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.


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.

 

 


Midnight’s Children: Criticism in India

“…’Big shot,’ Tai is spitting into the lake, ‘big bag, big shot. Pah! We haven’t got enough bags at home that you must bring back that thing made of pig’s skin that makes one unclean just by looking at it?… A fine business, what these foreigners put in our young men’s heads. I swear: it is a too-bad thing’” (15).

This is a passage from the beginning of Midnight’s Children, between Saleem’s grandfather, Dr. Aziz, and the local boatman Tai. Though not exactly the same, Tai’s reaction to Aziz’s foreign education can be compared to some of the criticisms against Rushdie: that he may have been born in India, but he is no longer Indian. In the story, Tai views the bag in which Dr. Aziz carries his medical supplies from school as an example of  foreign influences seeping into his world of traditions. Rushdie attended school in England, including Cambridge University, and this is seen by some as an abandonment of his Indian roots. No matter the credibility of the work, medical or literary, some actions are unforgivable.

That’s not to say that most of the criticism against Rushdie is founded in spite. Within his various works Rushdie openly challenges many traditional beliefs and practices from his home country, directly discrediting what many lead their lives by. The most famous example would be within The Satanic Verses, with an apparent blasphemous account of the prophet Mohamed, and the controversy that then arose. Though having been published seven years early, Midnight’s Children was often connected with this controversy and viewed equally as unwholesome. Until this point, Rushdie had still largely identified with the people of the Indian community, and the drastic response against him affected him deeply. This in part drove him even further into adopting the culture of western society, giving further fuel for these critics.

These oppositions represent only a portion of the responses to Rushdie’s work, and do not reflect the opinion of the entire Indian community. Many have praised him for his ability to effectively capture the real tone and feel of the English/Indian language, the voice of the people. Others choose to criticize him based strictly on literary tastes, like his irregular use of narrative continuity. On whole, Rushdie has been an advocate for truth in criticism, and the basis of his critic’s claims should be viewed within this context, and their own willingness to embrace change.


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


Indira Ghandi and the “Emergency”

Indira Ghandi was the third Prime Minister of India.  She ruled over India, a democracy, four times between the years of 1966 and 1984.  Her rule was undoubtedly controversial due to the events that took place between June 26, 1975 and March 23, 1977.  This period of time can be identified as the Emergency.

Indira ran for the position of Prime Minister again in the 1971 elections under the Allahabad High Court.  The campaign theme she used claimed to have a theme of decreasing poverty and bettering the lives of those living in poverty in India.  She funded this campaign through New Delhi and the Indian National Congress Party.  Indira Ghandi won the election.  Soon after winning though, there was a political uproar in India which claimed that Indira was guilty of using government machinery in order to propel her campaign.  The funds which she had been using were barely allocated toward the caused which she claimed they were being donated toward.  Her election was declared void on the grounds of electoral malpractice, and she was ordered to be removed from her seat and suspended from running for election for six years.  Indira Ghandi did not like this one bit, and she opposed the claims and denied the criticisms.  Her party backed her up, as well as many other supporters.  Indira was allowed to withhold her position of Prime Minister, and those who opposed this decision flew into a rage.

At this point, it is recommended to Indira that she impose a state of emergency under which she will rule by decree.  It is then, on June 26, 1975, that India is thrown into utter political upheaval.  Ghandi implements the following over the course of the next two years: 1. She arrests any and all who oppose her rule and throws them in jail without alerting their families of the arrest. 2.  She inflicts serious abuse and torture upon such political prisoners.  3.  She uses national television and other public means of communication for personal political propaganda. 4.  She forces sterilization, specifically vasectomies, upon people in an effort to stifle the overpopulation. 5. She destroys the Indian slum and most other low-income housing. 6. She implements large-scale and illegal enactment of laws. It is chaos.

The Emergency officially ends on March 23, 1977 when Ghandi releases all political prisoners and announces fresh elections for that March.   Read the rest of this entry »