit a similar response. However, when pressed for specifics, these definitions quickly lose some of the depth and breadth of the feelings they evoke; home, for example, may be defined as the specific building or place where one belongs, and belonging may be defined circularly as the place where one feels at home. For many, it seems the feedback loop of these loose interpretations is sufficient, and after all why shouldn’t it be? The necessity of defining these terms seems tenuous or downright absent for those who never confront the mutability of their abstraction; in other words, for those who are at home in their belonging, the need to categorically define their status exists somewhere between the hypothetical and the absurd. To go a step further, it seems that those for whom the questions of home and belonging are most potent are precisely those who find themselves always outside the conventional definitions.

            Perhaps this is why these questions resonate so centrally for writers of diasporic fiction and their hybrid characters – particularly those characters who straddle not only their plural identities, but who also often bridge the blurred boundaries between fiction and biography. After all, as noted socio-spatial scholar David Sibley suggests, “the boundaries of society are continually redrawn to distinguish between those who belong and those who, because of some perceived cultural difference, are deemed to be out of place” (qtd. in Schröder 31). This “out of place” aspect of diaspora literatures is key to the spatial remapping that must be done both in and outside the literature; that is, the reconceptualization and construction of home and belonging is important work both for the characters and their real-world counterparts. To some extent, even the novels themselves function as defined spaces in which this construction can take place. This meta-boundary transgression helps to deconstruct conceptions of home as a delineated place, and belonging as inclusivity; rather, diasporic literatures call into question the very fabric of what it means to be at home, where home is, and who gets to belong.

            For the sake of this essay, I will use Nicole Schröder’s ideal conceptualization of home, established in her dissertation on Spaces and Places in Motion, which pairs distinction with exchange between interior and exterior spaces, and necessarily maintains porous borders and thresholds:

Such a place would be protective but not necessarily exclusive, as the ‘threshold between [its] interior and exterior, between self and other’ remains open and furthers exchange and dialogue rather than separation and division. It would not only be the ideal place for thinking openly, it would also be a place to leave, a place that has the potential to lead elsewhere to different perspectives and different ways of thinking. Homecoming would then be as much about oneself coming home as about inviting the other, the outside world coming there, too. (35-6)

Significantly, Schröder also avoids characterizing this notion of home as being the “one true place” of the self, thereby allowing for a multiplicity of spatial negotiations for a single conceptualization of self, as well as leaving room for a plurality of truths that can (and often do) contribute to a construction of home. While even this comprehensive understanding of home is still incomplete,[1] it represents a good foundational definition from which to explore the concept of belonging.

As with the concept of home, belonging is necessarily ambiguous, functioning as a barometer of how connected an individual is with the space through which they move. The interplay between space and belonging is difficult to overstate, as both spaces and the people in those spaces exert an influence over each other, simultaneously constructing and challenging meaning, belonging, and identity. Schröder suggests that “people do not simply and passively live ‘in’ a place or ‘in’ a culture – it is people and their various practices that create and maintain places as well as cultures” (28-9). Similarly, the ways in which people create and maintain places (and the social spaces that constitute cultures) help to construct the meaning of belonging in those places. Despite the fluidity of identity construction and the adaptability of people to modify themselves in different spaces, or otherwise influence the dynamics of the spaces they move through, there is no denying the fact that different spaces belong differently to different groups of people or individuals, as  Schröder discusses in her exploration of the exclusionary conceptualization of nations. However, as I will show in my analysis of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, nationality and citizenship are not the gatekeepers to belonging; nor, as I will show through my analysis of Bharati Mukherjee’s Jasmine, does immigrant status prohibit individuals by default from taking ownership over the spaces they inhabit, molding them(selves) into belonging.

2.     Gogol and the Burden of Belonging in The Namesake

Despite being a natural-born American citizen, Gogol Ganguli nonetheless struggles in creating a meaningful space in which he belongs. While this may be attributed partially to his fractured identity (‘Gogol’ to his family and, significantly, the reader; ‘Nikhil’ to the rest of the world), it can also reasonably be connected to his plurality of potential homes. Gogol moves through spaces tentatively, not fully believing in the legitimacy of his claim on his own self-creation. Occupying the liminal space between his parents’ Bengali heritage and his younger sister Sonia’s “true American”-ness, Gogol constantly negotiates his place in the world, slowly and often uncomfortably carving a niche for himself into the narrative of diasporic experience.

Critical theorist and South Asian diaspora scholar Aparajita De calls the process “polygenesis,” or the “continual refashioning that characterizes diasporic identity” (De 183). She goes on to assert that “identity is inflected by multiple socio-cultural and political forces that shape and reshape it. Thus, identity is always in a state of flux; it is a continual birthing process resulting in the evolution of the self under diverse contexts” (183). This multiplicity and fluctuation of contexts influencing the creation of the self only further compounds the complexity of creating a space of belonging, or home. Indeed, Gogol’s identities dissect his spaces of belonging from an early age. Early in the novel, a young Gogol veers sharply toward the “Americanness” of his school peers, an inclination shown in his meal tastes: after all, it is at Gogol’s insistence that his mother “makes him an American dinner once a week as a treat, Shake ‘n Bake chicken or Hamburger Helper prepared with ground lamb” (Lahiri 65). Later, during his long deliberation over whether or not to legally change his name, Gogol reminds himself “that it was a right belonging to every American citizen,” and that “tens of thousands of Americans had their names changed each year” (99). Teetering on the cusp of adulthood, Gogol nevertheless must reassure himself that it is his right – a right belonging to him, in fact – and that he is not alone in wanting to change his identity. From the foods he chooses to consume to exerting his own will over his identity, Gogol finds himself constantly negotiating the world of his American nationality and the world of his parents’ firm, if slightly foreign, Bengali customs.

This early struggle to feel at home in either of his identities foregrounds Gogol’s later listlessness in the spaces he occupies. During his relationship with Maxine, for example, he acts as observer and performer, though he is simultaneously desirous of the easy inclusion the Ratliffs enjoy together and hyper aware of the differences in his own family. He notes, with some guilt, “that his immersion in Maxine’s family is a betrayal of his own,” partially because “Gerald and Lydia are secure in a way his parents will never be” (141). Although the affluent New York family appeals to him because of their ease of opportunity and appreciation of the sensuousness of experiences (the sumptuousness of their meals and wine, as well as the historic rootedness of their brownstone house all hearken back to Gogol’s earlier predilection for choosing pleasure the way Americans do), there is also an element of belonging underscoring his time with Maxine.

During their trip to the Ratliffs’ cabin, for instance, Gogol observes that “[t]he family seems to possess every piece of the landscape, not only the house itself but every tree and blade of grass” (154-5), later going so far as to assert that “[t]he Ratliffs own the moon that floats over the lake, and the sun and the clouds” (155). This heady praise stems not from idolatry, but rather from a wistful desire to be as closely tied to certain spaces as the people with whom he finds himself in company. Although a member of their party, Gogol nevertheless retains something of a visitor status, never fully integrating into the lush world the Ratliffs present him. Perhaps this is because each time he falls into a moment of wishful reverie about the various spaces the family occupies, Gogol immediately draws comparisons to his own family, his own upbringing, thinking “of the alarm system now installed in his parents’ house, [he] wonders why they cannot relax about their physical surroundings in the same way” (155). Although he doesn’t name it, the disappointment Gogol feels at his own family’s insecurity in their own space stems from a deeper awareness of their un-belonging, being outsiders in a strange land despite occupying a space that, “to a casual observer, […] appear[s] no different from their neighbors” (64). Having inherited the shadows and echoes of the immigrant experience without the personal context needed to anchor them into meaning, Gogol drifts through his own spaces begrudgingly carrying the weight of a history for which “[h]e feels no nostalgia” (155). Indeed, even in moments of borrowed disconnection in which he plays at the life which comes so naturally to his hosts, Gogol cannot help but feel the tug of familial obligation, memories encroaching at the periphery of the perfect spaces through which he is only ever passing, influenced without influencing, waiting to belong.

It is into this oddly pure liminal space that a particular memory crowds to the front of Gogol’s subconscious – of vacations spent with his own family and faceless other Bengali families, the chaotic banality of which he mistakenly feels cheated him of the peaceful play to which, under the Ratliffs’ WASP-y influence, he begins to feel entitled. He recalls how

Some summers there had been road trips with one or two Bengali families, in rented vans, going to Toronto or Atlanta or Chicago, places where they had other Bengali friends. The fathers would be huddled at the front, taking turns at the wheel, consulting maps highlighted by AAA. All the children would sit in the back with plastic tubs of aloo dum and cold flattened luchis wrapped in foil, fried the day before, which they would stop in state parks to eat on picnic tables. They had stayed in motels, slept whole families to a single room, swum in pools that could be seen from the road. (155)

Understood in the context of his reflections on the way the Ratliffs’ have ownership over every aspect of their space, Gogol’s memories offer something of a foil to his present experience. As opposed to the Ratliffs, the Gangulis were forced to travel in “rented” vehicles, sharing cold (Bengali) lunches in the vast land of state parks owned by the nation with whom Gogol shares a tenuous legalistic link. Perhaps these memories act as a kind of synecdoche – or perhaps the synecdoche is Gogol himself – once again squished into the backseat of vans they didn’t own, sleeping on beds and floors that weren’t theirs, sharing their swimming bodies with other nameless strangers. Gogol’s past is crowded with the memory of being a part of a larger whole, but a whole to which he never felt a sense of belonging or of ownership.

            While Maxine’s world ultimately also offers no real space for him, it still offers a key insight into the ostensible “other” in The Namesake, namely (somewhat ironically) the Americans who belong. While De argues that cultural dislocation in the dominant culture results in a “sense of alienation” leading to “inner conflicts and uncertainty about belonging to any one space of cultural identity,” the Ratliffs seem to feel no qualms about their place in the world (185). Gogol notes, after visiting the small family graveyard that “this is a place that will always be here for her” (Lahiri 156). Maxine is completely at home in her life, in herself, and in the spaces she inhabits with her parents. Lahiri never explains the story of how the Ratliffs acquired the spaces they’ve taken such effortless ownership of, and to a large extent, it doesn’t matter. In keeping with the mythos of the nation itself, Americans belong in uniquely American spaces simply by the self-fulfilling fact of belonging, since time immemorial, and forever as far as one can imagine. However, Gogol, still a little unsure of himself in an American identity that doesn’t quite fit him (or that he doesn’t quite fit into – the novel is unspecific), can’t help but look for the cracks in the spaces where there might be a place for him, or perhaps searching for a blurred boundary that offers entry as well as exit.

After all, when Maxine offers Gogol a way out from the “all this” that characterizes the disjointed displacement of his life, rather than move with her into the clean, uncomplicated space of New Hampshires, brownstones, and lake houses, Gogol significantly rejects the opportunity: “I don’t want to get away” (182). It’s a significant choice. By refusing to cross the threshold Maxine presents him, Gogol begins the process of reconciling his disparate halves that he rejected earlier. De suggests that “[b]y rejecting the interpellation ‘Gogol,’ we may say that Gogol resists from the beginning the realization of his self within any culture” (De 187). Indeed, his departure from the world of the Ratliffs simultaneously signals his reentry into his “home” world, understood here to mean simply the world of his family, and a closer proximity to the house in which he grew up. Shortly after this return, he embarks on his next relationship, this time a short-lived marriage to fellow Bengali-American Moushumi, wherein Gogol cleaves somewhat to his Bengali heritage and finds that, too, lacking.

In Gogol’s failed marriage, Lahiri seems to be anticipating the criticism The Namesake would eventually receive from Indian academics, and resists the temptation to polemicize either Maxine or Moushumi. And indeed, the temptation exists to neatly wrap Gogol’s experiences up by proffering, as do Shipra Malik and Anupriya Singh, that while “[f]or diasporic people home is a very fluid concept which changes its meaning along with the prevailing mindset of the person, […] in any case they should not forget their real identity and culture which are the base and foundation of [their] being, [their] true self” (Malik and Singh 354). The temptation is so great, in fact, that Gogol himself seems drawn to remember his “real culture” by entering into a quasi-traditional marriage to Moushumi.

However, like Gogol, Moushumi exists in the interstitial zone of the diaspora; unlike Gogol, she faces gender-specific expectations that color her experiences of both Indian and European/American hemispheres of her identity. For Moushumi, the return to her “roots” (if they can be called that) represents a kind of self-betrayal, while for Gogol the return represents making amends for earlier betrayals. On the subject of marriage their similarities noticeably diverge: “She had always been admonished not to marry an American, as had he, but he gathers that in her case the warnings had been relentless, and had therefore plagued her far more than they had him” (Lahiri 213). This becomes clear when Moushumi remembers how “[b]y the time she was twelve she had made a pact, with two other Bengali girls she knew, never to marry a Bengali man” (213). This act of rebellion, remembered to Gogol decades later, suggests the impact gender can have on otherwise remarkably similar lives. Within the small community of Bengali immigrants in which both Gogol and Moushumi grew up, there was a smaller, more secret sect of girls banding together to overthrow the gendered expectations foisted upon them by relatives. Lahiri’s subtle nods throughout the novel to the gender divide within diasporic communities like Gogol’s suggests the complexities of looking for a place to belong among shared immigrant experiences. In her comparative analysis of the novel, Sue Brennan argues that “[i]n creating a spatiotemporal context for the articulation of model minority-hood, Lahiri does specify gendered modes of subjectification through which Ashima and Ashoke are assimilated into the nation” (Brennan 7). Although Brennan’s focus is on Gogol’s parents, the gendered subjectification she discusses also applies to the different ways in which Gogol and Moushumi navigate the interstitial zones of their identities, and the ways in which they come to belong in their spaces.

Interestingly, when Gogol and Moushumi marry, she refuses to change her last name, signifying how, unlike Gogol, her reclamation of her identity comes not through choosing to change her name, but rather not to change it. In keeping her maiden name, Moushumi interlinks her identity with the spaces she occupies:

Her own last name, Mazoomdar, is already a mouthful. With a hyphenated surname, she would no longer fit into the window of a business envelope. Besides, by now she has begun to publish under Moushumi Mazoomdar, the name printed at the top of footnoted articles on French feminist theory in a number of prestigious academic journals that always manage to give Gogol a paper cut when he tries to read them. (Lahiri 227)

Moushumi’s surname, then, functions as a synecdoche for herself, and by preserving its prominence in the realm of business envelope windows and academic articles, she also draws a border between herself and her new husband, a protective territory into which (on pain of papercut) Gogol cannot enter. These spaces represent a hard-won victory in the battle Moushumi privately wages between the two hemispheres of her being, and, to an extent, represent the way she maintains the home-space she has created within the irreconcilability of her identities. Perhaps it is too tender to suggest that Gogol is merely a victim of Moushumi’s war with her own pluralism, as he is certainly not immune to the same gendered subjectification that plagues his wife; however, the end result remains the same. Gogol again finds himself a visitor in a place that he had intended to be a home, once again rendered observer to a space whose borders are impregnable.

            This becomes uncomfortably apparent when, at one of the dinner parties they attend at friends’ houses, both Gogol and Moushumi commit acts of betrayal against each other – or, rather, against the identities they both project. The first betrayal comes when a friend asks Moushumi what her name means and Gogol “realizes that it’s something he’d never thought to ask about her, something he hadn’t known” (240). He notes that “[i]t bothers him, though he’s not quite sure why,” and leaves the room to explore the renovations the friends are midway through upstairs, remembering how he and Moushumi had once tried to design their ideal house: “He’d argued for something modernist, full of glass and light, but she’d wanted a brownstone like this one. In the end they’d designed something implausible […]” (240). As Gogol moves through the unfinished space of his friends’ apartment, he simultaneously moves through the spatiotemporal plane of memory, beginning subconsciously to understand the impassable thresholds by which he is currently contained. Moushumi is, in many ways, a kind of no-man’s land for Gogol, a space he suddenly understands he doesn’t recognize or know how to navigate. Both her names are foreign to him, symbolizing the cracks in the “implausible” space they’ve created together.

Interestingly, their ideal spaces also suggest what home and belonging mean to them. Moushumi values the safety and protection of closer spaces, aligning herself with the Euro-American spaces of not only New York, but also London and Paris – the places about which she “speaks with nostalgia” (212). As Schröder suggests, “nostalgia is one significant part of the notion of home” (Schröder 35). Here again we see a clear distinction between Moushumi and Gogol: she thinks of her childhood with nostalgia, while his childhood memories are devoid of the rose-tinted longing. Rather, Gogol stakes his hopes for home on the future, in his “modernist” house design, which challenges the conceptualization of walls, borders, and the boundaries of the home itself. Focusing as he does on incorporating plenty of glass into his design, he hints simultaneously at the desire to replace opacity with transparency and the recognition that even transparent walls are still walls. However, his design swings closer to Schröder’s progressive conceptualization of home, wherein there is a possibility for exchange between inside and outside.

The second betrayal, to return to an earlier point, comes when Moushumi “outs” Gogol for changing his name to Nikhil to all those present. “[U]naware of what she’s done,” Moushumi announces that Gogol changed his name when he was younger, leading Gogol to feel that his name and all it represents has “become a joke to her,” which “is what upsets him the most” (243-4). This initial faux pas foreshadows Moushumi’s later affair by establishing that aspects of the space she and Gogol share in intimacy (such as their various identities and their marriage bed) have little real weight in her eyes, and that they can be readily discarded on a whim. To some extent, this initial disclosure is a more serious infidelity than Moushumi’s affair with Dimitri, as in the covenant of their semi-arranged marriage, it is not love that is lost but rather the belonging and home they were supposed to build in each other.

After his marriage falls apart and his mother decides to return to Calcutta, Gogol, still nursing the wounds of his many bereavements, returns to the house where he grew up for a final Christmas (a custom borrowed from the America in which he grew up). At the behest of Ashima, he goes looking for his father’s camera and ends up in his old room, “with a bed he’s never shared with Moushumi, or with anyone” (287). The bed itself becomes the space to which he returns, alone, to commune with the identities he at times feels he has been loaned, perhaps because the bed is one of the few spaces he’s never had to share with anyone. Even when his father gave him the book which will become, at least for a moment, a home in which Gogol does not need to wrestle with his multiple identities, he “had stood in the doorway, just there, an arm’s reach from where he sits now” (288-9). For Gogol, the spatiotemporality of memory is always simultaneously ever-present and always just out of reach, as with his memory of his father who, precipitously, stands perched on the threshold, offering to Gogol not only a link to himself through the book, but also a link to Gogol’s own identity, and explanations that transgress the borders of time, of culture, and of self. The book, The Short Stories of Nikolai Gogol, does not share its secrets with the reader; these belong exclusively to Gogol. This is particularly significant narratologically, as Gogol has been the primary narrative focalizer since his childhood. Yet at the moment when he reconnects with the book his father left him, notably inscribed “The man who gave you his name, from the man who gave you your name,” Gogol “gets up, shuts the door to his room, […] [and] sits cross-legged on the bed” (288-9). The act of shutting the door creates a kind of enclosed space where he can enter into a conversation with the book that transcends time and place – something that is key in understanding himself and creating his own belonging. It is this act of enclosure that somehow allows Gogol to project himself into the future, anticipating his mother’s later admonitions, previewing the rest of the night in his head, before allowing himself to enter the space of the book that is his namesake.

Indeed, “[t]he in-between space that the diasporic individual occupies decentralizes specificities of the location of nationhood, culture, identity, and the construction of identity” (De 183). This liminal space also seems to decentralize time at the close of the novel, offering Gogol a peaceful glimpse into his near future – a future whose predictability he no longer resents. De suggests that “[i]t is the reconciliation with his cultural hybridity that eventually helps Gogol to comprehend his complex position within cultures,” which is what lends the final scene a sense of closure (185). The borders of time become porous, as Gogol moves simultaneously through past, present, and future, centering himself on the book which has waited for him, and on which he now hinges his hopes:

As the hours of the evening pass he will grow distracted, anxious to return to his room, to be alone, to read the book he had once forsaken, has abandoned until now. Until moments ago it was destined to disappear from his life altogether, but he has salvaged it by chance, as his father was pulled from a crushed train forty years ago. (Lahiri 290-1)

In finally accepting the book – and its indirect influence on his identity and life – Gogol begins to reconcile not only the “structural-ideological processes of (re)negotiation with the diaspora, but also […] movements and tensions within and outside the diaspora” (De 185). As Lahiri resists resorting to overly-simplistic resolutions, I will also resist suggesting that in Gogol’s return to his childhood home he finds a sense of belonging that solves the interior struggle between his identities. As De suggests, it is not only the outside spaces Gogol, as a diasporic character, must negotiate, but also the interior spaces within his own identity and constructions of home. Gogol’s final claim to belonging at the end of the novel seems particularly tenuous; his prospects, although promising of professional ownership through his new architecture firm, nevertheless emphasize his continued preoccupation with creating the perfect space. And as he continues to seek his ideal, the question remains unanswered whether Gogol’s momentary peace is sustainable.

            Perhaps, however, the question ought not to be whether his equilibrium is sustainable, but rather why it should be. If home is created through exchange, as Schröder posits, then belonging must also be mobile, a constant conversation between space and identity, simultaneously interior and exterior, challenging always whether one is really “in place,” and if not, why not. And, of course, there is another aspect of home yet to discuss, which is key both to Schröder’s exploration of the concept and to the understanding of diasporic literatures: that of leaving home.

3.     Belonging in Flux, and the Mobile ‘Home’ in Jasmine

            As Schröder reminds us, homes are not only spaces to enter, but also to leave: “It is not so much fixity as movement that is characteristic of spatial productions, structured as they are by connections between inside and outside, by transformations and trajectories which lead elsewhere” (Schröder 25). One of the privileges of feeling a sense of belonging in a space which one has constructed to be a home is the ability to leave, and Bharati Mukherjee’s titular Jasmine does exactly that. From Hasnapur to Jullundhar to Florida to New York to Idaho and then to California, Jasmine thwarts conventional conceptualizations of home simply by remaining mobile. However, to some extent, Jasmine seems secure in a way that Gogol is not, namely in the indelible identity that transcends the names she calls herself.

            From the first pages of the novel, Jasmine challenges the notion that the “old world” and the cultural identity it promised is

something people simply had as an undisturbed existential possession, an inheritance, a benefit of traditional long dwelling, of continuity with the past. Identity, then, like language, was not just a description of cultural belonging; it was a sort of collective treasure of local communities. It was fragile and something which needed to be protected and preserved. (Malik and Singh 350)

Rather, for Jasmine, the “old world” is represented by the thing she doesn’t want to become, particularly in her opening memory of the astrologer assuring her young, disbelieving self that “Fate is Fate. […] A magic snake will penetrate solid walls when necessary” (Mukherjee 4). This early encounter is striking, partially because the astrologer’s prediction of Jasmine’s “widowhood and exile” really does come to pass (3), though his anecdotal magic snake also resonates through the rest of Jasmine’s life. She, like the snake, penetrates walls, drifts ghostlike through national borders, remains uncontained. There is something a little off-putting about Jasmine’s complete adaptability, as if she carries the secret of identity hidden somewhere in her various incarnations. Perhaps there is something a little predatory about her mobility as, shark-like, she continuously moves through spaces (and people) with an ethereal resoluteness that simultaneously charms and hides. Perhaps she, like the snake, is simply doing what is necessary to carry out the “assignment from God” that constitutes Jasmine’s notion of fate (61). When Jasmine suggests to Taylor that “[i]f the universe is one room known only to God, then God alone knows how to furnish it, how to populate it,” Taylor is “despondent,” but for Jasmine the possibility offers infinite possibility (61). In considering her role in the universe potentially miniscule and potentially infinite, Jasmine manages to inhabit all spaces simultaneously, thereby giving herself permission for multiple incarnations of herself based on the different spaces she moves through.

            Schröder offers that “places are never only local, completely separate from ‘the rest’ but always ‘translocal,’” which seems particularly evident for Jasmine (Schröder 27). Moving from the Hasnapur of her girlhood to the Jullundhar of her teenage marriage also changes her identity from Jyoti to Jasmine, and this first reincarnation leads her to feel “suspended between worlds” (Mukherjee 76). Despite this, she accepts the adopted name and integrates it into herself without mourning the version of herself she has presumably lost, perhaps because she doesn’t actually lose anything. Remarkably, Jasmine seems to be unattached to the various names she adopts, and with this detachment comes a willingness to define herself in relation to her husband. Still a child when she marries Prakash, Jasmine clings to him, fitting herself into his ideologies while still negotiating her own beliefs (e.g. her desire for children, her hesitation in calling him by his first name, her squirreled stash of commission money from selling detergent with her neighbor). Nevertheless, when Prakash first raises the possibility of moving to the United States, it is not only for his sake that Jasmine adopts his fervor; as she considers the prospect of a new country, she remembers “the old man under the banyan tree,” hoping that “[i]f we could just get away from India, then all fates would be canceled,” because “[w]e’d be on the other side of the earth, out of God’s sight” (85). Her preoccupation with the horoscope from so many years ago belies her initial expression of doubt at the astrologer’s prediction, and suggests that she believes there are boundaries that fate cannot cross. Although she has been renamed and reborn into the life of a wife in a new city, Jasmine still believes that there exists some aspect of life that transcends these largely ceremonial or nominative thresholds through which she has passed. For Jasmine, the indelible is also the inescapable, and no amount of shuffling between identities can throw off the scent of that fate.

            When the astrologer’s fate eventually does catch up to her in the form of Sukhwinder’s bomb, it creates a kind of catalyst that, in apparent keeping with much of Mukherjee’s oeuvre, simultaneously resists moralization and pushes Jasmine west. The immigrant journey itself is blurry and feverish, in the way that long journeys often feel. She remembers being ferried through “a shadow world of aircraft permanently aloft that share air lanes and radio frequencies with Pan Am and British Air and Air-India, portaging people who coexist with tourists and businessmen” (100). The image of two distinct worlds coinciding with each other is reminiscent of the status of the subaltern, or the diasporic individual within these spaces. As she and her sometimes compatriots move like shadows through the recognizable and stable world of airports and planes, she experiences the spaces remarkably differently. While this may seem obvious, given the nature of her travel as an undocumented immigrant, it is worth noting because these spaces constitute thresholds between well-bordered nations, between natural territories, and between temporal spaces. She recalls the simple desire of each traveler: “to be allowed to land; to pass through; to continue” (101). Unlike Gogol, Jasmine does not feel entitled to belong, merely to be allowed to continue her transcontinental migration. Also important to note is that the impetus for her mobility is not to search for home, but rather to fulfill what she sees as a duty to her husband and to the requirements of the culture she leaves behind, which, after the astrologer’s prediction comes to fruition, seem cemented in reality.

            In their reading of the isolation in the novel, Amanpreet Kaur, Parveen Khanna, and Arvind Khanna suggest that “Bharati Mukherjee proposes that for survival in the present, it is harmful and damaging to pass through the deceptive network of nostalgic experience even [though] the flexibility of Jasmine is continuously helped by her past” (Kaur, Khanna, and Khanna 18). This seems particularly true of her first days and months in America, when she experiences the rape and violence that scrub her of the identity given to her by Prakash.[2] In fact, it is precisely her nostalgic retention of the weight of her widowhood that makes her vulnerable to Half-Face’s violence; he says as much himself: “Travel light, sweetheart, always travel light. If you hadn’t been carrying this bag, you wouldn’t be in the deep shit now, you know that” (114)? Lillian Gordon, who “had a low tolerance for reminiscence, bitterness or nostalgia,” later gives Jasmine similar advice: “Let the past make you wary, by all means. But do not let it deform you” (131). Both Lillian Gordon and Half-Face ironically function in similar ways in Jasmine’s self-reformation when she arrives in America; both teach her the fundamental importance of breaking with the weight of the past in order to move forward. Mukherjee remains noticeably silent on which is more effective, trauma or empathy, in instilling these lessons, and to some extent it doesn’t matter. As Lillian Gordon pragmatically puts it, Jasmine is not alone in her experiences. This idea of being simultaneously isolated by the trauma of her violent entry into the country and part of a community of largely silent, shadowy people channeling their way into a space that never asked for them, resolute and strong, must offer some solace and healing. The idea does not excuse or minimize the pain she feels; instead it offers an untold multitude of fellow sufferers with whom to share the burden of memory, of nostalgias resisted, of identities refashioned into shields.

After all, it is under Lillian Gordon’s tutelage that Jasmine fully embodies her new Americanized persona Jazzy. Radha Devi Sharma argues that “[Lillian Gordon] not only gives Jasmine new hopes, she also teaches her how to walk and talk in American ways so that the immigration officials would not recognize her as illegal entry” (Sharma 34). Significantly, Lillian Gordon teaches Jasmine that it is not enough merely to move through a space in order to belong there; embodying the mythos of a space projects the illusion of belonging, manipulating the spaces and places through which one moves, forcing exchange to take place. Schröder argues that “[j]ust as they are produced and influenced by those who inhabit, cross, or travel through them (by way of social practices and relations), spaces and places in turn influence those inhabitants” (Schröder 25). Lillian Gordon seems to agree with this assessment, and encourages Jasmine to allow herself to be shaped by the cultural influence of the space (America) she now exists in. It is worth noting that Lillian Gordon’s “test” takes place in a mall: “In one of the department stores I saw my first revolving door. How could something be always open and at the same time always closed? She had me try out my first escalator. How could something be always moving and always still” (Mukherjee 133)? Commercialized and innocuous, the mall perfectly represents America – always open, always closed, always moving, always still. Moving through the space of the mall, as Lillian Gordon understands, represents a practice space for moving through the larger, less forgiving, space of the nation. Negotiating these complexities of space is imperative for Jasmine if she is to belong, to say nothing of building a home. Negotiating these complexities within her own identity – simultaneously mobile and frozen, vulnerable and protected – is a spatial exercise for which Jasmine eventually seems somewhat prepared, though she recognizes the strangeness of it upon hearing about the transformation of the Flamingo Court and Lillian Gordon’s house into Paradise Bay Complex:

It is by now only a passing wave of nausea, this response to the speed of transformation, the fluidity of American character and the American landscape. I feel at times like a stone hurtling through diaphanous mist, unable to grab hold, unable to slow myself, yet unwilling to abandon the ride I’m on. Down and down I go, where I’ll stop, God only knows. (138-9)

 The motion sickness Jasmine purports to feel at the speed with which America reinvents itself doesn’t keep her from adopting the same speed and willingness to change, adapt, and move. From Florida, she finds the last vestige of disappointment from her life in India in Professorji’s Queens home, which seems more like a transplanted India than a diasporic space. Indeed, the “artificially maintained Indianness” of Professorji’s home irritates Jasmine and makes her impatient; she, “who had every reason to fear America, was intrigued by the city and the land beyond the rivers” (145). It makes sense; having already burnished her American identity to a shine by casting off the chains of nostalgia that the Vadheras seem unwilling to give up, Jasmine retains no ties to the “old world” of India. Like an adult forced to return to the space and role of a child, she riots internally against the space, and against her position in it. She finds herself in the peculiarly diasporic position of being both and neither, simultaneously belonging neither to this dislocated India, nor to the America beyond the horizon. 

Unable to relegate herself to the widowhood she had seared from her identity, Jasmine eventually chooses the horizon, moving herself from Queens to Manhattan to reinvent herself once again. While Jasmine states unequivocally that she “became an American in an apartment on Claremont Avenue across the street from a Barnard College dormitory,” her transformation hardly seems so definitive (165). Rather, she seems to be a constantly shifting set of words wrapped in the shell of an identity that, kaleidoscopic, defies limitation. And in abandoning Flushing and its spaces for “living defensively in the midst of documented rectitude,” Jasmine opts for the (arguably) harder work of becoming “the person [the Hayeses] thought they saw: humorous, intelligent, refined, affectionate” (171). In so doing, Jase is eventually born.

Unlike Jyoti, Jasmine, and Kali (the death goddess she associates herself into briefly embodying when she murders Half-Face), Jase is consummate in her belonging, turning herself into a companion for Taylor and Wylie and into a “day mummy” for Duff. And unlike Prakash, Taylor does not become the catalyst for Jasmine’s transformation into Jase. For the first time, she changes herself because she wants to: “To bunker oneself inside nostalgia, to sheathe the heart in a bulletproof vest, was to be a coward” (185). And while Jasmine seems truly happy during her time in Manhattan, the question remains whether it is a home for her, and if she belongs there. Though, to an extent, perhaps it doesn’t matter whether or not Jasmine belongs in order to determine whether a certain place is a home for her. She, unlike Gogol, and unlike the Vadheras, doesn’t seem to define herself so much by the places and spaces she inhabits, and despite performing the projections of identity needed in order to be accepted, doesn’t seem to change whatever is innate within her. Schröder suggests that “identities, cultures, and places need to be spatialized in new ways – in order to find out ‘[t]o which places […] the hybrid cultures of postcoloniality belong’” (Schröder 29). However, perhaps what Jasmine as a character suggests is that, similarly to Gogol, the spaces where hybrid cultures of postcoloniality belong may not harbor places for the individuals who create these cultures. As both negotiate the interiority of identity and the exteriority of dissecting communities and diasporas, Jasmine and Gogol both offer few answers to the question of how diasporic spaces should be conceptualized. Home eludes both protagonists, though perhaps for Jasmine it is less of a loss, at least insofar as Jasmine does not seem to let her homelessness keep her from belonging.

Bharati Mukherjee, according to an article by Debotri Dhar, focused on the paradoxical wholeness of diaspora experience. Dhar suggests

Not for Mukherjee the Americans of hyphenated identities struggling to build a viable home among the diaspora, nor for her the shifting kaleidoscopes of past ritual and present monotony, searching for home and belonging within the recesses of one’s mind, in solitude and soliloquy, as one might associate with writers like Anita Desai. No, her home was this; it was America, a land of hope and without hyphens. (Dhar)

Jasmine seems to embody this resolute hope in the hyphen-less possibility of America, pursuing it with the stubbornness of a woman who believes, as Americans do, that if she works hard enough and wants it badly enough, she can escape the weightiness of fate. Jasmine, like Mukherjee, resists clinging to the Indianness of her heritage as a way to define herself, categorize herself in opposition to the “monotony” and ordinariness of America. Both defy the notion that to exist in hybridity, one must fracture oneself. Even through all her reincarnations, Jasmine remains somehow whole.

            Early in the novel but later in her life (one of the anachronistic tropes that characterizes the simultaneity of memory throughout the novel), Jasmine watches Mother Ripplemeyer putter around her kitchen, hair in curlers, and remembers her Hasnapuri friend Vimla, who committed suicide at twenty two when her husband suddenly died: “Vimla set herself on fire because she had broken her pitcher; she saw there were no insides and outsides. We are just shells of the same Absolute” (Mukherjee 15). It is a strange moment of camaraderie stretched across time and continents, Jasmine explaining her friend’s reason for suicide to a reader who exists in a world where Jasmine, a character, does not. It also suggests the inherent absence of borders both in space and identities. Perhaps it is this absence of insides and outsides that becomes the magic by which Jasmine retains the indelible mark of her identity even as she reincarnates herself to fit into each space she passes through. Perhaps, like a turtle or a vagabond, she carries her home with her in the deep recesses of experience.

            On a final note, I’d like to propose that Darrel’s fight with his own land offers a kind of cautionary foil to Jasmine’s homeless mobility. Where Jasmine represents a shell filled with an ineradicable Absolute, Darrel represents the torturous negotiation between “commitment to the land or to the self” (228). His suicide, like Vimla’s, is a testament to the powerful grip spaces can exert over individual lives. Unable to free himself from the obligation of maintaining so much space, Darrel sees no recourse but to kill himself. His struggle suggests that the reasons not to draw concrete borders around spaces are just as important for those within said borders as those without. Dhar cedes that “[y]es, homes function as potential sites of confirmation as well as contradiction; moving along multiple axes, they do not just provide protection but have historically been organised around select inclusions and exclusions to keep the other out,” though she refrains from suggesting that these exclusions can also be a way to keep “insiders” in. Darrel’s struggle further emphasizes the vital importance of the exchange Schröder espouses in her definition of home, and Mukherjee’s focus on the privilege of being able to leave a home when necessary. Would Darrel have been beset by nostalgia for the wide open space of Iowa that had begun to feel unbearably oppressive to him? The tragedy of the novel is, perhaps, that he (and the others who could not shed their ties to the land) never found out. However, the hopefulness of the novel comes from the fact that, though Darrel remains bound to the land that killed him, an American longing to leave home, Jasmine carries on, “greedy with wants and reckless from hope” into a horizon that makes her no promises (241). Expecting only change, she charges into a future littered with belonging, repositioning her fate by sheer force of will.

4.     Conclusion

            Both The Namesake and Jasmine resist easy definitions of home and belonging, preferring instead to take a realistic and critical look at the way spaces and places arbitrate constructions of identity and feelings of belonging for the hybridized navigators of diasporic experience. However, in the context of Schröder’s “progressive” definition of home, in which exchange between interior and exterior is necessary, perhaps these diasporic literatures offer the perfect lens through which to analyze what makes a home. After all, it seems clear that for those outside the conventional conceptualization of home, creating an inclusive notion of home is imperative, whereas for those who have never been confronted with the paradoxes of their own belonging, home is largely an irrelevant concept. These dichotomies of perception function as key aspects of exchange – if exchange is indeed what constitutes a home – and therefore also of home-building and facilitation of belonging.

            It is important that both novels take place in the United States. Although I have not discussed the setting of either novel in great detail, the mythos and ethos of the United States cannot be ignored in context of these narratives of immigrant experience. While many Western countries would have offered largely similar experiences of spaces, what makes the United States unique is that it has historically projected an image of itself into the world as a kind of Utopia, fully democratized and egalitarian, where capitalist schemes offer wealth and security to anyone who can make it there. It is a narrative that exists to this day. The hope of America is itself a kind of character that informs, pushes, and even manipulates the stories of both novels. Jasmine characterizes this manipulative transformation of America in terms of Half-Face, connecting the often traumatic and shocking reformation immigrants must submit to in order to build a home in America with her own rapist (138). It is an uncomfortable reality that many American readers have not needed to confront. Yet in the spirit of building homes that invite the “other” in, that face outward and that, like Gogol’s ideal, are full of light rather than walls, it is exactly this uncomfortable exchange that must be entered into on both sides of the narrative if true homes are to be built, belonging to all, and all belonging within. 

Works Cited

Brennan, Sue. “Time, Space, and National Belonging in The Namesake: Redrawing South Asian American Citizenship in the Shadow of 9/11.” Journal of Transnational American Studies, vol. 3, no. 1, 2011, escholarship.org/uc/item/6cm9z5ho.

De, Aparajita. “What’s In a Name? Tropes of Belonging and Identity in The Namesake.” South Asian Review, vol. 28, no. 2, 2007, pp. 182-200.

Dhar, Debotri. “Bharati Mukherjee: A Sense of Belonging.” Open Magazine, 10 Feb. 2017, openthemagazine.com/article/books/bharati-mukherjee-a-sense-of-belonging.

Kaur, Amanpreet, Parveen Khanna, and Arvind Khanna. “Physical and Psychological Isolation in Bharati Mukherjee’s The Tiger’s Daughter, Jasmine, and Desirable Daughters.” International Journal of English and Literature, vol. 5, no. 4, 2015, pp. 13-22.

Lahiri, Jhumpa. The Namesake. London, Harper Perennial, 2003.

Malik, Shipra and Anupriya Singh. “Abstruseness of Identities and Belongingness in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Namesake.” International Journal of Research, vol. 1, no. 8, 2014, pp. 349-55.

Mukherjee, Bharati. Jasmine. New York, Grove Press, 1989.

Schröder Nicole. “Mapping Topographies.” Spaces and Places in Motion: Spatial Concepts in Contemporary American Literature. G. Narr, 2006, pp. 21–48.

Sharma, Radha Devi. “Reinventing the Self in Bharati Mukherjee’s Jasmine.” Crossing the Border: International Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies, vol. 4, no. 1, 2016, pp. 29-38.

[1] My major concern with Schröder’s focus on inclusivity is what it means for the subaltern who, in the process of (re)constructing a home, may find the idea of firmer boundaries more appropriate. ‘Inviting the outside in’ smacks of a politics of politeness that has the potential to be used to police marginalized spaces. She had previously leveled what I interpreted as a criticism at the way “[t]he making of home seems to be a sort of mapping, the carving out of a space that is appropriated and made familiar, an act which might entail its purification from all that is deemed deviant” (34), though it could be argued that in a postcolonial context the act of carving out a home as distinct from colonial convention may be a transgressive act of deviance in itself.

[2] Interestingly, Jasmine later hints that Half-Face may not have been the first person to rape her when she asks herself (or perhaps the reader) “[…] which of us was raped and raped and raped in boats and cars and motel rooms” (Mukherjee 127)? This further emphasizes that there was something particularly defiling and traumatic about her encounter with Half-Face, as he was the only one who “had put on the suit, touched my sari, my photographs and Ganpati” (121). For Jasmine, her body, like her name, is “merely the shell,” something she can dislocate herself from, and it is only her purpose that remains intimate, worth killing for (121).

Kati Erwin: Deeper than Dictionaries

Kati Erwin, PhD Candidate, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

Kati E rwin is a student of postcolonial literature, focusing on language use in Polynesia for her PhD work at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. She received her MA in Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies from Ireland’s University of Limerick and her BA in English from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. Her current work is centered on cultural renaissance periods of Polynesia and the linguistically diverse literature that emerges from them. This research is in the crosscurrents of literary and cultural studies, politics, and history, engaging with a range of genres, from poetry and prose to theory, propaganda, letters, and newspaper articles. In between exploring life and literature in other corners of the world, she returns home to Kailua, Hawai‘i.


This paper offers a look at the postcolonial language issue from the vantage point of poetry in Hawai‘i. To dive into this issue, we examine two poems that have come out of the Islands since Hawai‘i’s cultural renaissance, and which deal with and deal in languages. Jamaica Osorio and Ittai Wong’s poem, “Kaona,” is analyzed first and utilizes a code switch between the Hawaiian language and English. “Baflo,” by Bradajo Hadley, composed entirely in Hawaiian Creole English, is studied next. Through these poems,
the linguistic, socio-economic, and historical environments of Hawai‘i are brought up for examination, and literal language use is compared against cultural language use. International postcolonial theorists are brought into conversation with these two texts and with the linguistic choices of their poets. Concepts such as a self-perpetuating “culture of less” and literary directionalities are discussed, as are the intersections between the words of Osorio, Wong, and Bradajo and the theories of those international writers. By this, these two poems of Hawai‘i are shown to be part of a global discussion about language use in postcolonial literature. Finally, the paper investigates how flipping the colonial center/periphery paradigm
that has existed for generations may have a real impact on the life and agency of local communities, as well as on representations of the subaltern. Ultimately, much of the discussion in this paper centers on one concept: It’s much easier to believe in change when you can see — or hear — it happening.

“Deeper than dictionaries”: Language and directionality in “Kaona” and “Baflo,” two poems of Hawai‘i

This essay takes its title from a line within Jamaica Osorio and Ittai Wong’s poem about Hawai‘i and the Hawaiian language, “Kaona”:

You had to understand the history and culture 

to decrypt this language. Had to dig deeper than dictionaries

[. . .]

to grasp the roots of the words our people would chant

just to understand their messages. (227)

Imagining the island chain of Hawai‘i, it is more often the paradise than the strife that pulls our focus: soothing ocean waves, fiery volcanoes, storytelling hula dancers. It is not often the socio-economic struggles nor the linguistic dissonance that draws the eye or ear. As a result, it has become the mission of many local authors to de-crypt their language and indeed to show the language itself to be cryptic.

In the pages that follow, I propose we address this particular area of discomfort: the postcolonial language issue in Hawai‘i. First, though, it is important to address the description of Hawai‘i as postcolonial. To some, the term “occupation” is more appropriate than “colonize” to define America’s activity in Hawai‘i over the past 150 years or so. Others would contest the use of “post” in postcolonial, using as evidence the fact that Hawai‘i is still very much under the power of the US. The state of “post”ness in describing Hawai‘i as postcolonial is an open topic for discussion, as is the differentiation between “occupation” and “colonization.” Discussions on this can and should be thoughtful and drawn out, but they are beyond the scope of this paper. For the purposes of this paper, and because it has shouldered and sustained a cultural renaissance in opposition to a colonial (or occupied) heritage, Hawai‘i is considered here to be in a postcolonial state.

To examine, then, the postcolonial language issue in Hawai‘i, we will look at two examples of poetic and political language use from these islands. The first poem, “Kaona,” by Jamaica Osorio and Ittai Wong, was first performed in competition in 2008 and utilizes a politically-charged code switch between two languages, Hawaiian and English. A linguistic departure from “Kaona” is the poem “Baflo,” by Bradajo Hadley, who is usually referred to simply as Bradajo. “Baflo” is presented in two formats — an audio recording and a reprinting of handwritten text — and is entirely in Hawaiian Creole English, better known as “Pidgin.” The poem is offered in print in the 1998 edition of Bamboo Ridge’s 20th Anniversary Issue anthology, and was released in its audio format as part of the Jus’ Talkin Story With Bradajo album in 2009.

Before entering into discussion about these texts, and in the knowledge that they highlight a history of one language being used in the suppression of others and in the oppression of the peoples and cultures of Hawai‘i, here is a facet of the story to keep in mind.

Standard English may not come out of this paper, or indeed any discussion of postcolonial language use, with a rosy tint. It, like other colonial languages, played a mammoth role in the colonizing process: The rise of English had to correlate with the downfall of local languages if the local people were to come under the power of the English-speaking newcomers in the way they did. However, the language should not be made to bear all the weight of its context of oppression without being recognized for the benefits it has brought to the Hawaiian Islands and to many countries around the world. Of great prominence in this respect is the introduction of Hawai‘i to a worldwide scope of cultural, philosophical, and economic possibilities.

We should also remember that the missionary pursuit of spreading English and Christianity brought the first printing press to the islands in 1822. Because of that, dozens of Hawaiian language newspapers came into circulation. Literary spread throughout the islands at an incredible rate. An oral culture, Hawai‘i went from virtually 0% literacy to over 90% in less than a generation. Although this might not have been possible without the voracious appetite for learning shown by the Hawaiian people, it was also largely due to the printing of educational books. These newspapers and books give us an indispensable record, a century and a half later, of Hawai‘i: a fascinating culture with a love of, and facility with, language and stories.

I say this with no intent or wish to diminish the cultural devastation wrought by colonialism, but rather to show, as seen in any hybridized space, that multiple impacts can come from a single influence. Without the drive for English, perhaps comes no printing press. And without the printing press, perhaps we are left with no records to give us insight when memories die.

“Kaona” and “Baflo” are inheritors of both the negative and positive produced in this exchange. These poems came to life during an intriguing point in Hawaiian history: the Hawaiian Renaissance, which began in the 1960s and, in some estimations, continues today. During this period, the Native Hawaiian language was elevated from its near-extinction level and began to regain strength through greater access in schools and, thereafter, through more frequent and more prominent usage throughout the state.

Pidgin, also native to the islands, gained the social traction it needed during this period to become an officially-recognized language, slowly moving away from the “second class” reputation that had dogged it since its plantation origins, and which continues to follow it today. Despite its “official” status, Pidgin continues to be seen as a bad or “broken” English. English, as per the colonial course, dominates the linguistic scene of Hawai‘i, and has done so for generations. It is in this fraught, yet daily-navigated linguistic and social environment that these poems do their work, both effecting and signaling a sea change in the relationship between Hawaiian society and the atmospheric, societal presence of language.

In this paper, I draw out the ways in which these three poets navigate the tricky issue of language in a postcolonial state, using their chosen language or languages in a way that breaks through the heritage of a “culture of less,” creating a shift in the directionality of Hawai‘i’s literature. To do this, I will focus specifically on how the poets use language — both literal language and cultural language  — and on what bearing that use may have on the readership and the communities belonging to those languages.

Further, this paper will explore the contributions of these poems to the international dialogue on postcolonial language use. This particular endeavor is undertaken with the help of illustrious friends, postcolonial theorists from around the world. Although “Kaona” and “Baflo” engage with language in separate ways, they both illuminate the local-language literature of Hawai‘i as a rich cache worthy of study. It is because of this richness that these poems can be held up and examined in relation to more theoretical postcolonial texts.

The languages of the texts: “I place my hope on the water”

The title of the first poem, “Kaona,” is a word that itself means the enfolding of meaning within text and even within a single word. It is, as the poem tells us, “speaking of flowers but meaning children” (227). The line itself refers to the coded language used to transmit messages to Hawai‘i’s last reigning queen, Queen Lili‘uokalani. “Flower” is “pua,” and kaona allows us, in speaking of pua, to speak of a child or children. But not just children: children of Hawai‘i; children who are not only tied to the land, but genetically related to the land; children who would not exist without the land; children who will therefore defend the land and their queen (whose kingdom was taken from her by U.S.-backed American businessmen).

The poem is written in code switching format, where the author shifts from one language to another. This may produce a disruptive read for the individual unaccustomed to the two languages sharing a space, but, disruptive as it may feel for some readers, for others it is a normalized mode of communication. Hopping from English to Hawaiian, both the content of the text and the languages in which it is expressed deal explicitly with the historic tension between these languages. The poem elevates the rebellious and poetic history of the Hawaiian language, citing the ineluctably bonded nature of history, culture, and language.

Significantly, this poem was performed aloud and onstage in 2008 for Brave New Voices, an international youth slam poetry competition, despite its marked inclusion of the Hawaiian language. The likelihood of mainland American audience members in Washington, DC, knowing the Hawaiian language is extraordinarily low. Even if they did, “Kaona” insists that it wouldn’t be enough. Recall the quote from which this essay gets its title: “You had to understand the history and culture / to decrypt this language. Had to dig deeper than dictionaries” (227).

The performance of “Kaona” by students from Hawai‘i in the American capital is, on its own, remarkable. Even more so when we consider the contradictory statements the poem seems to make about language. It is a poem that, largely in English, decries the colonial violence of English. It was performed for a predominantly English-speaking audience despite its minor, albeit strong, inclusion of Hawaiian. A good deal of that audience was never going to — was never even supposed to — understand all the words, and yet English and that powerful American venue gave the performers’ voices a greater reach. Perhaps, though, that is part of the character of a postcolonial, political, code-switching text. It is meant to be uncomfortable. It recalls a violent linguistic heritage and shows a linguistic present in which both the speaker and the listener experience struggle. For whom, then, is the discomfort? For both performer and audience.

Chicana author Gloria Anzaldúa drives home the point of this linguistic discomfort in Borderlands: The New Mestiza—La Frontiera:

Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity [. . .]. Until I am free to write bilingually and to switch codes without having always to translate [. . .] and as long as I have to accommodate the English speakers rather than having them accommodate me, my tongue will be illegitimate. (81)

This sense of illegitimacy has lasting repercussions. Perhaps one of the worst is that it leads to decay. “Kaona” tells us that “with every word lost, / we lose a piece of ourselves” (229). “Kaona” does, however, enunciate that profound state of being, that fundamental power of the Hawaiian language, in English, to an English-speaking audience. For its purposes — that is, in order to be heard by its international and English-speaking audience — the poem must be expressed, at least partly, in English, and the poem itself explains why.

There is more to this equation than just the speaker’s expression, as the poem makes clear:

So listen to me

           So listen to me

                     So listen to me

                                 So listen to me

Listen to me.

Existence persist as long as we have language

if we cannot communicate with earch other, we cannot survive. (229)

It is, according to these lines, not just the act of speaking that is important. The poem implies that communication relies on more than the presence of a speaker; it requires a listener. The stories cannot just be told; they must be heard, transmitted from the speaker to the listener.

Part of the aim of this paper is to view these two poems, which originate on a small island chain in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, in relation to texts around the world that wrestle with the postcolonial language issue. One such “international cousin” comes from Irish poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill: her aptly-named poem, “Ceist na Teangan/The Language Issue.” Ní Dhomhnaill’s poetry, written in Irish, is then translated by other writers into English, and so it becomes available to a wider readership. In this poem, she describes putting her metaphorical boat (language) on the water (out into the world where it might be heard) to protect the language, but also to perpetuate it. “I place my hope on the water”, she explains, “in this little boat / of the language [. . .] / only to have it born hither and thither, / not knowing where it might end up” (155). Similar to the demand for a listenership readers find in “Kaona,” Ní Dhomhnaill expresses the need for Irish not only to be spoken, but to be heard — a need so important that it becomes worthwhile to set out into an uncertain world something so precious as a hope for strengthening a culture. It might float away, undiscovered and unheard, but it may also find its way to refuge: “in the lap, perhaps, / of some Pharaoh’s daughter” (155).

 Although Ní Dhomhnaill can speak and write in English as well, she chooses to write her poetry in Irish. In the way Ní Dhomhnaill champions the Irish language, readers can see a strong connection to the use of Hawaiian in “Kaona.” In twentieth-century Hawai‘i, the Hawaiian language was in acute danger of extinction due to the force, primacy, and political power of English and its speakers. As happened with the Irish language, the older generations did not pass Hawaiian on to the younger generation. It is largely thanks to measures taken by people like Osorio and Wong in Hawai‘i and Ní Dhomhnaill in Ireland who perpetuate these languages, both in and out of the literary arena, that they have regained their strength.

The languages of the texts: “linguistic nightmare”

Shifting between a heavy reliance on English and a frequent but minority inclusion of Hawaiian, “Kaona” interweaves historic memory and the passion of our political present. Reaching the national level of the slam poetry competition it was presented at, the Hawai‘i-based poem managed to have a pull on the mainland American audience — one that, it is safe to presume, had a limited awareness of the imperial history of America in Hawai‘i. Simultaneously, however, the poem’s use of Hawaiian, a language unfamiliar to most of the “non-local” (not local to Hawai‘i) audience, also keeps cultural outsiders from a full realization of the text.

The code switching is, in its own way, necessary and semi-natural, a sentiment deepened by Gloria Anzaldúa’s statement on “twin skin” (81). It is, however, unsteady ground for the cultural outsider. “We are your linguistic nightmare,” Anzaldúa says of her own linguistic life. “[We are] your linguistic aberration, your linguistic mestizaje, the subject of your burla” (80). The many versions, editions, or varied iterations of Spanish and English, she says, are prohibitive for the English-speaking monoglot.

The linguistic duality in “Kaona” contrasts with a single-language mode of “Baflo.” Socially stigmatized through its de facto second-class origins in plantation-era Hawai‘i, Pidgin has a champion in poet Bradajo Hadley, whose work aligns closely with values expressed by Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, values such as the preservation and affirmation of indigenous languages. In Ngũgĩ’s words from Decolonising the Mind, “Language carries culture, and culture carries [. . .] the entire body of values by which we come to perceive ourselves and our place in the world” (16). The trouble is, many Pidgin speakers still regard the language as “broken English.” Decades of stigma and oppression have convinced Hawai‘i’s people of Pidgin’s illegitimacy. How can it possibly be regarded as carrying culture if it cannot even be understood and accepted by its own speakers as a real and legitimate language?

Bradajo’s monolingually Pidgin “Baflo,” on the other hand, takes this language, ubiquitous in Hawai‘i, and allows it to carry the weight of its culture. He makes no concessions for the non-Pidgin-speaking audience. He utilizes no other language to give voice to the cultural experience of his poem.

Bradajo takes this emphasis on Pidgin a step further, making the poem available both in recorded audio and in image form, where the poems are visible as handwritten text on lined paper. It is common for poetry to be available in print, and by offering his poetry in in this form, Bradajo takes advantage of this convention, but Pidgin was never a language of print to the extent that English is. In fact, to this day there is no single accepted standard for the spelling of words in Pidgin. A cursory glance at the handwritten version of “Baflo” makes it clear that decoding the writing is a job unto itself. Words are not separated, spelling is not clear, and letters do not always look like how many are taught to form them in school.

These first few lines of “Baflo” can be transcribed as:

yuno hueez dat no

ba flo

daha wyn lyf gaad

makaha. (70)

Translated into a more generally accepted form of Pidgin, the poem would read:

You know who is dat, no?


da hawaiian lifeguard


Writing in such a way teases apart the traditional Western love of the written word, reminding us instead of the pre-contact oral traditions of the islands. Simultaneously though, the poem utilizes the medium of writing, foreign to Hawai‘i until Western contact in the late 1700s. In addition to being written in a hybrid (creole) language, this is, structurally speaking, a hybrid text, found in the pages of a book as well as in audible format. Influence and allegiance are convoluted in this poem’s presentation, as they are in Hawai‘i’s linguistic history. True to its creole genesis, nothing is unalloyed.

The languages of the texts: “they had never imagined their world was significant enough”

Once readers have worked their way through to the literal language — the actual words — in the text, they can deal with the cultural language used in this poem. Relationships, landmarks, and history take precedence and are all mentioned in a fairly forthright manner. One vital reference that might easily be passed over by a non-local reader, though, is the figure of the waterman, represented here by the main character of the poem, Baflo himself. He is the lifeguard Bradajo speaks of in the first lines of the poem, and is defined more by what he does not do (“he no say nahting, baflo” [76] ) than by what he does or what he looks like; readers only know that “he’s one big Hawaiian” (70).

Readers also discover that he fits the bill for a Hawaiian waterman. “Waterman” in Hawai‘i is an epithet of great distinction. Watermen (and waterwomen) have been Olympians and community icons, just as they have been lifeguards, surfers, and paddlers. They are honored for their skill and their positive influence in their communities, and, often, for their humility. This last characteristic is why the Baflo’s silence, implied in the repeated phrase of “he no say nahting,” has so much gravity. In the poem, Baflo’s mold is being taken to create a statue of him that will be placed in front of a library, yet he is silent. He stays in the background during the statue’s unveiling, humble, and, presumably, more than a little uncomfortable with all this attention. Readers raised in Hawaiian ocean culture are likely to already be familiar with the figure of the waterman. Individuals coming from outside this culture who do not investigate further are prone to miss the key symbolism of this figure and the history attached to him. Missing this, they are unlikely to have more than a superficial reading of the poem. Cultural language, therefore, is on equal footing with literal language when it comes to uncovering the text.

Finally, we must unpack the significance of Bradajo choice to write in Pidgin at all. The prevailing sentiment surrounding Pidgin, a remnant of the language’s “second-class” plantation origins, has traditionally been negative, with the understanding being that it is lazy speech, utilized by those who could not or would not move up in the world. If a Pidgin speaker also had a command of English, Pidgin was a language exercised outside of the professional and academic arenas. Poet Lee Tonouchi of Hawai‘i, commonly known as Da Pidgin Guerrilla, deals with the low esteem in which Pidgin is held in Hawai‘i in his book, Living Pidgin:

Dey say if you talk Pidgin you no can…

be smart

be important

be successful

be professional

be taken seriously. (11)

The sentiment that solidifies the negative atmosphere Pidgin lives in is articulated in a single line from a 1947 Honolulu Star Bulletin article about the inexcusable nature of Pidgin: “unless a person can speak well, he cannot think well” (as cited in Kanae, 41). But the question remains: In which language? The ancestral mother tongue? It became foreign when generations were brought up under powerful influences and/or away from the ancestral country. The just-out-of-reach colonial standard? Or could the language you speak well be the “broken” language you were raised with? This, I think, encapsulates the issue of the stigmatization of a language against its colonial alternative: The question of doing something “well” is specifically tuned to only accept the colonial answer. The only answer to “in what language is the person speaking and thinking well?” is English.

Bradajo, however, carries on a new model of writing in Hawai‘i, one that reaches back to the cultural renaissance begun in the 1960s. He and many others choose to write in Pidgin, helping to change the narrative surrounding the language, giving his audience reasons to delve deeper into a poem (like “Baflo”) that seems to be about a shy lifeguard By making it a more pronounced part of local literature, these writers also pave the way for more acceptance by the public and inclusion of the language as a vessel for literature. After all, it is much easier to believe in change when one can see — or hear — it happening.

What is remarkable about Bradajo’s work is that, through the use of literal language (Pidgin) and cultural language (the figure of the waterman, for example), this poet deliberately favors the local audience and requires extra effort from an outside audience. Further, he meddles with readers’ reliance on written text, forcing them to devote extra time to his poem in the decoding process. The alternative is the audible version, reminiscent of more traditional means of communication and knowledge transmission in Hawai‘i. The poem’s greatest value may be at “ground level,” however: It contributes to the growing chorus of Pidgin-positive voices in literature. As fellow Pidgin author Lisa Linn Kanae writes in her book, Sista Tongue,

When local Hawai‘i students hear the rhythms of their own voices in their own literature, they are pleasantly shocked. It is as if they had never imagined their world was significant enough to be in the pages of a book. (60)

Even in the minds of its own speakers, the language is not significant enough for publication, let alone significant enough to be studied. This is how “Baflo” creates resonance in Tonouchi’s statement that those who speak Pidgin are unable to be “be taken seriously” (11). The decoding of Bradajo’s poetry is a complex process, and the content — a quiet ode to the character of the waterman, wrapped up in commentary on internal social conflict — deserves to be taken seriously. It has much to say about the state of Hawai‘i’s society, and a good deal to say about American, or perhaps even global, influences as well. Unpacking this poem, as we do for poems from the Western world and beyond, is a worthwhile endeavor.

For “Baflo,” the vocalization of the postcolonial happens on three fronts: the application of unstandardized, handwritten text; the use of Pidgin language; and the employment of landmarks and characters as political and social text. The poem cannot be understood without accessing these three fronts. Without taking the time to decode the handwritten poem first, all readers might see is chicken scratch. Without understanding the Pidgin, readers only have letters strung together like words. Finally, if readers understand the words but do not understand the cultural language, the poem is dry and superficial. In answer to Tonouchi, this poem declares: “No. Pidgin and its speakers can and should be taken seriously.”

A culture of less

As Jacques Derrida stated in the opening of his Monolingualism of the Other, “The monolingualism in which I draw my very breath is, for me, my element. Not a natural element, not the transparency of the ether, but an absolute habitat” (1). If the atmospheric habitat of language in “Kaona” is dynamic and determinedly unconcealed, the presence of Pidgin in “Baflo” serves to cloud the vision of non-local readers, restricting their access to a full comprehension of the poem.

By engaging with these poems, readers have the opportunity to immerse themselves in the complex linguistic environment of the history of Hawai‘i’s languages. Here, Hawaiian and English share a tense co-existence and Pidgin is considered a broken linguistic, not a language or a legitimate cultural symbol. Comprehension of these socio-economic and historical relationships will allow an understanding of the “culture of less” that these two poems have emerged from. That is, they rise out of a culture of knowing that your language, traditions, history, religion, and perhaps even your own family are/were considered to be — or simply are — less important, less bound for success, less correct, less acceptable than the powerful (colonial) alternative. The use of the word “culture” in this context is metaphorical. The culture of less does not supplant a living culture, but rather it acts as a difficult-to-shake parasite on that living culture and on virtually everything associated with that culture.

The following quote from Anzaldúa opens for us a discussion of a culture of less, which can be found where the indigenous language has been supplanted by a colonial power, and which seems to occupy the air in which Pidgin is spoken.

Chicanas who grew up speaking Chicano Spanish have internalized the belief that we speak poor Spanish. It is illegitimate, a bastard language. [. . .] Chicana feminists often skirt around each other with suspicion and hesitation. For the longest time I couldn’t figure it out. Then it dawned on me. To be close to another Chicana is like looking into the mirror. We are afraid of what we’ll see there. Pena. Shame. Low estimation of self. In childhood we are told that our language is wrong. Repeated attacks on our native tongue diminish our sense of self. (80)

Anzaldúa articulates in her book Borderlands the shame associated with Chicano speech, a linguistic that, despite posessing a different history than Pidgin or Hawaiian, is linked to Hawai‘i’s languages by the steadfast tint of oppression.

Indoctrinated with the understanding that her language is less than deserving of pride, Anzaldúa experiences and shares with her community a sense of shame in their “bastard language”, which projects from her mouth, and, more significantly, fills her mind. Osorio and Wong remind us of a time in the not-so-distant past when “our freedom of speech was denied / and words needed to be hidden in order to be heard” (228) in Hawai‘i. The Hawaiian language was less than allowable.

Even today, Bradajo’s language of choice, Pidgin, is known as “broken English,” something not capable of carrying a culture of value. It is less than a language. Speaking of the Hawaiian people, the narrator of “Baflo” tells us, “he get hard time / fo be natural” (71). This struggle is a direct result of Western influences, like freeways, shopping centers, and an imposed assumption of shame. “[D]at stuff / heavy, ah? / on top da hawaiian” (72). This is the inheritance of colonialism; but more specifically, it is an internalized colonialism — one that is maintained by the colonized or oppressed people themselves.

The culture of less is a fingerprint of that internalized colonialism, and can be found in postcolonial texts around the globe. Of particular relevance here is another Pacific text, Patricia Grace’s novel Potiki. In it, family leader Hemi explains how the history of colonization has affected Māori families. Hemi explains:

Funny how you came to see yourself in the mould that others put you in, and how you began not to believe in yourself. You began to believe that you should hide away in the old seaweed like a sand flea and that all you could do when disturbed was hop about and hope you wouldn’t get stood on. But of course you did get stood on. (65)

There is much to be said in favor of working against the sand flea mentality, as with a peaceful protest, and in favor of working for the re-valuing of indigenous languages and culture, as seen in many postcolonial cultural renaissances. However, it is also important to resist the reactionary extremes of “sand flea backlash,” if you will, and to give consideration to the benefits and value of all language, as mentioned in an earlier section of this paper.

Up to now, this paper has focused on an internal analysis of “Kaona” and “Baflo”and has begun to draw them into a global postcolonial conversation. We’ve seen the attention the texts bring to the history and the present of Hawaiian, English, and Pidgin in Hawai‘i, to the importance of both literal and cultural language, and to the culture of less. We’ve seen the texts reflect the way postcolonial languages can function in a state of shame and within the sand flea mentality. Next, I will consider the beyond-the-page effects of the ways in which languages are put to use in “Kaona” and “Baflo,” and how those uses might be interpreted within postcolonial theory.

The decision to switch between Hawaiian and English by Osorio and Wong, and the decision by Bradajo to carry the entire weight of his poem via the Pidgin language, opens these poems up to a wide scope of interpretations, a small selection of which are a focal point in this paper. Particularly, the linguistic choices made in these poems speak to a societal change in Hawai‘i — as in other postcolonial and historically oppressed states — of directionality: the reorientation of an oppressed language and culture from “object” status to “subject” status. The new directionality demonstrated in “Kaona” and “Baflo” marks a significant change in the postcolonial environments of language and literature. It is a change of mindset and one of accountability.


The provision of language as a marker of social hierarchy in literature is a phenomenon found all around the globe, the evidence of it in this paper being only a drop in the ocean of what can be found in the wide world of writing. Because of the great scope of this phenomenon of language as a social marker, and because of the generations of scholars who study facets of  “the language issue,” today we have a wealth of perspectives on the value of local language. These languages are used in a myriad of ways and are called by many names — indigenous or mother tongue, creole or vernacular, hybrid, mestiza, new English, etc. — and, for all their differences, they all share a particular kind of power as a link between a people and their stories, their history.

One of the first theorists who comes to mind when analyzing the use of an indigenous language — even a distinctly hybrid language like Pidgin — is Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, proponent of indigenous language use. Of particular value in understanding Bradajo’s Pidgin poetry is Ngũgĩ’s belief that “a specific culture is not transmitted through language in its universality but in its particularity as the language of a specific community with a specific history” (Decolonising the Mind, 15).

Here, Ngũgĩ undermines the power of universality — one of the highlights of colonial languages like English — in favor of specificity. It is specificity, he claims, that ties together a language, history, and culture. It is the specificity of the cultural symbol of the waterman that gives “Baflo” a powerful resonance with the Pidgin-literate (and therefore probably local to Hawai‘i) audience. By employing language in this way, authors like Bradajo simultaneously bolster their work and their culture. The greater the public awareness such advocates can garner, the bigger the impact their writing (read: linguistic choices) can have on local self-image.

Reading within this framework of language’s valuation and specificity, and armed with an understanding of the culture of less from which “Kaona” and “Baflo” emerge, readers can examine how these poems work against the sand flea mentality to create their own directionality.

So just what do I mean by this term? When I speak of the directionality of the text, I mean its trajectory towards an audience. This trajectory is theoretical, and may change from theorist to theorist; it is dependent on the reader’s point of view.

It helps me to imagine an arrow flying from a bow (the book itself) to a target (its readers). The idea of a target or “ideal” audience will be familiar to students of literature, but in a postcolonial context it has special bearing. This is because the ability to choose a target, and especially to choose one’s own community as the target, indicates an authorial agency that was not, in the clutches of colonialism, easy to come by.

Literature classes in many of Hawai‘i’s schools tend to highlight American and European “classics” at the expense of local writing. This disparity offers us an example of the direction the text takes, as opposed to its directionality.  Although Shakespeare in all likelihood never intended for his plays to be thought over by teenagers in Hawai‘i, the plays have, indeed, been taken in that direction. Far more of Hawai‘i’s students will have read Shakespeare than will have read authors who can speak to the particular and daily-lived experiences of Hawai‘i. Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explained her own experience with this kind of education during her 2009 TED Talk about what she calls “the danger of the single story” (“The Danger of a Single Story”, 00:00:10):

[W]hen I began to write, at about the age of seven [. . .] I wrote exactly the kinds of stories I was reading: All my characters were white and blue-eyed. They played in the snow, they ate apples, and they talked a lot about the weather, how lovely it was that the sun had come out. (00:00:39–00:01:04)

Seven-year-old Adichie had only ever lived in Nigeria, where sun and mangoes were on the forecast more than snow and apples. And yet, because she was growing up with American and British books, those were part of the cast of characters living in her mind.

Because all I had read were books in which characters were foreign, I had become convinced that books by their very natures had to have foreigners in them and had to be about things with which I could not personally identify. (00:01:42–00:01:56)

With the discovery of African books by African writers like fellow Nigerian Chinua Achebe, Adichie’s world changed. She explained that she “realized that people like me [. . .] could also exist in literature” (00:02:12–00:02:23), a statement strikingly reminiscent of Kanae’s words in Sista Tongue: “It is as if they had never imagined their world was significant enough to be in the pages of a book” (60). Growing up with British and American books in Nigeria, Adichie was prone to be caught in the trap of reading greater value into the stories, into the characters, and into the voices that were made readily available to her than into the ones that were not. The same is true for children and adults alike from all over the colonized world, including Hawai‘i.

When the cultural and literal languages of authors like Achebe, for Adichie, and Bradajo, for students of Hawai‘i, are intelligible specifically to readers with local knowledge, it is as though a member of their community is speaking up for the value of that community. That is a powerful kind of directionality. The directionality of these texts is from the local to the local, signifying that the literature is most proximally an intracommunal one, travelling from “in” to “in.” To use the arrow analogy, the arrow lands right where it began. Achebe’s words were meant to reach readers like the young Adichie, and “Baflo” was meant to reach Hawai‘i’s readers. They set an example that will allow readers to value places, languages, and experiences with which they can, as Adichie herself says, “personally identify” (00:01:56).

The notable historical absence of local literature in postcolonial states leaves young readers with a far greater opportunity to understand texts that originate from outside their immediate experience than those that come from a place closer to home. This often leads to the subtextual or assumed undervaluing of local literature: “We won’t be covering writers from Hawai‘i in our class,” this non-action seems to say, “because novels and poetry from Hawai‘i are less important than those from mainland America or Europe.”

This situation leaves the impression that, as residents, writers, readers, and speakers of Hawai‘i, we are more worthy of being spectators than participants on the world stage. What writers like Osorio, Wong, and Bradajo have done is shine a light, through literature, on their own local culture. They’ve pulled it up for examination — specifically, they’ve made the marginalized language, history, and culture accessible to local readers. Simply put, it is clear that the arrow of intent is aimed at a local audience. Although the matter is more complicated than that, and will be discussed further, this simple view of an in-to-in postcolonial directionality is really quite significant.

And what evidence do the authors give us to discern this directionality? As previously explained, “Baflo” involves language and cultural references that are specific to Hawai‘i — the poem in every respect centers itself in Hawai‘i. This suggests an in-to-in directionality. Bradajo shoots the arrow from a place of local embeddedness and understanding…

that arrow leaves the bow, swings back…

and lands on an audience that is embedded in that same understanding.

He intends for a local audience to, in Kanae’s words, “hear the rhythms of their own voices” (60). Rather than being voiceless or an object to be looked upon by others, Pidgin has become a validated, spoken-for subject. It now has agency This is an important shift from the sand flea mentality, as incorporates the re-centering(to use Ngũgĩ’s term from Moving the Centre)of the world. The center is now Hawai‘i; the outside world becomes peripheral.

In “Kaona,” there are two clear directionalities evidenced in the text, both linked to the languages of the poem. By utilizing Hawaiian as well as English, the poem privileges an audience with that particular bilingualism. Additionally, the pain and the urgency that come through in the reading and the listening of the poem are likely to speak more directly to an audience that lives within the atmosphere of historical tension between Hawai‘i and the government of the United States. This would appear, then, to be textbook “in-to-in” directionality.

It is. And yet, that is not the whole story.

It is a calculated balance. The text brings local readers close, via local language and knowledge, but it keeps access open to the outside reader (the cultural Other) too. Much more than half of the poem is in English, after all, and much of the Hawaiian language is glossed in some form. This is in-to-out directionality, the local text establishing itself as the center but reaching out to the peripheral world.

Why might Osorio and Wong choose to drive the text forward in this way, validating a local audience and simultaneously extending a nod of invitation to an outside one? In “On Reading Grace’s Potiki,” Eva Rask Knudsen suggests that code switching can in fact be targeted to engage the “outsider” audience. Such a text leaves an invitation to that reader, providing a navigable pathway of English, but will not carry the outsider through the threshold of the house of knowledge contained in the text. If the Other is up to the challenge of trailblazing through the language and culture barriers, they may earn the right to a richer understanding of the text. That, Knudsen claims, will give the non-local reader insight they would have been denied had they rested on their “first impressions” (8) alone. The arrow can indeed intentionally fly from the center, Hawai‘i, to the periphery, the outside (Western) world. Directionality can, therefore, be from in to out at the same time it is in-to-in.

Understanding this, it is worth revisiting the earlier statement about the directionality of “Baflo.” Although “Baflo” does not utilize Standard English, its creole has a strong enough English-language influence that it too can be seen as inviting an outside audience. In the right light, it too becomes a proving ground for the committed reader, though perhaps not to the same degree as “Kaona.”

Beyond “hard time fo be natural”: Flipping the paradigm

By directing their work at a local audience, these writers are taking what was marginal and making it center. This center/periphery paradigm, the paradigm that engendered the shame Anzaldúa speaks of and the confusion Adichie experienced, is flipped from its colonial origins. They have taken the “hard time / fo be natural” (71) Bradajo describes, which is part of the experience of living within the culture of shame, and they have used the literal and cultural language of their home to push on that reality.

The result of that push is a revelation — and celebration — within literature of the natural state of Hawai‘i’s languages and cultures. This is not to say that the work is unavailable to the outside, non-local reader, but that reader has become the Other, relegated to the periphery and therefore not privileged as an audience. It’s beyond the scope of this paper, but I’d also argue that this flipped paradigm has the potential to Other a local audience too, forcing it to recognize itself in all its conflicted glory.

The non-privileged, outsider audience, as a result of this re-centering, has to do more “legwork” than does the insider audience if they are to come to a thorough and rich understanding of the text. The bilingual, and therefore English-accessible, nature of “Kaona” and the English influence of Bradajo’s creole give these poems the ability to reach both audiences: local and foreign. They extend from their center, Hawai‘i, to the periphery, the outside world, and at the same time they lend powerful voices of self-representation intended to reach a local audience.

It is important to note that although there exists an in-to-out directionality, with the poems making themselves accessible to an outside audience, the weight of these texts is directed inward: from the local to the local. They invite that local audience to look at characters that sound and look and behave like themselves: living in that linguistic environment of Pidgin, Hawaiian, and English.

Beyond simply showing readers familiar characters, these two poems promote re-centering by showing local language and culture in positive lights. The texts tell us that, as discussed earlier with “Baflo,” these people, languages, and culture and this history are worthy of study. And they shouldbe studied, particularly for the change they enact in the socio-linguistic environment of Hawai‘i and for the significance of their directionalities.

By working within their local language, especially alongside the powerhouse of English, writers like Osorio, Wong, and Bradajo put themselves in a position to draw attention to their languages — both the literal languages (Pidgin, Hawaiian, etc.) and the cultural language (historical background and symbolism). They assume an accountability to their own communities for the revitalization and revaluation of their linguistic and cultural communities. In a postcolonial state, in-to-in directionality as it is described here is made possible by this kind of accountability and action on the part of local writers. They are the only ones with the specific tools to create that directionality. They also take on a responsibility of representation to the world at large when they offer an in-to-out directionality.

That twinned directionality, moving perpetually and concurrently from in-to-in and from in-to-out, seems to have enough power to counteract some of the longstanding trouble regarding representations of the subaltern. Using the new directionalities and the flipped paradigm they represent, these writers and their international kindred have the potential to create texts that leave subalternity behind. They support the community’s ability to re-center itself, to transition from being the periphery to being their own center.

What an extraordinary societal change that could be. When the subaltern can hear itself, after all — and when it is internally encouraged to listen — the problem of whether it can speak, as famously expressed by Gayatri Spivak, can perhaps be soothed. The hierarchy established through a history of colonialism can never be erased, but it can be disregarded (the hierarchy, not the history). The state of subalternity (literally, “below every other”) can in theory be shed when a new paradigm is taken up, one that rehomes the concepts of center, periphery, subject, and object.

The silencing of voices and of language was a valuable instrument in establishing and perpetuating colonial power; that silencing continued generationally when parents taught children that Pidgin was a broken English and when the Hawaiian language died in homes because English was the way to a better life. Writers like Osorio, Wong, and Bradajo, and indeed most of the writers mentioned here, reverse those silences, casting their “boat” of language, to use Ní Dhomhnaill’s terminology, out into their community with the hope that it will be heard, recognized, listened to, and supported.

In “Kaona,” readers are told that “He mana ko ka leo, a ina aohe leo aohe ola / without language, we have nothing” (229). Beyond the need for language, these poems seem to argue that there is the need for language’s expression: for Pidgin to be accepted as poetry and for Hawaiian to share the halls of the nation’s capital with English. That expression, that valuation of Hawai‘i’s own linguistic, historical, and cultural environments, needs then to be heard by Hawai‘i’s own speakers for it to serve positively as an affirmation of linguistic, historical, and cultural identity. The more it is shared in this way, the better chance the center, re-centered and revalued, has of holding firm.

Works Cited

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. “The Danger of a Single Story.” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: The Danger of a Single Story | TED Talk, TED, 2009, www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story/transcript#t-9501.

Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands: The New Mestiza—La Frontiera. 2nd ed., San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1999.

Bradajo. “Baflo.” Bamboo Ridge: 20th Anniversary Issue, edited by Eric Chock and Darrell H. Y. Lum, Bamboo Ridge Press, Spring 1998. pp. 70–76.

Derrida, Jacques. Monolingualism of the Other; Or, The Prosthesis of Origin. Stanford University Press, 1998.

Grace, Patricia. Potiki. University of Hawai‘i Press, 1995.

Kanae, Lisa Linn. Sista Tongue. Tinfish Press, 2001.

Knudsen, Eva Rask. “On Reading Grace’s Potiki.” CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture, vol. 13, no. 2, 2011, http://docs.lib.purdue.edu/clcweb/vol13/iss2/. Accessed 25 March, 2016.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. Nairobi: East African Publishers Ltd, 1986.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms. James Currey, 1993.

Ní Dhomhnaill, Nuala. “The Language Issue.” The Pharaoh’s Daughter. Winston-Salem, NC: Wake Forest UP, 1993. 155. Print.

Osorio, Jamaica, and Ittai Wong. “Kaona.” pai nā Leo, edited by Bill Teter, Curriculum Research & Development Group, University of Hawai‘i, 2010, pp. 227–229.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. Can the Subaltern Speak? Macmillan, 1988.

Tonouchi, Lee. “Dey Say if You Talk Pidgin You No Can…” Living Pidgin: Contemplations on Pidgin Culture. Tinfish Press, 2009, pp. 10–16.

[1] My translation. From here on, I will provide my translation of the text of “Baflo,” changed to an arguably more generally accepted version of Pidgin spelling. Punctuation will also be included as it is suggested by the audio version of the poem.

Paige Kiehl: Loose Women & Lesbians Reinventing Depictions of Motherhood

Paige Kiehl, San Francisco State University


This essay explores the literary and cultural discourse around motherhood archetypes in Myriam Gurba’s How Some Abuelitas Keep Their Chicana Granddaughters Still While Painting Their Portraits in Winter and Laura Esquivel’s Como agua para chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate). Within these two texts, I will investigate the way female characters reclaim and reconstruct traditional gender roles as they navigate male-dominant societies to create a hybrid space allowing for the shedding of imposed patriarchal roles that anchor a woman’s identity exclusively with her reproductive capabilities. Instead, explore their sexuality, reproductive choices, and sexual partners to create choices for women in establishing their own identities. In universalizing diverse depictions of motherhood, female writers and characters are given the chance of other possibilities outside of motherhood and “unbecoming” what society has expected and justified as female experience since birth. In the end, these hybridizations of traditional motherhood archetypes create more symbolic space for the imagery of good, bad, and unbecoming mothers.

Mexican and Chicana Female Archetypes: Loose Women and Lesbians Reinventing Depictions of Motherhood

The image of the mother has prevailed in literary and cultural discourse through the creations of myths and archetypes. The Mexican and Chicana motherhood archetypes—La Malinche/Virgin of Guadalupe/La Llorona—are transcultural and transhistorical figureheads. La Malinche regarded as the “first mother” of the mestizo (mixed-raced) people, and loathed for her role and apparent apathy in the destruction of the Aztec empire. The Virgin of Guadalupe regarded as the ultimate pinnacle of a self-sacrificing mother. La Llorona regarded as an unbecoming mother by killing her children in the river to hurt her cheating husband. Women throughout history have been judged and idealized based on these archetypes to describe them as a “good” or “bad” mother to easily ascribe to them attributes associated with both types of mothers, nurturing and self-sacrificing or apathetic and selfish. To maintain a patriarchal society, the concept of motherhood is used as a cultural tool to establish and reinforce pre-existing gender roles. The reclamation of the mother archetypes imposed on the female body creates an emancipation of the self. This is seen in Myriam Gurba’s How Some Abuelitas Keep Their Chicana Granddaughters Still While Painting Their Portraits in Winter (2015)and Laura Esquivel’s Como agua para chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate) (1989). Primarily set in 21st century United States and 20th century Mexico during the Mexican Revolution, both texts explore the battling identities the female characters embody as they navigate male-dominant societies. These texts create hybrid characters allowing for the female characters and authors to shed imposed patriarchal roles that anchor a woman’s identity exclusively with her reproductive capabilities, and instead, explore their sexuality, reproductive choices, and sexual partners, creating choices for women in establishing their own identity outside of traditional domesticity.

Good and Bad Mothers: The Virgin of Guadalupe and La Malinche

In Mexican history, the Guadalupe-Malinche paradigm has dominated over any other mother representation. La Malinche has become a representation of Eve, the first mother, due to the birth of her son, the first mestizo [mixed-raced] child, with the Spanish conqueror Hernán Cortés conceiving a new population. However, her position as a forced interpreter and mediator between the Aztecs and the Spanish and as the illegitimate wife of Cortés left her regarded as no better than a whore who betrayed her people—even though her own mother sold her into slavery (Morin 35). On the other hand, the Virgin of Guadalupe, Virgin Mary, is regarded as the immaculate and self-sacrificing mother and widely held in high-esteem throughout Mexico as a religious and cultural symbol because of her Marian apparitions and guidance for a peasant, Juan Diego. In both of these cases, the images constructed around these women are formed by the perception of men. Debora Castillo states the creation of “the Malinche archetype encodes what men ought to expect if they fail to control their women; the Virgen/soldadera archetype encodes an idealized womanhood of devoted suffering that few real women can match” (5). These archetypes are set in place to immobilize women from moving beyond the confines of these patriarchal gender roles. Castillo further argues these encoded motherhood roles are reinforced on a linguistic level reducing women to objects in association to the men rather than subjects of their own life:

Ultimately, the mother in this masculinist system is “nothing” precisely to the degree in which she is conceived of as pure and unprofaned. At the same time, the profaned female is also “nothing,” not even a woman, and certainly not la mujer [lady]. The ultimate insult—chinga tu madre [motherfucker]—substitutes one nothing for another, and is directed not at the woman but at what is supposedly a man’s most vulnerable spot, the institutionalized myth of motherhood, a myth in which the saintly mother exists only as the function by which the son takes cognizance of himself. (19)

Women are ultimately reduced to “nothing” because, even linguistically, their identity is that of a tool for male self-actualization. Mexican and Chicana women have begun to reclaim these archetypes, so that women are able to break from the fixed behaviors and commands brought on by a male-centric culture and engender an alternative possibility of motherhood outside of traditional domesticity and the Virgin of Guadalupe ideal.

            The Mexican Revolution of 1910-20 ushered in a new role for women not previously seen before with the inclusion of soldaderas[female soldiers]. During this period of unrest scholars estimate that “more than half of the women in Mexico were forced to turn to prostitution in order to survive” (Castillo 4). This increase in prostitution influenced the creation of soldaderas who were regarded as sexually free women, and most likely prostitutes, who joined the ranks of both armies. In Como agua para chocolate, Mamá Elena runs her ranch and her three daughters’ lives with a choking grip. Due to the repressive environment fostered by her mother’s control, the middle daughter, Gertrudis, runs off with a revolutionary general becoming a soldaderain the revolutionary army and spends time working in a brothel to escape from the demands of her mother and escape her forced domesticity. However, she restructures this archetype by becoming “generala del ejército revolucionario [general in the revolutionary army]” (Esquivel 180). Esquivel demonstrates Gertrudis’ prowess for the army in her description of Gertrudis’ time among the soldiers, “luchando como nadie en el campo de batalla. En la sangre traía el don de mando, así que en cuanto ingresó al ejército, rápidamente empezó a escalar puestos en el poder hasta alcanzar el mejor puesto” [“fighting like no one on the battlefield. Leadership was in her blood, and once she joined the army, she began a rapid ascent through powerful positions until she had reached the top”] (Esquivel 180). The soldaderais positioned to be self-sacrificing, an essential characteristic for a “good” mother, for the men in her life in and out of the domestic sphere. Not even the soldadera archetype is an exception to motherhood. This is seen in Gertrudis, now the general of over 50 men, bringing her soldiers to her maternal home to have them fed and looked after by the women in the family. With women stepping out of the domestic space and “renovating socio-cultural roles assigned to them…reflects a robust participation of women” (DePaoli 176) who were initially disconnected from the archetype of motherhood.

            In the present day, The United States is also an agent for creating space for new identities for motherhood. For example, much like the soldaderacreates a new family dynamic through her relationship with her male soldier counterparts, the LBGTQ+ community is establishing new family structures atypical of mainstream, heteronormative society. These alternative kin relationships reinvent the emotional and caretaking roles traditionally taken on by a biological mother-child relationship. This new dynamic is enhanced through key linguistic terms like “house,” “mother,” and “rear” to show maternal instincts of those typically excluded from the idea of motherhood (Driver 32). If these new creations of motherhood are going to be accepted as culturally valuable, the disconnect between lesbianism and motherhood needs to be bridged in order to transform mainstream culture. Gurba encounters this slow shift after she and her partner move into a suburb full of children and families. Her neighbor, Don Patricio, immediately confronts Gurba, the narrator:

“The woman you’re with,” said Don Patricio, “is she your mother?”

“No,” I answered, “She’s my partner. We’re a couple.”

“That’s okay,” he said. He grinned. (Gurba 124)

Later, Gurba finds snapshots of a biracial lesbian couple who had previously lived in the house who she declares as the “pioneers [who] had already accustomed Don Patricio to the lifestyle” (Gurba 124). As a lesbian, Gurba has had to continually try to fit her identity into a societal and generational framework that did not have the landscape available for this new depiction of womanhood and in turn her motherhood. Her reproductive capabilities as the major point of her identity is seen as early as 12-years-old with her Mexican grandfather.

“M’ija,” he said to me. “How many children do you want to have when you get married?” He smiled paternally. Mexican paternalism evokes the scent of chorizo.

“None,” I answered. “I am never getting married.”

It was the first and only time I saw Abuelito look astonished.

“Why?” he asked in a tone of voice people usually reserve for the question How did the accident happen?

“Because I am a feminist,” I answered. I was twelve years old.

Abuelito burst out laughing. He leaned over and petted me on the perm.

“Don’t think so hard, m’ija,” he said and left to his mistress, taking his chorizo scent with him. (Gurba 20)

Her abuelito’slanguage demonstrates the language of machismo[toxic masculinity] prevalent in Mexican culture and in her family’s household. Gurba distances herself throughout the conversation from this common viewpoint and abuelito’s own brand of “Mexican paternalism” by continuously stating her own ambitions for her life in contrast to her grandfather’s hopes. Likewise, she is aware the conversation is marked with the “chorizo,” or machismo, outlook that men should be the head of the household and earn money, while women stay in the domestic spheres of cooking and child rearing. The physical and psychological functions of heterosexual procreation is dominating in both American and Mexican cultures. Sexuality and motherhood need to be put into a dialogue with each other to create new brand of maternalism, and in turn, paternalism.

            As women entered male dominated spaces, they also began to take on characteristics typically associated with men—working outside of domestic circles and an increased exploration of sexual desire. The Mexican paternalism displayed by Gurba’s abuelito is also seen in Esquivel’s Mamá Elena as she takes on the role as the figurehead of the family. As a widow, Mamá Elena demonstrates both of these traits through her rigorous and harsh expectations of her daughters, especially of her youngest, Tita, by refusing to let her marry as she expected to carry out the family tradition of the youngest daughter taking care of the mother until she dies. Her tight control over the household parallels Gurba’s abuelito’s strict guidelines for his own daughters. When Gurba’s mother sat her abuelito down and told him she wanted to go to college to study chemistry, his response was, “No. Women get married, they go to the convent, or they become secretaries. I’ll pay for you to go to secretarial school but not university. That’s a waste of an education” (20). Both Mamá Elena and Abuelito make exceptions for their own rules through their secret affairs. Mamá Elena refuses to allow Tita to marry and acts as a repressive sexual force on her daughters because of her own embitterment about her family’s disapproval of her relationship with a mulatto man, José, and her being forced into a loveless marriage. Tita discovers this affair after the death of Mamá Elena by finding the correspondent letters between her and José:

Esta acción no logró impedir que aún estando casada siguiera manteniendo correspondencia secreta con José, y tal parecía que no se habían conformado solamente con este tipo de comunicación, pues según estas cartas, Gertrudis era hija de José y no de su padre” [“This action did not succeed in stopping her from keeping up a secret correspondence with José, even after she was married, it seemed that they had not limited themselves to that form of communication either, since according to the letters, Gertrudis was Jose’s child and not her [Tita’s] father’s”] (Esquivel 139)

Even though Mamá Elena was forced into a loveless marriage due to her family, she still retains her “masculine” traits by continuing her affair throughout her marriage. Abuelito also had illegitimate children out of his affair: after rejecting Gurba’s mother’s request to go to college, “he paid for his mistress’s daughters to go to university. Perhaps, his chorizo actually did evolve” (Gurba 20). This mistreatment by the “paternal” figures, Mamá Elena and Abuelito, in both texts alienates the “maternal” figures, Gurba’s mother and Tita, as other and oppresses them out of fear of not being able to control and maintain their power.  

The adoption of paternal traits by women, whether borrowed or forced, results in their male counterparts to try and remove their womanhood by disrupting the hierarchy. This is seen in the treatment of “loose women” who take the same prerogative as men to explore their sexual desire and partners. This is articulated in an anecdote from Pedro Martinez, a campesino [farmer], from Tepotzotlán, Morelos, Mexico on the treatment of “loose women” by their male sexual partners:

“According to the old people, these same men would get together and say, ‘Well, how is it that she is going with me and with you and with him? She is just causing trouble. Why should we fight and kill each other while she has a good time? So, now let’s do something to her.’ One of them would take her out and they would all get together and carry her off into the fields. And the things they would do to her! They drove a sharpened stake in the ground and greased it with a lot of lard. Then they all made use of her and had fun with her. They didn’t kill her first but stuck her onto the point and there she sat until she died. Then they would undo her braids and put a sombrero on her head and a red kerchief around her neck, like a man. They would put a cigar in her mouth and cross her shawl on her chest a way a vagabond does, to show that she tried to revel and make merry like a man (Lewis 1964, 56, 59)” (Castillo 1).

These outwards signs of masculinity—undoing of her braids, sombrero, kerchief, cigar, and shawl—denote her “unnatural unwomanliness” (Castillo). She is reduced to no more than an object to warn other women of their punishment if they should try to behave outside of cultural expectations. The figure of the sexualized woman, La Malinche or La Chingada [The Violated], is despised and reduced by men, denying them a “positive womanhood and vulgarly characterized as a hole into which men ejaculate: a nonrepoductive but infinitely reproducible verifier of masculinity” (Castillo 19). Furthermore, women who are sexually free are equally seen as “unnatural” and against the traditional depictions of womanhood established by male-dominated cultures. Mexican and Chicana women are reclaiming the sexualized and sexually free women through the reversal of gender roles and taking on the prerogative of men by working in the fields or having multiple sex partners without regards to how men may mark these women as no longer decent, but evil.

            The reclamation of La Malinche figure by Mexican and Chicana writers is depicted through Gurba and Gertrudis. Both step outside—whether by force of circumstance or choice—female cultural codings. Gurba, as the eldest daughter, helps her father maintain their lawn and the land surrounding her house. She ponders, “maybe lawn mowing turned me gay…I pushed it forward and right, forward and right, losing some hearing, losing my heterosexuality as grass bled on my sneakers…I shed any attraction I had to boys” (Gurba 57). This passage illustrates how her identity as a lesbian opens up a new hybrid space to allow for behaviors outside of those traditionally imposed. The male-dominant sphere gives her a sense of permission to explore her own attraction towards women just like that of the men in her life. This is seen in her reaction to how her sexually free and womanizing uncle decorates his room and bathroom as a shrine to the female body. Tío Miguel’s bathroom, “Treated you to muff. On the door across from his commode hung a life-size poster of a lady in see-through blouse splaying herself, Georgia O’Keeffing you as things shot out of your own flower. I minded all the pussy but, at the same, part of me welcomed it” (Gurba 24). The wording Gurba uses in her anecdote already shows her adaption of this traditional male domain into something female. Instead of reducing the women in the poster to a “loose woman” or sex object, she regards her as “a lady”—una dama—a title only reserved for the most pious of women. She continues by regarding her position as art by comparing it to Georgia O’Keeffe’s famous up-close flower painting theorized to represent a woman’s vulva. Her time occupying a patriarchal sphere of control solidifies her ability to conceive and enforce an identity that can include both lesbian desire and reproductive and familial relations later on in her life with her partner.

Additionally, Gertrudis creates her own hybrid character by her rise in the revolutionary army, but also in her stay at the brothel as she navigates these spaces. She writes to Tita about exploring her sexual desires after her sexual freedom by riding off with the revolutionary general, Juan: “Me dejó porque sus fuerzas se estaban agotando a mi lado, sin haber logrado aplacar mi fuego interior. Por fin ahora después de que infinidad de hombres han pasado por mí, siento un gran Alivio. Tal vez algún día regrese a casa y te lo pueda explicar.” [“He left because I had exhausted his strength, though he had not managed to quench the fire inside me. Now at last, after so many men have been with me, l feel a great relief. Perhaps someday I will return home and explain it to you”] (Esquivel 126). She writes with a candor typical of men when disclosing sexual relationships. Yet, she does not stop her in her development of this but shows in later chapters her joining of her female pleasure and possibility of motherhood: “Regresaba felizmente casada con Juan. Se habían encontrado después de haberse dejado de ver por más de un año y entre ellos había renacido la misma pasión que la del día en que se conocieron.” [She was coming back happily married to Juan. They had met after not seeing each other for more than a year and their passion had been reborn, just like the day they met”] (Esquivel 180). Though she is now married, which fills a traditional archetype of la soldaderabecoming tamed after getting over her rebellious phase, Gertrudis still has control over her own sexuality by continuing to have the same uninhibited sex she had before she and Juan married. Her ability to maintain her sexual pleasure while fulfilling a traditional role demonstrates the ability for women to keep their sexual bodies and strive for motherhood.

            The reclamation of the Guadalupe-Malinche binary is essential in creating a valid maternal identity for the female experience. Both mythologized images are degraded representations of mothers, but their mixing creates a doubleness that embraces that of fertility and healing as well as sexuality and desire. Yet this duality also brings out another double standard within society. The standard of sexual freedom between men and women because the “confirmation of men’s suspicion that decent women might indeed have an interest in sexuality” (Castillo 27) automatically disqualifies these “loose women” from being “good” mothers. This new maternal figure becomes a hostile other “because it combines the previously discussed male fears and anxieties surrounding the female transformation from innocent virgin to sexually initiated (and empowered) women to the pregnant body” (Santos 60). In general, the disconnect between women as mothers and as sexual beings reduces them to objects in both settings. As a mother, they are just there to produce an heir. As a sex partner, they are just there to produce an orgasm:

“¿Por qué se casa uno realmente? ¿Para tener orgasmos? No, señor. Uno se casa para formar una familia, para que su mujer sea la madre y formadora de los hijos. Una madre no tiene como misión el orgasmo…[C]on los hijos ya no puede ser. Hay respeto. Tiene que haber respeto (empleado, 44 años).”

[“Why does one get married, really? To have orgasms? No, sir. One marries to have a family, so that one’s wife can be the mother and shaper of children. A mother has no business with orgasm…with children, it is no longer possible. There is respect. There must be respect” (worker, forty-four years old)]” (Castillo 289).

Women are either placed into the category of mother or whore, and are not allow to occupy both spaces because of men’s fear that there will be a lack of “respect” from women that are able to have orgasms and raise children. This sentiment perfectly embodies the need for a reconstruction of the mother image and to rupture the hierarchy of roles placed upon woman from birth. There needs to be an allowance for other aspects besides maternity to populate and be valued in a woman’s life and identity.

Unbecoming Mothers: La Llorona

            In order for this change, social conditions need to change for people and attributes typically excluded from motherhood. The cultural commitment to deny and degrade the erotic body of women has even been internalized by women. This is seen in the creation of double personas and an evolution of La Malinche into La Llorona. From high-class women to sex workers to those without children, maternity is the most important aspect of their lives. The symbolism associated with birth and children gives meaning to their lives and work. For sex workers, “they see it as a way of ‘purifying their sins’…creating for themselves a double persona—the sinful sex worker and the decent mother—in which the sins of the first become the honorable sacrifices of the second” (Castillo 16). Here, we see the placement of motherhood as highly valued and prostitution as valueless. Even with the discussion on the selection as a sex worker by force of circumstance or personal choice in mind, any positive feelings these women feel about their work whether by being able to provide for their children—a self-sacrificing Guadalupe—or pleasure in their sexuality—a provocative Malinche—are always overshadowed by the mindset embedded in culture to dismiss the work of women outside a domestic sphere, where their minds and bodies can be more easily controlled.

            This splitting of the female body within the virgin/whore binary is part of the Christian process of the Spanish conquest. La Llorona is a cross-cultural figure even among societies who did not have contact with each other. This phenomenon takes root in the continuing story of La Malinche when Cortés decides to return to Spain to marry a Spanish ladyand takes his mestizo [mixed-raced] son with him. La Malinche feels even more betrayed by this due to her role in the massacre of the Aztecs, so she prays to her gods and is told that if her son goes with Cortés he will continue the massacre of her people. To prevent this from coming to fruition, she steals her child away into the night and takes him to a lake, now present-day Mexico City, and stabs him in the heart before dropping him into the water crying—transforming her into the first La Llorona and reworking a tale that goes back further in time (Santos). The same anxiety around producing a “monstrous” child is “constructed through this male dominant dialect that emphasizes a sense of shame and anxiety surrounding female reproduction as an embodiment of the prevailing cultural fears of the ‘bad seed’ that can be transferred to the child intra-utero” (Santos 69). La Llorona’s attempt to kill the “bad parts” of herself comes from this warped mentality. In the end, she committed suicide, unable to handle committing infanticide. The rejection of the connection between motherhood and sexuality results in deeming whether a mother is “good” or “bad” and automatically damning their children to the same label.

            In Como agua para chocolate, Tita has this same anxiety around her own potential pregnancy and child. Her anxiety and shame around her physical embodiment of her enjoyed sexual experience and her choice of sexual partner results in a confrontation of her mother’s ghost to manifest as this patriarchal shame:

¡Pero nada! ¡Lo que has hecho no tiene nombre! ¡Te has olvidado de lo que es la moral, el respeto, las buenas costumbres! No vales nada, eres una cualquiera que no se respeta ni a sí misma. ¡Has enlodado el nombre de toda mi familia, desde el de mis antepasados, hasta el de esa maldita criatura que guardas en las entrañas! [But nothing! What you have done has no name! Have you forgotten all morality, respect, and good behavior! You are worthless, someone who does not even respect herself. You have stained the name of my entire family, from my ancestors down to this cursed child in your stomach!] (Esquivel 173).

The language used by Mamá Elena to describe the unborn child creates a double meaning because the use of the word “criatura” can be translate to mean child or creature. Already positioning the child as a hybrid “other” along with Tita because the use of “guardar” placing her as a protector and guard over this “creature.” The association of Tita with being a “bad” mother because of her sexuality and actions is immediately transferred to her child. In the end, Tita is not pregnant and she becomes a llorona, losing the “bad parts” of herself like La Malinche.

            In Painting Their Portraits, Gurba associates herself with La Llorona because she has “killed” her own children by her lesbianism. This connection comes from her coming out to her teacher, and the teacher responding, “I am fine with you being a lesbian but I feel sad you might never have children…in order to completely be, to completely be a woman, you must experience motherhood” (Gurba 46). This classification of motherhood by her teacher takes the opposite stance of Mamá Elena by deciding that Gurba is not only losing the “bad parts” but the “good” as well. The ideas “some lloronas sacrifice their eggs by loving other women” (Gurba 47) because of the separation between lesbian desire and reproduction. Gurba, unlike Tita, shows a different understanding of the male construction of shame and anxiety surrounding giving birth to a “monstrous” child:

A mother killing her kids seems like the most natural thing in the world to me…I came to this conclusion through…a childhood game called Push. A game where one person flails on a mattress, fakes labor, while another person stands between their legs yelling, “PUSH!” The person pushing always has more fun. It’s the most fun if you push so hard you die, and your playmate has to drag you by your feet to the yard to bury you. Even as a kid playing Push, I understood that the things you love most are things that wind up killing you, so why not beat them to it? (Gurba 49)

For Gurba, the infanticide done by lloronas is not out of shame, but the awareness of the capabilities of children. Even then, the lloronas made through water or other objects are attempting to purify both the children and themselves. She states that in the end, children are going to steal certain abilities from their mothers in order to exist. For Gurba, having biological children in a traditional, heterosexual manner would rob her of her other identities that have more significance to her than being a mother. It is in that thought process that the hierarchy of placing maternity as the most valued is dismantled for the inclusion of other valued identities.

The continuous adaptation and reclamation of La Llorona adds new possibilities besides motherhood, even if that means unbecoming a mother. The importance of having symbolic space beyond the archetypes in place for motherhood allows for divergent paths. In the past, “for the women…the options were limited. Death and marriage were the only two possibilities for women in novels and were, frequently the same end” (Musgrave 27). Even with the creation of new possibilities, there are still going to be binaries that make women choose, but it is that choice and a choice that can be individually successful that is needed in the maternal mythology. For those who choose motherhood there is “never an end to it, being a mother of children who need you there to rescue them, as long as you survive” (Musgrave 30). The other possibilities come with the individual ability to create their own hierarchy of value like Gurba, Gertrudis, and Tita have created to become their own archetypes of motherhood.

The depictions of “good” and “bad” women are bound to a set of universal beliefs and understandings that it can be difficult to recognize the diverse realities of it in each individual and culture. The traditional societal values associated with the “good/bad” mother binary and the triad of motherhood archetypes La Malinche/Virgin of Guadalupe/La Llorona are slowly being dismantled and reclaimed by females to be more inclusive of identities that challenge the gender roles and behaviors set in place by a patriarchal society to dominate the bodies and minds of women. The inclusion of identities like sexuality, reproductive choices, and sex partners reconfigures the hierarchy of value placed on women to go beyond just their reproductive qualities allowing for individuals to restructure and replicate the framework. Through texts like How Some Abuelitas Keep Their Chicana Granddaughters Still While Painting Their Portraits in Winter and Como agua para chocolate, universalizing in the diverse depictions of motherhood creates for a better understanding of archetypes that were merely “nothing” and profane extremes on both ends of the spectrum in an attempt to have women fail no matter the false “choice” they made. Instead, these female writers and characters offer up the chance of other possibilities outside of motherhood and unbecoming what society has expected and justified as female experience since birth. In the end, these hybridizations of traditional motherhood archetypes creates more symbolic space for the imagery of good, bad, and unbecoming mother alike.

Works Cited

Canfield, J. Douglas. “The Feminizing of Freedom and Fulfillment: Como Agua para     Chocolate.” Mavericks on the Border: The Early Southwest in Historical Fiction and Film. University Press of Kentucky, 2001, pp. 164-175.

Castillo, Debra. “Ellipses and Intersections.” Easy Women: Sex and Gender in Modern Mexican Fiction. U of Minnesota Press, 1998, pp. 1-34.

DePaoli, Maria. “The Dynamics of the Mother Archetype in Mexican Cinema Shaped by    Women: Analysis of Pioneer Matilde Landeta’s Screenwriting and Film Directing in La      Negra Angustias.” The Journal of Pan African Studies, vol. 6, no. 1, 2013, pp. 171-186.

Driver, Susan. “Can Queer Theory Radicalize ‘The Mother’s’ Body?” Canadian Woman Studies,   vol. 16, no. 2, 1996, pp. 30-32.

Esquivel, Laura. Como Agua para Chocolate. Random House, Inc., 1989.

Gurba, Myriam. How Some Abuelitas Keep Their Chicana Granddaughters Still While Painting    Their Portraits in Winter. Manic D Press, 2015.

Morin, Sylvia Veronica. “Reforging a Forgotten Faith: The Femme Fatale’s Role in Revaluing    Indigenous Religion in Elena Garro’s Los Recuerdos del Porvenir.” Interdisciplinary Humanities, vol. 31, no. 2, 2014, pp. 33-46.

Musgrave, Susan. “Motherhood and Other Possibilities” Double Lives: Writing and Motherhood, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008, pp. 23-30.

Santos, Cristina. “Maligned Mother(hood)s” Unbecoming Female Monsters: Witches, Vampires,   and Virgins. Lexington Books, 2017.

Diego Mulato-Castillo: Conflicting Discourses

Diego Mulato-Castillo, San Francisco State University


In the following paper I will argue how during the civil war in El Salvador texts were created to serve as counter-narratives in order to challenge the state sponsored narratives perpetuated by the Salvadoran government. In addition, I will explain how Un dia en la vida (One Day of Life) by Manlio Argueta and Joan Didion’s Salvador, can be viewed as examples of Testimonio that challenge state hegemonic power. I utilize the framework of Michel Foucault and his theory of discourse to better explain how different narratives vied for the attention of individuals—both in the United States and El Salvador—in order to manipulate how the violence of the Salvadoran Civil War was broadcasted to a larger audience. Also, both Un dia en la vida(One Day of life and Salvador are texts which are significantly differently. Didion, an outsider, is writing for a foreign audience who are separated from the violence of the civil war by thousands of miles. On the other hand, Argueta, due to his place as an insider is writing for an audience who is not alien to the violence of the civil war. Both authors employ particular techniques and literary genres to construct counter hegemonic realities that challenge those perpetuated by the Salvadoran state, and its close ally the United States. The Salvadoran Civil War was a time of violent state terror in the small Central American nation of El Salvador; nevertheless, despite the strict state control over language and discourse an effort was made by both Argueta and Didion to dismantle the master narrative perpetuated by the state.

Conflicting Discourses: Un dia en la vida (One Day of Life) and Salvador as Counter-Narratives

            Language is powerful precisely because of the great lengths individuals or governments will go to stunt its proliferation. For instance, the Salvadoran government during the 1980’s waged a war against the rural population of the country, vehemently suppressing language and discourses that did not coincide with the war effort. As animosity continued to boil the Salvadoran government’s response was terror and an iron clad grip on self expression. Manlio Argueta in Un dia en la vida(One Day in the Life) documents the seemingly mundane life of Guadalupe, a resident of a hamlet named el kilómetro in rural Chalatenango. Alongside her community, Guadalupe sheds light on the oppressive circumstances she must endure under the watchful eye of the Salvadoran military. In addition, Joan Didion captures in Salvador her two week stay in El Salvador during 1982, one of the most violent ridden years of the Salvadoran Civil War (1980-1992). Didion documents the blatant disregard for human life with which the Salvadoran military operates and the atmosphere of terror looming over the country. Both Un dia en la vida(One Day in the Life) and Salvador are texts deeply rooted in the genre of testimonio, thus functioning as counter discourses which challenge the entrenched and subjugating state power structures of the Salvadoran military government and its financial backer The United States. 

            Both Argueta and Didion utilize a form of narrative testimonio, or testimonial writing, in order to create a body of work that exists outside the predetermined “truth” that is broadcasted by state power structures. Testimonio as explained by Claudia G. Cervantes-Soon is a “theory of the flesh,” in which counter-narratives are constructed that challenge pre-existing master narratives.Among one of the most widely know, and impactful testimonios is Rigoberta Munchú’s I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala, in which Elizabeth Burgos-Debray writes in the introduction to the book:

The voice of Rigoberta Menchú allows the defeated to speak. She is a privileged witness: she has survived the genocide that destroyed her family and community and is stubbornly determined to break the silence and to confront the systemic extermination of her people. She refuses to let us forget. Words are her only weapons. (xii)

Rigoberta Menchú, at the time twenty-three years old, dictates her testimony in order to expose the genocide experienced by her Mayan community. As a result of Menchú’s memoir being published in 1983, the world was made privy to the cruel violence faced by her community, thus challenging the master narratives of the Guatemalan government and its financial supporter the United States. In a tragically similar fashion, master narratives in the context of both Un dia en la vida(One Day in the Life) and Salvador, are those narratives that are perpetuated by the Salvadoran government and its military ally the United States. For example, Didion in Salvador mentions the preoccupation with certification on part of the United States—detailing sufficient gains in the area of human rights and land reform—thereby justifying the flow of military aid to the Salvadoran Armed Forces. President Reagan, Salvadoran politicians, and Right Wing media outlets all paint a war that is becoming more humane, thus creating a landscape of terror shrouded in silence. Nevertheless, Both Didion’s and Argueta’s texts interrupt the master narratives of the Salvadoran government, and do so by depicting the lived experiences of individuals. Argueta utilized the testimonies of his fictional characters in Un dia en la vida(One Day in the Life), to create counter narratives that originate from the experienced of those who are most impacted by the conflict. Meanwhile, Didion relies on her own experience traveling through El Salvador during the heated year of 1982, at the onset of the conflict. Indeed, Argueta’s fictional characters and Didion’s voice, because of their nature as testimonio, are able to utilize, like Menchú, words as weapons, as tools to dismantle the master narrative of the oppressive Salvadoran regime.

            By framing Un dia en la vida(One Day in the Life) through the unique female perspective of Guadalupe, Argueta brings to the forefront a voice that is commonly silenced. Guadalupe’s voice is one that is tied to the poor urban population of Chalatenango, which experienced an unprecedented amount of violence during the war. Beginning with waking up at 5:30 in the morning, Guadalupe begins narrating her life: “No hay día de dios que no esté de pie a las cinco de la mañana. Cuando el gallo ha cantado un montón de veces ya voy para arriba. [Not a given day goes by when I’m not up by five. Already when the cock has crowed several times, I’m up]” (3). Un dia en la vida(One Day in the Life) takes the form of an internal monologue that is focalized through Guadalupe. The civil war in El Salvador is increasingly framed through the master narratives perpetuated by the Salvadoran state. As such, Guadalupe’s perspective and language disrupt the master narrative of the state by giving voice, authority, to Guadalupe whose community is the most impacted by the terror perpetuated by the state. As the account of her seemingly ordinary day unfolds, testimonies from members of her community, and Salvadoran soldiers, interrupt her monologue. Argueta creates a narrative that is not linear, encompassing events that have occurred in the past, present, and future. Jumping back and forth in time, Guadalupe presents a specific timeline that is unique, yet embodies the events that impact her community on a larger scale. Systemic poverty is a main focus of Guadalupe’s narrative as she describes the societal conditions she must endure. She critiques the notion of happiness, and proclaims that happiness is an emotion that is removed from her current emotional state: “Así es nuestra vida y no conocemos otra. Por eso dicen que nosotros somos felices. Yo no sé. En todo caso esa palabra ‘felíz’ no me cuadra nada. Ni siquiera sé lo que significa verdaderament. [This is our life; we don’t know any other. That’s why they say we’re happy. I don’t know. In any event, that word ‘happy’ doesn’t say anything to me. I don’t even know what it really means]” (10). Guadalupe’s narrative illustrates her particular reality, a reality shared by the peasant population of Chalatenango in its entirety, a population who is silenced due to their economic and social marginalization. She explains that “dicen que nosotros somos felices[they say we’re happy]” however it becomes evident that happiness alludes Guadalupe. Clearly Guadalupe is challenging common held notions about her community, breaking through the silence and exposing her lived experience to shed light on her oppressive circumstances.

            In a similar way toArgueta, Didion’s Salvador acts as a testimonial narrative that documents the ubiquitous violence that can be found throughout El Salvador at the time of her arrival. Salvador begins with Didion arriving at the Salvadoran national airport, and describes the scene in which “Immigration is negotiated in a thicket of automatic weapons” (13). What follows is a detailed account of how she perceives the dramatic state of fear that has befallen the country: “Terror is the given of the place, Black-and-white police cars cruise in pairs, each with the barrel of a rifle extruding from an open window. Roadblocks materialize at random, soldiers fanning out from trucks and taking positions, fingers always on triggers, safeties clicking on and off. Aim is taken as if to pass time” (14). Didion is taken aback by the systemic terror that seems to paralyze the population of El Salvador—soldiers, weapons, roadblocks—a constant reminder of the conflict. What Didion makes apparent is the implementation of a system of repression whose sole purpose is to sow fear in the population as a method of control. Sandy Smith Nonini in Healing the Body Politic: El Salvador’s Popular Struggle for Health Rights from Civil War to Neoliberal Peace, illuminates how the Salvadoran Government, with military aid from the United States, adopted a method of counter-insurgency measures that relied on fear as a method of societal control: “Col. John Wagelstein, former head of the U.S. military team in El Salvador, referred to intervention as a ‘laboratory’ for development of a post-Vietnam LIC strategy [. . . .] he called LIC warfare ‘total war at the grassroots,’ involving ‘political, economic, and psychological warfare,’ with the military having the least important role” (115). Low Intensity Warfare, as it was waged in El Salvador, ultimately resulted in state sponsored terror. It is precisely the state of terror produced by Low Intensity Warfare that Didion captures in Salvador, and which takes center stage in her recollections from the two weeks she spends in the country.

            Although both Un dia en la vida(One Day in the Life) and Salvador are examples of testimonial writing, Argueta’s narrative is framed through the experiences of the peasants of El Salvador who are directly impacted by state violence; while, Didion is reacting and documenting that same violence but from the point of view of an outsider. Argueta in Un dia en la vida(One Day in the Life) vividly captures the vernacular of the poor peasants of Chalatenango, thereby telling the story of their struggle through the use of their own language. By describing their suffering and resilience in the language of the countryside, Argueta is able to capture a unique perspective of the conflict, one that is not favored by the Salvadoran government. Therefore, the experience of Guadalupe and her community becomes a new representation of the Salvadoran Civil War. For instance, in an interview in Hispamerica by Zulma Nelly Martínez, Argueta elaborates on the importance of writing using the vernacular of the poor peasants of Chalatenango: “Es un tema tan importante esto de que el pueblo es su lenguaje, y de que una forma de reivindicar al pueblo es dejarlo que hable con su propia voz  ¿verdad? [It’s something that is important because the people are their language, and one way to allow the people to exert their demands, is to allow them to speak using their own voice, right?” (pp 49). Indeed, by utilizing the language of the poor of Chalatenango, Argueta is allowing the characters to tell their own personal stories while capturing the spirit of their language. Here Argueta is borrowing from a trope that is pivotal to Testimonio, because by utilizing the language of the poor, Argueta is cementing their experience in a particular time and place—Chalatenango during the onset of war.

            Didion, unlike Argueta, does not rely on the language of the poor to document the societal terror throughout the country; rather, she relies on her own troubling observations and a sense of dark irony to interpret the terror perpetuated around her. Salvador is focalized through Didion’s point of view as she recounts the dead that seem to spring up throughout El Salvador. She writes, “The dead and pieces of the dead turn up in El Salvador everywhere, every day, as taken for granted as in a nightmare, or a horror movie. Vultures of course suggest the presence of a body” (19). For Didion, the dead are faceless individuals that are reduced to mere objects of terror. Indeed, Didion herself becomes desensitized towards the faceless dead and she begins to take their appearance for granted, a coping strategy that is seemingly employed by the population as a whole. The terror that surrounds Didion, a terror that is all too common for the Salvadoran population, becomes overwhelming. In an effort to make sense of the terror, Didion adopts a stance of dark irony to distance herself from the dead. Noel Valis in “Fear and Torment in El Salvador,” explains that: “For Didion, only irony befits the lucidity of an outsider. And it is in the ferocious dissection of details where this irony holds sway” (120). In other words, for Didion as an outsider, the terror inducing climate of El Salvador can only be understood through the irony that is omnipresent. Didion’s dark irony can be seen in how she describes a prominent location known for the dumping of dead bodies: “Others turn up at Puerta del Diablo, above Parque Balboa, a national Turicentro described as recently as the April-July 1982 issue of Aboard TACA, the magazine provided passengers on the national airline of El Salvador, as ‘offering excellent subjects for color photography’” (19). Didion points at the irony of La Puerta del Diablo as being broadcasted as a tourist destination, while for many Salvadorans it has been the site of their own personal hell. Clearly Didion exposes the difference between the reality on the ground, and that being broadcasted by media outlets such as the magazine provided aboard El Salvador’s national airline. Didion’s irony is a realization between what is being said and what exists; she is able to perceive the blatant falsehood of the master narrative, one that attempts to erase the wide spread terror throughout El Salvador. By capturing the state of terror that continues to paralyze the country, Didion is able to illustrate the reality of Salvadorans during the early years of the civil war.

            Unlike Argueta who relies on the language of the poor to tell their story, Didion, as an outsider, foregoes the Spanish language all together and instead documents the violence of the Salvadoran conflict from her own U.S. influenced perspective. Although that is not to say that Didion does not perceive that the violence in El Salvador is horrific, but that in her narrative it is apparent that she exercises a particular level of distancing brought on by her situation as a white woman from the United States. Didion’s distancing manifests itself in two particular ways: the first being a physical distancing, the second being an emotional distancing. Didion is in close vicinity to the violence around her, she constantly writes about the dead bodies that are ever present throughout El Salvador. Besides the dead bodies that litter public spaces, Didion only interacts with military personnel. She dedicates no narrative breaths to describe or document the life of the Salvadoran population, the same population that is being most impacted by the violence. Her physical distancing from the Salvadoran population ultimately leads to her emotional distancing. Didion, talks about the dead, not the living. Furthermore, Didion opens her book with an excerpt from the Heart of Darkness, in particular the instance when Marlow finds Kurtz’s diary that begins with high hopes of civilizing the native Congolese, only to curtail his noble intention with the last lines from his journal that proclaim “Exterminate all the Brutes.” Didion draws a parallel between herself and the protagonist of Heart of Darkness, Marlow. Didion, like Marlow, becomes the outsider detailing the terror of a foreign nation to her compatriots back home. As such, Didion describes the Salvadoran conflict as yet another failed Latin nation, a “political tropic alien to us” (96). Didion clearly show her unfamiliarity with the culture of El Salvador, which in turn hinders her perspective on the Salvadoran conflict. She perceives Salvadorans as a foreign people, and distills their suffering into a neatly packaged catch-phrase. As an outsider, Didion’s observations at times take on a hue of ignorance for the culture of the people of El Salvador, creating a narrative that exposes suffering and nothing more. Indeed, Didion is influenced by her position as an outsider, and unlike Argueta does not possess the same cultural familiarity with the Salvadoran population.

            For both Didion and Argueta, their narrative testimonios serve as discourses that directly challenge the hegemonic discourse perpetuated by the Salvadoran government and its military ally the United States. Both Salvador and Un dia en la vida(One Day in the Life) function as particular discourses, creating a different avenue for the understanding of the conflict. Michel Foucault brilliantly constructs a “theory of discourse” in which discourse, or language, can be manipulated by societal structures such as government to subjugate a people. According to Foucault “The growth of a capitalist economy gave rise to the specific modality of disciplinary power, whose general formulas, technique of submitting forces and bodies, in short, ‘political anatomy’ could be operated in the most diverse political regimes, apparatuses, or institutions.” (221, reader). El Salvador throughout the latter part of the twentieth century, had been ruled by a social elite whose influence was legitimized by the force of the Salvadoran military. Lynn V. Foster in A Brief History of Central America, illustrates the vast inequality of resources that ultimately led to the break out of civil war:

[In the 1970’s and 80’s] The ’14 families’ of the oligarchy (extimated by this time to actually form an extended dynastic network of 254 families) had long concentrated the most valuable lands in its hands and owned 95 percent of the land, none of it used to grow subsistence crops. At the same time El Salvador had the densest population in Central America. (244)

Therefore in order for the Salvadoran government and the elite to maintain their dominance over the rest of the population as explained by Foucault, the power structure utilized by the state to discipline and regulate the bodies of the population permeated into every facet of the country. For instance, universities became military bunkers; police became executioners; and most importantly, the armed forces whose sole purpose is to protect the population against outside threats began pointing their guns towards Salvadorans themselves. Yet another way that the Salvadoran government attempted to maintain their power, their dominance, over the civilian population was through the control of discourse, or language. Foucault’s theory of discourse and power is useful in analyzing the pervasive violence throughout the country, and his insight into discourses is incredibly applicable to the Salvadoran government’s methods of manipulating the public, and international, discourse in regards to the Civil War. Both Un dia en la vida(One Day in the Life) and Salvador, act as counter discourses that challenged the discourse perpetuated by the Salvadoran State, thereby exposing the existence of state terror throughout the country.

            Argueta illustrates how changing discourses had the impact of politicizing a vast number of the peasants in the country side. In Un dia en la vida(One Day in the Life) it is evident that religion, Catholicism for Guadalupe, plays a pivotal role. Indeed, religion serves as a moral framework for the peasants of Chalatenango, and they readily apply what they are taught by Catholic priests. Guadalupe explains how she had grown accustomed to the death of her young children, as a result of the poverty created in the country side, a symptom of what Foucault label’s “The growth of a capitalistic economy.” Guadalupe illustrates the profound level of indoctrination she experiences from the Catholic teachings of the priests who visit “el kilómetro”: “Tanto nos enganchaba el padre que hasta corazón de piedra nos estábamos haciendo. Ni siquiera lloré a mi hijo pues la muerte se me hacía tan natural que dábamos gracias a dios por llevárselo, convencidos de la razón del cura que venía cada quince días al kilómetro a reconfortarnos por nuestras penas. [Well, the priest had so enthralled us that even our hearts had turned to stone. I didn’t even cry for my son when he died, because death had become so natural that we thanked God for taking him away—persuaded by what the priest who’d come very two weeks to our part of Chalate would say to comfort us]” (22). Guadalupe, like her community of “el kilómetro,” has been driven to accept their societal circumstances, even led to believe that their situation as poor land tenants is justified by God. What little hope Guadalupe and her community possess is grounded in the hope that death will only bring them closer to God. The Catholic Church, as described by Guadalupe, functions as a tool of the oppressive elite and maintains the status-quo by engendering in the peasant population a degree of fatalism. Fatalism, and the hopes to attain a better life in heaven while suffering on earth, is but a discourse that serves the power structure of the government and the oligarchy. It is not until the priests visiting “el kilómetro” start to perpetuate discourses that counteract the discourses of the government, that the residents of “el kilómetro” begin to question their impoverished circumstances.  

            As depicted in Un dia en la vida(One Day in the Life)¸ a younger generation of priests begins to disseminate a different discourse among the residents of “el kilómetro” regarding structural sin, or the sin of poverty caused by the unequal distribution of wealth. Guadalupe explains that once the younger priests began to arrive in “el kilómetro” they spoke of a different way of addressing the rampant poverty experienced by the poor peasants. The newly arrived priests begin to instruct the residents of “el kilómetro” in a new way of thinking, contrary to what they had been previously taught: “Uno de ellos nos repetía siempre: para ganarnos el cielo primero debemos luchar por hacer el paraíso en la tierra. Fuimos comprendiendo que la cosa estaba major así. Y les preguntábamos por qué los curas anteriores nos obligaban a conformarnos. Olídense de los curas anteriores, nos decían estos curas jóvenes. [One of them would always repeat to us: ‘To get to heaven, first we must struggle to create a paradise on earth.’ We began to understand that it was better this way. And we would ask them why the priests before them forced us to conform. ‘Forget the previous ones,” these younger priests would say]” (23). Nevertheless, social equality, which was at the root of the revolutionary teachings of the new priests, did not coincide with the structural domination imposed by the Salvadoran government. Argueta describes the efforts of the Military police to undercut the peasant population’s adoption of a new discourse differing from that of the state. Seeing that the peasants are becoming aware of their societal subjugation, the Guard quickly attempts to curtail the influence of the priests. Guadalupe describes how the Guardsmen bar anyone from attending mass: “Sí, vamos a misa y viera señor agente lo bueno que es este curita, no es como los otros. Y que si esos hijos de puta aquí y esos hijos de puta de allá, culeros con sotana [‘Yes, we’re going to Mass and you should see how good the priest is, Officer, he isn’t like the others.’ And were those sons of bitches here and those sons of bitches there, faggots in robes]” (28). The Guardsmen view the new priests with increasing disfavor and describe them as “hijos de puta [mother fuckers]” and “culeros [faggots]” for their role in disseminating a new discourse among the peasant masses of “el kilómetro.” Moreover, the Guardsmen resort to the draconian measure of not allowing the peasants to attend mass: “[Y] si nos tenían catequizados para que les desobedeciéramos, apunto so el cañón del fusil, y era mejor nos retirársnos de la capilla. [Were the priests] giving us religious instruction for the purpose of disobeying them? And they’d point the barrels of their guns at us, and we’d better stay away from the chapel]” (28). The scene at the church depicts the extreme actions of the Guardsmen as they attempt to enforce the official discourse of the Salvadoran government. The peasants are drawn to the teaching of the new priests for they advocate for structural change, a type of change which counters the subjugation of the Government. By way of the new priests, the peasants of the “el kilómetro” become increasingly aware of the subjugation they face, a dangerous circumstance for those who hold absolute power.

            By focalizing the early politicization of the people of “el kilómetro” through the intimate perspective of Guadalupe, Argueta provides an account that is rooted in the experience of those who live in the countryside, thus communicating the experience of the poor of Chalatenango. Argueta is capturing the moment in which religion was paired with a discourse of societal change. Through the character of Guadalupe, Argueta is documenting the change that occurred in rural communities as soon as liberation theology began to make its way into areas like Chalatenanago. Ignacio Martín Baró in Writings for a Liberation Psychology, explains how the process of concientizacíon led to the awakening of the conscious of the poor though open dialogue, thus granting rural communities the ability to denounce the power structures that dominated them:

[T]he process of concentizacíon assumes an escape from the reproductive machinery of the relationships of dominance and submission, for it can be realized only thought dialogue. The dialectical process that allows individuals self-knowledge and self-acceptance presuppose a radical change in social relations, to a condition where there would be neither oppressors nor oppressed. (42)

By engaging in diologue not only with the priests, but with themselves, the community of “el kilómetro” is able to analyze their particular social subjugation. As such, Guadalupe and her community see themselves as agents of change and are finally able to see that the Guardsmen are mere agents who enforce the will of the government. Argueta in Un dia en la vida(One Day of Life) focuses on the new consciousness of the peasants of Chalatenango, thereby crafting an account, a testimony of how the peasant population came to be involved politically. Not only that, Argueta documents and exposes the violent reaction of the military, as they begin to exercise a level of fear and control in order to maintain the peasants of “el kilómetro” subjugated.

            Argueta does not only speak to the internal struggles of the peasants in the country side, but also delves into the psyche of the Guards in order to expose the degree of hatred they possess towards the rural population. Argueta shows that the Guards who enforce the will of the oppressive government are themselves poor peasants. In the chapter titled “Ellos [The Authorities]” the perspective shifts from Guadalupe to an unknown narrator who speaks about the social mobility that occurs when one joins the ranks of the military: “Viera que nosotros nunca habíamos comido con tenedor, ni cuchara, no se imagina el lujo, brillan como si fueran de plata, o de oro [. . . .] Bueno, todo es paraíso. ¿Qué más podemos pedir? [We’d never eaten with knife and fork; the luxury is unimaginable—they shine as if they were of silver or gold [. . . .] As far as everything else is concerned we live like kings]” (73/90). Clearly, the speaker is a member of the same poor community that he is terrorizing. Furthermore, the speaker mentions how he must defend the country even at the expense of his countrymen and defend the “Western” world. Argueta sheds light on how the individuals belonging to the military police and the armed forces are enticed by the promise of luxuries and a noble cause. The speaker describes how a foreign advisor from the United States engages in a harrowing exercise with those who he trains: “El profesor nos pone a gritar: ‘¿Quién es el peor enemigo de nosotros?’ y nosotros respondemos a gritos: ‘El pueblo.’ Y así por el estilo: ‘¿Quién es el peor enemigo de la democracia?’ Y respondemos todos: ‘El Pueblo.’ [The trainer shouts, ‘Who is our worst enemy?’ And we shout, ‘The people!’And so on and so on, “Who is the worst enemy of democracy?’ And we all respond, ‘The people’]” (92). Argueta is illustrating how the authorities are subjected to a particular form of discourse, one that is repeatedly communicated to them. The speaker is constantly told that “the people” are his enemies and thus internalizes hatred, a discourse of violence geared towards the prosecution of the peasants of El Salvador. Argueta’s blending of narratives of both the poor of Chalatenango and the authorities who oppress them, creates a text in which the collision of discourses can be seen in clear relief.

            Didion creates a counter discourse to document a reality that comes into conflict with the official reality that is perpetuated by both the Salvadoran government and the United States. In Salvador, Didion sheds light on the constant conversation surrounding the arrival of military aid from the United States, she illustrates the effort of the Regan administration to paint the Salvadoran government as making strides in respects to human rights, only months after the massacre that occurred in El Mozote, a small hamlet in rebel occupied territory:

At the time I was in El Salvador, six months after the events referred to as the Mozote massace and a month or so before President Reagan’s July 1982 certification that sufficient progress was being made in specific areas (‘human rights,’ and ‘land reform,’ and ‘the initiation of a democratic process,’ phrases so remote in situ as to render them hallucinatory) to qualify El Salvador for continuing aid, a major offensive was taking place in Morazán, up in the mean hill country between the garrison town of San Francisco Gotera and the Honduran border. (38-39)

Didion’s testimony describes the harsh reality in El Salvador, one that is alien to the U.S. president who continues to provide aid to the Salvadoran military. Mark Danner’s The Massacre at El Mozote, documents how the United States refused to acknowledge the massacre that occurred in the remote hamlet in an effort to continue aid to El Salvador: “[T]he United States had no choice but to go on supporting a ‘friendly’ regime, however disreputable it might seem, because the alternative—the possibility of another Communist victory in the region—was clearly worse” (9). It is evident to Didion that the United States refuses to acknowledge that it is supplying military aid to a regime that is enacting violence on a mass scale, and against civilians. As illustrated by Danner, the massacre at El Mozote was forgotten by the government of the United States; however, Didion holds the United States accountable for the violence that she experiences around her. Didion claims that the illusion that El Salvador can be managed—can be controlled—is pervasive in the rhetoric of U.S. politicians and diplomats who are in favor of intervention. Didion’s account stands as a stark contrast to what is being announced by President Reagan; therefore, creating a reality that challenges the dominating discourse perpetuated by both the United States government and the government of El Salvador.

            Didion also focuses on the language that is utilized by the Salvadoran government and the United States to expose how language serves as tool of manipulation. Didion explains how there are particular words that fill the air waves in El Salvador, particular catchphrases that have come to acquire a mysterious, and, yet, concrete meaning in the country. She writes, “Language has always been used a little differently in this part of the world [. . .] but, ‘improvement’ ‘perception’ and ‘pacification’ derive from another tradition. Language as it is now used in El Salvador is the language of advertising, of persuation, the product being one or another of the soluciones crafted in Washington or Panama or Mexico, which is part of the place’s pervasive obscenity” (65). Didion touches on how the conflict is given shape by the use of language. She explains that the war in El Salvador is constantly being framed by those in power, in the attempt to broadcast the conflict as justifiable. Language is arranged, put together, constructed, outside of the country then shipped within its borders. Didion explains that no discourse regarding the human toll of the conflict, or the Salvadoran Force’s brazen disregard for human life, permeate into the public discourse. Foucault, once again sheds light on the notion of language and in particular, language that is prohibited: “In appearance, speech may well be of little account, but the prohibitions surrounding it soon reveal its links with desire and power” (216). For Didion, it is evident that the power of words does not escape the Salvadoran government. In addition, the “official” government discourse is so pervasive, and absolute, as to prohibit any other counter discourses from permeating into the public sector via media outlets. Didion exposes the Salvadoran government’s reliance on terror and the prohibition of counter-discourse in order to maintain its legitimacy. 

            Didion calls the language that attempts to shape the Salvadoran conflict deceitful and removed from reality. Didion call the refusal of the United States government to accept the reality of the conflict an “American delusion.” Didion demonstrates how the war effort in El Salvador has become more than an effort to undercut communism, but a terrible effort at redemption, a redemption proving that years of costly wars in Central America produced one ray of success—a U.S. supported victory in El Salvador. Didion writes, “I experienced the official American delusion, the illusion of plausibility, the sense that the American undertaking in El Salvador might turn out to be, from the right angle, in the right light, just another difficult but possible mission in another troubled but possible country” (88). Didion unmasks the hubris with which the United States operates in nations like El Salvador, and Latin America in general. By depicting the violence and overall deterioration of Salvadoran society due to the ongoing war, Didion communicates how disconnected Washington’s politicians are from the reality of El Salvador. Didion in Salvador, presents a “truth” that is documented through her own testimony in order to lay bare the reality of the terror that has gripped El Salvador.

            In closing, Un dia en la vida (One Day of Life) and Salvador are two testimonial texts that function as counter-discourses which challenge the hegemonic discourse perpetuated by the military regime of El Salvador. However, both take starkly different approaches to challenging the hegemonic discourse of the Salvadoran government. Argueta voices his critique of the oppressive Salvadoran government through the internal monologues of a peasant woman, whose community is undoubtedly the most impacted by the violence in the country. Argueta humanizes the rural poor of El Salvador, and presents the experience of the most vulnerable members of Salvadoran society to challenge the Salvadoran state. Didion, on the other hand, performs the role of careful observer relaying the pervasive terror that riddles civil-war stricken El Salvador—a ubiquitous terror that is denied by both the U.S. and Salvadoran government. Although it should be mentioned that Didion as an outsider lacks the cultural background necessary to humanize the victims of terror, which Argueta does masterfully. Both texts, nevertheless, function as counter narratives, and while examined in tandem posses the added advantage of exposing the subjugating master narrative of the Salvadoran government from different points of view. Both Un dia en la vida (One Day of Life) and Salvador are examples of literature with a purpose which seek out to dismantle the subjugating master narrative perpetuated by the Salvadoran Government, with the hope of securing justice and dignity for the people of El Salvador.

Works Cited

Argueta, Manlio. Un Dia en la Vida. 26th edition.UCA Editores, San Salvador, El Salvador,        2017.

Argueta, Manlio. One Day of Life. Translated by Bill Brow, Vintage Books, New York. 1991.

Cervantes-Soon, Claudia G. “Testimonios of life and learning in the Borderlands: Subaltern         Juárez Girls Speak.” Routledge. 2017.

Danner, Mark. The Massacre at El Mozote. New York, Vintage, 1994.

Didion, Joan. Salvador. Pocket Books, New York, N.Y. 1983.

Elisabeth Burgos-Debray. Introduction. I, Rigoberta Menchú: an Indian Woman in           Guatemala. Verso, 2010.

Foucault, Michel. The Archeology of Knowledge and the Discourse of Language. New York:       Pantheon Books, 1972.

Foucault, Michel. The Foucault Reader. Edited by Paul Rabinow. New York: Pantheon, 1984.

Martín-Baró, Ignacio. Writings for a Liberation Psychology. Edited by Adrianne Aron and           Shawn Corne. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1994.

Martínez, Zulma Nelly, and Manlio Argueta. “Manlio Argueta.” Hispamérica, vol. 14, no. 42,      1985, pp. 41–54. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20539119.

Rodríguez Ana Patricia. Dividing the Isthmus: Central American Transnational Histories,            Literatures, and Cultures. University of Texas Press, 2010.

Smith Nonini, Sandy. Healing the Body Politic: El Salvador’s Popular Struggle for Health          Rights from Civil War to Neoliberal Peace. New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press,            2010.

Valis, Noël. “Fear and Torment in El Salvador.” Massachusetts Review, vol. 48, no. 1, Spring     2007, pp. 117–131.

Ryan Carroll: Performing Passage

Ryan Carroll, George Washington University

Ryan Carroll is a student at The George Washington University studying English and Linguistics. Academically, he is interested in the modernism, comparative literature, and the intersection between literature and the pragmatics of language, particularly the way in which language both performs and shapes conceptual understandings of the world. His current research deals with the way in which the novels of Virginia Woolf and Gabriel García Márquez approach subjectivity and contradiction as modes of understanding the world. Previously, he has been published in the Paper Shell Review, a literary review journal at the University of Maryland.


            Passage, by its nature, is a phenomenon entwined with both ideology and utterance—passage is an inherently ideological act, and it is utterance that manifests this ideology. My paper works to explore this relationship, examining the ways in which performative utterances (or speech acts), first theorized by J.L. Austin, provide a window into the ideological underpinnings of passage; specifically, I employ both Austin’s work and Edward Said’s Orientalism to analyze ideology and passage in Chaucer’s The Prioress’s Tale. The Tale, I argue, is comprised of a number of speech acts (made by the Tale’scharacters, the Prioress, and Chaucer’s own narrator) that highlight and perform passage between different geographical, identarian, and conceptual spaces. Within the narrative, performative utterances by Satan, God, and a young boy all work to propel a narrative of conflicted passage, in which the boy, a Christian, attempts to pass through a Jewish space, fails, and is murdered, subsequently igniting a religious conflict. Through this conflict, I argue, the story demonstrates that utterances perform ideologies into realities, which, consequently, serve to redefine the act of passage with real consequences. Furthermore, in examining the metanarrative of the poem, I assert that the Prioress’s utterance of the story represents an Orientalist speech act that generates the concept of the alien East into existence. Simultaneously, Chaucer’s narrator attempts to use utterance to pass between the conflicting narratorial identities of himself and the Prioress, resulting in a narrative distinction that potentially ironizes—but ultimately does not negate—the Prioress’s Orientalism. Thus, I indicate that performative utterances are also a powerful element of passage between both identities and conceptually imagined spaces. Ultimately, I argue that, as The Prioress’ Tale exemplifies, utterance is a crucial lens through which one may examine passage: utterance initiates, marks, and performs the ideology that defines passage itself.

Performing Passage: The Prioress’ Tale, Orientalism, and Austinian Performative Utterances

The act of passage is something deeply meaningful in both the contemporary and the early modern world, with the act of movement between spaces—whether they be through tangible spaces, through culturally generated spaces, or identarian spaces—being a powerful force in defining those spaces and shaping the events that emerge out of them. Within all these acts of passage is contained a certain ideological meaning: to move from one space to another, whether crossing a national border, entering a particular cultural space, or, as Edward Said articulates in Orientalism, conceptually passing into a certain identity, is to commit an act loaded with powerful, ideologically defined meaning—ideology ontologically transforms motion into  transit, trespass, or infiltration. Especially crucial in this dynamic is the force that directly generates this ideological meaning: linguistic utterance. Utterance, a concept defined by the linguistic theory of J. L. Austin,plays a key role in the performance and definition of ideologies of passage, with communicative utterances performing and propagating the worldviews that, in turn, define the nature and impacts of passage. Over the course of this paper, I will focus on this dynamic, exploring it by analyzing its influence in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. By using J.L. Austin’s “Performative Utterances” and Edward Said’s Orientalism as lenses to, I will analyze the role of utterance, ideology, and passage in Chaucer’s The Prioress’s Tale,I will argue that to make passage is never just to pass, but rather is an act shaped and defined by ideology, which, in turn, is generated through utterance.

Before going further, it is critical to establish the precise nature of Austin’s and Said’s rhetoric.  Austin’s “Performative Utterances,” for its part, examines the way in which speech extends beyond simply describing reality and instead works to perform certain understandings of reality. Many of these utterances, called speech acts, work to enact specific social functions; the utterances of “I now pronounce you husband and husband” or “I sentence you to twenty years in prison,” for example, performatively reify a marriage or a judicial sentence. Other speech acts, however, are subtler in their effect, appearing as descriptive statements but actually serving to perform a rhetorical position that perceives the world in a certain manner; indeed, Austin says, “when we state something or describe something or report something, we do perform an act which is every bit as much an act as an act of ordering or warning.” (Austin 1299). Even when purporting to state the fact of an event or description, an utterance works to implicitly influence the thoughts and actions of those who receive it, conveying a description of “truth” that is itself grounded in a certain understanding of that truth; Austin labels this power as the “force of utterance”.[1] To make a seemingly descriptive statement like this chair is red, for example, is to convey a number of assumptions—that the a given item accords with the definitions of a chair, that a certain color can be designated red, that the speaker has the power and knowledge to understand and define what chair or red are, etc.Ultimately, however, Austin does not fully articulate the nature of a force of utterance, simply suggesting that utterances are frequently rhetorical and often fall outside a simple true-false dichotomy. Subsequently, he offers that it is necessary to explore performative utterances further. Austin does not delve deeply into the intentionality behind speech acts, mentioning that some performative utterances may effect “felicitous” and “infelicitous” consequences, but leaving unclear the question of whether these utterances necessarily require intentionality. It is in this space of ambiguity that The Prioress’ Tale and Orientalism may offer valuable insight into Austin’s theory, providing powerful examples of the way in which utterances act not simply to describe fact but to assert (sometimes unintentionally) certain understandings of the world.

For Said’s part, Orientalism investigates the phenomenon in which Western authors conceive of the East (“Orient”) as an alien Other, thereby defining the West through opposition as a superior “civilized” power. The pattern of Orientalism, Said explains, largely manifests on the surface of a text, building its most basic ideas around the assumption of the East as an exotic and uncivilized domain separate from the West. Indeed, he specifies that Western authors, when engaging in Orientalist rhetoric, strategically locate themselves in relation to the East, creating narratives that alienate, exoticize, and deprive agency from the East in order to reinforce a hierarchical dynamic of control over it. In assessing the power of Orientalist rhetoric, Said argues that Orientalism’s power extends beyond simple theory or propaganda, and that “the Orient is an idea that has a history and a tradition of thought, imagery, and vocabulary that have given it reality and presence in and for the West”—that is, the West and East “support and to an extent reflect each other” (Said 1869). Thus, Orientalist rhetoric does not simply describe the Western imaginings of the East, but rather brings into being a certain version of the East, resulting in real consequences.

In this paper, I will endeavor to examine the way in which one work, Chaucer’s The Prioress’s Tale, offers rich insight into the power of speech to perform the ideologies that generate and influence passage. In doing so, I will engage with Austin’s “Performative Utterances” and Said’s Orientalism in order to understand the manner in which passage is mediated and manifested in speech.Using Austin’s Speech Act Theory and Said’s Orientalism in a linguistic analysis of the text, the entirety of The Prioress’s Tale can be viewed as a series of speech acts, all of which produce powerful forces of utterance that, through rhetoric, mark and perform acts of passage through different geographical, identarian, and conceptual spaces. Both the narrative of the tale and the frame itself, are comprised of a number of speech acts that, beyond making simple descriptive proclamations, work to perform certain the ideologies that underpin passage into concrete realities—even, at times, doing so unintentionally. Within the story, the character of Christian boy, in performing a song, unintentionally asserts an ideological affront against the city’s Jewish community, while Satan’s manipulative “description” of the boy’s song functions to assert another ideology that turns the Jewish crowd against the boy. Through this conflict, the story demonstrates that utterances perform and transform ideologies into realities, which, consequently, contour and define acts of passage themselves. In the frame text, Chaucer’s narrator “utters” the story in such a way as to rhetorically separate the Prioress from himself, implying a kind of irony to the tale and its problematic Orientalist rhetoric—while, simultaneously, the very utterance of The Prioress’ Tale’s Orientalism also manifests into existence a problematic conception of the East, regardless of any ironic intent. In this way, it is clear that performative utterances are also a powerful element of passage between both identities and conceptually imagined spaces. Ultimately, then, examining the texts in light of one another provides the opportunity to develop a broad understanding of passage, indicating that utterance functions to perform into existence the ideologythat contours and alters passage itself.

Utterance and Passage Between Spaces in the Tale

            Within The Prioress’ Tale, the relationship between performative speech and passage is plainly clear. The central figure of the Tale is a young Christian boy in a city cohabited by Jews and Christians, who becomes captivated by and constantly sings a hymn, the Alma Redemptoris Mater, in praise of the Blessed Virgin Mary—leading to his murder as he passes through the Jewish ghetto. Immediately clear in the story is that an utterance as simple and straightforward as a song (which, the Tale takes care to note, “pass[es] thrugh his throte” (Chaucer 548)) carries a performative force of utterance—it performs a certain understanding of the world into existence by the fact of its performance—and that this force carries an ideological understanding of passage regardless of any intention. Indeed, the boy is referred to three separate times as being “innocent,” and the narrator notes that “The swetnesse his herte perced so / Of Cristes mooder that, to hire to preye, / He kan nat stynte of syngyng by the weye” (Chaucer 555-557)—he sings not out of malintent, but rather because he is enraptured with the song and believes in the Christian understanding of the world that it reflects. In fact, neither he nor his Christian compatriots nor the Jewish inhabitants of the city know exactly what the lyrics of the song mean, as they do not speak Latin—though, nonetheless, its form as a Christian liturgical hymn (the Alma Redemptoris Mater, in its elongated sounds, extreme pitch changes, and Latin lyrics, evokes the sound of devotional monastic singing),makes the song discernible as a uniquely Christian kind of utterance. Regardless of his innocent intentions, the boy’s utterance of the song still conveys a distinct ideology that ultimately defines his passage in a particular way: in its devotional, hymnal form, its distinctly Christian timbre and sound, the utterance conveys a singularly Christian understanding of the world—thus defining the boy’s act of passage in a distinctly Christian way, whether he himself understands it or not. In this way, one can see that the song is more than a simple song, more than a descriptive utterance of Christian faith. Rather, it is an utterance that performs a Christian understanding of the world and in this way alters and defines the nature of the boy’s passage through the ghetto—it reframes his act of movement from something innocent and simple to something Christian in nature. The fact that he moves through a Jewry while singing a Christian song means that the very act of passage is altered: he is not simply making a neutral passage through a generic area, but rather is making a Christian passage through a non-Christian space. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that his utterance and its ensuing ideology pose an existential attack against the city’s Jews, propounding an ideology that designates their understanding of the world to be false and designating their space as one that may be casually traversed by a Christian force.

The Tale further explores the power of utterance through the figure of Satan, who is able to use a seemingly descriptive utterance to propound a particular understanding of the world, which in turn reinterprets and fundamentally defines the boy’s act of passage. Soon after the boy begins singing the song on the way home from school, Satan appears to the inhabitants of the Jewish ghetto:

[Satan] Up swal, and seide, “O Hebrayk peple, allas!

Is this to yow a thyng that is honest,

That swich a boy shal walken as hym lest

In youre despit, and synge of swich sentence,

Which is agayn youre lawes reverence?”

Fro thennes forth the Jues han conspired

This innocent out of this world to chace. (Chaucer 560-566)

In this moment, Satan does not issue an explicit command or request to kill the boy. Rather, through the “simple” act of description—loaded with language implying a certain understanding of the world—he is able to rhetorically assert his conception of morality as truth, thereby reinterpreting the boy’s act of passage in order to manipulate the thoughts of the Jewish listeners and lead them to murder the boy. In this way, his linguistic utterance is able to perform an ideology that alters the nature of the boy’s passage, twisting it from innocent transit to violent trespass worthy of death. Indeed, Chaucer’s language explicitly evokes a form of passage in describing the consequences of Satan’s utterance: the assembled Jews chase the boy out of the living world. As a result, resounding with Austin’s assertion that few, if any, utterances actually describe real truth or falsehood but rather convey ideologies of truth, the text is able to display the power of a supposedly descriptive utterance to perform an ideology that alters passage itself.

Further, in the events following the boy’s death, the Tale affirms the power of utterance to perform and alter passage. After the murder, the boy’s mother frantically searches for him in the Jewish quarter, and, after discovering his body, begins to weep—whereupon God and the Virgin Mary intercede and allow the boy to sing:

O grete God, that parfournest thy laude

By mouth of innocentz, lo, heere thy myght! […]

Ther he with throte ykorven lay upright,

He Alma redemptoris gan to synge

So loude that al the place gan to rynge.

 [Subsequently, the city’s Christian assemble to witness the miracle, prompting the magistrate to arrest and execute the Jews aware of the murder] (Chaucer 607-608, 611-613)

In the poem’s own words, God Himself uses the boy as a conduit to “parfournest [His] laude”, perform the ideological power of Christianity; the very utterance of the song reifies the Christian understanding of the world and contours meaningful acts of passage, enabling God to make passage into the physical world, redefining the boy’s own act of passage, and legitimates the act of passage back into the Jewish space to arrest and brutally execute the murderers. As with Satan’s manipulation of the Jewish citizens, the boy’s miraculous utterance does not explicitly demand justice or revenge for the boy. Rather, in its very performance of Christian ideology (and passage) through speech, the utterance takes on a rhetorical power that redefines passage in such a way that authorizes the Christians to encroach the bounds of the Jewish ghetto and murder the perpetrators—the utterance performs an ideology that influences passage and its consequences. Thus, the events of the entire Tale work to offer a distinct way in which Austin’s power of utterance can be conceived. As Satan’s deception and the boy’s miraculous song indicate, even simple songs and descriptive statements may function to ideologically imprint acts of passage in such a way that shapes their nature and consequences. Furthermore, as the disparity between the innocuous intentions of the boy’s singing and its visceral effect on its Jewish listeners reflects, intention can be incidental to performative powers of utterance—that utterances perform understandings of truth regardless of what the utterer means by them. With or without intention, then, utterances perform ideologies into existence, which, in turn, may fundamentally alter the nature and consequence of an act of passage.

            Beyond the events within The Prioress’ Tale itself, the story’s framing further speaks to the nuanced power of performative utterance and passage—and to its ramifications for Said’s Orientalism. The events of The Canterbury Tales are not narrated by an omniscient voice but are rather reported by a human Narrator (who this paper will refer to as the Chaucer-Narrator), who voices other characters as they voice their own stories. Thus, the very fabric of The Prioress’ Prologue and Tale is composed of two overlapping utterances passing through one another: that of the Chaucer-Narrator narrating the frame story, and that of the Prioress voicing her own tale.[2] This tension is sharply clear when viewed through the lens of the text’s proto-Orientalist depiction of the East. In particular, the Prioress’ utterance of her story, and the othering rhetoric that she employs in describing the East, functions to fulfill Said definition of an Orientalist text existence, performing a rhetorical understanding of the Orient into existence (in this way, fabricating the Orient as a conceptual space and passing into it). On the other hand, the intrusion (passage) of the Chaucer-Narrator’s narratorial voice into the Tale alsoworks as a powerful utterance, one that performs an understanding of the Prioress that undermines her problematic rhetoric.

            Though not central to the plot of the Tale, the descriptive utterances that the Prioress employs in establishing the story subtly work to perform an early Orientalist ideology through the text, initiating a conceptual passage of their own. In the opening lines of the text, the Prioress’ narration immediately works to set the Tale not in the familiar West but in the alien, vaguely hostile East:

Ther was in Asye, in a greet citee,

Amonges Cristene folk a Jewerye,

Sustened by a lord of that contree

For foule usure and lucre of vileynye,

Hateful to Crist and to his compaignye; (Chaucer 488-494)

Here, the Prioress strategically locates herself as an entity separate from the nonspecific-but-malignant East—while simultaneously implying, through the very fact of her utterance, that she has the authority to rhetorically identify and pass through the East itself. In this way, her rhetoric can be seen as distinctly Orientalist in its nature, beginning to build “images, themes, and motifs [of the East] that circulate in [her] text—all of which add up to…ways of addressing the reader, containing the Orient, and…representing it or speaking in its behalf” (Said 1881). Further, the Prioress’ othering description of the East functions, as Said argues, to constitute a false version of the Orient for Western consumption—performing the Orient into existence through her utterance. Her utterance of her Orientalist story works to reify the hierarchical Western understanding of the East, performing an act of narratorial passage through the Orient that passes itself off as authentic passage through the true East. Consequently it is clear that, much as the utterances of the Christian boy and Satan perform certain understandings and wrought certain consequences within the Tale, the oration that forms the tale also carries significant power of utterance, enacting the dynamic of Orientalism itself into existence. Yet, in a different stroke from the utterances of passage in the Tale, the utterances in the frame tale actually constitute a form of passage in themselves, generating passage through the Orient and defining that passage as something genuine. This occurrence can work to expand the understanding of Austin’s power of utterance to include not just performances that affect tangible passages, but also those that affect purely conceptual passages, as both are deeply consequential for real-world events.

Utterance and Passage Between Voices in the Frame Story

            Simultaneously, the orating voice of the Chaucer-Narrator constitutes a performative utterance of its own, one which can be read as delegitimizing the narrative authority (and, one would imagine, the power of utterance) of the Prioress. In his reported utterance of The Prioress’s Tale, theChaucer-Narrator strives to separate his narratorial utterances from those of the Prioress herself—making an active passage (in this case, a kind of semiotic transit) between her voice and his—and does so more strongly than in any of the other stories in The Canterbury Tales. In the opening of The Prioress’s Prologue, Chaucer explicitly distinguishes the Prioress’ narration from that of his own narrator:

O Lord, oure Lord, thy name how merveillous

Is in this large worlde y-sprad—quod she—

Forn night only thy laude precious

Parfourned is by me of dignitee, (Chaucer 453-456)

Here, in an occurrence completely unique within The Canterbury Tales, the Chaucer-Narrator uses the phrase “quod she” to indicate that the utterance of the story originated from the Prioress—an insert that should be unnecessary, given that The Prioress’ Prologue, as with the other prologues, are uttered by only one speaker. Yet, the Chaucer-Narrator’s insertion persists, introducing a sort of qualification, doubt, into the Prioress’ narration and passing from her monologic narrative into a more dialogic narrative that he dictates.[3] In inserting himself into this tale specifically—as opposed to every other tale in The Canterbury Tales, in which there is a cohesive, definitive transition into the voice of each speaker—the Chaucer-Narrator seems to imply that her narrating utterance is so egregious, so dubious, that he must take special efforts to clarify that the utterance originates from her, not from him. There emerges, then, the implicit suggestion that the Prioress’s dialogue requires qualification, that it is not wholly reliable and should be seen as such. In taking particular, even excessive pains to distinguish their voices, the Chaucer-Narrator indirectly suggests a need to distinguish his authorized, definitive utterance from her unauthorized, unreliable utterance.  As a result, the Chaucer-Narrator’s utterance is able to perform an understanding of the Prioress that acts counter to the Prioress’ own narrative, offering the potential opportunity to reconsider the entire poem. In this way, the Chaucer-Narrator’s utterance may function, through passage, to metatextually characterize the poem, casting it not as an Orientalist text but as a purposefully, ironically problematic one. Moreover, Chaucer makes an additional effort to separate his voice from the Prioress’ in the body of the Tale:

O martir sounded to virginitee,

Now maystou singen, folwinge evere in oon

The whyte Lamb celestial—quod she— (Chaucer 579-581)

Here, Chaucer repeats the quod she, an occurrence that cannot be understated. This second use of the phrase (which, like the first, is placed at the end of a line, in a place that could not be changed in subsequent transcriptions and therefore is of great importance) solidifies the Chaucer-Narrator’s attention to qualifying and casting doubt on the Prioress’s own utterance, affirming that it is not a fluke or thoughtless construction but a meaningful aspect of the text. Again, despite the fact that it is obvious that the Prioress is speaking, the Chaucer-Narrator intrudes midway through the tale to call attention to the reported nature of the Prioress’ utterance, separating it from his own narrative authority. The Chaucer-Narrator breaks into her utterance and qualifies it just as she reaches a dramatic moment of  profound religious (and antisemitic) rage—not only deflating the drama of her utterance but also suggesting that her narration is so problematic that it requires an addendum, an implicit statement to distance it from the Chaucer-Narrator. Through this act of qualification, the Chaucer-Narrator’s utterance functions to potentially reframe the religious fervor of the Prioress’s narration from justified zeal to unauthorized, unreliable rage—giving the antisemitism of the story a kind of ironic character. Thus, the utterance, beyond simply describing the events of the frame story, may be seen as actively performing some subtext of The Prioress’ Tale, manifesting (if the reader considers the power of utterance strong enough) a passage between the voices of the Prioress’s voice and the Narrator’s voice that wholly recasts the nature of the Prioress’s original utterance. This interplay between utterances reflects another crucial lens through which passage and Austin’s power of utterance might be understood; utterances may affirm the ideological passage between different voices, which, in turn, brings about real consequences in meaning and ramification.

            Of course, the ability of a performative utterance to redefine passage between voices (and thus meaning) depends on whether it has considerable power of utterance. Viewed through the lens of Said’s Orientalism, and even despite the Chaucer-Narrator’s apparent delegitimization of the Prioress’ utterance, it is clear that the Orientalist ideology and effect of her utterance—that is, her false passage into the conceptual Orient—still remain. Although the Chaucer-Narrator’s intrusive passage into the Prioress’ oration can be interpreted as a strike against her credibility, the fact remains that this intrusion is subtle, available only through a deep stylistic analysis of the Chaucer-Narrator’s utterance. The Prioress’ utterance, on the other hand, lingers on the surface of the text, performing a passage through the Orient into existence regardless of any irony; this Orientalism exists plainly on the surface, and, as Said himself says, “[Orientalist analysis] does not entail analysis of what lies hidden in the Orientalist text, but analysis rather of the text’s surface, its exteriority to what it describes…Orientalism is premised on exteriority” (Said 1882). Thus, even despite the Chaucer-Narrator performing the unreliability of the Prioress’, the fact remains that the Prioress’ utterance is a strong Orientalist statement that endures in the text, and this utterance proves to create a more powerful form of passage than the passage between voices. Poignantly, much as the Christian boy performed, through song, an understanding of the world that led to his death despite his pure intentions, the Prioress’ utterance performs an Orientalist conception of the world that lingers, regardless of any ironic intention of Chaucer or the Chaucer-Narrator. Clearly, then, the intention behind an utterance is inconsequential if it is not able to alter the power of the utterance’s performance.

            Ultimately, The Prioress’ Tale offers the opportunity to examine and expand the phenomenon that Austin describes in “Performative Utterances,” and to reckon this phenomenon with that of Said’s Orientalism and with the concept of passage. Clearly, both the textual and metatextual utterances within the Tale serve to indicate that, as Austin began to theorize, speech acts do contain a power of utterance, not just enacting simple proclamations but also performing into existence certain understandings of the world. Indeed, the Tale can work to exhibit unexpected instances in which Austin’s theory may have powerful ramifications, introducing the idea that utterance may enable and redefine acts of passage between physical and ideological realms, which, in turn, may lead to complex felicitous and infelicitous consequences. Further, viewed in light of the Tale and Orientalism specifically, several elements of powers of utterance become clear. First, even descriptive statements contain rhetorically loaded language, and may perform understandings of passage that that alters passage itself and effects change in the world (as evidenced by the utterances within the text of the boy, Satan, and God-through-the-boy). Second, speech acts may subtly perform conceptual paradigms, such as Orientalism (as evidenced by the Prioress’ oration of Orientalist rhetoric), which manifests an act of passage into a false Eastern space. Third, speech acts may work to perform certain conceptions of and exercise certain influence over the passage from one voice to another (evidenced by the Chaucer-Narrator’s narrative intrusion into the Tale). Finally, intentionality does not, by any means, determine power of utterance (as evidenced by the lingering effect of the Prioress’ Orientalism). In considering Austin’s “Performative Utterance,” it is crucial to critically examine the ways in which utterance and passage intertwine with one another, with the ultimate consideration that practically all statements, no matter how “descriptive” they may appear, still function to perform a certain understanding of the world that fundamentally alter acts of passage and incite profound consequences for all passages.

Works Cited

Austin, John L. “Performative Utterances.” From Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism Second Edition, ed. Vincent B. Leitch, W.W. Norton, 2010, pp. 1289-301

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales: Fifteen Tales and the General Prologue: Authoritative Text, Sources and Backgrounds, Criticism. Eds. V. A. Kolve and Glending Olson, W.W. Norton, 2005.

Said, Edward. Excerpt from Orientalism. Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism Second Edition. ed. Vincent B. Leitch, W.W. Norton, 2010, pp. 1866-88.

[1] Austin first introduces the concept of force of utterance in“Performative Utterances,” but does not elaborate on the idea extensively. I draw specifically on page 1300 of my edition.

[2] And, indeed, of Chaucer himself—though this dynamic does not play into my analysis of the utterances in the Tale, as it runs the risk of more biographical inferences than I’m prepared to make.

[3] Indeed, he even positions “quod she” as the first part of a rhyme, not only emphasizing the phrase’s importance but also solidifying the phrase as an irreplaceable component of the poem’s rhythm (this fixture is particularly crucial to the poem, as the rhyme royal style of The Prioress’s Tale dictates a strict rhyme scheme).

Alexa Barger: Memory, Text, and Power

Alexa Barger, San Francisco State University

Alexa Barger is a graduate student at San Francisco State University, where she is working towards her M.A. in Comparative Literature. She received her B.A. in Transcultural Francophone Studies from Mills College. She is an editor for P ortals a nd a research assistant at the Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies at SFSU, as well as a teaching assistant in the Comparative and World Literature department. B arger works with literatures in English, French, Italian, and Spanish, with an emphasis on contemporary novels and non-fiction prose. Her current research interests include global feminist theory and women’s writing, literary representations of immigration, exile, and belonging, and digital humanities.


            As a literary format, the memoir often sees its subject equally as the author, narrator, and protagonist of its written narrative. However, the memoirist often feels equally compelled to develop a new sense of their cultural history through their life story. The use of memoir as a mode of cultural and historical expression is especially imperative for Senegalese writer Ken Bugul and Palestinian American scholar Edward Said. Bugul’s autobiographical text Le baobab fou (The Abandoned Baobab) focuses on the writer’s painful childhood, her studies at a French school in Senegal, and her early adult life in Belgium. Meanwhile, Said’s memoir Out of Place follows its author’s upbringing and education in Mandatory Palestine, Egypt, and the United States.

Though their memoirs emerge from disparate cultural and historical backgrounds, Bugul and Said both confront the institutions that defined the negative aspects of their upbringing and education. In particular, the two writers explore the traumatic rift between themselves and their cultural identities as a result of their internalization of colonial thought. Their exilic sense of self is further complicated by their strained relationships with their families and communities. Simultaneously, their narratives transcend the boundaries and binaries of their early experiences. By examining Le baobab fou and Out of Place as autobiographical and counter-colonial texts, I find that both writers attempt to define an identity that transcends the limitations of colonial/nationalist thought. By placing their narratives in conversation, I wish to draw attention to their efforts to create “new histories” – not only as affirmations of their personal struggles and triumphs, but as an effort to speak towards historical circumstances which are commonly negated within dominant historical narratives.

Memory, Text, and Power[1]: Ken Bugul, Edward Said, and Colonial Education

In their theoretical exploration of autobiographical writing, Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson reflect on the relationship between history and writing about the self: “When [memoirists] write to chronicle an event, to explore a certain time period, or to enshrine a community, they are making ‘history’” (10). The mission to create this new “history” becomes more complicated (and more vital) within the context of exile – a cultural and historical rupture that intercepts the relationship between the writer and their heritage. The Senegalese novelist Ken Bugul (pen name of Mariètou Mbaye, born 1947) and the Palestinian American scholar Edward Said (1935-2003) have both incorporated their lived experiences and knowledge of exile through their respective approaches to memoir. Bugul’s autobiographical text Le baobab fou (1982) focuses on her separation from her birth mother, her studies in a French school in Senegal, and her life as a student and young adult in Belgium. Said’s memoir Out of Place (1999) also follows its writer’s childhood and education in Palestine, Egypt, and the United States. Though they emerge from different contexts, both writers relate that the materials and methods of “colonial education” ruptured their relationships with their culture, language, and ethnicity. Both writers also connect their educational history with their experiences of exile and isolation in adulthood. As memoirists emerging from two territories with unique histories of colonization and occupation, Bugul and Said ultimately initiate a transnational and transcultural exploration of their past experiences and present identities. As a result, they find the greatest amount of agency through a more “hybridized,” self-defined configuration of their identities – one that requires them to negotiate the reality and the impact of their respective historical contexts.

To understand the creation of Bugul and Said’s identities in the text, it is valuable to consider the nature of the autobiography and memoir. The two genres mirror each other in that they emphasize writing about one’s own life; the memoir tends to have a themed focus, whereas the autobiography attempts a chronological approach to one’s lived history. Carolyn Heilbrun writes that the memoir, beyond contending with autobiographical fact, carries the motivation “to reveal certain circumstances throughout a life that testify to the unusual claims the writer has made upon the world” (35); history and subjectivity combine to create a testimony that encompasses the writer’s “unusual [and personal] claims.” On the text’s cover (and throughout the narrative itself), Edward Said identifies Out of Place as a memoir – asserting the role of memory and truth as primary forces for the text. Le baobab fou, in its English translation, is described as “the autobiography of a Senegalese woman” – yet its adherence to the subjectivity of its narrator, as well as its interest in memory, also speak to the conventions of the “memoir.”

Furthermore, Smith and Watson examine memoir and autobiography under the umbrella term of “life writing.” While the term suggests its general connection to writing about lived experiences, the medium often employs the same narrative structure, dialogue, and character description as is used in fiction (7). In this sense, Bugul and Said each use “novelistic” modes of storytelling in order to recount their own lived experiences. It is worthwhile to note that Bugul and Said’s texts (and their respective genres) have each been impacted by the discourse of “veracity” – that is, whether or not the story they tell in their autobiographies is rooted in the full truth. For instance, Le baobab fou has been described equally as a personal autobiography and as the “fictionalized autobiography” (Riggs 61) of a narrator not entirely unlike Ken Bugul. In an interview about her work, Bugul notes that her texts “mirror the very deep and radical experiences [she herself] went through” (Azodo 2). Bugul is neither confirming that the text is purely autobiographical, nor that it is purely fiction; in reaffirming its relevance to her creative motivations, it can be read as a memoir or as a fictionalized approach to her own story. In this sense, she assumes full agency over her narrative, including its relationship with fictionalization; at the same time, she underlines the importance of history (or verifiable truth) within her narrative.

Meanwhile, Said’s relationship with autobiographical “truth-telling” is more political in nature. By the time Out of Place was published in 1999, Said had become famous as a literary scholar – authoring Orientalism (1978) and Culture and Imperialism (1992) among other works. Through his writings, he became equally recognized as an advocate for Palestinian rights. His activism often called upon his Palestinian heritage and his upbringing in Jerusalem. The memoir’s publication coincided with accusations by legal scholar Justus Weiner that Said had falsified various aspects of his life for political gain. Writing in the conservative magazine Commentary, Weiner especially placed doubt on the location of Said’s parents’ home in Jerusalem and his family’s status as Palestinian “refugees” (“My Beautiful Old House”). In indirect response, Said insists that Out of Place is “the story of [his] life against the background of World War II, the loss of Palestine and the establishment of Israel” (Out of Place, “Preface,” n.p.). Said asserts, then, that Out of Place is anything but a work of fiction. The text acts not only as a personal account of Said’s early life, but as a memoir that presents the realities of expulsion and occupation. While recounting the facts of his lived experience, Out of Place also presents an account of a national and cultural trauma that is commonly negated – “the loss of Palestine and the establishment of Israel.” In underlining the primary “conflict” of his memoir, Said intentionally speaks to the sense of exilic loss experienced by diasporic Palestinians. Out of Place thus attempts to uplift subjective and collective experience over dominant historical narrative.

In their own reflections on their autobiographical writing, both authors underline the pressing need to reflect their “radical experiences” – particularly in terms of their cultural exile. Bugul and Said’s texts are essentially predicated on the reader’s belief that they are engaging with the reality of the authors’ lives. In this sense, the author is never quite dead; instead, the writer maintains their agency (and textual “life”) through their multiple roles in the text. Bugul and Said thus reenact the vision of the autobiography envisioned by French philosopher Philippe Lejeune. In his Pacte autobibliographique, Lejeune distinguishes the many roles of the writer intending to create an account of their own life: “L’identité se définit [comme] auteur, narrateur et personnage. Narrateur et personnage sont les figures auxquelles renvoient, à l’intérieur du texte, le sujet … l’auteur … est alors le référent auquel renvoie, de par le pacte autobiographique, le sujet de l’énonciation” (35). (“Identity defines itself through author, narrator, and character. The narrator and the character are the figures that return to the subject itself … [and] the author is the referent that returns, by the autobiographical pact, to the written subject”).[2] The memoirist becomes a hybrid of self-as-writer, self-as-consciousness, and self-as-character with agency. Each facet of the individual plays a distinct role in the autobiography itself, all while seemingly refracting the exact same figure. As a result of these multiple roles, Smith and Watson argue that memoirs must make “truth claims of a sort that are suspended in fictional forms such as the novel” (Reading Autobiography 9). Smith and Watson argue here that the memoir is rooted in reality. While the novel is under no obligation to reflect the total truth of all referenced events – or to represent anything that occurred in “real life” – any kind of “writing about the self” demands some connection to verifiable fact. In order to accept the text as autobiographical, one finds that the reader must accept that the text reflects some kind of “truth” for the writer/narrator/protagonist. In turn, both autobiographer and autobiography are constantly grounded in the historical, geographic, and cultural contexts from which they emerge. For Bugul and Said, whose narratives are embedded in histories of national trauma, it is essential to reflect the “verifiable truth” – not to affirm historical record, but to underline the traumatic reverberations of colonization and occupation in their own lived experiences.

Indeed, Bugul and Said are united as memoirists (authors, narrators, characters) in reconciling their experiences with their writing. However, they are equally impacted by cultural hybridity. As products of the interactions of multiple cultures, they must also contend with their respective histories of colonization. Postcolonial theorist Homi Bhabha envisions hybridity as a means of resistance and a source of conflict between the formerly-colonized and the colonizer: “[Hybridity] unsettles the mimetic or narcissistic demands of colonial power but reimplicates its identifications in strategies of subversion that turn the gaze of the discriminated back upon the eye of power. For the colonial hybrid is the articulation of the ambivalent space where the rite of power is enacted on the site of desire” (The Location of Culture 112).  The “hybrid” subject simultaneously internalizes colonial ideas and retains awareness of their subjugated status – transforming colonial notions into modes of resistance. Hybridity thus appeals to the desire to attain agency by asserting “the rite of power,” the internalization and interpretation of colonial thought; it is not uniquely a matter of self-identification, but an appeal to assimilation. Hybridity also encompasses a multiplicity of consciousnesses, a state of constant flux and anxiety especially regarding oneself, one’s relationship with colonial perspectives and ideals, and one’s relationship with the world. Often, the colonial “hybrid” finds themselves mimicking colonial attitudes, but they remain a (post)colonial subject. In this sense, the hybrid moves (and struggles to assert themselves) between geographical, linguistic, and cultural spaces. Both memoirs bear witness to the ambivalent and painful aspects of hybridity – including the negation of identity beyond colonial acceptance. For Bugul and Said, hybridity provides a means of conforming to a certain colonial narrative – but left unquestioned, they feel constrained and frustrated by the contradictions and conflicts between the voices of the colonizer and the personal experience of colonization.

For Bugul’s text in particular, it is especially valuable to note the nature of the “colonial education” and the “French school” in the Senegalese context. France maintained its presence in Senegal between the seventeenth century and the twentieth century, especially in its connection with the transatlantic slave trade; further colonization of Senegalese territory took place in the nineteenth century. Senegal became independent in 1960. Kelly Duke Bryant links the content of education during the latter portion of the colonial era: “[Colonial] officials consistently considered [the French education system] to be an important part of … [France’s sense of] obligation to spread its civilization and values among purportedly ‘backward’ peoples” (Education as Politics 17). The colonial (or colonially-imbued) education system relies on the projection of a power dynamic within the classroom. The instructor affirms both their superior role over the students and their supremacy within the racialized power dynamic. The materials of instruction reaffirm the importance of the colonizing force’s history, culture, and identity. The students, in turn, internalize their subaltern roles and attempt to conform to colonial expectations.

Hybridity plays an especially fraught role in Le baobab fou, where the constant dialogue between colonial ideas and personal (Senegalese, African) identity is central to its narrator’s struggle. The text constantly transitions between Bugul’s childhood in Senegal, particularly in the aftermath of her mother’s departure, and her young adulthood in Europe. Though Bugul mentions few dates in the text, her writing is constantly informed by her nation’s colonial history – and in particular, the colonial underpinnings of her education. Furthermore, Bugul’s narration of her educational history is influenced by her family dynamics – which became more strained once she began attending French schools in Senegal. While Bugul recognizes that she attended a school system that was once primarily designed for “les fils des chefs … ensuite les originaires des quatre Communes … considérés comme des citoyens” (Bugul 179) (“sons of chiefs [and] those from the four districts … since they counted as citizens” [de Jager 127]), she also recognizes that “la génération façonnée par l’école française entra dans la solitude, face à la famille traditionnelle” (179) (“the generation trained in the French schools entered into loneliness as it confronted the traditional family” [127]). For Bugul, the French school represents a level of opportunity that was once accorded only to leaders’ sons; it is through the language that she imagines she will be able to attain more socioeconomic power. At the same time that she receives these linguistic skills, however, she finds herself in the same constraints as these “sons of chiefs.” In particular, she describes confrontation with “the traditional family” – not just in terms of her family’s Muslim background, but in terms of her ability to see value in her African origins. She thus attempts to accept the ambivalence of her “hybridized” experience by internalizing colonial values, and in turn, severing her relationship with her homeland.

The resultant “hybrid” in Le baobab fou is a Senegalese student whose education has forced her to internalize “Gallic” identity and sustain a fragmented notion of her cultural identity. Even so, Ken Bugul’s body of work is rooted in her reclamation of her Senegalese heritage – affirmed, in part, by the pseudonym she used when Le baobab fou was first published in 1982. In Wolof, a language native to Senegal, “Ken Bugul” evokes “one who is unwanted” and isolated from the world. However, her name functions equally as a form of protection. Beyond concern that her representations of sexuality and drug use would shock her conservative Senegalese and Muslim society (Edwin 75), Chorok Sally Chung notes that “[the name] is bestowed on unborn children by mothers, who after having experienced a stillbirth, seek to ward off the spirits by tricking them from wanting her new baby” (Dictionary of African Biography 333). “Ken Bugul” assumes the role of the mother who protects her child from danger and malice – and in essence, protects herself. She thus attempts to ward off all opponents, including death itself, to tell the truth of her life.

Whether one reads Le baobab fou as an autobiography or as a biographically-influenced novel, the text is inextricably defined by its relationship with Bugul’s memories. In her concluding remarks on the more recent edition of Le baobab fou in translation, Jeanne Garane reflects that Bugul’s text works as a “therapeutic” response to her past. In contrast with “Ken’s Prehistory,” which follows her family’s history and her mother’s departure from the young Bugul’s life, “‘Ken’s History’ begins with the narrator’s departure for Belgium and her misguided search for her ancestors in the land of the Gauls. … She explains how her French education led her to … place [European ideals] above her [Senegalese values]” (Garane 164). The narrative of Le baobab fou thus centers around its Senegalese female protagonist’s effort to understand her past – both in terms of her familial traumas and her educational history.

“Ken’s History,” however, does not begin with this recognition of fragmentation. Instead, “Ken,” who arrives in Belgium on a scholarship, finds herself with an idealized vision of life in Europe: “Le Nord des rêves, le Nord des illusions, le Nord des allusions, le Nord référentiel, le Nord Terre promis” (39) (“The North of dreams, the North of illusions, the North of allusions. The frame of reference North, the Promised Land North” [23]). For Bugul, hope does not lie in her homeland of Senegal, where her birth mother abandoned her at a young age and where she became increasingly isolated from the rest of her family. Based on her upbringing, including her education at a “French school,” she recalls seeing the immediate North as a “dream” and a “Promised Land.” For Bugul, who experiences various levels of abandonment by her family, the North suggests a new world where she can use her education, linguistic knowledge, and artistic talent in order to establish her own identity. However, she juxtaposes her hopes and dreams with a more complicated image of Europe as a place of “illusions,” “allusions” and as a mandated “frame of reference” for her livelihood and her future. The young Ken Bugul thus envisions “Europe” as an idea rather than a concrete realm. She indicates, then, that she has yet to experience the conflict between her expectations (as the product of a French education) and her reality.

Bugul’s expectations begin to shatter during her early years in Belgium. Her ability to navigate Belgium is complicated equally by her Blackness and by her womanhood – and how both are perceived by the (mostly white and/or European) people around her. Early on, Bugul recalls a relationship with a white man that led to a pregnancy. When she arranges an abortion with a white doctor, he reveals that he opposes interracial relationships. In response, she finds herself projected into her past:

Tout revint. Le baobab. Le soleil. … Le cri perçant… Descartes. I, u, o, a, e, é, è, t-o, to. Le coq gaulois. L’athlétisme. Le capitalisme. … Charlemagne. … L’école française. La chute des nuages. Les étoiles qui s’arrachaient du ciel saignant (Le baobab fou 72).
(“Everything came back. The baobab. The sun. … The piercing scream. … Descartes. i, u, o, a, e, é, è, t-o, to. Sports. Capitalism. … Charlemagne. … The fall of the clouds. The stars that rip away from the bleeding sky” [47]).

The doctor’s racist remark sends the young Bugul, and the author-Bugul that now transcribes her thoughts, into a traumatic and fractured journey through her upbringing. Bugul also notes the emphases of her French education – from vowels to culture and history. Her memories of her education also coincide with events and descriptions (the bleeding sky, the baobab as witness) that correlate with her familial traumas. She notably creates little distinction between her upbringing and her educational experiences. Not only have her initial hopes for mobility in Belgium been shattered, but she has also been forced to confront her isolation in European society. She recognizes herself as a product of a “French education” that is neither French, nor Belgian, nor Senegalese. Furthermore, she has been doubly isolated as an African woman living amongst Europeans in a vulnerable medical setting – which emphasizes the intersectional complexities of her relationship with her new country.

Bugul’s sense of isolation develops further as she attempts to develop a circle of (white) friends in Belgium. Even as she enjoys regular outings, she finds herself an outlier in an unequal social equation. Despite her efforts to fit in with her social circles, she is constantly exotified and otherwise singled out as a Black, African woman. At the same time, she identifies herself as a perpetual “student” of European identity through her interactions with white people: “J’étais souvent avec les Blancs ; je discutais mieux avec eux, je comprenais leur langage. Pendant vingt ans je n’avais appris que leurs pensées et leurs émotions. … [Je] m’identifiais en eux, ils ne s’identifiaient pas en moi” (80) (“I spent a great deal of time with white people; I found it easier to converse with them, I understood their language. For twenty years, all I had learned were their thoughts and feelings. … I identified myself in them, but they did not identify themselves in me” [53]). “Je discutais mieux avec eux” (“I found it easier to converse with them”) reveals that Bugul has used her French education in order to become more comfortable among (European or occasionally American) white people. Furthermore, she senses that she can “understand” them (as a “Gaul”) better than she can understand other Africans, much less herself. “Je n’avais appris que leurs pensées” (“All I had learned were their thoughts”) suggests, in turn, that Bugul sees herself as a student of whiteness. She has also “studied” their emotions and their responses to her presence. In the process, however, she neglects her own lived experiences – whether because she wishes to escape her past, or because she wishes to be accepted by those who cannot and will not “identify themselves in [her].” Bugul is thus aware that her status as “hybrid” does not render her as equal in Europe; rather, her education (in both scholarly and social senses) forces her to become more cognizant of her solitude amongst Europeans.

While she navigates her social life in Belgium as a young adult, Bugul also recalls her education in Senegal. She especially recalls the negative representation of Africans in her textbooks and readings:

Dans tous les manuels scolaires que j’ai eus, le Noir était ridiculisé, avili, écrasé : Toto a bu du dolo, Toto est malade, Toto a la diarrhée, Toto pleure. Ou bien les Noirs étaient mis les uns contre les autres. Toto tape Pathé, Pathé tape Toto. … À eux les bêtises, les sottises, les maladresses, comme dans Mariétou, Sabitou et le chien (Le baobab fou 129).

(In every school text I’d ever had, the Black person was ridiculed, vilified, crushed: ‘Toto drank dolo [a kind of beer], Toto is sick, Toto has diarrhea, Toto is crying.’ Or the Blacks were set up against each other: ‘Toto is hitting Pathé, Pathé hits Toto.’ … All stupidity, all foolishness, all awkwardness was theirs, as in [the story of] Mariétou, Sabitou and the Dog [90]).

In the textbooks described by Bugul, Blackness and African-ness are attributed with illness and violence. One notes that the Africans evoked in Bugul’s examples are configured only in terms of their failings – their selfishness, their gluttony, and their constant violence against one another. To be African in these texts is to experience constant pain and sorrow – either as a result of being “set up against” another African, or due to their own “stupidity, foolishness, [and] awkwardness.” Simultaneously, it is through these texts that Bugul is expected to learn French. In exchange for fluency in the colonial European language, she relinquishes any identification or pride in her Senegalese roots. It is also valuable to note that Mariétou, Sabitou et le chien – the characters and the educational exercise – reflect a real-life educational text. The story itself appears as one reading unit in André Davesne’s Les premières lectures de Mamadou et Bineta, a French textbook designed for use at West African schools and circulated throughout the mid-twentieth century (i.e., likely during Bugul’s education in Senegal). Davesne’s reading depicts two young women returning from the market with baskets filled with meat (Mamadou et Bineta 77-78). When they lose track of their baskets, Sabitou becomes convinced that Mariétou is trying to steal her food (and vice versa). While the two argue, a dog runs off with the meat from both of their baskets. One might argue, then, that Bugul sees African women as doubly minimized in this text. If Black African characters in these texts are depicted as unintelligent, unkind, and unhappy, Black African women receive their own set of negative traits; since the two women fail to think about their surroundings or treat one another with respect, “sisterhood” and self-acceptance are not textual possibilities. By referencing this real-life text, Bugul provides concrete, verifiable evidence of a far more painful (and personal) historical consequence – a need to scorn her African background in order to distance herself from denigrating, subjugating narratives.

“Mariétou” (like the other African characters) thus becomes associated with a set of identities that Bugul feels she must reject in order to assimilate into European life. However, her African origins render this assimilation impossible. Maurice Simo Djom describes the interaction between Bugul and her educational system, calling it

le refus de l’hybridité qui passe par la négation de l’Autre. La puissance coloniale française refuse la décontraction, préférant la domination. … La transmission de cette image négative à l’école offre la garantie de la domination car la catégorie ainsi avilie … va construire son identité sur la base de ces schémas (L’hybridité dans le roman autobiographique 292).

(the rejection of hybridity as a result of the negation of the Other. French colonial power refuses to relinquish its hold, preferring to maintain its dominion. … The transmission of negative [images] at school guarantees this domination; by [placing students] in this degrading category, [they] will build their sense of identity on the basis of this framework).

While Bugul’s French studies allow her to gain social mobility in the European world, they come at the cost of her well-being and self-esteem in Africa and Europe alike. Simo Djom suggests that the “price” of Bugul’s education is intentional. In constantly suggesting the supremacy of European values and the inferiority of African figures, colonial educational narratives ensure that African-ness (and national identity) are both marginalized and easily manipulated. Within this context, Bugul struggles to confront the negative frameworks of identity that not only mar her childhood, but also re-implicate themselves in her self-understanding as a grown woman.

Later into the text – as her relationship with Belgium becomes more fraught – she recalls again her experiences of learning French. She mixes the recollections of her education alongside her sense of isolation in her family – her constant longing for the mother that abandoned her and her wish to reconnect with her extended family. In particular, she recalls the shock of her first French class: “[Tout] expira avec le son de la première lettre française que l’instituteur prononça et écrivit sur le tableau noir: ‘i.’ … Je … hurlai [cette lettre] presque les joues fendues. Je sentis le sang couler dans tout mon corps et remonter à ma tête” (Le baobab fou 140) (“All my expectations shattered with the sound of the first French letter the teacher pronounced and wrote on the blackboard: i. That brief and also very abrupt sound cracked my cheeks when I pronounced it, almost screaming. I felt the blood circulate through my body and go to my head” [98]). Here, Bugul extends her sense of fragmentation beyond the psychological. The French language not only severs her from her culture and family but actively harms her when it is first spoken; her cheeks “crack” (or “splinter,” as the French fendre implies) as she repeats the first vowel. Shirin Edwin describes not only how Bugul becomes further alienated from her family as a result of her education, but also how she ultimately becomes distant from her home culture: “[In] this context, the French school appears as an intrusion of which the Senegalese did not approve … [This] new education continues to deepen the pain and the torment of having to pronounce words alien to her spirit” (Edwin 79-80). Here, Bugul continues to see her education as a pseudo-colonial intrusion on her own wellbeing – even if she had pursued it for what she believed to be the sake of her future. Her invocation of the first French lesson thus suggests Bugul’s increasing awareness of her alienation in European society.

Despite this awareness, Bugul (as the narrator) cannot change the choices of her “character” in the text. Her overwhelming sense of loneliness leads her to experiment with drugs and sex work – culminating with a nearly-fatal suicide attempt. Bugul thus recognizes that she cannot continue her life in the North. Before narrating her return, she returns to her memories of her colonial education:

L’école française, nos ancêtres les Gaulois, la coopération, les échanges, l’amitié entre les peuples avaient créé une nouvelle dimension : l’étranger. Ne plus pouvoir reconnaître chez les siens les liens vrais qui façonnaient … les destins. … J’avais trop joué avec un personnage : une femme, une Noire qui avait cru longtemps à ses ancêtres gaulois (Le baobab fou 157).

(“The French school, our ancestors the Gauls, cooperation, foreign exchanges, friendship between peoples had all created a new dimension: the foreigner, no longer able to recognize … the true bonds that used to shape … destinies. I had played a character too long: … a black woman who had for a long time believed in her ancestors the Gauls” [111]).

Bugul reconfigures her character through the terms of her education. She now recognizes herself not as a “Black Gaul,” but as a foreigner of all lands and as an actress who has assumed her role for “too long.” In the original French, she notably identifies first as a woman, then as “Noire” (“Black” in the feminine form) – as her experiences of race and gender are intertwined. One senses that she has found little comfort in any identity (Black, female, or “Gallic”), particularly in her efforts to navigate the world around her. “Cooperation, foreign exchange, [and] friendship between people” evoke an idealized vision of coexistence that Bugul has never been able to experience – and will never experience under the terms of white supremacy. She senses that she must abandon the “character” that she has projected – the exotic/exotified Black woman, the desirable object – she recognizes that she must unlearn the script that she has internalized since youth. In this sense, she must find a way to disconnect from her colonial education – both in terms of her schooling in Senegal and in her social “education” in Europe.

The text ultimately ends with Bugul’s return to Senegal, where she senses a distinct loss of guidance: “Le rétablissement était devenu impossible …de l’enfance perdue, envolée un après-midi, la première fois que j’avais vu un Blanc … J’avais essayé de me défier, ce fut presque la victoire … Sans parole, je prononçais l’oraison funèbre de ce baobab témoin et complice du départ de la mère, le premier matin d’une aube sans crépuscule” (221-222) (“Recovery had become impossible … [for] a lost childhood that had flown away one afternoon, the first time I ever saw a white man. … I’d tried to mistrust myself and was almost victorious … I pronounced the eulogy of the baobab tree that had been witness to and accomplice in the mother’s departure, the first morning of a dawn without dusk” [158-159]). Though not a representation of a perfect recovery, Bugul’s final act of “reconciliation” emerges from her return to the homeland and her interaction with the titular baobab (the witness to her childhood traumas). In narrating the tree’s “eulogy,” she attempts to release herself from some of the weight of the identities imposed upon her in Senegal and in Europe. Within this ambivalence of beginnings and endings, deaths and rebirths, she recognizes herself as a hybrid of cultures and experiences. She thus ends the text as the sole narrator and the primary agent of her own story – and, through her writing, is the sole proprietor of her own historical experience.

Bugul’s trajectory seems to differ greatly from that of Edward Said – who experiences different boundaries as a result of the circumstances of his life. Said was born to a Christian Arab family in 1935 in Jerusalem, then a part of Mandatory Palestine. The land that comprised Mandatory Palestine had been originally controlled by the Ottoman Empire. In the midst of the first World War, Jerusalem (and later the entirety of the territory) was claimed by the British with the intent of creating a national home for the Jewish people (per the Balfour Declaration); by 1923, the British Mandate was established. The Mandate was disrupted equally by Arab and Jewish inhabitants of the land; their conflict for control over the mandate culminated with the Arab-Israeli war, which ended with the establishment of the state of Israel. Ahmad Sa’di and Lila Abu-Lughod note the temporally disruptive nature of the Nakba (“the disaster/catastrophe,” used in Arabic to refer to the aftermath of the 1948 conflict) for stranded and exiled Palestinians: “A society disintegrated, a people dispersed, and a complex and historically changing but taken for granted communal life was ended violently. The Nakba has thus become, both in Palestinian memory and history, the demarcation line between two qualitatively opposing periods” (“The Claims of Memory” 3). Where Bugul’s movements through her recent and distant past seem fluid, Said’s transitions through his history are permanently demarcated by loss. His narrative is developed around exile – not only his family’s loss of home and citizenship in Palestine, but by his own sense of disconnect from his history. Spurred by his then-recent diagnosis with leukemia, Said reflects that “Out of Place is a record of an essentially lost or forgotten world” (“Preface,” Out of Place, n.p.) Like Bugul, Said finds himself part of a world that has been forgotten; he speaks not only of Palestine as a “lost” homeland, but of his upbringing in Palestine and Egypt as a part of his life that he has (actively or accidentally) erased from his consciousness. For Said, the memoir allows him to rediscover the events and figures that he has “misplaced” – and reconsider the development of his own identity.

Said’s return to his “lost and forgotten world” begins with his birth and early childhood. Though he spent his early years in Jerusalem, he mainly lived in Egypt, where his father ran a stationery business – and where, up to the second half of the twentieth century, British authorities maintained control of key aspects of the Egyptian government. Whereas Said’s home in Palestine is linked to his relationship with his family, his relationship with Cairo is permanently framed through his struggle to be accepted by cultural outsiders. As a young boy, Said recalls the subject matter of his classes at the Gezira Preparatory School in Cairo – and the colonial positionality inherent in his education: “Our lessons and books were mystifyingly English: we read about meadows, castles, and Kings John, Alfred, and Canute with the reverence that our teachers kept reminding us they deserved. Their world made little sense to me, except that I admired their creation of the language they used, which I, a little Arab boy, was learning something about” (Out of Place 37). The English-owned school focuses on histories and lands with which Said has no immediate relationship. However, he is expected to internalize the information as if it were part of his daily life. Like Bugul, who finds herself aligned with “[her] ancestors the Gauls,” Said senses that he is meant to identify with (or give special respect to) the histories of English kings. Said still refers to his younger self as a “little Arab boy,” as if his class’ subject matter made him more conscious of his identity and of his role as “subject.”

Said is equally cognizant of his identification not as Palestinian inhabitant of Egypt, but as an “Arab.” On one hand, the young Said may not have felt the need to emphasize his Palestinian background. The need to assert a national identity would become especially pressing after the Nakba – that is, after the expulsion of much of the Palestinian Arab population. Even so, Said is still rendered a member of a homogenized group. He is simultaneously uncategorized (as a “little Arab” before anything else) and demarcated as an outsider to his own early studies. He ultimately recalls that the school was his “first experience of an organized system set up as a colonial business by the British … [and] an extended contact with [English] colonial authority” (40). Through the colonial framework of his education, his understanding of history becomes disconnected with his immediate physical surroundings and with his homeland. Said thereby associates this rupture – between land and educational/historical narrative – with various histories of colonization and occupation; through this association, he recognizes the various forms of displacement that impacted his early life.

It is also here that Said struggles to reconcile his narration of his past with the experiences of his younger self – the main “character” of Out of Place. The older Said finds interest in his lived experience because it mirrors his later understanding of colonial dynamics – a key aspect of his scholarship and activism. The younger Said, however, has no choice but to observe (and be observed by) his educational surroundings. Roger Porter describes the trajectory of Said’s memoir through his sense of displacement in the classroom: “Said’s memoir traces his childhood in [Jerusalem and Cairo] … [as] places where he always felt out of place: … a non-American in American [and English] schools, a Palestinian who could not go home … a boy yearning for independence whose authority figures saw him as a troublemaker” (310). Said finds himself even more displaced at the Cairo School for American Children, where he is the only Arab amongst his primarily-white classmates. He relates feeling constantly isolated from the other children as a result of his clothing and food – and recalls being treated as “other” than his classmates. While recalling an episode where an instructor chastises him for misbehaving at a field trip, Said describes his isolation from his peers and surroundings: “I was riveted to my chair… hating the by now thoroughly concentrating class, each one of them, I felt, looking at me with justified dislike and curiosity. ‘Who is this person?’ I imagined them saying, ‘a little Arab boy, and what is he doing in a school for American children? Where did he come from?’” (Out of Place 84). Said again describes himself as a “little Arab boy” not only because he is “out of place” in the classroom as an Arab, but because he is equally singled out as a source of mischief and discord. Whereas the American children embody the “norm” of the student body, Said is the inherently-disruptive outlier. Through his perception of the encounter, Said even imagines that the students are contemplating “where he [came] from,” as if his apparent delinquency could be explained through his cultural otherness. In this sense, his educational circumstances lead to his isolation – both from social circles and from his own heritage.

Said’s sense of displacement intensifies with the encroaching arrival of the 1948 war, and particularly in the aftermath of the Nakba. Though Said spends much of the memoir focusing on his time in Cairo, he recalls his last stay in Jerusalem in 1947, where he briefly attended St. George’s School. He recalls that the school presented “a volatile atmosphere and … a general sense of purposeless routine trying to maintain itself as the country’s identity was undergoing irrevocable change” (107). The school thus mirrors Said’s growing understanding of the politics brewing in Jerusalem. After leaving Jerusalem in December, his immediate family would never be able to return to the city again; he recalls that distant family members were forcibly removed from the city. Later on in the text, Said’s adult consciousness of his exile (and its impact) intercepts his narration of his childhood: “The remoteness of the Palestine I grew up in [and] my family’s silence over its role … allowed me to live my early [adult] American life at a great distance from the Palestine of remote memory, unresolved sorrow, and uncomprehending anger” (138-139). He notes that the loss of Palestine created “unresolved sorrow [and] uncomprehending anger” in those around him (and implicitly, in himself). Said thus describes his younger self as being unable to process the sorrow and violence of exile – and is given no venue in his education to articulate that suffering.

Despite the weight of this grief, however, he remarks that his family refused to discuss the Nakba in its immediate aftermath. His instructors and classmates rarely mentioned the conflict or Palestine “as a country lost” (140), outside of one incident during Said’s last year at the Cairo School for American Children (1948-1949). During an innocent debate with his classmates about a boxing match, Said writes: “I suddenly grasped what my [Jewish] friend Albert Coronel was referring to when he spoke contemptuously of ‘six against one.’ The phrase … seemed to contradict what I implicitly believed: that Palestine was taken from us by Europeans who … were incomparably more powerful, organized, and modern than we” (140). Like Bugul, Said feels constrained by his educational surroundings – such that he is unable to discuss his experiences of exile and occupation in detail. Faced with his friend’s remark, Said becomes more cognizant of his own lived experience as a Palestinian. In turn, he senses further isolation from many of his peers (none of whom share his own experience). At the same time, Said reflects his later awareness of (and approach to) his nationality throughout his narration – and his interventions play an essential role in Out of Place’s thematic structure. As Mohammad Salama notes, the book is “a narrative that keeps interrupting itself despite Said’s cosmetic attempts to give it some chronological order … [and is] in every sense a writing of a disaster” (“Yanko’s Footprints” 243). Even as he revisits pre-1948 events, Said’s account of his own life is irrevocably impacted by the Nakba; he creates a narrative not only of his own upbringing, but of his need to confront the loose ends of a life disrupted by various levels of exile and disaster.

For the adolescent Said, the Nakba is a tragedy that is ultimately repressed. His family, now forced to reside permanently in Cairo, develops a culture of silence around all sources of trauma (whether political or familial). Much like Bugul, Said’s strained relationship with his family leads him to focus his energy on his education. However, his desire for resistance manifests in different ways. Said recalls attending Victoria College, a British-established, all-male, and culturally-diverse secondary school in Alexandria. There, he especially becomes connected with a group of Arab students (mainly, though not exclusively, Egyptian) who hoped to resist the school’s rules. As he recalls his involvement in the students’ mischief, he notes, “In a matter of hours, years of earnestly solemn education fell away from me as I joined in the ceaseless back and forth between the boys united in group solidarity as ‘wogs’ confronting our … teachers as cruel, impersonal, and authoritarian Englishmen” (Out of Place 181). Both Bugul and Said partly present their educational contexts as a conflict between the “instructor-colonizer” (or colonial subject who mimics the colonizing role) and the colonized student body. However, it is here again that Said especially configures his classroom as a conflict between a diverse set of students perceived as “wogs” (whether non-white or non-Anglophone) and their pseudo-colonial controllers. Their “group solidarity” transcends any national or religious identity, and appears equally as a defensive collective (of disgruntled teenagers) as it is a seeming mirror of colonial resistance. Meanwhile, Paul Armstrong partly considers Said’s conception of the classroom as a colonial space to be an act of literary exaggeration: “There may be at least a little personal mythologization at work in Said’s depiction of himself as a repeated victim of the Anglo-American imperial gaze who fights back by rebelling against his oppressors. Regardless of the truth or falsity of these self-representations, what is interesting is the epistemology of the response he describes” (Play and the Politics of Reading 51). Armstrong notes that Said ultimately develops two personas: the external “Edward” who is constantly reprimanded and rendered into an “ideal” by his teachers and family, and the internal self that resists these confines. At the same time that Armstrong draws attention to the “veracity” or verisimilitude of these self-representations, I would posit that Said is more interested in describing how he actively configures his own lived experience – particularly in the context of the colonial dynamic.

This inner agency emerges as Said describes the dynamics of his classroom at Victoria College: “A little pamphlet entitled The School Handbook immediately turned us into ‘natives.’ Rule 1 stated categorically: ‘English is the language of the school. Anyone caught speaking other languages will be severely punished.’ So Arabic became our haven, a criminalized discourse where we took refuge from the world of masters and complicit prefects…” (Out of Place 182). Said again names the students as “natives,” and portrays their “disobedience” as anti-colonial resistance. In speaking Arabic, Said and his friends enact an adolescent revolt that allows them to transcend the power dynamics of the school. When they are witnessed and punished, they still maintain their “criminalized discourse” through disruptive behavior in the classroom. Said may very well be painting teenage shenanigans as a means of decolonial revolution, but he is also representing a moment in his life where he has actively chosen to reassert both his language and his individuality. The boys’ continued uprising ends, however, with the young Said being ejected from the school: an exile that Said eventually views as both inevitable and necessary.

After his expulsion from Victoria College, Said’s family sent him to Mount Hermon, a boarding school in Massachusetts.[3] Said recalls his initial homesickness at the uber-American institution: “I longed to be back in Cairo; I kept calculating the time difference of seven hours … missing our family’s Cairo food during school meals, an unappetizing regime that began with chicken à la king on Monday and ended with cold cuts and potato salad on Sunday night…” (Out of Place 232-233). Said describes a different sense of exile in his early years in the United States. Whereas the colonial rules of Victoria College inspired its students to revolt, the monotony and regularity of life at Mount Hermon leads to Said’s assimilation into the school’s culture. Furthermore, he once again feels distanced from time. Not only is he no longer able to spend physical time with his family in Cairo, but he has found yet another part of his life (his homeland and his childhood) rendered as an irreversibly “remote memory.” Said’s personal narrative remains informed by his connection to history – as does his response to his layered experience of exile in the United States.

Unlike Bugul, who assumes agency through her return to her ancestral land, Said is unable to return to Palestine. Instead of revisiting the land itself, he resists the psychological strain of his education by seemingly embracing his exile. In particular, one notes his decision to focus on his internal interests and motivations. Said remains struck by the rigidity and cultural homogeneity in the United States – not only at Mount Hermon, but also at Princeton and Harvard, where he respectively received his undergraduate and doctoral degrees. However, he also relates that living in the United States obligated him to develop his own identity outside of his family: “My years in the United States were slowly weaning me away from Cairo habits—of thought, behavior, speech, and relationships. My accent and dress were slowly altering; my terms of reference in school and, later, college were different…” (271). Though he relates a continued sense of isolation, he finds himself increasingly interested in literary studies. Later on, he is also able to connect with Arab classmates (several Palestinian) who help him maintain a connection with parts of his heritage. Said’s education and experiences in diaspora are thus essential to the development of his career – primarily as a literary scholar at Columbia University, then as a political critic and public intellectual. In the memoir’s conclusion, Said declares, “I occasionally experience myself as a cluster of flowing currents. I prefer this to the idea of a solid self … A form of freedom, I’d like to think, even if I am far from being totally convinced that it is. With so many dissonances in my life I have learned actually to prefer being not quite right and out of place” (293). Said ultimately depicts himself as a product of various languages, cultures, and homelands. Much like Bugul, Said ends the text by attempting to create a life according to his own conditions – rather than those of his family, his early education, or a greater political entity.

Ken Bugul and Edward Said describe two unique lives, with separate interests and itineraries. Materially, their lives seem almost entirely disparate. Bugul emerges from a relatively humble family in Senegal, while Said was raised with nearly every comfort available in Palestine and Egypt. However, both endure emotional and psychological trials as a result of their educational experiences, and both feel exiled from their own home cultures. Their accounts mirror their struggles to reconcile the different aspects of their hybridized and disconnected sense of self, whether connected to their ethnicity, gender, nationality, or culture. At the same time, both writers attempt to negotiate a space within their works which allows them to explore these concepts in greater detail. In this sense, their writing – and their career trajectories – resist the confines of family boundaries and colonial thought. In placing Bugul and Said’s memoirs in conversation, readers find a remarkable unity in their textual resistance. For both writers, the memoir – in its structure and its relationship with history – presents the ultimate mode of literary self-definition. Through this mode of writing, it is equally possible to write against essentialized or homogenized notions of identity; Le baobab fou and Out of Place both end with their respective authors’ recognition (or even embrace) of their hybridized backgrounds and histories. The medium of memoir ultimately allows Ken Bugul and Edward Said to describe their intimate knowledge of colonization, occupation, and exile in their respective contexts. Like countless other authors from formerly- and presently-occupied lands, the two memoirists ultimately develop a “new history” of their lives – one that emphasizes their individuality and agency in the face of oppressive power structures.

Works Cited

Azodo, Ada Uzoamaka. “Conversations with Ken Bugul: ‘I Write My Life as I Want.’” Indiana University Northwest, Mar. 2001, http://www.iun.edu/~minaua/interviews/Azodo_Interview_with_Ken_Bugul.pdf Accessed 16 December 2018.

Armstrong, Paul B. “Being ‘Out of Place’: Edward Said and the Contradictions of Cultural Difference.” Play and the Politics of Reading: The Social Uses of Modernist Form. 2005. Cornell University Press, 2018, pp. 42-61.

Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. 1994. Routledge, 1997.

Bugul, Ken (Mariètou Mbaye). Le baobab fou. 1982. Éditions africaines, 2009.

—. The Abandoned Baobab: The Autobiography of a Senegalese Woman. Translated by Marjolijn de Jager with afterword by Jeanne Garane, Brooklyn, NY: Lawrence Hill Books, 2008.

Chung, Chorok Sally. “Ken Bugul.” Dictionary of African Biography, edited by Emmanuel Kwaku Akyeampong and Henry Louis Gates, vol. 1-6 (online), Oxford University Press, 2012, pp. 333-334.

Davesne, André. “Mariétou, Sabitou et le chien.” Les Premières lectures de Mamadou et Bineta: livre de lecture et de français à l’usage des écoles africaines. Illustrations by P. Fangeaux et S. Bouglé. Librairie Istra, 1951, pp. 77-78.

Duke Bryant, Kelly M. Education as Politics: Colonial Schooling and Political Debate in Senegal, 1850s-1914. The University of Wisconsin Press, 2015.

Edwin, Shirin. “African Muslim Communities in Diaspora: The Quest for a Muslim Space in Ken Bugul’s Le baobab fou.” Research in African Literatures, vol. 35, no. 4, 2004, pp.75–90. 

Heilbrun, Carolyn G. “Contemporary Memoirs: Or, Who Cares Who Did What to Whom?” The American Scholar, vol. 68, no. 3, 1999, pp. 35-42.

Lejeune, Philippe. Le Pacte autobiographique. 1975. Éditions du Seuil, 1996.

Porter, Roger J. “Autobiography, Exile, Home: The Egyptian Memoirs of Gini Alhadeff, André Aciman, and Edward Said.” Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly, vol. 24, no. 1, 2001, pp. 302-313.

Riggs, Thomas, editor. The Literature of Autobiographical Narrative: Autobiography and Memoir. St. James Press, vol. 1, 2013.

Sa’di, Ahmad H., and Lila Abu-Lughod. “Introduction: The Claims of Memory.” Nakba: Palestine, 1948, and the Claims of Memory, edited by Sa’di and Abu-Lughod. Columbia University Press, 2007, pp. 1-26.

Said, Edward W. Out of Place: A Memoir. 1999. Vintage, 2000.

—. “Memory, Inequality and Power: Palestine and the Universality of Human Rights.” Center for Middle Eastern Studies, 19 February 2003, University of California, Berkeley, CA.

Salama, Mohammad. “Yanko’s Footprints: Edward Said and the Experience of Exile.” Pacific Coast Philology, vol. 42, no. 2, 2007, pp. 238–253.

Simo Djom, Maurice. L’hybridité dans le roman autobiographique francophone contemporain. Éditions Publibook, 2017.

Smith, Sidonie, and Julia Watson. Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives. U of Minnesota Press, 2010.

Weiner, Justus Reid. “‘My Beautiful Old House’ and Other Fabrications by Edward Said.” Commentary, Sep. 1999, https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/my-beautiful-old-house-and-other-fabrications-by-edward-said/. Accessed 13 December 2018.

[1] Adapted from “Memory, Inequality, and Power: Palestine and the Universality of Human Rights,” a lecture given by Said in 2003.

[2] All translations without page numbers are my own; no official translation is available for Lejeune’s book. All translations of Bugul’s text come from Marjolijn de Jager’s translation.

[3] Said argues that he would have been moved to the United States even if he had not been expelled from Victoria College. Said’s father, Wadie, had lived briefly in the United States and fought with the U.S. Army during World War I, likely to avoid conscription by the Ottoman army according to the author (Out of Place 7-8). Wadie received American citizenship through his service and residency in the United States, and all of Wadie’s children were U.S. citizens at birth. Edward Said had been told by his family that, in order to maintain his citizenship, he needed to be a resident in the United States for at least five years before he turned twenty-one. By beginning attendance at Mount Hermon at age sixteen and continuing his education at Princeton University, he was able to meet these requirements exactly (207-208).

Abigail Dunn: Formal and Content-Based Critiques of Authority

Abigail Dunn, University of Idaho (BA, class of 2019)


In “Formal and Content-Based Critiques of Authority: A Narratological Post-Colonial Reading of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun,” I argue that Half of a Yellow Sun critiques authoritative power in both its content and its form.  Scholars tend to read Half of a Yellow Sun either as a political allegory for the rise and fall of Biafra or for its intertextuality, arguing that it is a response to earlier novels by Chinua Achebe.  I approach the text from a postcolonial narratological perspective and examine not only the content of Adichie’s novel but also its narrative form.  (The few scholars who have worked into their commentary any analysis of how the narrative is constructed have focused on how the text privileges polyvocality and an unconventional time scale.)  I argue that Half of a Yellow Sun, by communicating space via a projective rather than a topological perspective, gives allegiance to the lived, “on the ground” reality of Nigeria during the Biafran Civil War rather than to a more objective, official perspective.  Likewise, the text’s three focalizers’ lived experiences undercut the pro-Biafran message of the narrator—the “official” voice of the text—and the separatist doctrine characteristic of the Biafran War.

Formal and Content-Based Critiques of Authority: A Postcolonial Narratological Reading of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun

In a seminal moment of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2006 novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, an anonymous author states, “Starvation was a Nigerian weapon of war.  Starvation broke Biafra and brought Biafra fame and made Biafra last as long as it did” (296-297).  It is striking that chapters of a book appear as a metanarrative peppered through the main narrative of Half of a Yellow Sun.  The metanarrative suggests a departure from the narrator’s voice and serves to remind readers of two issues central to the text: the devastating nature of the Biafran Civil War and the question of who is privileged to tell Biafra’s story.  Half of a Yellow Sun’s heterodiegetic narrator remains committed throughout the novel to propagating the “official” pro-War doctrine of the leaders of Biafra.  The metanarrative book chapters, however, deviate from the narrator’s ideology and suggest that the War has far more negative consequences than the narrator will admit.  Why would an anti-War metanarrative appear scattered throughout a text whose narrator is so adamantly in favor of the War?  The disconnect between what the metanarrative and the narrator each seem to be communicating about the War is especially interesting given the historical context and what we know to be factually true about the Biafran War.

The Biafran Civil War broke out in 1967, seven years after Nigerian gained its independence from British colonial rule.  The Southeastern corner of Nigeria—dubbed “Biafra” and the setting for Half of a Yellow Sun—wanted to succeed from the rest of Nigeria for both economic and ethnic reasons.   In the ensuing two-and-a-half years of fighting, there were approximately 100 million military causalities and between one-half and two million civilian causalities, mostly Biafrans who died from starvation.   The war displaced an additional ten million people.  Examining Half of a Yellow Sun, it is important to keep in mind the historic reality of just how devastating the Biafran War (also known as the Nigerian Civil War) was to those living in Biafra.  My reading of the text explores the disconnect between this historic reality, which, I argue, the novel communicates implicitly, and what the narrator of Adichie’s novel explicitly says about the Biafran War.

In this paper, I argue that in both its content and its form Half of a Yellow Sun is a critique of authoritative power.  By communicating space via projective rather than topological locations, the text gives allegiance to the lived, “on the ground” experience rather than to that of an outsider; likewise, the text’s three focalizers’ lived experiences undercut the pro-Biafran message of the narrator—the “official” voice of the text—and the very separatist doctrine characteristic of the Biafran War.  My argument takes shape in two parts: First, I examine how the novel represents space, which is especially interesting given the topic of the text, for the existence (or non-existence) of Biafra and who lays claim to Nigeria are crucial tensions in Half of a Yellow Sun.  Then, I shift focus to explore narration and who speaks in the novel, another concern central to the text and one that the passage I discuss at the start of this paper—in which a metanarrative interrupts the narrator’s otherwise continuous voice—foregrounds.

Scholars interested in Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun tend to talk about it in one of three main ways.  First, there are those who read the text as an allegory for what was happening politically in Nigeria during the 1960s.   In her 2014 article “‘She is Waiting,’” Meredith Coffey interprets Half of a Yellow Sun as a metaphor for the rise and fall of the state of Biafra.  She writes, “In this essay, I read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun (2006) as a political allegory, legible within its characters’ personal relationships and historical circumstances” (63).  A second group of scholars are those who privilege intertextuality in Half of a Yellow Sun.   Many read the text as a response to or in conversation with works by Chinua Achebe.  Aghogho Akpome, in his 2017 article “Intertextuality and Influence,” “explores the apparent influence of Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s award-winning second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, with regard to the literary re-historicization of the Nigerian Civil War” (530).  Others read Adichie’s text in light of novels by Chris Abani. For example, Madhu Krishnan, in his 2013 article “On National Culture and the Projective Past,” argues that in both Abani’s Graceland and Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, “the construction of a new communitarian identification is evident.  This new identification is one that simultaneously transcends the confines of national consciousness while refraining from discarding the nation, as community, entirely” (187).

Finally, a third trend in scholarship on Half of a Yellow Sun is to argue that the text is quintessentially Biafran, suggesting that the novel is Adichie’s way of writing homage to Biafra, a nation that never could be.  Chitra Thrivikraman Nair, in her 2014 article “Negotiation of Socio-Ethnic Spaces,” writes of Half of a Yellow Sun as a text deeply steeped in the pro-separatist doctrine of Biafra during the War.  She argues that the novel illuminates and privileges “the attempts of the Igbo population to justify their need to have a separate state for themselves” and concludes that the novel is “an articulation of Biafran and Igbo negotiation of a space for themselves in the geo-political landscape in Nigeria after the Nigeria–Biafra civil war” (Nair 209, 203).  Likewise, Akpome, in the aforementioned “Intertextuality and Influence,” writes of “Adichie’s unapologetic defense of Biafra in Half of a Yellow Sun” (539).

What is missing from the repertoire of scholarship on Half of a Yellow Sun, and what my perspective contributes, is a comprehensive narratological reading of the novel.  Scholars thus far overlook the formal elements of this text.  Narrative theory helps me more deeply understand the novel, for with it in mind I recognize how the novel’s postcolonial themes—power and identity—play out not only in the novel’s content but also in its form.  Neglecting to analyze the narrative structures of Half of a Yellow Sun, we fail to recognize how the text’s construction contributes to its message; we miss the formal ways that Adichie’s novel is a critique of authority.

I am not the first to note that scholarship on the narrative form of Half of a Yellow Sun is lacking.  Aghogho Akpome too, in his 2013 article, “Focalisation and Polyvocality in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun,” notes the general lack of narratological scholarship on Adichie’s text: “commentary on the issues of structure and narrative technique remains limited…the bulk of criticism of Adichie’s work remains slanted towards ideological and thematic concerns” (25).  The few scholars, Akpone included, who have incorporated any narratology into their studies on Half of a Yellow Sun have done so only minimally and have tended to focus on the text’s multiple narrative voices and on its non-linear timeline.  In her 2016 article “Sidestepping the Political ‘Graveyard of Creativity,’” Maya Ganapathy, comments on Half of a Yellow Sun’s “polyphonic form” and on its “temporary gaps,” although her essay mainly focuses on intertextuality in the novel (90).  Likewise, Akpome mentions the novel’s “decentralized narrative technique” and its “[innovative] temporal structure,” yet the bulk of his essay’s argument concerns recognizing the centrality of Ugwu as a character (“Focalisation and Polyvocality” 25).  Evidently, however, a more comprehensive narratological reading of the text is in order.

By addressing not only the formal structures of the text but also its thematic content, I argue that we best understand Half of a Yellow Sun when approached from a postcolonial narratological perspective.  Scholar Marion Gymnich, in her 2002 article “Linguistics and Narratology: The Relevance of Linguistic Criteria to Postcolonial Narratology,” defines the field of postcolonial narratology as “the exploration of relationships between narrative structures and those questions, themes, and categories which are of central importance to Postcolonial Studies” (62).  She continues: “Postcolonial narratology, thus, shows how concepts of identity and alterity or categories such as ethnicity, race, class, and gender are constructed, perpetuated or subverted in narrative texts” (62).  Gymnich outlines the theory behind the approach I take with Adichie’s novel in this essay.

My approach to Half of a Yellow Sun has implications beyond our understanding of this particular text.  Postcolonial narratology is a school of thought, as of yet, in its infancy.  Narrative scholars tend to analyze “ethnic” literature—that is, literature produced by non-white authors—in the context of its non-white authorship, from what Christopher González, in Permissible Narrative: The Promise of Latino/a Literature, calls an “identity-based, a priori stance” (8, emphasis in original).  As such, scholars far too often neglect formal analysis of “ethnic” literature.  Noting the absence of non-white texts in narrative scholarship James J. Donahue, in the introduction to Narrative, Race, and Ethnicity in the United States, writes, “there is one major literary tradition that, as yet, has not fully explored issues of race and ethnicity, either as a subject in its own right or as a means by which to challenge the methodological assumptions of that school: narrative theory” (2).  Yet even Donahue and González, writing some of the most cutting-edge works of postcolonial narratology, focus on the works of non-white authors residing in the West.  Donahue calls upon scholars to “explore how race and ethnicity might force us to reconsider what we know about the nature of narrative” and to ask how “texts from ‘ethnic’ literary traditions force us to rethink the tools of narrative theory” (3, emphasis in original).  But the scope of his and González’s texts exclude non-Western writers like Adichie; scholars have yet to apply the ideas of postcolonial narratology to African texts.  By approaching Adichie’s work through postcolonial narratology, I diversify and advance the field of postcolonial narratology and draw attention to how issues of identity relate to understandings of space and how narration is a form of power.

Projective Space – Challenging Neocolonial Understandings of Space

The first way in which Half of a Yellow Sun critiques authoritative power is through the novel’s representation of space.  The narrator describes space only projectively and never topologically.  In this way, the text gives allegiance to the on-the-ground, lived experiences of characters.  David Herman, in his 2012 article “Spatial Reference in Narrative Domains,” articulates the difference between projective and topological understandings of space.  He writes, quoting William Frawley’s Linguistic Semantics, “Whereas topology ‘is the study of the geometric properties of objects that are invariant under change of the object’; projective locations are ones that ‘vary in value and interpretation depending on how they are viewed’, thus relying on an orientative framework projected by the viewer” (qtd in Herman 528).  In other words, while topological locations are objective, static, and “map-like” or “from above,” projective ones are subjective and relative, determined by the viewer’s position.

Consider the following description of space presented in Half of a Yellow Sun through the character Olanna, a young, well-educated woman living in Biafra but originally from farther north: “Olanna chose not to fly up to Kano.  She liked to sit by the train window and watch the thick woods sliding past, the grassy plains unfurling, the cattle swinging their tails as they were herded by bare-chested nomads” (Adichie 46).  In these lines, Olanna literally is choosing to view the world from the ground.  While flying in a plane would put Olanna physically above the ground and give her the ability to see the world topologically, she instead rides the train, which gives her a projective perspective of space.  Furthermore, Olanna’s projective understanding of space lends itself to noticing small details.  She comments on minute differences between parts of Nigeria, saying, “Here, the sand was fine gray, and sun-seared, nothing like the clumpy red earth back home; the trees were tame, unlike the bursting greenness that sprang up and cast shadows on the road to Umunnachi” (46).  These are not the types of details that a topological understanding of space would allow.  Thus, by privileging Olanna’s perspective and her projective view of Nigeria, the novel demonstrates its allegiance to the lived, on-the-ground experiences of individual characters.

Furthermore, Half of a Yellow Sun’s use of projective rather than topological locations has political implications; it suggests that the text values the experiences of individuals living through the Biafran War over any sort of “official” (governmental or otherwise) record of the War.  We see this most clearly when we recognize that the text’s refusal to use topological descriptions challenges colonial and neocolonial understandings of space, for scholars tend to associate topological, map-like descriptions of space with colonial and neocolonial powers.  Mary Louise Pratt, in her book Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, identifies a trope among colonial writers which she coins the “monarch-of-all-I-survey.”  Pratt argues that colonizers tend to describe the lands they conquer topologically, with what she calls “promontory descriptions” (202).  Colonial and postcolonial foreign elites typically present the places and spaces they are “settling” or “conquering” from above and with a bird’s-eye-view; they “perch themselves to paint the significance and value of what they see” (216).  The novel’s refusal to describe space topologically, therefore, is a challenge to colonial and neocolonial authority, which always describes space from above, topologically.  Instead, Adichie’s novel privileges and gives voice to the lived, on-the-ground experiences of individuals.

In describing space projectively, the novel demonstrates its commitment to representing the reality of life “on the ground” in Biafra.  For example, when Olanna drives from Nsukka to Enugu, she notices how “the narrow roads that ran through Milliken Hill, with a deep gully on one side and a steep hill on the other” and on how “the hibiscuses and bougainvillea took on an incandescent patina over their reds and pinks” (Adichie 32, 40).  The details she notices would not be included in a more top-down, topological understanding of space.  As readers, such descriptions of space lend insight into what it is like to live in this world.  We can imagine the flowers as Olanna sees them, imagine what driving along these narrow roads might be like.  What we do not get, however, is a geographical understanding of the path Olanna travels.  Olanna drives from Nsukka to Enugu, but the text does not tell us which direction she goes, how far apart these cities lie, or whether or not they are in Biafra, details a topological description of space likely would reveal.  That the text describes space projecively rather than topologically suggests its interest in the individual experience, rather more universal understanding, of life in Nigeria and Biafra.

Olanna is not the only character through whom readers gleam a projective understanding of Nigeria; when we first meet Ugwu, he is walking from his village to Nsukka, where he is to begin working as a houseboy for Olanna and her partner Odenigbo.  Like Olanna, Ugwu too notes details that a top-down, topographical perspective would not provide, saying, “the bungalows here were painted the color of the sky and sat side by side like polite well-dressed men…the hedges separating them were trimmed so flat on top that they looked like tables wrapped with leaves” (4).  Specifically, the use of similes—the way Ugwu compares “bungalows” to “polite well-dressed men” and “hedges” to “tables wrapped with leaves”—demonstrates that the text is privileging an “on the ground” and the unique experience of Ugwu (4).  Were the text interested in capturing a colonial or neocolonial perspective on Nigeria, we would expect a more objective, topological (“promontory,” in the words of Pratt) perspective of Nsukka (Pratt 202).  However, instead we see Nsukka through Ugwu’s eyes, understanding it through his similes.  Therefore, the text, in describing space projectively rather than topologically—according to how characters experience it rather than objectively—challenges colonial and neocolonial authority and its tendency to describe space topologically.

Other scholars have likewise noted how Adichie’s text privileges and foregrounds the experiences of individuals.  Akpome, in “Intertextuality and Influence,” for example, compares Half of a Yellow Sun to Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah, and writes that “[Adichie] focuses on the minutiae of the violence of the war, the personal tragedies and their lingering traumas, details which are not included in the broader, ‘bird’s-eye’ account of Anthills of the Savannah” (537).  His reference here to the “bird’s-eye perspective” of Achebe’s text alludes to the absence of topological locations in Half of a Yellow Sun.  Likewise, Nair and I are in agreement that the text is less interested in the large-scale politics of the Biafran War—what I refer to as the “official” record of the War—and instead foregrounds the lives of individual characters and their experiences.  As such, she writes, “Characters like Olanna, Odenigbo, Ugwu and other Biafrans are not concerned with the political implications of the war. The romanticized, exotic images of the war do not attract them; on the contrary, they are more concerned with its practical implications and realities, in particular the matter of sheer survival in a war-ridden society” (Nair 205-206).  Akpome and Nair gleam the text’s privileging of the individual over the collective or “official” experience.  However, my narratological examination of the text illuminates how the text’s foregrounds individual experiences not only in its content but also in its narrative form, through its representation of space.

Furthermore, we must consider the ideological implications of the text’s refusal to describe space in a topological, or “map-like,” way.  The Biafran War was fundamentally a conflict over national borders.  Biafrans wanted to redraw the map such that Nigeria and Biafra were two separate nations.  By never describing space topologically, Half of a Yellow Sun refuses to represent Nigeria in terms of its national borders, which suggests that the text is interested in challenging the ideology of separatism—and the desire to split Nigeria in two—that underlies the Biafran cause.  Thus, in never using topological descriptions of space, the text refuses to describe Nigeria according to its national borders and consequently refutes the thinking associated with the neocolonial authorities who favor the doctrine of separatism and the Biafran War.

Adichie’s use of projective descriptions of space, I argue, is a reaction to and against the colonial and neocolonial focus on Nigeria’s national borders.  The postcolonial scholar Dennis Lee, in his essay “Writing in Colonial Space,” writes about the impossibility of writing authentically in the language of the colonizers, asserting, “To speak unreflectingly in a colony, then, is to use words that speak only alien space…your authentic space does not have words” (Lee 349).   What Lee suggests is the difficulty of writing about a place—Nigeria, in Adichie’s case—using a language from colonizers.  Adichie, thus, in writing about Nigeria—a place fundamentally created by colonizers—using English, a colonial language, navigates complicated politics.  If, as Lee suggests, using English means “us[ing] words that speak only of alien space,” then how can Adichie reclaim English as a language appropriate for writing about Nigeria?  I argue that one way in which Adichie reclaims English is by describing space only projectivity and never topologically.  Because, as Pratt tells us, we associate topological descriptions with colonial powers, Half of a Yellow Sun’s sole use of projective descriptions is a reaction to the way that British colonizers mapped and arbitrarily created boundaries in Nigeria.  Thus, when we consider the ideological implications of the text’s refusal to discuss about Nigeria in terms of its national borders, we recognize how the novel challenges the neocolonial authorities who retain power in Nigeria and Biafra by maintaining the structures, such as national borders, during colonization.

Focalization – Challenging the Narrator and the Ideology of the Biafran War

I now shift the focus of this paper from examining the representation of space to examining the implications of focalization in Adichie’s novel.  First, I argue that the experiences of the three focalizers—Olanna, Ugwu, and Richard—challenge the narrator’s authority and their explicitly pro-Biafran message.  Then, I demonstrate how the structure of focalization itself in the text is a challenge to the separatist doctrine of the Biafran War.

Before I present my arguments, I must clarify what focalization is and how it differs from narration.  H. Porter Abbott, in The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative, differentiates between the narrator and the focalizer of a text, defining the narrator as the “one who tells a story” and the focalizer as “the position of quality of consciousness through which we ‘see’ events in the narrative” (238, 233).  In other words, the narrator is the one who “speaks” while the focalizer is the one through whose eyes readers “see” the story.  With Abbott’s distinction in mind, I argue that anything explicitly stated in the text—even lines stated through the dialogue of a character or focalizer—comes from the narrator, the “official voice” of the text.  I deem the narrator’s the “official voice” because of the tendency among narrative scholars to attribute to narrators a certain command.  Gymnich, for example, calls narrators “those textual speakers who are by default associated with the highest degree of authority by the readers” and says, “heterodiegetic/third-person narrators…are generally associated with even more authority than homodiegetic narrators” (65, 66).  The heterodiegetic narrator in Half of a Yellow Sun, has a certain amount of authority in the text and, for this reason, I consider the narrator the “official” voice of the text.

Taken at face value, Half of a Yellow Sun’s narrator explicitly communicates a pro-Biafran and pro-War message.  Early on during the War, all Biafrans seem sure their side will emerge victorious, and the narrator privileges their pro-Biafran thoughts and words.  Olanna tells Ugwu, “Our soldiers will drive the Nigerians back in a week or two” (Adichie 223).  And Odenigbo, says, with “his usual forceful reassurance,” “we’ll get our life back soon, in a free Biafra” (328).  He talks frequently “about the great nation that Biafra would be” (328).  Even when it becomes increasingly clear that the Biafran cause is doomed, characters continue to propagate the War effort, saying, “Our boys are showing them!” and, “Biafra will win this war, God has written it in the sky” (362).  Indeed, the narrator’s foregrounding characters’ confidence that the War is just and that Biafra will emerge victorious suggests the narrator’s pro-Biafran stance.  However, despite the text’s explicitly pro-Biafran message, the experiences of the three focalizers reveal how devastating the War is and, as a result, undercut the pro-Biafran sentiment of the narrator, the “official voice” of the text.  In this way, through focalization and the disconnect between the text’s explicit and implicit messages are, the text challenges authority by subverting the narrator’s voice.

Olanna’s experience visiting the refugee camp that her sister Kainene helps run highlights the disconnect between what the narrator says and what the focalizers experience and demonstrates how focalization undercuts the narrator’s authority.  Olanna describes the refugee children: “They were naked, the taut globes that were their bellies would not fit in a shirt anyway.  Their buttocks and chests were collapsed into folds of rumpled skin.  On their heads spurts of reddish hair” (437).  Nowhere in this description does the text say outright that the children are starving and literally dying.  In fact, there is no possibility that the text ever would say that, because anything explicitly stated comes from the narrator, and it would go against the beliefs of the pro-War narrator to show Biafrans struggling.  Yet, by reading between the lines, we can intuit what dire circumstances these refugee children face.  Through Olanna’s experience, we as readers come to understand the devastation of the Biafran War.  Furthermore, Olanna twice asks, “How many die a day?” (438).  But nobody answers her.  Here, we as readers must literally read for what remains unsaid.  For, in not answering, the text refuses to give voice to the focalizers’ experiences.  Nobody answers Olanna because the truth about how many refugees die daily would run counter to the narrator’s “official” pro-War message.  When we recognize what is unsaid here—the truth about how many refugees are dying daily—we recognize the disconnect between the explicit message of the narrator and the experiences of the characters.  Olanna’s time at the refugee camp, implicitly, paints a very different picture than the narrator’s continual confidence that Biafra “will win this thing” (497).  Thus, the experiences of Olanna, as a focalizer, begin to undercut the pro-Biafran sentiment of the narrator.

Likewise, despite the narrator’s continual conviction about the righteousness of Biafra’s cause, Ugwu’s experience fighting in the War, once again, serves to undermine the narrator’s authority and pro-Biafran sentiment.  Ugwu is conscripted and forced against his will to fight for Biafra, the first indication that the War effort may not be as popular or going as successfully as the narrator’s confidence would suggest.  At the training camp, which is located in an old school building, the living conditions Ugwu faces are poor: “The mats and mattresses arranged in the classroom crawled with vicious bedbugs” and the soldiers are underfed, for “the thin soup scooped from a metal basin once a day, left him hungry” (450).  Although the narrator retains their explicitly pro-Biafran message, the conditions that Ugwu and his fellow soldiers face suggest otherwise.  Furthermore, Ugwu notes that “the commander [was] the only one with a full uniform, sharply ironed and stiff” and describes those around him as “the skinny soldiers—with no boots, no uniforms, no half of a yellow sun on their sleeves” (451, 450).  The lack of food and uniforms suggests that, contrary to the narrator’s pro-War sentiment, the Biafran cause is failing.  When we thus recognize the disconnect between what the narrator says and what the focalizers’ experiences suggest, we can recognize that these experiences undercut the pro-War message of the narrator and reveal a bleaker, grim picture of the reality of life during the Biafran War.

Furthermore, the structure of focalization in Half of a Yellow Sun—that the story is told through the perspectives of three focalizers—challenges the separatist doctrine that underlies the Biafran War.  The Biafran War, waged to divide Nigeria into two, was fundamentally a conflict deeply rooted in the ideology of separatism.  The War effort aimed to highlight divisions and differences between people and, ultimately, to geopolitically separate “Biafrans” from “non-Biafran” Nigerians.

Half of a Yellow Sun is focalized through three very different characters, each of whom has one particularly salient identity, a defining aspect of their identity that makes them different and unique when compared to the other focalizers.  For Ugwu, it is his class; he is a poor boy from rural Nigeria.  For Olanna, it is her gender; she is the only female focalizer.  And for Richard, it is his race; while Ugwu and Olanna are both black, Richard is a white British expatriate living in Nigeria.  For a text about a War fundamentally interested in divisions and what divides people, we might expect that these three unique focalizers would experience the War very differently; however; this is not so.  In fact, Ugwu, Olanna, and Richard, despite their diverse identities, all experience the Biafran War in remarkably similar ways; namely, all three focalizers experience trauma and terror as well as intense loss and grief.  In this way, the narrative structure of Half of a Yellow Sun—that it is told through three focalizers whose experiences of the war are so similar—challenges the doctrine of separatism that is at the heart of the Biafran cause.  The doctrine upon which the War is based, I argue, is yet another source of authority that the text is interested in challenging.

Ugwu, conscripted and forced to fight for Biafra, experiences near constant terror, always fearing for his life, while at the front.  What he sees, what he experiences while fighting, is truly too horrifying for him to comprehend.  He describes having to disconnect his actions from his thoughts and emotions in order to witness the brutality and death around him and yet continue fighting: “He unwrapped his mind from his body, separated the two, while he lay in the trench, pressing himself into the mud” (458).  Ugwu is so afraid, so terrified that that he copes by turning off and escaping from his mind.  He cannot think about the killing and the death of which he is now a part.  It is only later, when Ugwu is not fighting and the memories of what he has seen and done return to him, that we can recognize just how traumatizing fighting is for Ugwu: “Back at the camp, his memory became clear; he remembered the man who placed both hands on his blown-open belly as though to hold his intestines in, the one who mumbled something about his son before he stiffened” (458).  The horrors of the War haunt Ugwu; in moments such as this when he processes his memories, he relives the distress and the anguish he had previously tried so hard to avoid.  More important than what specifically is Ugwu’s experience during the War is how similar his experience is to the other focalizers’, for it is these similarities, despite the focalizers’ decidedly different identities, that reveal how the text uses focalization to subvert the doctrine of separatism underlying the Biafran War.

Olanna too seems to be in a near constant state of terror during the War.  She worries incessantly for her daughter, saying that “her greatest fear was that Baby would die” (333).  The fear of air raids becomes ingrained in her such that “Olanna jumped each time she heard thunder [because] she imagined another air raid, bombs rolling out of a plane and exploding in the compound before she and Odenigbo and Baby and Ugwu could reach the bunker down the street” (327).  Olanna’s identity, we must remember, is nothing like Ugwu’s.  She is wealthy and well-educated, a mother.  Ugwu comes from a poor, uneducated family and is forced against his will to join the army.  And yet these two very different characters both experience deep terror and trauma because of the War.  Their common experiences highlight what is the same between these two very different individuals rather than what is different.  In this way, focalization serves to challenge the separatist doctrine of the Biafran War.

Like Ugwu and Olanna, Richard too—despite not being a native of Nigeria and despite residing in a different part of Biafra—experiences similar terror as he lives through the Biafran War.  When the first air raid hits Port Harcourt, Richard watches his houseboy Ikejide die a gruesome death: “A piece of shrapnel, the size of a fist, wheezed past.  Ikejide was still running and, in the moment that Richard glanced away and back, Ikejide’s head was gone.  The body was running, arched slightly forward, arms flying around, but there was not head.  There was only a bloodied neck” (398).  Ikejide’s violent death traumatizes Richard.  He becomes unsure how to cope.  Likewise, although he wants to comfort Kainene, he feels there is nothing he can say: “She wanted him to tell her that she was mistaken about the whole thing,” about seeing Ikejide beheaded, but although “he wished he could,” he says nothing (399).  He knows not what to say nor how to cope with this traumatic experience.  Thus, Richard’s experiences of terror and trauma during the War are very similar to the experiences of the text’s other focalizers, Olanna and Ugwu.  In this way, the very structure of focalization in Half of a Yellow Sun—that is, three very distinctive focalizers who each experience the Biafran War so similarly—undercuts the ideology of separatism that underlies the Biafran cause.

Beyond fear, Ugwu, Olanna, and Richard all experience loss and grief as a result of the War, which further demonstrates how the structure of focalization, in highlighting the similarities of the focalizers’ experiences, undercuts the separatist doctrine of the War.  Ugwu is separated from his family for an extended period of time during the War, during which time much has changed.  His mother has died, and he mourns for her loss: “Ugwu sank to his knees, placed his forehead on the ground, and wrapped his hands around his head, as if to shield himself from something that would fall from above, as if it were the only position he could adopt to absorb his mother’s death” (252).  His grief is palpable, almost physically tangible to a reader.  Similarly, something has changed in his beloved sister Anulika: “There were no energetic gestures, no sharp wit in her answers…She looked away often, as if she felt uncomfortable sitting with him, and Ugwu wondered if he had imagined the easy bond they had shared” (252).  Although Anulika will not talk about what happened to her, a relative later tells Ugwu how soldiers attacked and raped Anulika: “They forced themselves on her.  Five of them…They nearly beat her to death.  One of her eyes has refused to open well since” (526).  The War stole from Ugwu his mother and the relationship he once had with his sister.  He feels a keen sense of loss; with his mother gone and his sister irrevocably changed, home no longer feels like home.  Further, “Ugwu took a walk around the village, and when he got to the stream he remembered the line of women going to fetch water in the mornings, and he sat down on a rock and sobbed” (526).  The intense nostalgia that Ugwu feels for all he has lost—for all that the War has stolen from him—brings him to tears.

Olanna too experiences profound loss during the Biafran War.  Both she and Ugwu experience loss tangibly—for the War takes millions of lives—and intangibly—for Ugwu no longer feels a connection to his home and Olanna stops feeling safe.  Olanna’s tries to visit her aunt and uncle only to find they have been killed: “Uncle Mbaezi lay facedown in an ungainly twist, legs splayed.  Something creamy-white oozed through the large gash on the back of his head.  Aunty Ifeka lay on the veranda.  The cuts on her naked body were smaller, dotting her arms and legs…” (186).  Besides losing loved relatives, itself deeply painful, Olanna also loses her sense of safety and security.  She begins to experience what she calls Dark Swoops.  “That night, she had the first Dark Swoop: A think blanket descended from above and pressed itself over her face, firmly, while she struggled to breathe.  Then, when it let go, freeing her to take in gulp after gulp of air, she saw burning owls at the window grinning and beckoning to her with charred feathers” (196).  The Dark Swoops represent Olanna’s having lost her sense of safety in the world.  Much in the way that Ugwu no longer has a sense of home, Olanna too has undergone an abstract form of loss.  Furthermore, Olanna’s relationship with her partner Odenigbo becomes strained after his mother is killed.  She feels unable to connect with her Odenigbo; “She sensed the layers of his grief…but she did not feel connected to his mourning” (404).  And after Odenigbo unsuccessfully tries to find his mother’s body, Olanna recalls that she “no longer remembered the hours of waiting for Odenigbo to come back, but she did remember the sensation of blindness, of cold sheaths begin drawn over her eyes” (404).  Not only does Odenigbo lose his mother, but also Olanna and Odenigbo lose one another.  Olanna recognizes that their relationship will never recover: “she knew he would not be the same again” (404).  Loss—via death or emotional disconnect—happens as a result of the War.

Finally, Richard, like the other two focalizers, also experiences loss as a result of the War.  His partner Kainene crosses into enemy territory one day towards the end of the War and never returns.  As he goes out in search of her, “Richard felt himself tumbling through a tunnel, felt the weight being sucked off him hour after hour” (509).  Losing Kainene is incredibly painful for Richard.  When he eventually comes to accept that she is gone—and that he is unlikely to ever know what happened to her—he recognizes that he never truly will recover from this loss: “Darkness descended on him, and when it lifted he knew that he would never see Kainene again and that his life would always be like a candlelit room; he would see things only in shadow, only in half glimpses” (537).  The War took his love for him, and the world will never be whole for him without Kainene.  Moreover, Richard’s descriptions of what it feels like to lose Kainene—specifically the language of “darkness,” “a candlelit room” and “shadow[s]”—parallel how Olanna experiences losing her sense of safety via the “dark swoops” (537, 196).  That two focalizers use the same figurative language of darkness to describe loss is further evidence for how similar the focalizers’ experiences the War are.  The similarity of their experiences serves to undercut the doctrine of separatism and the War’s reliance upon an ideology rooted in differences and what divides people.  Evidently, experiences of terror and loss are common for those living through the Biafran War.  Indeed, Ugwu, Olanna, and Richard, despite considerable differences in their identities, all experience the War in remarkably similar ways.  Thus, Half of a Yellow Sun suggests through its multiple focalizers that what is common between characters far outweighs what divides them and makes them different.  In this way, the text challenges authority and the doctrine of separatism underlying the War.

Although Half of a Yellow Sun, when taken purely at face value, may appear to be a text interested in promoting the Biafran cause, a narratological examination of space and focalization in the text suggest the presence of a deeper message, one that reveals just how destructive and brutal the Biafran Civil War was.  Space in the novel is described purely projectively and never topologically, which suggests the text’s allegiance to the experiences of individuals over an “official” (governmental or otherwise) understanding of space.  For a text interested in the politics of national borders—in whether Biafra should remain a part of Nigeria or become independent—it is striking that the novel refuses to describe space in a “map-like manner.”  The absence of topological representations of space works to undermine the pro-Biafran sentiment the novel’s narrator.  Likewise, projective representations of space challenge neocolonial authority, with which scholars tend to associate topological representations of space.  Furthermore, when we examine focalization in the text, we realize that it serves to critique authority in two ways.  First, the experiences of the focalizers—Olanna, Ugwu, and Richard—undermine the narrator’s explicitly pro-Biafran message.  And second, the structure of focalization itself—that the text is focalized through the eyes of three very diverse characters whose experiences during the War are all remarkably similar—which further undercuts the separatist doctrine that underlies the Biafran War cause.

In this way, my postcolonial narratological reading of Adichie’s text suggests that counter to those who write of the novel as homage to Biafran, the text is actually much more interested in capturing the reality of life for and the authentic experiences of individuals who lived through the Biafran War.  Scholars who neglect to study the narrative form of Half of a Yellow Sun tend to miss this aspect of the text and thus fail to recognize the disconnect between what the narrator explicitly says and what the text, when we foreground the importance of form, implicitly suggests about the Biafran War.  As my paper suggests about Half of a Yellow Sun, reading novels in light of postcolonial narrative theory can, and will, reveal about texts new insights that we otherwise will miss.  The field of postcolonial narratology is in its infancy, and scholars need to do more work at the intersection of these two fields.  Specifically, scholars thus far have focused primarily on the works of non-white authors residing in the West.  To better understand the nature of narrative, however, we must consider all texts.  Studying the narratives of African writers like Adichie furthers narrative theory by exploring whether our existing understanding of how narratives function applies to non-white and non-Western texts.

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua.  “The Politics of Language.”  The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, edited by Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, 2nd ed., Routledge, 2006, pp. 268-271.

Abbott, H. Porter. The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative. Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. Half of a Yellow Sun. London: Anchor, 2006.

Akpome, Aghogho.  “Focalisation and Polyvocality in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun.” English Studies in Africa, vol. 56, no. 2, 2013, pp. 25–35.

——.  “Intertextuality and Influence: Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah (1987) and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun (2006).”  Journal of Postcolonial Writing, vol. 53, no. 5, 2017, pp. 530-542.

Awelewa, Abayomi. “The Archetypal Search for Kainene: Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun: The Nigerian State and the Lost Biafran Dream.” Leeds African Studies Bulletin, vol. 78, 2016-2017, pp. 105–117.

“Background Information on the IDP Situation in Nigeria.”  Relief Web.  Global IDP Project.  22 July 2002.

Carter, Paul.  “Naming Place.”  The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, edited by Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, 2nd ed., Routledge, 2006, pp. 351-354.

Chukwumah, Ignatius and Nebbeife, Cassandra Ifeoma. “Persecution in Igbo-Nigerian Civil-War Narratives.” Matatu, vol. 49, no. 2, 2017, pp. 241–259.

Coffey, Meredith.  “ ‘She is Waiting’: Political Allegory and the Specter of Secession in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun.”  Research in African Literatures, vol. 45, no. 2, 2014, pp. 63-85.

DeMey, Joke.  “The Intersection of History, Literature and Trauma in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun.”  Dissertation, Ghent University, 2010-2011.

Donahue, James J.  “Introduction.” Narrative, Race, and Ethnicity in the United States. Edited by James J. Donahue, Jennifer Ann Ho, and Shaun Morgan, The Ohio State University Press, 2017, pp. 1-12.

Donnelly, Michael A. “The Bildungsroman and Biafran Sovereignty in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun.” Law and Literature, vol. 30, no. 2, 2018, pp. 245–266.

Ganapathy, Maya.  “Sidestepping the Political ‘Graveyard of Creativity’: Polyphonic Narratives and Reenvisioning the Nation-State in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow SunResearch in African Literatures, vol. 47, no. 3, 2016, pp. 88-105.

González, Christopher.  Permissible Narrative: The Promise of Latino/a Literature.  The Ohio State University Press, 2017.

Gymnich, Marion.  “Linguistics and Narratology: The Relevance of Linguistic Criteria to Postcolonial Narratology.”  Literature and Linguistics: Approaches, Models, and Applications: Studies in Honour of Jon Erickson, 2002, pp. 61-76.

Herman, David.  “Spatial Reference in Narrative Domains.”  Text – Interdisciplinary Journal for the Study of Discourse, vol. 21, no. 4, 2001, pp. 515-541.

Huggan, Graham.  “Decolonizing the Map.”  The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, edited by Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, 2nd ed., Routledge, 2006, pp. 355-358.

“ICE Case Studies: The Biafran War.” American University: ICE Case Studies. American University. 1997.

Ikediugwu, Ogechukwu A. “Feminist Inclinations in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun and Purple Hibiscus.” New Academia: An International Journal of English Language, Literature and Literary Theory, vol. 2, no. 4, 2013, pp. 1–16.

Krishnan, Madhu. “On National Culture and the Projective Past: Mythology, Nationalism, and the Heritage of Biafra in Contemporary Nigerian Narrative.” Clio, vol. 42, no. 2, 2013, pp. 187–207.

Lecznar, Matthew.  “(Re)Fashioning Biafra: Identity, Authorship, and the Politics of Dress in Half of a Yellow Sun and Other Narratives of the Nigeria-Biafra War.”  Research in African Literatures, vol. 47, no. 4, 2016, pp. 112-132.

Lee, Dennis.  “Writing in Colonial Space.”  The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, edited by Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, 2nd ed., Routledge, 2006, pp. 347-350.

Nair, Chitra Thrivikraman. “Negotiation of Socio-Ethnic Spaces: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun as a Testimonio of African National and Ethnic Identity.” Matatu, vol. 45, no. 1, 2014, pp. 203–215.

Nnolim, Charles. “Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun.” African Literature Toda., vol. 27, 2010, pp. 145–151.

Phelan, James. Living to Tell about It: A Rhetoric and Ethics of Character Narration. Cornell University Press, 2005.

Pratt, Mary Louise. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. Routledge, 1992.

Rimmon-Kenan, Shlomith. Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics. Routledge, 2002.

Tembo, Nick Mdika. “Ethnic Conflict and the Politics of Greed: Rethinking Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun.” Matatu, vol. 40, no. 1, 2012, pp. 173–189.

Thiong’o, Ngũgĩ wa.  “The Language of African Literature.”  The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, edited by Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, 2nd ed., Routledge, 2006, pp. 263-267.

Wenske, Ruth S.  “Adichie in Dialogue with Achebe: Balancing Dualities in Half of a Yellow Sun.”  Research in African Literatures, vol. 47, no. 3, 2016, pp. 70-87.

Nair, Chitra Thrivikraman. “Negotiation of Socio-Ethnic Spaces: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun as a Testimonio of African National and Ethnic Identity.” Matatu, vol. 45, no. 1, 2014, pp. 203–215.

Nnolim, Charles. “Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun.” African Literature Toda., vol. 27, 2010, pp. 145–151.

Phelan, James. Living to Tell about It: A Rhetoric and Ethics of Character Narration. Cornell University Press, 2005.

Pratt, Mary Louise. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. Routledge, 1992.

Rimmon-Kenan, Shlomith. Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics. Routledge, 2002.

Tembo, Nick Mdika. “Ethnic Conflict and the Politics of Greed: Rethinking Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun.” Matatu, vol. 40, no. 1, 2012, pp. 173–189.Wenske, Ruth S.  “Adichie in Dialogue with Achebe: Balancing Dualities in Half of a Yellow Sun.”  Research in African Literatures, vol. 47, no. 3, 2016, pp. 70-87.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén