Monday, May 4, 2020

Gillman's Yellow Wallpaper and Why Women Need Something to Do

I had read an article by Shirley Samuels on the feminist interpretation of Gilman, already wondering what happened to the narrator’s baby in “The Yellow Wallpaper”. It seems that the biggest problem for the narrator is that she not only is given no responsibility at all except for preserving her mental state, but her link to her own child has been devalued. The child is missing, while she is forced to spend her days isolated in the nursery, a room preserved for children.
              Not only is she forced into the nursery like a child, she is forced to live with a paper that is causing her to go mad; paper of course being the tool of a writer. This wallpaper is filled with her own imaginings and keeps exponentially cycling and increasing as time goes on. To me, it is similar to the life of a writer but only in this case, the writer needs to be confined with her fantasies and unable to get out of them. The story begins with the line “It is very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and myself secure ancestral halls for the summer.” Immediately, I thought of Daphne De Maurier’s Rebecca and, of course, the gothic novel Jane Eyre, along with the Gothic novel, in general. So, in other words, the narrator is asked to focus on the ancestral hall, the very thing that actually causes Gothic imaginings in the mind. This is a double-edged sword. Gothic imaginings create stories, but they also create terror, fear, madness, and the sublime. She is similar to Mr. Rochester’s mad wife in the attic, but it is actually worse in her case: she is forced to live in the room with her child’s absence. She is separated from the child she is designed to nurture.
              There are women trapped inside the wallpaper, like characters trapped inside a narrative. They are creeping and crawling, likely waiting to be given something to do, like her. She ends the narrative creeping and crawling, in essence scaring her husband and causing him to faint in a rush of the sublime. Fine ending for an instructive tale about keeping women confined.
Moral of the story: women do need “something to do”. They aren’t children to be coddled and protected. When forced into the nursery, as we have seen, they will revert to a child-like state of imagination. And their “playing” will cause the adults to utterly lose it. But, proceed forward fully knowing the dangers you will create.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

I have always thought that Catherine Morland has received a bad rap, not only from  the characters in the novel, but readers over the years have misinterpreted her, in my opinion. Catherine was able to understand the monstrously realistic nature of General Tilney (in other words not a monster, but just as bad as one) through her own imaginative deductions. This relates to Derrida when he writes:  "By orienting and organizing the coherence of the system, the center of a structure permits the play of its elements inside the total form."

Catherine may have been creating stories inside her own head of what was fantastical and simply untrue (as Henry Tilney points out), but I do think her technique was to reframe what was indeed happening through this sense of seeing the signs and putting them into play, almost lessening its extreme impact in anticipation  of informing Henry. His reception of the information was initially to say that Catherine was being unrealistic with her accusations, thus not taking them seriously and to heart. As the narrative progresses, however, both he and the reader come to find out  that yes, she was right, but not exactly, and not in they way they all presumed. 

Austen's focus on negation to me signals her disproof of things empirically (We can only disprove something. We can never indesputably prove something). As Derrida writes, "Nevertheless, the center also closes off the play which it opens up and makes possible." So, Catherine's centering actually opens up the possibilites rather than creates a situation where she is seen as being irrational. When she opens the cabinet in the light of the morning and realizes how absurd her thoughts had been (seeing a basic laundry list inside, instead of the bones of the dead wife as she expected or whatever else she could have imagined), this moment opens up the possibility that there could be more to the story of the Abbey. Catherine is creating and pinpointing the center, and Austen is, through her narrative techniques, disproving the possibilities, thus honing the options down considerably:  down to one possibility, in fact.

Catherine ultimately excels at creating these structures, and I would argue that the other characters don't exactly understand or comprehend how to make them, especially Henry, who is such a know it all. What is also interesting? This all takes place in an old abbey which represents the old guard, the past, the old structure that had existed before the abbey was converted and its meaning was lost through history. This reminded me, of course, of Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, and his defense of tradition, the monarchy, and the clergy in the face of violent reform.

In Austen's work, Catherine mediates between the forgotten , Gothic past and the progressive future. When she enters the Abbey, she brings her own interpretation of the signs that she is presented with, and so she serves as the character who will solve the ultimate crime of improvement amidst the Gothic ruins. General Tilney's intention to "improve" the future of his family line results in an innocent single female to be placed in a truly dangerous situation without consent of her parents or chaperone. General Tilney should have been protecting her as the fortification of the Abbey had protected the inhabitants in the past, yet he didn't. He placed improvement above traditional chivalry and protection.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Wollstonecraft and Burke: The French Revolution

My aim is to trouble the binary that appears between Wollstonecraft and Burke. It is not as clear cut as it appears on the surface. 

What is the relationship of conservative revolution to enlightenment progress? How should we factor into our accounts of enlightenments those works that flaunt, ironize, perpetuate, and incinerate its rhetoric? How would we characterize Burke’s relationship to enlightenment?

As I read through both works, I noticed that both are attempting to advance Enlightenment principles in their own ways (polarized methods, but still). I would argue that in some ways, Burke is similar to Jefferson in that his focus is on current land holdings and working through the concept of traditional inheritance (before attempting to create change else where). His focus is on building from the foundation of what is already there, instead of destroying the system entirely (forcing the church and ecclesiastical to give back their holdings and dissolving the monarchy altogether "Throwing out the baby with the bathwater"). Burke seems to be calling for a sense of fairness, whereas Wollstonecraft wants justice to be done. Wollstonecraft in her work is primarily establishing that tradition itself has caused the inequality and resulting frivolity of women, which in turn has harmed the structure of society. Therefore, the structure of society is utterly flawed and should not be built upon as the foundation, even if pre-existing and having a solid foundation in the past.

Burke calls a halt to this complete dissolution and destruction and yes, I would agree that his voice and ideas hearken back to those ideas circulating during the Glorious Revolution (or bloodless revolution). Why shed blood when we can peaceably figure this all out in a fair manner? Why so much unnecessary change and turmoil?

It is clear Burke is calling for a calming to happen: a rational response to the emotional reactions, whereas it is clear that Wollstonecraft is appalled that Burke would even think of silencing those who are suffering, namely the poor and disadvantaged who don't have inheritance and who are struggling. I found it interesting that Wollstonecraft called Burke out as having a lack of reason: "I perceive from the whole tenor of your Reflections, that you have a mortal antipathy to Reason" (Norton edition page 8) while striking him down as holding onto ancient ideas in his treatise.  So, is Wollstonecraft the more reasonable of the two?  Just because she says it doesn't make it true. Her rhetoric is one of exposing Burke for negligence of people's feelings and the right of individuals. It is an efficient way to break down a piece of writing that is four times longer than hers, while neglecting that he actually gives perfectly "reasonable" answers to her questions.  Emotional appeal is an effective method to downplay someone else's argument, making them look heartless and selfish in the process. So, is Burke an Enlightenment thinker? I would argue that he absolutely is. Burke recounts and defends every point to a detailed degree. Like I said, he reminds me of Jefferson and the methods Bacon and others have used to make an inventory of what already exists.  Like a Virginian statesman, he is fully aware you cannot erase what has happened before completely and it would be unfair to many to destroy the past completely. Reconciliation needs to happen gradually. 

Wollstonecraft brings up some fair points herself, but to me she is more reiterating what is already at stake in the Revolution. Not so much Enlightenment thought as an abolishment of faulty societal structure. Her ideas are similar to those of Cavendish: exposure of the faults rather than a preservation and subsequent building. 

It strikes me that they should have been working together to create a solution, instead of being polarized in their thoughts and ideas. It is a clear case of not listening and understanding the other and what is actually at stake within the big picture.

I would be interested in finding out just how far their arguments had gone after publication of Wollstonecraft's essay. Did they ever come to a compromise? Since I plan on writing on Aphra Behn, I am interested in this idea of emotional appeal and spectacle. This exchange is similar to some current discourse going on in politics today. This is a clear case where history needs to be remembered, and we need to learn from it. Burke is trying to get this across in his own painstaken, thorough fashion.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

McTeague by Frank Norris

One of David's Bowie's favorite novels, this book is at once surrealistic and funny and also tragic, a combination that is hard to find.  Through out the whole of the novel McTeague, we are faced with attempting to decipher what it means to possess and ultimately what it means to spend. There is a tension in this novel that never seems to find release. Trina does not wish to spend, and her spending is not just a symbolism of satisfying needs and desires. It stems from a physical possession, a physical revelry. Compare this to the discussion on love (pg. 52 Norton): “No, Trina did not know. “Do I love him? Do I love him?” A thousand times she put the question to herself during the next two to three days.  At night she hardly slept, but lay broadly awake for hours in her little, gaily painted bad, with its white netting torturing herself with doubts and questions.” Could love in this novel be a part of possessing?

              After their marriage, Trina spends the majority of her time finding solace in the fact that McTeague was truly hers and would always be hers, no matter what. She is seen as wrapping her arms around him constantly as if he is an object possessed. He doesn’t care so much as long as she remains a part of her day and consistently inserted into his life. So, it appears that to Trina, McTeague is something owned, something of value, whereas to McTeague, Trina is something to be gazed upon and kept within the unchangeable painting of his life. Any disruption or surprises would most certainly affect his impressions therefore changing the painting he created from the start. What McTeague does not understand is that he cannot expect Trina to not change, just as she cannot expect McTeague to always be “hers”.

              Compare this idea to how Trina sees money. She has $5000 that she won in a lottery. Presumably she will live off of the interest, so this capital needs to stay stable. This is not good enough for Trina. She must possess physically the money even when she knows she will lose money doing so. In essence she doesn’t understand that money is just a representation or symbol. To McTeague, money is something to rely upon. He was used to a finer life through Trina and he did not want to go back. Once the painting was made, he didn’t wish to alter it. McTeague was fine not possessing the money, just as he was fine not physically possessing Trina.  Trina needed to possess both the money and McTeague. Trina is left unsatisfied continually throughout the novel.

              All of the contradictions and oppositions that are presented to us in this novel (irreconcilable paradoxes) seem to stem from one problem: Love and what it means to love and how this connects to sexuality/the body. Money is just a substitute for love. In the beginning, we see McTeague winning Trina away from Marcus, while in the background we see Trina doubting behind the scenes. Money becomes to Trina a substitute for the love she actually desires: kindness, compassion, warmth, protection, care, and most of all attention to her as a human being and not a painting. She takes solace in the coins she places in her bed as if they were her lover. And as readers, we understand this feeling. The cold coins are not much different than the coldness of her marital bed, but at least she derives ecstasy from them.

This novel is physical to an extreme: all the violence and the grabbing, biting, injuries, pushing, pulling, squeezing seem to signal something that has been repressed and is bursting out of its confinement. Trina ends up dying because she isn’t allowed to have sexual release (to be “spent”) through the act of love. McTeague ends up in the mine searching for the gold that Trina represented, which in turn represents her as object, not living, breathing, emotional, passionate human. Trina becomes the gold after death, embedded in the rock to be mined, extracted, and brought home again.

In the end in the desert of Death Valley, Trina is transformed into the "half dead canary chittering feebly in its little gilt prison."

Monday, April 27, 2020

Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits

Moroccan-American novelist, essayist, and professor Laila Lalami has written 4 novels and various essays, opinion pieces, book reviews, and short stories. Born in Rabat (where this novel starts out), Lalami was educated in Morocco, Great Britain, and the U.S. She holds a BA in English and an MA and PhD in Linguistics and is currently a professor at UC Riverside. She has just published her current non-fiction book Conditional Citizens in April 2020 through Pantheon Books. Her first novel, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, was published in 2005.  
              Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits is broken up into two parts, each part making up 4 chapters. The novel tracks various characters as they attempt to cross the Strait of Gibraltar together in a 6 meter long Zodiac boat filled with 30 people and are forced to swim to shore. Each chapter shows the various connections that each character has and the reasons for and result of the attempted emigration.
              The book begins with an introduction called “The Trip”. The author narrates the events of the trip across the strait from Tangier to Spain. Murad had paid Captain Rahal 20,000 dirhams to take him the 14 km across the strait. We are introduced to Faten (an 18-19 year old girl), Aziz (his second attempt), Scarface (tennis instructor), Mauna (10 -year old girl), Halima (her mom who is escaping an abusive husband), and a Guinean woman who throws up on Faten’s boots. When they are forced to swim, Faten has trouble, so Murad helps her. The Spanish Guardia Civil capture them when they reach the shore. The book proceeds to piece apart each story of both their “before” and “after” lives.
              In “Part I: Before”, we are given the stories of Faten and her friend Nouma.” The Fanatic” is a narration explaining why Faten decides to cross and eventually becomes a prostitute in Madrid. The chapter called “Bus Rides” tells the story of Maati and Halima and why she decides to leave her husband and cross with her children. The chapter called “Acceptance” is the story of Aziz and why he decides to cross and leave his wife Zohra for five years. The chapter “Better Luck Tomorrow” is finally Murad’s story. His mother discounts his authority because he is jobless and so decides to leave and pursue better opportunities in Spain besides the hustling that he does. He meets Rahal, the reptilian boat guy who hustles the hustler into paying him money to take him only partially across the strait.
              Part 2 is what occurs after they arrive in Spain. Chapter 5 called “The Saint” is the story of Halima and her blessed son, Farid. Farid apparently saves her life when they are forced to swim across the strait. Halima did not know how to swim. Halima ended up returning to Casablanca, but lives in a room in the slums outside the city. The miracle of the stick, the rescue, and Maati’s change of heart all are seen as supernatural intervention. Farid is seen as having some sort of gift. Maati grants Halima the divorce that she had wished for. The story of the Bleeding Tree is narrated. Chapter 6 is called “The Odalisque” (or female slave or concubine in a harem) and contains Faten’s story of how she became a prostitute in Madrid. Martin is introduced as her outwardly empathetic client. After being arrested on the beach, she grants sexual favors to a guard and is released. Her only option is to start selling more sexual favors creating a clientele base in Madrid. She had been there 3 years and lived with a roommate named Betoul. Chapter 7 is titled “The Homecoming”, and it is the story of Aziz’s return home to his wife and hometown. The idealistic fantasies of his return do not match the reality of what he returns to find. Much has changed and his plans and obligations over his wife are lifted due to irreconcilable goals and wants. He feels freed. They both do. The final chapter is titled “The Storyteller”, and through this particular story we are shown through one scene how Murad feels about his return to Tangier and the Botbol Bazaar and Gifts. He is working at a shop selling handicrafts and carpets, but has not entirely left his hustling days behind. Murad wished to attempt a return, but his mother refused to sell her bracelets for the money. There is a juxtaposition in this chapter between the reality of the visiting tourists and the fantasy of the story told about Arbo, Jenara, Ghomari, and the Sultan. The book ends with Murad realizing that he should write the stories, as his own father told to his children. He begins to block out the reality of the shop in order to go into his mind and start writing.
              Because the book is structured in this way, the author is able to juxtapose paradoxes and the difficult choices that are made between the various characters. The ending story mirrors the opening scene of Murad being at the center of the boat trip. Murad’s stories are both last in both of the sections. Murad begins and ends the narrative, and so the reader is guided to Murad for the final say in what had taken place and, therefore, what it all means. If the novel starts out with a chapter in third person narration recounting Murad’s viewpoint, then we could surmise that he is the pivot point of the book. Why did Lalami choose Murad as the pivot point character? Could it be he is “the storyteller”? Could she have seen Murad as someone she herself understands?
              To understand the answers to these questions, a close reading is required. What exactly is she mirroring within the form of the book? If we take the Introduction (“The Trip”), Lalami begins this chapter and the novel with two words: “Fourteen kilometers.” She ends the chapter with Murad being fine with the knowledge that he actually attempted the trip and did make it across. So, “next time”, like Aziz, he will make it. Therefore, the reader sees the distance as the initial obstacle: a mere fourteen kilometers. What can we deduce from this measurement then? Murad from Tangier as potential storyteller with a hopeful future ahead attempting to traverse the Strait of Gibraltar.  
              Lalami places Faten, the fanatic, as the next layer of pivot. Her stories are part of the first and second stories in the before and after sections. She is the first voice we read in both parts. Faten is also saved by Murad on the trip over. Murad, the storyteller, saves Faten, the fanatic. Isn’t Faten also the storyteller? Doesn’t she also tell stories in her work as prostitute? Wasn’t she the fanatic “voice” that was punished for calling out the king in the first chapter? Her destiny was formed when Larbi Amrani has her expelled from university for cheating. The stories that are told by both Murat and Faten are stories of indigenous culture of the Moroccans, or Moors. The distance, fourteen kilometers, is symbolic of the Moorish invasion in 711. Both Murad and Faten attempt a crossing. Faten makes it though by using her female body to strike a deal, yet Murad is sent back to try again (after spending all that money in the first place).  Both characters have strong voices, but it is Faten’s body that allows for her successful emigration. At the end of the book, we are left with two characters, each on either side of the strait.  Faten was able to successfully “invade” Spain using her wit, charm, and storytelling ability. She is using her roots to persuade her few clientele to support her and fund her. Faten tells Arabian Nights-like tales to draw men into her own economy and capital. Faten is the one who can support herself on the other side. She did not need anyone to help her. If we consider the book from this vantage point, then compare Lalami’s ideas in her essays, we can start to fill in the big picture of what the book is attempting to tell us.
              Faten is a lower class, independent woman who does not ask for help, except for when she is saved by Murad. Murad saves Fatel and so, it is she who becomes “the chosen one”, or the Odalisque, who will make her way forward and “conquer”. Murad is actually the true enabler in the book, or true pivot point to allow for the emigration of, not him unfortunately, but of others including Faten. When she arrives, she is using sexuality and potential procreation (note the condom scene where she runs out of her supply (another commodity that needs to be bought)) to survive. It is only through the reproductive potentiality of Faten that her roots can be planted into the newly won soil.  It is her egg that could become a seed, or a child by a Spanish father. Prostitution prevents this, however. The potential seed lands within the latex condom and is tossed away. In the process of searching for the condom in Martin’s car, for instance, Faten finds a copy of the Qur’an. When she asks him what he is doing with it, ““I’m just reading up.” He said. He reached out and caressed her hair. “Can we get on with it?” “(Lalami, Hope 134) It was a moment of revelation for Faten and, in a moment, she realizes why he is taking such an interest in her. It isn’t to have a potential romantic relationship, but to fulfill the fantasies that she has been feeding him. This moment problematizes the book and cuts off any hope for her that she was holding with Martin. Faten thought she and Martin had been speaking the same language (“the game”) but as it turns out, he was actually playing the actual game.
              Backing up five years to 2000, when Lalami becomes a US citizen, she was also an immigrant, a woman, an Arab, and a Muslim in the U.S. (California). Lalami had written in her essay “Bright Stars”: “Millions of people in this country live with the terrible reality that their status is at least partially determined by the color of their skin, nature of their creed, their gender identity, or national origin.” (Lalami 41). Faten’s status also was determined by all of those things: her gender, her religion, her ethnicity, her race, and the geography of where she comes from (across the strait in the land of the exotic, dangerous Moors). Her book then seems to be a take on geographical and national movement and migration and why it matters. Why this travel through time from “old life” to “new life” changes more than just location. It changes everything.
 In Lalami’s case, she had emigrated to the U.S. because “Love had brought me to that moment.” (Lalami Bright Stars 41) Her situation was much different than Faten’s. She had made the choice from her heart, not out of necessity. Faten starts out as a “fanatic”, but turns to manufactured “Love” in order to survive the crossing and permanent placement in Madrid. She even found a higher-class roommate in the bargain who did not reject her immoral ways. Her two dual sides (fanatic vs. sensual and submissive odalisque) come together as she fights her way through her own story of survival. She uses her rebellious nature to avoid being pulled into Martin’s attempts to help her out of both pity and a desire for the unknown.  One could argue after analyzing and comparing her journey to those of both Murad and Lalami, that she was actually the character with the most physical agency in the book. Murad had a lack of physical agency due to the loss of masculinity he encountered by being jobless. He was not able to fulfill his role of breadwinner and take his rightful place in the Arab male social hierarchy. Because of both of their attempts at emigration, they would forever be lost in that liminal space of the dark water of the Mediterranean into which they were dropped: lost inside this space of conquest. As Lalami writes, “The waves are inky black, except for hints of foam here and there, glistening white under the moon, like tombstones in a dark cemetery.” (Lalami, Home 2)
In neither of their cases could they reject their gender roles: Murad could not reject his masculinity, and Faten could not reject her femininity. Because of their liminality, they are the characters with the most ability to weave tales in the book.  They are two sides of the same coin. Their placement in the narrative and their reflection of each other creates a duality. Faten’s story ends in a shared meal in a liminal space that is neither Moroccan, nor Spanish (she is using Spanish-made ingredients, after all), and Murad’s story ends in being lost in the imaginative part of his mind, also a liminal space. There is a fluidity of both time and memory in both of these spaces: Faten is bringing forth her culture and roots into the present moment and sharing it with another woman of a different class in a different country, whereas Murad is able to ignore the tourists in his shop and their focus on commodity and material culture in the present moment as he creates from scratch another narrative of his choosing.  They both create a form of power and creative force, ultimately. Both characters are “weaving a carpet of their own making” from their own sense of selfhood. Both refuse to submit as an object to be studied.  In the eyes of society, neither character had chosen the “acceptable” path. They are the two characters in the narrative who we can observe their life moving on in relative hope after the book ends. Hope, not in terms of potential happiness, but in terms of power and a better future for all through their agency.
Which character is in a better position? Neither character appears outwardly to have the upper hand. Faten made it across to Spain, but Murad has a stable position in Morocco and the safety of respectable employment in order to create. Both characters will struggle with class, gender, race, and religious issues in the end, but it is Faten who is given the chance to change things. She possesses physical mobility that he does not possess, and, like Murad, she not only “spins yarns”, but she can cook and create sustenance and nurturance. Like Tariq ibn-Zihad, Arab governor of Tangier, in 711, she made the crossing using her skills, roots, and character traits in order to conquer her clients, make money in a strange land called Spain, and to form a brand-new future. Murad, on the other hand, will form a new future through the mind and his voice, potentially spreading this voice across borders. Faten may have been the conquering force, but Murad is the personification of this hopeful future simply by standing still.

Through Lalami’s book, we learn as readers that hope is inevitably a dangerous pursuit. You could fall into the dark waters and never come back.

Further Reading:

Alami, Ahmed Idrissi, “’Illegal Crossing, historical memory in Laila Lalami’s Hope and Other Dangerous
              Pursuits”, The Journal of North African Studies, Vol. 17, No. 1, Jan 2012, pp. 143-156.
Flesler, D., The Return of the Moor:  Spanish Responses to Contemporary Moroccan Immigration, West
              Lafayette:  Purdue University Press, 2008.
Fuchs, B., Exotic Nation: Maurophilia and the Construction of Early Modern Spain, Philadelphia:
              University of Penn Press, 2008.
Kahf, Mohja, Western Representations of the Muslim Woman:  From Termagant to Odalisque, Austin:
              University of Texas Press, 1999.
Lalami, Laila, “Bright Stars: The unfulfilled promise of American citizenship”, Harper’s Magazine, April
              2020, pp. 39-43.
Lalami, Laila, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, New York: Harcourt, 2005.
Oliveira Martins, J.P., A History of Iberian Civilization, New York:  Cooper Square Publishers, 1969.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Amy Waldman's The Submission

People fear desolation. When the 911 attacks occurred, the fingers were being waved around in search for something or someone to blame. It wasn't surprising what happened in the aftermath with Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein. People feel desperate. They are not thinking straight, and this is analogous to this moment in history, right now. There are the same signs of potential blame and distrust.

On pages 155-156 of the Picador edition of Waldman's The Submission, the characters briefly discuss the difference between an architecture of order vs an architecture of disorder. Paul brings up the ideas of Edmund Burke about the sublime after they had been discussing the security aspects: whether or not to wall it in or not. The conclusion was that walls would create "too contained a target". Mo is not cooperative when he sees how much the jury is trying to change the essence of his design. When Mo asserts that his ordered design has nothing to do with beauty and everything to do with a reaction against the chaos that had occurred there, Paul says that the parts should be "melted into one another." Not ordered in other words. This entire discussion seemed to be a way for them to discount Mo's designs. To attempt to take the Islam out of his art, so that it wouldn't be "equated with a paradise for martyrs."

To me, Mo's ideas were doomed before he even started. He shows them that he is on the side of his own country and the dead by creating a memorial that heals and attempts to change the land into a place where the harm can be reversed through a sense of geometry and order. I actually wondered if at this point in the book, no matter what design he came up with would have been contested due to his religion. Every time he appears he is described as being a professional, with thin legs, dark hair, well dressed. In other words, the way we picture an architect would look. He claims authority through his appearance. So why the attempt to undermine his authority? Fear, perhaps? He was originally listed as anonymous, so of course his design was selected without knowing his religion or culture of birth. This is a clear ethnonationalist attack against him by many people who claimed to be outraged. The design without the artist's name behind it was fine, so why should it change when we know who created it? The book brings up many questions about the source of art. For me, it brings up questions of the ideals behind beauty. Can an attack on the twin towers by Islamic fundamentalists cause we as a people to reject our own citizens? Even further can it cause our country to reject art and ultimately what we see as acceptably beautiful? All religious beliefs have positive ideals and many cultures have created beautiful works of architecture. They don't exist to create meaning where we don't mean  to create meaning. Meaning is applied by the maker. The maker claims authority.

When a memorial is ready to be built and an architect (or in this case simply the design) is ready to be chosen, the parameters that are held as most important will not come from a rational place. They will come from one of emotion. Waldman's book The Submission is a written symbol of the power and the authority Americans had over their own Muslim citizens at the time. Mohammed Khan had won with his design submission both anonymously and fairly. There was no reason at all to question his motives. It was simply his name that gave it away. What did his name give away? Well, the book complicates that. 

The architect Khan being pictured or imagined as the villain in entirety regardless of his individual background or origin serves as a reminder of how far stereotypes and ultimately, prejudice against persons can go. In this case, very far! His designs were called "paradises for martyrs" and were protested against. His design was a beautiful and mathematical homage to the dead and would have been a fitting remembrance of that day: metal trees upended along with lines of various fruit trees contrasted with pools called The Void.   Ultimately, I do think that Khan was being chosen as the scapegoat for their grief. He wanted to be the one to design a memorial (which is a homage to grief). Instead, he became the scapegoat, the figure of blame.

There are two points in the second half of the novel that I felt were noteworthy as far as this idea of scapegoating: the first being when he shaves his hair, and the second being when his design ends up being actualized in a Muslim moghul's garden. He wished to wash away the blame by removing his hair. It was a process of purification of any outward signs that he is Muslim. I think this gives us something to ponder further: can culture be purified? Can we wash off where we come from just like that? Evidently, this novel tells us that you cannot. It sticks to you like a stigma. Khan couldn't wash off the blame that was placed on him for being Muslim. Was it his name that marred him? Maybe. But I do think that his roots would have been exposed, even if he was known as just Mo. "The suspicious wins over common sense." The angry mobs would not have had it. Their voices were too loud, too angry, and much too emotional to be silenced. What do you possibly say to people whose loved ones have just died in a bloody massacre, even if they are being irrational?

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Emric: an excerpt from my upcoming book Daughter of Zeus

Chapter: Lug-gage

Matilde and I were on the deck of the USS George Washington when we saw her coming into view. The lady. Holding her torch proudly over the water, as a triumph over unfairness and injustice, she warmed my weary heart as I viewed her from up close as the boat moved into the harbor. I had heard rumors of what we would see, but no one had prepared me for the reality of this statue, larger and brighter than I had expected. Most Germans had never been here and had heard only second hand accounts from family.  The lady was hope for many weary travelers who would arrive here tired and without much to give. As we got much closer, I noticed the broken chain at her feet. I was breaking free, and so was Matilde. We were breaking free. I went back inside to stand by my wife and contrasted the openness of the harbor to the dim and cramped space of the ship's quarters that we would soon leave for good. How we survived so long here, I do not know. We took it one day at a time and knew that no matter what would happen, we would endure this together. The cold, clammy smell of moisture on metal, constant sea surges and storms, and the lack of windows and air led us to continual mild sea sickness and headaches from the pressure, even worse for the pregnant Matilde.

      The cargo handlers were wearing thick brown leather gloves to hold the multitude of bags that had been contained in the ship's hold. Their hands were broad and rugged, their thighs breaking through tight trousers, buttons popping open, pockets gaping. These men were burly as the stereotype states with the personalities to match. Back and forth, they lugged the bags with the force of Clydesdale horses laboring for their feed.  The passengers all filed out and waited by the baggage pile, patiently. For the lucky ones, servants in their stead stood waiting for the bags while they went away to rest. For the poor, however, the voyage below deck had exhausted every last ounce of their resolve, but still they needed to collect their belongings before starting their lives here in this strange new world. Their faces held fear, anticipation, wonder, exhaustion. The men of the ship's hold grunted as they handed me my large bag.

"Farewell, Brun."

I turned to see the quiet man I had befriended on the journey, waiting a short distance away. He looked frail and sickly, and I could tell his anxious nature was taking over. I had decided early on that we would stick together with him to ensure he was safely settled here before we continued on our way to the tenement house we had arranged with a German-American local. It would be the right thing to do.

"Yes.  Safe journeys. We are here at last. It was good to experience the voyage with you, my friend. I wish you the best of luck and good fortune in our newfound future. Please don't go yet. Let us go together to the checkpoints. I want to be sure you arrive safely."

His nervousness appeared to subside a little, and I was glad I had made the offer. It could not feel comfortable being alone here in this strange place.

I bowed to my new friend, knowing that he would not give me much of a response due to his thick German accent, as he struggled speaking English. Emric had been worried about what would happen once they all came to the island and were questioned. I assured him in order to give him more confidence and would help in any way that I could. We separated as we both went in search for the rest of our belongings.

My wife was waiting for me as the remaining passengers were leaving the ship. As was the norm, Mathilde looked as prim and proper as could be. You could barely tell she had suffered through sea sickness and the resulting inability to hold down any food for days. Her black hair was neatly combed into a wave, her green eyes bright and prepared, clothing smoothed down and beaten to combat any grime or bugs she would have picked up on the ship. Always reliable and steadfast Mathilde. She was ready to face whatever storms we would encounter ahead.

 No one knew about it. We hesitated telling anyone before we left out of fear that someone would attempt to stop us from leaving Germany, but Matilde is currently five months pregnant with our first child (a little bit less along when we departed so no one had noticed her expanding stomach).

It was November 1924. The ship was the George Washington.  Mathilde and I had fled out of sheer desperation. There was no food for anyone back in Germany. The war had depleted everything, and the cost of even the smallest amount of grain was astronomical. Faced with payments for war reparation, Germany had begun printing more and more money, therefore, the entire country was forced into a state of inflation. A wheelbarrow of money would not have been enough to buy a simple loaf of bread. The Jews were being blamed for everything because they held the business and the wealth. All of this had created an environment of extreme distrust and animosity.  I did not see any good coming from this state of affairs, so I knew we needed to flee.  Knowing we had a little one on the way, we had decided that the best thing to do was to leave our family behind and start fresh in a new place. Both of us spoke English satisfactorily and had enough skills in order to find some work while here.  I still, even after the long, difficult voyage and our hits and misses as far as the sickness on board that was rampant and the struggles ahead, did not regret this at all. I was not looking back any time soon, and neither was Mathilde. Just to see her glowing face, flushed red by the excess blood flowing in her mid-pregnancy, increased my faith in America and its opportunities. Our child would grow here safe, healthy, and without prejudice.

None of us would starve. Lady Liberty standing protectively over New York Harbor would ensure this would not happen.  The light of her lamp burned prominently and would never go out on our American dream.

      They made their way inside to speak to the inspectors. Once through with their questions and the health check, they could breathe again.

“Matilde, I am going to find our new young friend, Emric. I am sure he could use a hand.”

Chapter:  Displaced.

Emric wandered away from the boat as they hit the mainland. When he entered the Ellis Island inspection area, it hit him that he could be kept out if they found out that he wasn’t being supported in New York by a sponsor, so he lied when they had asked him if he had contacts here. He didn’t. Emric knew no one here, and he had no idea what to even expect when he arrived. He had to flee in a hurry after some more threats came in to his person back in Germany. Emric was a Jew, but this is information he will not be sharing with anyone anymore. His safety net had been breached. From now on, to strangers, he would be German.

He passed through the health inspection after having his vitals taken. Surprisingly, he passed all tests.

 “Emric! Hold on a second.”

He turned to see the German man from the boat coming towards him.

“Where are you headed?”

Emric hesitated before he said,

“I have a friend waiting.”

“What section of town may I ask? We could take some of the journey together.”

Brun’s wife followed dutifully behind.

Brun explained to Emric their plans.

“We are headed to a tenement house on Orchard Street.  Just a short walk from here. You are welcome to join us. Where is the address you are headed? It may be close. From what I know the German immigrants stick closely together. It makes it convenient to find work easily upon arrival.”

Emric wasn’t able to respond to this question. He had figured he would just follow the crowds and look for German signage and hopefully find a bed somewhere. He decided that telling him the truth would not hurt his chances of this happening. The partial truth.

“I am going to be upfront with you, Brun. I have no plan on where to go.”

He waited in hope that he would not look down upon him now for being deceitful with the officials at the island.

“No contacts at all?”


“So, you came here with the knowledge you would just find a way?”

“Yes. Exactly.”

Emric looked down in shame. He looked even thinner, like he was ill. 

The inspectors had checked him for disease, so Brun knew this was not true.

“Very good. Well, for that I can help you. You will be coming with us to Orchard Street. We are going to be staying with a friend of the family who has already been settled here for a while. She also has jobs lined up for both of us when we arrive. Now let’s see what America holds for our future, Emric. We can at least provide temporary shelter for you.”

Brun surged forward, forever the optimist. He had little clue what was in store for them:  how conditions would be much different than Germany, and people would be so much less understanding of loss than they had been used to, but prevail, they would. The three of them for now. Matilde followed close behind Brun in her green tidy suit, while Emric meandered behind her in his German dark suit, tie, and closely cropped thin hair, holding his hat tightly to his chest.


Chapter: Land Ho

Brun, Matilde, and Emric started the walk down the wide streets of New York towards the Lower East Side. Asking for directions, they were able to locate Orchard Street in no time at all. The street was noisy and chaotic, as if it couldn’t settle down. Passing a street full of garbage, orange skins, and empty bottles, they finally arrived at the tenement house. They walked up the front steps and rang the doorbell. There was plenty of noise inside and a rustling as someone unlocked a number of locks to let them in.

Brun called out, "We are looking for Franz Fischer?"

 The woman who answered looked irritated and bothered by their intrusion.

"Sigh. Come in. Franz?"

She yelled loudly, and it reverberated throughout the house. There was a noise of feet running and someone on the staircase. Two children were playing a game of chase.

"You will both be up in your room locked away if this continues!"

The woman scolded them. They both turned around to run back up the stairs. On their way, they ran into who we presumed was Franz: a tall, thin gentleman, rather severe and overly modest, unlike his outspoken wife.   Franz shook their hands and welcomed them in.

"We have a small room for you both prepared."

"We were hoping something could be done to give Emric a bed for the night?"

"Well, if you can squeeze him in your room then I see no problem. There is an extra bedroll up there that he can place on the floor. There are mice though, so I will warn you of that."

"That is fine. Thank you." Emric responded in his best English.

"On Monday I will take you to your jobs. Brun, you will be assisting in some of the deliveries. Mathilde, given your condition, work as a seamstress has been arranged. Does this work suit you?"

"More than sufficiently. I will be honored and will enjoy the work."

Mathilde perked up when she heard. Brun knew that this would be something she would enjoy. The three followed Franz up the stairs. The level of cleanliness plummeted as they approached. There was garbage strewn in the halls and dirty piles of clothing blocking their door.

"Someone should have removed this by now." Franz was angered.

"Please come in."  He shoved the clothing to the side and forced the door open.

He had opened the lock with a large skeleton key, and proceeded to hand it to them for keeps.

"There is only one key?"

"Only one."

They entered the room and let down their bags. Emric remained in the corner off to the side. He looked out of place, as if he were intruding or felt that he was. He still carried his hat close to this chest. The bed was small, but it would do for the two of them. There was a strong smell in the room of must.  They barely noticed, however. After a long voyage on rough water, the stillness and solidity would be soothing to them no matter the comfort level. Emric had pulled out the striped bed roll to inspect it for mice and wedged it underneath the small overhead window. He started to pull the dresser in front of it to create privacy. Brun and Matilde looked at each other as a gesture of gratitude that Emric felt comfortable enough with them. They would be fine for now. They all put down their bags and claimed their spaces. After the long voyage where they had bonded, they felt like parent figures to him, so seeing him settled took the worry off of their minds, worry that they had not left back on the boat.

"Well, I see this will do for you very well! I will figure out the cost of short term housing for Emric and as we already discussed, this will cost you, Brun and Mathilde ten dollars per month, with you sharing a kitchen with the family next door. There will be a wash tub provided for bathing and a water closet one story down that will be shared, along with its cleaning daily."

Brun started to get his money out and handed Franz the ten dollars for the first month’s rent. Franz took it, obviously impressed with his efficiency. Emric searched his pockets and found some German change. He handed Franz some coins. As Franz inspected them he said,

"Very well. This will do for one to two nights I think! Now please become comfortable. I will introduce you to your neighbors soon."

Emric had a game plan in his head of what he wanted to do as far as work. As far as shelter, that would fall into place, but he needed to find where the Jews were staying and try to find work there. He could then manage to separate from Brun.

As it turned out, he only needed to walk a couple blocks to find the Jewish neighborhood. There seemed to be all kinds of garment workers milling around, so he wandered looking for signs in the windows. He saw one sign advertising a sewer, so he mounted the steps, knocked and entered, inquiring inside to the five people sitting around a work table.

“No, we have found a worker. Someone forgot to take down the sign. Have you talked to   Lucky?”


“He’s looking for someone. Go around to the back door to ask for Lucky. He isn’t here, but they will explain the work that is needed.”

Emric did as he was asked and went around to the back. He walked up the steps to the rear of the clapboard house, after unlatching the tall metal gate to the back entrance.  When someone answered the door, he asked in Yiddish to speak to Lucky about a job. The man let him in and locked the door behind him. He asked many questions about who he is and where he comes from. Emric was upfront and honest about his origins and his predicament:

       “Where were you born?”


       “Jewish mother?”


       “Who was your father?”

        “I never knew him. He died when I was a baby.”

        “Lucky is looking for a Jew.”

        Emric repeated everything he had just said in Yiddish, then recited a short prayer.

        “I have little money, no job, and no permanent residence here.”

“I do believe we can help you as long as you are able to keep quiet and discreet about the work. It isn’t hard. Much better than you will find anywhere else.”

“I am ready and able to work. I can begin right away.”

Chapter: Troy Street

Emric went back down through the fence towards the front of the house. The man who he initially spoke with waved him into the house. Emric walked in and was ushered inside. The people working around the table looked him up and down. They could tell he just arrived by his German clothing and held out his hand.

“Hello. I’m glad you made the journey. I am Abraham. We welcome you to America.”

The rest of the people nodded in agreement.

“Yes, welcome!” “Welcome.”

“My name is Emric. I just arrived yesterday from Germany.”

One of the women smiled warmly, distracted away from her sewing with a dreamy look in her eye.  She stood up to grab him a cup. She took the large carafe from the center of the table to pour him a steaming dark cup of coffee and offered him a chair at the end.

        “Please sit.”

Emric took the earthenware cup gladly and sat down in the chair. It would settle his empty stomach. Another woman got up to open a cupboard. She brought out a loaf of brown bread and sliced one for him. She was wearing a plain tan dress with floral apron protecting it. Her chocolate hair was set into tight curls.

“I thank you. This is much appreciated.”

He silently ate among the workers, feeling suddenly out of place. 

“Just talk to Lucky. He will take care of you.”

Abraham continued, a man full of confidence, and, to Emric, a fatherly presence. Emric pulled out the piece of paper they gave him in back. He showed Abraham:

66 Troy Street

“Ah yes. That’s his distribution point. You will more than likely be part of Packing and Shipping. You are on the small side, but day to day work will get you stronger. Do you have a place to stay?”

“Just for tonight. Staying on Orchard Street.”

“I could help you with that. We have a family looking for a boarder. You will probably just stay there until you’ve earned enough money. I will take you there, if you’d like. You can make arrangements, then head over to Troy Street. They are a nice Jewish family with four children. You will be well cared for there.”

“Thank you, Abraham. Your help is invaluable to me right now.”

He spoke lower as they walked towards the door.

“I can tell you are in need of a friend. I am glad to help out a man in need. Lucky takes care of his people, and you are officially one of his now.”

He smiled and patted him on the back.

“Avigail, please handle things. I will be back soon.”

Abraham and Emric proceeded to make their way through the afternoon crowds on the street outside. The streets were calming as evening fell. Emric marched back after the business was finally settled to the little corner he shared with Brun and Matilde.

When Emric told them the news, they were overjoyed for him. He didn’t tell them everything, but he told them enough to ease any worry on their part. They looked at him with eyes of a second set of parents, his New World parents.

Chapter Make Do

It had been about three weeks. Emric worked hard and regained some of the strength he had lost on the voyage. He was working dispatch for Lucky: large boxes filled with bottles of booze being sent to underground locations across town. Emric didn't really care where they were going, or if what he was doing was legal or not. His only concern was that he was getting a weekly income to pay for the room he was renting. He had done worse back in Germany after all, when times became tight:  odd, dirty jobs with little respect. Garbage loader, sewer mechanic, road work. Things were going well for Emric.

One day while he was loading up the rest of a truck to send out, Lucky walks in with another man.

"Emric! Could we interrupt you a minute?"

The guys in suits stopped over by him looking pretty out of place there on the loading dock, like a couple of Roman imperial guards. When Emric came over to them, the men looked him up and down to survey what they were considering. Luckily, he had filled out enough to look capable of the work he had been doing.

"Is there a problem?"

"No problem. We have been considering a proposal for you, Emric."

"Alright then, let's hear it."

"We have a special job. Kind of a special operations job for you. You arrived here alone in NYC? No family?"

"Completely alone. No ties. I have no wife or family. Why?"

"Would you consider a promotion, if it meant that the work was riskier?"

"I would consider any proposal you have, but no, I wouldn't mind the risk."

"It would be covert. An undercover position. We think you could handle it. You are discreet and don't stand out much. You also don't have any issues with leaking private information. You know gossip. You seem to keep to yourself and so, keep your hands clean. We cannot have any spreading of our business happening."

"I'd be good for that."

"O.k., good then. We will have you sit down with Giorgio to discuss details, then we will let you decide. We wouldn't need you anymore here then, so hope you won't miss the work."

"No, I won't. Work is work. Nothing to miss.”

"How are you with numbers? Financials? Good with that?"

"You mean accounting? Yes. Very good. I was doing some of that in Germany when I left. Accounting is better than manual labor for me."

"Excellent! Looks like it may be a go then."

“Remember we need you to keep this hush-hush, Emric. Not a soul needs to know about this. Utmost secrecy is the most important part of the job. We will give you a cover, so people don't question you when you are off to work in the morning. I am sure you see some people."

"Yes. The family I live with asks me at dinner time about my job."

"Well, we wouldn't want that to harm your relationship with them. That will be most important here. That said, you will be meeting many people. People who had been previously unknown to you. You will be part of our organization. An integral part of it. We are like a machine, and you will be the lynchpin."

"This is an interesting development. Why are you considering me for this?"

"We feel we can trust you, and you will trust us. Also, you have an uncomplicated life. Small number of ties and connections. Less risk or danger to your loved ones, if you don’t have any family here."

"So, now who do I talk to with details?"

Lucky pointed to the man in the brown suit with the large belly sitting against the wall of the warehouse.

"Come with me, Emric."

"Once you are in and with us, you are with us for life. Remember that, Emric. That should make the decision much easier for you to make. We will protect you, just as you support our operation. It will be a reciprocal arrangement."