Writing, Identity, & Queer Studies

In & Out, Either/Or, and Everything In Between

Family, Race, and the Monolith in Cereus Blooms at Night

“Pohpoh cupped here ears and aimed them at the house. She heard nothing. She imagined bedrooms with a happy family, a fairy-tale family in which the father was a benevolent king. There would be a fairy queen for a mother, and enough little cherub siblings to fill a very large shoe or pumpkin carriage, their fat, pink faces smiling even as they slept” (156).

 

In the above passage, Pohpoh’s imagination reveals not only what she associates with happiness, but also what she desires herself (the latter can be gathered from the idealized, almost envious tone of her fantasy): a nuclear family, one that fits the monolith in structure with a male head of household, a loving mother, and multiple siblings. This desire to fit the monolith underscores the suffering that Pohpoh has faced because of her unconventional family structure. Without a mother to protect her, her father has been able to viciously abuse her. (It is worth noting that Sara would not be needed as a protective figure in the first place if Chandin were the “benevolent” figure of both the monolith and Pohpoh’s fantasy.)(In other words, Chandin may be a very human kind of terrible, but he is still terrible.)

Changing directions a bit, it is also significant that the children in Pohpoh’s fantasy are “pink” in the face. Pink faces suggest whiteness, which in turn suggests that Pohpoh associates happiness and normalcy with whiteness instead of with other people of color. This relates back to Chandin’s own attempts to escape his racial identity and be as much like the white missionaries he encounters as possible. Although Pohpoh doesn’t go as far as Chandin, she seems to associate both whiteness and conventional family structures with the happiness that she lacks. In fact, one can argue that whiteness is as much a part of the monolith as heterosexuality given the fact that being white is often treated as a standard from which all other races deviate. Thus, the racial aspect of Pohpoh’s fantasy family is not separate from but related to the actual structure of that family, forming another way in which the family that Pohpoh associates with happiness (and safety) embodies the monolith.

Finally, it is understandable that Pohpoh would desire a life that is shaped around the monolith, as living differently from the monolith has only brought her suffering; however, we know from her interactions with Tyler that she does not view the monolith as a restrictive force, for she accepts people who live outside its confines. Thus, it is a structure that she desires for her life, but not the only way to structure a life that she will accept.

3 Comments

  1. westcoastbesttoast

    November 19, 2018 at 10:58 am

    I love this analysis of incorporating race and the monolith. I agree that whiteness is part of the monolith, as evident throughout history and society. Many tend to forget that the monolith is also intersectional and intertwines with other aspects such as race, class, socio-economic status, etc. Do we think that had she not mentioned the “pink faces”, that we would still assume race? Was this purposeful so that we do recognize whiteness and its contribution to the monolith?

  2. I really enjoyed your comment especially because I’d never thought about this aspect of the book beyond Chandin’s backstory. I love the point of Sarah not having to be a protective figure if Chandin had adhered to the cultural monolith’s expectation of a benevolent father. It makes me sad to see Pohpoh’s ideal of a family which erases an important part of her identity. I would’ve loved for the novel to explain Pohpoh’s journey to realization. How she arrived from her younger self’s idealism to her older self’s acceptance of herself and other people who don’t adhere to the monolith.

  3. paintstarsincolor

    November 19, 2018 at 1:10 pm

    I whole heartedly agree with you that if Chandin had been a kinder father, then Sara would not have been needed as the protective figure. But I do not necessarily consider that the monolith dictates that the father figure be loving. When I think of a father figure, I look back to the advertisements and commercials post WWII up through the Vietnam War. In these media, the father figure is labeled as distant, providing financially for his family but little emotionally beyond teaching his son how to be a ‘man.’ The father figure is also seen as the one who traditionally disciplines his children when provoked. With this in mind, I think that Chandin’s version of being a ‘father’ overlaps with the monolith; however, he basterdizes and poisons this role to the extreme.

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