All posts by Cindy Ma

Hearts and Brains – Humanity in Times of Crisis

In class we talked a little bit about the zombie apocalypse as a metaphor and the way it can be replaced by any other disaster. We also asked whether World War Z is an anti-empathy novel or a pro-human factor novel. I would like to discuss the two questions in tandem – in other words, while the zombie apocalypse can serve as a metaphor for natural disaster, pandemic, or war, I think we also need to read it as a specifically zombie war. In the case of this war the enemy that humans face is something that is fundamentally inhuman though it takes on the, albeit mangled, form of a human.

If we are superficially comparing the anatomies of humans and zombies we can reduce the most essential parts of each entity into the heart and the brain respectively. In WWZ, some emotions are expressed in relation to the heart. Kondo Tatsumi expresses surprise or realization as “something that almost stopped [his] heart” (216); Saladin Kader describes his excitement as a heart that is “about to burst” (43); Father Sergei Ryzhkov describes a “tingling sensation that began to work its way up through [his] heart and lungs” (297). On the other hand, zombies rely solely on brains to function; it is the “only measurable difference between us and “The Undead”” (35). Max Brooks depicts a scenario where the consequences of ‘heartlessness’ or inhumanity are hyper-violence, brutality and aggression, suggesting that without human empathy we will quite literally eat ourselves into extinction. Thus, it is important to note that the fear propagated in the novel is not one for a general apocalypse, but one that is specifically directed at zombies, or in other words it is a fear directed at the possibility of humans existing without their humanity.

At the same time, Brooks posits that in order to win war it is necessary for a group of people to take on attributes of their enemy. In the Robben Island section, the interviewee describes the Redeker plan, an “eminently logical but insidiously dark” (109) plan that was formulated by Paul Redeker, a man of “no feelings, no compassion, no heart” (110). The plan was so brutal that Redeker was psychologically unable to live with the identity that created it post-war but was also necessary and was adapted by several other countries during the war. Or, in the interview at Odessa, Bohdan describes the use of chemical weapons to wipe out large groups of people as a way to differentiate/separate the infected from the others (120). In order to eliminate the zombies and to prevent the further spreading of infection, the military not only ‘heartlessly’ killed the uninfected but also did so using a weapon that is prohibited by international law for being inhumane. Thus, Brooks presents in WWZ the paradox of humans fearing the loss of their humanity but simultaneously needing to shed their humanity in order to confront the enemy that threatens their humanity.

If war is an act that diminishes humanity, then the narrator/interviewer’s writing becomes a way to regain the lost humanity – to re-incorporate the ‘human factor’ into the history. To return to the question of whether WWZ is an anti- or pro-empathy novel, I interpret the novel to be pro-humanity. Though humanity may be necessarily shed, it seems the interviewer feels that in the end it is essential for humans to return to their ‘default’ state of intimacy, feelings, and opinions.

Another thing I noticed about the novel was the ambiguity of the distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’. We discussed in class about how, despite having a common enemy, humans would still turn against each other and sometimes those that do the most damage to humankind are the people trying to save it. Several times throughout the novel we see interviewees use the pronoun “they” or “them” as opposed to specifying exactly which party they are referring to. For instance in the dialogue between the interviewer and Breck Scott, Scott says “…that’s what they said it was, right, just some weird strain of jungle rabies… You know, “they”, like the UN or the…somebody” (56). In this case it is ambiguous just exactly who is propagating lies or withholding truths. In the section with Mary Jo Miller, the interviewee describes how a neighbor always referred to everything that’s happening as “them” (65). In this case, the pronoun is used to describe the general state of society. Lastly, Maria Zhuganova describes “they” as “everyone: [her] officers, the Military Police, even a plain-clothed civilian” (77).

This ambiguity of “they” results in an ambiguity of who exactly the enemy is. This is also shown in the title of the novel “World War Z”, which is curiously not the moniker that the narrator/interviewer prefers for the disaster (“The Zombie War”). The title connotes the two other ‘World Wars’, wars between countries and between humans. Thus, in titling the book “World War Z” the author not only indicates that what occurred is a zombie war but also that it is a ‘World War’, a global war between nations.

The Harmony of Substance and Existence in Solo

I have been having trouble trying to parse what Dasgupta is trying to saying about substance and existence. In the novel there are a lot of oppositional but harmonious forces: music and chemistry, daydreams and life, politics and reality, memory and history etc. I am going to allocate the former elements to the classification of ‘existence’ and the latter to ‘substance’. Dasgupta seems to be suggesting that there is existence outside of substance*, which is clear when you consider the scope of the novel and how it focuses on the personal life of Ulrich rather than historical events of Bulgaria. Often, life events are stored or established in relation to historical events. In other words, we tend to store a memory (existence) against a physical date/year/setting (substance) or a concrete, recognized event – for instance, I will always remember the third grade in relation to the SARS outbreak in China. As Ulrich says in the novel: “Life happens in a certain place for a certain time. But there is a great surplus left over, and where will we stow it but in our dreams” (303). The only parts of existence that become significant are the parts that overlap with substance, but there are aspects of existence that don’t “happen in a certain place” at a “certain time” and if they aren’t made to converge with substance then they are lost. So  if even within an individual there is more than a ‘single story’, to borrow Adichie’s phrase, is Dasgupta emphasizing the importance of recounting multiple stories or is he proposing that one is superior to the other?

In discussion today Prof. Brown posited the question of what this novel means for the study of history and IR. I think Dasgupta views history or historical writing as an access way to ‘truth’ as rather futile. He writes: “The friction of Ulrich’s memory, moving back and forth over the surface of his life, wears away all the detail – and the story becomes more bland each time” (68). In a way, after a certain amount of time, after a certain amount of digestion and re-digestion, history becomes fictionalized because it is so removed from reality. In postmodernism there is the concept of the ‘simulacra’, which are copies of things that no longer have an original. History becomes a simulacrum in that the original had at one point existed but we can never regain the original and we only have access to simulations/recreations of the original. Also, if we look at the way Sofia was described in the novel we find that it too is a simulacrum: “They studied Berlin and Paris to find out what was required, and all of it – cathedral, tramway, university, royal palace, science museum, national theatre, national assembly – they re-created faithfully in Sofia” (10). (On the topic of history being mediated, there was an opinions piece in The New York Times about how the nuances of language in a Texas history textbook affects how history is taught which may be of interest).

In regards to the question of studying history and IR, I don’t really have an answer. Dasgupta seems to suggest that there is more significance in the personal story rather than the historical. But I don’t think the future of ‘History’ is bleak because substance and existence are codependent and harmonious, and you can’t have history or memory without the other. Ulrich creates music, but he is only able to with the chemistry of his body. History is created through retelling, and retelling is only possible with memory.

*About the word ‘substance’, I found this quote really interesting but I don’t really know how to interpret how the lack of ‘substance’ relates to ‘abject obedience’: “With these two whiteouts in Japan, everyone knew that humans had become entirely without substance, and henceforth there was only abject obedience” (88).

Some Notes on Writing in Americanah

Academic vs. vernacular

We discussed briefly in class today about discussions of race in an academic and personal manner. I believe Adichie’s conscious decision to include blog posts as a medium within her novel says something about discussing race in an academic versus everyday sphere OR comments on race discussions/ discussions about race in academic versus everyday spheres. Adichie’s protagonist Ifemelu emphasizes that she’s not an academic: she doubts her suitability for the Princeton fellowship; she is warmly greeted by Blaine’s friend Araminta who exclaims that she is “happy that [Ifemelu is] not an academic” (385); she finds that she does not “quite belong with [Blaine’s] friends”, who are professors. Ifemelu finds herself outside this insular circle of academics; she is more inclined to the personal. Adichie seems to pose the two sides against each other: Ifemelu against her foil, Blaine. Her blog posts represent a vernacular discourse about race and racism that is accessible to a mass public not only rhetorically but also tangibly through the internet. Blaine’s professor friends represent discourse between exclusive groups of academics.

I wonder what Adichie is saying about academia, the vernacular, and their functions or flaws. I am reminded of an article I read in the New Yorker about academic writing in which the author said: “Academic prose is, ideally, impersonal, written by one disinterested mind for other equally disinterested minds.” Academics write for a specific and small audience, often their language is inaccessible to the non-academic public and often they are distanced from their subject matter. At the same time, these fundamental characteristics of academic writing is needed to establish legitimacy or respectability. In contrast, Ifemelu’s blog is widely-read and populist, but I wonder if Adichie questions if that is enough when she writes through Blaine’s voice that Ifemelu’s writing doesn’t “push the boundaries” (387). So on the one hand, academic prose is inaccessible but is seen as legitimate, on the other hand, vernacular prose and personal writing is accessible but unauthoritative. And while Blaine, his friends, and his sister are depicted in an unfavorable way – pretentious and callous – we also don’t see Ifemelu’s blog exacting significant change in terms of racial equality and racial sensitivity, as seen in her account of the workshops and lectures she was invited to give.

So I wonder if Adichie is pushing fiction as the more effective alternative in discussing issues of race, since the two modes of non-fiction writing she depicts are both flawed.


I had an English teacher who told my class that whenever you come across an instant in a novel where characters are reading, writing, or talking about reading or writing, it will most often in a way be self-referential to the author’s own writing. Americanah revolves around a protagonist who writes a blog, who reads, who interacts with people writing books, etc., so it seems probably that some of these will relate back to Adichie’s authorial presence. In some instances, Adichie uses self-referential elements to transcend the limitations existing Black writers. For example, Blaine’s sister Shan says at one point: “Black writers who do literary fiction in this country…have two choices: they can do precious or they can do pretentious” (417). By including a statement like this, Adichie offers herself as a Black writer that is neither precious nor pretentious. She, through writing about the limited tracks of Black writers in Americanah, is able to be a Black writer who has more agency.

In other instances, Adichie seems to be preemptively defending herself from possible criticism about her own novel. At a gathering, Shan describes a discussion between her and her editor in regards to her including in her book an incident that was clearly racial: “So I put it in the book and my editor wants to change it because he says it’s not subtle” (416). By highlighting the ridiculousness of someone criticizing a piece of work for its lack of subtlety regarding racial issues, Americanah is able to avoid the same criticisms. By fictionalizing struggles that Black writers go through Adichie is able to transcend the same struggles.

An Algerian’s Iraq in The Sirens of Baghdad

At the very end of seminar yesterday we briefly touched on the topic of appropriation and the problems (or if there are any at all) of an Algerian author writing from the point-of-view of an Iraqi about Iraqi issues.

I happened to read an article titled “Is Cultural Appropriation Always Wrong?” in the New York Times Magazine today that quoted a Pakistani author Kamila Shamsie. Shamsie wrote in an essay for Guernica: ‘‘The moment you say a male American writer can’t write about a female Pakistani, you are saying, Don’t tell those stories. Worse, you’re saying: As an American male you can’t understand a Pakistani woman. She is enigmatic, inscrutable, unknowable. She’s other. Leave her and her nation to its Otherness. Write them out of your history.’’ This reminded me of a similar argument made by Simon During in his comparison of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. In brief, During writes that while Conrad’s depiction of Africans as cannibals and savages is largely inaccurate and offensive, it perhaps actually functions better than Coppola’s work which leaves the Vietnamese unrepresented. Coppola in not attempting to depict the Vietnamese is actually refusing them the right to exist, whereas Conrad acknowledges the Other. That is not to say that Heart of Darkness is an ideal in representing the Other, it is far from it, but a work of fiction/art recognizes its own limitations (as opposed to nonfiction that operates with the intention of portraying truth) and it perhaps functions not to necessarily provide an accurate portrayal of a culture but to provide a portrayal that then allows the reader to evaluate its value and limits.

In the case of The Sirens of Baghdad, the value of Khadra’s narrative is perhaps in its willingness to depict a previously underrepresented Other – a young jihadi. Near the end of the novel, there appears to be a meta-reference when the novelist Mohammed Seen talks to Dr. Jalal and says: [The Muslims need] someone capable of representing them, of expressing them in their complexity, of defending them in some way. Whether with the pen or with bombs, it makes little difference to them” (275). In a way, this could describe what Khadra attempts – allowing the Muslim identity to exist and assert itself without the violence involved in war.  

Khadra doesn’t function under a pretense that his character is full and complete. In fact, for much of the novel the protagonist appears to lack a clear identity. This fact was discussed in the seminar. The protagonist’s name is never mentioned, he lacks understanding, and he lacks an overarching vantage point of what is occurring. Because it is a first-person narrative, not omniscient, the reader is placed at the same tier of knowledge as the narrator, thus what the protagonist lacks in understanding, the reader does too. The reader is forced to come to terms with the fact that they, much like the narrator, don’t have a clear and complete picture of the conflict. The reader is aware that though they are given an image of the Other, it still lacks clarity or resolution, thus cannot be interpreted as a totality.

We also touched on the absence of the US in the novel. The GI’s appear briefly at the beginning of the book in Kafr Karam, but there are no fully-formed, three-dimensional characters like the Iraqi characters. In addition, apart from the action at the beginning of the novel where the GI’s shoot Sulayman, much of the conflict occurs between the Iraqis, between the two sides represented by Omar and Yaseen/Sayed respectively.Through the words of the character Mohammed Seen, Khadra writes: “The West is out of the race. It’s been overtaken by events. The battle, the real battle, is taking place among the Muslim elite… Today, our struggle is internal” (274-5). My lack of knowledge on the history of the Middle East prevents me from understanding what political stance that the author is taking here.  I wonder if parallels can be drawn between this war and the Korean War as viewed by revisionist historian Bruce Cumings who wrote that the Korean War was a civil war with deep historical roots in which the Americans had little reason to intervene in. In some Korean literature about the war (for instance The Guest by Hwang Sok-Yong), the US similarly hold minor roles and is mostly absent while the narrative focuses on the conflict between South and North Korean armies. I wonder what Khadra’s historical interpretation is of the war. If Khadra is criticizing American intervention, what else is he saying about atrocities committed by the Americans versus atrocities committed by the Iraqis?