The centerpiece of the second half of our course is Salman Rushdie’s sprawling 1980 novel, Midnight’s Children. Over the course of three weeks, each student prepares a 5-7 minute micro-presentation to deliver in class. That presentation is paired with a post on the course blog that seeks to combine close reading skills with informal, multimedia research.
An additional requirement of at least one comment during the three-week unit ensures a level of information exchange, as students respond to each others presentations online (after formal responses in class) and compile additional web or print resources about the novel.
The purpose of our final exam is to “revisit” or review the broad range of places and texts we have covered in the course and to synthesize some of the questions and ideas that we have explored. The open format of the exam also allows you to decide which stories and concepts you will take with you into the future—”choose wisely,” as they say.
With that in mind, feel free to use the comments on this post to ask or answer questions about material from the course. In contrast to Facebook or other study forums that you might use, I may be able to provide assistance with issues that arise here. However, it is primarily an opportunity for exchange amongst students: you might share your notes, define terms or confirm data, post information or link to resources, however please DO NOT post outlines or specific plans for the essay portion of the exam—that is for each student to compose individually.
“Otis” Kanye West, Jay-Z
In class, we talked about the extent to which art can incorporate political elements and still be considered art. Hiphop is an entire genre of music, or art, that can be purely political yet well received, especially by young audiences.
Perhaps the reason the young generation often react to these “political artworks” is because thy are able to sympathize with the themes woven into the beat. Jay-Z’s reflections are based on his own experiences growing up in Brooklyn, much like Marjane Satrapi’s illustartions of her childhood in Persepolis. Whatever kinds of neighborhood or reformation, good or bad, are still fragments of their own society, and the illustrating characters growing up in those environments are a political statement.
The medium of these statements, in this case art, allows for a connection to be established between the artist and the audience as well. I cannot recall the exact source, but I once heard of this definition for art:
“Art: A focused work/process that holds a purposeful intention by the artist to elicit a tangible feeling influenced by the artist; this transcends from the superficial point of view, to the abyss of human emotion.”
Art is like a cloud of ambiguity that rains emotions onto the human mind. It is often difficult to compose the exact words to describe one’s reaction to a piece of panting or music. However, the young generation who dwell in the cities re often caught under their own cloud of ambiguity anyway. In a place where your senses are overfed with colors, sirens, and street lights, anything other than a properly constructed sentence channels smoothly into their minds.
That’s how Chris Abani referred to how he felt during his TED talk, seen here at the link below:
Among the scientists and teachers and great thinkers featured here, Abani found himself a little bit starstruck to be here. However, as the talk continues, with the help of his quick sense of humor, and logical flow of ideas supported by personal anecdotes and statistics, Abani quickly takes control of his audience, wrapping them into a cognitive web of the importance of stories.
Stories, something that Abani claims “is fluid and belongs to nobody”, are an important part of how we define ourselves in relation to our culture. Throughout Abani’s Graceland, we see that Elvis is surrounded by stories of the oral and written variety. In the beginning, we see Elvis reading books such as War and Peace and other great literary works. Although he dropped out of school, Elvis still enjoys stories and uses them in order to escape the horrors of his everyday life in the slums of Lagos. We also hear of the stories that Elvis is told on the bus or by his family, stories that convey religious beliefs, gender roles, and views of justice vs. injustice.
But why is this such an important part of Elvis’ narrative?
In the snippet of The Republic that we read, Socrates is claiming that we shouldn’t tell children fairy tales because they depict warped images of truth and justice. However, throughout Abani’s novel, Elvis is often being told or being reminded of stories that convey different perspectives of justice and truth, including Tolstoy’s War and Peace and The Bible. In the fifth chapter, it is revealed that he is reading Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, compilation of 10 letters by Rilke to a young man trying to choose between a literary career and entering the Austro-Hungarian Army. Throughout these letters, which you can skim/ read through here discuss what it means to be an artist and how one must view the world and act upon it to truly be an artist.
Although some may argue that this is a minor detail, like the blue curtain argument, I believe that Abani had a good reason for mentioning that Elvis was reading this book. Although Elvis was not struggling against joining the army, he was torn between his life as a performer and his life as a member of Lagosian society, which due to its constant violence and political oppression, was seemingly warlike in itself. By having him read this book, Abani is conveying the universal nature of human narratives that can draw parallels between the most unlikely people, a claim that he himself backs up in his video when discussing how an Muslim- Pakastani teacher taught her Nigerian students about the Holocaust. This universal nature of the story brings us together, even when we feel out of place, like a gangster rapper at a bat mitzvah.
The Oxford dictionary definition of the word “cipher” is as follows:
An arithmetical symbol or character (0) of no value by itself, but which increases or decreases the value of other figures according to its position. When placed after any figure or series of figures in a whole number it increases the value of that figure or series tenfold, and when placed before a figure in decimal fractions, it decreases its value in the same proportion
Upon looking over this definition of a cipher over a few times, I can see how it relates to the circle that Jay-Z discusses on page 4. Outside the circle, people “barely make an impression.” However, when they are inside the circle, they are somehow transformed (4).
The positioning of the person in the circle gives them value, just like how we give celebrities or other famous people value by placing them into separate categories. Likewise, we can also devalue people by putting them in the circle, isolating them from the rest of the people. While the person in the circle is the one being transformed, it is the people on the outside who are responsible for judging this transformation.
Jay-Z’s work was eye-opening, and was a nice change of pace when compared to the usual unwarranted criticism of rap music. Now, there is no doubt that there is terrible rap music, whether it’s degrading to women, or enforcing drug use, but to write off all rap music is simply irrational. It is true that a lot of the mainstream songs of today’s rap genre fit the bill as being degrading and very offensive, but when one looks at Jay-Z this is simply not the case. He is using rap as a tool to express his life and the neighborhood that he grew up in. His raps are not meaningless works, thrown together overnight, but pieces that take a great deal of thought and deliberation. He is loud, he does brag, because that is the culture he grew up in, where cyphers allowed one to build reputations, and where hip hop competitions were used to push the music forward. Jay-Z is a perfect example of a passionate kid, following his dreams, who is able to reach his goals.
Although this piece was eye opening because I rarely listen to Jay-Z, it was not profound simply because I listen to rap and hip hop music myself. The hip hop I listen to is not useless degradation of women, or to promote drug use, but is poetry put to a beat. Where people rhyme in relation to the people they see on the subway, the tale of a kid who lost his dad when he was young, and sometimes political works, speaking against materialism and its consummation of American society. The point is that these works should not be written off immediately, simply because they are rhymes over a beat. Hip Hop can be an art form, and to regard it as anything less is to not only limit oneself to a musical genre, but to limit oneself to the lessons and cultural knowledge of those with different lifestyles than one’s own.
It is undeniably true that Graceland is absolutely chalk full of scenes of violence, physical abuse, sexual abuse, death, and war. The scenes of sexual abuse are especially shocking, in addition to the description of the genocide and the bodies which seem to cover the land. Though these are of critical importance, I also noticed another instance of violence/cruelty/abuse throughout Book 1 of the novel. Every few chapters there seems to be a situation in which one of Elvis’ friends is killing an animal for food. This seems an innocent enough act, especially when this animal may be the only source of meat they have for weeks, but it is the way Abani goes about describing these scenes each time they crop up.
For example, on pages 180 and 181 Elvis is talking to Hezekiah about the upcoming Christmas holiday and what his family will eat for it. The boys talk about the possibility of killing a goat and then a chicken.
“‘So what do you say about de goat? Have you never killed on before?’”
“‘No,’” Elvis said.”
“‘What of a chicken? At least tell me you have killed a chicken.’”
“‘One,’ Elvis said in a voice that betrayed the freshness of the memory. Having caught the chicken, he had grasped it firmly by its wings and laid it on its side, trapping both its legs and wings under foot, al the while following the instructions Aunt Felicia was shouting at him. Lifting its neck tenderly, he plucked a few feathers to reveal its pulsing pink neck.”
…”‘I don’t want to kill anything.’”
‘”Sometimes we don’t have a choice.’”
Each time Elvis has a discussion like this with one of his friends he finds the same thing–he does not feel comfortable killing animals for food. He hates seeing the struggle, the slow death, the visible pain which the animal is going through. Hezekiah claims that, “Sometimes we don’t have a choice,” and I think this statement says a lot. This seems to be how much of the book is set up due to the environment of poverty, political unrest, and drug/alcohol abuse. Poverty and severe political unrest, sadly, can lead people to do things that they normally would not do. Acts that would typically be considered sinful and unheard of suddenly become acceptable because there is no other choice. You do what you must do to live to the next day. I think these scenes in specific help us to have a better understanding of Elvis. Elvis has not only witnessed horrible physical and sexual abuse his whole life (in addition to death, murder, etc), but he has been victim to both. I would imagine that Elvis feels hypocritical or just sheer guilt when faced with the task or idea of killing a living animal when the choice to NOT do so is plain and clear. I think where most boys his age use violence and acting out as a means of growing into their manhood and the culture in which they live in, Elvis strays away because he has had his fill and knows that there are other ways. I can imagine that harming a living entity would trigger the surfacing of memories of he himself being physically abused by his father, uncle, etc. I think these scenes, interspersed throughout Graceland are there so that we as an audience may see how Elvis is different from the rest. Violence has defined his life, therefore he chooses not to define himself by violence.
“Elvis watched a young girl, no older than twelve, pick up a stone and throw it at Jeremiah. It struck him with a dull thud, and though she lacked the strength to break skin, the blow raised a nasty purple lump. That single action triggered the others to pick up and throw stones. The combined sound was sickening and Jeremiah yelled in pain. There was something comically biblical, yet purely animal, about the scene.” (225)
Chapter 21 opens with a scene where Elvis and Redemption witness a brutal mob lynching a man named Jeremiah, who allegedly stole money from another man. The mob circles around him, throwing rocks at him, calling him a thief; Jeremiah’s neck is hanging on a tire, claims he is not a thief, and begs for mercy.
Chris Abani’s Grace Land physical and sexual violence: both in graphic detail, and merely mentioned or implied. The previous passage is an example of Abani illustrating a scene that illustrates brutality and blood. This particular scene was one of the first times when Elvis, who is only a boy in his adolescence, is exposed to severe violence. His way of describing it as “comically biblical, yet purely animal” can be inferred that the young boy is shocked and unsure of how to properly react. He understands that there is something wrong in what is happening, yet the scenery is displaced from his sense of reality to the point where it grazes humor.
When Elvis discovers human heads in a cooler which he though he would find beer, he was too shocked in make an audible reaction:
“The overheard light came on as Redemption opened the door, and Elvis staggered back in disgust. He tried to shout, but nothing came.” (237)
I believe that Abani’s intent behind these scenes are in order to project the moral and ethical dilemmas surrounding adolescence. The novel is set in post-colonial Nigeria, particularly centered around Elvis who dreams of escaping the ghettos and its culture. The violence, graphic and implied, is likened to a punch to a punch in the gut. We observe Elvis being affected by the graphic violence, while the readers ourselves are affected by the implied violence. We cannot help but stop in disbelief; we hesitate to accept that the young girl in secondary school will be slaughtered as a “spare-part” for the organs they were transporting.
“Ys, dose children will arrive in Saudi alive, den, depend on de demand, dey will harvest de part from den. Fresh, no damage, more money for all of them.” (243)
Abani raises the question, “how does violence influence a child’s future?” Elvis is inevitably affected, perhaps scarred. How will he mature? What will his sense of reality be? Violence is an extremity of reality, and distorts the direction of his compass.
Elvis gives the impression that parts of Lagos are unsafe, sometimes merely hinting at, other times out right describing, public and private violence. In the beginning of the story, he discusses the set up of the road and bridges in the city, focusing on the people’s ignorant use of them. The citizens do not use the bridges; rather, “pedestrians dodged between the speeding vehicles” (Abani 56). As a result, Elvis tells us that a minimum of ten people die crossing the street every day. He depicts it as a violent, gruesome way to die.
Elvis leaves little to the imagination when describes the bus running over yet another person that had been originally hit by the car in front of it; Elvis tells us, “subsequent cars [finish] the job” of killing the pedestrians (Abani 56). The image of scattered dead bodies in the road, mutilated by cars, buses, and trucks, fills a reader’s mind, and it brings a much more somber tone to the story. The idea of a violent, painful, realistic death grounds the novel, forcing readers to reflect with Elvis on both the importance and brevity of life. In Elvis’s own words, “Why do we gamble with our lives? … why not even the odds [between life and death] a little?” (Abani 57).
At this point, Abani is making a much more important statement about life in the city, saying that no part of life is certain for anyone. A passenger on the bus describes it perfectly, saying that “life in Lagos is a gamble, crossing or no crossing” (Abani 57). It is a harsh and somewhat depressing reality, but it is one that people in Lagos, aside from Elvis, have no trouble accepting. Elvis pinpoints exactly that, the blind acceptance of life, as “the trouble with this country” (Abani 58). But, despite the violent deaths and ignorant people, Elvis has one positive (albeit sarcastic) comment about the situation: “At least they take away the bodies” (Abani 57).
These pages depict a scene where a man accused of thievery is stoned and then set ablaze. Elvis and Redemption watch from a nearby spot, yet another time where Elvis must sit by and watch the casual violence that pervades his home.
In this book, as with many of the other pieces that we have read this semester, it seems that every sentence is packed with a reference to an outside person, event, or location. It is nearly impossible to keep up with all of these. I read the small chapter once as merely an observation by Elvis, and a second time with the various references in play. The scenes are markedly different.
First Reading: As Elvis and Redemption sit in a restaurant or café of some sort, a man (inexplicably wearing a tire as a necklace) is expelled from a nearby market for being a thief, crying for God. The mob follows him. The man, Jeremiah, responds to the claims by asking a man, Peter, to vouch for him, to verify his story that Peter owed him money. Peter calls him a liar and throws a stone at him, which Elvis describes as “comically biblical, yet purely animal” (225). The man implores that his is not a thief, but is instead a carpenter. The crowd begins hurling stones at him. Elvis asks Redemption why this is happening. Redemption answers with a Bob Marley quotation about the nature of hungry men. Elvis overhears a conversation in which a pair speculates about Jeremiah’s true crime. One claims that he must have molested a child. When Jeremiah awakes, the crowd pours petrol over him and lights the tire on fire. Redemption calls this the necklace of fire, a term which Elvis feels sounds “so sensual it made him shudder” (228). He is then chased into the adjacent timber yard by the prodding of two men holding two long wooden planks.
Jeremiah: Jeremiah was a prophet who suffered greatly as he attempted to spread the word of God. In lamentations he said “I have been hunted like a bird by those who were my enemies without cause; they flung me alive into the pit and cast stones on me; water closed over my head; I said, `I am lost.’” (Lamentations, 3:49-55)
Peter: Peter was one of Jesus’ apostles and revered saint.
Carpenter: Jesus himself was a carpenter.
Crying for God/molested a child: There are many examples of stoning in the Bible, the reasons for which are very varied but include blasphemy (showing contempt or lack of reverence for God) and sexual molestation.
Bob Marley: Bob Marley was an influential musician as well as Rastafarian, a religion that promoted the idea of Afrocentricsm.
Necklace of fire: Necklacing is a common lynching technic seen mostly in South Africa.
Two long wooden planks: Jesus was crucified on two long wooden planks.
Second reading: The people take the side of the established saint over the mistrusted prophet. They stone him for suspected sexual misconduct and blasphemous behavior. Redemption reflects on the nature of the African people and their place in the world. And next to all of the Biblical references is an example of human cruelty, lynching.