Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Post-colonial Metamorphosis in Zadie Smith's White Teeth

--the growing divide between parent and hybrid species.
Even in the darkness, Irie could see Clara scowl. “Permishon for what? Koo go and share and ogle at poor black folk? Dr. Livingshone, I prejume? Iz dat what you leant from da Shalfenz? Because if thash what you want, you can do dat here. Jush sit and look at me for shix munfs! (313)
This speech by Clara is an eruption of confused resentment, spouted during a late night argument between her and her only child, Irie. Gaze, attitude, and voice cover the ground between the two women in a mist of bitter feelings as they face each other off: Clara, middle-aged, crouched beside the traditional roots of her Jamaican heritage, against Irie, 17 yrs old, standing headheldhigh with the propriety of a proper British teenager. The broken words Clara speaks smack of the uneducated speech of Afro-Caribbean dialect, working thus to identify her with her family's rich history, while Irie, who has been seemingly metamorphosing into a different person after studying beneath the pseudo-British Chalfens, reflects an altered perspective and attitude raging downward at her mother. This passage thus sets the stage for the fissured conflict between Clara and Irie and the broader clash of generations—the traditional and the hybrid.

In this speech Clara draws a subtle yet clear distinction between herself and her daughter. A significant phrase in this passage is “Dr. Linvinshone, I prejume?”—an expression which hearkens back to the earliest periods of colonization and Christianization of Africa, the great unpeeling of the vast dark continent. When American explorer and journalist Henry Stanley first met Dr. Livingstone in 1871 on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, he reported greeting him with these words in a measure of “cowardice and false pride" (see footnote). The words reflect marked deference and were probably similarly spoken by Clara, packed also with an underhanded use of the “absurd intonation” she remarks about being taught to “a generation of English kids” (303)--perhaps directing them as a mockery of Irie's British education. She cleverly uses them also to refer to the historical tragedies associated with Africa’s colonization. She locates herself among the “poor black folk” whom she imagines Dr. Livingstone and others, particularly the Chalfens, “ogling” under the pretense of aiming to help them.
Apart from this, her garbled words, “Jush sit and look at me for shix munfs!” seem to pack a hidden resentment toward Irie, as if Clara feels that her daughter has become a detached member of her family. She could easily feel betrayed by Irie’s pretentious attitude (seen in the previous dialogue) after complementing her prior to the argument on her “honest to God Bowden” body (222). In Clara’s view, Irie’s new criticizing perspective, then, has separated her from what she truly is, or at least from what Clara perceives her to truly be.
Indeed, Irie's speech does seem to reflect this. She speaks down at her mother, saying “Why can’t you just sit up properly and talk to me properly and drop the ridiculous little-girl voi—” (313). Is this merely insolence on the teenager’s part, or has the time she’s spent with the Chalfens convinced her that she’s of some other breed than her mother? Irie leaves this conversation reflecting that her “parents were damaged people, missing hands, missing teeth” (314). She is thus in fact, as Clara accuses, “ogling” her mother and father, even dismembering them. Her perspective has effectively morphed into something disconnected from its roots.
Along with her newly adopted gaze and attitude, Irie’s actions reveal a sly power rising against her parents. The narrator describes her as having developed a “well-worn tactic” to get what she wants from her mother: “She knew from experience that her mother was most vulnerable when in bed; late at night she spoke softly like a child, her fatigue gave her a pronounced lisp” (312). This is top-rate scientific manipulation, taking advantage of her mother at her weakest point. This behavior is reminiscent of colonizing practices McClintock describes in her piece, in which she discusses the invader studying the desired territory and culture before piercing it, as it were, directly between the armor (see footnote). Often the fatal blow to a nation before its completed colonization was the establishment of a dominant language. When a colonizing nation places its language at the top of the educational hierarchy, for example, the newly ‘othered’ language always takes on a stigma of simplicity, rudeness, even savagery. This is an ancient tactic, mastered by such conquistador masterminds as Alexander the Great and Hernán Cortés. Irie makes the method her own. When Clara is most linguistically incapacitated she is most vulnerable to manipulation. Irie is well-aware that this occurs at night whenever Clara removes her false teeth--teeth which have acted as her most loyal protection since her moped accident. With her teeth removed she opens up a gap in her armor just large enough for Irie’s scheming devices.
Thus, Irie demonstrates a bold and thorough severance of the bond between her and her parents, especially Clara. A stark divide has been crafted over time that distinguishes Irie as her own breed apart from that of her parents. As a second generation immigrant, Irie has developed her own version of a colonizer’s gaze that scientifically observes defects in her parents’ physical and symbolic bodies. Whereas she rests on a podium of education, possesses a backdoor connection with the colonizer, and owns full reign of the colonizer’s language, her mother, a first generation immigrant, remains among the lower rungs of immigrant society. Indeed, Clara self-identifies with the servile deference and ‘otherness’ of a second-class citizen. Her roots place her on the outer margins of English society, where interestingly she is willing to remain--even if it means forging a broad split with her only child.

-The Autobiography of Sir Henry Morton Stanley. Boston, 1909.
-Dangerous Liaisons: Gender, Nation, and Postcolonial Perspectives. McClintock, Anne, Aamir Mufti, and Ella Shohat. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1997. Print.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Grand Choice

Rushdie's use of wording stands out in this passage, along with the fact that each is italicized. He uses the words "selected discontinuities", "willing re-invention", and "preferred revolt" to describe Chamcha and in contrast he uses "wishing to remain" to describe Gibreel. The use of these words presents a connotation when read or spoken that illustrates rebellion and accepting. For Chamcha there is choice involved with his description, "selected", "willing" and "preferred." There was a legitimate effort on behalf of Chamcha to create his "type of self." He felt that his Indian origins were not good enough for his perceived standards of the Londoners. These actions taken by Chamcha show one side of the double edged sword that comes from immigration. Chamcha feels as though to be accepted he must discontinue his natural self and re-invent what he thinks is the acceptable being. This move, as seen in the transformation of Chamcha, is not a particularly good one. By lying to himself and others about who he is his appearance becomes that of something he claims he is not, but at this point, based on the lies he has told himself, it is tough to decide whether this new appearance is truly him or not. Gibreel doesn't face this dilemma. Instead of the "re-invention" of himself, Gibreel "wish [es] to remain" himself, his true self. As a result he does not face the same physical disparity that Chamcha is plagued with.
Being true to who they truly are is what immigrants fail to do. Social pressures from the powers that be may be to blame for this acceptance of what others think is acceptable, but it is ultimately up to the individual to decide who and what they are. Rushdie’s use of Gibreel and Chamcha as two characters in which we are to compare show the positives and negatives of self-identity.

The apparition of these faces in the spoon.

According to this particular passage on page 441, Saladin Chamcha is “a creature of selected discontinuities, a willing re-invention,” whose “preferred revolt against history being what makes him, in our chosen idiom, ‘false’,” and by extraction, “evil.” I want to delve into this extraction bit, exploring Chamcha’s transition from “willing re-invention” to profoundly “evil.”
A possible explanation of this can be seen packed in the warning Chamcha’s father gives him years before: “A man untrue to himself becomes a two-legged lie, and such beasts are Shaitan’s best work” (48). This stern warning comes after Saladin tweaks his name from Chamchawala to simply Chamcha, which Pops isn't too fond of. In his view, as mine, when Saladin Englifies his name it signifies a voluntary exchange of home-made perceptions of self (for names have always been the functional grounding of our self-concept) for those provided by a dominant Someone Else. From this point on Saladin can no longer see himself but from the eyes of greater England, or at least what he perceives greater England to be. He will alter his appearance according to the proper British mirror, that is, the "British" concept of himself.
Unfortunately for Chamcha, however, he was never given a proper British mirror. On one hand, his voluntarily colonized eyes allow his adopted British mates to have full control over his appearance. When a few men see him as a goatish demon (the savage nature of immigrants, in their eyes), he literally takes on this very form. Thus by extraction, what he views as his self-made re-invention is actually the work of a powerful downward--and inward--racist curve that directs his eyes as it sees fit. On the other hand, he has no British mirror because he simply isn’t British. His Indian culture, background, language, way of thinking, etc, is distinctly different from the historical Anglo-Saxon culture of Great Britain. So instead of looking at himself with British eyes, Chamcha looks at himself by nature through an Indian lens. But here’s the trick: in the language of his birth, a language from which he will never be able to separate himself (again, natural lens), he has altered his name to mean, literally, “spoon”. As any curious kid could tell you, spoons turn reflections upside-down. No matter what appearance he tries to create for himself, then, Saladin Chamcha views himself and the world with skewed eyes: he is an upside-down man in an upside-down world.
A man with a skewed mirror coupled with skewed eyes is easy prey for “Shaitan’s best work.” It is impossible for Chamcha to escape internalizing the body of a hairy, smoking demon. As he says in his own words: “I have become embroiled…the grotesque has me” (269). Thus, by an initial falsity of self he takes on the form of a colonizer’s brutish apparition both in outward and inward form. The skewed internalization of his demonization as seen from the adopted, though distinctly external, eyes of the British, Chamcha has self-made, selected, even willed.
This is precisely as Ashcroft might predict. He states in his passage on mimicry, "He [the alien] copies the habits of the landlord...[and] is encouraged to mimic a compassion for the one exploiting him." It is the nature of skewed identity politics for the alien to base his/her self-concept and ways of walking around in the world off those thoughts and habits of the occupying force. Saladin falls for this heart, body, and soul. Rushdie seems to hint in this (in my view) that the work of racist domination always curves the mirror of the self irreversibly, oppressively inward, thus corrupting the self-concept of any victim of racist domination.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Rushdie and the Idea of "Passing"

"...whereas Saladin Chamcha is a creature of selected discontinuities, a willing re-invention; his preferred revolt against history being what makes him, in our chosen idiom, 'false'?" (Rushdie 441).

The selected passage seems to reverberate the idea of "passing." "Passing," in simplest terms, refers to ones' attempts to fit in with the dominant group, even though they contain characteristics of the "others." Saladin Chamcha, in this passage, is referred to as a "willing re-invention," a "preferred revolt against history," and "false." In this context, Gibreel seems to be the individual that is able to "pass" because of his angelic nature. His physical characteristics, which can be arguably portrayed through the appearance of the halo around his head, seem to put him into the dominant group. Though he is a migrant as well, he is received much more positively (another possible explanation for the halo) than Saladin. Gibreel is previously referred to as "continuous," while Saladin is (simply) the opposite. By Saladin choosing to "revolt against history," which seems to imply that he knows of the cultural norm of the society but choose to go against it, he is "othering" himself. This is a conscious decision not to "pass."

By him choosing to stay in the group of the "other," he is therefore classified as "false" and "evil." Does this have to do with Gibreel's metaphorical decision to "pass?" By this assumption, Saladin and Gibreel can be classified as exotic but with different connotations. Ashcroft first defines the term as an "alien, introduced from abroad, not indigenous." It is then defined, in nineteenth century terms, as a "stimulating or exciting difference, something with which the domestic could be (safely) spiced" (Ashcroft 87). Saladin seems to fit the first definition, specifically because "alien" can be interpreted as good or bad; in this case, Saladin, based on his physical appearance, is viewed as bad. Because of this, he is placed in the group of the "other." Gibreel, with his heavenly appearance, fits the second definition, being viewed as more "stimulating and exciting" by the dominant group. All of this seems to suggest why Saladin is viewed as "discontinuous" and Gibreel as "continuous."

Essentialism in "The Satanic Verses"

Such distinctions, resting as they must on an idea of the self as being (ideally) homogenous, non-hybrid, 'pure,' - and utterly fantastic notion! - cannot, must not, suffice (442).

This passage indicates the distinction in the forms that Gibreel and Saladin have taken. Gibreel has taken on his angelic form because, in the eyes of the colonizer, he does not attempt to assimilate into the English culture and holds onto his own and his past. Saladin has a demonic form because he is vying to adopt the culture of the English and reject Indian culture. The colonizer is not threatened because their own culture is preserved. Though he is considered "good," he is still considered inferior. He may not be treated horribly like Saladin, but he is not treated as an equal either. The English culture is still "homogenous, non-hybrid," and "pure." Saladin, however, seeks to become "English." Such an act is offensive to the colonizer because the colonized considers himself good enough to emulate the colonizer. For example, when the immigration officers apprehend Saladin after the plane crash, he attempts to identify himself as an English citizen, even saying he has a white wife, and they simply abuse him more.

The English reject Saladin as an Englishmen, even though he has crafted every detail about himself emulate an English citizen almost perfectly. The greatest offense, however, is the color of Saladin's skin. Race is part of the Essentialism, or a set of defining characteristics unique to one group of people. In this case, whiteness is almost parallel to being English. The purity is in danger of being contaminated because Saladin is originally Indian. India was also a former colony, so the English are excluding them from their culture to assert their superiority since they lost their physical domination of the people and the country. Saladin's and Gibreel's forms represent the way the English people see them in relation to the danger they pose to the purity, non-hybridization, and homogeneity of English culture and identity.

The Willing Reinvention of Saladin Chamcha

This passage from The Satanic Verses explains the dichotomy that is at the heart of this novel: Saladin as a representation of evil and Gibreel of good. The core of this discussion concerns the nature of the cultural self and the ways in which individuals accept or deny certain aspects of these selves. In the passage, the narrator describes the individuals as being either good or evil in so far as they wither accept or reject their cultural foundations. The examination of Chamcha in this regard is particularly interesting considering the extent to which he denies his cultural identity. He is called "a creature of selected discontinuities, a willing reinvention" (441). An curious aspect of this description is the amount of agency Chamcha shows while establishing his own identity. He "selects" and "wills" his actions and nature to differ from what he believes is undesirable "Indianness." Assimilation is not something that happens autonomously; there is little chance for a sort of cultural osmosis. Chamcha must choose to assume a new cultural identity, and in doing that, he must consciously check the influence of his own cultural heritage.

Furthermore, Chamcha's willing reformation of the self is categorized as a "preferred revolt against history." The word "revolt" suggests a violent upheaval in which the rebelling entity actively fights against the enemy. Chamcha must engage his own volition to maintain the facade of Englishness, because it ultimately constitutes a violation of his personal history and cultural background. However, in this example, Chamcha is not only rebelling against his own history, that of an Indian man trying to assimilate into British culture, but also the larger historical relationship between Britain and India. He hopes to take on a British identity and shed his past. What he fails to understand is that Britain is locked in a perpetual mindset of superiority that has, no doubt, been fueled by their past successes as an imperial nation. Chamcha will always be viewed as a less other due to the fact that his skin color represents the "native" in the British colonial mindset. The urge of the British to categorize individuals on the basis of skin color and other external signifiers shows the profound influence essentialism has in the colonial realm. Chamcha, in so far as he stands for the colonial other, carries with him all the negative affiliations and significations the British place upon Indians. The British reject Chamcha's assimilation on the grounds of arbitrarily assigned racial signifiers. His revolt against his Indianness ultimately amounts to a futile rebellion against a historically established elitism.

“No Room for Outsiders: Fierce Nationalism in The Satanic Verses”

…homogenous, non-hybrid, ‘pure’ (442).
Each of these words suggests similar and unified composition of the self. “Homogenous” means being of uniform composition throughout, like a homogenous mixture where the multiple parts cannot be distinguished from the whole. “Non-hybrid”, in a way, reiterates that point but with some differences though. This term suggests that something is not made up of two or more things, at least not noticeably. Like homogenous, there is no noticeable difference in composition while with heterogeneous and hybrid, there would be a noticeable difference in composition of at least two or more things. And finally, “pure” also suggests a unified composition that is free of foreign contamination. All of these terms could be applied to the staunch views of nationalism and national identity in any given country, but for the purposes of The Satanic Verses, it pertains to English nationalism and “Englishness.” Nationalists like to think of their nation and everyone in it as having the same characteristics as the country itself: the same language, the same traditions, the same pastimes, the same race, and the same color. The same nationalists adhering to these terms of homogeneity, purity, and non-hybridist would be opposed to anything or anyone who could not be described by these terms as they relate to the nation in question.
These terms lead to the post-colonial term “essentialism”, which is the assumption that groups, categories, or classes of objects have one or several defining features exclusive to all members of that category (Ashcroft 73). English nationalists will assert that there are essential qualities to being English: the English language, the English accent, western dress, and white skin just to name a few. At the same time, English nationalist have assumptions about other cultures. Indians, for example, can be described as having brown skin, oriental dress, and speaking the Indian language and accent.
These essential characteristics of Englishness and Indian-ness are the reasons for the acceptance of Gibreel Farishta and the rejection of Saladin Chamcha by the English in The Satanic Verses. Even though both of them are Indian immigrants, they are treated very differently based on their adherence, or lack thereof, to these assumptions. Gibreel is accepting of these Indian assumptions. He dresses in oriental garb, speaks English with an Indian accent, and plays Hindu gods as an actor. Because he is adhering to the ideal homogeneity of his own Indian culture, he is accepted. Saladin on the other hand is a different story. He, too, is an Indian immigrant, but he is trying to pass as an Englishman. He tries to replace his Indian accent with an English one and he wears western clothes. He does not fit the assumptions of the essential Indian culture because he is making a hybrid of cultures. He is Indian and has brown skin like an Indian would, but the fact that he is combining his Indian appearance with English dress and language is seen as a threat to English nationalist identity, which is why he is treated so poorly throughout the book.