Monthly Archives: October 2018

Ornamentalism and the Japanese Crime Novel

In her 1992 book African Novels and the Question of Orality, Eileen Julien coined the term ‘ornamentalism’ to define the tendency of anglophone African novelists to exaggerate aspects of their cultural identity, as a means of establishing a prominent cultural divide from their Western readers. Brenda Cooper helpfully elaborates that ornamentalism “results from the pressure on African novelists to ‘authenticate’ their writing as genuinely African by dressing up their European structures of thought in the garb of African oral traditions, national languages, and folklore” (12). While Julien and Cooper theorize in the context of postcolonial African fiction, I do believe that they raise an interesting point – one that might affect our understanding of all foreign fiction.

Of course, Natsuo Kirino is a Japanese crime novelist, and her 1997 novel Out is undeniably Japanese in timbre. Written in Japanese (translated into English only in 2004) Out is Kirino’s first novel to be translated into the English language, and its gory plot unfolds in the heart of Tokyo. I am concerned, however, with the extent to which Kirino belabours the ‘Japanese-ness’ of her novel. Anticipating the international success of her novel, is it possible that Kirino emphasised (over-emphasised?) aspects of Japanese life and culture that would have otherwise been left unsaid if aimed at a solely Japanese readership?

An initial reading of Out suggests that, yes, there is a blatantly obvious sense of ‘Japanese-ness’. To Western readers, there seems to be an abundance of untranslated Japanese names; from the first page alone, Masaka Katori arriving off the Shin-Oume Expressway to a boxed-lunch factory in the Masashi-Murayama district leaves little doubt about the novel’s situation.Indeed, the nucleus of the novel, around which the entire plotline orbits, is a boxed-lunch factory. As Nakanishi has identified, the “bento or boxed lunch is a staple of Japanese life”, while the fact that the novel’s principle characters are factory workers ensure that “Out is saturated with the atmosphere of Japanese factory life” (von Hurter).  As the plot unravels and readers are plunged into a world of yen, yakuza, and rice for breakfast, Western readers are left feeling vaguely distanced and disorientated by the foreignness of their reading experience.

And yet, I am unconvinced that this was Kirino’s intention. By scrutinising universal issues such as female subordination, capitalism, violence, human psychology and crime, Kirino broadens her thematic focus away from just Japan, far across international borders. “While capturing the essence of contemporary life in Japan,” Davis argues, “she captures the essence of life in the contemporary industrial world, particularly for women”. While Out is firmly rooted in Tokyo, couldn’t this exact plotline have been executed just as effectively in New York, London, even Belfast? In fact, is the Tokyo represented by Kirino even the Tokyo a Western readership would immediately identify anyway? Seaman has suggested that Kirino’s city does not resemble “the standard landscape of gleaming postmodern architecture, teeming with banks and department stores and decorated with neon signs advertising world famous brand names” (201). Rather, the novel predominantly occupies the workspace and the domestic space – universally recognisable situations. In this, coupled with the fact that “Out presents a land and a people far removed from popular imaginings of a mysterious East of geishas and cherry trees” (Nakanishi), Kirino is breaking down cultural stereotypes of Japan through her novel.

I am led to believe, then, that Kirino did not fall victim to Julien’s ‘ornamentalism’ when composing “Out”. And yet, there appears to be a thread of ‘ornamentalism’ woven into Western criticism of this novel that begs attention; it seems that Western reviewers and critics are obsessed with reading a ‘Japaneseness’ into “Out” that simply isn’t there. We need only look at the titles of such writing to expose this: Stephen Poole’s review in The Guardian is (somewhat inappropriately) titled “Murder sushi wrote”, while Joan Smith’s in The Independent is named “What’s in a Japanese lunch box? Revolt and revenge”. Shockingly, von Hurter asserts in his review that “[f]amiliarity with sushi knives is useful when dismembering a body to be disposed of”. Even if we ignore his error (Masako’s tools of choice being saws and scalpels), von Hurter’s review unveils a deep-seated insistence on over-emphasising cultural significance in the analysis of a text. It seems that this spills over into the practical realm of marketing, also. The Japanese edition of “Out” features an ominous, coffin-like object, suitably foretelling Kirino’s murderous plotline. Meanwhile, various Western editions consistently exhibit nothing more than a close-up image of a Japanese woman’s face.

 

 

What we see here, then, is a Western fascination with the foreign other. It is the ‘foreignness’ of a text like “Out” that captures the attention of a Western audience, regardless of whether the writer intends it to be or not. Indeed, I think this is something Kirino addresses in “Out” through the strange relationship between Satake and Anna. Satake’s feelings for Anna fail to progress beyond mere infatuation; he calls her a “beautiful dreamy toy” (50), and consistently recounts superficial details of how she looks. In the scene at the swimming pool, for example, “he studied her body as she ran toward him” (226), and fixatedly details his findings. However, he does not want to pursue physical relations with her, nor does he enjoy her company on a platonic level. He is simply obsessed with observing her. This is of particular significance when we remember that Anna herself is not Japanese; she is from Shanghai. And thus, Satake is guilty of fetishising the exotic other – of detachedly engaging with her for the sake of superficial scrutiny. There is something in this infatuation that is reflective of Western obsession with the foreign. Our fascination with the novel’s ‘Japaneseness’ mimics Satake’s infatuation with the Chinese Anna, and by extension “almost thirty Chinese hostesses” he also employs as prostitutes (42).

 

Works Cited:

Cooper, Brenda. A New Generation of African Writers: Migration, Material Culture & Language. Suffolk: Boydell & Brewer, 2008.

Davis, J. Madison. “Unimaginable Things: The Feminist Noir of Natsuo Kirino.” World Literature Today 84.1 (2010): 9-11.

Julien, Eileen. African Novels and the Question of Orality. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.

Kirino, Natsuo. Out. Translated by Stephen Snyder. London: Vintage Books, 2006.

Nakanishi, Wendy. “Representations of the Politics of Sexual Violence in Japan” Electronic Journal of Contemporary Japanese Studies 13.4 (2013).

Poole, Stephen. “Murder sushi wrote”. The Guardian. 27 November 2004. Web. Accessed 23 October 2018.

Seaman, Amanda C. “Inside OUT: Space, Gender, and Power in Kirino Natsuo.” Japanese Language and Literature 40.2 (2006):197–217.

Smith, Joan. “What’s in a Japanese lunchbox? Revolt and revenge.” The Independent. 22 October 2014. Web. Accessed 23 October 2018.

Von Hurter, François. “Reading for Pleasure: Francois von, Hurter: Bitter Lemon Press Publisher Takes a Japanese Odyssey with Natsuo Kirino’s Out.” The Bookseller. 5272 (2007): 22.

Is it possible to get Out? Neoliberalism and the problem of freedom in Natsuo Kirino’s “Out”

Natsuo Kirino’s dark and eerie novel Out is set in Tokyo, a global city to focus on four women who work the graveyard shift in a factory which makes boxed lunches for the commuters travelling into the centre of the city to work. All of these women are trapped working in the factory due to financial necessity. Masako has been forced out of a financial institution because she asked for a pay rise. Yoshie’s husband has died, leaving her to look after her grandson and elderly mother-in-law. Kuniko is trapped in a cycle of working to pay off the debt she has accumulated by spending money on expensive things. Yayoi is working to keep her family afloat because of her husband’s philandering and gambling. Therefore, as suggested in the introduction of Globalization and the State in Contemporary Crime Fiction, Kirino concentrates on people who are “on the losing end of global neoliberalism” (11).

Neoliberalism as suggested, by an article in the Guardian is a reductive economic idea that assumes that all human activity is a form of “economic calculation” and as a result “strips away the things which make us human”. The space of the factory is one in which individuality is stripped away through dress, or “white uniforms” (5). Through the contrast of the stark, white uniforms and the “mulitcoloured street clothes” (7) which the workers were wearing, and the repeated use of the collective pronoun “they”, Kirino depicts the factory as a place where individuality is erased. Therefore, from the outset of the novel, the factory is presented as a microcosm of neoliberal society, reducing human workers to an indivisible mass of “bug-like” (7) creatures.

A bento factory conveyor belt- From Facebook

Therefore, Kirino introduces a crucial theme within the novel, capitalist control over the individual, which is taken to greater extremes as the factory is described in greater detail, “they had to take turns going to the bathroom […] You had to announce that you wanted to go and then wait your turn, which sometimes took as long as two hours in coming” (11). The natural bodily functions of the workers are halted so as material production isn’t impacted. The factory then, is a space in which the processes which are required to produce commodities overrule bodily processes, trapping the women in place “from midnight until five-thirty […] at the conveyor belt” (1).

Similarly, Kuniko’s character is representative of the larger trap or cycle within a neoliberal, capitalist city, conspicuous consumption which is the idea that “expenditure on or consumption of luxuries on a lavish scale […] enhance[s] one’s prestige.”. Breu notes that the, “emergence of the city centre as a space of luxury and consumption” means that there is a stark divide, “between economic winners and losers.”. The author’s conflation of the factory and the consumerist hub of the department store, “crowded rows of sturdy hangers, like those at a department store sale.” (7), further emphasises how workers are trapped in a neoliberal environment by pervading ideas of economic worth and societal prestige. Kuniko’s car and her “designer accessories, and her clothes [which are] obviously expensive” (2) are attempts to prove her value within a system which is driven by money. However, she is deeply in debt and must come to work in the factory in order to pay off that debt and so the cycle continues.

For these women, the global city is not place of opportunity or progression, as factory workers they are doing repetitive work which allows them to make just enough money to survive on. Even in the city, working in a credit and loan company Masako’s status as an (aging) woman, meant that, “No matter how hard she tried, or how well she did her job, she played no more than a supporting role” (202). After asking for her pay to be raised in line with what her male co-workers were being paid, she is harassed and chastised until she is forced to leave and enter the part-time workforce. Masako hits what the Japan Times calls the, “glass ceiling [that] women continue to hit in their careers.”. Therefore, Kirino’s portrayal of the workplace in general within the novel challenges notions that neoliberalism is progressive.

The turning point in Out is the moment when Yayoi kills her husband, Kenji and the other women are drawn into her criminal activity by helping their friend to dispose of the body. Breu argues that, “Kirino suggests that the criminal acts undertaken by the women are both enabled by, and a response to, the material conditions in which they work.”. Yoshie and Masako are the two women who dismember the body and it is repeatedly likened to working in the factory, “Now that it had become a job, Yoshie was once again in charge, as if she were directing operations from her place at the head of the assembly line” (98-9). In fact the rationality of the processes which the women learn in the factory help them as Masako “found that concentrating on the process helped to deaden her jangling nerves” (100) and by dismembering the body, they are helping Yayoi to get away with killing her dead beat husband.

Masako goes one step further and uses corporate rhetoric to convince Yoshie to help her, “She made a proposal […] would you do it If money was involved.”, to which Yoshie replies, “It’s more businesslike that way” (97). This connects to later on in the plot when Jumonji offers Masako a “business proposition” (333), dismembering bodies for money, therefore giving the women financial freedom and therefore allowing them to progress. However, as noted by Julia Ingalls, “ Out of necessity, […]  they need to adapt to the changeable rubric of the corporate mindset. They are loyal to no one [….] Their fundamental motivation is to win”. For example, when faced with dismembering the body of Kuniko, one of the women to which they were once loyal to in the factory, those who “help[ed] each other out” (8), Masako and Yoshie do so citing money as their reason for doing so.

Therefore, Masako has gained economic freedom through dismembering bodies, but is still caught in a cycle in which all of human life, even death, is thought of as a monetary calculation or as Ingalls puts it, “by attempting to subvert the agenda they are now part of it”. As a result, the novel is a narrative of anti-progress and antifreedom because their form of “resistance [or freedom] is figured by and within” (Brown, 3) a neoliberal system.

 

References

Breu, Christopher. “Work and Death in the Global City: Natsuo Kirino’s Out as Neoliberal Noir” Globalisation and the State in Contemporary Crime Fiction. Ed. Pepper, Andrew, and David Schmid. Palgrave, 2016.

Brown, Wendy. ‘Introduction: Freedom and the Plastic Cage’. States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity. Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1995.

Ingalls, Julia. “Corporate Noir, or This Job is Killing Me”. The Los Angeles Review of Books. August 30th 2014. Web.

https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/corporate-noir-job-killing/

Kirino, Natsuo. Out. London: Vintage, 2004.

Metcalf, Stephen. “Neoliberalism: the idea that swallowed the world”. The Guardian. Friday 18th August 2017. Web.

https://www.theguardian.com/news/2017/aug/18/neoliberalism-the-idea-that-changed-the-world

“Still a struggle for working women”. The Japan Times.  8th April, 2016. Web.

https://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2016/04/08/editorials/still-a-struggle-for-working-women/#.W8ha6BNKj-a

From Civil Rights to Black Lives Matter: has anything changed for America in Citizen?

Before delving into Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, the image on the front cover is striking. An image of a hood instantly reminds us of the killings at the hands of the police of young, innocent black men, mainly due to their appearance and skin colour. The shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the development of the Black Lives Matter movement is brought to the forefront of our minds, serving as a basis for our reading and emphasising how precarious relations are. Through these recent actions and when looking back to events before the Civil Rights movement, how much has rights and respect for the Black community in America changed?

Image result for front cover citizen rankine

Front cover of Citizen

Rankine provides us with an honest account of her experiences and one of the most shocking ones is a mere paragraph at the start of her work which shows the impact of casual, everyday racism. She writes, “…you have already settled into your window seat…the girl, looking over at you, tells her mother, these are our seats…the mothers response…I’ll sit in the middle” (12). This young girl’s fear of sitting next to her is a disturbing, uncomfortable read as she does not see her as just another woman but rather someone she needs protected from. This particular piece of writing is striking as if the reader was to flick through the book, these 6 lines on page 12 could easily go unnoticed but it tells us of an incident which can be seen to have impacted the person, probably Rankine herself, a considerable amount.

This dehumanising due to race is referenced again a few pages later when talking about anger. Rankine writes, “Youngman in his video doesn’t address his type of anger: the anger built up through experience and the quotidian struggles against dehumanization every brown or black person live simply because of skin colour” (24). The common racist stereotype of black anger is being explained as there are reasons why they are angry; their everyday lives are blighted by the struggles society imposes on them purely for their race. If we are white we cannot understand their struggles as we don’t live through it; Rankine is asking us to appreciate privilege if we are a white reader.

Rankine also acknowledges racist language saying, “Language that feels hurtful is intended to exploit all the ways that you are present” (49). Remarks are not purely about superficial, they are attacking every individual part of a person’s character. To face this on a daily basis impacts self-worth. Rankine emphasises through her writing that casual racism is incredibly impactful and is what is remembered by the individual, even if initially is seems like a throw away comment, even if it is made by a friend or a stranger.

As mentioned at the start, image is important to Citizen. For me, it poses the question if anything has really changed for the black community. The image beside page 36 of Caroline Wozniacki stuffing her top and shorts with towels to imitate the black body is an uncomfortable statement. Rankine writes on page 25, “What does a victorious or defeated black woman’s body in a historically white space look like…I feel most coloured when I am thrown against a sharp white background”. It is referred to as light humour but really with a darker undertone of emphasising that tennis is a white sport and players such as the Williams sisters are reminded of their race at any given opportunity.

Citizen was published in 2014, but the incidents she describes about happening to Williams are still so accurate in 2018. The controversy over the US Open in Summer 2018 rings familiar when Rankine writes, “She has grown up…as if responding to the injustice of racism is childish and her previous demonstration of emotion was free-floating and detached from any external actions by others” (35). Serena and her sister were and still frequently are ridiculed for their actions without any thought being given to why they do what they do. They do the same things white players would do but are criticised and ridiculed for it, dismissed as cheating to win or having a tantrum for being penalised. It is clear to see nothing has changed for black women in tennis, even for the most successful players.

Further, the image on page 91 of the lynching but without the image of the bodies is haunting. The original image is of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in front of a 5000 strong lynch mob in 1930. Police officers were also assisting in the mob. They were accused of murdering and robbing a white man and raping his girlfriend but later at trial she retracted this statement. This picture sold thousands of copies over the weeks after it. Instantly when seeing this image in Citizen it brings the reader images of the recent killings in the media of young black men by the police, more than often without any reason for their arrest. The Black Lives Matter is a movement that has become global due to these deaths and brought worldwide attention to America and its police force brutality. It can be seen as positive that this movement has developed however, the lynching happened in 1930; shouldn’t we expect more protection to be in place? The progress can be seen as limited when looked at on the whole. Black people are still in fear for their lives due to the power police hold.

Claudia Rankine writes Citizen as a form of education, so we who cannot understand the challenges of facing daily racism, can start to see the impact that it has. Her use of image throughout makes the reader question what has really changed for black people over time, particularly now after the Civil Rights movement and more recently, Black Lives Matter. Should America and further afield, like London which she also mentions, be pleased with their progress or appreciate how limited it actually has been. The Black community should not be facing the fear of death at the hands of police brutality nor experiencing the racism which they are expected to endure.

Works cited

  •  Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric. London: Penguin Poetry, 2015.

“The condition of black life is one of mourning:” Invisibility, Death and the Demoralisation of Black Living in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric.

In his seminal socio-political racial novel, Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison remarked, “It is sometimes advantageous to be unseen, although it is most rather wearing on the nerves.” (3) This tension between being both invisible and too prominent (Cadogan 145), a common trope of African-American literature, is developed anew by Claudia Rankine in her award-winning, multi-media work, Citizen: An American Lyric, published in 2014.

From its opening section, Citizen elucidates the continuing “double consciousness” of the black identity (Du Bois 3) by throwing it against the “sharp white background” of white privilege. (52) Rankine demonstrates the precariousness of the ordinary for African-Americans. In her panoramic focus, even childhood encounters become racialised: the black subject is identified as a source of knowledge by her peers yet is disregarded by white authority; “Sister Evelyn must think these two girls/ think a lot alike or cares less about cheating and more about humiliation or she/ never actually saw you sitting there.” (6)

For Rankine, such juxtapositions demonstrate how “blackness in the white imagination has nothing to do with black people,” (Kellaway interview) but is socially constructed by the dogmatism of white authority. From the police killing of Michael Brown, ‘justified’ because he looked “like a demon,” to Hennessey Youngman’s advice to black artists to develop an “angry nigger exterior” in order to yield greater commercial success (Citizen 23), Rankine displays contemporary America’s delight in retaining ownership over the black body. (Hume 80) As Citizen’s eco-poetry makes clear, the equation is simply one of cause-and-effect:

“because white men can’t
police their imagination
black men are dying” (135)

Whilst its message may be clear, the energy of Rankine’s prose-poetry form; filtered with screengrabs, images and lyrics, suggests the need for a sustained and varied attack on contemporary black oppression, and the institutions that entrench it. In an inspired turn, Citizen’s black text fades to grey against a white background, whilst listing the names of those violently killed by the US police force. Deliberately incomplete and unpunctuated, this list not only anticipates future casualties (the third edition of Citizen was updated to include the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and John Crawford) but debunks the myth of a US “post-racial era,” by blurring the lines between past and present.

Whilst memories of slavery may have faded from American consciousness, Citizen illustrates, with its real-life anecdotes and vignettes, how white privilege continues to pit the black “historical self” against the “self-self” (14), reigniting painful legacies. The inclusion of an image of a public lynching in 1930s Indiana establishes this uncomfortable truth; yet where twentieth-century onlookers glorify the spectacle of the lifeless black body, the body itself is missing. By altering the image, removing ‘blackness’ from view, Rankine symbolises how African-Americans and their sufferings been anonymised and removed from American history.

Indeed, contemporary debates suggest that the language of “civil rights” has hindered, rather than helped, black liberation, (Newkirk II) by clothing harsh realities in meaningless notions of the “post-racial.” In this way, black oppression continues de facto but not de jure, rendering legal remedies unavailable to it. This paradox of the invisibility of blinding racism, is summarised by Rankine: “The world is wrong. You can’t put the past behind you… it’s turned your flesh into its own cupboard.” (63) The black body is as trapped in the present, as it was in the past.

An altered photograph of a public lynching, Marion, Indiana, August 1930; created by Claudia Rankine’s husband, John Lucas, from Citizen

Today, the black man is invisible until he is not:

And you are not the guy and still you fit the
description because there is only one guy
who is always the guy fitting the description.” (Citizen 108)

Hume concurs that, “the black man is condemned to a life approaching death, or a life in death, and the conditions for this life that is always also a death have always already contaminated” his environment. (94) For black women, the alternative is a steady accumulation of discriminatory micro-aggressions, resulting in the same effect: from being routinely ignored and over-taken: “Oh my god, I didn’t see you…No no no, I really didn’t see you,” (Citizen 77) to experiencing the contortion of black responsibility for white mistakes: “Apparently your own invisibility/ is the real Problem causing her confusion.” (43)

For Rankine, these encounters root demoralisation in the black psyche, as symbolised by her paranoid refrain – “what did you say?” (14, 41, 43) — and the searching question “what do you mean?” (47) Her continuous use of the second person pronoun “you” throughout Citizen, puts readers in the frame of the scenarios she details, forcing them to experience empathy for the ‘black other.’ By crafting unity within the black community, Rankine mocks the contrasting individualised identity of white liberalism (marked by the first person singular “I”). Whilst ““I” has so much power,” (71) Rankine observes that it barely holds “the person together.” (71). As such, Rankine suggests that the tribalism of African heritage is a history that African-Americans should be proud to own, and one that could be used to deconstruct white hegemony.

This message was seemingly heeded just one year after Citizen’s first publication, when a young black woman read the work at a Trump rally in Missouri, in a deliberate act of resistance:

Johari Osayi Iduysui, reading Citizen during a Trump Rally, 11th Nov 2015. Credit: Saeed Jones @theferocity

She clearly recognised Citizen’s revolutionary potential, insofar as it takes the initiative in altering the ‘equality’ metanarrative. Thus, whilst Rankine demonstrates the inescapability of the black body in a society continually disrespecting it, she also recognises that, “just getting along shouldn’t be an ambition.” (55) Whilst an eco-poetic, in-depth, examination of the: invisibility, demoralisation, and mourning of Black lives; ought to be a pessimistic affair, the ingenuity of Rankine’s multi-media and intersectional approach elevates Citizen to a place between documentary and rallying-cry. Whilst the destination may be “illusory,” (71) the power of Citizen as a contemporary social commentary, may well be the necessary first step.

Works Cited

Cadogan, Garnette. “Black and Blue.” This Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race. Edited by Jesmyn Ward. New York: Scribner, 2016, pp129-145. Print.

Du Bois, WEB. The Souls of Black Folk. 4th edn. New York: Dover Thrift, 2004. Print.

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2001. Print.

Hume, Angela. “Toward an Antiracist Ecopoetics: Waste and Wasting in the Poetry of Claudia Rankine” Contemporary Literature 57 (2016): 79-110. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/619448 Accessed 10 October 2018.

Kellaway, Kate. “Claudia Rankine: ‘Blackness in the white imagination has nothing to do with black people.’” The Guardian. Sunday 27 December 2015. Web. Accessed 11 October 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/dec/27/claudia-rankine-poet-citizen-american-lyric-feature.

Newkirk II, Vann R. “The End of Civil Rights.” The Atlantic. 18 June 2018. Web. Accessed 11 October 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/06/sessions/563006/.

Rankine, Claudia. “The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning.” The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race. Edited by Jesmyn Ward. New York: Scribner, 2016, pp146-156. Print.

Citizen: An American Lyric. London: Penguin Poetry, 2015. Print.

Of Time and Tennis: The Contemporary in Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen: An American Lyric”

It is the 2018 US Open’s Women’s Singles Final. Playing is Japan’s Naomi Osaka, and opposite her is perhaps the most famous tennis player of all time: Serena Williams. A friend of mine speculates, perhaps redundantly but not incorrectly, that this must be an important match to Williams: on home-soil, returning from a complicated child-birth and a series of health concerns, a victory here would be her answer, perhaps, to those detractors that claim she has no place in the sport. This is how the match begins.

But what does this have to do with Claudia Rankine, and her bestseller ‘Citizen: An American Lyric’?

Well, put simply the connection lies in the match’s end: Williams does not win.

Image by Andres Kudacki via ABC.net.au

During the second set, she is ushered three code violations by umpire Carlos Ramos: for alleged coaching, for racquet abuse, and for verbally abusing the umpire. That her “abuse” hardly compares to the behaviour of unpenalised male players does not matter, and for Williams’ violations, Osaka is first awarded a point lead, and then the next game by default. The match does not continue for a third set; Osaka skilfully wins the current set, and with it the match.

And for Serena Williams, as media coverage once again sets about questioning her conduct and behaviour, the 2018 US Open’s Women’s Single Final becomes yet another mark on her record which, on some other court, in some future Open, will be remembered by speculating commentators as yet another reason she’ll feel obliged to win. Yet another transgression demanding she prove herself. The latest, in a trend that Rankine’s Citizen documents, of repeated attempts by others to criticise Williams both for her body and for the emotions that her body expresses:

For Serena, the daily diminishment is a low flame, a constant drip. Every look, every comment, every bad call blossoms out of history, through her, onto you. To understand is to see Serena as hemmed in as any other black body thrown against our American background.” (Rankine, 32)

And one gets the impression, as she is heard in exchanges with officials, that Williams is all too aware of this:

Unbelievable. Every time I play here I have problems.

This has happened to me too many times. This is not fair. This is not fair.

“I get the rules, I get the rules but I’m just saying it’s not right. And it happened to me at this tournament every single year that I play. It’s just not fair.”

Williams recalls, and Rankine reminds us, of past events where we have seen this before: the 2004 US Open Women’s quarter-final. The 2009 semi-final. The 2011 final. The 2012 Olympics. In other words, we witness in the 2018 US Open an event that refuses to become history, and instead seems to insist upon continually re-occurring and re-establishing itself in the here-and-now; a state of the world that has stagnated in it’s inability to flow, and so has persisted as a feature of our present. And in concerning itself with these events, we have in Citizen literature that tries to engage with and express that present in a way that is not quite poetry nor prose, but a similarly ambiguous blending of the two, as Rankine presents to us vignettes that are not bound to any chronological ordering. Ranging from accounts of microaggressions, to meditations of what it is to be trapped in one’s own body, to manifestations of that body’s discontentment, we are extended an invitation by Rankine to engage with these moments not as isolated occurrences, but as parts of an unspoken tradition that some are all too happy to ignore and contribute to.

Claudia Rankine – Image by John Lucas via Wikimedia Commons

She asks us, in other words, to act as Contemporaries of our time, and to recognise from within it events that are characteristic of our age – in a way very much in keeping with Giorgio Agamben’s definition of who ‘the Contemporary’ is: one who “is able to read history in unforseen ways, to ‘cite it’ according to a necessity that does not arise in any way from his will, but from an exigency to which he cannot respond.” (Agamben, 53). The Contemporary does not to treat history as a closed book, but rather recognises that the past is in no way isolated from our present, and so cannot be read in search of conclusions – only for indications of where we are now:

We never reached out to anyone to tell our story because there’s no ending to our story.” (Rankine, 84)

It should be acknowledged that William’s does not attribute Ramos’s treatment of her to race; rather, she considers it a matter of ingrained sexism within tennis. To confuse issues of race and sex, or treat the two as interchangeable, would do discussions of either a severe disservice, if not outright harm. But as Rankine’s vignettes show, there are some events that seem to transcend the context in which they take place, and take on meanings that, though unintended, are nonetheless carried in powerful ways:

…if Serena lost context by abandoning all rules of civility, it could be because her body […] is being governed not by the tennis match she is participating in but by a collapsed relationship that had promised to play by the rules. Perhaps this is how racism feels regardless of context – randomly the rules everyone else gets to play by no longer apply to you, and to call this out […] is to be called insane, crass, crazy.” (Rankine, 30)

Perhaps this is what it means to be “Contemporary”: to find that the context of time ceases to have meaning where wider contexts develop; to find the confluence of other factors (of one’s lived experience, of what one sees in media, of what legacies one inherits) can imbue moments with signifying powers that they wouldn’t otherwise have; and, by extension, to find moments can be transformed into what we can’t help but read as emblematic of our world today.

Works Cited:

Agamben, Giorgio. “What is the Contemporary?” in What is an Apparatus?. Stanford University Press: 2009

Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric. Penguin: 2015.

News Coverage Cited:

“US Open 2018: Serena Williams fined over outbursts during final” BBC Sport. BBC:  09/09/2018 [https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/tennis/45463752] Accessed 11/10/2018.

Healy, Jon. “Serena Williams’s US Open final breakdown blow-by-blow” ABC News. The ABC: 09/09/2018 [http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-09-09/serena-williams-us-open-breakdown-blow-by-blow/10218962?section=sport] Accessed 11/10/2018.

Images Cited:

Kudacki, Andres. “Naomi Osaka walks away  covering her face as Serena Williams argues with umpire Carlos Ramos” via ABC.net.au, 09/09/2018: [http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-09-09/naomi-osaka-walks-away-as-serena-williams-argues-with-the-umpire/10219032?section=sport] Accessed 13/10/2018.

Lucas, John. “Author Photo of Claudia Rankine” via Wikimedia Commons, 2014: [https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Author_Photo_of_Claudia_Rankine.jpg] Accessed 13/10/2018.

How ‘The Sellout’ Uses and Re-writes Literature in Order to Interpret and Re-write History

Paul Beatty – from the Irish Times

Paul Beatty’s The Sellout is bursting to the seams with references to American history and politics, psychology, celebrities, music, film, and literature. Prominent among these allusions is Beatty’s awareness of literature and his use of intertextuality; he chooses to re-write the literature we know in order to allow his characters to interpret their present and their history and, in some cases, to attempt to rewrite this history.

The first instance in The Sellout of Beatty re-writing a piece of literature is his re-working of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem The Charge of the Light Brigade, which is re-created as a rap named The Charge of the Light-Skinned Spade (38). This is one of only two instances where Beatty re-writes a portion of the literature itself, rather than just the title (the other being his re-writing of a famous section of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby). Below are the two poems side by side, the changes in vocabulary evident.

Examining this section of the novel, Daniel Hack discusses the inclusion of Tennyson’s poem in Frederick Douglass’ Paper, claiming that there it was “attacked” for “plagiarising an African war chant”. Throughout The Sellout, Beatty chooses works of literature which, like this, reference and discuss the plight of the African-American, or which have played an important role in the canon of African-American literature. In The Charge of the Light-Skinned Spade, Beatty uses expletives and contemporary, ‘black’ vocabulary, inserting them into the setting of the 1854 poem. In doing so, he creates a dichotomy, as this new rap fails to capture the essence of any time; due to the vocabulary and topic, it is no longer simply the 19th Century poem, but its roots in history and the historical literary canon prevent it from seeming firmly settled in the 21st Century.

Beatty uses intertextuality and parodying of American literary ‘classics’ in his mention of works such as The Great Gatsby, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and The Iceman Cometh. These re-written texts are used in order to enable Foy Cheshire, in particular, to ignore the racial oppression of the past, with the hope of hiding this past from his grandchildren (95). In fact, Cheshire goes further than merely ignoring the truths captured in these works; he chooses to literally re-write them, replacing, for example, their use of “the repugnant ‘n-word'” with “warrior”, and their use of “slave” with “dark-skinned volunteer” (95). These two examples of his re-writing clearly raise an issue with his retelling as, in his attempt to empower the character of the slave, he absolves the white slave owner of his guilt. Here, Cheshire appears to be doing a disservice to his own family and race, as he fails to entrust his grandchildren to “comprehend” Mark Twain’s portrayal of a friendship between a slave and a white boy. Many critics, such as David E. E. Sloane, confirm Cheshire’s complaint with Twain’s overuse of the highly offensive and charged n-word. Cheshire comments that, “‘This is serious… Mark Twain uses the ‘n-word’ 219 times. That’s .68 ‘n-words’ per page'” (97). Sloane affirms that Twain’s overuse is “egregious” (70), although it is “historically accurate” (71) and comments that the word is still in use today, although the “cultural landscape has shifted radically” (71), and its use is only acceptable in “layers of black culture” (71). If this is true, then Foy Cheshire’s shying away from the word in The Sellout is surprising; the use of the word is widely accepted within African-American communities such as Foy’s. The novel later returns to Cheshire’s rewriting of other well known American works, such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, here titled Uncle Tom’s Condo, The Catcher in the Rye, retitled The Point Guard in the Rye, and The Iceman Cometh, renamed The Dopeman Cometh. These adaptations, for lack of a better word, are introduced to us and to the narrator with the knowledge that Cheshire has written them in an attempt to introduce them to the school curriculum – “Those came from Foy Cheshire. He has a whole

Nazi Book Burning – From The Smithsonian

curriculum” (165). Here, Beatty is parodying the widespread phenomenon in American schools of censoring novels such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird by removing them from compulsory reading lists. He does this through both Cheshire’s re-writing of these uncomfortable words and storylines, and his attempt to introduce these to schools. In burning these books, Beatty is creating a comparison between the censorship contained in the books’ re-writing and the historical censorship achieved by book-burning, particularly in Nazi Germany.

However, in The Sellout, Cheshire is not the only character who adapts a work of literature in order to prove a point. Earlier in the novel, the narrator, Me, makes reference to George Orwell’s Animal Farm and its well-known Seven Commandments. Beatty references these rules to highlight the inequality faced by African Americans, particularly through the final rule:
“6. All Piggers are created equal, but some Piggers ain’t shit” (54).

From The Ghana Crusader

Here, Beatty use of the compound “Piggers” is clearly reminiscent of the n-word, as well as of the pig characters in Animal Farm, and is possibly also a reference to African Americans as animals. This Orwellian reference is also indicative of the re-writing of history previously discussed. Just as Cheshire re-wrote literature for his own means, Animal Farm tracks the changing of the aforementioned rules for the benefit of the tyrant Napoleon. By layering references and creating multiple possible readings of sections such as this, Beatty has created a text which itself has no certain interpretation. Each reader of The Sellout will interpret only what they can, and so the text has no fixed understanding. By relying on the reader’s, inevitably limited, knowledge, Beatty creates an unstable text, one which cannot possibly give the reader an accurate or in-depth understanding of every black experience, past and present, that the novel discusses. In this way, the consistent re-writing and adapting of history through literature in the novel is highly symbolic of the novel itself.

Primary work:

Beatty, Paul. The Sellout. Oneworld: London, 2015.

The Sellout: Satsumas, Shootouts, and the Unreachable Utopia

In the supposed ‘post-racial’ age of the 21st century, Paul Beatty, through his prize winning novel The Sellout, urges us to reconsider the racial state of American society. The reintroduction of segregation to the small town of Dickens (based on modern day Compton) by the novel’s protagonist, Me, and his position as a slaveowner (albeit forcibly), bring him before the American Supreme Court, charged with serious offences. These ‘racist’ acts – perpetrated by a black man – which are seemingly unthinkable in our post-Civil Rights age, force us, as contemporary readers, to face up to the ways in which blatant, or more subtle forms of racism are rampant now, in what is often misleadingly construed as a racially idyllic and open-minded age.

Gang graffiti in Compton’s Fruit Town

As Me lies with a bleeding gunshot wound, in the care of a sympathetic deputy sheriff, he states that the reason his strivings for a new and better Dickens have been quite literally shot down is that he ‘whispered racist in a post-racial world’ (Beatty 262). In order to examine the position of race in contemporary society, I believe that Beatty sets up collective and individual goals of utopia in and through his characters.

By setting up and subsequently dismantling these utopias – all of which have a focus on the experience of ‘blackness’ – Beatty assures us that the notion of ‘post-race’ is nonsensical, exposing that at their very essence they are permeated by issues of race. Beatty strays away from engaging with the ‘Orwellian dystopic’ (‘Introduction’) that he observes in many contemporary satires, however. It is not the ‘laugh or else’ (‘Introduction’) position that Beatty takes, but the laugh because. His notions of the unreachable utopia are more tied to the absurdity of ‘post-race’ than its menace. 

William Cross Jr.’s paper on black identity ‘The Negro-To-Black Conversion Experience’ features heavily, in a reimagined form credited to F.K Me, towards the end of the text. Beatty sets the text up as a psychological experiment from its very beginning, however. F.K’s stages of blackness are labelled ‘Neophyte Negro’ (Beatty 275) (the negro ‘afraid of his own blackness’ (Beatty 275)), ‘Captial B Black’ (‘heightened awareness of race’ (Beatty 275)), and ‘Race Transcendentalism’ (Beatty 275) (‘collective consciousness that fights oppression and seeks serenity’ (Beatty 277)). It seems that no matter which character we speak of in The Sellout, they flit between stages; all seeking for the serenity and utopia spoken of in stage three. 

The utopia imagined by F.K is one in which his son, and subsequently the black nations, prove his psychological studies to be correct, and therefore meaningful. Me states, ‘If there is a heaven worth the effort that people to get there, then I hope for my father’s sake there’s a celestial psychology journal’ (Beatty 36). When his efforts to create the idealised black man out of Me fail, Me is considered ‘A statistically insignificant son who’d shattered his hopes for me and the black race’ (Beatty 34). F.K is later shot arbitrarily by the police (mirroring the experience of many black men) having never seen his dreams fulfilled. This is when the idea of the utopia initially fails, and is revealed to us within the first few pages. F.K, then, is the uttermost example of a black individual with an unreachable utopia.

From Cross’s Article

Take the notion of blackness put forward by the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals. The group, and the donut shop, can be considered literal utopias for its members. The building has utopian value as ‘the only non-Latino or black-owned business that wasn’t burned and pillaged in the riots’ (Beatty 45).

With the death of founder, F.K, the dynamic of this group changes – ‘Since my father’s death, the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals had devolved into a group of star-struck, middle-class, black out-of-towners and academics who met bimonthly to fawn of the semi famous Foy Cheshire.’ (Beatty 93). Even if they have nothing to contribute, or outright disagree with the standpoints of the group, individuals are present, standing quietly in the corner, or munching on donuts. The idea of an African-American group that meets to talk solely of their past and future development appeals to even the most base members of society (aka King Cuz) as a utopia of sorts. The group eventually stop meeting, however, and even this dream of ‘revoultion’ (Beatty 45) seemingly dies. 

Me’s literal utopia can be found on the farm (as can be said of many Dickens’s inhabitants), and he strives to make the entirety of Dickens a utopia by the means of segregation – ‘I agonised over my satsumas and segregation. How do you grow the world’s most water sensitive citrus tree in monsoon conditions? How do you racially segregate an already segregated school?’ (Beatty 165).

Whilst he watches the fruit come to full growth, reinstating segregation in Dickens, although seemingly fruitful in regards to academic work,  ultimately results in Me being shot and dragged in front of the Supreme Court. The satsumas are separate from racial issues, the utopian dream for Dickens is not. Here lies the fundamental difference. As Astrada notes, ‘the realities of pre- and post-segregation Dickens (as defined by the “white’s only” sign) are by objective standards the same (if defined by poverty, demographic segregation, and disenfranchisement)’ (115).

Cross’s theory held under the terms that African-American peoples ‘have been liberated, psychologically speaking, despite continued oppression’ (14). Notably, he rewrote his theory multiple times in the years following its publication, rendering it, as Beatty states, ‘less tied to gender, less tied to a nationalist sense of black consciousness… [and] the essay became weirdly less about race as he adjusted it’ (Jackson) – yet it is still ultimately about race. It is this continued oppression in the 21st century, not altogether far removed from the 1970s in which Cross wrote, that I believe renders it acceptable for Beatty to satirise the idea of the ‘post-racial’ age. His characters may be liberated, but their achievable utopias are limited to those outside of racial issues.

Works Cited: 

Astrada, Scott. ‘Home and Dwelling: Re-Examining Race and Identity Through Octavia Butler’s Kindred and Paul Beatty’s The Sellout’. Journal of French and Francophone Philosophy. Vol XXV, No 1 (2017), pp. 105-120. 

Beatty, Paul. The Sellout. Oneworld: London, 2015.

Beatty, Paul. ’Introduction’. Hokum: An Anthology of African-American Humor, edited by Paul Beatty, Bloomsbury, 2006, pp. 1-12.

Cross, William E.. ’The Negro-to-Black Conversion Experience’. Black World 20.9 (1971), pp.13–27.

Fruit Town Brims – Rap Dictionary –  Google Search, https://goo.gl/images/apq2kp 

Jackson, Chris.Our Thing: An Interview with Paul Beatty’. The Paris Review. May 7, 2015, https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2015/05/07/our-thing-an-interview-with-paul-beatty/

An Inability to rebel: Identity, class and escape in Whitehead’s the Underground Railroad.

In the opening of “The Underground Railroad,” we learn a bitter truth. That the first time Cora was asked to escape she said no. Why? In many ways, it seems incomprehensible to us that someone would not take any chance to escape from their bondage. That surely the least hint of freedom and you would rush forward to it like a starving man to a crumb of food. Is the hope of a life outside the confines of whip and chains not worth it? This is the first mistake we make.

Cora, the granddaughter of a captured slave, has lived her whole life under the effects of brutality and barbarity. She is away from not just her peers but her any family she may have. Her grandmother, still has memories of Africa, of who she was. Even her name is still hers. Cora’s, her mother Mabel’s and the others all have names from the bible or western history. They are made ignorant of their own past. As later said in the book by Lander, the only thing that binds them together is the colour of their skin.

This brings up a unique idea of the black experience. W.E.B.Dubois said that black people in America had a unique experience. That they were both naturalised Americans and yet apart from the society at large. “One ever feels his twoness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings” (DuBois 43). Their experience cannot be separated from who they are. Cora’s experience would be wildly different from her Grandmother’s. She only knows that she is property.

The idea of this is consistently pushed back into the readers face by both the name’s the slaves have, chosen by their “masters”, and by the referral to them as it. People have a gender, an identity, the ability to grow and to read. Slaves are its.

It is not a mistake then that the idea for escape comes from Caesar. Unlike the majority of the people in the novel, he does not think himself a slave. Talking to himself to remind him who he is. “I was born on the 4th of August. My mother’s name is Lily Jane. My father is Jerome”. (Whitehead 278). He even sets himself apart from “these Randall slaves” (Whitehead 278). Like Cora comes to in later chapters, Caesar has discovered who he is, even if it is just through what he is not.

Cora cannot be a part of the “white world” both because she sees herself as separate and because she does not speak the same way. Franz Fanon writes that “A man who has a language consequently possesses the world expressed and implied by that language” (Fanon 24) but Cora does not have that language yet. She is kept in ignorance. What she does have is her experience and she uses that to contextualise the language she hears. For example, not knowing what optimism is and instead, thinking it means trying. For her this can be the only answer to that word, anything else would be an impossibility. To paraphrase and bastardise Zizek, she lacks the very language to articulate her unfreedom. She cannot be optimistic because it is not a part of her language.

This is not the only thing she misunderstands. Lumbly, a railroad worker, jokes with her early on when she asks who built the railroads? He replies “Who builds anything in this country?” (Whitehead 81).

The problem of identity and experience is also shared by Cora’s oppressors. Characters such as Moses, the black slave boss or Connelly, the slave master only exist in opposition to the slaves. Moses, a sense of hierarchy and power, and this goes doubly for Connelly. They both are poor but now have a sense of self if only because either they are not field slaves, Moses, or because they are not Black.

This is a subtle class shifting both amongst the races and outside them. The American police force, as we know, started as slave catchers. Such as the novels night riders. This was to separate the races and retain the class system in America. For fear that black and white poor would realise it was not each other who was the problem but the rich. For example, the raid of Harper’s ferry or Bacon’s rebellion were the lower classes rose up together.

Union cartoon showing a black man being milled for his surplus value

This idea is driven through the story a few times with key characters betraying Cora to show the divide between the races, i.e. Fiona and Connelly.
With all this in mind, how could escape ever seem possible? How could an end to slavery ever seem possible? Cora is kept in ignorance, separated from anyone who with she could band together with and cannot fully comprehend the enormity of both the slave issue in America or an escape from it.

Harriet Tubman, the great liberator of the Underground Railroad, was said to have kidnapped slaves by force from the plantations at times. The veracity of this cannot be fully ascertained but one thing is for sure, that “liberation hurts” (Zizek) and any radical shifting of a worldview that accompanies liberation comes at a high cost away from the known and into the unknown and unknowable until now. Liberation is worth it and while the novel ends in the only way such a story could, with the unknown, we understand it is better to rebel, to be a human than to stay yoked.

Bibliography
Dubois, W.E.B (1994) The souls of Black Folk, 4th edn., New York: Dover thrift.
Fanon, Franz (2011) Black skin, White masks, 3rd edn., London: Penguin.
Whitehead, Clson (2017) The Underground Railroad, 12th edn., London: Fleet
Zizek (29/9/03) A kind of litmus test is – “How do you stand toward Fight Club, the movie?, Available at: http://myheartwillgoonandsoonandsoon.blogspot.com/2015/10/a-kind-of-litmus-test-is-how-do-you.html (Accessed: 1/10/18).

Image Credits

19th Century Labor Day Blues

The Underground Railroad, Magic Realism, & the Mythic Nature of American History

In his novel The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead ambitiously takes on the narrative of a runaway slave while effortlessly weaving anachronisms and magic realism into a work of historical fiction. This stylistic choice appears gradually at first (as early subway systems and skyscrapers) and then quickly becomes a pointed element of the text. By challenging the conventions of genre, Whitehead disrupts the idea that fiction can or should realistically represent the past.

Although historical fiction generally relies on strict realism, The Underground Railroad approaches American history with an acute attention to personal experience and a decided indifference to historical accuracy. In doing so, Whitehead’s novel implies that understanding history through affect is perhaps more reliable than the official record; history is often recorded by, for, and about the privileged, thus obscuring—and even erasing—specific individual experiences.

In “Speculative Fictions of Slavery,” Madhu Dubey asserts that “speculative fictions overtly situate themselves against history, suggesting that we can best comprehend the truth of slavery by abandoning historical modes of knowing” (784). As Cora makes her escape from Georgia and settles into perceived freedom in South Carolina, she begins to understand the workings of the world. Along with the readers, Cora discovers a series of deceits that work to control history through the eradication of whole truths. This is most expertly represented through her time working at the museum, where she is placed in a display case as a living exhibit.

“Truth was a changing display in a shop window manipulated by hands when you weren’t looking, alluring and ever out of reach” (Whitehead 139).

Like the novel, the museum is full of inaccuracies, but nobody seems to mind, or even notice. Within the museum, the blatant disregard for truth is intended to make history more digestible for the white visitors. This is one of Whitehead’s more obvious metaphors; history is being designed, at the expense of truth, for white Americans to forget the atrocities that were understood as essential in forming their country.

Whitehead’s use of magic realism, rendering realistic events in fantastical ways, creates a stark contrast to the violence and despair fundamentally engrained in the text. Rather than undercutting the seriousness of the novel, the dreamlike elements work to further demonstrate an irrepressible bleakness; while the presence of magical realism is expected to set Cora’s journey up as a powerful bildungsroman centered around hope and freedom, readers are confronted with the harsh reality of delusions, disappointments, and dead ends.

The inescapabilty of slavery is first outlined as Cora remembers her grandmother, Ajarry:

“To escape the boundary of the plantation was to escape the fundamental principles of your existence: impossible” (Whitehead 9).

It is perhaps reductive, however, to assume that The Underground Railroad’s only purpose is to showcase the horrors of American slavery. Whitehead immerses his text with other ideas that must resonate with contemporary readers. With the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and the installation of government members with the support of (and in some cases, ties to) the Klu Klux Klan, readers might be driven to making comparisons between Whitehead’s antebellum fiction and modern day America. Lauren Berlant argues in her essay that “in trauma theory, the present is seen as a symptom, the detritus of the significant relation between lived and remembered pasts and occluded futures” (4). In reading The Underground Railroad with this in mind, the novel suggests that the continued climate of marginalization of and violence against black Americans is the remaining toxicity of a country built upon racial hierarchy.

2016 Pacific Press

Whitehead further calls attention to racial inequality within the novel explicitly through violence against and repeated commodification of black characters. Although both are present throughout the entirety of the story, they are most concisely captured in the character of Ridgeway, a slave catcher who appears to embody “the American imperative” (Whitehead 95). Ridgeway prefers the “American spirit…to conquer and build and civilize” (266). This horrific justification of theft, murder, and torture exemplifies early American attitudes towards other races. It also eerily echoes the “America first” attitude the President has adopted for the nation.

Within The Underground Railroad, there is the constant back and forth of realism and idealism. From the very beginning, the reader is shown the heinous treatment of those enslaved as well as their complicated and sometimes ugly relationships with each other. Whenever hope or optimism seeps through their tragic reality, it is immediately crushed or dismissed. Cora (who doesn’t know what optimism is, but probably wouldn’t be a big fan of it if she did) is a constant source of honesty; she sees things as they truly are, and speaks to that. Often, her comments work to bring her fellow characters—and especially readers—back to reality. We see this when Cora has found refuge at Valentine farm, and the increase of children is noted:

“‘Liberty make a body fertile.’ Georgina said. That, and the knowledge they will not be sold, Cora added” (Whitehead 295).

Whether this pessimistic spirit comes from Cora or Whitehead himself, it works for a greater purpose: truth.

Whitehead upturns the hopeful runaway slave narrative to showcase a more accurate black experience in antebellum America. By abandoning the expected form, he is calling attention to American culture’s treatment of stories of this kind, and their characteristic dismissal of the true tragic nature they possess. As Julian Lucas argues, Whitehead’s account abandons the cathartic moment of freedom for a Sisyphean journey towards unattainable liberty (3).

In his prose, Whitehead foreshadows a future his characters cannot see: one of sharecropping, Jim Crow laws, and declining but continued abuse into the 21st century. By mixing elements of falsehood and fact, the novel subverts the mythic element of the runaway slave narrative in American culture with a realistic and harrowing story of ongoing survival. Whitehead does indeed present readers with some difficult realities. However, with attempts to distract or disarm with anachronisms, the novel compels readers to think critically about the history they have been handed and compassionately towards those who suffered for it.

 

 

Works Cited

Berlant, Lauren. “Institutionists: History and the Affective Event.” Oxford Journals; American Literary History. 14 August 2008. Accessed 29/9/17.
<https://lucian.uchicago.edu/blogs/politicalfeeling/files/2009/01/berlant-intuitionists.pdf>

Dubey, Madhu. “Speculative Fictions of Slavery.”American Literature, 82:4 (2010), 779-805. <http://americanliterature.dukejournals.org/content/82/4/779.full.pdf+html >

Lucas, Julian. “New Black World’s to Know.” The New York Review of Books. 29 September 2016. Accessed 29/9/2017
<http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/09/29/colson-whitehead-new-black-worlds/>

Whitehead, Colson. The Underground Railroad. Fleet, 2016.