A Gangster Rapper at a Bat Mitzvah

That’s how Chris Abani referred to how he felt during his TED talk, seen here at the link below:

http://www.ted.com/talks/chris_abani_on_the_stories_of_africa.html

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.


Cipher

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.


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.


My thoughts on Persepolis

I thoroughly enjoyed Marjane Statrapi’s Persepolis. The style in which the novel was written was quite engrossing. I enjoyed looking at the comics and illustrations, and even though this graphic novel did not carry as much weight (literally) in words as Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, it certainly did bring with it messages far greater, and certainly far more modern than the happenings in India and the events that surrounded its independence, but before I get into that, I am going to talk about some things I noticed in the novel.

During the beginning, Marji talked about how she wanted to be a prophet. In fact, God even encouraged the idea. I particularly took special note of the line of page 8. God says, “You are…my last and best choice.” The word that really caught me was “last.” Iran is unique in that it holds true to the Shiite sect of Islam (unlike Iranians who are mostly Sunnis. Perhaps this explains the war?). This means that they believe that the next ruler of the country must be hand-picked by God himself, or he must be a descendent of Muhammad. Because Islam is a theocracy and because the shah (or the ruler) has connections to religion, it is not surprising that many people choose to adhere to the ruler…no matter what his orders are and how he thinks the state should be run. After the beginning of the novel, we do not see Marji in such a close connection with God as we did before. She seems to slip away. Perhaps this signifies her disagreement with the regime/state or even religion. It is interesting how Satrapi does not mention more on this towards the end of the novel. Marji is very interested in heroic stories and is proud when she hears that her uncle is one. She tries to comfort her friend in school whose father died by saying he acted like a hero on page 86, but all that girl wanted was her father to rather be alive in jail than be a hero. Marji starts to slip away from the hero idea as well. I think she may be starting to see herself as a hero more than anybody else, always wanting to participate in demonstrations. Then, we see Marji, like Saleem, growing up. She literally says, “I was a grown up” (page 117) after smoking her first cigarette. First of all, unlike Saleem, she certianly “grew up” more quickly  and took initiative with the cigarette to actually to do it. Secondly, Muslims are most likely not permitted to smoke, or do drugs. It is a little ironic that Satrapi grows up in this way. It seems like she is growing out of her religion, even if her family is more avant-garde modernists Muslims already (pg. 6). It is interesting to see contrasts between Marji and Saleem, even though they similarly come from well-off families.

Even though this novel is supposed to open our eyes to the more serious issues plaguing Iran, Satrapi does include humor and similarly, so did Rushdie. For example, on page 97, Satrapi included how the girls decorated the school hallways with toilet paper and simply on page 131 Marji is imitating Kim Wilde (It is interesting also that she is more akin to listening to western music. I must say, as an Indian person, that is the case with me, too, but still western music may be more attractive to her because it is something she is forbidden to listen to it). Rushdie included Saleem’s nicknames for humor, I believe and the action of Mr. Zagallo pulling Saleem’s hair, although quite intense, was a bit humorous. I sometimes why authors include humor into serious stories. Perhaps to lighten the mood? To not make things sound so bad? To make it easier on the reader?

Now I am going to move a little away from the humor side, and focus more on some of the underlying messages in Satrapi’s playful comics. The first chapter of this book was titled “The Veil.” That immediately led me to think about female subjugation, which is what I thought most of the novel would be about. Although i believe that was not the main focus of the novel; Satrapi focused more on violence on men AND women. Page 51 and 52 were difficult to read. A man being burned with an iron and being cut to pieces? That is just not right. It’s so sad to think that these things actually happen in real life, too. I remember not too long ago seeing the cover of a magazine of a lady whose nose and ears had been mutilated by her husband. She was so beautiful, and it made me so angry that anyone could ever do that. It makes me thing of the book A Thousand Splendid Suns, a book I read in high school that went into great detail about violence in Afghanistan, a country close to Iran. The characters were horrifying in that book, but anyway, back to Persepolis! Another instance of violence that grabbed at my heart was on page 74, when Marji’s mom relayed that, “They said women like me should be pushed up against a wall…then thrown in the garbage.” That was a horrifying sentence to read…The violence even carried through to the very last page of the novel. It really hurt my heart that the story had to end that way (I won’t disclose the ending here to people who may not have finished the book yet), but I believe Marjane Satrapi’s message to her readers were clear: that not many people have happy endings in some parts of the world. Even Mehri (pg. 37), due to her social class, could not attain happiness in love. Violence hit both social classes equally in Persepolis. More commoners may have died, but just as likely, do did Marji’s mother. Social class is not as prevalent here as it is in Rushdie’s novel, but nonetheless, it is evident. Unlike Saleem and Shiva who do not get along, though, Mehri and Marji are like sisters. I find that comforting.

 

 


Preserving Memories

As humans we tend to fear time. Time brings change and ultimately death. We do all that we can to preserve pieces of our legacy. In Midnight’s Children, Saleem states,

“I am … my own master … And my chutneys and kasaundies are, after all, connected to my nocturnal scribblings – by day amongst the pickle vats, by night within these sheets, I spend my time at the great work of preserving. Memory, as well as fruit, is being saved from the corruption of the clocks” (37).

Saleem retells stories from his entire family tree in order to preserve them because his death is approaching. Yet we must wonder, does time really destroy memories, or even food for that matter? Without time we do not grow, mature, or ripen, but in excess of time, we forget or expire. Indian food is highly influenced by religious and cultural choices. In his passage, Saleem juxtaposes the preservation of memories with the preservation of food. Fresh produce, a main component of Indian cuisine, does not last long. One of the primary methods of preserving produce is by “pickling.” In short, fruits and vegetables soak in a vinegar solution and last much longer.

Through out the novel not only are we witnessing the preservation of fruit via Indian cuisine and Saleem’s experience at the pickle factory, but we are witnessing the figurative “pickling” of Saleem’s memories. His memories will live on through other people (in the book as well), but they are forever altered. It seems as though we are always racing against the clock, and in attempt to preserve “fresh” memories or produce, we change them to live on. Time is capable of destroying memories, but we have found a way to prolong our own stories.

Here’s a nice little video on “pickling” just in case anyone was curious! Homemade Pickling


Politics Through Characters

Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children can at first glance be seen simply as a novel utilizing the elements of magical realism, implementing fantastical elements within real and often mundane activities of daily life. However, upon analyzing the historical and political background of the setting of the novel, one can understand that many of the events portrayed through magical realism are actually allegorical. One of the strongest examples of this is seen during Saleem’s birth, in which we see the surrounding events of the end of British rule and the start of Indian independence coincide with the actions and thoughts of the characters.

The prominence of Dr. Aadam Aziz’s nose is one of the clearest symbols in the novel, representing protection from the violence that India saw in its fight for independence, as well as the shape of the nation of India itself. In the chapter “Methwold”, the passing on of the estate is considered allegorical by Methwold himself when he decides to do it at the same time as the British pass on power to India (140). The story is then brought closer to the birth of Saleem. Amina is intent that her child will be born exactly at midnight on August 15, 1947, engrossed by the prize that will supposedly be rewarded to her by the Times of India. This Bombay newspaper plans to give a prize to any new mother whose child is born at the exact moment that India is granted independence from Britain (144). By the end of June, Amina has come far along in her pregnancy, the fetus “fully formed inside her womb…knees and nose were present, and as many heads would grow were already in position” (146). Amina’s anticipation and pressure during her pregnancy is symbolic of the unrest in India before its independence, but the description of Saleem’s prenatal development itself is representative of the formation of what would soon become the geographical boundaries of the new republic.

Salman Rushdie asserts that his characters, especially those in Midnight’s Children,are purely fictional and are not written as autobiographical accounts of his own life. However, his personal experiences that took place during the first half of the twentieth century in the midst of India’s fight for independence are symbolized through the experiences of many of his characters.


The Poetic Controvery of Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie is one of the most controversial and prolific writers to discuss one of the most tumultuous and expansive regions of our world. In regards to topic, Rushdie grapples with intricate political themes both in Midnight’s Children and other works published over the long expanse of his literary career.

This brash approach to a theme is carved into the writing itself. That is, Rushdie’s prose contains elements of controversy and represents his character as author and figure. His phrasing, imagery, and character development are extensions of his deliberate and radical political commentary—even at points unrelated to politics.

In his introduction, Rushdie plays tribute to Jane Austen by tipping his hat to her “portrait of brilliant women caged by the social conventions of their time” (Rushdie, xi). However, his own character portraits are hardly the dainty watercolors of Elizabeth Bennet and Elinor Dashwood. Rushdie’s portrayals are raw, often outrageous, and real like the hard-hitting issues he’s known for.

For example, when discussing the character of Tai Rushdie writes “…Tai chose to stink. For three years now, he had neither bathed nor washed himself after answering calls of nature” (24). He doesn’t spare gritty details. By doing so, Rushdie declares himself as a consistently extreme writer. His ideas aren’t soft, and neither is the way he writes it.

Along with the often gritty characterization, Rushdie constructs beautiful imagery next to grotesque ones. At one point he writes that “[Aadam was] seated every morning on what he called his ‘thunderbox,’ tears standing in his eyes. But these are not tears of grief; Aadam Aziz…suffers terribly from constipation” (54). The scene is crude and arguably shocking. Still, passages such as these are mirror workings of Rushdie’s debatably brazen themes as a whole. He ultimately uses the prose itself in Midnight’s Children to underline the loud, fresh components of his job as an author.


The Road to Independence

As we saw from our adventures throughout London, Paris, and Ireland, it’s important to understand the historical context of a text in order to understand and appreciate texts of different genres and regions of the world. Our current text, Midnight’s Children, is certainly no exception to this. In fact, it is within studying the context of Rushdie’s novel that we find the necessary background to the stories that he is presenting.

The British rule in India was known as “The Raj”. Derived from the Sanskrit term raja, which means king, the term didn’t possess an official meaning until after independence, but it was in popular usage many years before that. The British were fascinated by life in India, often including tales of exotic Indian scenes in books. India was a land filled with many natural resources and exotic items

However, the Indian citizenry did not benefit from Raj Rule. In 1835, the English government gained control of India’s schools and were seeking to rid Hinduism of some of its integral, yet controversial, social practices. The British grew increasingly disrespectful of local customs and were found staging parties in mosques, throwing dances on the terrace of the Taj Mahal, mistreating Indians, and even using whips to force their way through the crowds (something I think even Baudelaire would be opposed to!).

The turning point of Indian Independence was the Indian Rebellion of 1857, which is also called the Sepoy Mutiny. Sepoys were Indian soldiers in the service of the British empire.

The original story is that the sepoys mutinied against their British commanders because newly issued rifle cartridges were greased with tallow, a rendered form of pig and cow fat. This mixture was unacceptable for the Hindu and Muslim soldiers to use because of their religious beliefs. While this story is more than just a tall tale, the growing resentment towards the British had been brewing for quite some time and the Indian people had to fight back.

The Indian Mutiny began in May 1857, when sepoys rose up against the British in a settlement called Meerut and then massacred whatever British they could find in Delhi. Uprisings spread throughout British India. The conflicts of 1857 and 1858 were brutal and bloody, and macabre  reports of the Indian atrocities circulated in newspapers throughout Britain.

However, as a result, in 1858, India came under the direct rule of the British crown. And along with this movement came rising feelings of nationalism, demonstrated by  a period of growing political awareness, the manifestation of Indian public opinion and emergence of Indian leadership at both national and provincial levels.

This desire for complete freedom, or Swaraj, began with social reformer Bal Gangadar Tilak  whose followers were the first to express the desire for complete independence. This idea did not gain much support until after the first World War. However, after the Amristar Massacre, when hundreds of inncent, unarmed citizens were killed during the festivals of Vaisakhi, the Indian public was outrages and at that point, the majority of India’s politicians turned against the British.

However, it wasn’t until the work of a man named Mahatma Gandhi that the Indian people were placed on a clear track for independence. A lawyer by profession, Gandhi left South Africa after participating in the apartheid and returned to India in 1915. Gandhi adhered to a strict policy of non-violence and civil disobedience. He encouraged common individuals to engage the British in revolution without using violence or other distasteful means. Gandhi’s principles, which involved his unadulterated passion for democracy, ethnic and religious equality manifested in brotherhood, united people across a number of demographic lines, allowing for all citizens to participate in the rebellion. In 1920, he launched a non-co-operation campaign against the British. This included boycotting British textiles and their schools.

At the same time as the Indian rebellion, Britain slowly  in decline. While  the mid-19th century Britain was the most powerful country in the world, by this point in World History, other world powers were emerging. Britain was incredibly weakened by the first world and continued to decline during the next two decades.

In 1930, Gandhi began a campaign to end the government’s salt production that was monopolizing the economy.  In an act called the Dandhi March, he lead a group of nationalists to collect salt from the sea. It was then that the British arrested Gandhi and thousands of other nationalists. However, in 1931, they released Gandhi and began to allow people to make salt for their personal use.

By 1935, the wounded British empire realized that Indian independence was ultimately inevitable. That year, they granted a new constitution, but it came in effect two years later. However, the British continued to retain control of the central government.

By 1940, the Quit India movement, lead by Gandhi, had also gained quite the following. The objective of this movement was to bring the British Government to the negotiating table. The British forces responded to this by imprisoning National Congress leaders and other freedom fighters in order to silence their voices.

On August 16, 1946, the leader of the Muslim League, MA Jinnah, declared a ‘day of action’. However, this event led to unexpected violence between the Hindus and the Muslims in Calcutta.

Pakistan and India did achieve their long-awaited independence at the stroke of midnight on August 14 and 15, respectively. The power was transferred from the British Empire to the sovereign governments of each country. However, the period that followed was one of religious and social turmoil. The violence that came with independence was simply foreshadowing the governmental abuses and conflicts that throttled the area in the years that followed.

While the protagonist Saleem was born alongside his country, the turmoil and social outcry of the time of his father and grandfather helps the audience to examine how the battles of our forefathers still affect us today.