Thinking past assumptions…

In a post 9/11 world, opinions and judgments are heavily influenced by the media. Our bias and assumptions about others are often predetermined by those media representations that put Islam and the Muslim community under scrutiny and suspicion. In Tabish Khair’s new novel ‘How to Fight Islamic Terror from the Missionary Position’, issues like these are addressed to the extent where the reader is confronted with their own prejudices concerning certain individuals, especially those of particular religious groups. When we were lucky enough to have Khair join us for a class, we were able to ask him questions about why he had chosen to write on this subject. He spoke about how religious groups can be isolated and how prejudice can infuse societies so that certain people are made to feel like outsiders or ‘the other’. For example, Khair addressed the idea that when George Bush was president of the United States, he ended his speeches with ‘God Save America’, instantly dismissing those living in America that are of other religions and suggesting that God that would not save America’s enemies.
The novel itself combines serious issues and a sexual innuendo to create a good read that addresses contemporary problems with humour. The male-orientated nature of the text comes hand in hand with a lad-like perspective, which echoes that of Sam Selvon’s ‘The Lonely Londoners’. Centered on the lives of the unnamed narrator, Karim and Ravi, the text deals with personal relationships (many of which fail) and various human encounters along with issues that surround the treatment of Islam. However, Khair’s text is not your ordinary account of three single men living together. In fact, the ease of reading the text allows you to fall into a trap. The constant references to ‘in hindsight’ and the brilliant build up of what is to come at the end of the novel finally reveals more about the reader than the text itself. Khair’s technique encourages the reader to believe that something terrible has happened and that someone – a muslim – is guilty. In fact, this is not the case. Through the brilliance of the plot, Khair is able to reveal the prejudices of the reader merely through an unexpectedly human ending that re-positions the book in relation to the theme of stereotyping and categorizing certain religious groups. If what we look for in this text is someone to blame and a character to suffer from his or her guilt, then powerfully when we close the book we know that the person to blame for bad judgements is essentially us.
Khair confronts the undeniable problem of Islamophobia that is not only present in countries with high populations of Muslims, but also in Scandinavian countries like Denmark where the novel is set. He challenges the assumptions that are forced upon us through the media and ultimately makes us think about our own guilt for labeling or categorizing complex communities. Khair’s text is a thoroughly enjoyable story that is hard to put down, but what can be taken from this text is the way in which we think and the dangers of easy media-led assumptions.

Megan Humphreys

Being open to controversy and to changing your mind…

‘Fitna’ is a 2008 short film exploring the idea of the Islamification of the world, Europe and specifically The Netherlands. The film contends that The Koran incites Muslims to hate and kill unbelievers, that global dominance and control is the ultimate goal of the Muslim community. It also considers that Islamic extremism is a misnomer in that Islam itself is an extreme religion. It juxtaposes selected excerpts from suras (chapters) of The Koran with images and footage of Islamic terror from around the globe. The film has been highly controversial and has sparked outrage and protest in the Muslim community. Al-Qaeda called for the death of its writer, Geert Wilders – a Dutch parliamentarian and founder and leader of The Party for Freedom (Partij voor de Vrijheid), the fourth largest political party in The Netherlands.
I think this is an important film because it is controversial. It has inspired me to think more deeply about my prejudices and my ignorance and the wider realities affecting people who move in very different circles to me. Islam has become an increasingly controversial religion in recent years and this film links with Tabish Khair’s novel ‘How to Fight Islamist Terror From the Missionary Position’. Khair’s characters live in a web of suspicion and pre-emptive judgement and, as one critic pointed out, the book reads you in uncovering this shared tendency. To a certain extent this film read me back to myself the more I considered it. I was actually very convinced by the arguments in ‘Fitna’ for some time, but with closer critical and conversational analysis I unveiled my own ignorance of The Koran and Islam itself. The combination of ignorance and arrogance is a dangerous one but the murders of Pim Fortuyn and Theo Van Gogh in The Netherlands must be considered when trying to understand the motivations of Wilders.
What this film doesn’t address is the hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world who live peaceful lives. It assumes that some fanatical elements equals many and doesn’t consider interpretative readings of The Koran. The Koran was written in the 7th century when war was being waged and so the incitations to violence against the infidels should perhaps be read in light of this. Whether or not the assertions of Wilder are true, that Islam is essentially a murderous ideology, the persecution of a people is an absurd response, and persecution seems to be what Wilders is calling for. He has said that he doesn’t hate Muslims, he hates Islam. Perhaps in his mind Islam is an unfortunate aspect of being a Muslim, but how he differentiates the two is not addressed.
The films relates to this module because it explores ideas of injustice, specifically female genital mutilation, the denunciation of liberalism and democracy, the subjugation of women, the execution of homosexuals, honour killings and anti-semitism. These issues came up in some of the books we read and our thinking about the idea of justice and how we are to tackle such issues from a theoretical perspective? Yet we condemning these issues should not mean condemning all muslims or Islam.
Questions of planetary co-existence, social justice and harmony are at the forefront of my mind as I write this blog entry. Answers are much slower to come.

Shane Sexton

Watch ‘Fitna’ here:

Media thinking and democracy post 9/11

Issues of race – particularly in a post-9/11 world – are the core of Tabish Khair’s “How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position”. Whilst my dissertation – ‘Representations of 9/11 in Children’s Literature’ – is primarily concerned with things that aren’t so relevant to the Writing Global Justice, there are a few things that overlap with our concerns when reading texts like How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position.
One of my chief concerns is the way we might formulate even basic arguments around this issue. For example, calling it “9/11”, or “September 11th” is accepting a pre-determined narrative of the events – shaped in large part by Western media. All of the terms we take for granted when discussing any politically engaged event are already encoded with their own meaning. Referring to it as “9/11” carries a suggestion that the event has some sort of omnipresence, or universality. Nobody refers to Pearl Harbour, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, JFK’s assassination or the moon landing by its date, and yet they’re all of similar significance.
Here however, is an interesting complication. When describing ‘the events’ in press conferences after 9/11, President Bush referred to them as “a terrible national shock”, and a “national tragedy”. Whilst the attack did physically occur in America, you can certainly form a different narrative around the events if you consider that it was the World trade centre that was attacked, foreign nationals were killed indiscriminately from Americans, and that there was significant international economic impact and confusion following the attacks. Further, the media’s initial response didn’t converge on America as a victim so much as on an affront to humanity – the fact that the majority of casualties were American didn’t really bother the media for a short while and instead it was spoken of as though it were a tsunami or an earthquake. Reports would say that lots of people died, or perhaps more provocatively, they were killed, but it certainly wasn’t the case that “Defenceless Americans were Murdered”. This attitude would change but it’s interesting to see how our later construction of the events as an attack have shifted the victims into martyrs, to legitimise the vilification of people, a faith and nations.
This is further compounded by other common phrases – particularly the description of the buildings as the “Twin Towers”. You have to wonder why making them sound alive, like siblings, twins even, has prevailed over the more accurate name ‘World Trade Centre’. It seems to me that it’s probably because this further layers victimhood onto the events. It’s also a little concerning that the extremely popular phrase “The war on terror” gives political access to a very wide base of activities. All nations, in some way or another, willingly or not, either harbour or promote terrorism. If we didn’t, then we wouldn’t need an internal security service. It is a side-effect of freedoms, or a cheap way for states to contract out grievances with less fear than direct confrontation. NATO troops can be deployed under this vague guise to more-or-less any non-G20 or non-NATO nation. When we were considering going into Syria, or even giving aid, the arguments for and against tried to spin the presence of terrorist organisations as causes for concern. “The war on terror” was starting to be bandied about until the Commons struck down the opportunity for war.
The branding of hostile non-state actors as terrorists also negates their opportunity for legitimate political discourse. The term is applied to a range of groups, regardless of their political objectives. Osama bin Laden only admitted al-Qaeda’s involvement in 2004, but I seriously doubt many people could cite his reasons for the attacks in the first place (US troops in Saudi Arabia, US sanctions against Iraq, US support of Israel). I’m not trying to say that his actions or views were correct, but it’s certainly deeply hypocritical that we say we are defending democracy and freedom yet give no platform for alternative perspectives.
We’ve spoken a number of times in this module about plural integration into societies and the means of inclusion and exclusion, but as the global society expands, it seems to be more and more the case that only the 20th Century powers are heard, and other participants are subordinated. Some states have institutionalised corruption and so sometimes the state does not adhere to the will of the people – like how the Romanian government is giving special mining licences to ‘donors’ in formerly protected mountain ranges -, and sometimes the people do not adhere to the will of the state, like the ‘freedom fighters’ in Syria, or how Amazon doesn’t really pay any tax in the UK. Despite being conscious of this, the institutions of global ‘democracy’ do not officially recognise it. Corrupt, bought, governments are given a seat at the UN whilst North Korean citizens are left in silence. Asda hire more people than the population of the fifty lowest populated countries combined and it’s not until you get over halfway down the list of nations that countries start to have populations larger than their employee list. It’s a bit off topic but a big-scale example of how poorly both minorities and majorities are represented.
It’s easy to say that minorities are never seen, but of course, the other side of the coin is how in a crisis, minorities are often the only thing in the spotlight.

Alex Watson

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.
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

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:

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: and a brief summary of the new law passed can be accessed here:

Harriet Weston – English Literature student at the University of Reading

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.

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