This class has become one of my favorite classes at Emory. At first, I was a little nervous about taking the class. I know students from the Business school have a reputation or stigma about us in the college: they often make students in the College uncomfortable while taking classes at Goizueta, and I was worried about coming off as another arrogant B-school senior. I was equally nervous about taking a Women’s and Gender Studies course (subject matter that I have little exposure to) crossed with Comparative Literature and having to analyze text (something I haven’t done since my senior year of high school). From the choice of text and weekly discussions, this class has made me really appreciate my heritage and has made me proud to be a female. My favorite books are Wide Sargasso Sea, No Telephone to Heaven, Breath, Eyes, Memory, and Before Night Falls. Wide Sargasso Sea was difficult to read, but in retrospect I think it was a good introduction into the course and helped me gauge the level of analysis at which my colleagues were used to in their other classes. It was also amusing to read some of the Jamaican terms that I’ve heard growing up and how these terms have persisted since the time the novel was written. This novel also made me reflect on the impacts that colonization have left on the Caribbean, especially the class system and revolts against the imposed class system. Likewise, I enjoyed the depiction of Jamaica in No Telephone to Heaven. I was amused by the way Michelle Cliff switched between English and Patois, as I often do when I’m speaking with my family at home. It also made the think introspectively about having to bridge the gap between two cultures and finding acceptance within the two. Like Claire, I also have half-siblings, so I empathize with some of the differences she felt between her and her sister Jennie. The familial relationships in Breath, Eyes, Memory struck me the most. I felt it was a beautifully true story of the matriarchal society in the Caribbean (in contrast to a patriarchal society in the United States). I have always had a strong bond with my mother, so I enjoyed reading characters who do not share the same type of relationship with their mothers and seeing how their relationships change in the novel. Before Night Falls was the most surprising to me. First, it was the only novel we’ve read so far with a male protagonist. Second, Reinaldo Arenas’ autobiography was a striking account of the persecution writers and other “counter revolutionaries” faced in Cuba. What I appreciated most about the novel was how honest he was about all his experiences, even admitting that he had lost hope and pride at times. I’ve greatly enjoyed being in this class this semester. I truly felt welcome despite my lack of experience in feminist literature and love the discussions we have in class. Best of luck to all of you next year 🙂
“The erotic and the literary went hand in hand.” (pg. 101)
Before Night Falls is a compelling and personal account of Reinaldo Arenas, a Cuban writer, and his experiences in Communist-lead Cuba. Growing up as a peasant, Arenas and other young boys often engaged in homo-erotic behavior; perhaps they used it as a way of entertainment and passing time, or as a way of establishing a bond amongst the boys in their neighborhood. Despite their severe poverty, these sexual encounters existed as a type of freedom along with the environment in which they lived: “I think the splendor of my childhood was unique because it was absolute poverty but also absolute freedom…” (pg. 5).
These encounters arguably also provided Arenas and the other boys lessons in anatomy, in lieu of formal education on the subject in school. Any curiosities about the human body that Arenas entertained were explained by the other youths. One instant of this curiosity is seen in the passage in which Reinaldo talks about the mystery of the river and of thunderstorms. As the men climbed out of the water, he was able to catch a glimpse of their bodies and developed an appreciation for male anatomy: “To see all those naked bodies, all those exposed genitals, was a revelation to me: I realized, without a doubt, that I liked men…I was only six years old, but I watched them spellbound, in ecstasy before the glorious mystery of beauty” (pg 8).
This appreciation of beauty in the human body translates into one of the factors supporting his appreciation of beauty in literature. Just as the erotic was a way of freedom in an oppressing regime. Through literature, Arenas and other writers could write down their life experiences in defiance of the revolution but could also create a thing of beauty.
The erotic and the literary are often paired together in describing some of Reinaldo’s sexual encounters as a young adult. While working in the National Library, he had the chance to read Communist literature while being able to write poetry and stories. Reinaldo also offers an account of two women being found together in the library, which is interesting because not only has the reader not seen an account of eroticism between two females (it has been predominantly male-focused until this point), Reinaldo chose to reveal suppressed desires in an environment that aids in suppression, censoring the material that is being circulated. Reinaldo also sought refuge in the National Library after a sexual encounter between his friend Tomasito and a young man. In addition to pairing literature and the erotic in terms of location, he pairs the two constructs as part of one process – creating a literary work of art. Reinaldo states, “I could never work in pure abstinence; the body needs to feel satisfied to give free reign to the spirit.” (pg. 101) This statement can apply to any act of creation. In singing, tension in one area of the body will then travel to the diaphragm, lungs, and eventually the larynx, where most of the production of sound occurs.
“I smiled up at her and said nothing. I certainly couldn’t say I don’t know. Actually, I was at a loss as to what to say. I could not bring myself to deny what I had just this past summer decided to embrace; besides, to say no would be to admit being one of the squares. Yet, to say yes might commit me to proving it, like with the vodka. And Ginger was a woman of the world, not one of my high school girl friends with whom kissing and cuddling and fantasizing sufficed. And I had never made love to a woman before. Ginger, of course, had made up her mind that I was a woman of the world and knew “everything”, having made love to all the women about whom I talked with such intensity.” (pg 135)
In this passage, Audre is talking with Ginger, a coworker at crystal cutting factory in Stamford. After starting high school, Audre went from having very few female friends to being friends with an entire group of girls, some of whom she kept in contact with after leaving Hunter College. Throughout her friendships, Audre seems to have blended the rigid lines of what society and culture may categorize as platonic versus sexual relationships. Through her exploration of the erotic, Audre does not categorize herself as gay or straight but rather welcomes opportunities to love a person. After meeting Ginger, Audre’s practice of sexual non-identification is openly challenged. Her reluctance to answer makes one wonder if her decision to not identify her sexuality was driven by a desire to be different (from not wanting to be “one of the squares”) or mainly a result of her own confusion about some of her deepest desires.
Another interesting thing to note is Audre’s occasional habit of putting up a front, almost as if she feels a need to prove something to others or more importantly, to herself – a habit she may have learned from her mother. Earlier in the novel, she discusses her parents’ ability to ignore things (like racism and the scars on Gennie’s face before she committed suicide), as a means of either shielding their daughters from the harmful emotional damage or as a way of making things temporarily go away. Audre sometimes does the same thing. We saw it with her abortion, when she was confronted about how ill she looked. She tried to convince herself the pain would go away if she just ignored it. When she failed her summer courses, she tried to convince herself of something other than the truth (that some people weren’t made to understand German, instead of the fact that she neglected her studies to entertain members of her group of girls). Following this passage, Audre verbally admits that she is, in fact, gay – but still she puts up a front to not “lose face” or her reputation with Ginger.
One thing that struck me about this passage was Audre’s impression of her reputation with Ginger. Ginger thinks she is a woman of the world, fully experienced in making love to women; Audre admits that she barely knows anything about making love to women. However, I think she is a woman of the world in a different sense. What she lacks in that sexual experience, she makes up for in other worldly experience. Her most important life experience being her abortion and the emotional toll it took on her. Genevieve, her first friend that she truly cared for, committed suicide when they were teenagers. Her strained relationship with her mother could also be added to the list of emotionally damaging life experiences. In each case, Audre feels a lack or loss of love, which is perhaps why she is reluctant to open up or even try to tie sexuality and desire.
“According to Tante Atie, each finger had a purpose. IT was the way she had been taught to prepare herself to become a woman. Mothering. Boiling. Loving. Baking. Nursing. Frying. Healing. Washing. Ironing. Scrubbing. It wasn’t her fault, she said. Her ten fingers had been named for her even before she was born. Sometimes, she even wished she had six fingers on each hand so she could have two left for herself.” (pg. 153)
In this section, Sophie is preparing a meal for Tante Atie and Grandma Ife. Since Sophie left Haiti, Tante Atie has changed a great deal. She has made some improvements like learning her letters and writing poetry, but she has also begun to show some alcoholic tendencies and escapes in the night (the most dangerous time of the day) to go to her “lessons” with Louise. Here, we implicitly see one of Tante Atie’s desires: to break away from gendered duties and have something for herself. Throughout this section of the novel, we sense that Tante Atie feels stuck in the duties and expectations of being a woman and a daughter. She had to endure being tested as a girl (expected to be pure), and is expected to take care of Grandma Ife (being Grandma Ife’s only family member left in Haiti). Her desires are somewhat policed but not by Grandma Ife, which we would expect. Grandma Ife acknowledges that times are changing and is willing to let Tante Atie go because Atie is unhappy there. Instead, they are policed by societal expectations (or what she perceives as societal expectations). She believes she has to take care of Grandma Ife, despite their rough relationship.
This passage also demonstrates some expectations that Tante Atie desires, but has been unable to fulfill. The most important of these expectations is to be a mother. She raised Sophie like her own child yet was always mindful of the fact that Sophie has a real mother, even when Sophie calls Atie her mother. She is never quite the same since Sophie leaves, and is presumed to be in “mourning” of the loss of the only daughter she has ever known. Tante Atie also has an unfulfilled desire for love. Earlier in the novel, Danticat introduces Augustin, who we first see as a friend to Tante Atie. Later Martine reveals that Tante Atie was at one point in a relationship with Augustin, but Augustin changed his mind and decided to marry another woman. This is one of the only stated relationships Tante Atie has had with a man thus far, and one of only three stated male/female relationships in the novel (which goes back to the idea of Danticat’s triangulation in character relationships). We do not know the true nature of Tante Atie’s friendship with Louise, but Danticat, at times, hints to their friendship taking on a sexual nature (“…we are like lips and tongue.” – Louise). Perhaps their friendship has developed this nature because of Atie’s lack of a sexual relationship with a man. We can also look at Tante Atie’s lack of love in regards to family. She has no father figure, as Sophie’s grandfather is nonexistent at this point. Martine has been gone from Haiti for the majority of Sophie’s life, so her love is arguably barely present despite her sending packages through the years.. The only family member left is Grandma Ife. The two have a strained relationship, evident in their arguments and Ife’s disapproval of Atie’s lifestyle.
“It was a song about a white cockroach. That’s me. That’s what they call all of us who were here before their own people in Africa sold them to the slave traders. And I’ve heard English women call us white niggers. So between you I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong and why was I ever born at all…” [pg. 61]
In Wide Sargasso Sea, the protagonist Antoinette Mason is a Creole daughter of plantation owners. Growing up in Coulibri, Jamaica, she and her family faced discrimination from both the natives of Jamaica as well as other Whites living on the island. Although they are plantation owners, they are still considered “poor whites”, never quite seen as possessing equal status with the other Whites – a fact the natives are aware of and use against the Mason family. This is demonstrated in the violent climax of Part I, where a group of men burn the Mason home to the ground and try to prevent their escape.
In this passage, Antoinette explains her issues with identity and culture. She is rejected by both the natives and the people whom we expect her to identify with the most. Although her situation is different than that of the identity struggles outlined in Hall’s essay “Cultural Identity and Diaspora”, one can draw some parallels between her feelings and the feelings of those displaced by the slave trade. Hall calls Africa, which all slaves are descended from, the “missing aporia” – a sort of missing link in the chain of culture. Antoinette feels this to an extent – she is descended from English people, but still struggles with who she is (not quite English and not quite Jamaican or Martiniquan). He also mentions that culture and identity are not hardly defined, but are constantly changing entities; they have elements of the past, the present, as well as the future and “undergo constant transformation”. We begin to see how this affects Antoinette’s sense of identity in her brother’s letter to her husband. In his letter, he explains the dark past of her family – how they are cunning people, all afflicted with madness that was considered characteristic of Creole people. I can sense Antoinette trying to overcome her family’s past (especially her mother’s madness) but finds it difficult to completely forget and put things behind her.
Another parallel we can draw between the two texts is the comparison between Martinique and Jamaica, as well as its people. In Hall’s essay, Martinique is viewed as somewhat superior to Jamaica. It is richer, more fashionable, and people of mixed raced are considered “sophisticated”. Contrast this with Wide Sargasso Sea, where people from Martinique are considered strange in the way they talk and some of their other cultural practices. People of mixed race are not seen as sophisticated, but face some of the same rejection that Antoinette experiences. Not fully black and not fully white, they feel like they belong to neither group – a sentiment Antoinette’s brother also expresses in his letter to her husband.