Honing in on Violence and Killing

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.


Violence: An Extremity of Reality

“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.


Violence on the Street

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).


Biblical Violence

Pages 223-228

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.

References:

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.


Physical Violence as a Drastic Cultural Difference

Physical violence in Chris Abani’s Graceland is used to display a distinct cultural difference between Lagos and America.  In class on Tuesday, we discussed the scene in which Elvis confronts Sunday about the murder of Godfrey (pgs 187-189).  It is plausible that Sunday regrets his decision to murder Godfrey in order to save the family name, but it also demonstrates how in Lagos an act of murder is viewed as the only option to avoid a tarnished reputation.

In further readings, we see that physical violence is once again the answer to solving problems.  When the citizens of Maroko hear of being bulldozed by the government, they decide to create a physical human barrier.  When the police arrive to begin the process, we see an miniature war develop.  While the citizens are uniting to support Maroko, the police decide that the simplest way to stop the chaos is by shooting the citizens.  “The shot silenced everyone and brought one of the laughing men down…Confused, other policemen opened fire,” (pg 270).

The police were well aware that the citizens were trying to support Maroko, yet they knew that their gunshots would prove a point.  In Lagos, gun shots symbolize power.  In my opinion, Abani emphasizes how powerful physical violence to show the readers just how different Lagos culture is to American culture.  In the novel, moving to the states is seen almost as a “safe haven,” an escape from the poor, violent environment of Lagos.  Though murders happen often in America, they do not seem to be as casual as they are in Lagos.  That being said, Abani does an excellent job in making the readers question their ethical standards.  We are forced to recognize the difference between the two cultures and question America: do we really live in this “safe haven?  Or are areas of the United States just as physically violent as Lagos?

 


Sexual Violence: A Harsh Reality

In his novel Graceland, Chris Abani includes many violent scenes containing both physical and sexual violence. One of the most violent scenes in the novel thus far occurs when Elvis’s uncle rapes him in a local chapel. After his cousin Efua discovers Elvis on the floor of the chapel, he explains that he attempted to tell his father about her rape. She simply replies, “’grown-ups do not believe children. Are you cold?” demonstrating the harsh reality they live in where rape can exist without punishment, while there is not anything the children can do about it (p.199). Efua’s question “are you cold” reflects the kids’ hopelessness by demonstrating both of their helplessness; she is trying to aid Elvis in the only way she can, but they both understand that neither of them can really do anything. She may not be able to change their situation, but she can help him in the short-term by getting him warm and cleaned up. The children’s resignation that they cannot change the status quo illustrates to the reader the desperate circumstances in which they live. This quote serves as a reminder to the readers that they cannot understand what it is like to live under Elvis and Efua’s conditions. Using details to force readers to be present, Abani does his best to portray the reality as it is, without adding unnecessary sentimentality.

During class, we discussed how Abani had stated in an interview that he did not want his books to be overly sentimental; he wanted to focus on telling the story. In a situation such as the memory of Elvis’s rape, there is a clear benefit to making the language concise and specific. Rape does not need any emotional adjectives to convey the trauma, it is simply understood. By writing with dryness and precision, such as Efua’s conversation-changing question “are you cold,” Abani underscores how flowery language is not necessary, because it would demean the experience by reducing it into poetic words. Abani uses this scene to validate the reality of the novel, and the severity of the characters’ struggles.


Examination of Moral and Ethical Implications

The depictions of both physical and sexual violence can be seen throughout this book in varying degrees of graphic detail. These scenes may be included in the novel for many reasons.  However, I believe that the biggest issue that these scenes attempt to uncover is that of the ethical and moral implications of the time.  Perhaps a scene where the novel can be seen trying to attempt to answer these implications is found on page 237.  At this point in the novel, Elvis has decided to open one of the coolers he is transporting.  Elvis soon discovers that he is not only transporting people but also decapitated human heads and human organs.  The details of this scene are very graphic, including a description of the second cooler as holding “several organs, hearts, and livers” (237).

When Elvis finds out a few pages later why exactly they were transporting both the live humans and the various parts of other humans, he is disgusted.  This entire chapter of the novel is very graphic and full of physical violence.  I think that this scene is very important as it leads Elvis to think about the moral implications of what he has been doing with his life on the road with Redemption.  Elvis was very shaken up from this whole ordeal and remained silent as he stared out the window.  However, as much as he tried to not think about it, Elvis “kept seeing the heads in the iced cooler” (242).  This scene, among many others, allows Elvis to look at the bigger picture of what he has been doing with Redemption and leads him to feel guilty.  This sense of guilt is aroused by Elvis’ examination of the moral and ethical implications of all the things he has been doing with this new life he has been leading.  More than just Elvis, these scenes lead readers to think about these implications as well.  I could not help but imagine what life was like in Lagos at the time that this story is supposed to be taking place.  The graphic details of all the different scenes throughout, lead me to think about the lack of justice in the lives of these people. Are these people truly being given the opportunity to live as the free willed and autonomous humans they inherently came into this world as? From the scenes of physical violence seen throughout the novel, the answer to this question seems to be a definite no.


Understanding the World, or Losing Innocence?

Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis gives its readers an up-close and personal look at the struggles of Iranian citizens during the Islamic Revolution of the 1970s. As a young girl growing up in Iran, Marjane is exposed to the harsh realities of her nation through talks with her family, life at school, and even when spending time playing with her friends. Reading through Marjane’s memoir, one can only question whether the explicit exposure to politics is beneficial for a young girl, or if it only contributes to a loss of innocence that limits the joys of childhood.

Looking at one chapter in particular, “The Heroes” illustrates the painful truths that Marjane and her family must experience. The political prisoners of the revolution have been liberated, including two friends of Marjane’s family, Siamak and Moshen. Based on what Marjane has already learned of the revolutionaries from her parents, friends, and the media, she tells Siamak’s daughter Laly that her father is probably dead. Although this later proves not to be true, it is clear that at the age of ten Marjane has already begun to lose the innocent thoughts of a child, expressing that “nobody will accept the truth” (p.48)—her knowledge of “the truth” proves that her environment is forcing her to grow up quickly.

Later in the chapter Marjane’s graphics depict the gruesome images of the tortures being described by the former prisoners. Being exposed to the details of the violence shocks but also excites Marjane—she even makes the games she plays with her friends more violent after hearing the stories.

There is no doubt that the oppression and violence that Marjane is seeing is going to have an impact on her social development. Coming from a very affluent and involved family, Marjane is well-informed of what is happening in her country, and this helps her to gain a better understanding the lives of her classmates and others around her. However, it is clear that some information (Anoosh’s stories, books about revolution, etc) sparks excitement inside of her—excitement that may become dangerous if taken too far by a child.


The Graphic Nature of Persepolis

While we, as a class, read Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, it is difficult to analyze any part of the graphic novel without discussing the graphics themselves. I raise the question, how do the graphics effect our own reading of the story?

In my own opinion, the graphics tell just as much as the text does, if not more; thereby enhancing our reading. Spatially, graphics take up more than ninety percent of the page, but from a stylistic perspective, the drawings do not appear sophisticated or mature, much like Satrapi’s childish perspective. Page 43 (in my ebook) titled “The Party,” says,

 

“After Black Friday, there was one massacre after another, many people were killed. The end of the Shah’s reign was near. One day he made a declaration on TV. “I understand your revolt. together we will try to march towards democracy.”

 

The entire novel is an account of a very serious and troubling political event boiled down to short sentences and black and white pictures. The graphics Satrapi chose for that page are juvenile, simplistic, and appear to only adhere the most basic schemas of a developing mind. Dead bodies are depicted as duplicates of a man dressed in black with his mouth open and eyes rolled back. It involves no gruesome depictions whatsoever. But like I said, I believe the graphics enhance our understanding of Marjane’s perspective. Did she really witness the entirety of a massacre? Most likely no, (not in the beginning of the novel at least), if she was sheltered, so it is appropriate that the graphics follow her story.

Ultimately, I would like to think I understand Satrapi’s graphic choices, but they absolutely run deeper than 350 words. To add one more observation, I think it would be interesting to compare Bollywood film styles with Satrapi’s graphic novel. In the class presentations we talked about censorship and cutting crude scenes and so forth, so it makes me wonder how much of a graphic novel is supposed to be implied in between screens.


Bildungsroman in Tehran

One of the defining structural components introduced by both Midnight’s Children and Persepolis is the emphasis created by both narrators on being the center of large-scale and influential national events. While Rushdie attaches Saleem to the history of India during the 20th century on a magically metaphorical level, Satrapi uses conventional plot (Marji’s political family and historically rich environment) to achieve similar effects. What propels these two works further into like spheres is the “coming of age” quality of each story. Illustrating the protagonist narrators during their more formative years equates the problems of growing up with similar issues present in the timeline of their respective countries. As Marji and Saleem stumble through growing up, so does Iran and India. Satrapi and Rushdie achieve this by heavily emphasizing their characters’ connections (magical and realistic) to their countries.

While Saleem’s connection to India is clearly evident through his physical resemblance to the sub-continent, the magical quality of his life acquired by being born at the same time as India, and being explicitly told as a reader that this is the case, Persepolis’s link between Marji and Iran is more conventional and less apparent. For example, believing herself to be a prophet and  consequently aligning herself with the religious nature of Iran, or having a family history which places many characters at the right place and right time. After having read the first half of Satrapi’s graphic novel, I’m curious if there isn’t a more metaphorical, abstract bond between the latter pair during their coming of age. The work’s title, Persepolis, is (after some investigation) a reference to an ancient ceremonial city of the same name. While Marji has yet to explain the significance of this site, perhaps it will dig deeper into the bond she shares with her and add to the “bildungsroman” nature of her (and Iran’s) story.