Graceland – Out of tune

As suggested by the title of Chris Abani’s Graceland, the novel features a multitude of musical references. Within the very first paragraph a portable radio is introduced and, within that initial chapter, the first musical contrast is developed.

Elvis Oke attempts to listen to a familiar and modern tune; Bob Marley’s “Natural Mystic”, but “faster-tempoed highlife [music] distracted him”. This highlife music, defined by John Collins in his essay on “The early history of West African highlife music” as “emerging from Africa” , is a style that is somewhat closer to home than Marley. As attractive as Marley’s music is to Elvis, he discovers he “did not know all the words” and yet “knew the highlife tune well”, later admitting to “[a]bandoning Bob Marley” for the Nigerian, highlife tune “Ije Enu”.

This early moment in the novel can be considered as a metaphor for many of the scenes within Graceland. Elvis is attracted to modern, global ideas; he wants to earn money, he wants to dance, he has developed a strong vision of justice and injustice, and yet there is always something closer to home stopping him or pulling him back. Elvis, while often despising the fact, is so closely tied to (and controlled by) the traditions of his family, his hometown and his language, that he cannot move forward and fully embrace his modern aspirations or desires. This idea repeats in Chapter 3 when Elvis is working on the building site. We are told that “the younger workers wanted the [radio] stations that played Wham!, Sade, Duran Duran and Peter Tosh, and the older workers wanted more indigenous music”. There is a clear and revealing generational divide in musical tastes. By insisting on playing the traditional songs that emerged from within their country the older workers are displaying a form of resistance, even protest, to the ever-increasing globalisation of Nigeria.

Within Graceland there are several interesting references to music and radios being out of tune. On one level this represents the social and economic status of the main characters who cannot afford high quality radios. It may also suggest an idea of “pirate” radio, a message being broadcast illicitly. Yet this idea of being “out of tune” works closely alongside the contrasts of the music within the novel. The pairings of music; whether that be the modern with traditional, Beatrice listening to Elvis and then Edith Piaf, or Sunday listening to Jazz and then the Everly Brothers, are unusual and unfitting. Listened to together, they would sound rather misplaced and almost “out of tune” and yet this clashing of cultural references symbolizes much of the culture that Elvis, Beatrice, Sunday (and others) face.

Arguably, life for the characters in Graceland is distinctly “out of tune”; everyone is aware of the injustices – both small and colossal – that inform life within the Nigerian capital. Yet the narratives and experiences of injustice are interwoven with the everyday stories and anecdotes of the day, creating what Elvis might define as something “we just accept”. The characters appear to adopt the method used by the workmen and their radio; “a careful game of give-and-take”, highlighting both the ingenuity and the vulnerability of their lives to the reader.

Sophie Harrison

Creating Oscar: Geeks, Dictators and other worlds in Junot Diaz’s Oscar Wao

To the outside world, or rather the masses and masses of people who are able to consume and enjoy works of fiction, ‘geek culture’ is often used as a blanket term for anyone who is either incapable or stubbornly refuses to grow up; for anyone utterly devoted to subjects widely considered to be of no importance; for anyone described as ‘socially inept’. The marginal social status of a geek is particularly relevant to the depiction of Oscar De Leon in Junot Diaz’s novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Oscar’s obsessive interest in genres such as Science Fiction and Fantasy are a large part of his characterisation and, by extension, the narration of his story.

Yet, while geek is a term used for marking difference, the reality of our commonplace media-centric existence means that all of us have at some point flirted with being a ‘geek’ When I was 14, I went through a fantasy phase, gorging myself on the works of Philip Pullman and Garth Nix, Eoin Colfer and Dianne Wynne-Jones, J K Rowling and Terry Pratchett. At the time I didn’t recognise these as geek culture. My best friend read every single book of historical fiction that our school library stocked. Another friend was constantly thumbing through the many volumes of Peach Girl, and Bleach and Ironfist Chinmi and Case Closed. It was just something that young girls, i.e. persons beginning to develop their own tastes and opinions, needed to do and continued to do until their time was progressively occupied with essays and university applications and love interests.

While adolescent phases are accepted, the outside world (and I use this phrase because rather than quietly coexisting despite their differences, it seems as though those within geek confines and those without must stand opposed to one another) is uncomfortable with that portion of society that cannot leave behind what is considered a ‘childish pursuit’. Before geek became chic, society pushed geek culture to the periphery, and although in recent years it seems as though it has been embraced, there is still a feeling of unease. While 14 year-old me was called a geek by the children whose parents encouraged them to spend more time outside, and had struggled to turn this into a term of endearment, 19 year old me would find herself stripped of the finally reclaimed title by her once brothers-in-arms because her almost encyclopaedic knowledge of Harry Potter did not extend to Lord of the Rings or Hunger Games. My interest in superhero films was not firmly rooted in years of ravenously consuming the relevant graphic novels. I had not watched the original Star Wars trilogy. In a flash, a title that had once been the refuge of the quiet and the bookish and the eccentric, had closed its doors to those who did not express an almost superhuman commitment to the fandoms of Doctor Who, Skyrim and Joss Whedon. When Yunior says of Oscar in the novel, ‘No one, alas, more oppressive than the oppressed’, I can finally put a phrase to that change in status.

Throughout this book, the numerous cultural references draw the reader in or alienate them, are glossed over by critics as ornamentation but grasped as a concealed discourse by fellow geeks. The allusions to Trujillo as Sauron and Darkseid are effective to those with a basic knowledge of Tolkein or DC, but seem unnecessary to those who have to trawl through Wikipedia in order to gleam an understanding of the Dominican Republic during the 1930s. However Diaz’s choice to present the Dominican Republic in this manner express the juxtaposition between the two worlds expressed in the book. The DR and American appear otherworldly depending on where the reader happens to live. The ruthless dictator, the corrupt state and the secret police are plots we encounter in 1984 or Game of Thrones. The literary allusions are a means of communicating a state of affairs that some readers would only ever witness in a literary context.

The very wondrousness of Oscar is felt in the references to the works his worships: his big words, his huge glasses make him exist on the periphery of the Dominican culture that should otherwise embrace him. He is no ‘Dominican fat cat’, he is no playa, but he is the stuff of the books he reads – he is an X-man. As Oscar asks, ‘Do you want to know what being a X-man feels like? Just be a smart bookish boy of colour in a contemporary U.S. Ghetto’

How else could Oscar’s own sense of otherworldliness be expressed other than by constantly confronting the reader with the references that have shaped Oscar and his view of the world? After all, the book is about him. If someone were to write a book about me, I’d expect it to have a Community quote on every other page, in order to do me justice.

Jess Myles-Mills

Caribbean Homophobia and the Dominican Diaspora

Junot Diaz’s novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, published in 2007, is an entertaining and profound novel that deals with themes of oppression, identity and pressures on the Dominican male in a diaspora community. Diaz uses the characters of Oscar and Yunior to address some of the issues around the quest to become a desired, respected, masculine person through conforming to the heteronormative codes of the society in which you live. Through this, alternate desires that Oscar and Yunior may have for one another are, in the Dominican world, unacceptable.

Homophobia is a real issue, not only in the Caribbean, but in other parts of the world, like Russia, where recent laws ban children from being exposed to any gay ‘propaganda’. This has been criticised on the basis of persecution of the LGBT community. Also, some Jamaican reggae artists, such as Elephant Man and Bounty Killer have used homophobic lyrics in their songs, such as ‘burn batty man’, which encourage listeners and fans to attack and kill homosexual men. Instances of homophobia like the ones I mention above are just a few of the reasons why homosexual men and women all over the world suppress their sexualities, in order to comply with society’s heteronormative expectations of them.

This is true in the novel, as Oscar is constantly teased for his inability to find a sexual partner of the opposite sex, no matter how hard he tries. In fact, the name ‘Oscar Wao’ derives from Oscar being labelled ‘Oscar Wilde’, after the writer – a label obviously intended to insult Oscar and denote him as a homosexual, as Wilde himself was gay. Oscar even begins to answer to this name, indicating his tolerance of the bullying and perhaps even his acceptance of whom they deem him to be.
Diaz highlights some of the requirements of a compliant Dominican male:

‘Anywhere else his triple-zero batting average with the ladies might have passed without comment, but this is a Dominican kid we’re talking about, in a Dominican family: dude was supposed to have Atomic Level G, was supposed to be pulling in the bitches with both hands. Everybody noticed his lack of game and because they were Dominican everybody talked about it’ (Diaz, 2007: 24).

This quotation from the novel highlights many problems with being a Dominican man and the pressure on young men to adhere to societal expectations of them. ‘Atomic Level G’ is, in other words, a way of saying that a Dominican man should ideally be masculine, stylish, cool and respected by his peers. Additionally, and most importantly, they should be having lots of sex. The pressures that Oscar faces in the novel as an overweight, comic book and sci-fi nerd (or geek, take your pick!) means that he does not fit into the community in which he lives, due to not adhering to the heteronormativity that the society depends on in order to function.

On the other hand, Oscar’s roommate Yunior is, on the surface, the perfect role model of a young, Dominican man. He has lots of sex with women and does not condone Oscar’s ‘homosexual’ behaviour, even taking part in teasing him with his friends. As Elena Machado Sáez writes, ‘Yunior sees Oscar as imprisoned by excess sentimentality’ – Yunior recognises the weakness of Oscar’s sentimentality, which, in the Dominican diaspora community, is linked to homosexuality. In addition, Sáez claims, ‘Yunior is tortured by his dependence upon sex to authenticate himself’ (Saez, 2011). This perfectly sums up the problem with the pressures of heteronormativity, as Yunior uses sex as a tool to validate his position in the community and hide any trace of sentimentality or ‘homosexual’ behaviour that he might otherwise display.

In short, these characters are influenced and shaped by the Dominican diaspora and the pressures of sexual and societal self-authentication in different ways. Oscar is overly sentimental and is deemed homosexual for his failure to find a woman to have sex with. On the contrary, Yunior sleeps around and is overly masculine in order to conceal any desires or behaviour that does not comply with Dominican principles. Oscar and Yunior are good friends and genuinely care for each other. However, in a society based on the principle of heteronormativity, there is no possibility of full acceptance of any sexual relationship or romantic attachment between the two, despite the signs of affection shown on both sides. Despite coming a long way in terms of tackling homophobia and heteronormative codes, this novel presents this issue of sexual inequality in a world where homophobia is rife and prejudices still exist.

Conor Donegan – English Literature and German student at the University of Reading.

• Diaz, J. (2007). The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. London: Faber and Faber.
• Sáez, E.M. (2011). ‘Dictating Desire, Dictating Diaspora: Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao as Foundational Romance’. Contemporary Literature. 52 (3), 522-555.

For an eye-opening video on homophobic attitudes in Russia related to the Olympics, check out this video:

A clip from Stephen Fry’s documentary series Out There, where a Ugandan lesbian discusses the issue of ‘corrective’ rape:

An activist report from 2008 Public Media Campaign against homophobic lyrics:

Realities and Resiliences: Haitian women’s lives

Poto Mitan is a wonderful insight into life in Haiti, describing women as the ‘pillars’ of the globalized economy. Although this film celebrates Haitian women, the film also presents how these women have been exploited, and the high cost of living in Haiti.

The portrayals of mother/daughter relationships in Edwidge Danticat’s 1994 acclaimed novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory published in 1994 are negative, because the mother is the source of sexual trauma. In this work, before Martine ‘tests’ her daughter Sophie for sexual purity, Sophie begins to have nightmares similar to those of her mother, and takes on aspects of her mother’s own grief. Martine’s grief is caused by her rape in the cane fields at the hands of a Tonton Macoute – a member of the Haitian paramilitary force created in 1959 by dictator François ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier.

In contrast, the sections narrated by Edwidge Danticat in the Poto Mitan film celebrate the mother/daughter relationship, finding hope in the continuation of the struggle by daughters.

The cramped single room living conditions for large families, that are in common for all the women featured in the film, brought home to me the relative luxury experienced by the Caco family in Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory. Martine is able to send home remittance money from her job in New York, so Attie and Sophie have a much larger house than the one room houses of Hélène and Frisline documented in Poto Mitan. Despite her slight resources, Frisline’s story seems hopeful, in that although she was cheated of so much money she is able to support herself and her family by opening a business that she controls. The exploitation of factory workers in Haiti that is highlighted by the film is a global injustice, because unions are cheated and international companies profit from the labour of women who need to feed families. Yet, there is hope in this situation too, because Unions are being founded like the KGF in Haiti which is a grass roots movement fighting for women’s rights and harvesting their resilience.

The plight of exploited workers is a global one. Gary Haugen, CEO of International Justice Mission (@garyhaugen) tweeted at 9:14 PM on Wed, Feb 12, 2014:
Bruised & bloodied from 20+ hrs a day in a brick factory, nearly 40 just rescued from slavery by Indian police & @IJM

This freedom acquired for slave labourers inspires hope for the plight of factory workers in Haiti and throughout the majority world.

Bethnay Lunn

Whose Caribbean Paradise?

Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place, published in 1988, is a wonderfully ebullient and multi-layered piece of writing that condenses a searing and deep critique of colonialism with a call for tourists to visiting the Caribbean island of her birth, Antigua, to re-examine themselves and their relations to histories of inequalities.

Destroying the myth of a paradise island designed for tourist pleasure, Kincaid points out how the global asymmetries of a postcolonial world order underpin the impossibility of shared experience for those who visit and those who reside.

“That the native does not like the tourist is not hard to explain. For every native of every place is a potential tourist, and every tourist is a native of somewhere. Every native everywhere lives a life of overwhelming and crushing banality and boredom and desperation and depression, and every deed, good and bad, is an attempt to forget this. Every native would like to find a way out, every native would like a rest, every native would like a tour. But some natives—most natives in the world—cannot go anywhere. They are too poor. They are too poor to go anywhere. They are too poor to escape the reality of their lives; and they are too poor to live properly in the place they live, which is the very place you, the tourist, want to go—.”

While the force of Kincaid’s critique may land most squarely and obviously on the willfully blind tourist, she is also concerned to explore the challenges that exist for those who call the island home. As she states in a later commentary on A Small Place, ‘One of the things that we never do in the landscape I’m from, is relax on it. No one I know growing up, ever goes to the beach for a holiday. It’s a landscape that has horrible memories for us’.

More than this, Kincaid shows how both the colonial past of plantation slavery and the postcolonial present of tourist ‘development’ have created a long cycle of exploitation in which the powerful –both abroad and at home – remain impervious to the lives of the powerless.

“Have you ever wondered to yourself why it is that all people like me seem to have learned from you is how to imprison and murder each other, how to govern badly, and how to take the wealth of our country and place it in Swiss bank accounts?”

Possibly Kincaid’s most powerful achievement in this book is to speak directly across all protected categories of privilege, both revealing and eroding the grounds of social injustice, in a gesture that Carolyn Pedwell calls ‘confrontational empathy’ (See ‘Affect at the margins: Alternative empathies in A Small Place’ Emotion, Space and Society xxx (2012): 1-9).

Esther Figueroa and Diana McCaulay’s documentary film Jamaica for Sale is an equally scorching critique of the environmental, economic, social and cultural impacts of unsustainable tourism developments, this time in Jamaica. Another powerful piece of work focused on the exploitative economies and ecologies of tourism in the Caribbean, the filmmakers observe the consequences of the fact that

Jamaica, one of the most indebted countries in the world, is undergoing unprecedented large-scale, mass market, all-inclusive hotel development, as well as the construction of exclusive gated residential schemes and luxury condominiums for non-residents.

The film explores the chronic negative impacts of tourism on the lives of local Jamaicans who are coerced to labour in unsafe conditions, earning less than a living wage, and witnessing the destruction of their alternative livelihoods, such as fishing, as the natural environment of the island is degraded and willfully destroyed.

Watching Jamaica for Sale and reading A Small Place is a powerful combination that sensitizes us to the almost inevitably toxic consequences of tourism and its political, economic and psychological legacies in a Caribbean region made politically precarious by its long history of exploitation.

You can watch a recent interview with Kincaid here:

Writing Global Justice – an undergraduate research blog

Drawing a close to the introduction to his magnificent work, The Idea of Justice, Amartya Sen – the hugely influential Indian intellectual and Nobel laureate in economics – turns to the work of the Irish poet Seamus Heaney. Quoting an extract from Heaney’s The Cure at Troy, at once a translation of Sophocles’ classic Greek play, Philoctetes, and a poetic contemplation on the conflict in his homeland, Northern Ireland, Sen seeks to articulate the transformative possibility of justice within social ecologies:

History says, don’t hope
On this side of the of the grave,
But then, once in a life-time
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.

It was this moment of textual encounter that shaped my idea for a module on writing global justice. Sen’s inspiring, expansive and provocative meditations in the idea of justice as an anticipatory category towards which we can move closer through our identifications and contestations of injustice underlines the importance of an active and committed imagination. Heaney’s poetic soundings of an emotional landscape in which the persistent and embedded inequalities of history can be overturned and the conditions of possibility for optimism restored catches the humanizing privileges of a poetic form tuned to the frequencies of everyday struggle.

The question of how literature might do justice is a fascinating one that dates back at least as far as Sophocles and is no less relevant or compelling today. This module investigates the ways in which literature acts as a rich site for working through many of the persistent challenges that inform ‘the idea of justice’ today. It considers questions of human freedom and fulfillment as they relate to the politics of post- and neo-colonial states, questions of sexual citizenship, of migration and displacement, of intellectual and cultural property and of planetary co-belonging.

This blog represents our group’s collective thinking as well as individual efforts to research and engage with materials related to the literary works we are studying. We are keen to hear responses from others.

Professor Alison Donnell