Thursday, September 27, 2007

Cultural Heritage

For the longest time, people have asked me if I was Hispanic. In high school my Spanish teacher, who happened to be from the Dominican Republic, asked me if I had any Spanish blood in me. Though my genealogy extends to nearly every other country in Europe, I can claim no Spanish ancestry. I am more Italian than anything else with Slovakian coming in at second. I am very proud of my background, though I don't flaunt it. At first, I didn't mind the misconception; it seemed a reasonable guess. I do have relatively dark skin and I suppose my goatee might, in some minds, appear a little Latin. When this trend continued into college and my coworkers would follow up off-color remarks with some variation of “Oh, you're not, are you...” I started to get annoyed.
I spent the last semester abroad in Spain and was eager to test Spanish perceptions about my heritage. I told one of the native students that in the States I had been mistaken as Spanish before and asked him if he saw any resemblance. He replied in the negative and my hopes rose until he said that I might pass as South American or Mexican. Not even close. I shook my head and left it at that, resigning myself to a life of cultural ambiguity. I had grown tired of explaining to people that I was Italian. Mostly Italian, at least. My family is very important to me and their history is a part of who I am. It was very disheartening to learn that so much of my being was not visible on the surface.
While abroad, I spent a few days in Rome, visiting friends. My first night there, they invited me to have dinner with their host mother. We spent the bus ride going over key Italian phrases such as “Hello,” “Nice to meet you,” and “This is delicious”. As we sat around the dinner table, my hostess took a long look at me and said something that I could not follow to my friend. Then she turned back to me and asked, in passable English, “You look Italian. Are you?” Finally. Recognition. And from an actual Italian at that. That was, without a doubt, one of my happiest moments abroad. My heritage had finally been recognized and appreciated.
In Borderland/La Frontera, Gloria Anzaldúa seems to be struggling with her own cultural identity as well. Though she does, admittedly, have much more serious issues to deal with than I ever have. Her identity crisis extends beyond confronting her Mexican heritage to concerns with gender and sexual inclination.
She is part of a culture that has suffered from the destructive influence of European settlers that has destroyed and reconfigured it to better suit their own needs. From the initial division between native Mexicans and Chicanos, the generations of mixed Mexican and Spanish blood, families were later torn apart through the political borders that were soon to follow. Anzaldúa describes the new nation as the spreading of a terrible wound, saying, “And before a scab forms it hemorrhages again, the lifeblood of two worlds merging to form a third country- a border culture”(25). It is incredible to think that those who reside on either side of the Mexican border have become so estranged from both countries that they have formed their own society, one that involves a constant movement from one side to the other.
Within the realm of her background, Anzaldúa is still estranged. Her familial traditions have repressed the role of women for generations. Anzaldúa's natural aversion to doing chores for her male relatives in favor of studying and bettering herself was not appreciated in her family. Beyond this problem, is the fact that she is homosexual and her culture, like many others, seek to trod those tendencies into the dirt. Her confusion and rebellion are reflected perfectly in her writing, incorporating poems into the prose and slipping easily between Spanish and English. Though this form is initially off putting to the reader it emphasizes her own feelings of displacement and is ultimately reasonably understood.
As hard as it is to believe, Borderland/La Frontera follows fairly closely with the Pacific Island texts we have been reading in class. There is an overarching theme of family and loyalty that bridges the gap nicely. Distinct images are even shared between this book and The Whale Rider. For instance, Anzaldúa describes “an ancient Indian tradition of burning the umbilical cord of an infant girl under the house so she will never stray from it and her domestic role”(58). The Whale Rider includes a similar tradition of bonding a baby girl to her family soil by burying the umbilical cord.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Signifier: Breaking Down Borders

Recently, my sister asked me if Loyola was in a good part of Baltimore or a bad part. Before I answered, I had to stop and actually think about what I was going to say to her. Whenever people ask me about Loyola and its location, I always tell them it is in a nice, residential area, but if you walk down the street about a mile, you'll end up in a not so nice area. But why is this? Why must I confine Loyola with a border that separates the "good" area from the "bad" area? So when my sister asked me, I gave her my standard response, but wondered how this border within our "community" came to be, how it was erected, and how it has effected the mentality of its inhabitants.
"But the skin of the earth is seamless" (25). In one of the poems that is intertwined with narrative text, Gloria Anzaldua highlights the irony of the concept of borders and uses Borderlands/La Frontera to question the boundaries and borders that have been put up geographically, culturally, religiously, and sexually. "Borders," as Anzaldua describes are "set up to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them" (25). Throughout the first half of the text, Anzaldua reveals to the reader different borders or barriers, but presents them in a way where she breaks through the borders creating one unified entity.
Much like the U.S.-Mexican border that separates the Anglo culture from the Mexican culture, Anzaldua creates a border within the text that separates the English text from the Spanish text. This technique disorients the reader at first because if the reader is not bi-lingual, like myself, half of what Anzaldua is saying is lost, unless they go translate each word and each sentence. At the same time it disorients, this technique also orients the reader. The intertwining of the Spanish with English in a sense breaks down the barrier between the two worlds because Anzaldua is part of both worlds, and for her, there is no separation. She is not two different people, she is one unified person just like the North American continent is one unified piece of land, except now, it is separated with human borders.
By combining the two languages as well as the different genres of writing, Anzaldua is making the point that she will not be held captive by the superficial borders that have been put in place to separate humanity, gender, and culture. After reading this first half of the text, I realized that we as humans are constantly putting up borders and boundaries to as a form of protection, but in many aspect those borders foster danger and hatred. The invisible border that has been erected between Loyola and the surrounding neighborhoods has created a divide among fellow human beings, hindering the growth of its individuals. Borderlands/La Frontera challenges not only the borders between U.S and Mexico, but also the borders we set up between us as individuals and the world.

Borders, Barriers, and Humanity

In Borderlands/ La Frontera, Gloria Anzaldua sensitively presents the theme of “border” as a human creation which serves as a means of subjugation and division. Sometimes, the victims of this institution are the most innocent and vulnerable of both related societies. The general emergence from this depiction is the ubiquity of human-made and enforced barriers. As with all barriers, the United States/Mexican border is designed to keep some people in and some people out, for better or for worse.
This idea is augmented by another type of barrier: language. Anzaldua’s text is similarly divided; some of it is written in English and some of it is written in Spanish. This brings to the forefront of the reader’s mind a question that we have been thoughtfully considering since the beginning of this course: does this strategy serve to alienate the two languages or unite them? It is a difficult, but essential, consideration.
It can be argued that Anzaldua’s work integrates Spanish and English rather seamlessly, allowing a bi-lingual reader a richer, many-layered understanding of her story. The anecdotes, poems, and even regular text often flow from English to Spanish and back again in an attempt to incorporate meanings from both cultures. A reader that is able to understand both languages takes on the part of interpreter, translator, or liaison.
But what of a reader who only understands English? The story can be read from this point of view as well, of course, but much of the deeper values will be lost or overlooked. There is a disconnect between this reader and the author. Reading the text could almost border (no pun intended) upon a frustrating endeavor, forcing the reader’s ignorance of another language, and consequently their culture, to quickly become apparent. I will be the first to admit that I often needed to pick up my Spanish-English dictionary when a particular line in her text just wouldn’t register.
And, it would only be fair to also look at the text through the eyes of a reader who only understands Spanish (although, I would imagine that the book was also printed in Anzaldua’s mother tongue). This version, anyway, would most nearly become a collection of poems and quotes with an occasional word or two jumbled in the English text. The level of understanding significantly lower, the Spanish-only literate reader would share the same fate as the young boy on page 4 who, though legally able to cross the border, was unable to communicate to patrol guards that he had the paperwork necessary to prove his situation. Miscommunication and lost meaning.
As I had previously considered a minor in Spanish, I had heard of these issues many times before. It is unbelievable what people will do to cross that border: hide among chicken trucks, crawl through rat-infested underground tunnels, even have themselves sewn into the seats of the car to elude border patrols. I have read about the daily jobs of a border patrol security guard (on the American side). In these readings, I often found myself wondering whose side I was really on. I know well enough at this point that in this life there is often not a clearly-defined “good guy” and “bad guy” when it comes to these kinds of circumstances. Who is right? A man trying to, albeit illegally, secure freedom and a better life for his family? A man trying to keep him from attaining that freedom? The line, unlike the border, is not clearly defined. I am often left wondering whose side is more deeply steeped in justice. Justice also has dual meaning in this scenario: legal justice and social justice.
While of course, the reasons are obvious for the necessity of border control: to keep out terrorists, drug dealers, and to maintain social and political structures essential to the foundations of a country. Is it not important that we protect these social and political structures? Are not these social and political structures themselves much of the reason why our country is so appealing to illegal immigrants looking for an escape from tyranny and oppression? This dialogue is tricky.
As I mentioned earlier, I have heard about all different kinds of ways that illegal immigrants have tried to cross the United States-Mexican border. One of the tactics that sticks most vividly in my mind is that of a family that, having crossed the border, proceeded to walk backwards so that their footprints in the dusty earth would seem to be going toward Mexico, not into the United States. Of course, while I am in no way condoning this kind of illegal crossing, it does seem to be a clever and amusing strategy toward a bigger end. It also serves, however, as an efficient means to conclude my piece. In the greater search for human justice, are making footprints that actually lead us forward, or are we disillusioned or mis-guided in our efforts, only fooling ourselves?

"I am a turtle, wherever I go, I carry 'home' on my back"

“I am the embodiment of the hieros gamos: the coming together of opposite qualities within.”(41) Anzaldua recognizes the duality of her identity as a result of living on Texas-U.S. Southwest/Mexican Border, a “place of contradictions”. She chronicles the individual histories of both places, and their relationship to one another, as well as to herself. I believe you are inherently affected, whether consciously or not, by the place you live and the culture that thrives there. Considering that Anzaldua’s home straddles the “border”, or more accurately separation, of two very different places, it is no wonder that she has melded traits from both places into her identity. When I came to Loyola and lived alone for the first time in my life, I realized the duality of my own identity.
My Mom grew up in Huntington, West Virginia—an extremely small town located just outside of Kentucky on the Southwestern border of the state. In Huntington, everything was familiar—the faces, the places, and of course the gossip. Everyone attended St. Joe’s Church for Sunday services, and gathered for weekly pot-locks at eachothers’ homes. The metronome of life was set at a slow tick, always allowing time for a lemonade on the porch or a chat with a neighbor. Now my Dad, on the other hand, grew up in a bustling suburb of North Jersey. The town, Roselle, was one of a multitude of stops on the rail line that brought eager young workers into and out of the Big Apple morning, noon and night. The town, including the people in it, was on New York City time; everything was accomplished at the drop of a hat, leaving little time for anything like small-town familiarity.
I had never considered how a combination of two very different locations that my parents had been born and raised, and the subsequent ways that the respective places shaped their individual characters and habits could have such an effect on me. While I don’t drawl my “i’s” like a West-Virginian, and am not habitually punctual like a “North Jers-ian”, I began to notice a unique mixture of interesting tendencies (To be honest, it was my roommates who pointed out my anomalies). Like a my Dad, the Northerner, I must completely finish every task I begin; on the contrary, like my mom, the Southerner I have no problem with taking my time in doing so, and am perfectly calm as the deadline draws near. It’s like I have adopted the behavior of a Southerner, but with the true reasoning and end purpose of a stereo-typical Northerner.
Anzaldua is reconciled with the effects that both places have had on herself spiritually, socially, even perhaps physically. The “switching of codes” is a perfect example of her marriage of the two cultures. She uses Spanish words, phrases and poems as a device to communicate a different meaning than simply using the English word could infer. The mixture of the dialects demonstrates how she physically straddled to divided lands, and as a Chicano, a person of the borderlands, has learned to identify with both. Just as Soad said in her blog, as an English major I have always taken French and don’t understand any Spanish—but the placement of the words communicates a feel of what Anzaldua means, and creates a beautiful mixed narrative.

My Stupid Assumptions

At the end of last semester, a friend of mine’s brother passed away. I have known this person for eleven years now, and I know how much he revered his older brother; all through middle school he would tell stories about him and painted him in a perfect light. He was a border patrol agent and he passed away while on duty. During this time the stress over the state of the laws regarding the U.S.-Mexico border and immigrants were much more prevalent in the news. Immediately, I assumed he had been killed somehow in the line of action; I conjured up images of a man dealing with rowdy, desperate people trying to cross the border at all costs in pursuit of a better future. My assumption was that he somehow fell because of another person’s actions, particularly an illegal alien attempting to bust into the country. Of course, this whole scene flashed as a quick and vague scene in my head, but it nevertheless occurred. Turns out his brother was involved in a car accident on a routine survey of the border.

I didn’t think much of it then, but after reading the first half of Borderlands/ La Frontera I realized I made the same mistake Gloria Anzaldùa was raging against. My assumption was not simply a thought in a vacuum but a value judgment based on cultural biases and a thoughtless approach to them. I set up a dichotomy of a white person doing his job and the Mexican trying to smuggle himself into MY country. What’s more, I even made this “other” responsible for the loss of a human life. I never considered myself a racist, and I still don’t, but when I don’t examine my thought processes and what they lead to I become responsible for perpetuating this dichotomy of subjection founded on ignorance.

This is a massive part of Anzaldùa’s philosophy: rebelling against the herd in order to see the world without the veil of conventionality. By sticking with the crowd and using their thoughts to unquestionably shape one’s view on reality, a person quits on their own Self. This is also an incredibly stagnant way to live since the herd exists according to ease, not truth. So, the easiest way – the laziest way – is to stay still and run on old, expired assumptions. Instead, according to Anzaldùa, one should encounter it with their authentic Self and ever-adapting to avoid running on past assumptions. This constant adaptability according to one’s own interaction with the world allows a perpetual redefining of truth along with an ever-changing world. It is in this way that one keeps from falling into prejudices established without direct experience, prejudices founded antiquated and ignorant opinions of suppressors.

The thing that amazed me the most about Gloria Anzaldua was how actively self-aware she was in the midst of the confusion and separation she felt through her race, culture, gender, and sexuality. For someone who felt so misplaced by who she was, Anzaldua seemed to know exactly where she came from, where she was, and where she was going. She seemed to apply the “mestiza consciousness” throughout Borderlands in her writing, like the “new consciousness” she evokes, “comes from continual creative motion that keeps breaking down the unitary aspect of each new paradigm” (p. 102). At the beginning of Borderlands, I felt distant from her when she wrote in Chicano Spanish; separated from who she was. But by the end, I felt engulfed in her beliefs. It isn’t she that should apologize for speaking another language but me for not being able to understand.

Again, I felt estranged while reading Anzaldua because her displacement made me feel my own even more. What’s worse is that I felt I shouldn’t feel as displaced as I do. I fit the white, male, American, heterosexual model, so what the hell do I have to complain about? Except as I was reading I questioned my own roots. I am Polish, English, and Irish and I barely know about any of my ethnicities’ history and culture. I belong to a Jesuit college and frequent church about once a year. I live in New Jersey and have NO idea what exit my town corresponds to. Anzaldua’s crisis of finding her identity became my own, in a way. This is in no way a comparison to the hardships Anzaldua experienced, but, somehow, I felt a connection with her in her otherness.

Really, at the heart of her writing, Anzaldua is both trying to show her own otherness and the otherness of a culture she feels she should but should not be a part of. Except, that culture (as with my own) may have no idea of their own culture. Anzaldua’s writing literally hit me in the face (I asked my roommate to slap me in the face for how little I knew about my own culture) and led me to a feeling of complacency that was untruthful.

Anzaldua connects the opposites we do not want to acknowledge; reality versus imaginary, adulthood versus childhood, culture versus culture, race (Anglo) versus race (Chicano), homosexuality versus heterosexuality, physical boundaries versus psychological boundaries.

Spanish? I feel I’m Missing Something!

As an English major, I learned to hang on every word, every syllable, every letter that could hint at some (hopefully) wonderful insight the writer has put down in a very subtle manner, and it waits for me to grasp it. I am optimistic, so I believe that it is within my reach—the hope always helps thoughJ. So, when I opened this wonderful collection, I couldn’t wait to delve into all its great insights from this new writer who is from a new land. After rushing through the introductions (there’s always something so forbidden about introductions; their authors always give the good stuff away!), I was disappointed. Within seconds of glancing at the first page, I found to my horror that it contained words of a different language, one that I have made a point to ignore ever since middle school. This foreign piece, which I could assume is a poem, created a feeling of loss and confusion. Is Anzaldua saying something? Am I missing something?

Mere seconds later, I was wondering about the process of language. I am not going to get into a cognitive psychology lecture about human’s acquisition of language, but really, isn’t it amazing that we can know a language, a system of abstract ideas that are whimsically connected to groups of letters and both ideas and letters are subjected to another complex system of specific rules, and get the hang of this complicated structure as early as in our childhood?

My mind jumps again, and I realize for the first time that language can be a sort of a map; it orients (or disorients) the person in his or her environment. I saw this happening last summer when I was in Egypt (sorry, yet another Egypt story!). I speak Arabic fluently that it was very easy for me to talk to anybody about anything when I was down there. My younger siblings, on the other hand, don’t speak Arabic as well. My sister knows enough of the language to follow along a conversation, but that is often short-lived because she doesn’t know enough Arabic to formulate a response. My baby brother was worse; he only knew how to say hi! As a result, my siblings were always left out when the family came together to talk. Because they couldn’t be part of the conversation (and the group), they tended to form their own conversation (and group). This led to further complications: they became more and more like the foreigners or the outsiders constantly looking in, and in the process, they freaked out the Arabic-speakers who were convinced that my siblings were up to no good. All this because of language!

Although this language drama seemed pretty entertaining to somebody like me, who didn’t have any trouble understanding either map, it really dampened the trip for my siblings. I could sense their frustration when they heard a word that they didn’t understand being applied to them. Moreover, I think because they didn’t understand Arabic, they were missing on so many cultural references and allusions. It was as if the language was the key to the culture; it opened the door to understanding the culture because one could easily get first-hand accounts from the “natives” of that culture in their native language. If one doesn’t have that key, one is undoubtedly left out in the cold, so to speak, because one doesn’t enjoy that direct contact.
As I continue reading Borderlands, I wonder if I am going to face the same problem that my siblings faced. Am I going to continually miss the little things because I am not equipped with Spanish?


Gloria Anzaldua highlights the concept of duality and the dichotomy between American Culture and Mexican Culture. She states, “ Not only was the brain split into two functions but so was reality. Thus people who inhabit both realities are forced to live in the interface between the two, forced to become adept at switching modes (59). She also focuses on the duality of gender, and how the distinction between man and woman undermines her own culture. She explains that she is caught in two worlds not only sexually, as she explains homophobia, but also physically in her own country on the border. Anzaldua explains that her culture restricts women into three roles, prostitute, nun or wife/mother. Anzaldua embodies all three of these roles through her sexual a religious descriptions. This idea of dual identity or trying to synthesize the world as well as the self reminds me of being a teenager or young adult.
In college I am forced to release my childhood demeanor and attempt to conform into an adult-like society. Yet, as a freshman I remember being very confused because I was leaving my home and family and trying to fit into both the college world and even the professional world. I felt that I could not fit into any of these worlds, however. When I went home to visit I could still act like a kid, but I was still detached. But on my journey I am discovering there is a bridge between these worlds that does not necessarily leave me stranded in limbo. I can still retain some of the imaginative qualities of childhood and still be viewed and accepted as an adult in society. I can synthesize the worlds of my teenage years with the new and exciting opportunities of independence and professionalism. I do not have to choose on or the other, even though it seemed that way while I was a freshmen and sophomore. Like Anzaldua, she does not have to simply give up her culture even though many of Mexican traditional roles of woman does not line up with her own views, and still meet her own goals in America. She is still Mexican even though she feels like an Alien and she can adopt other cultures into her own. She even mentions that she wants to create her own culture, where everyone is accepted.
Anzaldua describes the differences in her worlds and how she feels as the interface between these worlds. Interface is defined, “as surface regarded as the common boundary of two bodies, spaces, or phases” ( There is an emphasis on the concept of common boundary; the interface shares both sides of one entity. It is a component of both, and I believe that Anzaldua not only lives in an interface, but I think she is an interface between two cultures. I am also an interface between my childhood and the adult world I am entering. Yet, there is a point which the interface must move past encompassing both worlds as a boundary and in essence become a new world.

The Geography of Customs and Border Security

In reading Borderlands and its description of the Mexican/US border region, I was struck how the age of aviation has changed the physical geography of our borders and what that geography – and those who populate it – says about the culture of the place one is about to enter. Take our country, for instance: When one enters the United States from a foreign nation by air, one inevitably undergoes the arduous task of navigating the serpentine Customs and Border Security line. The terminal is painted antiseptic white, and the route along the way is peppered with identical “motivational placards” depicting unknown, smiling Border Security Agents over what is apparently their motto: “We are the face of our Nation.” One is received with caution; the Agent scrutinizes your documents, asks you the necessary questions, gives you the discriminatory once-over, and either flags you for further inspection or allows you to proceed. The whole affair lasts less than a minute. The face of our nation is arguably cold and devoid of human contact. There is a disconnect between the vibrant culture that is America and the first face an immigrant entering by plane sees. I think Anzaldua would agree a border is more than a line on a map.
My experience with Italian border security while studying abroad could not have been more different. There was no white-washed, sterile environment with cliché slogans but a well-trod avenue lined with posters depicting the many historical sites of Rome. There was, in fact, no formal line; individuals actually had to interact with each other in order to form an orderly group. The Italian official was far from cold and calculating. The conversation, in Italian, went something like this:
Official: Good morning. Passport?
Me: Good morning.
Official: Procaccini, you’re Italian?
Me: Yes, Italian American.
Official: Where’s your family from?
Me: Lazio and Puglia.
Official: Ha! Wonderful. Go ahead!
He never even looked to see if I had a visa. Now, what Italians may lack in serious border security they clearly make up for in enthusiasm and gregariousness; in my opinion, the “face” of that culture is better reflected in their border than in ours.
Despite their difference, the phenomenon of the Customs terminal in any country is a no-man’s land. The travelers inside it are in a state of limbo between one culture and the next. The lens through which we view our own and other cultures can subsequently lead to conflict. Border agents are forced to discriminate through these cultural lenses and stereotypes, as are the individuals stuck in the terminal. This idea is something that Anzaldua emphasizes in the first half of Borderlands. As she says, “Culture forms our beliefs. We perceive the version of reality it tries to communicate” (38). When reality itself differs from the map that culture has given us, conflict erupts. The Spanish conquistadores entered Latin America and unexpectedly found natives, leading to their slaughter. More interesting, however, is the conflict that occurs when individuals break with the “cultural map” that stereotypes them and depart from cultural norms. An example of such an occurrence is Anzaldua’s break with her own tribe by declaring herself a lesbian and not a nun or a mother (41). Where Ihimaera reinforces the importance of the tribe and of unity, Anzaldua lashes out at it: “The welfare of the community, and the tribe is more important than the welfare of the individual. The individual exists first as kin – as sister, as father, as padrino – and last as self” (40). Maps, especially those of societal stereotypes, inevitably lose the significance of the individual unit; they plot the forest but lose the trees. She values the abnormal and the unique as opposed to the general and commonplace. The geography of Borderlands seems to synthesize these two different aspects.

The Ever Changing Border Between Sea and Sand

Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderland’s/ La Frontera is a very interesting, paradoxical book. It is very much about the “topography of displacement,” as Sonia Saldívar-Hull puts it in the introduction (2), but there is more to it than just this. The heart of the book comes in the first chapter, where Anzaldúa writes, “I stand at the edge where earth touches ocean/ where the two overlap/ a gentle coming together/ at other times and places a violent crash” (23). Borderlands is very much concerned with the physical and psychological effects of cultural identity, or the loss of such.

While reading this I was reminded of a time during the summer when I was at the beach. Planted in the sand were a set of red and green flags, designated markers signifying where people were allowed to swim—outside of the flags was off limits. The space between the flags was very small though, and people were corralled within so much that the area resembled a municipal pool. I considered these people fools, resigning themselves to 100 feet of water when they were surrounded by a vast, virgin ocean. I understood that the flags had a purpose; they were within view of the lifeguard stand and facilitated the job of the lifeguards. I preferred to swim at my own risk, free of the discomfort caused by inevitably strangers careening into me.

Intermittently while swimming outside the flags, lifeguards would drive by on ATV’s and yell at anyone swimming to come out of the water. I’d oblige and then go back in as soon as they left. One day though, I watched as they instructed a person to leave and go swim in the designated area. The man in the water stood with his back turned to the guard, acting as if he didn’t hear a word he said. The guard grew agitated and started whistling at him, shouting, flailing his arms. He looked helpless to this man’s back. The balance of power had shifted to the man in the water simply because he remained defiant. Eventually he turned around and stared at the lifeguard. The guard told him to leave the water once more, yet he stood there, blank and unwavering. After a moment of tension, the guard just threw up his hands and drove away. It was such an odd thing to see, yet it made perfect sense. Though the lifeguard was there to protect people, he had no real authority over the water.

Water is a unique object in our world, it covers most of the earth yet we fail to have dominion over it. It is a transient and dynamic force, ever moving and changing. Anzaldúa writes, “The sea cannot be fenced,/ el mar does not stop at borders” (25). The water is much like her borderlands, a place described as “a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary. It is in a constant state of transition” (25). This is an important concept to consider in conjunction with our oceans, because they cover more than two thirds of our planet. The majority of our world is essentially a borderland.

I think that this contributes to what Anzaldúa refers to as the “shadow beast.” She writes, “There is a rebel in me—the Shadow-Beast. It is a part of me that refuses to take orders from outside authorities. It refuses to take orders from my conscious will […] At the least hint of limitations on my time or space by others, it kicks out with both feet” (38). Humankind really lives in an uncertain state, a borderland. No matter what we do to create comfort, there is always a primordial fear that it will be taken away from us. This is why one of the primal archetypes common to humanity is the fear of the unknown. We are all migrants of some sort, perhaps just very far removed from the experience. Anzaldúa is dealing with this experience as an existent problem. While most of us were spared the problem of integration by our ancestors, she is experiencing it in the present. This experience though, is part of every human. Whether Irish immigrants coming to Ellis Island or nomadic natives crossing the Bering Strait, a large majority of humanity can relate to Anzaldúa. We all fear the unknown, the reality of living in a borderland—between here and there. That is why over the summer as I watched some stranger resist imposed authority I understood. There are some places we simply cannot have dominion over, no matter how much we will it.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Maps, Human Contact, and Truth

Dr. Ellis's story about becoming lost in Spain reminded me of the visit my mom and I made to France several years ago. Right before freshmen year of high school, my mom and I went to France, Spain and Monaco with my middle school French teacher and classmates. My mom bought several guides to France (of the "France for Dummies" variety) to make sure we got to see a bit of everything. On a free evening, my mom and few other chaperones decided that we simply could not miss the "mystical light display" praised in one of the guide books. Armed with a small map found in a brochure at our hotel, we set out at dark in the direction of the Sacre Coeur. We circled the lovely white church several times until we realized that "mystical light display" was actually only a few tiny light bulbs protruding from a brick sidewalk. We laughed and, in true tourist form, took pictures of ourselves sitting with the lights. We realized that the fun of the trip was as much the journey as it was the actual attraction.

On our way back to the hotel we got quite lost, even with our map. We stopped in a bakery to ask for directions, only to find that the bakers were not French but Indian. Between our broken French and their broken English (and with the help of a lot of wild arm movements), we managed to converse with them and tell them where we were from, what we were doing in Paris, and where we needed to go. They gave us free pastries (and directions) and asked us to take a picture with them so that we could send them a copy once we returned home. I suppose that we could have just hailed a taxi and arrived directly at out hotel, but it was much more fun getting to experience streets of Paris that we never would have visited otherwise and to become acquainted with individuals whose paths we would otherwise never have crossed. Experience and human contact made our small excursion memorable and significant. While we continue to laugh at the "mystical light display," it is the bakers that we remember vividly from that night and it is those men that made us see Paris as more than just the Louvre or the Eiffel Tower; they made us realize that Paris is made of people with humor and generosity just like that which we expect to give and receive in our own country.

Both Peter-Hans Kolvenbach and Epeli Hau'ofa note the necessity of human contact to the acquisition of truth. While Kolvenbach's piece, "The Service of Faith and the Promotion of Justice in American Jesuit Higher Education," focuses on the necessity of human contact to facilitate justice and create just-minded Christians, his underlying message is that human contact is necessary for all truth. People are social beings, and to live as one in Christ, Christians must make contact with people of all social and economic classes, of all races, nations, and faiths. Kolvenbach asserts that human contact will allow a just world to be achieved:

Solidarity is learned through 'contact'…When the heart is touched by direct experience, the mind may be challenged to change. Personal involvement with innocent suffering, with the injustice others suffer, is the catalyst for solidarity which then gives rise to intellectual inquiry and moral reflection. (Kolvenbach 34)

Epeli Hau'ofa's book, Tales of the Tikongs, differs greatly in subject matter and form from Kolvenbach's address; however, he also asserts that truth is only possible through human contact. Through the distortions of truth and human relationships by the Tikongs and the foreigners, Hau'ofa stresses the importance of the interconnectedness of island people to the survival of both the individual and of traditions.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

In the Tales of Tikongs, Epeli Hau’ofa presents the fictional island of Tiko and its people facing the threat of outside invaders, the westerners, who attempt to develop the island and its people. However, the change that is brought by the westerners is not welcomed. The westerners do not only bring an imposed attitude of change, but they also bring with them an attitude of belittlement towards both Tiko and its inhabitants. Throughout the Tales of Tikongs, the westerners view Tiko as a place that is in desperate need of development, and they apply the same philosophy to the citizens of Tiko. As a result, the natives end up equating their own flaws with those of the island.
On several occasions, the westerners impose their methods of development on the unsuspected natives of Tiko. During one instance from the second part of the book in “The Big Bullshit,” Pulu’s neighbor asserts, “Seems like the Kiwis are trying to turn Tiko into a regular pastureland by providing anyone interested with a small beginning for a bigger end” (60). Here, Pulu’s neighbor seems to emphasize the “Kiwis’” (New Zealanders) objective: they want to turn the island into something like their own. To do so, the New Zealanders attempt to mold Tiko’s citizens to conform to their standards. In this example, New Zealanders are cattle owners, thus they provide cattle to the inhabitants of Tiko so they too could become cattle owners.
The imposed western thinking on the natives makes them lose their own sense of selves, and forces them to think of themselves in the terms of the land. This is apparent in the already discussed passage on page 8: “The Good Book says the honest man walks that straight and narrow path, but alas! our straight roads are much too wide.” Confused because of the foreign western thought, the natives of Tiko take the Biblical words literally. Because of this western mindset, they see that their island is flawed because it does not conform to western notions. Moreover, because they identify themselves with their land, they too see themselves as flawed because they do not conform to the western notions. The natives of Tiko could not be considered honest men, because they indulge in “half-truths, quarter-truths, and one-percent truths” (7).

Over the summer I became absolutely obsessed with the writing of Kurt Vonnegut. His wit, sarcasm and absolute absurdity enabled me to view war (Slaughtehouse-Five), the state of humanity (The Sirens of Titan), and the implications of creating a nuclear power that could destroy the world (Cat’s Cradle) from a different, yet enlightened, perspective. Vonnegut’s humor was a great device in regards to how it attempted to downplay the horrible things in the world but at the same time, making them that much worse. When a person catches his or herself laughing about bombs and the world freezing over it suddenly opens that person up more to why it should not be funny.

Humor in writing enables readers to stop and have a mini dialogue within their own minds; their conscious ideas are somehow tweaked or peaked by some kind of subconscious burst that forces the person to laugh. At least for me, it is like when you see someone fall comically and you just cannot help but smile. Then all of a sudden, you think, why did I just laugh at that? That person could have been hurt. But somehow that image of a person falling down has translated to being funny. This, I believe works along the idea of the signifier-signified relationship. It is almost as if laughing is the physical embodiment of the signifier working on the signified.

This idea is something Hau’ofa understands and uses to turn an idea inside out and, just as truth is in Tiko, turned on their head. Hau’ofa uses irony, sarcasm, and role reversal to show a disconnection between what a signifier initially signified and the new connection that has created an entirely new signified thing. The capitalization of all the development committees and the “Very Important Persons” exaggerates the worth of those considered helping Tiko. At first glance, those capital letters signified a certain importance and higher status but as Hau’ofa begins capitalizing all those things which seem to rob Tiko of its own culture, those capital letters take on a new, adverse meaning. In the chapter, “Paths of Glory,” Tevita’s foreign knowledge, which seems as though it should be seen as a positive thing for Tiko becomes more of a burden for Tevita. For myself, the signifier, foreign knowledge, connoted a means of helping Tiko. But Hau’ofa switches it around and shows the disconnection it causes by ironically stating that one must lose the foreign teachings to “lead a proper life” in Tiko. Ultimately, Hau’ofa’s use of humor makes the reader aware of the reversals of the signifier-signified relationship, giving new meaning to the signifier.

The Influencing Character of Geography

What is geography? Do we define our selves by the countries we live in? What if we leave this country and visit somewhere else? Do we change? Or is it more like different set of characteristics come out and redefine us? Or do we actually pick up other characteristics from the people of the visited country? Or do we adamantly hold on to the traits we grew up with in the country we lived in? I was haunted by all these questions this summer during my trip to Egypt. My experience this summer came to me as I was reading Hau’ofa’s “Our Sea of Islands” and Wendt’s “Pacific Maps and Fictions.” From each of their respective essay, I observed that geography does have its impact of humans’ personalities and, in the long run, identity formation.
When I went to Egypt this summer, I wasn’t seen as the daughter returning to her home to see her family, but more like the “American” who is sightseeing. It was interesting to see everybody view me as a foreigner. To them, I was an outsider because I came from a different country. It really didn’t matter who I was; they were certain that I was not like them in any shape or form. The best example of this happened when I went to my mom’s hometown, which is on the outskirts of Alexandria and it’s known for its traditional values. I was invited to my mom’s uncle’s house for dinner, and they were simply shocked to see that I ate with my hands like they did. They thought that I was going to need a fork and a knife to eat. Their astonishment grew to a pitch when I laughed the whole thing off, and told them that I was raised like an Egyptian but not in Egypt. I think this most resonates with Wendt’s meaning of a cultural map: “Whatever those maps are/were, they are the grids through which we read reality” (Wendt 60). My family believed that because I was a resident of America, which has a different set of “maps” (geographically and culturally) than the ones Egypt has, I was going to assimilate those different “maps” into my being, and as a result, I was going to adopt new set of cultural values as the standard by which I view reality. All this because I lived on a different side of the globe!
However, my Egyptian family was somewhat right; my trip to Egypt became more interesting when I noticed that my personality is slowly changing during my stay in the country. For example, before I went to Egypt, I upheld the characteristically-Egyptian attitude towards time management: when I had something to do, I eventually did it when the time came up for it to be done. But, when I was in Egypt, I became quite the opposite; I was very strict with my time, and kept all my appointments to the second. This reminded me of the narrator of The Whale Rider on his trip to Australia (p.62-69). I have realized then that our character changes because of the cultural change, which comes with the territory change. Each country has its own rich history of traditions that visitors are welcomed to behold and uphold (to avoid any nasty cultural faux pas).

Truth in Tales of the Tikongs

Throughout the twelve sketches in Epeli Hau’ofa’s Tales of the Tikongs, significant questions and issues are proposed, probed, and prodded. Many of these elements, however, are hidden behind the exaggerated antics of the Tikongs and Hau’ofa’s cunning humor and satire, which give the reader an opportunity to not only ask, “What is Hau’ofa’s point of view?,” but more importantly, “What are my perspectives?” One of the most striking questions raised through each story is the question of truth. What is truth?

In “The Winding Road to Heaven,” Hau’ofa explains the how the Tikongs are perceived by foreigners as being liars, but he states, “truth comes in portions, some large, some small, but never whole” (7). The most important part of that sentence is “never whole.” In other words, Epeli is implying the Tikongs are not the only liars, but, in fact, we all are in some fashion or another liars, for our perceptions are unique and individual to ourselves and therefore a truth that a Tikong holds may not be a truth an Australian, New Zealander, or American may hold and vice versa. This concept ties into later on in the sketch when Hau’ofa says, “Truth is flexible and can be bent this way so and that way so; it can be stood on its head, be hidden in a box, and be sat upon” (8). With this sentence, one can assume that Hau’ofa is implying the truth of Imperialism, as each of the stories deals with some aspect of imperialism and its influence on Tiko. From a western perspective, the truth of Imperialism is that it brings “civilization” to savage, undeveloped lands; there is no mention of the truth of discrimination and dissection of culture that is seen only through the eyes of the Oceanic people.

One of the other questions of truth is raised with the opening line of the aforementioned sketch. “Religion and Education Destroy Original Wisdom…”(7). These words appear on Manu’s shirt, and Manu “is the only teller of big truths in the realm” (7). With these two points, Hau’ofa is implying that for his realm, the realm of the Pacific islands, original wisdom gained from the community and from the land is truth; their natural and traditional ways are truth. In the western realm, religion and formal education may be the truth, but not necessarily in Tiko. Hau’ofa wants his readers to think about their own personal realm and what is considered truth is that realm and through this exercise, the audience can realize how to appreciate the varying truths from around the world.

Although Hau’ofa does not offer a direct and explicit answer to his very philosophical question, he provokes his readers to think--think about history, their place in history, their culture, their identity, and their views about fellow human beings. Perhaps the one truth that Hau’ofa wants us to understand and realize as a whole truth through this process is that we are all humans.

The Importance and Unimportance of Signifiers.

In “The Glorious Pacific Way,” Mr. Minte spends a significant amount of time trying to make Ole ask the right questions so that the young islander can obtain what he wants. In his instructions, he says, “You have to ask for something more directly relevant…relevance is the key that opens in the world” (85). Throughout Tales of the Tikongs, Hau’ofa has played with relevance of language: Truth is universal, but the signifiers that describe it don’t transport well between cultures. In “The Seventh Day and Other Days,” he explicitly states that “Truth is flexible…it can be stood on its head, hidden in a box, and sat upon,” yet it is still Truth. To put it in linguistic terms, Hau’ofa is saying that signifiers may differ from place to place, but the signified and the referent remain the same. Hau’ofa’s use of satire seems to reflect this “discontinuous continuity”.
Satire is a widely understood literary genre regardless of whether a culture calls it satire, and it need not rely on inside knowledge of a particular culture. He demonstrates this by using dead metaphors from the English language while satirizing the Tikongs. For example, he writes that “the stage was set for Tiko to skin her own pigs and control her Manifest Destiny” (48). The reference to Manifest Destiny has no place in this context and is misapplied; his use of such a metaphor is actually a witty criticism of its use in the English language. One exercises a degree of control over something through the device of language, since a signifier creates something that is signified, hence his previous instance that the Pacific a “sea of islands” and not the reverse. This power of language is a cross-cultural truth, however, and is not limited to any particular place: Hau’ofa’s use of oral storytelling devices like rhythm, imagery, and metaphor speaking to universal relevance. Ironically enough, he satirizes and individual who is seeking oral tradition but is corrupted by the very words he uses.
The final half of Tales of the Tikongs, from “Paths to Glory,” is noticeably less humorous than the first half. The tales still deal with very serious subjects but they are not veiled with humorous anecdotes and quips. Also, the Tikongs are no longer presented as fun-loving, sexually charged, easy spirited humans but capitalistic and individualist people. The stories themselves are blunt and in some cases, like “Blessed are the Meek,” are incredibly depressing. Hau’ofa almost totally abandons his sense of humor here because he moves from poignant vignettes about the solidarity of the Tikongs to their more “developed-minded” sensibilities.
In this second half, the jaded voice of Manu suddenly becomes much more viable as the reader sees the kind of atmosphere the self-absorbed nature ideas of development and money-hoarding bring. Puku Leka’s family in “Blessed are the Meek” are a perfect example of this. They use the physically powerful and emotionally subservient Puku to work their land and gain profits for themselves while he is left behind by both family and state. Sailosi Atiu in “The Second Coming” is the model hypocrite and even admits to enjoy “lording over” (52) his employees like an imperial while his wife remains sexually frustrated. Ole Pasifikiwei in “The Glorious Pacific Way” continues to shelve his self-respect even after his reason for assistance “goes down the drain” and in fact becomes “a first-rate, expert beggar” (93), which are the concluding lines of the novella.
In these final stories, the light-hearted tales of hormonal development in the face of Christianity and sinning two opposites to cancel the sins out are gone. In their stead are grim portraits of islanders subjected to the pressures of development whether they’re the ones perpetuating the pain or not. So, Hau’ofa is not even in a position to use humor to portray the Tikongs, a microcosm for the “sea of islands,” when they are systematically destructed without being fully aware of it because to put a veil over this situation would be just as harmful.

The Irony in Preserving Tradition

It seems to me that the essence of oral tradition is in its form of transmission; by physically telling a story the orator is able to change the pitch and inflection of the characters’ voices, include body language to illuminate a point, and infuse any given version of the story with little exaggerations, or half-truths as Hau’ofa might say, that elevate the meaning of the tale. In “The Glorious Pacific Way”, the last story of Hau’ofa’s collection of tales in his book, Tales of the Tikongs, Ole Pasifikiwei is on a mission to collect and record the oral traditions of his “island country”. “It’s about time someone started recording and preserving them before they are lost forever”, is the response to his plight made by Mr. Minte, a somewhat disagreeable and condescending diplomat who eventually grants Ole extra funding for his project.
Although it is certainly important to continue to pass on the traditions of a culture, I have to wonder what is lost when they are written down on paper, and thus preserved in a singular form forever, no longer to be infused by the unique qualities each separate story-teller brings to the tradition, Hau’ofa, through subtle language and strategic satire, points out the downfalls of such a project. Ole attends a seminar(on the proper methods of collecting oral tradition—an irony in itself) in Manila, suggested to him by Mr. Minte, and asks his Great-aunt to watch his home while he is gone. He returns to find it very tidy, and asks at once where she has placed his ratty composition books that are filled with the seven years worth of recorded oral traditions from various parts of the islands. Her reply is that since he had left her no money for food and to keep clean, “I used some and sold the rest cheaply to neighbors. They’re poor, Ole, but they also have to be hygienic.”(91)
The irony in the fact that Ole’s years of work were used for toilet paper is a shining example of the role of the human body and humor that Hau’ofa employs throughout Tales of the Tikongs. It cannot be argued that the use of toilet paper is a necessity if one wishes to practice proper hygiene; and yet, the discussion of such a necessity, and its insinuation of bodily functions, has become somewhat taboo, at least in Western culture—it just makes people uncomfortable. Who’s to say that talking about bodily functions is in bad taste, when it is a fact of human nature and subsequently a trait we all share? I cannot pretend that I am completely comfortable discussing it as a topic-- as I have been raised with Western ideals that discourage it--but Hau’ofa’s playful tone and attitude towards it makes it a bit more approachable as a subject.
It also seems extremely ironic, and therefore most definitely strategic, that it is the Great Aunt who lived in the time of oral tradition, that rids Ole of his textual artifacts of stories that are meant to be transmitted orally from generation to generation. Those very stories actually help his relative and fellow villagers by providing them with a basic human need: it is a clear testament to their importance, though it may not be what Ole had in mind. Hau’ofa’s references to the body, as well as his subtle humor, pointed at both his own culture and the Imperialist ideals, allow him to make siginificant points so subtly.

Questioning the Tikongs

At the end of our last meeting, we were given two questions to consider concerning Tales of the Tikongs: Why is the structure appropriate and what is the function of satire.
As we discussed, Hau'ofa splits his work up into loosely related short stories. While this obviously introduces the readers to more characters and perspectives, this technique has other implications. For instance, it reinforces the importance of certain recurring characters, like Manu. When the reader sees Manu giving advice to sinners in one story and harassing development officials in another, he or she locks on to the appearance. Manu is no longer merely a meddling islander and neither is his position as counselor defined by another single character. In addition, it allows for the author to make drastic shifts in point of view. In the story entitled “Paths to Glory,” for example, the reader assumes the role of Tevita Poto as his uncle and others reprimand him: “You walk around like a fool; you walk around like Manu. That's humility taken too far and no one respects you for it”(Hau'ofa 43). The perspective of each story does not necessarily have to coincide with every other one. As a result, second person point of view can be employed to draw the reader into the world of Tikong. Therefore, it is appropriate for Hau'ofa to use such frames in his story as it emphasizes important characters and themes while inviting the reader to become an active participant in his world.
In general terms, satire concerns the use of irony or ridicule to bring human faults and follies to light. Since Hau'ofa is describing the actions and personalities of the inhabitants of a fictional island I believe that he is poking fun at them in order to draw broader conclusions about the Western world by comparison. He discusses a generic Tikong, who “tends to walk short even though he may be tall, and will not take even a dwarfish step if he can help it”(Hau'ofa 68). Most readers will think this description foolish. Why not walk tall and be proud if one deserves it? It seems ridiculous for someone like Puku Leka to stoop and submit himself to the abuse of others for no personal gain. The careful reader, on the other hand, will see this as a jab at cultures that hold material gain and social status above all else. Is it not even more ridiculous for someone to dress himself up in expensive clothes and look down his nose at others for the sole reason that he can? At least Puku can look forward to eternal rewards in Heaven for his lifetime of humility and service. Those of wealthier, Western cultures may end up trying to squeeze themselves through the eye of a needle.

Individually Necessary and Jointly Sufficient

The disjointed and oddly connected reverence of the stories in Tales of the Tikongs by Epeli Hau’ofa evokes the idea and structure of connectivity and independence. Independently, these structures and stories could not stand alone as an individual work or they would not convey the same theme Hau’ofa offers. They are individually necessary to the work, but also jointly sufficient to be seen as a whole. There is no particular structure to the individual stories and they are not obedient to a particular organization. Jointly the structure serves to both orient and disorient the reader through layers of interpretation horizontally and even inadvertently. The narrator illustrates the stories with depth and humor, which the reader functions as an outsider who comes to understand the Pacific demeanor. The reader is forced to focus on the individual and then pushed back to gain a greater understanding from a distance.
The character, Sailosi seems to conserve the traditions of the pacific as he enacts traditional aspects on his employees. From a closer reading Sailosi is an ironic character for as he presses Pacific culture on his employees, he is acting like Americans who are attempting to push their culture on the Pacific. Sailosi states:
“ Every morning I shall tell you what things we must banish from our lives, and I shall do this until I am satisfied that we have cleansed ourselves of the imperialist taint and reestablished our true Tikong selves”(51)
He even uses American metaphors, “ he is a wolf in sheep’s clothing” ( 55), unconsciously allowing American influence into his common speech.
Ironically, Sailosi is acting like the imperialist his is obliterating from his surroundings. He is denying the Manu or Pacific indifferent attitude and embracing a demeanor of western imperialism but forcing his employee to be traditional. A closer reading reveals how even the attitude of the natives can be influenced by the western culture. Like, Plato’s apology the reader must apply a deeper reading into the subtle characters and deeper layers of dialogue to fully grasp the true behind the speech.
As the reader connects to each individual character through the individual anecdotes, he can finish the book with a hermeneutic reaction and appreciation for the people. The book must be taken as a whole to completely and fully understand the Pacific. The reader not only understands the reaction of the Pacific natives to the western influence, but also the individual traditions of the Island ways. The stories together must be seen as a whole to grasp the traditions and even demeanor of the indigenous people of the pacific.

Lessons of the Tikongs

Epeli Hau’ofa’s Tale of the Tikongs profoundly corresponds to this unit’s geography signifier. Even though Tiko is not a place that one can find on a map of the South Pacific, it resonates with the reader that the experiences of the indigenous people who live there are very much real. Whether Samoans or Maori or Aboriginals, these people have had much to overcome in their dealings with Western colonization. Hau’ofa combines alternative wisdom with South Pacific traditions, giving his work two distinct levels of depth.
The first level of Tales of the Tikongs is the surface level. The anecdotes are humorous, ridiculous, and excessive, providing for an entertaining read. The gratuitousness of the stories keeps them interesting. Because the construction of the book is not particularly linear, a reader can pick up the story at the beginning of any chapter and still understand the author’s meaning.

Unlike most stories that we read in early childhood and then re-read in early adulthood for deeper meanings (Lord of the Flies, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, etc.), Tales of the Tikongs contains more explicit material and adult themes which would not be appropriate for children (even though Hau’ofa treats the material casually). For this reason, the book would only be read at a level of greater maturity; one in which the reader clearly identifies the deeper levels of meaning.
This brings into question the second level of Hau’ofa’s book. For each story, the reader is able to see a clearly-emerging moral, oftentimes the complete opposite of what the characters in the stories believe. The influence of Western colonization on the Tikongs brings to the forefront of the reader’s mind the difficulties inherent in cultural subordination. The aloofness, greed, and insensitivity of the Western world and the laziness, indolence, and apathy of the Tikongs combine to teach the reader lessons about the importance of independence as well as allegiance to one’s own lifestyle, whatever it may be.

Searching For Truth in Tiko

The structure and content of Paths to Glory stands out in stark contrast to the rest of the stories in Tales of the Tikongs. For the first time the reader is presented with a chapter lacking narrative story, or any linear storytelling. Instead, there is a unique chapter comprised of multiple monologue pointed at one source. Numerous ideologies and advice are given to a wealthy young Tikong, Tevita Poto, but between these lines lies a hidden subtext commenting on the nature of fiction and truth.

The subject is at first chastised for being unkempt, “Look at you. Is that the appearance of a Man of Many Degrees? […] your clothes are those of foolish folk […] You walk around like a fool; you walk around like Manu” (43). What is the fault in this though? Manu has presented as a spiritual figure of Tiko, a voice of truth and a link to the “Original Wisdom” (7) of Tiko. There is nothing to be admonished in being like Manu, and the idea of “foolishness” as a virtue even goes back to Shakespeare. King Lear’s fool was the wisest figure in his apparent madness.

After this questionable transgression, Tevita Poto is then questioned more. He is asked, “Why do you criticize the Government so much? Why do you criticize the Church so much? You say you want to speak the truth. What’s the use if truth in Tiko? […] Will it make anyone rich? (43-44). It comes as a surprise that a Tikong would be so concerned with material wealth, but perhaps this is why they are Men of Many Degrees. In this light, and regarding these comments, the Church comes out not as a source of religious worship—but a financial institution. The Church is the biggest business in Tiko—it is after all the only place people work. Ignoring this is to believe lies, but also the very reason Poto is criticized.

The speakers continue their dishonesty in moving to the actual religion of the Church, saying, “The Church is God’s creation” (44), and “Don’t you know the Bible is not a history book? The Bible is the word of God!” (45). The fallacy here is that the Church is man’s creation, and if the Bible is to be believed verbatim, than it too is a history book. The truth is being distorted and disregarded by these speakers.

After hearing these criticisms, Poto is advised by a poor man. He reprimands him for dressing poor, for not being what he is. He speaks profoundly on food and how he can only eat scraps. Yet he claims, “We eat and love it. It’s a matter of getting used to what you can buy” (47). The connection to religion is blatant, and Hau’ofa is commenting on the Pacific Islands themselves. The rich believe in whatever makes them richer, the poor whatever they are forced to. Hau’ofa’s character here seeks only truth, and realizes why it is such a small commodity in Tiko. Truth cannot exist where it is not allowed to. After generations of dishonesty, the natives have bought into the very belief system that is used to confine them. Paradoxically, the sunlit beautiful islands are actually enshrouded in overwhelming darkness.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Structure of Tales of the Tikongs

Epeli Hau'ofa's Tales of the Tikongs is comprised of twelve chapters, each of which focuses on a fictional Tikong character. The character are unique in their attitudes and actions; however, the chapters are unified by the common geography of Tiko, the presence of Manu (an anti-development figure), and by common struggles against the foreigners' attempts to develop the Pacific island. This narrative structure is appropriate for the subject matter being presented by Hau'ofa. The author works to show the reader that diversity and unity are not mutually exclusive. The author is a champion of unity between Pacific islands, which, after all, do share one ocean. By presenting the Tikongs as individuals each possessing a story, but unified in one body of work, Hau'ofa continues to express his belief that the survival of all the individual heritages and cultural traditions of the islands depends on both the respect of diverse customs and the striving by all islanders for unity within and without their individual ocean homes.

This narrative structure also enables Hau'ofa to reveal the many facets of Tiko. In each story, Hau'ofa is able to focus on a specific aspect of Tikong life. Although religion is important to many chapters in Tales of the Tikongs, it is perhaps most directly addressed in "A Pilgrim's Progress." If Hau'ofa had used a regular, linear novel format, he would never have been able to digress into such an interesting look at the Tikongs' search for faith, the role of faith and religious ceremony at different stages of life, and the cyclical tendencies of faith. Such a story would have had to be shortened in a novel format so as to avoid being distracting. The narrative structure introduces the reader to more characters than could ever be explored in a novel too. In a novel, there would be only a few protagonists, but in this structure, the reader meets many Tikongs, representing the many real-life characters that inhabit the Pacific. Characters such as Ti Pilo Simini in "The Wages of Sin" would either be cut from a novel, or mentioned in brief. This structure gives Hau'ofa the freedom to devote a short section to Ti Pilo Simini and introduce the reader to Ti's interesting moral code ("he always commits two [sins] simultaneously, one the equal and opposite of the other" (42). Ti's fear of the wrath of Heaven and his subsequent decision that two sins cancel one another out is humorous, but also shows that not all Tikongs are equally righteous and moral. Hau'ofa would not have had the freedom to include characters such as Ti in a novel.

It is interesting to consider how Tales of the Tikongs would have progressed if each section had been narrated by the different characters in each. I think that the structure of this book functions best with one narrator so as to keep the stories objective and so that Hau'ofa is able to humorously satirize both Tikongs and foreign aides. It would have been more difficult to avoid offending readers if the stories were told in the first person; however, it would have been interesting to read these stories from the direct perspective of those whose lives are influenced by development on Tiko.

The structure of this novel made me consider how a story about my own city would be told. To capture the life of Baltimore there would be sections on Mayor Dixon (like there are on Sione and other Most Important People); there would be a section devoted to the old man, Hoot, at my Dundalk church, who, like Noeli, has witnessed several different Christian denominations; there might be a section on the sick homeless man who walks ceaselessly on the MLK median before the 395/295 split begging coins or maybe cigarettes like Ti Pilo Simini. Like the struggle in Tiko, development could also be the focus in a story about Baltimore: development over and around those who need it most.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Magothy River: Part of My Map

Growing up in Severna Park, water has always been an important part of my life. Everyone in Severna Park lives only a few miles from either the Magothy River or the Severn River, both of which feed into the Chesapeake Bay. My house is a small rancher built by my great-great grandparents. Certainly there are nicer houses in well-landscaped communities, but my family finds magic at our house in its view of the Magothy. My brother and I grew up belly-flopping off my uncle's pier next door—much as my mother did a few decades before. Most days, the sun rises over the river, shimmering on little waves and on the wake of early boaters, but other days the river blends into gray sky and lightening reflects off the water and seems to surround the house. During hurricanes, the river swells and creeps up the beach and then to the hill toward our house. Hurricane Isabelle caused the Magothy's waves to grow large and white-capped as ocean waves. Next door, my uncle's pier was completely covered by water. We had removed all the kayaks from the beach, but our neighbors' boats, left on boat lifts, were in danger of being swamped. When the worst of the storm had passed, my family stood at the top of the hill in front of our house looking over the gray river rising toward us. It was already halfway up the hill and our neighbor's yard, lower than ours, was already a bog. When I was little, I once went crabbing in that yard from a trampoline after a hurricane, but I was too young to be impressed by the power of the storm and the river. Standing on the hill after Isabelle, I realized how powerful the Magothy is. Normally, the river is calm, perfect for boating, floating, resting. Sometimes, deer swim across at night and there are hoof prints on the beach—or at least, that is what my uncle told my brother and me when we were young and the story stuck. The river holds a restorative power for me and being near the water helps me maintain balance in my life. The hurricane made me realize that in addition to its restorative properties, the river can also be destructive. During the hurricane, the river had a current and waves strong enough to destroy and carry away the bulkhead protecting the hill. I had a new respect for the river that I swam in and I felt connected with the family members who lived here before me and witnessed the same beauty and power in the river. My father gets frustrated with the upkeep of the beach, but he is not connected by blood to the river like my mother is. It is her family who has been here for over a century and it must be from her whom I get my need of the river. Being near water, and everything good and bad that goes with it, makes me feel connected to everything else in the world. I respect the river for its gifts and for the power it has. Living where my family has lived for so long gives me roots. It is comforting to know that the river I see every morning is the same river my great-grandmother saw everyday. The Magothy River gives me a sense of belonging.

Albert Wendt, in his lecture "Pacific Maps and Fiction(s): a Personal Injury," explores the alienation and "condition of exile" (59) that haunts Western thought. Wendt describes a conflict of native tribes and colonizing Pakeha juggling for influence and sense of belonging in Polynesia. He discusses maps of all kinds: geographical, emotional, imposed, dream, mythological. The Magothy River is a central feature on my map, which is not (especially since I have a horrible sense of direction) entirely geographic, but includes family lines, academic paths, and highways and dead ends my heart and dreams have reached. Just as the Magothy is a prominent feature of my map, the Pacific region dominates Wendt's map. He admits, "I won't pretend I know the Pacific in all her manifestations…no one ever will because whenever we think we've captured her, she has already assumed new guises. The love affair is endless and intriguing because she is always changing, yet she is, she is herself, the Pacific" (61). The changing face of the Pacific makes Wendt realize that memory is subjective. No one will ever have the same memories of a place because of the tricks of time: once a memory is captured, the thing remembered has already been changed. "One tagata's reality and maps are another's fiction(s)" (61). It is possible to establish oneself through connections to geography, but because geography is changeable, one must also establish oneself through lineage. According to Donna Awatere, "Who I am and my relationship to everyone else depends on my whakapapa, on my lineage, on those from whom I am descended. One needs one's ancestors therefore to define one's present" (63). Wendt finds roots both in lineage and geography, encountered by his ancestors and by himself. Wendt finds roots in geography such as the Vaipe, "a dirty little stream which flowed through our neighborhood (and our childhood) as our fabulous Mississippi" (65), because this river was a constant on the maps created by his elders' stories. The Magothy could also be considered merely a "dirty little stream" but it is Severna Park's Mississippi and an important part of my map. It makes me feel connected to past family members and therefore helps me establish myself, just as Wendt's Pacific geographical features connect him to his ancestors and help him to reestablish himself in Aotearoa.

Map of a Tattoo

My best friend, Michelle, recently got a tattoo on her lower stomach in the shape of a butterfly sculpted in a breast cancer ribbon. She claimed that the tattoo was a symbol of her mother who struggled and eventually lost the battle with breast cancer. She wanted to brand herself physically, so that every morning as she got dressed for the day, she would remember her mother’s love for her only daughter. To an outsider this symbolic tattoo may look like a reflection of our rebellious American culture on our teens, but to Michelle and anyone involved with her family, it is a constant reminder of her past and history. She was constantly condemned by her acquaintances and the symbol was misinterpreted or made fun of on a regular basis. Yet, their interpretation did not equate the emotional connection she identified with it. I believe her tattoo served as a symbolic map to her as her own significant artifact of her mother, and could only be understood correctly through her voice.
I thought how this physical symbol not only served as memorial for Michelle, but it also served as a map for herself, and stood for her own sacred identity. This metaphorical map connects Michelle to the memory and legacy of her mother. Wendt would describe Michelle’s symbol as an emotional map, which is invisible to the people who cannot see this symbol for what is means. Michelle can establish her history from this interpretation of her past through a symbol on her body, similar to the Maori and other tribes of the Pacific. They did this to ensure the survival of their history, and to represent some cultural aspect of their tribe. The outside interpretation of a culture or person is not always the correct one. Wendt believes that his people must stand up for who they are and what they believe and return to the culture that established their legacy.
Wendt continues to identify what he considers symbols of the Pacific people, as the true maps of the Pacific, not the maps created by Western culture. Wendt states, “We read one another through what we believe, through the mirrors of whom and what we are. These maps originally created by his people, identified what geographic aspect of the island or what was conveyed through the map as an important cultural detail to the Pacific islands. However, the new maps created by the west were unable to display the importance of the tribe and what they held as geographically significant to their culture. By doing so, the traditions and culture of the Pacific islands are belittled. The maps are not only a physical element of the culture, but also portray the importance and emotional significance of its people.

Emotional Maps

I’ll admit it; I’m one of those people that studied abroad and just can’t quite get over it. One glorious semester in Melbourne (properly pronounced “Melbin”), Australia was all it took for me to become completely infatuated with the land down under. I can say without reservation that I am able to relate anything and everything possible back to some aspect of my time abroad. Things like comforters, sweaters, and workmen all too easily became “doonas,” “jumpers,” and “tradies.” While my family and friends roll their eyes and sigh impatiently, I recount how we almost hit a kangaroo with our car or the time I ate a coconut straight off of a rain forest palm tree. Even the most obscure circumstances became viable fodder for another “One time in Australia…” anecdote.
It is absolutely astounding how easily a person fixes their mental associations to a place. In this way, a random geographical location- a place on a map- is able to forge a deep emotional connection to a person who bears no affiliation to that place other than happenstance or wanderlust. Yet, the emotional connection is one that is both real and powerful.
Six months ago, I told myself that I would stay forever. Here was this beautiful, soaring country with its dangerous and simultaneously delicate landscape full of gorgeous sunsets and the bluest waters imaginable. I had made a life for myself there with a new home and new friends. I remember thinking that it had all felt like a dream; but as with all dreams, one must eventually wake up and face reality. “You cannot stay,” said the government. “You cannot stay,” said Loyola. “You cannot stay,” said my family. They didn’t understand; I had become Australian. I had even started to like Vegemite!
Growing up, I had looked at maps all the time. I put pushpins into the places I had been (New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania). Places like Australia and New Zealand had once seemed so far away, little lumps on a globe and nothing more.
In his work, “Pacific Maps and Fiction(s): A Personal Journey,” Albert Wendt makes many insightful and especially astute observations. One in particular caught my attention. He refers to maps as “the grids through which we read reality. We each have preferred maps, learned maps, what we believe our cultures, our nations, ourselves, were and are.” (61) Wendt understands what it is to have a distinct and close connection to a certain part of the earth and to internalize that place into a characteristic of who she is, just as she might catalog herself into the category of left-handedness or an August birthday.
Wendt reasserts this point on page 64 when he considers, “Without realizing it then, these early maps would shape my life and determine that I too would become a teller/writer of stories, and that my stories would return often to draw from that storehouse of maps, wisdom, and dreams.” Again, he credits the maps in shaping his life and determining who he would become. Furthermore, he places the maps in the same category as wisdom and dreams, the “storehouse” from which he may later draw.
When I put a pushpin into Australia, officially recognizing my journey for the first time on a personal level, I had many of these same feelings. Once a person lets a place on a map define them and who they are, a connection is forever forged; a bond is made that is so profound and so permanent that it becomes something that no one (not the government, not your home university, not even your family) can ever make you leave behind.

Geographical Signifiers Analysis

We often overlook geography in our day-to-day lives. It is one of those concepts that is understood, but rarely acknowledged as something that could have a personal effect on one’s life. My entire life, I have been surrounded by the geographical beauties of the Hudson River Valley in New York, but I never fully appreciated the idea and gift of geography until I left my home to study abroad.

Flying into Ireland as the dawn breaks over the horizon is one of the most breathtaking images I have ever experienced. The mix of shadows and light made the geography of the country’s western coast seem beautifully dreamlike and unworldly. From my view, at a twenty thousand mile altitude, I could see everything - - the darkness of the sea, the ripples of the waves, the white foam as it crashed against the rough rocky coastline, and the sprawling green landscape can never be adequately captured by picture or painting. Seeing these awe inspiring natural characteristics opened my eyes to the amazing yearlong experience I was about to embark upon. They helped me become acquainted with the country I would be calling my home; they welcomed me; they helped me break the confinement of my little world so that I may be open to new peoples, cultures, and worlds.

That moment on the plane gave me a sense of comfort, which one of the main things I experienced while abroad. The people I met and became friends with were welcoming and comforting just as the land welcomed and comforted the crashing waves. I suppose in a sense I could be viewed as a wave, coming all the way from the opposite side of the Atlantic, breaking against the land. I quickly learned that this sense of hospitality is very much apart of the Irish culture and something that is treated with respect. As a foreigner, I had prepared my self to come face to face with hostility, especially given the current state of world events, but the kindness was a welcomed surprise and allowed me to ease into my new environment seamlessly enabling me to grow and become enriched in all aspects of life.

My geographical experience in Ireland immediately popped into my head as I was reading Epeli Hau’ofa’s essay, Our Sea of Islands. Throughout the article, Hau’ofa speaks of the belittling views held by the majority of the Oceania cultures and inhabitants. Many see Oceania as an area of numerous small islands in the middle of nowhere, which are all dependant on the world’s “super power” nations, such as America and European nations. Because these islands are small dots speckling the ocean, they are in a way helpless. What Hau’ofa suggests, however, is that this “narrow, deterministic perspective” is hopeless, and perpetuates a sense of confinement throughout the world (30). In other words, the inhabitants of the islands are confined by their landscape and therefore confined in their minds. This cannot be true, though. The islanders cannot be confined by their landscape when they are so close to the ocean, which touches all corners of the world, and practice reciprocity with the ocean. In their culture, land and ocean are one, interconnecting, and unlimited. Those who do not realize this connection participate in the very confinement they are applying to the islands and islanders.

We can connect Hau’ofa’s claims with Ihimaera’s in The Whale Rider. Both authors stress the importance on man’s relationship with the land and sea and how the demise of that relationship ultimately leads to the demise of human connection and, in a larger view, humanity. Kahu was able to save humanity and reestablish that connection and oneness between man and nature, which saved her tribe and community, and Hau’ofa is calling his readers to release their thoughts of confinement so that we can be open to becoming one with the ocean and land. For me, I was able to witness first hand the connection between land and see – how land welcomed the sea- and how the people of the land mirrored the geography, welcoming me into their land and culture.

Pacific Islands and Roman Piazza

Despite its great size, there is a modern signifier that most people rely on but fail to notice: the city. Just as natives give significance to natural topography, the geography and architectural elements of the modern city combine to create a language that communicates the values of those that inhabit it. One particular city that speaks with a refined voice ripened over centuries is the Italian capital of Rome. In particular, there is a definitive architectural element that, while simple in form, is able to signify the ever-evolving cultural values of the inhabitants of the Eternal City: the Italian piazza. Like the geographical and cultural maps of New Zealand’s Maori, the piazza can communicate the lineage and values of Italian culture across the centuries.

An intrepid traveler may discover at least three distinct types of piazza in Rome: Renaissance, Baroque, and Modern. The Renaissance piazza is either perfectly circular or square in shape and bounded on all sides by a loggia (or portico) through which men and women may walk; it is often centered on a gushing fountain. This architectural form is reflective of Italian Renaissance thought, which valued classical forms of beauty and unity and promoted social exchange. On the other hand, the later-constructed Baroque piazzas like often lack the loggia, are oval in shape, and centered on a sculpture. While still a central meeting place for inhabitants, the sculpture was meant as an ever present reminder of state power. Each of these ancient forms has given way, however, to the modern piazza: it has no graceful loggia, no trickling fountain, no towering obelisk; they have each been replaced with parking spaces. In a culture where individuals are ever more atomized and social unity and exchange has taken a backseat to productivity, the piazza has reflected this change. Despite these changes, the concurrent existence of these three forms serves to subtly portray the Italian lineage to a careful observer.

Just as one is able to read the history of Rome in its architectural map, Albert Wendt and Epeli Hau’ofa describe how one can read the geographic and cultural "maps" of New Zealand to discover its history and culture. For Hau’ofa, the language one uses to refer to the physical features of his country is a more important a signifier than the geography itself. The signifiers of language have the ability to energize a culture or to stultify it. As he notes, "there is a world of difference between viewing the Pacific as ‘islands in a far sea’ and as ‘a sea of islands.’" (31). The first connotes "a perpetual state of wardship" (30) or dependency on others; a string of "tiny" islands cannot be self-sufficient in the modern age. Hau’ofa argues, however, that this view is only the results of the linguistic signifiers used to describe his home. Like the piazza, the signifier and the referent are able to signify important social realities, whether it is the consolidation of state power or the evolution of neocolonialism. In the case of New Zealand, he argues a change in signifier could alone have a significant effect on the island nations of the Pacific.

In his lecture "Pacific Maps and Fiction(s)," Arthur Wendt describes the importance of the many types of cultural "maps": the geographical, the literary, and the historical. Each of these has a foundation in both fact and fiction, but neither element may be dismissed. We are each born into a "treasure house of oral ‘maps’/traditions" that, along with our location, contributes to our lineage and ultimately our sense of self. In order to gain a sense of oneself, one must strip away the fictions to read the truth. In Rome, the stratified nature of the city allows one view historical signifiers from every era: the lineage and history of Italian culture is literally written on the walls and stones of the city in addition to the history books. By stripping away the myths and popular explanations for these structures, one can discover the rich history and cultural they signify.