Masks and Disguises in Eliza Haywood’s “Fantomina” and Samuel Richardson’s “Pamela”

My thesis for ENGL 404 will explore the role of the masquerade in 18th century European society – a popular public assembly in which participants wore various masks and costumes to conceal their identity. Through the adoption of different personas, these masquerades represented a “world upside down,” in which high class fused with low class and gender distinctions became blurred and destabilized. In addition, costumes allowed for greater sexual expression and fluidity, especially for women of higher classes, who were often required to refrain from expressing sexual desire due to their high status. In literature, the masquerade was a common trope that featured prominently throughout works of the 18th century, and allowed authors a way to expose the flaws embedded within the tight fabric of 18th century society – by depicting characters that are able to transgress social boundaries solely by placing a mask on their face, such works speak to the superficiality of social categories as a whole in the 18th century. Ultimately, I would like to attempt to investigate beyond the mask, or an area of anxiety surrounding identity and social categorization as a whole that the mask sought to conceal.

The first text I want to focus on is the amatory novel Fantomina, or Love in a Maze by Eliza Haywood, which was published in 1725. The novel follows the story of a young noble woman who, while watching a group of prostitutes converse with men at a theater, is struck by the freedom with which they are able to interact with each other. The next day, she decides to dress up as a prostitute as well, and assumes the name “Fantomina” so no one recognizes her true identity. While dressed as a prostitute, she meets a man named Beauplaisir, whom she instantly falls in love with – and Beauplaisir, assuming she is an actual prostitute, requests to sleep with her. They begin a secret affair, which ultimately ends when Beauplaisir becomes tired of Fantomina. In an attempt to rekindle his passion for her, Fantomina puts on various disguises in order to conceal her true identity and attract him as she had previously done in the theater. Each time, she successfully tricks Beauplaisir into falling in love with her again, as Beauplaisir is repeatedly unaware of her true identity. 

Fantomina’s various disguises speak to the theme of the masquerade overall, as her disguises allow her to transcend the strict boundaries placed on women in society and allow her to achieve sexual freedom and autonomy. However, at the same time that Fantomina’s costumes are liberating, they are also restricting, as each disguise that Fantomina adopts requires a lowering of her social class (prostitute, maid, and widow). Similarly, while the novel appears to depict a woman who holds a significant amount of agency, the ending – Fantomina’s pregnancy and exile to a convent – complicate such an interpretation, as her agency is effectively stripped away by the end of the novel. These two points raise questions about the efficacy of disguises and masks as a whole in granting release from social categories, as the ending suggests that disguises offer only a temporary release from the rigid framework of society.

The second text I plan on analyzing is the epistolary novel Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded by Samuel Richardson, which was published in 1740. This novel narrates the story of a young maid named Pamela whose master, Mr. B, repeatedly attempts to seduce her, despite her desire to remain virtuous. Miserable with her current situation, Pamela writes a letter to her parents begging to return home. Mr. B, furious about Pamela’s refusal, lies to Pamela by telling her he’ll send her back home, but instead brings her to his estate in Lincolnshire, where he keeps her as prisoner. While at the estate, Mr. B disguises himself as a housemaid in order to sneak into Pamela’s bedroom and attempts to rape her. After the incident, Mr. B changes his behavior toward Pamela, and instead claims that he loves her and wants to marry her. Towards the end of the novel, Pamela realizes that she, too, has feelings for Mr. B, and they get ultimately get married.

In contrast to Haywood’s novel, Pamela does not feature a woman, but rather a man who uses a disguise in order to gain sexual freedom – by disguising himself as a woman, Mr. B is able to enter Pamela’s bedchamber and attempt to rape her. Richardson’s novel thus represents a reversal of Haywood’s novel, in which disguises allow greater female autonomy, and instead depicts a case in which a man’s disguises result in the depletion of female agency. These two opposing interpretations of the masquerade speak to the differing opinions surrounding the masquerade as a whole – some, like Haywood, seemed to praise the masquerade for its liberating effect for women, while others, such as Richardson, saw more in its ability to aid in achieving male desire.

Ultimately, these two texts will be useful in my analysis of masks, as they offer two different approaches to the masquerade, thus revealing the complicated and contradictory nature of the masquerade as a whole. Specifically, disguises allowed for both a greater sense of freedom from social norms, while also, paradoxically, a strong dependence on them – disguises, such as those featured in these two novels, essentially relied on stereotypes in order to convey certain assumptions about their identity. In addition, as is the case with Fantomina, disguises were oftentimes modeled after lower classes, thus creating a contradiction between sexual freedom and lowering of social status. At this stage in my thesis work, I feel like I need to organize these questions in order to give me more focus and direction, as I don’t think I’m currently able to form these observations into one solid argument yet. I do, however, think that this gray area surrounding the masquerade will prove a significant site for further exploration and insight into 18th century society as a whole.

 

Works Cited

Haywood, Eliza. “Fantomina, or Love in a Maze.” Masquerade Novels of Eliza Haywood, edited by Mary Anne Schofield, Scholars’ Facsimiles and Reprints, 1986, pp. 257-291.

Richardson, Samuel. Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded. Edited by Peter Sabor, Penguin Classics, 1981.

The Identity of the Black Woman Centered Around Trauma

Black women and their identities being centered around trauma is something I’ve been interested in from the beginning of this thesis process. Although psychoanalysis is a field I want present, the ideas of Black trauma, and how women navigate their identities within that frame are what draw me to the novels I am considering for my thesis. I’m still not sure about what specific questions to ask apart from what the significance of being seen as an outcast has on the identity of a black woman, and what that healing looks like. Also, I’m wondering if there is a correlation between her trauma and location; that is to say, is the black woman’s intersecting identity the main force behind her being an outcast from her community, or is it the circumstances she finds herself in. I’m hoping these novels complicate the idea of black women and their identities being revolved around their trauma or physical circumstance. For the texts that I’ve chosen, they both have similar issues within them that relate to Black women suffering trauma at a younger age, and how their life has panned out later on because of it. In looking at this, I want to see if her identity as described in the novel can still be attributed to her overall blackness, or if her location plays a role in that as well.

The first of the two texts that I am considering for this thesis process is Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place, which was published in 1982 and occurs during the post-civil rights era in the form of seven different stories. Within the first six stories is the narrative of different women that live in the house, all who are deemed corrupt in some way. The first narrative is that of Mattie Michael, who is seen as the more motherly figure on the block, and ended up on Brewster Place after constant betrayal by different men in her life. Although Brewster Place is run-down and despised, it accepts new people all the time who seek refuge, and once its last inhabitants—the group of Black women that move in post-civil war, both the community and the place itself begin to change. I’m interested in this text not only because it contains different narratives of women living at Brewster Place, but it also brings into question the significance of place. Each woman in the novel has a background story that speaks to their reasoning of being there—all having some traumatic element to it. Mattie, for example, is trying to escape the abuse of her father after getting pregnant by a man who does not care about her. Although her story centers around the fact that she is an abused single mother, her identity is not only linked to that abuse/circumstance. In fact, her section of the novel would suggest that Brewster Place is where she begins to develop her sense of self. What I want to find out is if that place is an extension of more trauma, or more healing.

The other text that I plan to explore is Wallace Thurman’s The Blacker the Berry. This novel was published in 1929 and is divided into five sections. It tells the story of protagonist Emma Lou Morgan, and explores issues of colorism and racial discrimination within the black community. Emma Lou is a young dark-skinned black woman born to a light-skinned family. From an early age she is treated like an outsider, and her mother Jane Lightfoot Morgan constantly reminds her that she is a disgrace to the family because of her physical features. Her uncle assures her that college life will be much different where she won’t have to deal with such prejudice and she will be accepted, but it is the exact opposite that happens. She is outcasted by the Black sorority on campus and excluded from most social events and groups. I’m interested in looking into this narrative because it fits in with the themes I want to explore for my thesis. Emma goes through trauma for most of her childhood, and it seems her identity is centered around that until her uncle suggests she change location. However, instead of her new community contributing to her healing process, it seems to be adding to the trauma she already experienced at her old one. With this text, I again want to see if her identity is partially dependent on location.

In thinking about both of these texts, I want to hone in on specific scenes or narratives that can further my ideas for my thesis. Because my questions are not that specific yet, I am hoping that looking between these two novels would not only help me develop more direct questions, but also gauge what kind of narrative I want to explore in more depth. From the start of the thesis process, I knew I wanted to include a narrative that is non-western yet still includes the traumatic experience of a Black woman. Although both texts are by American authors, they still vary in the traumatic events that the Black woman character goes through. From this point, I’m concerned that once I choose a text that not only introduces the themes I am interested in, but also delves into other connecting factors that I can look into, I might get side tracked. For example, The Blacker the Berry shows the experience of a Black woman going through traumatic experiences, as well as a change in location. However, something that sticks out in this text is the time setting of the story, which can also affect the level of trauma the character goes through. Would time and location have to be constant variables throughout each novel that I look at? Or could they be interchangeable? This then goes into my overall challenge that I’m having with this process which is just being unsure about the direction my thesis is headed in general.

 

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Naylor, Gloria. The Women of Brewster Place. Viking Press, 1982.

Thurman, Wallace. The Blacker the Berry. The Modern Library, 1929.

Intersections of the Personal and the Political in “The Last September” and “Solar Bones”

Learning to navigate the intersections between different identities is an almost constant process when one inhabits supposedly conflicting spheres of existence. What has fascinated me throughout this process has been the questions: Where do these identities come from? How are they formed? Who gets a say in how they should be performed? I’ve decided to look specifically at Irish Literature due to the history of English occupation and the tensions created through defining identity as what one is not just as much as what one is. The political and the personal become inseparable when we look at national or cultural identity as a construct both adopted and assigned.

Image courtesy of wikipedia.com

Published in 1929, following both the First World War and the Irish War of Independence, Elizabeth Bowen’s second novel, The Last September, follows Lois Farquar as she navigates what it means to be a woman in the post-war era but surrounded by the murmurs of Irish unrest. Lois Farquar is living with her Aunt and Uncle, Lady and Lord Naylor, and their nephew, Laurence.The family goes through the motions of the everyday–receiving visitors, attending social events, eating meals, reading, playing tennis–while the presence of conflict becomes ever more integrated into their thoughts and story. Their lives are marked by the arrival of long-term guests, such as the Montmorencys and Miss. Norton, who continue to complicate Lois’s understanding of her family and personal identity.

This novel has been held up as a prime example of Big House literature, in which Anglo-Irish families are given positions of power due to their economic success in the colony. The novel itself is separated into three parts: The Arrival of Mr. and Mrs. Montmorency, the Visit of Miss Norton, and The Departure of Gerald. This separation of story, of time and action, by the people who arrive feels important for understanding the way that Lois comes to learn about the world. In the final section, Gerald, the romanticized British soldier who Lois had been hoping to mary is killed by an Irish ambush (307). The novel ends with the three big houses of the neighborhood vacant, burning to the ground (314). The novel therefore ends with the violent dispelling of anything perceived as English and imperial from Cork, however throughout the work, the younger generation of Anglo-Irish occupiers are relatively detached from the politics that will determine their own lives. The ways in which similar, yet distinctive, identities are navigated throughout the novel (such as English v. Anglo-Irish v. Native Irish) demonstrated the complexities that come with who creates identity, how they decide what counts as “in” or “out,” and how this impacts individuals without them necessarily recognizing it.

Image courtesy of amazon.com

Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones (2016), is the story of Marcus Conway, a deceased civil engineer from county Mayo who has been pulled back into consciousness on All Souls’ Day. Told in a first person limited perspective, the novel begins with the ringing of the Angelus church bells and the confusion of Conway as he is transported into the moment and then realizes that he is home alone (McCormack 1-3). Over the next few hours, as he waits for his wife, Mairead, to come home, Conway sits reading the paper, and later watching the news, reflecting on current events and diverging quickly into his own train of thoughts about his own history, focusing on his relationships with his father, and children–Darragh and Agnes. His thoughts linger on media, politics, environmental disaster, and the economic crash that have all shaped his county, Ireland, and his understanding of the world.

What is deeply fascinating about this work is that the entirety of the 217 pages are comprised of one singular sentence, which never receives punctuation at its end. The stream of consciousness and continuity between one moment to the next flows in a slightly disorienting, but entirely captivating fashion. The transition between the personal and the political is seamless, as Conway considers himself a well informed and politically conscious individual. Conway repeatedly connects the body and existence of those around him to the political at large through short comments, often interrupted by another thought. In thinking about the “metaphysical reality” of his daughter’s birth, Conway comments on her status as a citizen and maps the political onto her body within days of her coming into the world (McCormack 34). He maps the environmental crisis in Mayo following the introduction of an oil pipeline in the north of the county on to the body of his wife through her illness as a result of environmental contamination (McCormack 96). This novel is deeply entrenched in the relationship between the personal and the political, in a way that is unexpected from a man who only has a few hours of consciousness due to peculiar circumstance. Solar Bones complicates my research thus far by forcing me to think about how form factors into remembrance of personal, local, and national histories, since McCormack’s structure can not be ignored.

Both novels contend with what it means to exist in both a local, personal, and political manner. Both manipulate temporality as a way to comment on identity. McCormack collapses an entire life, an entire history, into a few short hours, making the reader feel scattered throughout time and space. Bowen, on the other hand, lilts time, making her characters feel trapped in a repetitive circle that Lois can not seem to break. Solar Bones was published in 2016, meaning that there is no real body of criticism addressing the work yet. However, using a contemporary piece which interacts with Ireland’s history in the way that this novel does would be interesting in mapping how perceptions of norms, culture, local identity and national identity evolve or change over time. Writing about Bowen, on the other hand, means trying to contend with decades worth of scholarship, which would leave me unsure of where my own voice and thoughts fit into the conversation. Currently, I am leaning towards McCormack’s work due to its form.

 

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Bowen, Elizabeth. The Last September. The Dial Press, 1929.

McCormack, Mike. Solar Bones. Tramp Press, 2016.

Gender in the Slasher Film

In the spring of my sophomore year, I took a Horror Film course that has inspired the work of my senior thesis project. I will be exploring the infamous subgenre of horror films known as the slasher film. I am interested in focusing my work on the ways in which gender is portrayed within slasher films. More specifically, I want to consider the influence a surrounding political environment has on the creation of the slasher film. There is an immense amount of readings and research already out there regarding gender and the slasher film, so, my hope is to complicate and challenge the pre-existing ideas. Specifically, I will be relying on Carol Clover’s work on the Final Girl. My primary films will help identify the importance of analyzing gender and its contribution to the art of the slasher film. I will examine the roles of both male and female characters and the ways in which they help define each other. I will analyze sexuality, weapons, and dialogue along with how fear is created through camera and character positioning. In my research thus far, I have been able to determine a disjunction between original readings of gender and current understandings and interpretations. I have acknowledged there is room for conversation about the external influences on the progression of the slasher film.

The first primary film I am interested in is Texas Chainsaw Massacre. This film belongs in the “Golden Age” of slasher films. Released in 1974, director Tobe Hooper creates a film that evokes fear and sparks conversation. The film opens with the vandalization of Sally and Franklin’s grandfather’s grave. The siblings gather together a few friends and make a trip to investigate the grave. However, the group decides to take a detour to visit the old family farmhouse. Shortly after arriving Pam, Sally’s girlfriend, and her boyfriend venture off. The flirtatious and promiscuous couple stumble upon a neighboring farmhouse where they meet their doom. Inside resides a family of crazed murderous outcasts including Leatherface, the films psychologically ill killer. Sally and her boyfriend are quickly and gruesomely killed. When they do not arrive back to the farmhouse by nightfall, Sally and Franklin become worried and decide to search for them. It is important to note Franklin is disabled and Sally must push him in his wheelchair as they look for the others. Not long into the search, Leatherface meets Sally and Franklin in the woods. Sally is able to get away as Leatherface uses his chainsaw to kill Franklin. The rest of the film follows Sally, the Final Girl, on a fight for her life. One of the most infamous slasher film scenes is of Sally sitting at the dinner table with the murderous family after being captured. The camera works to demonstration fear and chaos. Luckily, Sally is able to escape in the final scene leaving Leatherface and his chainsaw behind.

This film is filled with many interesting tropes including gender. A few of the particularly interesting aspects regarding gender in this film are sexual activity, phallic weapons, and the masked killer. These themes are necessities to the slasher film, however, was makes them singularly intriguing is the simplicity. After doing surface level research about the Final Girl and the slasher film, the trope is seemingly obvious in Texas Chainsaw Massacre. What complicates the narrative is the idea of the disabled body. I am curious how Franklin complicates or completes the feminine and masculine attributes in the slasher film. I think it would be important to research the significance of the body and the way bodies identify masculinity and femininity. As stated, it is obvious Sally is the Final Girl and Leatherface is the killer, but what does Franklin’s role contribute to the story? I would like to research outside influences that may relate to the importance of the disabled body during the 1970s. I also would like to look into the significance of the absent mother figure in the murderous family and how this plays into the feminine and masculine roles the characters play.

The problem I am facing with this film is if I spend too much time focusing on the disabled body and missing mother I will be researching more psychological influences rather than political. At this point in my research, I can not determine if this would enhance my field of interest or confuse my interests. Another factor to include is that I am spent the majority of the Horror Film class analyzing Texas Chainsaw Massacre and I do not want to bore myself or repeat myself.

The second primary source I am interested in is John Carpenter’s Halloween. Released in 1978, this film also contributes to the “Golden Age” of the slasher film. Almost everyone knows the story of Michael Myers, but I will refresh you. As a little boy Michael Myers murders his sister and is taken away to a mental institution. Almost two decades later, Michael Myers escapes and heads back to his hometown on Halloween. His mission is to hunt down Laurie and kill her. On this night Laurie and her friend Annie are babysitting across the street from one another. It becomes clear to the audience Annie is the less responsible character who is consumed by sexual thoughts. Laurie agrees to let Annie go see her boyfriend while she watches both the children. Yet, before Annie leaves the driveway she is murdered with a  knife by Michael Myers. Laurie thus becomes the Final Girl. The film follows Michael Myer’s psychologist on a hunt for his patient while Laurie fights for her life. In the final scenes, Laurie is seen struggling to fight against Michael Myer’s knife before the psychologist comes to her rescue. While both the characters believe they defeated and killed Michael Myers, the last scene shows his body missing from where he has fallen out the window.

This film was so influential to the slasher subgenre that many remakes and sequels have been done since its original. What I find so interesting about the 1978 version are the phallic symbols, the Final Girl, and the sexual references. Similar to my interests in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, gender is understood through these themes and are crucial to the understanding of a slasher film. Specifically, the Final Girl in this film represents a transition of power. I am interested in looking at how masculinity can be taken from the killer giving power to the Final Girl. I want to research how power is determined through masculinity. I then want to look at the sequels and compare the role of each Final Girl. I am particularly interested in looking at the gaps between the 1978 film and the newly released 2018 Halloween. This is where I see myself using political influence to analyze how the Final Girl has been redefined.

However, this research comes problems. I am struggling to decide if using three different versions of Halloween is this too much of a task considering it is basically three primary sources. Will I have the time to properly give detailed close readings on each of the films? I am also concerned that I will struggle with incorporating the correct political sources and information. In my research thus far I have only come across the idea of using political influence in reading the slasher film. Therefore, my research will be newer and I want to make sure I have the right tools and knowledge to do so.

At this point, I was pretty set on using Halloween as my primary text. However, after thinking more about Texas Chainsaw Massacre there is plenty of room for conversation there. The main concern I have using this film as my primary would be that there is nothing groundbreaking about my research and rather just a repetition of the work already done. On the other hand, using Halloween as my primary source seems to be a bigger task. While I am up for the challenge I want to make sure this is possible. I want to make sure I have enough time to create a comprehensible argument.

Works Cited

Carpenter, John, director. Halloween. Compass International Pictures, 1978.

Hooper, Tobe, director. Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Vortex, 1974.

Tig Notaro, Joel Kim Booster, and Queer Identity Politics in Comedy

What’s so funny about being gay? I’m interested in the intersections of comedy studies and queer studies. For example, questions related to audience permeate both fields. Comedians heavily rely on the reactions of their audiences, and the assumed goal for comedians is to create a large enough fan-base to sustain themselves economically. In the field of queer studies, topics of audience are related to palatability. In order to gain a larger audience, some scholars argue against the goal of making queerness more palatable or “acceptable” by the general population. I’ve looked at the field of media studies, where there are many examples of a changing landscape in television, where an increase in networks and media platforms means that programs are made for niche audiences instead of the mainstream population. Is the introduction of more streaming services and smaller cable networks positive because they give under-represented groups the chance to produce their work, or is it negative because their work only reaches audiences who already understand their experiences or agree with their worldview? Although those two sides are massively generalized, this is one of the major debates I have encountered.

I’m also interested in how intersections of queerness and other forms of identity are used for comedic purposes. Many queer comedians use their sexuality in conversation with gender, race, and immigrant backgrounds to create a more intersectional image of themselves. This also relates to the form of stand-up that the comedians I have studied use. Specifically, I’m interested in comedians who use storytelling as opposed to general observational humor. Storytelling almost seems required for comedians who want to use “charged humor,” as described in Rebecca Krefting’s All Joking Aside. How do comedians use their own personal narratives to create humor from intersectional, queer identities?

Within the field of queer studies, politics of shame play a significant role. Because this has been such a dominating theme throughout the field, I want to try and avoid focusing on shame as a central aspect of the queer identity. Instead, I want to highlight comedians who do not use their shame as the part of their comedy. It is difficult to avoid the subject altogether, but there are several examples of comedians who do not use their difference as a means to highlight (either consciously or subconsciously) their shame.

Notaro’s special Boyish Girl Interrupted (2015) is essentially a series of stories from her life. A thread running through all of these stories is that people are often confused by her, but she enjoys the confusion and awkwardness. For example, the first lengthy story Tig tells (this special is mostly a series of narratives) is about how she bombed “every night for 14 weeks” (Notaro). However, the story isn’t about how she failed and why. She explains that she did two shows a night, and didn’t have enough time between shows to go to her hotel, so she would just sit in the back of the club until her next show. The club owner thought it was bizarre (especially because the audience “hated” her), but instead of confronting her himself, he called her agent and had him tell her that the club owner wanted her to leave. The joke lies not in her failure, but in the bizarre behavior of the owner of the comedy club. She acknowledges that people dislike her, but matter-of-factly, and does not continue the joke to make fun of herself.

That narrative was not directly related to her queer identity, but instead sets a tone for the rest of the set, which is more directly related to her queering of gender and her homosexuality. In a later story she explains that after her double-mastectomy (she had bilateral breast cancer) she had a situation with a pat-down in which the TSA agent repeatedly conferred with another officer because although the other officer stated that Notaro was a woman, the agent giving her a pat-down couldn’t find any breasts. Tig then points out that her facial appearance is (purposefully) not very feminine. However, Tig’s joke is not at her own expense. Her identity is not the butt of the joke, but instead it is those around her. I would even argue that it is in this unpredictability that makes the jokes funny. We expect to laugh at her, but she focuses on the part of the story that audiences would not immediately have focused on. She even directly explains that at any point she could have spoken up, revealing her gender from her voice. But Notaro “did not want to help her out at all,” as she was “enjoying the awkwardness” (Notaro).

This special somewhat depends on the audience’s knowledge of Tig. At one point, she said “my fiancée… he is…” to a burst of laughter from the audience. She feigns offence, and says “okay…” then continues “no, she was raised in New York” and continues the joke. Although assumptions about the outward appearance of lesbian women are being made, it’s always true that specials are typically filled with people who are already fans of the comic. Later, she explains that she was diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer, then states “but I have not told anybody yet” (Notaro). This line is met with huge laughter. Notaro waits for the laughter to die down, and says “Wow, that’s a very cold response,” then lets out a long, disappointed sigh. She makes no sign that she’s in on the joke. Notaro is actually famous for performing a stand-up set about being diagnosed with breast cancer (the audio was released but it was not intended to be a full-length stand-up set). Her comedy partially relies on her own fame, and on her audience knowing about her already.

Finally, this text addresses intersectional identities, as she removes her shirt to reveal her mastectomy scars halfway through. She deals with it in a remarkable way: she removes her shirt, then performs a basic, uncomplicated joke about airplanes. Her joke itself is purposefully simple and recognizable (plane jokes are often mocked by comedians as being the most basic and predictable form of stand-up). However, by the end of her story about hating planes, I would argue that the audience has essentially forgotten that she is shirtless. She performs the rest of the set without her shirt, even doing some physical comedy (which would only work if the audience was not distracted by her body). In Notaro’s carefully timed and constructed comedy, often the unsaid is more important than what is directly explained.

The second primary text I’m currently exploring is the stand-up album Model Minority (2017) by Joel Kim Booster. The album is an audio recording of an hour-long special. Most of his jokes are directly centered around identity politics. He often places his identity as an Asian-American in conversation with his identity as a gay man. For example, he argues that he is a terrible driver not because he is Asian, but because he is gay. He says “something about being lied to my entire sexual life about what six inches looks like, now my depth perception is fucked. I can’t parallel park, bumper to bumper traffic is a nightmare” (Booster). He also talks a lot about being adopted by a white Christian family from the midwest. His homosexuality is often described as something that inconveniences others, but to the enjoyment of Booster himself. For example, when explaining that his older brother (the biological son of Booster’s parents) also came out as gay, he says “my older brother, a couple of years ago, he also came out of the closet, which is like muah. You know? What a good prank, you know? It’s so delicious to me. My parents, they really rolled the dice there. They made one themselves, they bought one off the rack, and they both came out gay! I don’t know what the scientific argument is there, but that feels like nurture” (Booster). He frames homosexuality as a prank against his parents, and plays into a homophobic fear that sexuality can be changed by the way one is raised. Like Boyish Girl Interrupted, Model Minority is a series of stories about the performer’s life, but in Booster’s case, the stories are more directly tied to ethnic and sexual identity.

The form of this text (an album recording of a stand-up special) is particularly interesting to me. Although Booster is an experienced comic, he began performing more recently than Notaro, and therefore gained his audience in a different way. Booster’s start in stand-up included performing sets on live-recorded podcasts like 2 Dope Queens and Put Your Hands Together. Much of his fan-base grew from hearing these recorded performances. Although he also worked in clubs (and Notaro eventually had her own podcast), he began stand-up much later than Notaro, right at a time when podcasts were becoming a more celebrated medium for accessing live comedy. I would argue that this has affected the type of comedy he is able to do. By using a comedy album (which is an old-fashioned medium and harkens back to the days of Steve Martin and Richord Pryor) to analyze the stand-up of a relatively new comedian, I can talk about how Booster is able to reach niché audiences in a newer era of stand-up production.

In addition, because Booster is not as famous as Notaro, he cannot rely on audience familiarity in the same way that she can. I would like to study how notoriety affects performance. For example, although he jokes that he is visibly queer and Asian, he still directly explains his own identity and backstory, with no hint that he assumes his audience to already be aware of his work. I question whether this is because he does not have the privilege of assuming the audience already knows him, or whether those explanations are simply necessary to the construction of the joke. In other words, if Booster knew that his audiences were familiar with him, would he still write and perform in the same way?

Although I think both of these texts represent a wide variety of issues within the field, I am concerned about making big claims based on only two texts. My inclination is to use many examples, but then my thesis could sound more like a large list of stand-up specials instead of a concentrated argument. I also worry that in focusing on audience, I might stray away from the performances themselves. If I center my arguments around how queer performers adapt to audiences, I might get bogged down in purely media studies and do as much close-reading of specific texts as I want to. Therefore, I want to work on finding examples of articles that are able to both survey a wide range of texts, while also close-reading individual texts themselves. I don’t want to stretch my arguments too thin, but I feel that in order to make a convincing argument, I’ll need many more examples of primary texts.

I also worry about repeating arguments that have already been made. For example, although I said I would like to stray away from shame as a central theme, it’s difficult not to bring it up in my analyses. Even when I use comedians like Notaro and Booster, I still find myself talking about how they subvert expectations of shame (which in itself is still a discussion of shame). Similarly, I fear that if I focus myself entirely on content or on performance, I’ll only be summarizing what scholars in either queer studies (which tends to focus on content) or comedy studies (which tends to focus on performance) have already covered. I don’t want to repeat what others have already said, so I need to find more unique intersections between the two fields.

 

Works Cited

Notaro, Tig. “Boyish Girl Interrupted.” Boyish Girl Interrupted, HBO, 2015.

Booster, Joel Kim. “Model Minority” Model Minority, Comedy Central Records, 2017.

Rewriting the Emasculation of WWI Soldiers from Damaged Men to Heroic Soldiers in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Robert Graves’ Goodbye To All That

My thesis will look at the literary representation of the mental disease ‘shell shock’ in post-World War I Britain. Throughout World War I soldiers—who were the epitome of British masculinity—returned home and began demonstrating symptoms of trauma that closely resembled hysteria. This shook the country, as Britain was already struggling to regain power in Europe, let alone re-masculinize its men. In 1915, these hysteric symptoms exhibited by British soldiers were referred to by psychologist Charles Myers in medical journal The Lancet as a new disease he termed ‘shell shock’. This new disease carried many different connotations, yet that ‘shell shock’ associated hysteric symptoms—a form of nervousness which is inherently female—with the war—something strictly male—is perhaps the most important. During and directly following the war, British Parliament attempted to recover the country’s stoic patriotism by claiming all mental diseases related to the war, namely ‘shell shock’, were both false and examples of cowardice. In doing this, the British Parliament—and thus, those in power in Britain directly following the war—reasserted the gendering of nervous disorders, and shaped how masculine identity in Britain is repressive and stoic “by nature”. It was by this method shell shock became a way in which WWI veterans were systematically emasculated. WWI literature, on the other-hand, became the way of unmasking truths about the suffering veterans—namely their experiences and the reality of their trauma, and re-aligning these veterans with their stolen masculinity. It is within this overlap that I would like to base my thesis. My aim is to look at how and why exactly soldiers were emasculated—what did Britain gain?—and how WWI literature attempted to essentially rewrite the experiences of WWI soldiers so they were no longer viewed as ‘damaged’ and therefore ‘lesser’, but instead ‘heroic’ and worthy of virility.

The first text which I would like to look at is the epitome of WWI literature, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. 

First edition of Mrs. Dalloway found on Google Images

Dalloway. This novel was originally published in 1925 in London, though it is set  in June of 1923. The novel follows the intersecting stories of Clarissa Dalloway—an upper-class housewife and socialite—and Septimus Warren Smith—a shell shocked WWI veteran. While Clarissa goes about her day preparing for a party she is hosting that evening, Septimus struggles to stay in the present, often going in and out of wartime hallucinations. While Clarissa goes about her chores debating the importance of her role in upper-class Britain, Septimus’ story comes to an end when he commits suicide jumping out the window of an psychiatric institution outside London. The two stories, seemingly have nothing to do with one another, and yet they intersect at Clarissa’s party where the news of Septimus’ suicide—which is marked as cowardly and insane by the doctor present—is the hush

ed gossip amongst the elite party-goers. The remainder of the novel follows Clarissa as she ponders over Septimus’ death and what brought him to carry out such a final act.

Woolf’s novel, aside from being a classic, is a forthright social critique on post-war British society. The majority of the story is told from the female perspective—Clarissa and Lucrezia (Septimus’ wife)—an arguably purposeful tact done by Woolf to create distance from the war. There are key moments within Woolf’s novel where post-war society and the enforced repression of the war are evident—Septimus’ relationship with his doctor being one. Moreover, Woolf incorporates various parliamentary proceedings into the conversations of the elite upper-class at Clarissa’s party. Finally, Woolf ultimately uses her female protagonist to re-assert and re-unite Septimus with his masculinity at the end of the novel, and thus rewrites the emasculation of Septimus, who represents all shell shocked WWI veterans.

Above, I have briefly outlined how I wish to use this text. Woolf’s novel is a complex social commentary which includes multiple references to various reports and medical practices of the time. Moreover, it is a strongly feminine text in that the majority of the narration is confined the perspective female characters. I want to further analyze this to understand how Woolf uses this to rewrite experiences of the war. Towards the end of the novel, Clarissa states he

r admiration for Septimus’ bravery, which while it plays into a gendered power dynamic, nevertheless re-paints Septimus in a heroic light, as opposed to the damaged man he had earlier been labelled as.

The second text I am looking at is Robert Graves’ war memoir Goodbye to All That. This

First edition of Goodbye To All That found on Google Images

autobiography, first published in England in 1929, follows Graves’ upbringing to his entry and further experience fighting for Britain in the war—particularly in the trenches. Graves begins as an eager and patriotic young man, determined to prove himself and to make his country proud. However, as the war progresses, Graves begins to lose friends and is injured in combat, qhich brings him quickly to realize just how disillusioning the war was. Moreover, Graves comments not just on the absurdity of war, but also on the differences of class within the war—being that Graves was a middle-class man as opposed to the upper-class of Woolf’s novel. Finally, Graves traces his journey after the war, until the point of the book’s publication, commenting on the senselessness of British bureaucracy, and his experience of shell-shock after the war.

As Graves’ text is a non-fiction novel, I would like to further analyze the story and descriptions Graves gives. Moreover, as a large portion of this text takes place during the war, specifically during combat, I would like to see how masculinity is constructed and commented on throughout the war. Particularly as Graves was a shell shocked soldier, I would analyze his account of the war and look for ways in which he reclaims, or perhaps over-exaggerates, his masculinity in and out of combat. The fact that this text is an autobiography does scare me slightly, simply because there is a slight grey area surrounding the narration of the text—how much is constructed in comparison to how much is authentic, and how would I argue for one or the other? It is nevertheless, that this novel is written by a war veteran who experienced the trauma of WWI and the resulting social emasculation from the effects of his mental health first-hand, which have lead me to choose this novel as one of my primary sources.

Ultimately, I think I want to use both of these texts, and put them in discussion with one another. I have struggled to narrow down my primary sources—originally I wanted to omit Mrs. Dalloway, and instead look at Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet On The Western Front, Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier, or Rudyard Kipling’s short war stories. However, after much thought, I found that Mrs. Dalloway was too important of a WWI novel to ignore, and the other fictional works listed above were not as explicit in their social commentary as Woolf’s was. I have been pretty set on using Goodbye to All That as it isan autobiography—and thus an undeniable, non-fictional account of a veteran’s WWI and post-war experience. By putting the two texts in conversation, I hope to demonstrate how literature was used to rewrite the emasculation of shell shocked soldiers amongst other social commentaries. I am nervous, however, as I realize there are various complex issues which are intertwined in my research, and I am admittedly worried as to how I will navigate them in a succinct manner. Some of these complex issues include the history of WWI itself, the stratification of social classes in Britain during and after the war, the historical, medical, and political “legitimacy” surrounding mental disorders, and finally—perhaps most importantly—why and how mental disorders came to be stigmatized as feminine ordeals. In using a fictional classic alongside an autobiographical account, I hope to analyze the differences in war writing amongst a male and female author, as well as the how both go about changing the perceptions of shell shock from emasculating and damaging to traumatic but heroic.

BP #6

Works Cited

Graves, Robert. Good-bye To All That. New York: Random House, 1998.

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. London: Penguin Books, 1992.

Mixed Asian American Identity in “The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee” & “Country of Origin”

The primary focus of my research thus far has been in the fields of Asian American Studies and Critical Mixed-Race Studies. I am interested in examining the representation of mixed Asian Americans in literature, the scarcity of writings on mixed Asian Americans in comparison to other multiracial minorities, and how fictional writing portrays and speaks to the struggles of mixed Asian Americans in reality. My interest in this particular subject arose from my academic and personal readings of ethnic literature. I noticed that while many novels, essays, articles, etc. focus on the challenges of minorities in white majority societies (such as the United States), these works tend to emphasize the stories of non-Asian American communities, such as African American, Latinx, and Native American. Furthermore, writings on multiracial people, in comparison to monoracial folk, are scarce, especially mixed people of Asian American descent. I was thus intrigued by these observations and decided that I wanted my thesis to focus on the lack of representation of mixed Asian Americans in literature and what their experiences teach us.

I am specifically curious about how mixed Asian American characters create their own definitions of space, belonging, and identity, which are major tropes in mixed Asian American literature. It is generally agreed by writers and scholars that there is no fixed space for mixed Asian Americans, no place where they can feel like they belong, no common ground where they can share a culture and language. Identity crises usually ensue for mixed Asian Americans, with concepts such as race, culture, language, and nationality clashing against each other. This thus results in feelings of exclusion or having to choose a “side” to feel included. While I agree with this common view, I am curious to see if I can challenge it by arguing that mixed Asian Americans have the ability to resist choosing a race as well as a “half-and-half” identity and can instead be a part of two worlds.

To gain a better understanding of the struggles highlighted above (exclusion, identity crises, choosing a side, etc.), I will be examining two primary texts that go into detail about conflicting emotions over mixed racial identity. The first book is Paisley Rekdal’s The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee: Observations on Not Fitting In. Published in 2000, this collection of autobiographical essays tells the story of how Rekdal embarks on a journey throughout several countries in Asia as well as in the United States to find out if she, the daughter of a Norwegian man and Chinese American woman, belongs anywhere. As she travels across the globe, Rekdal experiences various instances in which she is excluded from certain racial and social circles due to her status as a mixed race woman who was brought up in the United States. It is during these moments when Rekdal questions her identity and spirals further into a confusing pit of self-doubt.

In the essay “Americans Abroad,” Rekdal highlights a time when her nationality and ethnicity alienated her from the culture of her host family. One summer, while studying abroad in Kobe, Japan, Rekdal’s Japanese host family takes her to a Japanese festival where she discovers the joy of participating in a traditional dance. However, while Rekdal is able to imitate the dance moves just fine, her host sister, Fumiko, insists that “Americans cannot do Japanese dances…they are Japanese-style, not American style” (Ho 107). This leaves Rekdal stunned and frustrated because despite her ability to adapt and imitate, Fumiko makes it clear that Rekdal cannot call her dance style authentic or Japanese, simply because of where she comes from and what she looks like; it is clear that only Japanese people from Japan can perform the “true” dance. I am excited to close read the rest of the stories within this book because this moment in Japan is just but one example of exclusion within Rekdal’s collection of essays. I am curious to see how else Rekdal will use her multiple identities of race, culture, language, and nationality to question her place in the world and how her experiences are related to my questioning of mixed Asian Americans creating their own comfort zones.

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The other primary text that I wish to read is Don Lee’s Country of Origin. Published in 2004, this novel focuses on the complexities of identities, specifically race, culture, and nationality. Set in Tokyo, Japan in 1980, the story follows three characters who all wrestle with conflicting senses of belonging and loyalty: Lisa Countryman is half African-American and half Asian, Tom Hurley is half-Korean and half-white, and Kenzo Ota is full Japanese, but faces constant alienation within his own country due to his years spent in America. The lives of these three conflicted characters become intertwined when Lisa goes missing. Both Tom (an agent of the U.S. Embassy) and Kenzo (a local Japanese cop) are assigned to the case to find Lisa. As they probe deeper into the investigation, they discover that Lisa has vanished into the dark underground world of Tokyo’s sex trade. But this novel is more than just a crime solving detective story: as noted above, it is a tale that highlights the struggles of mixed race and national identity, with the three protagonists trying to figure out who they are and where they belong.

Out of all three character arcs, Kenzo’s story stands out as he is not a person of mixed heritage yet is nevertheless portrayed as one. In a passage of the novel, his four years abroad in America are described as thus: “the American schoolkids had teased him mercislessly about his broken English and his slanty-eyed dogeater tapehead Jap looks” (Lee 47). Kenzo’s time outside of Japan is certainly difficult and sad to read, but it is even more disheartening when we find out what happens upon his return to his homeland: “reentering the Japanese educational system in Kobe, Kenzo had been ridiculed more than he had been in America. He now spoke Japanese like a gaijin [foreigner]. He had difficulty catching up in school, despite attending juku, cram school” (Lee 47). Even though Kenzo is first and foremost a native of Japan and has no claim to another ethnicity or race, he is treated like an outsider in his own country. This is a unique struggle to read and is also relevant to the mixed race crisis. I am therefore looking forward to reading about the challenges that Lisa and Tom must face and how they shape their own paths and identities in a world where everyone seems to force them to choose a side. I believe that their stories and the themes of the novel will tie in well with my interest in seeing how mixed Asian Americans deal with issues of self-identity and learn how to create their own definitions of race and nationality.

https://goo.gl/images/FXehKw

The biggest challenge that I am currently facing is whether or not these primary texts will be the best sources for directly answering my question of whether or not mixed Asian Americans have the ability to create their own spaces of belonging. These two books address the issue of this space being practically nonexistent and how the characters within the texts wrestle with problems of being torn between multiple identities. As I have not read the entirety of either text yet, I am worried that they will not yield the results that I am hoping for. I want to make sure that the primary texts for my thesis will provide me with examples of mixed Asian American characters being able to accomplish the goal of forging identities and spaces that they are comfortable with and feel a part of without any overbearing anxieties of alienation/exclusion.

Works Cited

Ho, Jennifer Ann. Racial Ambiguity in Asian American Culture. Rutgers University Press, 2015.

Lee, Don. Country of Origin. W.W. Norton & Company, 2004.

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.

Transgenerational Trauma in The Dew Breaker and White Teeth

 

For my thesis project I will explore the intersections between Trauma theory and Postcolonial studies. Particularly, I will focus on the ways colonial and other forms of trauma are passed down through generations of immigrants living in diaspora. When reading my primary texts I will consider what kinds of trauma exist, how different generations relate to trauma, what effects it has on their subjectivity formation and more. With these questions in mind, I will chart the pathways for and methods of trauma transmission within the family unit. I will then analyze how transgenerational trauma informs the lives of second generation citizens. However, a key interest of mine is not just to discover how trauma affects the lives of postcolonial subjects, but also their resilience, healing, and methods of survival despite their trauma. Finally, in my research thus far I have identified considerable disjunctions between western centric trauma theory and postcolonial studies. I will be sure to keep these tensions at the forefront of my project, privileging specific cultural conceptions of family, healing, and identity.

The first primary source I am considering is the 2004 short story collection, The Dew Breaker, by Edwidge Danticat. The collection contains 9 different stories with 7 distinct narrators and charts the experiences of the Haitian diasporic community in New York City. These stories focus both on their struggles as immigrants as well as their traumatic pasts under the violent Haitian dictators “Papa Doc” and “Baby Doc” Duvalier. Though the collection contains a variety of different stories, each are linked to the family of a young Haitian-American, Ka. In the third story of the collection, “The Book of Miracles”, Ka’s mother, Anne, reveals that Ka’s father was an agent of the violent military regime headed by the Duvaliers. Known as “dew breakers” or Tonton Macoutes, he was one of the hundreds of men who committed heinous acts of violence against Haitian civilians in order to enforce the power of the regime. As the stories progress narrators reveal the specific ways in which “The Dew Breaker” inflicted trauma in their lives, uniting them all in shared traumatic experience. However, the collection if punctuated by Ka learning of the violence her father perpetuated through a phone conversation with her mother. Ultimately, the phone conversation is unresolved leaving readers with a complex ending to the short story collection.

The Dew Breaker offers a particularly nuanced representation of transgenerational and cultural trauma. On one hand, the traumatic connections between the characters of each story stress the importance of community for those living in diaspora. Through community they are able to find comfort in a foreign land while also speaking in a unified voice against the regime that drove them from Haiti. Further, the collection resists the urge to paint the United States as a place of salvation. Rather, the characters still struggle with a number of problems such as police violence, unwanted pregnancies, stalking, and familial strife. However, this representation of trauma is complicated by the primacy of Ka and her family’s narrative. With the inclusion of Ka’s story, the collection also asks readers to consider how one can deal with traumatic information about one’s family.  What are the effects of existing in a legacy of a perpetrator of trauma? How does this fracture one’s own subjectivity formation? Though the collection leaves the reader with Ka’s revelation unresolved, Danticat’s stories are a heroic testament to the importance of speaking and witnessing one’s trauma for healing.

Throughout the novel Danticat contends with the motif of speaking and silences. Though some characters in the novel lack the agency to tell their own truths, Danticat ultimately transcends her character’s silences through the metanarrative of writing their stories. Ka and the traumatized characters in the novel will never be able to change the things they have endured, however they regain agency by the writing and witnessing of their pain. That being said, one concern I have with this text is its place in the field postcolonial studies. Though it is classified as a postcolonial novel I am struggling to draw clear connections between the oppressive forces of colonialism and the trauma occurring in these short stories. If I choose to write about this collection I must also formulate my own understanding of the field of study. Overall, I believe that this work asks unique questions about familial and communal trauma. That being said, one of the only characters in the collection who is second generation is Ka and many of the stories do not focus on her at all. This lack of focus on the second generation may cause problems for my interest in exploring how transgenerational trauma effects their subjectivity formation. That being said, there are many other aspects of this collection that excite me. For example, I would be fascinated in exploring the individual structures of the short stories, while also considering how this collection works as a whole. Further, I find the project of telling Haitian stories deeply important. If I chose to write about this collection I would continually be inspired by the Haitian community’s historic resilience in the face of oppression and disaster.   

The second primary source I am interested in is the 2000 novel White Teeth by Zadie Smith. White Teeth maps the lives and families of two WWII veterans fighting for the British Military, Samad Iqbal and Archie Jones. Samad, is an Indian fighting the war in an effort to relive the glory of his supposed great grandfather, Mangal Pandey, who fired the first shot in the Indian Rebellion of 1857. In contrast, Archie is an average white British man who later in the novel marries a second generation Jamaican woman, Clara Bowden. While fighting in the same platoon, the pair forge a cross cultural friendship that continues once Samad and his wife, Alsana, move to Britain. The novel then introduces the second generation of characters, Samad’s twin boys, Millat and Magid, and Archie’s biracial daughter, Irie. Within this lengthy and intergenerational novel are an array of personal and familial dramas as well as much broader cultural critiques. The beauty of this novel lies in its ability to contend with issues of racism, citizenship, class, religious fundamentalism, abuse, war and the British colonial empire, all while telling deeply personal stories about family, love, and growing up.

White Teeth fearlessly asks readers to consider the importance of trauma and family in identity formation. Further, its style of narration offers an interesting complication for the lens of trauma theory and postcolonial studies. The novel is narrated by an intrusive omniscient narrator who focalizes on specific characters throughout the novel. Though this semi-fragmented form of narration is common in both trauma theory and postcolonial studies, Smith also incorporates humor into the narrative voice. Given the often traumatic events that Smith narrates I am puzzled, but intrigued, by her use of humor. However, I am considerably intimidated by the length and breath of White Teeth. The novel is 480 pages, spans over 50 years, two generations, two primary families, and a multitude of themes. Though the scope of the novel is daunting, I believe my focus on transgenerational trauma and its place in subjectivity formation will focus my thesis project. Unlike, The Dew Breaker, White Teeth includes detailed portrayals of both generations’ personal traumas which in turn provides me with a breath of material for analysis.  Further, the novel depicts different kinds of family units with which to analyze the passage of trauma. Smith’s novel includes the complications of biraciality as well as deeply religious family which would necessarily complicate my arguments about transgenerational trauma. Finally, I am moved by White Teeth’s refusal to offer readers a rosy picture of personal, familial, and colonial trauma. Rather, White Teeth provides a realistic picture of healing which relies on community, personal connections, and the witnessing of one’s own trauma for survival.

One of my issues in choosing between these texts is their respective complexity and differences in subject matter. Though they certainly have similar features, I do not believe that I could do justice to both of works within the same thesis project. For example, The Dew Breaker deals specifically with Haiti, French colonialism, violent dictatorships,  and the diasporic experience in America. Conversely, White Teeth focuses on War, British citizenship, British colonialism in India and Jamaica, and the experience of people of color living in Britain. Though both ask questions about trauma and its relationship to family, I believe the task of comparing these works would be too complex of an undertaking. With this in mind I believe I must choose either The Dew Breaker and White Teeth, though both have significant positives and negatives. For The Dew Breaker, I am inspired by the collection’s emotional resonance and Haitian focus. However, I worry that the collection does not focus enough on the second generation and would disable a deeper analysis of the passing of trauma and subjectivity formation. White Teeth was a transformational novel in my life and provides innumerable layers of complexity to be explored in my thesis project. However, I worry that the novel may be too complex and broad in its scope. That being said, for both novels there is little to no research about the pathways of transgenerational trauma and its impact on subjectivity formation. In total, I believe my scholarship for either novel would fill an important critical gap and I would appreciate guidance in deciding between the two works.

 

Works Cited

Danticat, Edwidge. The Dew Breaker. Vintage Contemporary, 2004.

Smith, Zadie. White Teeth. Hamish Hamilton, 2000.

Blog Prompt #6: Primary Texts

Blog Post #6 Due: Tues 12/4, 12noon // Comments #11-12 Due: Tues 12/4, 11:59pm

In preparation for your Thesis Proposal, this blog post will be an opportunity to introduce and reflect on two primary (literary) texts that might be a good fit for your Senior Thesis. In this post, you must:

  1. Introduce and describe your general fields / areas of interest. Describe the kinds of questions, themes, issues you’re interested in – push yourself to be as specific as possible.
  2. Transition from your interests to an introduction and brief summary of two primary texts that you are deeply excited about. These introductions and brief summaries should cover basic publication information (author, title, year of publication), and include concise but concrete summaries of key characters, events, plot points, etc. For an example of focused and specific text summaries, see Lindsey Green-Simms introduction of “On Monday of Last Week” on page. 151 of her article, “The Emergent Queer.”
  3. For each text, describe what you find especially interesting, complex, and/or problematic about the text: What might you try to unpack or analyze in this text? What patterns or motifs keep nagging at you about this text? How does this text speak to, illuminate, or complicate your areas of interests?
  4. Conclude with a focused reflection on what challenges you’re facing as you think about these texts. What are your concerns about choosing between (or choosing both) these texts? What are you wrestling with? What are you unsure about? Again, try to be as specific as possible. Think of this section of your post as an opportunity to get focused feedback from me about the selection of your primary texts.

A few notes on organization:

  • This blog post will not follow the length or organization of our other posts. Write as much as needed to provide full and detailed responses to the requirements above.
  • After completing step 1, you might want to tackle each text one at a time. In other words, introduce the first text you’re interested in working with (step #2), then provide the reflections required in step #3 for just that text. Then, move on to the second text, and repeat steps #2-3 for that text. Keep in mind that your introduction and reflection on each text may take 2-3 or 3-4 paragraphs.
  • Your conclusion should speak to challenges / concerns regarding both texts.
  • This post should still feature lively, vibrant, and clear writing that is attentive to mechanics, topic sentences, paragraph breaks, and transitions.
  • Be sure to include an image, tags, and Works Cited list.