Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Me, Myself and I

Sitting within my fifth grade class at St. Mary’s I am usually busy in the back of the room with clerical or administrative tasks: copying papers, grading home works, and filing folders. However, there are two boys who sit close enough to the back of the room that I occasionally catch a drift of their conversation, and on special days they include me. On my last visit the conversation cracked me up, and overwhelmed me so greatly that I grabbed an index card and began jotting down what they were saying because the whole class soon began to chime in so adamantly that the teacher sat silently until they finished.

The conversation began with one of the students claiming he wanted to be a lawyer: he would go to Harvard, Loyola (whose L’s and O’s were tripped over), or the University of Baltimore. Another student said that was “wack” and that he should be a real estate agent. Another laughed at the two of them and said he was never going to get a job because “all that work stuff is so boring.” Then two girls asked what the least driven would do for food, money and a home. He replied ever so matter-of-factly, “I don’t know, live in a cardboard box, a basement, up in an attic, or lived off the streets or somethin’.” Someone from across the room helped him out suggesting he could get food off the dollar menu, and brush his teeth with his finger.

All logical ideas of fifth graders, surrounded by poverty and locked within the confines of their classroom community and their age, whose ultimate desires are to play video games, and watch television all day. Yet observing even the motivated students I came to the realization that the scope of their world is limited as well: his professional choice is not one of unique quality but of classic America, and his college choices epitomize his small scale world recognizing Harvard because of its fame, Loyola because the students visit his class every day, and the University of Baltimore because it is embedded within his home community.

I then began to think of my own perceptions as a fifth grader, what was important to me, who I wanted to be, and where I thought I would be at twenty years old. To be honest, I had a rather difficult time remembering because the Alyssa I am today is so far detached from the Alyssa I was at ten years old. I believe I wanted to be a veterinarian simply because I loved animals, yet I never considered the biology factor, or the extent of care I would have to provide. I knew at twenty I would be in college, but I never thought I would be so far away from home, or living in a city rather than my small town and my priorities did not exceed further than recess, play-dates, and finding out what was for dinner.

My two beings are so far disconnected, that I now wonder if the me of ten years ago would even like the me of today: the decisions I have made, the promises I have broken, the failures I have encountered and the current expectations I have of my future. I believe this is one of the greatest and most challenging struggles Jasmine faces as she journeys within India, Florida, New York, and Iowa. Each time she is forced to adapt, to face an adversity, to survive she becomes an entirely different person from before; represented by her name changes. The hardest part is not transcending into her new roles, which each time she does with relative ease, instead it is the new identities inability to connect with the old, and its desire to feel as one entity which they can never be. I believe this is most adequately expressed in the final passage of the novel when she states, “I cry into Taylor’s shoulder, cry through all the lives I’ve given birth to, cry for all my dead. Then there is nothing I can do. Time will tell if I am a tornado, rubble-maker, arising from nowhere and disappearing into a cloud. I am out the door and in the potholed and rutted driveway, scrambling ahead of Taylor, greedy with wants and reckless from hope” (241).


After reading a few blogs, like Corrin’s, it struck me that all of us probably separate ourselves, unconsciously, into several different selves. Think about it. We all probably act drastically different when out with our friends than we do in class, and deal with our girlfriends (or boyfriends) very differently than we deal with our grandmothers, and our roommates receive a bit less deference (ok, a lot less) than we show our parents. The difference with Jasmine is that each of her selves comes to be defined by the man in her life. Is this healthy? Probably not, no. It seems, at least to me, a defense mechanism to deal with all the horrible things that happen to her (from her first widowing to her beatings and journeys and…you get the idea).
But I know people that do this in real life with no seeming reason for it. Several of my ex-girlfriends, for one, tried to define themselves as my girlfriend, not as a separate individual. There’s a point where it stops being sweet and starts being an escapist tendency.
I’ve done it too. My friends always tend to be very strong characters, and I occasionally just let their actions define what I’m going to do. Occasionally it’s laziness or a lack of a popular idea at the time, but every once in a while it’s a simple matter of being caught up in what they do, whether I actually enjoy the activity or not. Maybe it’s just a matter of being nice, or tolerant, or any number of other positive things, but I don’t generally assert myself well outside of the classroom (since anyone reading this probably just thought “what? He’s always verbose in class…).
But maybe it’s a symptom of not knowing who I am quite yet, much as Jasmine’s constant chameleonic transformations indicate her not being sure. I tend to have several separate collections of friends: one set for church, one for the pool, one for college…the only group that seems to cross twixt all of these are my very few high school companions. They, above all, I think, are what make sure I remain as myself, as the Christian that they’ve watched grow since elementary school together. Jasmine doesn’t have those kinds of attachments though, which is perhaps why she’s so able to redefine herself as often as she does. Her transformations are more drastic than mine ever were, but it’s a reaction to her environment.
Just as we all adapt to our surroundings too.

The Whole Person: Recognizing the past

Everyone has a heritage and a story. In America, with its ideals of independence, we can easily slip into seeing people as individuals without thinking about their pasts. We’ve become used to a marketplace full of commodities that arrive packaged on our shelves from factories worlds away; we purchase them without thinking about the journey that brought them to us. Likewise, our minds can slip into an innocent habit of assuming that each person who crosses our path is an individual, isolated from past time and place that have shaped him. If we see people in this way, we do not have to feel the discomfort of their shame or bear the burden of their baggage. “Ignorance is bliss,” we intone as we look past their scars and paste on a smile.
Mukherjee’s heroine experiences this response to her personal history as she interacts with some characters. She repeatedly comments on this difference between two American men she loves, saying “Bud’s not like Taylor—he’s never asked me about India; it scares him.” (12) For Bud, choosing to ignore his lover’s past is simpler than delving into her sordid history and experiencing the pains that lurk there. She explains, “Bud calls me Jane. Me Bud, you Jane…But Plain Jane is all I want to be. Plain Jane is a role, like any other. My genuine foreignness frightens him. I don’t hold it against him. It frightens me, too.” (26) Her identity as “Jane” separates her from her past lives as Jyoti, Jasmine, Jazz, and Jase. She and Bud can ignore the overwhelming aspects of her past by distancing her from all of it with a fresh identity. Others with whom Jane comes in contact show a similar aversion to her recollections of her past. Mother Ripplemeyer prefers that Jane only share stories that pertain to her life in Florida and New York, because she can relate to those in some way. Village life in India exists beyond the limits of Mother’s imagination, so Jane filters her anecdotes to portray a past that is not too disturbing for her audience (16).
As I hand out napkins to guests at the Franciscan Center, I have the choice of whether to see each person who comes through the doorway as the product of a unique set of life experiences, or simply as another face in the line. If I am tired and settle into the mundane pace of trying to serve 200-plus meals efficiently in two hours, I begin to take guest after guest at face value: yet another worn, ageless man with a cane and a slight limp, toting a tray of much-needed food. The faces blend together. I feel nothing towards them, save flashes of impatience or pity. Only when I look deeper, learning their names and imagining their daily lives, does my heart leap with compassion and even respect. Each man and woman who comes into the Franciscan Center has decades’ worth of stories, misfortunes, and experiences that have brought them to this place. I only see them once they have walked in the door, but I must not forget that they entered in from somewhere. For many of them, the streets of downtown Baltimore are an entirely different world of dangers, drug use, and nights spent on cold concrete. If I choose to ignore that, I cannot truly get to know the individuals I serve. Their lives in this other world are alien and uncomfortable to me, but they are a part of the experiences that shape these individuals. At first I thought that by ignoring their pasts, I was avoiding making assumptions or forming stereotypes about guests. While this is true, I have come to realize that by ignoring their pasts entirely, I have assumed that they have no past, which delegitimizes their experiences and their human wholeness.
Similarly, Mukherjee suggests that her character cannot simply ignore the past. Running away from her series of other identities by immersing herself in a mundane existence will not bring this woman peace and fulfillment. At the novel’s close, she chooses to leave her Iowan refuge and embrace the complex woman that years of trails have made her. “The smell of singed flesh is always with me…We have stowed away on boats like Half-Face’s, we’ve hurtled through time tunnels. We’ve seen the worst and survived.” (240) By coming to terms with this baggage, she confronts the series of identities that she has tried to suppress, finally able to “cry through all of the lives I’ve given birth to, cry for all my dead” (241). In this moment, she lets go of her isolated identity as Bud’s “Plain Jane,” the uncomplicated Midwestern American woman. Mukherjee suggests that those who have endured traumatic lives—and the people who care for them—must not ignore the past at the risk of sacrificing the wholeness of the individual.

"When I get home..."

“…you’re so dead” or worse, “grounded”. I never liked to be on the receiving end of that kind of phone call from my mother; I was at the prime peak of my (then, young) teenage life, constantly wanting to hang out with my friends, or stay out late at a party – “because I’m fourteen now, mom”—so of course, a ‘natural’ dislike of being grounded always accompanied my adolescence.

I’m not going to lie – I built ‘forts’ more than once in my young life whenever I was stuck at home, and to this day the simplicity yet strength of my chair/blanket/pillow forts remains unrivaled to this day (probably because collegians do not have dorm forts or fort wars).When I was eight (or nine…or thirteen), forts were a way to keep out the ghosts, the boogeyman, or mom who wanted you to do (insert chore here). Now I kind of wish I still built forts in my apartment back home –they remind me so much of what being “grounded” now means to me.

Yes, to children, being ‘grounded’ means no parties, TV, toys, until however long it takes for you to “go to your room and think about what [you’ve] done” (which, coincidently, always varied depending on how long mom felt you should ‘think’). For me, ‘grounded’ seems to imply ‘having a foundation’ or even having something helping ‘keep your feet on the ground’. In a sense, I have some kind of (sub)conscious urge to be grounded once in a while: it would give a chance to be at home, a chance to go to my room and think about what I’ve done.

Though I originally wanted to title my paper “what’s in a name”, I still think that much of what Jasmine/Jyoti/Jane goes through is still applicable in the context of my (tangent/anecdote). There is so much power that comes in a name, and in knowing someone’s name. When [your] mom, dad, figure of authority in your household calls (‘summons’) you by your full name, you know something’s wrong, and chances are you’ve ‘done something wrong’. When your name gets called out at graduation, when you’ve scored a basket or a goal, or even when your name is said at your wedding, that person becomes empowered – people like hearing their name associated with something good, some achievement that recognizes what that person has done and gone through.

There’s the scene in Jasmine, where Karin tells Jasmine that she “wrote [Jasmine’s] name on a piece of paper” then “lit it with a match” (202); though the scene itself is complex, the notion that burning a piece of paper with a name (the name of someone Karin “blamed” for her divorce from Bud) could offer some sort of relief or release stress is striking.

Everywhere Jasmine/Jane/Jase has been, she has been “given” a name; she has “had a husband for each of the women [she] has been” (197). In kind of a similar manner, we too are given different names or titles depending on where we are: e.g. “sir”, “Dr.”, “Mister”, and last names only or nicknames. I think what matters is what we are named by the people we love and who love us: Jasmine notes to Taylor “I have family (Du) in California” (239). Jasmine herself seems to be proud (or at least aware) of each of her ‘names’ – they have, in essence, define her and hold much of her storied past. I guess I would advise to use names carefully…you never know when you’ll be calling your kids or your friends kids by their full name and how much of an impact “grounding” them will really have.

You can never go home again? - FALSE.

When you travel to a foreign country, it is just that: foreign. There are no familiar sights at first unless you are lucky enough to stumble upon a despicable McDonald’s (though I hardly find those establishments comforting after reading Fast Food Nation). If you are traveling in a group you cling to your friends for safety and familiarity, and if you are traveling alone and do not derive pleasure from the idea of being somewhere completely unknown (the mark of a good explorer and frontiersmen), you are scared and confused.
Then, on your first day or maybe your second day, you find someone on the street with whom you successfully communicate in either English or the native lingo, and it is a vastly fulfilling experience. For the first time you feel welcomed and relieved, that maybe there’s hope for you yet in this unfamiliar setting. Or perhaps you are studying abroad and have a foreign home-stay where the family welcomes you with open arms and makes you feel as though you were born there: they set a place for you at breakfast and even pack you a lunch. This was the situation for me when I visited Madrid in Spain as part of a singing tour of the country, and it was an experience I will never forget. When you lived at home in high school and years previous to that, home comforts and niceties became routine and taken for granted because it’s your family etc. But when you get the same treatment from a family you have never met before in your entire life in a completely different country, the effect is surreal and beautiful. Sitting down at the kitchen table to discuss global politics with Fabio, proud resident of Guadalajara, and his father was something that made me feel (at the time!) more at home than anywhere else in the world. As el padre said to me on our first meeting: Soy el padre: yo bebo, y yo como! (I am the father: I eat, and I drink!)
So when Jasmine encounters Lillian Gordon she probably experienced something close to rapture in the face of such unexpected and unprecedented kindness. It’s flattering for the narrator to call it “the best in the American experience and the American character,” especially since that opinion is now collecting dust in the face of our current global image. But essentially Lillian was the person who first made Jasmine feel as though America could be a home for her, that she could have a place in this country. That sense of belonging, that someone you’ve never met cares enough for another person they’ve never met enough to give them food, lodging, and a Christmas present every year. So what does Lillian’s eventual prosecution and imprisonment say about the home America advertises to the world?
Although Lillian was harboring “illegals” and providing for more people to have access to America’s “welfare” dollars, was it really necessary to send the old woman to jail? Along the rocky trail of time America has forgotten what it is to be a country born of immigrants, and it is up to the few Americans who have not forgotten and fellow immigrants such as Professorji to take care of the new Americans who are looking to stay and become a part of society. While there are those who wish to work, make money, and leave, or even freeload, that is not a sufficient statistic to generalize with everyone else’s.
Tourists, immigrants, visitors, students on exchange or studying abroad: all of them are depending on the kindness of the natives to survive and praying to whomever that they never meet their Half-Faces. Showing kindness to strangers is what allows those fears to dissipate a little and in turn bring forth the mystery and intrigue of a new home, a new setting, a new life.

Monsters and Heroes

I wanted to bring this line up in class last time, but it didn't seem to follow and threads brought about in class discussion but I think it is an extraordinarily powerful line. I know it is in the first half of the book but, "All acts are connected. For every monster there is a hero. For every hero, a monster."

I was excited to have a simple connection between my service experiences and the readings, especially evident because I do homework help at St. Mary's Tuesdays before I blog. It was beautiful today, and because of my experience with travel lit last semester I prefer to walk to service whenever time allows. Today, I walked with no jacket for the first time. It makes me feel as though Loyola, myself, and the Govans community at York road have more of a connection. The shuttle picks up students near the student center and drops them off at the school.

I call it the Loyola pod, it's one of the many ways in which Loyola distinguishes itself from the community bordering the East side of campus. We have a connection to St. Mary's, but are unrecognized by everything in between. Sydney, my cynical, silent, overjoyed, loudmouth (yes I meant every word) second grader was particularly solemn after the excited hug she gave me when I walked in. I don't think I'll every figure out why she loves to see me but hates to speak, but I pried, just because I want her to know that I refuse to give up on being chit chat buddies. I made fun if her a little, she cracked a smile, I let her make fun of me (she's pretty good at that) and finally the table started talking about the weather. That is everyone except the new tutor who sort of creeped everyone out, me included.

I force-included Syd in the conversation by asking her if she thought it was pretty out or not, or if she liked to play outside something trivial like that and she responded by saying that it was beautiful, and she liked to be outside but it made the "ugly people come out too". I searched her face for the mischievous little smirk she makes when she makes fun of one of her classmates, but there was nothing. I was forced to sit there and wonder for the next hour or so what ugly was supposed to mean in the mind of a second grader.

Most of the children walk home from school after their various extracurricular activities. Maybe ugly was her way of saying monsters. on both the way there and on the way back I passed quite an eclectic group of people, much more than I have passed before as it was cold the last few weeks. Not all bad, that is for sure, but here on the road where eight, nine, ten year-olds walk are shattered bottles at the feet of passed out men and women. Wild eyes men asking for change, or trying to sell their day- pass to the bus. There are two groups of teenagers telling war stories from the weekend. A kid no older than twelve was screaming at his sister and yanking her head around by her hair because she didn't come quick enough when she called. Two grown, women with liquor bottles kissed each other on the bench near the bus stop. Who are her monsters, who are the ugly people?

Then I started thinking about the heroes their teachers, some of them have wonderful parents, the girls that work in the office. I wonder if she knows her heroes... and then I stared thinking about myself. I am graduating soon, and so carry with me the constant anxiety of entering a world outside of both my home and the Loyola bubble without an idea of what I actually want to do with my life. I do know I want to be a hero. In a binary oppositional state of thinking, I know for sure I don't want to be a monster. I was oddly uncomfortable walking back onto campus, my safety, my security, the definite because I know it is ending. Back down the street, for an hour every week, and whatever other service I do I get to play hero for a little while, here I'm scared, I'm unsure, I'm one in three thousand.

Interacting with another culture

In Mukherjee’s novel, I thought really fascinating to see the way one’s culture interacts with another one, or the way one’s culture is altered or enriched because it absorbs other elements from another culture. Actually, my experience at St Mary’s gives me the opportunity to interact with another culture. It is very fruitful since there is always a rich exchange between the students and I. For instance, last Thursday, I had the opportunity to talk about myself and about my homeland Guadeloupe. When I arrived, the teacher asked me to introduce myself to the students. I told them where I was from and where I have been. Everytime, the students had to show the places I mentioned on a world map. Then I asked them to introduce themselves . One of them told me that his father was from French Guyana and could speak French. Then, they started asking me ''how do you say this and that in French.'' Finally, I ended up teaching a French class full of students willing to learn. The students were very pleased by this cultural exchange, but the teacher had to put an end to it because they had a science class.
Moreover, since I have been here in the US, I noticed that I have absorbed some elements from other cultures I have met. For example, the way I’m cooking now has been influenced by the way Nigerians (more precisely from the Yoruba tribe) cook ,because my fiancé is from Nigeria. I was not used to eat fried plaintains with salty meals before, because back home we eat them as a desert. We usually fry them and sparkle sugar as well as cinnamon on them. But right now, I find myself eating plaintains with salty meals.

In the second part of the book, there are numerous examples of cultural interactions. The one mentioned by the narrator page 134 is relevant. In this passage, Jasmine talks about the Kanjobal women who live with her at Lillian’s house. Jasmine says that : ‘‘the Kanjobal women didn’t speak any English.’’ But a cultural interaction could take place still, not thanks to language as it was my case at St Mary’s, but thanks to food. Jasmine relates: ‘‘They showed me how to pat grainy tortilla dough into shape, and I showed them how to roll the thinnest, roundest chapattis. And Lillian taught us all to cook hamburgers and roasts…’’ As we have discussed in class, homeland is defined among things by food. By sharing their recipes, those women also share a piece of their homeland. This is how cultures get richer.
The case of the Vadheras is another example that we could examine. Obviously, their Indian culture has been altered by Western values, or americanized. For example, when Jasmine calls her husband’s former ‘‘professor’’ for the first time, he is ‘‘Dave, not Devinder, not even Professor.’’ At first sight, he seems to be as modern as Prakhash. Jasmine says that ‘‘he had saved enough to afford two children, and to educate them in New York. Male or female did not matter, he was a progressive man.’’ His views completely contrast with the views prevailing in Indian society where children are considered more as blessings than a financial investment, and where daughters are cursed. However, as Jamisne’s description of the Vadhera goes on, we find out that their culture has not been altered to the roots. In reality, Professorji still thinks like a traditional Indian man. For instance, his wife does not know where he works because ‘‘he was following an ancient prescription for marital accord: silence, order, authority. So was she: submission, beauty, innocence’’(Mukherjee). Also, Jasmine cannot wear nice clothes in their house because of her widowhood, but also because it would mean that she is competing with Profersorji’s wife.

I think that Mukherjee’s novel explores the question : ‘‘To what extent one’s culture can be altered by another one when one is outside his or her homeland?’’ There are several answers to this questions. As far as the heroine Jasmine, it is clear that she wants to escape the confines of her cultural identity because it is too oppressive, however she can’t totally do so because of her past memories that remind her of who she was before coming to the US.

Tony Levero: Hopefully More than a Pebble Crusher

Jasmine by Bharati Mukherjee seems to illustrate the role that fate plays in Hindu religious faith. She frames Jasmine’s story, start to finish, constantly reminding the readers of the astrologer’s prediction that foretells her “widowhood and exile” (Mukherjee 3). Jasmine, neither a strong adherer to Indian faith nor superstition often questions both, never more so than when she attempts to change the fate the astrologer assigns her. However, she seems to vacillate in her convictions on the “life assignment” that God has given her. Upon the death of her father, the notion of his life assignment having been fulfilled consoles her negligibly, about as much as the Book of Job would console a grieving Christian family (it offers an explanation for suffering but not a reassuring one). Sometimes she contemplates whether her previous “husbands” have set her up for her current one, only to act so impetuously as to look as if she’s trying to escape her assignment. Regardless of her life assignment, it really does seem as if the predictions of the astrologer seem to dog her whether she accepts them or not.

On several occasions in my life I can speculate that fate has directly resulted in an event taking place. However, like Jasmine, whether or not I accept these events as fate (specifically divine plan) leads to some more difficult, perhaps unanswerable, questions. Going into high school I faced the choice of what private school to attend. It was not a choice per say though, it was more or less assumed that I would be attending one school in particular. It was the private school my father, all of my uncles, and all of my male cousins had attended. A very white-collar school, it was the logical choice for Catholics from white-collar Dundalk. I visited and it was about what I had expected. I was satisfied. However, when final applications to schools were being turned in, I began to have nagging doubts. I would consider myself fairly religious or spiritual, (I do not pretend to understand delineations between the two) but up to this point in my life had only prayed for things I badly wanted. To pray over doubt was new. Despite having no other considerations really, I decided to pray over my school options.

My dad told me the next day that the head of admissions at Loyola Blakefield had called to see if I wanted to shadow there. Before finalizing the applicant list he was leafing through transcripts and had seen mine (when I took a placement exam it was mandatory to write down the names of three prospective schools, I had chosen Loyola dead last just to fill it out, this must have released my transcript to them). He wondered why I hadn’t visited and gave us a call. I took the day off school and went, with misgivings about Loyola’s exclusive prep-school reputation, the popped polo collars and the rugby crew shirts that the boys in the brochure wore. I immediately made friends with Steve, the student who showed me around (Steve is studying philosophy at Yale and considering the priesthood). In short, the misgivings I had going in could not have been more wrong, and I thoroughly enjoyed my four years at Loyola.

The chain of events definitely points to some kind of intervention, but the implications bother me. It seems cocky to think God favors me enough to pull these kinds of strings. Am I destined to accomplish something? I would hope so. Would I have still been on the right track to accomplish this had I ended up at the other school? Probably, the education still would have been well above average. What about all the people who do not get these opportunities? Many of them may be more deserving than me. Does this place a greater burden on me to succeed academically? This is the most troublesome of all. I hardly feel that I live up to potential sometimes. For now, I really cannot conclude much from it. Good fortune, I feel, should not be questioned anymore than bad fortune can be explained. To attribute the admissions head’s phone call as a stepping stone to a life assignment is no more reasonable than the implication that Pitaji’s one role in life was to crush a pebble and die.


I remember sitting with my older friend Justin after he had broken up with his girlfriend of three years. A year younger than him, she was still in high school and he had just finished his first year of college. When I asked him why he ended it, all he could say to me was “College changes you, and the person I became wasn’t the person she fell in love with, and I got tired of trying to be that person.” At the time (as I was still in high school myself) I couldn’t truly understand what he meant.

I grew up in the small town of Irvington, and have lived in the same house my entire life. The home I was brought into three days after I was born is the house I walk into when I come home from college. I went to school with the same group of 70 kids since pre-school, and ate at the same deli every morning. The longest I had ever been away from home was 4 days, when I went on a vacation with a few girl friends. While yes, there were experiences that changed and shaped who I am (deaths of friends, car accidents, and my first job) nothing changed me more than when I was physically taken away from my home.

The first time I came home after being at Loyola I remember my mom hugging me, rushing me into the car and driving home from the train station. Despite the fact that I had spoken to her every single day at school something seemed different. I somehow felt more mature, more independent, and older than I ever had. Stepping into my house I felt slightly out of place. I couldn’t close my eyes and navigate through the dark kitchen, I forgot that on the third drawer I had to shimmy the child lock before I pulled. Now in my junior year at Loyola, there are some friends from high school that I no longer speak to, and there are some who I am closer with now than ever. My father always told me that people change, and there is nothing you can do about it. The only thing you can hope for is that the people close to you change with you, and you grow together instead of growing apart.

When reading “Jasmine” the following quote stood out “I have had a husband for each of the women I have been. Prakash for Jasmine, Taylor for Jase, Bud for Jane, Half-Face for Kali.” (p.197) Because of her circumstances, she was forced to be multiple people, adapting to their own unique situations, constantly forming new identities. While a large part of this was due to the fact that she immigrated into America, I think it speaks as well to the cruelness and pressures of our world in general. People constantly try to put others into molds, difference and the unknown is instinctually terrifying. Throughout the novel, Jase is constantly judged by those around her, sometimes for cultural reasons, and other times simply for being a woman. I think the novel does an amazing job of showing how as an immigrant, and an illegal woman in America, Jasmine was forced to take on multiple identities to adapt to her situations. It is my belief that if Jasmine had her choice, she would have lived in the identity of Jasmine, happily married to Prakash with their dreams, however fate had other plans. In the end, Jasmine had to choose between being Jase and Jane. While some people may have felt that Jasmine was betraying Bud in leaving him and that especially because she was carrying his child should have stayed, I found myself happy that she chose to be Jase. Jase, was the closest identity to Jasmine, the closest not only in the structure of the name, but closest to her culture, and to true love. When Jasmine was with Bud, she did not speak of her culture, it made him uncomfortable, but when with Taylor she was able to be more in touch with her desired identity of Jasmine.

Reading this novel made me wonder about how many other identities I will have. I was a different person after the death of a friend; I was a different person after coming to Loyola. Will I change when I become a true adult and enter the work force? Will I change if I marry? Will I change if I have a child? And as I change and form new identities, will the people I love change with me? Will we grow together or grow apart?

Jyoti, Jasmine, Jase, Jane...

Bharati Mukherjee’s commentary on identity, and what gives life to our identities, in Jasmine is telling. Jasmine (Jyoti) takes on several names, several lives throughout the course of the novel. One of the aspects I enjoyed most in her character development was the childlike, interior life known only to Jasmine herself and the reader.

Jasmine’s journey towards discovery likens her to a child; she was always reinventing herself, always learning. The journey the reader takes with Jasmine throughout the novel ultimately leads to the change the young woman undergoes. She is not the same girl in America as she was back in India. And although Jasmine is a changed woman at the end of the novel, she is only changed to a degree. I see her journey as more of a transformation, or a coming into herself. The core woman is still ever-present within Jasmine. She is a strong, brave woman who endures a great deal to keep going. Exterior environments and necessity play a role in Jasmine’s ever-changing situation, he ever-changing lives; however, she is the ultimate determinate of her change and of her actions. She is a survivor.

I particularly liked the scene when Jase connects with Duff. “She was the only American, at the time, that I was capable of totally understanding. For her, I was a wise adult without an accent. For me, she was an American friend whose language I understood and humor I could laugh at. And she laughed at mine. I did have a sense of humor” (173). They are equals; Jasmine is learning as a child does. She is becoming even more familiar with the language and the ways of a given culture. Her naïveté is charming. By adapting to a culture, she is building a new life for herself. Like a child, Jasmine grapples with different identities, finally coming into her own chosen path at the close of the novel. She is trying to find her place in the world, and her journey thus far is what empowers her to make a choice. Wanting to find your niche in the world and cultivate yourself, the personality or identity, is something young people do once they grow into adults. Jasmine is 24 years old; she is a young woman, but she has seen a great deal.

The notion of identity, or identities reminded me of the kids in my class at St. Mary’s as well. They wear a uniform each day, are expected to act accordingly in a classroom situation, and present themselves as students when at school. People are always recreating or reinventing themselves, they are always only presenting sides of a personality. Every situation calls for a different aspect of one’s personality. I know that these kids do not act the same way with me that they do with their teacher. I also know that they act differently with one another; they are peers, friends, and even enemies. And I am sure that they act differently with their parents as well. And I know that I present myself in a manner I feel is appropriate for a first grade classroom. It works both ways. Identities are multi-faceted. Depending on the relationship or the situation, certain aspects of the personality will be suppressed or demonstrated. I see this in the classroom all the time. Since the kids are still young, however, the self-control is still being developed. They are testing their boundaries. Identity is not concrete either. The individual can never even know his or her own personality, so how are others supposed to? Of course, there is some kind of working character or personality that we may attribute to one another, but there are no definite lines drawn. This suggests that the cultivation of one’s identity is never complete, and we will always be looking to discover new aspects of ourselves. We will always be childlike in this way.


Throughout the semester we have discussed changing homelands, most of which were changed by some sort of invasion. The most common question pertaining to this topic is whether or not one can return to that homeland and whether or not it will be able to remain the same.
“Jasmine” is the perfect example of not being able to return home. Not so much because her home had been changed, but because she had seen other areas which put the destruction and horrors of her homeland into perspective.
A particular quote stood out to me while reading the novel. After we, as the reader, are exposed to scenes that tell of Jasmine’s childhood and initial birth circumstance, Jasmine makes it known that her own mother tried to end her life to save her of the pain and suffering she would inevitably encounter as a dowryless bride. Jasmine says, “I survived the sniping. My grandmother may have named me Jyoti, Light, but in surviving I was already Jane, a fighter and adapter.” (40).
When I read this I was literally moved. These lines proved to be so powerful and insinuate much more than what the words say. These few sentences provide the reader with information regarding her homeland and whether or not she could, not even return home, but live within the very world she was born into. Women within this society suffer regardless of economic status, it was horrifying to read about the widow burnings and know that there is in fact truth behind the descriptions.
Jasmine makes known that she never fit into her culture from the first chapter of the book when she not only raises her voice to an elder man, but also refers to herself as a sage and, in that way, segregates herself from the other women. From the quote I previously mentioned, we learn that Jasmine was never meant to stay in her birth land, she was already unlike others there, and she would leave.
I found it remarkable that this particular homeland is on a totally other level than the others we have studied this semester. The homeland Jasmine was born into was from the gecko unsuitable for her, however, remained unchanged, the way of life she was intended to live had been that way for the entirety of her life as well as most others within the culture. Contrastingly, in “Things Fall Apart”, the reader is exposed to a homeland that the some citizens cannot return to because it has been tainted by foreigners and is therefore unable to go back. In “Loving and Longing in Bombay” the reader is shown modern versus traditional views, as in “Sons for the Return Home, and “Kisses in Nederends”, where modern medicine is paralleled by traditional methods.
“Jasmine”, is unlike any other novel we have read this semester. The concept of not fitting into one’s homeland from birth is a very interesting concept which we have not yet seen before through any of the other works we have read.

Jase's Identity

Jase, the narrator of Bharati Mukherjee’s Jasmine, takes on many names as she takes on the various roles throughout her “lifetimes” (3).  She says, “I have had a husband for each of the women I have been.  Prakash for Jasmine, Taylor for Jase, Bud for Jane.  Half-Face for Kali” (197).  Due to Jasmine’s race, gender, ethnicity, and socio-economic status, she lacks agency in her own life.  She is often defined by her relationships, specifically with the men who weave in and out of her life.  We talked in class about Jase’s identities, “lifetimes”, names and homelands; we also talked about Jase’s participation in her own oppression.  Socialized as inferior to men, Jase’s journeys help her to discover her own identity, redefine herself without the titles forced upon her, and gain agency in the future of her own life.  I refer to her as Jase because I believe that Jase is the name that best fits her true identity, which she eventually chooses to accept at the end of the novel.

In Jase’s relationship with Taylor, she discovers what she does and does not want to be defined by.  Taylor’s and Wylie’s abilities to see goodness and humanity in Jase’s damaged, vulnerable shell of a person gives her the first glimpse of humanity within herself.  She says, “I wanted to become the person they thought they saw: humorous, intelligent, refined, affectionate.  Not illegal, not murderer, not widowed, raped, destitute, fearful” (171).  The difference between the two sets of characteristics Jase lays out is that the characteristics she strives for are personality traits, qualities one can innately posses whereas the characteristics she loathingly sees within herself are consequences of what has happened to her.  Jase is beginning to integrate her experiences into her own identity.  She learns, “Taylor didn’t want to change me.  He didn’t want to scour and sanitize the foreigness.  My being difference from Wylie or Katie didn’t scare him.  I changed because I wanted to.  To bunker oneself inside nostalgia, to sheathe the heart in a bulletproof vest, was to be a coward” (185).  Jase obviously gains strength and agency in her time in New York; she transforms herself through her own decision to “change,” not through the expectations of the man in her life.  She finds courage, rejecting the “cowardly” instinct to guard herself against the effects of her experiences. 

Foreshadowing her decision to leave Bud Ripplemeyer, Jase writes, “I should never have been Jane Ripplemeyer of Baden, Iowa” (127); she does not refer to Bud as the problem, but refers to her own active decision to exist as someone other than herself, “Jane Ripplemeyer.”  Continuing the reflection on her existences under various names, she writes, “Jyoti of Hasnapur was not Jasmine, Duff’s day mummy and Taylor and Wylie’s au pair in Manhattan; that Jasmine isn’t this Jane Ripplemeyer,” calling attention to the lack of agency she feels in many of the roles forced upon her throughout her life.  Bud falls in love with all that Jase represents, but molds her into “Jane,” a woman he can understand and relate to.  She writes about her relationship to Bud, “Bud courts me because I am alien.  I am darkness, mystery, inscrutability.  The east plugs me into instant vitality and wisdom.  I rejuvenate him simply by being who I am” (200).  Jase, mistakenly leaves New York in her terrifying encounter with her past, but the transformation has already taken place.  She can see that Bud loves the “Jane” he creates, but does not love Jase.  Furthermore, she does not love "Jane," but has learned to love "Jase."  When Du leaves the family to seek out his sister, Jase is forced to reconcile her identity with the life she currently leads; she realizes, “The world is divided between those who stay and those who leave” (228).  She wants to leave, to redefine herself, create a home for herself, and decide her own future; she asks herself, “How many more shapes are in me, how many more selves, how many more husbands?” (215).  Taking a leap of courage and faith, Jase walks out on Bud and Jane in order to live as Jase with Taylor and Duff, the only people to ever see her for who she truly is.

“Who lays out the roadways of our futures?” (174) I know in my own life a lot of people have shaped me, but do they define me?  And are these changes I want, I accept?  Today I was having a long conversation with my older sister, Annie.  She is about to turn 26, she just got married, she has her masters in Counseling, she lives in Atlanta, Georgia, and she home-schools a fifteen year-old boy, Marco and tutors high school students for the SATs and ACTs.  Today she told me she wants to move to DC and she wants to go back to school to get her PhD in Cognitive Psychology.  Awesome.  I am in full support of this decision because, well she’ll be closer to be, but more importantly, because she is brilliant and she should pursue her dreams.  When she shared this news with both my parents and her husband, Ryan, apparently this dream was discouraged.  Why?  In my father’s eyes, if the future is not certain, clear-cut, expected, it is probably wrong.  In my mother’s eyes, it’s better to be safe than sorry, and in Ryan’s eyes dream chasing is frightening.  I cannot fathom this "safe" way of thinking.  My parents are wonderful, I love them more than words can ever express, but they are so worried about our well being that they are blinded.  As I often do when I get off the phone with Annie, I called Katie, the youngest of my siblings.  Katie is sixteen, avoids most people her own age, is home schooled by my mother, wants to go to art school, and spends most of her time taking pictures, riding horses, sleeping and eating.  She is constantly arguing with my father over art school, her ambitions, her sleeping habits (she is basically nocturnal), the courses she chooses to take, and her lack of motivation.  She pushes the limit.

Talking to my sisters tonight made me question myself.  Am I afraid of what I want to do because it might be difficult?  Am I going to settle for less than my dreams because they aren’t what most people would call “practical”?  Will I be able to live with myself if I don’t pursue what I have always considered my purposes in life, my drive, my dreams, my passions, my callings, my life?  I think I am discovering, like Jase, who I am, but I am not sure if I am who I am.  What am I afraid of?  Who am I afraid of?  I feel that I should be more afraid of regret than of failure.  I don’t want to be a “coward” especially since I am the one who will have to live with the regret.  Jase brought me two new mantras: Liberation and Courage.  Without those, I cannot exist as I was created to exist.

Uniting Identity

Growing up, we played dodge ball at summer day camp. I was eleven, in the prime of my childhood, with a Portland Sea Dogs hat facing backwards on my head and Umbro shorts falling almost to my knees. Despite the joy I felt in the summer, spending time with my friends on the beach and playing card games in the afternoon, recreational activities—such as dodge ball—left me frustrated and depressed. I didn’t have the aggression or speed of my peers. I tried my hardest. I crossed my fingers to improve. I wondered, in fury, why sports came so easily for everyone else. And after all of those things didn’t work, I made a joke of it. I laughed at myself. I sought for the attention I knew they would give me.
That attention mostly resulted in friendly insults. I was a slow runner and uncoordinated. Rather than trying to rise above that status I embraced it. I laughed at myself. They called me Liz, and still do to this day, and encouraged me to take myself less seriously. My friends stood by me the whole way—never meaning to hurt me, but underneath our laugher I always went home frustrated.
To an extent, most of these qualities do define my strengths and my weaknesses. I don’t enjoy sports. I lack the sufficient hand-eye coordination beneficial in a waffle ball game. I’d rather sit in a chair on the beach and read than play capture the flag. But when I was in this space, and surrounded by these activities, these weaknesses started to define who I was and how I measured my worth.
As I got older I started to see what I was doing to myself and could make more sense of the role I’d squeezed myself into. I wondered if I was anything more to them besides a comedic relief. Like Jasmine, I felt that there were parts of me that I couldn’t share, and experiences that I had during the school year that I couldn’t wear on my sleeves for anyone to see and appreciate.
One summer we went on a hiking trip on Mt. Washington, and like most of these trips, I stationed myself at the end of the line, breathing heavily up the steep incline while my friends ran and laughed a quarter mile ahead of me. When I reached the lodge at the top, 45 minutes late, they’d finished lunch. They didn’t wear the hike on their faces in the same way I felt that past 4 hours weighing down my face. They were as energetic as ever, ready to start again.
I took the train down. My dad, with his bad knee, needed a companion, and in tears I waved goodbye to my friends as they trotted down the trail. I was disappointed in myself, and angry that once again, I wasn’t on the same level as the people around me.
I talked to Elizabeth the next day, a friend that couldn’t go on the hike. I told what happened, that my dad bought me Dairy Queen and I took a nap in the front seat of the Volvo waiting for everyone else to return back down. She listened and told me how proud, that she’d always been proud, and that she admired my ability to keep going when everyone else was far ahead. She said it gave me an accessibility that none of our other friends had, and a determination no one else could understand.
No one had ever said anything like that to me before, and suddenly I could feel all the parts of myself, all of my experiences, successes, and failures, joining together and creating a self that I could sit with. I feel like this is the goal that we deal with most of our lives, fusing our experiences into one solid mass, and making them part of our identity. This moment reminded me of Jasmine at the end of the novel, reuniting with Taylor and Duff. Finally, after relationships that only asked for one part of her and split her identity in pieces, Taylor took her in for everything she was. Mukherjee writes, “Taylor’s eyes take me in, the full globe of me” (238).
The challenge the Mukherjee creates in this story is linking Jasmine’s lives, and trusting that there is someone out there that will still love and accept her for everything she has been through. As much as Bud and Lillian Gordon took care of Jasmine, they could not see fully who she was. Like Rushdie, we are encouraged to think of Homeland in terms of people, and challenged to search for companions that won’t shut us into boxes, or limit themselves to seeing one identity. With each realization, relationship, and journey we are born into new selves, but never truly let go of what we had before. This is why I still cringe at the sight of a dodge ball. I know there is more to my life, but those moments are still a part of me, even if they are no longer active.

What's in a name?

People often say that when you go away to college you have the opportunity to form a new identity.  Your new peers will have no idea what you acted like in high school, what group you hung out with, or what your hobbies were.  By the time I graduated, I had been with the same group of students for at least six years, so I can see how the promise of shedding an identity and starting fresh could be tempting to some.  I never really considered that people would change their names when they went away to school, but I guess I never considered how intwined our names are with our identities.  A name is something that is given to you at birth, you don't get to choose it, even though it sticks with you for the rest of your life.  I have a few friends who took advantage of the move to college and took new names or nicknames when they moved to their new home at school.  For example, I have a friend here at Loyola, Rob.  When I met him way back in September of freshman year, he introduced himself as Rob.  It was not until his friends came to visit him last year and only referred to him as "Bob" that we realized he had a mini identity change when he got to Loyola.  When we asked him about it, he said that everyone at home, including his entire family, calls him Bob.  He never really liked it, so when he got here he took advantage of the opportunity and introduced himself as Rob.  It sounds so simple, but also so strange.  I don't think he had any scarring opportunities that would lead him to abandon his Bob-identity, but it's pretty fascinating to think about totally leaving behind the name that you've been called for your whole life.
Rob's mini identity change isn't much compared to Jyoti/Jasmine/Jase/Jane in Mukherjee's novel, but it does shed some light on how much our names contribute to our identities, and therefore our homes.  Mukherjee does an interesting thing with Jasmine's multiple identities.  If you examine all of her names, the lives that accompany them, who gave her the names, and the name (or life) that she ultimately chooses, it seems as though Mukherjee wants us to notice how much influence others have over our identities.  At the beginning of the novel, we get a peak into Jasmine's character.  Her reaction to the astrologer is telling, "You're a crazy old man!  You don't know what my future holds!" (3).  Later, when she tells her father that no, she doesn't want to be a bank teller, she wants to be a doctor, we are again reminded of her defiance and resistance.  Her name is the one thing that she does not take charge of or enforce.  All throughout her life she allows herself to be named by other people, usually men.  She then takes on that new identity wholeheartedly, assuming that she can forget her past.  As a result, she ends up being caught between her many lives.  I think that Mukherjee might be trying to show us that Jasmine must choose her own identity in order to finally be completely happy.
In Jasmine, the main character's first name is Jyoti:  "My grandmother names me Jyoti, Light, but in surviving I was already Jane, a fighter and adapter" (40).  Her first memory of her name is that she immediately wanted to fight it off, to lose it.  She sees that Jyoti ties her to her life in Hasnapur, so she is more than willing to become Prakash's "Jasmine" when she is married.  He tells her not to "regress" to acting like "feudal Jyoti," and with her new identity she allows herself new dreams, like the dream of Vijh & Vijh (92).  She still comes into conflict with her identity: "I felt suspended between worlds" (76).  Jasmine jumps from name to name, identity to identity, and home to home.  It appears as though she is making her own decisions and getting what she wants out of life, but she is still letting others label her, so there are complications.  Naturally, when she moves to Flushing, she regresses to her Jyoti ways because she lives with a traditional family.  She is not able to really let go of Jyoti .When Taylor christens her "Jase," she adds another life and identity to her list but does not resolve any issues.  As Jase she "became American" and "lived for today" (175-76).  Of course, when her past as Jyoti catches up with her, she darts off to Iowa and is renamed again.  Jane Ripplemeyer seems perfect for her, she revels in the luxury that is the dullness of Elsa County, Iowa.  As readers, we cannot help but think that she really is not happy.  Is this really all that she wanted out of life?  It cannot be.  Jane doesn't fit.
It is not until the concluding pages of the novel that Jasmine finally chooses for herself.  She is forced to decide which identity she wants to embrace, seemingly for good.  Jyoti and Jane seem to be aligned:  a caregiver lifestyle.  Jasmine and Jase live for love.  Jasmine realizes "I have already stopped thinking of myself as Jane.  Adventure, risk, transformation: the frontier is pushing indoors through un-caulked windows.  Watch me re-position the stars, I whisper to the astrologer..." (240).  We have come full circle, back to the girl we knew at the beginning of the book.  She has chosen for herself which life she wants to live, which name she wants to take, and we are left with the impression that it is the best decision.

The Homeland that She Is

Jasmine/Jazzy/Jase/Jane (from here on I will call her 'J') not only carried her own homeland within her from each place she leaves and to each place she goes; she also creates her homeland in the process. I can identify with this, in some significant ways (significant to me, at least).
Here's my own 'Jasmine' story, the short version. I left a pretty angry home to go to University of Maryland on a full scholarship in 1998. By the end of September, I realized I was pregnant. My high school boyfriend and I had ended our relationship on friendly terms at the end of the summer, since I was going to college. After I called to tell him, I never heard from him again. In the meantime, I had met a guy in grad school that was pursuing me pretty strongly and needless to say, with everything else going on, I wasn't very interested. However, when I confided in him, he jumped at the oppertunity to be my knight in shining armour. I realized later, too late, that he was actually very manipulative and liked having such a vulnerable young girl to take advantage of...
When I went home at Christmas, I told my parents. They pulled me out of College Park, and tried their best to keep me away from the older guy. They even went so far as to call the car in stolen when I was going to spend the night with my best friend because they believed that I was actually going to spend the night with older guy. They left me in jail for a week (6 months pregnant), telling me they wouldn't get me out until I promised not to see the older guy. I was able to get a friend to contact him, and older guy came and bailed me out. I called an ad in the paper for adoptions and within 24 hours we were on a plane to Baton Rouge, LA. For two years, my parents never knew where I had gone or what happened to me.
I gave my daughter up for adoption but was overcome with depression. It may sound totally contrary and futile, but the birth of my son, Gregory, a year later (2000) was what saved me and brought me back to life. I had a purpose, and I came back so much stronger. I began to cause problems with the older guy, Gregory's father, because once he had me alone and isolated he had become very controlling and emotionally abusive and was beginning to be physically abusive. He also drank more than I thought was possible.
Soon after Gregory's birth, we came back to Maryland but moved to Baltimore. I eventually called my parents and we started to heal our relationship. Less than a month after 9/11, I filed for a protective order and custody and had older guy removed from our apartment, our lease, my life. In January, I went back to school, community college. I lived on my own, then with my sister. I made friends, I went out every now and then. I was returning to life, normal life. Two years later, I rec'd grants from Loyola and started there as a full time student. I was a part time nanny for 2 families and my son and I were able to get by, and we were happy. In August 2004, just before my senior year was to start, I was diagnosed with diabetes. I had been very sick all summer, I'd had to quit my job and could hardly take care of Gregory. So, I had no money saved up for the semester and I was struggling with this huge life change and trying to get my health back and my blood sugar under control. I tried to make it through the last year by striking a deal with Gregory's dad: he could move in with me if he would pay the bills and let me finish school. Needless to say, I had to withdraw from Loyola pretty early in the semester, and I applied for a FT position with the college in order to be able to take a class a semester for free during my lunch break. Which I did for 3 1/2 years. I rarely dated, my sister had moved to Florida for her college, and I had 1 or 2 good friends. My parents had gotten divorced and were still pretty distant. In 2006, I met an incredible man, Dave; a man that treated me mostly as an equal, sometimes as a goddess. And he is the complement to me, we are a better team that I ever imagined I'd be part of, having formed my whole identity around being independent and single and self-sufficient. He provided gentle incentives and then stood back and let me dismantle that identity myself, at my own pace. In January 2008, I applied for grants to go FT and graduate because I only had 4 classes left and my capstone paper. I also applied to go to Montpellier for a one month study abroad (something I had wanted to do every year at Loyola and was finally able to). Then, in February I found out I was pregnant.
What to do? I loved this man, and I wanted this baby; but should I refuse the grants and cancel the Montpellier trip, lose the deposit. No, Dave said, we can make this work, you can do this. And so I am.

But I understand her journey. How she allowed other people to define her, sometimes for good sometimes for bad. I understand how she used other people to shape her identity. I recognized the people who helped her in similar people I have encountered who, along the way, added little pieces to who I have become and who have enabled me to make it as far as I have. I couldn't have done it without them (excuse the cliche). But despite all the help, all the coincidences and fortuitous chances, and despite all the times my life seemed out of my control; the course has always been set by me. My will has always been leading me, forcing me, toward my dreams, my goals. Even when the choices were hard; heartbreaking, even.
I think, if I ever write a book about my life (narcissistic, I know ;-), I will use Jasmine as a source. I think I understand why she didn't go in chronological order, as I just did - it would really be too much at once. You need to soften the horrible with the happy times, and put the desperate moments in perspective with happy memories. Life should be remembered that, and it should have a happy ended, created by you, as Jasmine creates hers.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Medicine in Kisses in the Nederends

Kisses in the Nederends is far and away the funniest book that we have read this semester. Hau’ofa employs a few comic tools to great effect in his novel. These include gross exaggerations, ridiculous conversations, situations, and portrayals of people and most importantly- the actual subject matter. Hau’ofa managed to write an entire book about someone’s ass and its gaseous discharges. On the surface this seems like it is an incredibly shallow and off-color topic but upon closer examination, we can see that it is anything but that.

Satire is the name of the game when it comes to talking about Kisses in the Nederends. Hau’ofa used Oilei’s condition to draw attention sociological norms and expectations. Discussion of the anus is normally relegated either to strictly medical matters or as inside jokes amongst friends. Dedicating an entire novel to it on the other hand is unheard of, and many would consider it risqué. In this sense Hau’ofa is using the topic to shock his audience with something that is ordinarily considered taboo. By doing this, and by doing it in such a hilarious way, he is able to bring up some very serious issues that would otherwise raise a bunch of contention.

The most notable issue that was brought up and that popped out to me was at the end of the novel with the anal transplant. Clearly because of the tenor of the book, medicine is a continuous subject. There is the issue of traditional medicine versus Western medicine. “I don’t need your help. If I want help I’ll go to the hospital. I hate bush medicine.” (p. 10) But even when Oilei went to the hospital, their resources were not up to par. His pills were expired because, although they practiced western medicine in the hospitals, they were not able to get things that we take for granted in the United States.

These issues made me begin to think about how lucky we are in our homeland to have access to such good medical care- medical care that is governed by strict ethics. This is not to say that the doctors portrayed in Kisses in the Nederends are not ethical but it just got me thinking about United States medicine versus other countries. We never have to worry about pills that we get in a pharmacy being expired or a lack of proper equipment or training. The anal transplant also had me thinking about organ transplants. "Sister Agnes, go to the Spare Parts Chamber and fetch an appropriate anus." (p. 146)

My father is a doctor and went over to China to teach the Chinese medical society about using artificial valves and other artificial equipment instead of just using human heart transplants. He is a very conscientious surgeon as well as a Catholic, and during his trip to China he witnessed some appalling scenes. When citizens in China are convicted of a crime, the authorities do blood tests. Even if the citizen was guilty of only a speeding ticket, if their blood matches that of someone on donor lists that are closed except to those with a lot of money, they are charged with a capital crime and executed. My dad said that at the prisons the prisoners are lined up and right after the firing squad finishes, ambulances and doctors rush to the bodies to harvest the organs for transplantation.

In the United States we have strict ethics regarding organ harvesting and donation. People must declare that they want to give their organs after their death, and even if someone is brain dead, a panel of doctors must meet on an ethical board to decide when to pull the plug, and if it is appropriate to use the organs. As citizens of the United States, we are incredibly lucky to have access to such ethical institutions. We had no control over the place of our birth and our lot in life is so much better because of the medical resources available to us versus other countries like China, or the imaginary island of Hau’ofa’s Kisses in the Nederends.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Potiki Homelands

Last summer I sailed to the South Pacific and island-hopped throughout French Polynesia. Since I had taken French throughout high school and my freshman year of college, I was actually able to talk to the locals whereas the rest of my crew was relegated to finding English speakers and just converse with them. This attempt of mine to meet locals and experience the culture actually led me into several different adventures with a newly acquired friend, Heimanu. While I am not going to share all of those adventures for brevity’s sake, as well as class appropriateness- there are a few encounters that stand out in my mind, especially while I read Patricia Grace’s novel, Potiki.

Potiki, as we all know, is a story about Pacific Islander culture. More specifically it is a story about the Tamihana family lands, and that family’s attempts to stick to their traditions and stories in the midst of development, foreign investment, tourism, and modern business. To the outsider their customs and traditions appear antiquated and quaint, but to the Tamihanas, nothing could be further from the truth. They are not worried about quickly evolving to keep pace with the outside world. Their culture is a conservative one, in which the stories of the ancestors and tradition have acted as an anchor to help them weather the roughest of storms. They approach each new problem with the same stoic, immovable mindset that allows them to survive. Their culture is set apart from Western culture in that they see a more cyclical pattern to history. The current adversity has a new face and may seem like it is far and away the largest problem yet to face the Tamihanas, but each epoch has its own struggles and they each seem to be insurmountable. However, if one approaches the problem in this cyclical manner, then each problem is just that- an additional problem that needs to be sorted out and then life will go on- just stay anchored to the traditions and everything will eventually work itself out.

It is hard for a modern reader, or a reader that has not been steeped in that culture, to understand. Westerners have such a linear view to history and life, that it is hard for us to even empathize with others like the Tamihanas. A quote that sprung out to me that really encapsulates this idea can be found on page 108. “Poverty is destructive too. But we did not have real poverty. We had homes and enough good food, or nearly always enough. We had people and land and a good spirit, and work that was important to us.” This quote brings me back to the sailing trip that I took to the French Polynesias and my experience with their culture.

Because I managed to speak some French and find a few local friends, I got to see a completely different side to their culture. I got a glimpse of the non-Western side. For four days I was the guest of my friend Heimanu and a family that had adopted him in his teens. In looking at their house, many would instantly think of slums and poverty. They lacked air-conditioning or heating, they lacked glass windows, tiled floors, etc. This family only had one small “icebox” to keep leftovers from the meal the night before. But after living with them for some time, I realized that there could not be a happier family in the world.

This family did not buy into the Western consumer culture. South Pacific island life, from what I saw, could be considered one of subsistence, but not in a derogatory way. Only one person out of the entire extended family (roughly 25 people) had a “job” in the Western sense. The others helped out around the house and the family lands, went fishing in the lagoon or just beyond the reef, trained fighting cocks or pit bulls for local amusement, or helped out with the crops that were being grown- not for sale but for the family to eat. The quote from Potiki really sums up the experience that I had while staying with the family. The people are not constantly worried about trivial things. Instead they have put things in perspective, seen what the world has to offer, and decided to live a simpler life. This simple life, from everything I could tell, has made these people some of the happiest and nicest I have ever met. They did not hesitate to give anything that they had to offer, provide lodgings for sleeping, and even incorporated me into the family life for the few days that I was there. Basically every trait that is brought up in Potiki to describe the Tamihana family was echoed in the family that I stayed with. And upon returning to the United States, I was in a bit of culture shock. Our fast-paced way of life is so much different from island-culture, that it is no wonder there are vast misunderstandings and even an inability connect the two sides.

A final quote from Potiki illustrates this point well. “I saw what he saw. What he saw was brokenness, a broken race. He saw in my Granny, my Mary and me, a whole people, decrepit, deranged, deformed. That was what I knew. That was when I understood, not only the thoughts of the man, but also I understood the years of hurt, sorrow, and enslavement that fisted within my Granny Tamihana’s heart. I understood, all at once, all the pain that she held inside her small and gentle self.” (p. 102)

Thursday, March 19, 2009

A Challenge

Rushdie’s collection of short stories seems to send something to the reader that previous stories lack: a challenge. His stories are humorous, yes, and they express unique opinions about the postcolonial situation of the Indian region, but to the reader a choice is offered in every story, the point of which is to cause one to form one’s own opinions on home and what makes a home valuable.
In East, West, each story offers its own different dilemma. “Good Advice” addresses the issue of immigration, a subject of obvious importance to the author who was forced to emigrate, never given the option to stay. While clearly condemning the seemingly irrational desire to emigrate, one must ponder the irony of the situation: for Rushdie, forced exile from his home has clearly shaped him as a person and given him experiences which have formed him to be the writer and man he is today. While this was forced on him, as the saying goes he played the hand he was dealt in life as best he could. “Advice” frowns on those who would abandon the good things of their homeland for the intangible “promise” of a better life in a rich, Western world, but the reader must take into consideration the idea that perhaps home is something one chooses for oneself rather than a place one is born. Rushdie could have easily chosen to attempt to live on in the Indian region underground, yet he adapted to his situation and followed the direction life chose to guide him in.
Following this dilemma is “The Free Radio” which also presents the reader with a confusing choice: was the young man successful in pursuing his dreams? Was the old man cynical to the very end, refusing to accept the success of a hopeful dreamer, or was he correct to condemn the delusions of a fool? Forcing the reader to choose between various outcomes tricks the reader into pondering the consequences of having faith in a seemingly hopeless situation. From this another irony is introduced: should one simply accept the way things are and roll with the punches, or fight against them and chase after a higher ideal? Rushdie seems to imply in this ambiguous ending that both are possible and that the line between hope and delusion is a blurry one indeed.
Truly a reader is challenged by the anthology presented by Rushdie in the sense that each story, while representing a certain fictional situation, is very plausible and illustrates a general point applicable to all: home and what one makes of it is never a black-and-white matter, with all manner of implications in every way one chooses to make of their situation in life.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Fact & Fiction

I felt as if the narration in Rushdie’s “West” section of East, West, questions the validity of the past and how it has been presented to us in the present. An important point is raised: “I offer no defense, but this: that these matters are shrouded in antiquity, and there’s no certainty in them; so let the versions of the story co-exist, for there’s no need to choose” (81). Are we to believe everything we read in history books? What is the line between fiction and non-fiction? Is there room for supposition?

In “Yorick,” Rushdie uses a common literary approach with his reinvention of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, as he enlivens the classic story in his own personalized manner. The narrator is very conversational and does not adhere to conventional means of plot or structure, as he criticizes and relives the famous tragedy: “…I interrupt myself, for there occurs to me a discordant Note: would any man, awakened from deepest slumber by the arrival on his back of a seven-year-old princeling, truly retain such a command of metaphor and classical allusion as is indicated by the text?” (67). The narrator questions the logic behind Shakespeare’s poetic style and literary genius, as he debunks the reality of Shakespeare’s fiction. Rushdie’s narrator spends a great deal of time with back-story and supposition, as he develops Shakespeare’s characters (for example, commanding that the Jester must have had a wife). Rushdie’s story does not strictly adhere to the original, as he glosses over what “the text” describes: “O, **********!, let me say the text begins to ramble, listing in gruesome detail all the crimes committed by the prince against the jester’s person” (71). He editorializes “a most lamentable lack of brevity, which we shall rectify here without delay” (71). Rushdie inserts comedy into the tragedy of Hamlet.

In “At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers,” the narrator and other bidders irrationally invest their own ideals and ideas of the past onto Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers. This will inescapably create a gap between what is real and what has been imagined—just as the narrator discovers his relationship with Gale: “I am aware that, after all these years of separation and non-communication, the Gale I adore is not entirely a real person. The real Gale has become confused with my re-imagining of her, with my private elaboration of our continuing life together in an alternative universe devoid of ape-men. The real Gale may by now be beyond our grasp, ineffable" (96).

It is that blend of fact with fiction that can create enlarged disparities between dream and reality, and "The permeation of the real world by the fictional is a symptom of the moral decay of our post-millennial culture" (94), which gives us a distorted image of ourselves and what we aim to accomplish. "Home has become such a scattered, damaged, various concept in out present travails. There is so much to yearn for. There are so few rainbows any more. How hard can we expect even a pair of magic shoes to work? They promised to take us home, but are metaphors of homeliness comprehensible to them, are abstractions permissible? Are they literalists, or will they permit us to redefine the blessed word? Are we asking, hoping for, too much?” (93). I think the definition of “Home” can become too idealized and too romanticized for our own good, especially when reflecting on the past. Such idealization brings falsities to what can be achieved. But without hope, what is there?
When Epeli Hau’ofa introduces readers to his main character, Oilei Bomboki, with his poofpoof “explosions” that sound “like a startled motorcycle being kicked into life,” we are immediately taken aback (1). Then it hits us: this is a novel that completely revolves around the condition of one man’s behind. Hau’ofa really is going there. Pages later, the shock factor begins to wear off as we find ourselves more and more comfortable, or perhaps just less sensitive to, discussion of Oilei’s anus and its various ailments including farts, boils, pus, and blood. Though we may repeatedly ask ourselves if the author is simply playing a joke on us, we keep reading and discover that amidst the profanity and graphic descriptions Hau’ofa has embedded much larger social issues. He gives us a humorous portrait of a rapidly changing society. In Kisses in the Nederends, Hau’ofa forces readers to face an uncomfortable issue, and in doing so proves that the most difficult and painful societal issues, the ones we don’t talk about, must be attacked head-on.

The eventual cure for Oilei’s anal ailment seems disturbing and ridiculous. It involves a group of people “kicking, rolling, grinding, and pirouetting, demonstrating some of the most strikingly beautiful combinations of classical ballet and breakdance movements” as well as the same group actually lining up and kissing each other’s “nederends” (149). Of this cure, Babu says:

“It is only when you are able to lovingly and respectfully kiss your own anus, and those of your fellow human beings, that you will know you have purified yourself of all obscenities and prejudices, and have overcome your worst fears and phobias. You will then be able to see with utmost clarity the true nature of beauty, which is the essence of the unity and equality of all things” (101).
It is clear that Hau’ofa does not think that we can solve all the world’s problems by literally kissing one another’s anuses, but I think he is making a profound point about pain, beauty, fears, and phobias. Part of what makes us human is our penchant for either ignoring or hiding away anything that frightens us or makes us uncomfortable. This includes personal phobias, but also larger issues that might be painful, ugly, or daunting. These hidden and unspeakable problems will never go away if they are hidden and ignored. They must be confronted, we must face them, in order to solve and banish them once and for all. Once we face the ugliness in the world, we will be able to truly see and appreciate the “beauty...unity and equality of all things” (101). By facing one topic we are loath to discuss, Hau’ofa illustrates that certain injustices and wrongs could be solved, if we only had the guts to face them.

Hau’ofa brilliantly manipulates humor convey his message in Kisses in the Nederends. It is satire, or humor with a purpose, which targets every group represented in the novel and makes us both laugh and cringe while reading. The author addresses a taboo shamelessly, and forces us to interpret our discomfort and laughter. By forcing us to confront a subject we would much rather avoid, Hau’ofa proves that certain unspeakable or ignored issues would be better cured through straight-talk, discussion, and facing them head on than through avoidance and secrecy.

Tensions: Past and Present, East and West

In this novel, Rushdie uses stories both to characterize the differences between cultures and values of the East and West and to reveal how interconnected the two parts of the world actually are. All of the stories that we read for today have something in common: each in some way embodies a tension between past and present, or tradition and progress. This tension actually works as a bridge between the two section of the novel which differ greatly in tone and the structure and style of the stories presented. It also allows Rushdie to criticize the values and lifestyles in the East and West simultaneously.

In the stories of the East the hardships of life in India are central and intertwine with the struggle between tradition and progress in this section, a theme we explored the last time we visited India in Love and Longing in Bombay. In his first story Good Advice is Rarer Than Rubies for example, Rushdie give us a character (Miss Rehana) who seems to prefer the struggles of her home country to the unknown life that waits for her in England. Muhammad Ali, a character representative of modern India, sets aside his conning lifestyle and tries to help Miss Rehana leave the country; he believes she will be better off with her fiancé and he considers it to be a tragedy when she tells him with happiness on her face that she will be staying. At first this seems like the misguided decision of a naïve girl but I got the impression that Miss Rehana was not as naïve as Muhammad assumed her to be. She may have even used his honest advice to ensure her rejection from the Consulate.

The other two stories in this section also seem to favor the more traditional view of the country to modern India, though Rushdie certainly demonstrates the difficulties with both sides of the argument. The narrator in the second story criticizes the choices that his friend Ramani makes. He considers Ramani to be too idealistic and naïve in his confidence in modern India, both in his choice to have a vasectomy and to move to Bombay and be a movie star. But Rushdie also questions the merit of traditional India with in The Prophet’s Hair where a return to the strict customs of Islam put a strain on the moneylender’s secularized and independent family and leads rapidly to their downfall. But is the more traditional way of life truly responsible for the carnage at the end of the story? I think it is Hashim’s greed, an effect of his position in the modern world, that brings the “curse” of the Prophet’s hair on his family. The modern lifestyle seems completely incompatible with the more tradition that the relic represents, and this tension allows the horror of the story to unfold. The stories in this section seem to favor traditional India in the instead of the changing and unstable climate of modern India but Rushdie raises questions about the wisdom of this choice.

Rushdie’s tone drastically changes in the section on the West. These stories are more humorous and Rushdie breaks out of the traditional form of storytelling that he employs in the first part of the novel with narration that is more dynamic and often involves conversations with his readers. But the tension between the past and present is just as prevalent in the stories about the West as it was in the first part of the novel. Here the stories seem to favor progress over the traditions and values of the past. We see this through Rushdie’s criticism and “revamping” of traditional staples of Western culture like Hamlet, The Wizard of Oz, and Columbus’ voyage to America. He demonstrated the tendency in Western culture to “never, never, NEVER! Be satisfied by the possession of the Known” (116). We are constantly changing and searching for the unknown. But Rushdie’s dark sense of humor makes us question what we are losing in pursuit of progress and the unknown. Do we feel guilty leaving the past behind, or using it for profit?

Rushdie’s stories and the different manifestations of the tension between tradition and progress these sections allow him to criticize both of the cultures equally. The two completely different cultures are bonded in the novel through this tension and Rushdie’s criticisms of both cultures –something that only a multi-cultural author like Rushdie could accurately show us. His ability to look honestly at the positive and negative aspects of both cultures transcends his ties to any one place.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Humor of a Fool is Never Lost in Translation

Salman Rushdie’s East, West is unique among the texts that we have covered so far in that much of it actually does occur in the West. It merges stories that involve Western culture and stories that involve Eastern culture. Some of the tales incorporate famous characters from history and literature, like Columbus and Hamlet. Others merely involve artifacts like Muhammad’s hair (I suppose Rushdie has nothing to lose here, already under a fatwa). He picks events, characters, and customs so particular to each culture. However, even before he merges East and West in the latter half of the book, Rushdie is already blending them seamlessly through his satire of basic flaws in human nature. Flaws like greed or over-weaning naivety persist in every culture, and he continues this satirical thread as a means of weaving a unity between stories.

Rushdie shows partiality to neither culture as he lampoons the greed and ignorance of many of the characters in his stories. Hashima with the endless rationalization of his usury manages to convince himself that he is doing society a good by pocketing the coveted relic of Muhammad. Characteristically, the religious revival he experiences under the influence of the hair (forcing Huma to cover herself, praying five times daily, etc.) does not lead him to follow the Shari’ah any closer in regards to his treatment of his debtors. Eventually, the relic is closely guarded in a shrine. For all the death it caused, it is essentially of value to no one, sitting in its vault.

Rushdie continues this theme of greed for an object that value is arbitrarily assigned to. He carries the theme into a Western story, “At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers.” The price of the ruby slippers (interestingly taking after the movie, not the silver shoes of the book. Perhaps this is to parallel the Indian story, “Advice is Rarer than Rubies”) which may or may not hold an actual value, are driven outrageously high at auction. The narrator, possibly the only person to whom the slippers hold a personal value, is driven out of the bidding by people who do not seem to know what the slippers actually are. Since they are unaware of the shoes’ actual function, the value comes from the greed the others have for them. The narrator parallels this to the story of the edible panties, over which a similar bidding war was launched (ignorant of the stockpile of panties that exists). Rushdie portrays the basic human nature of greed, common to both stories and cultures.

Ironically, Rushdie has a far crueler time mocking the naïve than the greedy. While not an evil human nature, Rushdie lays into these naïve characters for their stupidity. He creates such a pathos inducing character in Ramani the Rickshaw-Wallah (a famous profession associated with the East). The poor man seems to have absolutely no grasp on human nature. He is manipulated by the thief’s widow and holds out a pathetic hope for his radio. The radio represents the fact that he has taken up the ultimate emasculation in order please others, heedless of his own wants.

Rushdie then makes the bold choice to satire Columbus, a hero of Western culture. He portrays him as naïve, fawning after Isabella, despite the mockery and abuse he is met with. Columbus blindly pursues “consummation” (a clever twist of words, as he is literally being consumed by his desire for her favor). He relegates a character, usually portrayed as noble in Western literature, to the humiliation of pig sties. Again, a man suffers emasculation in pursuit of an immature fantasy.

Rushdie takes heed to keep the tone consistent in these stories. While the settings may be diverse, the humor with which they are presented, and the types of human nature are analogous. Much like Rushdie who is a “translated man,” the stories merge two vastly different cultures.

Truths and Fictions

In the first half of East, West, Salman Rushdie weaves the theme of truth and fiction throughout his stories. In each tale, characters grapple with the potential dangers of these concepts. The situations in “East” seem to prove that while truth may have merits, fiction’s illusions may offer more happiness. Miss Rehana and Muhammad Ali debate whether truthful or deceitful methods will yield better results in her visa application. Ultimately, though the reader admires Rehana’s honesty, it proves fruitless. The narrator of “The Free Radio” pities Ram’s false hope, but he admires the confidence and happiness that youthful illusion provided Ram in the face of harsh reality. “The Prophet’s Hair” shows the danger of excessive honesty when, in an attempt to end hypocrisy, he spews “awful truths” that devastate his family (45). The “West” stories, in turn, emphasize the dangers of fiction: misunderstanding and falsehood lead to ghosts and murders in “Yorick,” while the embellishment of the tale of Christopher Columbus shows the intrigue of the imagined unknown. Each story presents a perspective that challenges the reader to question the tenability of a world with either too much truth or too much fiction.
Rushdie particularly emphasizes this theme in “At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers.” The narrator muses that the word “home” has no reality behind it anymore. This illusion tempts people of all walks of life to bid for the opportunity to return to it, though it may not even exist. Fantasies, such as a literary character who participates in the auction and the narrator’s dream relationship with Gale, border dangerously on reality. The speaker observes, “This permeation of the real world by the fictional is a symptom of the moral decay of our post-millennial culture” (94). In the final stages of the auction, the narrator achieves a blissful state of detachment from reality. He calls this the process of coming under the grip of fiction, which poses great danger as it frees people of all inhibitions and desires. Ultimately, this story claims, one must constrain fiction from encroaching too far on reality. Rushdie’s images of “East” and “West” propose a tension between truth and fiction that both mistrusts and values both. This stance underscores the necessity of the author’s role in the culture as a voice that provides a candid view of society while using the hope-inspiring vehicle of fiction.

Beautiful Women in East,West

In “East, West” by Salman Rushdie the collection of short stories “Good Advice is Rarer Than Rubies”, “The Free Radio”, and “The Prophet’s Hair”,all portray beautiful women in different ways ranging from an independent yet naïve beauty to a woman perceived to destroy and control all of the men around her.
In “Good Advice is Rarer Than Rubies” the character Miss Rehana is described as a beautiful, confident independent woman. Unlike the other woman who are waiting outside the Consulate, Miss Rehana is confident, and does not look timid or afraid. The fact that the speaker is drawn to her is surprising because he usually goes after the intimidated and vulnerable, but he finds himself drawn to her eyes and her beauty. While at first he plans on deceiving her, because of her beauty and confidence he ends up telling her the truth. “But once again his voice betrayed him, and instead of starting his customary speech it began to reveal to her his greatest secret.” (p.11). In this particular story, the woman’s beauty helped her to hear the truth, but the beauty of her soul and her inability to break the law left her empty handed. This story portrayed beauty as an asset, as it brought out the good in a corrupt man. “Old fool, he berated himself. The oldest fools are bewitched by the youngest girls” (p.11)
Moving away from this positive portrayal of beauty, the story “The Free Radio” portrays the lead woman at first as the root of a young man’s destruction, but in the end we see the young man’s pride and dreams has the cause of his destruction. The first description of the widow by the speaker describes her as “certainly attractive, no point denying, in a sort of hard vicious way she was all right, but it is her mentality that was rotten” The diction of the words “vicious” and “rotten” depict what the speaker believes to be her eternal character which is masked by her outward beauty. He believes that she is the reason why Ramani is following down a bad path and claims that through her beauty and temptation because of that beauty has made Ramani into a thief. “…to understand that the thief’s widow had turned him, before she married him, into a thief of a stupid and terrible kind, because she had made him rob himself.” (p.28) Here the speaker describes her beauty as turning Ramani against himself, robbing him of his future, his manhood, and his identity.
Contrary to this depiction of women, in the following story “The Prophet’s Hair” the main female character Huma is described as an “exceptional beauty” (p.37) as she is covered in bruises and in a bad part of town searching for a thief. Unlike the other stories, her beauty works for her as she takes control of her family’s destiny. It is because of her character, bravery, and strength that she is able to attempt to save her family. Her plan would have worked had it not been for her brother’s screams. In this story all of the evil characters are men, who abuse and under appreciate the women. She is a confident young girl who stands up to her father and the conventions of her religion and culture.
In these three stories, the women are described as beautiful, and that beauty greatly affects how their characters are perceived either negatively or positively. While women are portrayed as strong beautiful figures who have a commanding role over the men in the stories. While portrayed as rational, they are underestimated in their intelligence and ability to make correct decisions. All of the stories are told from the point of view of an older man, which also may play a role in the depiction of women. It causes one to think...how much of ones identity is wrapped up in ones appearance, or ones sex? How often do we judge or underestimate or misunderstand people for the way they look?