Labor Exploitation and the Immigrant Worker in The Jungle and Under the Feet of Jesus

As my thesis will be exploring narratives of food labor in literature, the fields of study I have found to be most useful in framing this exploration and my understanding of my primary texts are Food Studies, Labor in Literature, and Migration in Literature.  While Food Studies is not specifically dedicated to literature, the discipline has been useful to me so I can ground literary depictions of food production at different points in history to the realities of this production as explained by food historians. The study of depictions of labor in literature is admittedly one that can be broad and subjective at points.  However, from the research I have conducted so far, this field has lent me ideas on how to put the literary in conversation with discourses of labor justice and alternatives to exploitative labor systems (such as Socialism and Marxism). In addition to these two fields, Migration in Literature is of prime importance as I plan on centering the narratives of food laborers who specifically hold migrant or undocumented status.  This field centers the experiences and narratives of immigrants/ migrants, and in studying this, I have been able to learn more about different literary depictions about and told through the voices of Latinx migrant food laborers.

The central question that has led my research on this topic is:  Why do stories about our food resonate with us more than those of the people who provide us with this food?  This was born out of the realization that in most discourses about and depictions of ‘food’ in literature, scholars and writers almost always seem to prioritize the culinary and the act of consumption (in an eating and purchasing sense).  I found this to be concerning, as the invisibility of the stories of food laborers can lead to the obscuring of the exploitation they face in reality. While this question has led me to forming ideas specifically about food labor exploitation, I have also been forming ideas about the interactions between this labor exploitation and systems of racism and xenophobia- and how they culminate in the stories of immigrant food laborers.

AP Photo / The Ledger, Ernst Peters

The Jungle (1906) by Upton Sinclair

Of the two primary texts I will be focusing on in this blog post, The Jungle (1906) by Upton Sinclair is responsible for introducing me to narratives of food labor, as it is often considered to be a foundational text in this respect.  Detailing the lives of a large family of Lithuanian immigrants who migrate to the United States for a better life, the novel follows them as they arrive in Chicago’s meatpacking district, try to survive and navigate the brutalities of this area and industry, and eventually find themselves either dead or trapped in abject poverty.  Relayed by a third person narrator, the stories of these individual family members ultimately revolve around the central narrative of Jurgis Rudkus’ experiences as an immigrant and worker in a slaughterhouse. It is he who helps bring his father Dede and the extensive family of his new bride- the teenage Ona- to America. And it is his journey from an immigrant who is hopeful of the prosperity he believes America will provide, to a widowed, homeless, and traumatized man serves as Sinclair’s metaphor for the lecherous nature of capitalism and worker exploitation.  It is not until he has reached his lowest point, following the death of Ona and their baby during childbirth, the successive death of their only surviving child- known as Baby- due to the repulsive conditions of their neighborhood, and Jurgis’ descent into alcoholism and self destruction, that Jurgis finds a semblance of salvation in the newly emerged Socialist party after literally stumbling into a Socialist lecture.

From my understanding, The Jungle is a foundational text in the field of literary food labor.  Therefore, when considering its legacy in the general sense, I find it interesting to view its immediate reception as foreshadowing what would become my main criticism of food writing and discourses of food.  However, it has become important to me to figure out the different factors and figures (including and especially Sinclair himself), that can be responsible for the prioritization of consumption over production.  To unpack this, I plan to turn to the text and analyze the language and aesthetics used to characterize the labor, workers, and settings.  As I would like to focus on the racialized and xenophobic oppression that immigrant laborers face, Sinclair’s lack of dedication to these specific oppressions- that his characters like Jurgis undoubtedly struggle against- is something that will complicate my analysis and that I will be contending with.  

Under the Feet of Jesus (1995) by Helena Maria Viramontes

Where Sinclair’s narrator follows the struggles of a family of immigrant laborers in the Chicago meatpacking industry in the early 1900s, Under the Feet of Jesus (1995) by Helena Maria Viramontes similarly explores the struggles of a family of immigrant laborers.  However, Viramontes’ novel is set about 90 years after the events of The Jungle and thousands of miles away from the Chicago slaughterhouses to the farmworker communities in Southern California.  Additionally, in the vein of Sinclair, the novel’s third person narrator makes sure to outline the different experiences and hardships of the individual family members, but ultimately places those of 13-year-old Chicana farmworker Estrella at the forefront of the text.  While Estrella is a US citizen, her mother Petra and most of the Chicanx laborers she works along with in the fruit fields are undocumented, forcing Estrella and her family into a vulnerability that leads to poverty, anxiety, and constant movement between different labor camps in search of work.  These consequences of their vulnerability are culminated in Viramontes’ descriptions of the exploitation the family faces at labor camps and the physical and psychological pain they endure as farmworkers. Upon meeting a fellow farmworker boy, Alejo, Estrella finds strength and hope in their new romance, which motivates her to begin questioning the structures that have forced her and her family into these conditions.  When Alejo’s life is threatened by pesticide poisoning and he is in desperate need of medical attention, Estrella’s resentment of the racist and exploitative structures that have contributed to his poisoning comes to a head. Presented in a powerful moment where she physically threatens a white nurse who took her family’s scarce savings and disregarded Alejo’s health crisis, Estrella finds herself resisting further exploitation.  While the novel intentionally does not reveal Alejo’s fate, it concludes with Estrella hoping to seek further freedom despite the weight of her struggles.

I would like to unpack the role of agency amongst the novel’s different farmworkers.  Specifically, how Viramontes navigates the difficult territory of mapping out exploitation and struggle without completely victimizing these characters and stripping them of their agency.  In figuring this out, I am also hoping to understand what the extent of the sociopolitical agency held by the different characters in this novel actually is. As Viramontes privileges the stories and voices of these fictional farmworkers, is there space to privilege their ability to organize and resist their exploitation in a labor activist awakening that echoes the Socialist awakening of Jurgis?  I am hoping to unpack these themes and questions further throughout my thesis research process through close reading of this primary text and by consulting with various sources that analyze Under the Feet of Jesus (1995) and narratives of migrant food laborers.

Conclusion + Concerns

The main challenge that I am concerned about as I begin to unpack The Jungle and Under the Feet of Jesus for my thesis is the tone I choose when I discuss both texts.  In other words: as both texts have different elements I see as negative and positive, I’m wondering whether I will end up using one text’s positives to criticize the other text’s negatives.  This is an issue I find in how I might frame my writing on The Jungle, as I do have strong hesitations on Sinclair’s ability to humanize the workers in his novel.  However, I am also aware of the novel’s intention and significance in the greater history of food labor justice, and do not want to discount that.  Additionally, I find shortcomings in Under the Feet of Jesus as I feel the novel’s message could benefit from a stronger tie to an anti-capitalist exploitation stance.  But again, I do not want to discount its influence. As my thesis will be taking on a comparative route, I would rather not condemn or praise one over the other too much.

Blog Post #6

Works Cited:

Sinclair, Upton.  The Jungle.  Doubleday, 1906.

Viramontes, Helena M.  Under the Feet of Jesus.  Plume, 1995.

Connecting Narratives of Food Work Through Labor Studies and Migrant Studies

In order for my vision of my Senior Thesis to become clearer, I have begun compiling a reading list that is influenced by the presence of food labor in literature.  Narratives on food labor are often less about the actual work being done, and more about the various forces, conditions, and injustices underlying the very nature of this work.  It is the academic analysis of these (often intersecting) issues in narratives of food labor that I have sought out in my field work. Seeking these analyses, I have come across two noteworthy texts discussing literary depictions of food labor.  The first is featured in the Summer issue of the journal Multi-Ethnic Literature of the U.S. (MELUS), titled “Lands of Entrapment: Environmental Health and Well-Being in Literature about the US Southwest and Chicana/o Communities” by María Isabel Pérez-Ramos.  The second text is “Beastmen and Labor Experts: Fiction and the Problem of Authority from 1900 to 1917”, the fifth chapter of the book Labor’s Text: The Worker in American Fiction by Laura Hapke.

In “Beastmen and Labor Experts”, Laura Hapke introduces her analysis on early 20th century labor narratives by explaining the history behind the United States’ increasing reliance on immigrant labor in industry.  In accordance with this reliance on mainly Slavic labor, Hapke also details the unjust rules and conditions these workers were forced to accept. This rise of injustice coincided with the establishment of the Socialist party in the United States in 1901, and Hapke contends that both instances created a literary culture that was rooted in the ‘social protest’ of exploitative labor.  But in analyzing this specific culture, Hapke argues that ““Even as the new social protest authors relied more heavily than did their nineteenth century predecessors on the authority of experience, they filtered the work through an authority all their own” (121) To support this, she touches on the subject of Upton Sinclair and his 1906 novel, The Jungle.  Initially, Hapke explains that Sinclair- a prominent Socialist of his time- wrote The Jungle with the intention of revealing the cruel injustices faced by the worker that have resulted from Capitalism’s parasitic nature.  And to many readers, as Hapke argues, his writing truly “captured the terrors of workers” (123). However, Hapke takes her analysis one step further by arguing that Sinclair’s writing style, in its “excessive focus on degradation” in the Chicago meatpacking industry, ultimately “has a dulling effect” (124).  To Hapke, Sinclair’s writing style and manipulation of language actually served to dehumanize the laborers he hoped to represent and ‘brutalize’ his novel’s central character, the Slavic meatpacking worker Jurgis Rudkis.

Source: Ebay

In “Lands of Entrapment”, Pérez-Ramos focuses on Chicanx narratives about the relationship between Chicanx communities in the United States, their relationship with the land they inhabit, and the environmental racism many of these communities- especially Chicanx farmworker communities- face.  To Pérez-Ramos, theses narratives hold a deeper meaning beyond representation, and reach into a collective ideology that is intrinsic to Latinx native histories. “Chicana/o culture and literature, in its pursuit of socioenvironmental justice, strives for well-being by conjoining economic, environmental, and social issues.  In Latin America, this holistic perception of socioenvironmental well-being is referred to as Buen Vivir.  The philosophy of Buen Vivir is in turn influenced by indigenous ways of living and interpreting the world” (130)  Through this concept of Buen Vivir, Pérez-Ramos presents her argument that the environmental racism that violates Chicanx bodies and communities simultaneously imposes violence on an idea that is foundational to the Chicanx and Latinx mind, and the depiction of these violations in literature is crucial to attaining justice and redemption.  To illustrate these depictions and their passionate themes of justice, Pérez-Ramos writes about the plays and novels, Heroes and Saints by Cherrie Moraga, Under the Feet of Jesus by Helena Maria Viramontes, and Cactus Blood by Lucha Corpi.  The three plays and novels depict Chicanx farmworking communities in the States, centering their narratives on characters who either work directly in the fields or are related to these workers.  As Pérez-Ramos explains, the narratives all follow the characters as they navigate the physical and psychological devastation that has been imposed on them due to polluted water, pesticide poisoning, toxic waste, and other environmental hazards that have been redirected to their community.  She emphasizes the psychological devastation in these narratives by describing them as “toxic traumas”, and notes that by this toxic trauma being explored further in depth by Chicanx writers, we can understand the gravity of the oppression Chicanx farmworking communities endure.

In terms of the central arguments both sources make about the implications of labor in their respective texts, there is a definite divergence.  For Perez-Ramos, it is clear that her analysis of Moraga, Viramontes, and Corpi’s works seeks to reveal certain themes on racial and ethnic identity, collective indigenous philosophies, and how this all affects the Chicanx diaspora in the American agricultural South.  Hapke’s analysis on Sinclair’s The Jungle, however, shows a shift towards themes of socialist interpretations of literature, authorship and the ‘authority of experience’ (121), and language manipulation.

While these sources touch on very distinct experiences of labor during very different periods of American history, I have found them both to be invaluable in my research and understanding of labor within the food industry and how this impacts the humanity of the immigrant laborer.  Both Hapke and Perez-Ramos use their research and analysis of different texts to highlight literature’s abilities in bringing attention to the worker exploitation that can occur during the production of the food we eat. Specifically, both sources and the texts they discuss work cohesively within the field of Literary Labor Studies, which explores different kinds of depictions of work in literature, often through Socialist or Communist frames.

My thesis will be looking intently at the fields of Food Studies, Ethnic Literature, Labor in Literature, and Migration in Literature, as well as being framed by the terms: food production, immigration, labor exploitation, and authorship.  “Beastmen and Labor Experts” has raised the issue of authorship within Labor in Literature by revealing how class and race often clashes with good intentions when it comes to writing the immigrant working individual and the communities they live in.  I have been aware that audience reaction to The Jungle has focused more on outrage over food conditions rather than labor conditions, and attributed this to a trend of many Americans prioritizing their plates over people.  However, Hapke’s argues that this reaction can also be attributed to Sinclair’s brutalized depiction of workers consequently made it difficult for audiences to connect with them.  This argument has made me more aware of perhaps even the exploitative nature in socialist literary depictions of labor in food production.

Additionally, “Lands of Entrapment” has raised what I feel is an oversight in Latinx depictions of food labor.  Perez-Ramos emphasizes the roles of racism and citizenship in the exploitation of the workers in the texts she analyzes, and while this emphasis is vital- I do believe her analysis can also benefit from a framework that also acknowledges the roles of capitalism and industry in this exploitation.  As The Jungle shows, exploitation in food has held a history in the United States that has involved numerous marginalized and undocumented groups, and this can be attributed to industries taking advantage of these groups’ inability to legally advocate and organize for better wages and conditions.  Therefore, I am hoping that as I continue to study narratives of the Latinx agricultural laborer, I will come across scholars who acknowledge these forces as well.

These two sources have immeasurably helped me in my navigation of the thesis research process.  Admittedly, I had been intimidated by the prospect of studying literary depictions of Slavic immigrant meatpacking workers in the early 20th century alongside depictions of Latinx immigrant/migrant farmworkers in a contemporary sense.  These sources have shown me the extensive history of immigrant exploitation in the food industry, and the pivotal role literature can play in making this exploitation visible to those who are unaware. Specifically, Hapke has helped me learn to pay attention to the language and writing style used to describe laborers, as well as knowing who is behind these words, and the role their own identity and experiences plays in representations of immigrant laborers.  Now, as I dive further into my central texts, I will be looking into my first impressions of characters, and dive deeper into: why I have come to certain conclusions, what forces are at play in my perception of their representation, and how do I think this representation is interpreted by other readers?  Additionally, I am asking questions about the challenges of capturing experiences and conditions of exploitation- is the text I’m studying voyeuristic? Valid in its attempt to raise awareness of injustice? Reducing these stories simply to make a political point?

In terms of Perez-Ramos’ work, I have been reminded to pay close attention to the mental conditions of the workers in the texts I analyze.  It is easy to write about the painful physical consequences of exploitative labor, but by also giving the psychological consequences of exploitative labor a platform, I will be able to reiterate the humanity in the characters I write about for my thesis.  This is something that is of utmost importance to me. The narratives I am studying are interpretations of actual experiences of oppression, exploitation, and trauma, and it is important to analyze how these experiences affect the mental wellbeing of the laborer by paying closer attention to their words and actions.

Blog Post #5

Sources:

Hapke, Laura.  “Beastmen and Labor Experts: Fiction and the Problem of Authority from 1900 to 1917” Labor’s Text: The Worker in American Fiction.  Rutgers University Press, New Jersey, 2001.  pp. 121-4.


Pérez-Ramos, María I. “Lands of Entrapment: Environmental Health and Well-Being in Literature about the US Southwest and Chicana/o Communities” Multi-Ethnic Literature of the U.S.  Vol. 43, No. 2.  2018. pp. 129-50

Richard’s Love (?) of Kainene

Before there is love, there is the preliminary stage of infatuation.  It is in this stage where attraction and affection are first carved out between two people, as they navigate these feelings both together and as individuals.  In Chapter Three of Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, readers are introduced to this stage of infatuation and navigation within the budding romance between protagonists Richard Churchill and Kainene, recalled in the perspective of Richard.  Romantic love plays a vital role in the dynamics between several of the novel’s characters, however, it is Richard’s recollection and interpretation of his early stages of love with Kainene that stand out in its unmistakable intensity.  

Meeting for the first time at another nondescript cocktail party they were both brought to- Richard by his cavalier girlfriend Susan, Kainene by her enterprising father Chief Ozobia- they share a brief moment of connection.  Following this brief meeting at the party, the two transition towards regularly meeting in a private suite of a hotel owned by Kainene’s father. And it is Richard’s experience of these private meetings that resonated particularly with me, as their dynamic seems to be completely established after only a few meetings.  “Her silences were brooding, insular, and yet he felt a connection to her,” the passage reads, “Perhaps it was because she was distant and withdrawn.  He found himself talking in a way he usually didn’t,” (Adichie 78) Initially, we are given an instance where Kainene’s detachment and indifference from others isolates the people around her, as viewed through the eyes of her twin sister, Olanna.  However, for Richard, Kainene’s disposition is something he connects to and is animated by, allowing him to change. Yet it is the lack of change in Kainene’s disposition that highlights the lack of balance between the two, and makes Richard’s infatuation appear all the more intense and engulfing.  

Source: 123RF.com

To illustrate Richard’s perspective more effectively, Adichie employs two literary devices following the quote from above.  The first is an example of hyperbole and continues, “and when their time ended and she got up, often to join her father at a meeting, he felt his feet thicken with curdled blood,” (Adichie 78)  This sentence evokes a sense of dread from the reader, as Richard’s emotional state catalyzes into this description of his physical state.  There is the automatic association between Kainene’s departure and a feeling of being immobilized by dread at this. The image of Richard’s feet being thickened with blood is a grim, dramatic one, with ‘curdled blood’ sticking out in its extreme usage in a passage that has been relatively composed until this point.  Through Richard’s physical state seeming to reflect his emotional state, however, we begin to understand his increasing dependence on Kainene, as he is both upset and physically feels like he cannot move his feet when it is time to leave their meetings. Soon, Richard reveals another layer to his infatuation with Kainene as he becomes absorbed in their meetings.

Through the specific diction chosen to describe Richard’s changing relationship with Susan, readers can begin to see how Richard’s meetings with Kainene have created a division between his reality with Susan.  “He did not understand why Susan suspected nothing,” Richard continues to reflect, “why she could not simply look at him and tell how different he felt, why she did not even notice that he splashed on more aftershave now,” (Adichie 78)  Previously, Richard indifferently notes his status as an outsider and keeping his emotions on the inside, but here, he appears to be perplexed when Susan does not notice his transformation since meeting Kainene. The specific words Richard uses to explain his confusion, however, only raises suspicion on his own mental state.  He expects Susan to simply ‘look at him’ and smell that he has put on ‘more aftershave’ and automatically assume how he ‘feels’. However, looking and smellingare two actions that can only be applied to the external, therefore, by using these words in conjunction with an internal action, feeling, Richard contradicts himself. His infatuation with Kainene has led him to know a transformation has occurred within himself, however his investment in this transformation and in Kainene cloud his perception of how the rest of the world interprets this transformation.  And as shown by Susan, they can’t interpret something that occurs within the mind of someone else, no matter how different they think they look or smell. Through Richard’s interactions with Kainene, he assumes his exterior reflects his interior, highlighting the general way this dynamic has absorbed him to the point that he does not understand other perspectives. His consciousness is suspended in a dream-like state, focusing on their private suite, his memories of Kainene, and his inner self. This, in conjunction with his dependence on Kainene already established, illustrates Richard’s absorption into their relationship.  As the novel progresses, we see how this dynamic allows Richard to transform into a more established ‘man’. However, it is important to note that a transformation of this nature does not occur within Kainene. It highlights the imbalance in their relationship, and almost makes Kainene a method for Richard’s personal growth, rather than an individual he’s come to love over time. And this imbalance, while mainly innocent in this passage, sees itself transform into tension between the two as the novel progresses.

Blog #4

Source:

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi.  Half of a Yellow Sun.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.  p. 78

The Butterfly Effect

Source: emojipedia.org

If a simple butterfly can initiate a powerful tornado, what can stop it from leading a man to his death?  Whether you perceive it as an unrealistic concept or a natural inevitability, the Butterfly Effect Theory still attempts to explain how seemingly insignificant actions can propel a much more serious consequence.  In Part I of Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi, the literal figure of the butterfly finds itself featured in pivotal moments in Kweku’s life.  Specifically a ‘bright turquoise and black’ (63) butterfly, the creature first appears to Kweku in Chapter 10 as he sits by the cold body of his mother in his childhood home in Ghana, having missed her final moments of life.  In contrast, this turquoise and blue butterfly makes its second appearance in Chapter 11, as it appears to Kweku in his dream home in Ghana during his own final moments of life. Despite this imagery of mother and son, dead and dying under the seemingly indifferent watch of a butterfly, I contend that this does not mean the butterfly represents evil, Death incarnate, etc.  More than anything, I find the turquoise and black butterfly (a Swordfish to be exact) serves as a metaphor- to both the reader and to Kweku himself- of his mother’s death.

While Kweku spends most of his life repressing his pain, it is clear that the impact of his mother’s death marked a distinct shift in the way Kweku’s pain is internalized.  Before the butterfly has entered Kweku’s childhood home and he is only left alone with an infant Olu and the mother he never said goodbye to, Selasi writes, “His heart broke in one place.  The first break. He didn’t feel it,” (59). This reaction is then immediately paired with the ensuing arrival of the butterfly, “It fluttered around his mother’s foot, a lazy lap, then lifted off, flapping blithely toward the triangular dome and out the little window.  Gone,” This scene establishes the association of the turquoise and black butterfly with his mother’s death, and consequently, the first heart break Kweku experiences.  As evident by the second chapter of this novel, Kweku’s death by stroke was not something that could have been explained in logical, medical terms. He was healthy, and most importantly, trained in identifying a stroke and was capable of preventing it.  But as Olu concludes, he must have been “arrested” by something important (8). Ultimately, Chapter 11 reveals that the reemergence of the butterfly that appeared at the feet of his dead mother causes Kweku to freeze in his garden, preventing him from noticing that his body was betraying him.  And it is the action of this butterfly that propels the intensity of this moment, “he sees the thing, barely, bright turquoise and black.”, Selasi writes, “Just coming to rest on a blossom, bright pink. When it comes to him suddenly: the name, by her face. ‘Bougainvillaea,’ he hears her saying,” (63)  Hear, the reader observes a metaphorical interaction between Kweku’s two greatest heartbreaks unfold. Through compounding the heartbreak of his mother’s death (via the butterfly) with the heartbreak of losing Folasade (via the pink Bougainvillaea), the catalyst for Kweku’s death is explained. We learn that through the emergence of these traumas from deep within Kweku’s most repressed self, his death seems inevitable but nonetheless tragic.  This insight into his greatest pain and the true cause of his death (initiated by a butterfly’s wings, no less) allows the reader to develop a deeper understanding between the relationships Kweku had with his mother and ex-wife. While his attitudes and actions towards these women were highlighted by coldness and betrayal during his lifetime, his death reveals his regret was so salient, that a mere butterfly was capable of shattering the walls he built around his heartbreak.

Blog #4

Source:

Selasi, Taiye. Ghana Must Go. Penguin Books, 2014. pp. 8, 59, 63

Reading List: Alexie

Key Terms:

  • Food Studies
  • Labor
  • Immigration

Secondary / Theoretical Works:

  • Brady, Mary Pat.  “‘So Your Social is Real?’ Vernacular Theorists and Economic Transformation”  Contemporary U.S. Latino/a Literary Criticism, edited by: Lyn Di Iorio Sandín and Richard Perez.  Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2007. pp. 209-226. EBSCOhost.
  • Folsom, Michael B.  “Upton Sinclair’s Escape from The Jungle: The Narrative Strategy and Suppressed Conclusion of America’s First Proletarian Novel”  Prospects, vol. 4, 1979.  pp. 237-226.
  • Gerber, Larry G. “Shifting Perspectives on American Exceptionalism: Recent Literature on American Labor Relations and Labor Politics”  Journal of American Studies, Vol. 31, No. 2, 1997, pp.  253–274. JSTOR.
  • Hapke, Laura.  “The Usable Past”  Labor’s Text: The Worker in American Fiction.  Rutgers University Press, New Jersey, 2001.  pp. 285-295.

Academic Journal:

  • MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the U.S.

Reflection:

Over the summer, as I had begun to shape rough ideas about my Senior Thesis subject, I quickly understood that I wanted to connect it to Food Studies in some way.  Typically, when food is mentioned in literature and in literary theory, it is through the lens of the culinary dimension of food. While this element is important to pay attention to, I also recognized that this was not the type of lens I wanted to use to explore food in literature.  Eventually, I came across Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel, The Jungle.  My exposure to this novel’s content and learning about its impact led me towards questioning the overall presence of food industry labor in American literature.  My attention was thus turned to what I consider to be the contemporary version of the concerns Sinclair raises in his novel- exploitation of Latinx/ Chicanx migrant and immigrant labor in food cultivation.  Knowing that I wanted to learn more about this ethnic group’s experiences in labor, I turned to MELUS, which I had learned about last week in class. I was able to find compelling articles published in the past year that I want to read to help build up my knowledge and clarity in this Thesis process.  Additionally, I made sure my key words could apply to the food labor narratives of Sinclair’s time and those of today. By using my key words to help lead my research and making sure I was still within the literary studies discipline, I found the Secondary texts listed above.

Secondary texts aside, compiling a list of literary texts that explore contemporary food labor has proved to be no easy task.  In the 112 years since The Jungle was published, there has not been another literary text about labor in food that has matched the widespread attention and shock that Sinclair’s work managed to capture.  This had come up during a conversation I had with Professor Phillips, who I asked for help in finding a stronger connection between Food Studies and English. This conversation led me to the nonfiction works, Tomatoland (2011) by Barry Estabrook and Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser (2001).  While neither are literary texts, they detail modern labor conditions and exploitations in a manner that is similar to Sinclair, and I would like to connect the strong public reactions these exposé-like books created to the aftermath of The Jungle’s publication.  In terms of literary works detailing contemporary immigrant / migrant labor conditions, I was able find a collection of short stories, Breathing, In Dust, by Tim Hernandez.  Published in 2010, the collection is much more obscure than The Jungle, however from what I have read so far, its narrative is very similar to Sinclair’s in its ability to expose the reality of being an immigrant laborer facing exploitation and harsh working conditions through literature.  Using these texts, writers, and my own emerging ideas, I am hoping to carve out a solid proposal by the end of the semester.

Blog #3

Sowing and Reaping in Things Fall Apart

Courtesy: Musée du Protestantisme

My analysis on Solomon Iyasere’s essay, “Narrative Techniques in Things Fall Apart” actually begins by focusing on the end.  By the conclusion, Iyasere constructs the argument that Chinua Achebe juxtaposed the narratives of Okonkwo and Mr. Smith in order to illustrate the destruction that extremism causes, as well as the multi-dimensionality of the characters and plot of the novel.  In order to reach this ultimate conclusion, however, Iyasere argues that Mr. Smith was an “antithetical” figure to the previous white Christian missionary, Mr. Brown (Iyasere 384). Whereas Mr. Brown abided by a “law of peace and love” in Umuofia, Iyasere insists that Mr. Smith “undoes the good Rev. Brown had accomplished” (384) due to an extremism and aggressive nature that reflects Okonkwo’s.

While I found the ultimate conclusion of Iyasere’s essay compelling, I find his argument that Mr. Brown and Mr. Smith are on opposite ends of a ‘good/bad’ spectrum to be misguided.  Because Mr. Smith is introduced as an antagonist in the novel, it is easy to interpret the actions, words, and intent of his predecessor, Mr. Brown, in a more favorable light. Despite this, I argue that Mr. Brown and Mr. Smith are cut from the same cloth.  I acknowledge that Mr. Brown played a significant role in the lives of Umuofia’s outcasts and people like Okenkwo’s son, Nwoye. He, like other early converts, became captivated by the acceptance and meaning the new religion and its welcoming missionary seemed to promise.  Without expressive love from his father, Nwoye’s attachment to Christianity is rooted in vulnerability.  Behind his message of acceptance from God, Mr. Brown’s recruitment of Umuofia’s most vulnerable people was a conscious effort to build up a passionate community of converts, formally eradicate the religion and traditions of the clan that he deemed uncivilized, and bring ‘civilization’ – Western culture – to Umuofia and gradually, the rest of Africa.  And in this conscious effort to aid a colonial white supremacist system, Mr. Brown is equally as responsible for the ‘falling apart’ of Umuofia as is Mr. Smith, despite their different dispositions. Furthermore, contrary to Iyasere’s claim of Mr. Brown’s goodness, Achebe’s depictions of Mr. Brown and Mr. Smith represent two predatory figures that are central to colonization in a historical context: the white saviour and the white despot.

Mr. Brown only says one sentence in Part Two, but his words foreshadow what is to come for the people of Umuofia.  During a visit to the converts in Chapter Eighteen, Mr. Brown tells them, “When I think that it is only eighteen months since the Seed was first sown among you…  I marvel at what the Lord hath wrought,” (92). Mr. Brown’s observation that it has been ‘only eighteen months’ since the people of Umuofia began converting to Christianity, and the ‘marvel’ he attributes to this observation creates a sense of unease.  Achebe is implying that the adjustment to Christianity is accelerating at a quick pace amongst the clan, which emphasizes the growth of Western influence and the tolerance to its growth.

As a man of God, Mr. Brown’s allusion to a Seed being sown is not unusual as this imagery is mentioned throughout the Bible.  However, revisiting the scene after finishing Things Fall Apart and Iyasere’s essay, I interpreted these words as an ominous foreshadowing of how the relationship between the people of Umuofia and ‘the white man’ would unravel.  I argue that Achebe made a deliberate reference to the physical imagery of seeds being sown to connect with the theme of agriculture’s significance in Umuofia.  Mr. Brown says the conversion of the clan’s people to Christianity was the initiation of these seeds being sown, however, as any community so dependent on agriculture would know, there comes a time for harvest. Or, tying into another theme- a Biblical one- a ‘reaping’.  The implication of seeds being sown also implies that a reaping is inevitable, but unfortunately, due to the way they were sown, Achebe foreshadows that it will be the colonial forces reaping from the people of Umuofia- regardless of convert status. Through this, Achebe also highlights the ultimate intent of the kind of work men like Mr. Brown really accomplish.  By earning the trust of Umuofia’s most vulnerable and gradually the rest of the clan, it becomes easier to move Western customs into the clan, and eventually, colonial control. Through this control, the colonizers can exploit and collect the land’s resources and labor.

Iyasere’s ultimate conclusion would be improved if he were to acknowledge that that complexity he insisted lived so strongly in Okonkwo, Umuofia, and Mr. Smith, was also in Mr. Brown.  Mr. Brown brought about positive change to many of his converts- including Okonkwo’s own son. However, his condescension towards the clan’s beliefs and his function as a tool for colonial expansion should not be ignored.  Ultimately, there can be a conversation about Mr. Smith’s destructive extremity in comparison to Okonkwo’s that also acknowledges the destructive manipulation Mr. Brown was capable of.

Blog #2

Sources:

Achebe, Chinua. “The Text Things Fall Apart.” Things Fall Apart, edited by Francis Abiola Irele, W.W Norton, 2009, (p. 92)

Iyasere, Solomon O. “Narrative Techniques in Things Fall Apart.” Things Fall Apart, edited by Francis Abiola Irele, W.W Norton, 2009, (p. 384)

Ikemefuna’s Storytelling and Power

Apparent from the very first page, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is a novel which finds its unique voice by interweaving influences of Western literature and the vibrancy found in traditional African oral folktales.  Scattered throughout the First Part of the novel’s chapters, we come across various vignettes relaying past stories about the characters we encounter, in attempts for Achebe to guide the reader into constructing fully formed humans out of a people who have almost never been afforded dimension and humanity within the “colonial canon” (XVII) as Irele describes it.  While afforded with this dimension, the character of Ikemefuna finds his humanity contested by his circumstances. Taken from his family and village in an act of retribution for the killing of a woman from Okonkwo’s village, Ikemefuna’s displacement is the result of an event that is removed from his control. He enters Okonkwo’s life as a consequence of Okonkwo’s responsibility and the mistakes of his own father, and while this situation leaves him at a great disadvantage against the world, the conclusion of Chapter 5 sees how Ikemefuna uses the act of telling folktales to reestablish his sense of significance and identity amongst Okonkwo’s family.

As he discusses the intricacies of the planting and harvest seasons and how Umuofian society functions in the brief respite in between, Achebe touches on how “children sat around their mother’s cooking fire telling stories” (22).  This imagery is framed by the greater presence of heavy rainfall and thunder, but transitions to the abrupt image of Okonkwo’s family, and Ikemefuna’s own perception of his role in it, “Ikemefuna had begun to feel like a member of Okonkwo’s family,” Achebe narrates.  While technically a forced inhabitant of Okonkwo’s home, Ikemefuna slowly adjusts himself to his new reality through his attachment to Nwoye, Okonkwo’s eldest son. This attachment appears to be primarily achieved through Ikemefuna’s storytelling ability,

“[he] had an endless stock of folk tales. Even those which Nwoye knew already were told with a new freshness and the local flavour of a different clan. Nwoye remembered this period very vividly till the end of his life. He even remembered how he had laughed when Ikemefuna told him that the proper name for a corn cob with only a few scattered grains was eze-agadi-nwayi, or the teeth of an old woman. Nwoye’s mind had gone immediately to Nwayieke, who lived near the udala tree.” (22)

An Udala Tree

Like the memory of the old woman living near the udala tree that finds itself so vividly brought to the front of Nwoye’s consciousness through Ikemefuna’s stories, the memory of Ikemefuna is preserved though the stories he told and the humanity he injected into their telling.  While Ikemefuna can be read as a character used simply as a narrative tool to emphasize Okonkwo’s most destructive qualities, I argue that Achebe assigned Ikemefuna the role of a storyteller to highlight his individuality and purpose outside of Okonkwo’s story, while serving as a layered metaphor for the significance of Achebe’s own storytelling.  Confined by the influence and force of those who uprooted him from his culture and family, Ikemefuna forges strength through the ability to tell stories using a voice and perspective that recalls his origins. And like Ikemefuna’s telling of folktales that are retold in his ‘local flavour’, Achebe accomplishes a similar feat of using storytelling to signal multi-dimensional humanity and identity despite a contrasting narrative imposed on him by his oppressors.

Blog #1

Sources:

Achebe, Chinua. “Things Fall Apart” Things Fall Apart: Authoritative Text, Contexts, and Criticism, edited by Francis Abiola Irele, W.W Norton & Company, 2009, p. 22

Irele, Francis A. “Introduction” Things Fall Apart: Authoritative Text, Contexts, and Criticism, edited by Francis Abiola Irele, W.W Norton & Company, 2009, p. XVII