The Cyclical Repercussions of Injustice

In several of the books studied so far on the module there are many points of comparison to note: ideas of globalisation as a negative concept; cultural disagreements as a root cause for injustice; and the cyclical repercussions of injustice. Discussing the latter, it becomes clear that in the majority of the novels studied on the module so far this is a point that is made time and time again.
In Kincaid’s “A Small Place”, the British Empire’s tyranny displaces the hatred harboured in the narrative towards tourists and other Antiguans. By excluding, or even attacking these groups (including the reader) the problem is hardly solved. Indeed, in the text itself Kincaid addresses this and explain that she doesn’t want an apology, because that is not sufficient.
In Danticat’s “Breath Eyes Memory”, ideas of generations and legacy are explicit. Perhaps the most obvious examples are the harmful Haitian traditions enacted on women – particularly virginity testing. It is almost like a curse that is inherited by the females of the family; a seemingly endless cycle of violence that isn’t broken until Sophie liberates herself.
In Diaz’s “The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”, the very structure is suggestive of an inheritance of some sort. The injustices suffered by the mother Beli’s have an indirect effect on her children Oscar and Lola. With the idea of the Fukú central to the story, it isn’t hard to piece together the cyclical nature of hatred and injustice within the text.
In Abani’s “Graceland”, the government in Lagos is cyclical in its corruption; even the slums have a repetitiveness to them. Sunday’s alcoholism is just one example of people’s acceptance of their dire situation. On page 312 a man states that “we are who we are because we are who we were made.” This give rise to the idea that the people of the slum situation can only endure and not challenge their injustice which moves in an unbreakable cycle.
In Aboulela’s “The Translator”, there is a focus on family and the positive possibilities of cross-cultural understanding. At the heart of this novel, Sammar believes that a person’s religion may limit the extent to which they can understand another. This focus on a misunderstanding between the North and South, East and West is one that is in danger of leading society into a cycle of misinterpretation.
In Ghosh’s “The Hungry Tide”, the clash between nature and artificiality or – to be more specific – living in harmony with nature and living against it, is at the heart of the novel. The injustice that sets people who live in the archipelago of islands against those who live in the cities; and those who live alongside the deadly tigers in the East against those who pay for their preservation in the West, is presented in the book and never truly resolved.
This concept of a recurring injustice that breeds hatred (in Graceland), or even more injustice (in Breath Eyes Memory) is central to society today. It is present in financial injustices (the crudest example is debt, be it on a domestic or international scale), violence, racial and cultural stereotyping.
As discussed at length in the seminars, the texts raise our awareness of injustice but offer no solution to this problem – how could they possibly try to provide one for such a vast and dynamic problem? Perhaps Amartya Sen’s “realization-focused comparison” is helpful here? Whilst it is not possible to extinguish injustice – both historical and current – or the animosity that comes with it, there may be a solution in continually working toward a better situation. There is some hope; “The Translator” and “The Hungry Tide” both show relationships that build on a mutual understanding across cultures. Tabish Khair’s Fighting Islam from the Missionary Position is all about the need to address flaws and assumptions in cross-cultural understanding. This understanding may shed light on a way to prevent injustice spiralling uncontrollably.
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Viren Mistry

Why is the city open?

Teju Cole’s, Open City, written in 2011, narrates the life of a Nigerian man named Julius who wanders the streets of New York and then Brussels. The novel indirectly critiques the positive and negative aspects of globalisation, largely based in a western setting, but with flashbacks to Julius’s childhood in Nigeria. The novel lacks a strong plot and the only definitive element of progression is Julius’s break up with his girlfriend who then gets engaged to someone else. Otherwise we meander through the book, as Julius wanders through the streets, encountering different people and cultures. After finishing the novel I questioned, why the title Open City?
In an interview with Jeffery Brown, Cole offers some answers. Firstly the book is named Open City because of the ‘idea that this city is accessible to him. It’s open.’ This is certainly true. Julius is a doctor, working in New York and so he doesn’t have any financial worries, which allows him to explore New York and later on Brussels. He also is an American citizen which gives him access to all the destinations in New York which he would not have had access to if he had remained in Nigeria. This global accessibility would not be open to everyone, such as those who live in the slums in Chris Abani’s Graceland. The slum dwellers are trapped by their economic status, with only the very few, like Elvis, able to escape. Lagos in turn could then be considered as a closed city because people are often hindered in their economic progression and are not able to leisurely wander around as Julius does in New York. In the Open City, the city appears open because Julius easily passes from one place to another. For instance he explores Broadway (Open City, p.45), and then he travels to Trinity Church (Open City, p.49) and so on.
Yet, as well as Open City communicating a positive meaning it can also be regarded negatively according to Cole: ‘It’s a city that has been invaded, but a city that is trying to deal with the enemy to prevent physical destruction of its infrastructure.’ The ‘siege mentality’ that Cole is trying to invoke gives the ‘sense of invasion happening on several levels, historically, psychologically.’ New York is under siege from many problems such as the 9/11 attacks which Cole mentions as background information in his novel, the meeting of cultures, the history of the slave trade and current racism.
As New York can then be considered as under siege, perhaps the title Open City isn’t appropriate? By being under siege defences have to be implemented and therefore the city is no longer open to all. One issue that Cole narrates is how New York could possibly be under threat from global warming and therefore there is the need to defend the city. The character of Julius admits to the reader that ‘the way my thoughts returned to the fact that it was the middle of November and I hadn’t yet had occasion to wear my coat’ (Open City, p. 28), makes him believe that the weather in New York is changing due to global warming and it is a problem that New York will encounter in the future.

Katie Parris

Resources
Abani, Chris, Graceland (New York: Picador, 2004).
Cole, Teju, Open City (London: Faber and Faber Ltd, 2012).
Conversation: Teju Cole’s ‘Open City’, posted by Jeffrey Brown, March 18, 2011.

The suppression of information is an issue which has affected millions of people throughout history. The war with Iraq was supported by many citizens in the UK and America because we were fed misinformation and access to truth was suppressed by those hungry for power, at massive cost to life.

Today, this issue continues, as a report is published by the UN Human Rights Council about abuses in North Korea comprised of evidence from defectors. Michael Kirkby, UN commissioner says “At the end of the Second World War so many people said ‘if only we had known… if only we had known the wrongs that were done in the countries of the hostile forces'” The reference to the Second World War is significant here because Cole’s novel draws upon the argument of the number ‘six million’ in relation to the Holocaust used as a silencing device to stop all conversations about human rights violations in Palestine. In an interview with the BBC News, Jared Genser, an international human rights lawyer, said: “But of course, it’s unremarkable in the sense that those of us who have worked on North Korea human rights for many, many years are aware of the sheer evidence coming out of North Korea over decades now…And so the real question is, what now?”

The word “unremarkable” here is striking and interesting in relation to Teju Cole’s novel Open City which portrays they way in which injustice in the the world is often treated as “unremarkable”. “All death is suffering[…]and that is history: suffering” (Cole, 2011: 123)

One way to read Teju Cole’s novel Open City is through the lens of seeing everyone other than the self as a “monster”, as Teju Cole (@tejucole) tweeted at 11:10 PM on Wed, Feb 05, 2014:
“It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are from. The important thing to remember is that people who aren’t you are monsters.” The character of Julius has serious problems making close relationships, and he views the world as a place where suffering which cannot be overcome. There is no sense if transformative justice or meaning presented in the novel.

Jared Genser’s question “what now?” is very pertinent, and will continue to be answered in the coming days.

For a full look at the UN’s North Korea report: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-26220304
(https://twitter.com/tejucole/status/431203221726429186

Beth Lunn

Silent Nigeria: cultural expectations around gender and sexual norms

Chris Abani’s Graceland, an astounding novel published in 2004, concerns teenager Elvis and his family as they grapple with the growing influence of American culture within the dynamic postcolonial city of Lagos, Nigeria. Elvis is enthralled by the American film and music industry, prompting his life-ambition to be a professional dancer. However, living in an impoverished city and constrained by the need to make money, there are little to no opportunities for Elvis to achieve his dream. Yet he never truly accepts his circumstances and continues to question the way of life in Lagos. The knowledge that you do not fit within your community can be punishing enough, however recently there has been a new law passed in Nigeria which encourages people to look for signs of difference, specifically in regards to homosexuality. The law supports homophobia and criminalises same-sex unions, including persons who witness or help such unions. There is one scene in particular I want to concentrate on in Graceland, at the beginning of chapter sixteen, in which Elvis watches his aunt Felicia apply make-up. Through my close-reading of this scene I hope to convey how “difference” is a fabrication, a notion designed to control and divide a large group of people, discouraging unity, because of the risk it carries for the recognised authorial power. Collaboration fosters the hope for equality and justice.

He was amazed not just at how much makeup made her aware of herself, but by how much he wanted to wear that mask. It would be the perfect remedy for his painful shyness. She smacked her lips together over a piece of tissue to blot the lipstick, making him squirm uncomfortably. …
He envied her this ability to prepare a face for the world. To change it any time she liked. Be different people just by a gentle hint of shadow here, a dash of color there. She could even change her hair to suit her mood: sometimes wearing huge Afro wigs that scoured the sky’s underbelly; other times, the elegant plaited stalks called mercy, as though they were stakes in a hunter’s trap, or the playful run of cornrows—his favourite. …
As she clacked out on six-inch platforms, riding on the echo of her teeth kissing, he reached into the wastebasket for the tissue that wore her lip shape in distinct red. He pressed the paper lips against his, eyes closed, inhaling all of her.

Elvis is 13 here and lives in his childhood town Afikpo with his family, who throughout the novel place an extremely high emphasis on being a “man” and maintaining your family’s name. In spite of this, Elvis does not consider make-up here as feminine, but as a tool to fix himself, to “remedy” parts of his personality that do not fit into his family’s idea of being a “man”. However, by masking his shyness, Elvis masks a part of himself. This notion of “fixing” himself reveals his belief that he is inadequate in fulfilling the expectations of his culture and, by implication, his family’s concept of masculinity.
The application of make-up causes Felicia to be more “aware of herself”, or so Elvis believes. Make-up can be an expression of yourself, but it is also a chosen and prepared face. Elvis’ desire to wear this mask emphasises further the discomfort he experiences when he is expected to play a certain role for his family. He views make-up as providing a solution to this, allowing access to a whole wardrobe of personalities to choose from and enabling him to play whatever role is needed, while never exposing his own personality and the aspects of himself that are vulnerable to persecution. The “paper lips” Elvis presses against his own stresses the delicacy of these faces Felicia paints on and their brief temporality, proving how inadequate make-up is as a long-term tool. This mindset of hiding who you are doesn’t solve problems, but silences and quashes problems until they disfigure under the pressure and gradually change to fit into the roles society has fabricated.
Elvis’ need to supress his personality brought to mind Adam Nossiter’s article from the New York Times concerning the “sanitizing” of gay people in Nigeria under the new law. The article highlights how, where before there was silence, people are actively looking for signs of “gayness” in order to punish. Under this law, people are viewing homosexuality as more than sexual orientation, as a lifestyle, a way of talking, dressing, acting. In this scene I have close-read, Elvis does not theorise over his sexual orientation and whether what he is doing is “wrong” or “different”. Yet in the eyes of Nigerian law he is, with the possibility of being sentenced to 14 years in prison, due to the effeminising view on make-up. Nossiter’s article, “Wielding Whip and a Hard New Law, Nigeria Tries to ‘Sanitize’ Itself of Gays”, can be read in full here: www.nytimes.com/2014/02/09/world/africa/nigeria-uses-law-and-whip-to-sanitize-gays.html?_r=0 and a brief summary of the new law passed can be accessed here: www.ohchr.org/FR/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=14169&LangID=E.

Harriet Weston – English Literature student at the University of Reading