All posts by Celina Stewart

Euphoria and the Permissions of Fiction

I loved meeting Lily King and having the opportunity to speak with her in class, at dinner, and hearing her responses to questions during the panel presentation. To me, this book allows for several different vectors of analysis: representation of the tribes in Papua New Guinea, ethical considerations of writing a fiction piece about historical figures, and the feminist questions presented throughout the book, including King’s treatment of sexuality, male fragility, and sexual relationships. I’d like to focus on the way which King approaches representation in this book, and the ways in which her genre permits certain representative strategies.

One of the main concerns I had before reading this book was the way a fiction writer would approach anthropology, native people, and an ‘exotic’ locale. I think my skepticism comes from the popular approach to lesser known areas of the world, especially areas like Papua New Guinea which still seem vaguely remote and ‘primitive’ to the average intellectual consumer. A short trip to Amazon.com shows this trend, judged by book titles alone. Best sellers on “Papua New Guinea History” include , “Savage Harvest, a tale of cannibals…” and “Three Worlds Gone Mad: Dangerous Journey” and my personal nominee for most problematic title at first glance, “Bastard of a Place.” At best (of the worst) these titles position the author, and to an extent, the reader, as ‘others’ and exotify Papua New Guinea. At worst, they paint Papua New Guinea as a challenge, a dangerous, cannibalistic locale. The overarching way in which these titles approach the complex, individual groups of people living in the area as one singular, ‘cannibal’ mass poses significant problems for any reader.

Fortunately, King largely avoids this in Euphoria. One reason I think this occurs is that King focuses much more on the ‘Western’  characters, and is allowed to make some problematic comments because she writes through the voice of a man who learned an outdated (now problematic) way of studying anthropology. This is clear when Bankson describes the differences between himself and Nell in their approaches to engaging the people they study. He says, “She was a chameleon, with a way of not imitating them but reflecting them. There seemed to be nothing conscious or calculated about it. I feared I’d never shake my Englishman Among Savages pose, despite the real respect I had come to feel for the Kiona” (King 119-120). This statement reflects the likely perception of Western anthropologists towards the indigenous of Papua New Guinea as savages. However, this descriptor is tempered by the honest admission of respect he feels for these individuals. For an audience unfamiliar with anthropology and interested in the story from the context of a historical fiction narrative, this scene wouldn’t merit further attention.

Further, the presentation of Nell as someone unwilling to engage in a zoological approach to studying other human beings shows a progressive outlook, perhaps shared by Margaret Mead (especially in public perception). Nell says, “I have no more right to the Kiona or the Tam or the Sepik River than any other anthropologist or man on the moon. I do no subscribe to this chopping up of the primitive world and parceling it out to people who may then possess it to the exclusion of all others” (King 124). Again, the terminology is antiquated and now would fall in the realm of questionable, especially by an anthropologist. However, the content and approach is poignant and powerful in that it shows a distinct humanist perspective. Nell’s approach to sexuality also paints her as a feminist, which likely engages female audiences of all ages.

To me, this book succeeds because it grapples with the topics of anthropological history, representation, and personhood from the genre of fiction. If this were touted as a scholarly piece, not only would it lack significance (for obvious reasons), it would require a fuller fleshing out of the history, significance, individual personalities, and the overall period approaches to self and ‘others’.

King stated during the panelist discussion that there is a ‘consolidation and concision of fiction’ in which the truth and reality are not necessarily the same thing. I feel that consolidation is an interesting way of nuancing a story and presenting it for an audience. King made it very clear that she tried to maintain the integrity of the real individual’s feelings, while also adopting them for her own purposes. The liberties of fiction allow her to do so while lessening the scrutiny of the subject and representation of the situations described.

Oddly, I think my inter text for this book is Nine Parts of Desire, a 1995 book by Geraldine Brooks, which attempts to describe and express the means by which Islamic women approach their sexuality and feminism. For me, Brooks’ book, a non-fiction piece, offers a counterpoint to the  liberties of representation allowed in fiction.

King is a fiction writer who did not spend time in Papua New Guinea before writing her book, and takes significant time to describe the sexual interplay between Nell and Fen and later Nell and Bankson, as well as the ‘stone scene’, despite offering the reader no foundation for belief in these events other than their ‘based on real life’ status. Further, she describes the landscape and people of Papua New Guinea, again, giving the reader no clear idea of how she has come to those descriptions (not that a reader necessarily wants to know in a fiction piece). Brooks, on the other hand, wrote under the auspices of the Wall Street Journal in Cairo, and becomes interested in Islamic women’ sexuality after her assistant adopts a headscarf and other religious practices. In her desire to understand and research that question, Brooks travels and lives in Egypt, Eritrea, the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, Iran, Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia over the course of six years. Brooks clearly spent more time researching her topic, conducting interviews and living among her research subjects, writing a compelling piece of non-fiction aimed for a Western audience largely unaware of the text of the Quran and its implications for female practitioners of Islam.

However, Brooks received mixed feedback, while it appears that King has received largely positive feedback (not to mention awards). I feel that this is due largely in part to the description of ‘fiction’ applied to King’s book. The emphasis in Euphoria is the relationship between the characters, rather than the subject of their study. Its place on the fiction bookshelf allows King the liberty to write from the comfort of her home, using imagination rather than fact to script her ideas. The emphasis in Nine Parts of Desire is on women, and their lived experiences in the Middle East. While I don’t necessarily agree and endorse Brooks’ position as a white, non-Muslim woman writing about Middle Eastern, Muslim women for a largely non-Middle Eastern, non-Muslim readership, I do believe that her methods offer her a greater level of credence, as does her commitment to living with and learning from her subject. This is not to discount King’s novel or approve Brooks’ piece, but rather to highlight the difference a label can have on scrutiny, perception, and willingness to excuse potentially problematic language in a narrative.

Party in the USA: Approaching Black Bodies in Americanah

First, I want to thank everyone for a great discussion today. I learned a significant amount about how I’ve been approaching race and the discussion about the Brown Daily Herald, and really enjoyed thinking about the themes of this book in depth.

One topic I think Jarred brought up but we didn’t fully flesh out in the book is that of gender and sexuality- something I briefly spoke about in class in regards to my feelings of connection with the author and her relationships. In class, I described this in terms of recognizing many aspects of her story in my personal experiences with relationships. There are many aspects of these relationships – the family dynamics,  the decisions to refrain from or engage in sexual relationships, the difficulty of long distance relationships and suddenly loss of contact – that feel incredibly familiar to me. Within those topics, I wanted to explore the way that Adichie approaches sexuality in this story, especially in the context of the United States.

The passage where Ifemelu and Ginika discuss their bodies in terms of American norms really struck me. Ginika says, “Obinze better hurry up… before somebody will carry you away. You know you have the kind of body they like here… You’re thin with big breasts…” and Ifemelu responds, “Is that why you stopped eating? All your bum has gone. I was wished I had a bum like yours” (151). While the girls are chatting freely among friends, this discussion of their bodies in terms of American sexual politics points to several insights about perceived “American” ideals and how those ideals impact people immigrating to the United States at an age where sexual appeal is a priority (in many cases).

I find it fascinating that Ginika is jealous of Ifemelu’s chest (a frequently white or European associated trait) while Ifemelu reveals her wish for a larger ‘bum’, something people of white or European descent often associate with people of color (most often Black or Latino women). While this parsing out may be going too deep, it reveals a codification of female bodies common in the United States. I recall the VMAs several years ago when Miley Cyrus came under fire for appropriating ‘twerking’ and using Black backup dancers to further her career without recognizing the harmful undertones of minstrel history for the black community (Tressie McMillan Cottom wrote a great piece on this here). The use of Black female bodies for white entertainment is clearly problematic; Adichie’s description of two Black women as desiring to possess features with that characteristic appeal is incredibly telling of how ingrained into American culture these beauty standards remain, and the pressure they exert on immigrant women living in the United States.

Later in the book, I was struck by the lack of agency of the woman that Obinze is arranged to marry in order to obtain legal status. When the Angolan men request more money, Cleotilde reveals that the Angolans hold her passport, saying “Otherwise we could do this on our own” (325). However, “he did not want to do it on his own, with Cleotilde. It was too important and he needed the weight of the Angolans’ expertise, their experience” (325). While this is not a sexualized situation, Cleotilde and her body are clearly a tool for men to share their power. The Angolan men hold her passport and require payment for not only the release of her passport, but the security of Obinze’s papers. In this situation, Cleotilde has very little power over her body and her role in this process. The use of Cleotilde as a stand-in, simply a legal tool by the Angolans reminds me of Ifemelu’s decision to revisit the man in desire of ‘companionship’. These uses of the female body, although somewhat based in the woman’s agency, reveal a tension between female sexuality and male power in immigration economics.

I have to wonder how the economics of entertainment impacted Miley’s backup dancers decision to participate in her show. Clearly, I do not know their goals or their reasons for participation- however, I am sure that they were compensated monetarily for their performances. Regardless of their political or social desires, there is a politics of payment that I feel is incredibly important to explore, especially when the performance is inherently sexualized.

Clearly, these small insights are not the main political statement that Adichie hopes to leave readers with, but I feel that a closer look can help to illuminate another facet of the experiences presented in this narrative.

Dream of Ding Village Reflection

Unfortunately, I was only able to make the tail end of class yesterday due to an interview scheduling conflict, so I wanted to be sure to contribute a little bit of thought to this blog in response to Dream of Ding Village, both after listening to thirty minutes of discussion yesterday and reading through the other blogs about this book.

I definitely agree with what several people said yesterday regarding enjoying this book- to me, it was very engaging and easy to read, with almost a more ‘concrete’ conflict than several of our previous novels have portrayed. To me, HIV/AIDS and regulation are two things I have researched before, although not in the Chinese sphere. I found it very interesting reading the first blog on this topic, regarding the short story “Shh.” The differences in approach and perception to HIV/AIDS described by the blog author really echoed to me something that Danielle mentioned in class yesterday. She discussed how language can play a large role in perception, discussing how Vietnamese also uses relational language to address individuals. Danielle’s point really speaks not only to our ability to understand and empathize with the characters in this novel, but also perhaps our confusion regarding Deep Rivers. Because this novel was written almost entirely in English and used relational names for characters such as “Grandpa”, I felt very comfortable reading it. However, Deep Rivers often relied on unfamiliar imagery and Quechua language, something I am much less comfortable reading.

I also wanted to give my thoughts on the last scene in the book, since we spent a little bit of class time yesterday discussing it. I found it very interesting that Emily described her perception as almost an “Adam and Eve” take on the figures rising from the mud- I had a similar perception, and definitely didn’t resonate with the concept of terra cotta warriors that was brought up in class. Rather than the Biblical take, I think I would suggest a phoenix metaphor for approaching that last passage. I’ve spent considerable time outside in the rain, and love watching the little puddles that are formed when there is just enough rain to pool and create little jumping droplets, but not enough that my eye gets lost seeing the drops moving. To me, the mud people, growing by the millions, remind me of those droplets in an increasingly heavy rainstorm. Metaphorically, the fact that they fall and jump back up reminds me of a rebirth or at least a resilience before they fall back into the puddle for eternity. The mud people don’t have that problem- they “dance on the earth” permanently above ground. This suggests a certain life or presence, born out of a barren, homogenous ground — and in my eyes, seemed hopeful.

Sirens of Baghdad: Silence and Song

As you all may have noticed, I was slightly quieter than usual in class today- like I noted, I find it very difficult to contribute to a discussion when my experience and my knowledge of the subject is so limited. That’s not to say I can’t academically approach the Middle East, and American involvement or terrorism, as I would anything else, but more to say that in this case, I know that I don’t know much at all.

To me, reading Sirens of Baghdad brought up several issues and one major set of inter-texts I had almost forgotten about until I started thinking about my understanding of the Middle East and its history.

I first want to unpack the title further, as we started to do at the end of class. I found it incredibly interesting that we discussed two quotes in which the word ‘siren’ is used. Sirens sound alarm. They disarm and alarm simultaneously. Sirens disconcert and can create chaos. He describes, “I watched ambulance drivers picking pieces of flesh from sidewalks, cops interrogating the neighborhood residents… While the victims’ relatives raised their hands to heaven, howling out their grief, I asked myself if I was capable of inflicting the same suffering on others… I strolled calmly back to the store and my room” (179-180). An ambulance would surely have a siren, although in this case, the siren signals the aftermath of a terrorist event. His nonchalance in the face of this alarm is telling of his characteristic absent personality. The chaos does not seem to disturb him despite the carnage visible.

In addition, I wonder if the second definition of siren could be a metaphor throughout this book. In mythology, a siren could lure a sailor to his “destruction by seductive singing”. This seems a possible meaning for the title of the book, as lyrical terms are discussed throughout the novel in relation to places. He writes of the village, “Halfway between Kafr Karam and the Haitem’s orchards, the plateau made a sudden descent, and a vast dry riverbed strewn with little sandstone mounds and thorny bushes split the valley for several kilometers. The wind sang in that spot like a baritone” (70). I find it telling that he described it as a baritone- a low, usually smooth and dulcet tone pleasing to the ear. This would draw someone in- a soprano tone would usually repel all but very few; alto would get lost in the chaos of harmony; bass would become too low a murmur to notice. Maybe it is my singing training taking over, but I can see the appeal and beauty of this scene described lyrically. He is simultaneously taken in and repelled by this siren song; the metaphor works both ways.

This book also made me think back to the course I took on the Middle East, called “Gender, Empire and Nation: The Making of the Muslim Middle East” a history course that focused on issues of gender, identity, and religion in post-colonial Iran primarily. It was fascinating reading the commentary of scholars regarding the development of the national borders of Middle Eastern countries; watching a documentary about Tehran; getting a very basic insight into a region I had previously never studied. This course forced me to entirely reevaluate everything that I had learned about the Middle East, and about the American response to 9/11 and subsequent ‘conflicts’ or ‘operations’ in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The war in Iraq is especially difficult for me to respond to because I do not have the same immediate response to September 11 and intense nationalist feelings that I’m sure many people in this course do. I was living in Indonesia when the September 11 attack happened, and remember staying up late that night to watch the events unfolding on CNN from my stairwell because my parents did not want to worry me. I didn’t understand why they were so concerned- in my mind, I wasn’t an American; I had lived abroad the entire time I was able to remember. We were evacuated back to the United States shortly thereafter, but it took me years of remembrance and learning to fully understand the impact that September 11 had on the United States. In Indonesia, a good deal of my friends practiced Islam, and hearing the call to prayer was a normal part of my day. When I moved to Tennessee, I was confronted by an extremely hateful racism; not only was there fear of Muslims, but outright aggression. This is all to say that my experience with this conflict has been one of information, misinformation, and overall confusion.

In my Ugly American post, I discussed one of the most important books I’ve read in my time at Brown: Lila Abu-Lughod’s Do Muslim Women Need Saving? However, and for anyone who was questioning the bond relationships described in this book or looking for more insight into Bedouin culture through an ethnographic lens, I highly recommend Abu-Lughod’s other works. I wrote a historiography of her collected writings, and found her description of studying and living among Bedouin groups extremely compelling. The two books most relevant to this topic are Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin  Society and Writing Women’s Worlds: Bedouin Stories. She describes the poetry of the women, describes needing to find a “father” in the bedouin group she was living within in order to be trusted as a lone, female researcher. These insights are in part due to her background and familial connections to Egypt; perhaps they can offer some insight into this story as well.

Reading Deep Rivers in the Context of Testimonio

As everyone now knows, my field of focus for International Relations is Latin America. Unfortunately for the context of leading the Deep Rivers discussion, I have neither traveled to Peru, nor studied the country in depth. However, I wanted to add a nuance to how we approach Deep Rivers, especially following the conversation in seminar. I am also a History concentrator, and am currently enrolled in a great course called “Latin American History and Film: Memory, Narrative, and Nation” in which we discuss the way that historians and filmmakers discuss and represent Latin America on film.

Today, and sadly too late to discuss in seminar, we learned about a fascinating concept called testimonio, which illuminated several intertexts to our story. The basic concept is that a working class or otherwise marginalized person will describe their story to an interlocutor, who writes it down as a distinct type of historical narrative. In this case, the witness or testimonialista is both the object and subject of the writing. This article on Jstor (requires a Brown log-in for full reading) by George Yudice provides a good summary. He states, “The testimonio has contributed to the demise of the traditional role of the intellectual/artist as spokesperson for the ‘voiceless’…as the subordinated and oppressed feel more enabled to opt to speak for themselves in the wake of new social movements…there is less of a social and cultural imperative for concerned writers to assume the grievances and demands of the oppressed” (Yudice 15). This speaks to one of the central conflicts that we discussed- the idea that such a seemingly autobiographical story could illuminate issues relating to the Quechua people in a way that authentically spoke to their concerns. While Deep Rivers was written about a decade before testimonio became a widespread historical form, I believe that using testimonio may have been a more effective way to communicate this story.

The history of nearly every Latin American country includes a mass killing of indigenous people; however, one of the most recent and traumatic was that of the Guatemalan genocide in the 1980s, which largely targeted indigenous people of Mayan ancestry. Much like the Quechua in Peru, survivors continue to fight for recognition by the government through language and culture. One woman, Rigoberta Menchú Tum, a 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner, survived the genocide and propelled the testimonio historical genre into the spotlight when she told her story to Elizabeth Burgos Debray in 1983. The resulting book, I, Rigoberta Menchú (title translated to English) is an excellent example of the illumination of an indigenous conflict by an indigenous person, as dictated to a writer. To me, this form of storytelling and activism seems much more authentic than that of Deep Rivers.

I have to question how much of this distinction, however, is the result of my training as a white, Ivy League educated student of anthropology and history. Much of what I have studied has centered on post-colonialism, on always looking for and seeking out the lived experiences of those I am studying and representing. I have been told never to conflate narrative with ethnography, to always check my narrative bias when approaching any topic.

However, I have to wonder if we should be so harsh as to hold Arguedas to those standards when discussing this book. Clearly we, as an audience in 2015 at Brown University, cannot speculate as to the lived experience of Arguedas which led to the story in this book. However, as a fictional piece with the goal of illuminating Quechua culture, I feel that Arguedas succeeds in presenting a compelling if limited understanding of Quechua culture for us. While I feel more comfortable with the format and means of testimonio, it simply hadn’t been developed, much less institutionalized, as a storytelling form until at least a decade after Arguedas wrote.

In addition, I have to wonder if testimonio would incorporate all of the beautiful linguistic aspects that made Deep Rivers so compelling- not to mention, a Quechua subject and object would likely have not incorporated as nuanced of a portrayal of the race relations in Peru at this time. Because of the way that Ernesto flows between Spanish and Quechua worlds, the audience gets a ‘fuller’, if perhaps less accurate understanding of the situation portrayed.

Overall, I feel that looking closer at Deep Rivers in the context of a testimonio would be compelling and would give the story another layer of meaning. For us as current readers, a testimonio reading would provide answers to some, if not many, of the questions posed in class that we spent considerable time grappling with in context.

Was, or Is?: Rhetoric in The Ugly American

* Note: Sorry if anyone read an earlier draft of this post; after posting, I started thinking again and wanted to take it in a different direction.

Contextualizing The Ugly American is incredibly important to unpacking the fictional elements from the thinly veiled reality of its contents. The United States in 1958 was well into the Cold War, engaged in the Space Race, and at the low point of a recession. The Cold War and Space Race especially encouraged the United States to prove its dominance internationally; its incredibly easy to see how the themes of interventionism and rhetoric tied to reality for the reader at that time.

So why, in a world so incredibly different from that of 1958, and as students of International Relations, did we relate so much to the story in this novel? For me, the immediate relation was through my mom, who was a teenager in the 1960s, vehemently protested the Vietnam War, and has always taken an active stance of criticism towards American interventionism. Funnily enough, my dad and her father both served in the military; foreign service sparks some very interesting conversations with my family. For me, this meant growing up listening to the folk tunes of the 60s and rock of the 70s, which call for action much in the way that The Ugly American does, although in a different way. The thing is, though, I don’t know if that much has changed since the 1950s.

Because this is an academic blog, I wanted to examine some of the ways that the Cold War era that The Ugly American came out of impacted how we now approach International Relations. I want to look closely at how academia may have changed the way we learn about and engage with other cultures, and also look at how, if at all, US foreign policy has changed as a result.

Perhaps most interesting to me is the emphasis on area studies that came out of the Cold War period. While reading an article by Barbara Weinstein for a history course, I was struck by how rapidly the paradigms of an academic field can change, forcing academics to approach their subjects from an entirely different perspective. In short, Weinstein was trained in a neo-Marxist school of history; looking at class and other social dynamics was the way she learned to frame historical arguments. However, following the ‘linguistic turn’, a paradigm shift in the field of history in the 1980s, Weinstein had to reorient her argument, looking instead to questions of intersectionality and an emphasis on cultural history. Now, historians look for gender, queer identities, and other previously disregarded or marginalized factors or groups that can help to illuminate new ways of understanding people, places, and historical moments. This paradigm shift has not quite been reflected in foreign relations in the United States, nor in its rhetoric.

The Ugly American spends a significant amount of time unpacking the rhetoric these fictional characters employ when discussing communism. I found this eerily reminiscent to the way that the United States framed rhetoric relating to Iraq and Afghanistan in the early 2000s. One especially compelling historiography that I found relevant is called “Do Muslim Women Need Saving?” by Lila Abu-Lughod. Her book questions the rhetoric used by the Bush presidency to mobilize Americans not only to war, but also on human rights campaigns to ‘save’ Muslim women from their ‘oppressors’. Rather than condemn and ‘other’-ize (if I can use that term) a political framework like communism, instead this rhetoric ‘other’-ed Muslim individuals in the United States and abroad. These specters of otherness, formed into ideological targets, show that the United States still has a long way to go before our foreign policy has effectively ‘changed’.

However, I feel that although the United States government remains somewhat stuck in rhetorical quagmire, academia may finally be emphasizing learning and appreciating a culture before attempting to work or live in that culture. While the turn described by Weinstein in the field of history doesn’t exactly relate to The Ugly American, it does promote studying and understanding culture, nebulous and often problematic as that word can be. In the 1990s, area studies emerged, with a focus on learning the languages, histories, and arts of cultures different than one’s own. Even in our seminar discussion, each of us pulls on our “region of focus” or personal experience living and studying internationally- Latin America, Iran, China, Canada, Hong Kong, and Singapore, to name the few I remember. We are now  focused on integration and appreciation such that Brown requires certain language proficiencies to even apply to study abroad in certain countries. We have come a long way from what the book portrays in “Employment Opportunities” as a reliance on translation and emphasis on teaching others to learn English (81).

However, this academic emphasis can only go so far when it comes to American foreign policy. The first program that came to mind is the Critical Language Scholarship Program, or CLS, run through the US State Department. This program offers students the opportunity to study ‘critical’ languages as determined by the State Department; if taken with a grain of salt, it is easy to see that the United States government is now attempting to support language study for countries of particular economic or political interest, effectively training students for intervention or interaction with potential allies (or, to play devil’s advocate, future ‘enemies’). These include the obvious China, Japan, and Russia, while also including the slightly less apparent Azerbaijani (potentially critical in the Eurasian sphere due to oil reserves) and Indonesian (currently on the State Department travel warning list for terrorism). The emphasis on traveling to learn language shows a move in the right direction from what is explored in The Ugly American; however, these direct political and economic interests still seem dubious on the part of the United States government.

The other program that came to mind is the Fulbright U.S. Student Program, recognized worldwide as a leading grant for research and teaching abroad. However, I find it incredibly telling that Fulbright still refuses to fund grants for research in Cuba, despite the amount of interest in Cuba by American students and the reinstatement of diplomatic relations between our countries. In March of last year, I visited Cuba on a cultural visa (just after diplomatic relations were reinstated) and was shocked at how different the country was from the propaganda I had heard and even learned in Latin American politics and history courses at Brown. The fact that such a prominent research and cultural exchange will not fund travel to Cuba shocks me; however, again, Fulbright is granted through the State Department and must comply with State Department ideals.

While we may have moved on academically from the close-minded and perhaps short-sighted training that many of the foreign service professionals in The Ugly American were constrained by, the United States has not effectively moved on in its rhetoric or funding. As MacWhite said, “The little things we do must be moral acts and they must be done in the real interest of the peoples whose friendship we need- not just in the interest of propoganda… Grand patterns are no more than the sum of their tiniest parts, and it is on this basic level that we are losing the struggle” (267, 269).