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It’s not about the head scarf, it’s about who decides the head scarf must be worn.

If this were a film blog, I’d love to talk about the sound design in Persepolis. The ominous sounds of the tanks as they moved in, the wheels of the bicycle as the children chased after it, the frantic footsteps as the young men were chased across the roof; if you weren’t wearing headphones while watching this film, you missed at least a third of its artistry.

The animation, as well, would take center stage in this discussion. The black and white denoting the harsh separation between two worlds, nothing truly existing in the grey–where we all live, the flashes of color in the present-day scenes highlighting a more nuanced, though bleaker, outlook on the world, the homogeneity of the women in post-revolutionary Iran, nearly indistinguishable from each other; Persepolis uses visual narrative so effectively that it would work as a silent film.

“But in a way he loved his country, unlike his son who succeeded him.”

One commenter on Amazon, where I rented the film, complained that the film failed to mention the seizing of the American embassy. What this commenter gets blatantly wrong is that the film is under no obligation to mention anything. The first act of the film documenting the incidents leading up to the revolution are told from the perspective of our young protagonist, Marjane, and its her viewpoint that is important. Relegating this film to kowtow to the interests of Americans is negating the importance of the film entirely. Persepolis is a personal story, not a marionette play to allay a Western audience.


Speaking of puppets, the terrible French of the British puppet should have been amusing, but it was terrifying, like sharpened claws on a chalkboard.

“They think we’re all violent, bloodthirsty fanatics.”

And this is the point where I want to bring in Spivak, at least incidentally, since its that commenter’s attitude that blocks the Western audience from seeing the true message of the film. We are somewhat confused by the tangled emotions seeing a young girl sent away from her family to Europe, only to return and find herself out of place in her homeland. Marjane is disconnected from her European friends over their misconceptions about Iran, and displaced from her Iranian friends over her time abroad making the transition to the heavily regulated society difficult. As a Western audience we can relate to her ennui in both places, her depression at being denied her sense of self, but, more importantly, we relate to her sense of guilt for living in the Western world while Iran and its people are being torn to pieces. Yet, our guilt isn’t the same as Marjane’s guilt. Our guilt should be about realizing our complicity in a system that plays a deadly game with entire nations of people in a quest for oil.

“Our torturers were trained by the CIA.”

Have I mentioned the trickle down effect of violence to the children? Or the snake like movements of the women trying to regulate Marjane’s dress? These subtle points of visual narrative may give some Westerners the idea that they are correct in their prejudices towards Iran and its people, but that is only because Westerners–mainly Americans–tend to be terrible at subtly. Marjane Satrapi is commenting on her own society from within. She is bound by the ideology of power, or the hegemony, and recognizes its hypocrisies and ambiguities. She is living this statement. Westerners, benefactors of years of colonization, have a much more difficult time commenting on their own ideology, mainly because it benefits them in many unrecognizable ways.


Yet even as Marjane is privileged within her own Iranian society–progressive parents, an honest and straight-shooting grandmother–the pressure to conform upon her return at first sends her into a depressive spiral, but then she bounces back once she ultimately succumbs. She is living in the liminal space between two ideologies–black and white, Western and Iranian–and as soon as she begins to assimilate does she find a small amount of contentment.

“We were so eager for happiness we forgot we weren’t free.”

And that’s the point of years of pointless war. Remember the simple pleasures while your freedom is slowly fading away. Remember those who died while we make your decisions for you. Remember the fallen while we plan the next series of martyr-making escapades to keep the next generation from rising up their heads and saying “why?”

Just because Westerners don’t call thier fallen soldiers “martyrs” doesn’t mean we don’t treat them as such.

In many ways, Persepolis can be seen as a treatise against over-education. The more you know, the more you see through the world and the more simple happiness slips through your fingers. You feel less a part of the world around you by the simple fact that you can see more of it, more of the depth of it, more of the hues of the world instead of just the simple black and white. Yet the world is better in this view, full of more interesting people. The world of the over-educated is devoid of so many enemies and overflowing with stories, stories from everywhere, stories from everyone. In the end, Persepolis is also a reification of storytelling, not without, but in spite of ideology. If we can wrestle ourselves out of the stranglehold that Spivak argues suffocated the Western critic, then we get a little close to that Technicolored world. It is difficult, and it is discomforting, but it is glorious.


Cataloging the catalogers

It may seem disingenuous, or at worst mocking, to say that I have to work at decolonizing my mind. As the beneficiary of generations of imperialism, I have to continually unravel my automated thoughts about other peoples and cultures to not only better understand them but to better understand myself. I believe that if you are not always deconstructing your beliefs, reevaluating them in the face of new information, you become stagnant and dull. It’s exhausting, but it’s important.

When I first read Edward Said’s Orientalism last year, I came with the understanding that I was an enlightened thinker ready to absorb new wisdom. Yet what happened was a cold slap in the face. At the same time I was beginning research on my thesis and had to question my motives. “Do I really have a right to study the writing of another culture? How can I do due diligence if I cannot completely dissolve my mind of Western thinking? Is that thinking, at times invisibly interwoven with thoughts, denying me the opportunity to think about other cultures in the first place? Where does my privilege end? And, most importantly, is it enough just to acknowledge that privilege?

Said’s introduction reads like an old letter from my smartest friend. He is engaging and thoughtful and unflinching in his analysis. In a brilliant way he is cataloging the catalogers – highlighting and questioning the systematic creation of the “Orient” as a point of reference to Europe, or the “Occident.” Writers, scholars, travelers create and reinforce this romantic and subordinate view of a geographical area filled with disparate cultures. To create in a way of “dealing with it, by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it: in short, Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient” (73). Said pares down what he intends to address as the “Orient” and makes me reflect on my own assumptions of what the “Orient” means – in my case, mainly as an American, the Far East. And while I was a little disappointed that he would be dealing directly with Japan – because of my thesis – Said’s introduction insisted that I still had much to gain by reading about the systematic ‘Othering’ being done by Europe. He was, of course, correct, that while, no colony of Great Britain, Japan learned important lessons about imperialism from its close Western friend; a friend who had particularly interest in defining Japan by its own army of diplomats, scholars, writers and ‘Japanologists.’ The colonization is more in thought than body, but the importation of Western ideas of dominance still has a lasting effect.


Said is also the first theorist, outside of Derrida, that gave me confidence in my own style of reading. His contrapuntal reading of texts feels similar to how I approach well-known texts. Of course, I do not have the  need to establish a new critical discipline in order to deconstruct misleading notions about non-Western cultures, but his approach allows me to find comfort in my unwillingness to accept historical theories about text. Always questioning why we think the way we do, is imperative. One must always reexamine the body of knowledge upon which one stands.

It’s that natural antagonism that made me refuse the red-white-and-blue ribbon my mother handed me after the World Trade Center attacks. It was a few days after the event and I was still sleep-deprived and reeling from my work at the newspaper that week. I couldn’t take it. It felt false. I couldn’t make myself become part of some wave of patriotic sentimentality. As Dr. Clemens states in her video, the events of that day were “too big”  and to distill my reaction to a patriotic display seemed insufficient in this new world.

Circling the wagons may provide a sense of safety, but it severely blocks your view.

[For the record, my mother understood my hesitation, and was not insulted. She is my mother, after all, and has had plenty of practice of dealing with my contrarian nature.]

Even so, I held similar beliefs about the veil. The veil was not a choice, it was a symbol of oppression. It was all too easy to slip this essentialist idea into my thinking because, as a Western white woman, a right to define feminism is part of our culture (though we continually define it narrowly). The veil as symbol also found an easy home in my brain due to my atheism and my questions about raising children to believe in their parents’ religion. I had already flirted with the idea of calling that indoctrination when it came to my Christian neighbors; here, after 9/11 was a perfect illustration for that point. At the time I knew no women who wore the veil, or the hijab, or the burka. Today is different, and I was wrong. The veil is also a symbol of a woman’s choice, and empowering act in defiance of the Western world’s need to make her a victim, at best, or an enemy, at worst. I realized that I was guilty of falling for the ‘other’ argument.

I do not define the veil I do not wear.

And who defines the three women in the these texts. Is it the Western journalist who finds the story? The publisher who packages and markets the book? Is it the audience, who may feel justified in their previous beliefs about Islam, or a self-satisfying sense of compassion just for reading them? The “phoenix stories” as Dr. Clemens calls them, have a powerful way of reinforcing the ‘Other’ narrative in a way that may not speak to hard-line conservatives, but soft-hearted liberals (those are essentialist statements made merely to make a point, problematic yes, as I would call myself a hard-line liberal, but I digress, again). Do these books, in a sense, use these women’s stories to inflate the Western narrative that Islam is dangerous for women? And, more importantly, does it remove the sense of Western responsibility for destabilizing the region, by relying on the fundamental misunderstanding of a religion that is actually quite diverse?



We inherit our ideas, whether through language, culture, religion, education – all of these are flooded with the Western concept of the East. Even my naming this ideology as ‘Western’ is worthy of deconstruction because it implicitly implies an ‘Eastern’ ideology and that they are diametrically opposed, like cardinal points on a compass. We are so much closer than we think.


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Lean In

My thesis work and my postcolonial readings collided again this week. As I read an article about, of all things, the attitudes of Victorians toward the Japanese wearing Western clothes, Hami Bhaba and his assertions on mimicry and ambivalence came into play. The Victorian’s deprecating comments and attitudes toward people attempting to assimilate part of their culture was a perfect example of the disruption of mimicry. The reaction, on the surface, seems like the paternal condescension of a large empire to its new pupil, but deep down it is the uneasy realization of one’s own preposterous-ness when presented from the outside. It is also the disruption of that paternal state, equivalent to your child marching around in your shoes; one day they will fit and they will no longer need you.


“Tourist photographs rarely depicted the Japanese in European dress, and, when this did occur, the intention seems to have been to critique rather than to flatter. In the photograph […] c. 1870s, entitled ‘The civilized Japs’ [sic], there is something uncomfortable rather than graceful in the appearance of the unidentified man and woman depicted; the man, for example, gnaws on an almost comically large cigar and his suit billows around him ” (Kramer 18).

Source: Kramer, Elizabeth. “‘Not So Japan-Easy’: The British Reception Of Japanese Dress In The Late Nineteenth Century.” Textile History 44.1 (2013): 3-24. Historical Abstracts with Full Text. Web. 24 Sept. 2016.

Ambivalence is one of those words I remember learning. Sometime in my early teens, around the same time I thought I knew what patronizing meant, ambivalence became part of my lexicon. But I only had a partial meaning, thinking that I had no clear opinion, or none at all, about a particular topic. “I’m ambivalent about the whole matter” meant that I didn’t care. Only upon reading Homi Bhaba’s use of the word, did I realize my initial relationship with “ambivalence” had been entirely wrong. My “ambivalence” did not exist between two conflicting feelings, those feelings didn’t exist at all. Only when confronted with an extended definition, one that seeks to highlight the muddy existence of people caught between two worlds, neither one metaphorically black and white, did I realize what I thought was ambivalence was actually indifference.

In Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions, Tambu exists in an ambivalent world, kneeling in the doorways between education and ignorance, urban and rural, girlhood and womanhood, Shona and English. She elevates one over the other at different times. When she begins menstruating her initial reaction is a practical one, duly educated by her mother, aunts and other female relatives, though still a matter too dangerous for male ears. She only experiences shame when confronted with the pristine bathroom of Babamukura’s house, anticeptic and porcelain white. The wholly natural process stands out in stark contrast to the construction of civilization – which would not exist without it. At this point in our reading, her cousin Nyasha appears as a possible guide to help Tambu navigate between all possible realities, though she has much navigating to do for herself. She, too, exists between two worlds, when recalling her visit to Tambu’s homestead upon their return from England:

“For [her parents] at least, because now they’re stuck with hybrids for children. And they don’t like it. They don’t like it at all. It offends them. They think we do it on purpose, so it offends them. And I don’t know what to do about it, Tambu, really I don’t. I can’t help having been there and grown into the me that has been there. But it offends them – I offend them. Really, it’s very difficult.” (78).

Nyasha finds some solace in books and cigarettes and, at least at dance-hall distance, boys. She also surprising enjoys church. Bhaba’s description of the portioned dispersing of Christian morality to colonized people is expressed in Nyasha’s attitude toward church, recognizing the “Christian cause, which was conformist but could clandestinely be translated into a progressive ideology” (98).

As we continue reading, I will be curious to see from which side of the doorway Tambu leans. Perhaps she will continue to remain there, standing rather than kneeling, leaning to and fro, gathering everything she can from both sides. Her position as an African woman insists that she never fully control her own life in either place, as exemplified in Maiguru’s lack of agency even while holding her own Master’s Degree. Will the ambivalence of Tambu’s situation force her to choose, and will she have the power to make that choice?

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Note: My apologies for the last minute entry. You can see why here.

Somewhere between Wilde and Derrida I realized that language was something I was thrust into. It filled the world around me and gave form to everything. As I grew and became a reader, language created a temporal gateway between myself, the writer and the world they created. Its nuances and inconsistencies—as exemplified by the apex of all word-play, the pun—gave me hours of delight. Language can bend, turn back on itself and surprise. Yet, like the air, it is invisible and, like the air, its contamination or elimination would be deadly.

Rushdie’s master manipulation in the short story “The Courter” is frustrating. Whenever I come upon a writer who can transform simple words into a colorful experience, my jealousy gland flares up and I fume. And what’s brilliant about “The Courter” is how the whole story turns upon the mispronunciation of one word. By changing “porter” to “courter”, Certainly-Mary introduced a new idea into Mixed-Up’s mind and sets the rest of the tale in motion. Language, so easily manipulated by those with nefarious intent, is also the means of communicating kindness and love, and its mishaps often express something we hide even from ourselves.

Outside of my own reading and writing, language takes shape as I work with students in the Writing Center. I am always impressed with how students learning English—and many times it is their third or fourth language—have such mastery of its form. English is a particularly difficult language to learn, from what I am told, though the world is infused with it from politics to pop culture, it must be difficult to steer away from it. The jealously gland throbs again when talking to a student who worries about their paper in English, all while juggling multiple vehicles of expression in their head. How does English explain our culture to someone learning the language? At what moment does the ELL student think, ‘oh, they arrange the words this way, well that explains a lot.’

Ngũgĩ’s essay gave me a small, safely-privileged sense, of what it feels like to have your own language rejected. His school experience was the pained twin of the experience of America’s indigenous people in our boarding schools; their language rejected, demonized and banned. And it is a brilliant scheme. Eliminate the language of a culture and you slowly eliminate the culture. Remove the barrier between communication entirely and sedition is slow to stir. Assimilation, with the necessary deference to the “proper” speakers of the master language, is key to maintaining an exploitable class structure. I admit, it was difficult to hear of how my language was used this way, but I am not so naive to think that English is not a terrible and effective weapon. We routinely use this weapon on ourselves.

This cat is serious.
All the other memes I looked at were either racist, pejorative or otaku-related. I am only one of those

When I started seriously pursuing learning another language, I didn’t realize all the small connections that would be created in my brain. Japanese in its syntax is not terribly different, though differently arranged, but the switch from alphabet to syllabaries and kanji appeared to be mountainous in scale. Yet, little by little, I see how certain ideas join together to form larger ideas—my favorite so far is that the kanjis for “certain” and “death” join together to make the word “frantic.”

“Hisshi” This will never not be wonderful to me.

In learning another language you get a sense of those who speak it, and Ngũgĩ spelled this out beautifully when he said that language is the carrier of culture (Desai and Nair 153). They are impossible to separate, and while I may study for years, my upbringing in America will always prevent me from being entirely fluent in the cultural aspect of the language. My goal is to be able to read in Japanese, to get closer to the authorial intent of a text.

Walcott’s poems are another example of getting closer to the intent through language. Ironically, the pdf’s had some of the footnotes cut off, thereby rendering some of the references “untranslatable.” I will fully credit Dr. Clemens for doing this intentionally as a way to showcase how beauty may still be gleaned from a text even without a full context of the allusions or the culture to which it refers.

This is where translation gets muddy. Translation may open the door to many texts, but the view is more through a foggy window.

An example: a stanza from Pablo Neruda’s poem “Sólo la Muerte”

Hay cadáveres,
hay pies de pegajosa losa fría,
hay la meurte en los huesos,
como un sonido puro,
como un ladrido sin perro,
saliendo de ciertas campanas, de ciertas tumbas,
creciendo en la humedad como el llanto o la lluvia.

My preferred translation by Robert Haas, who I feel attempts to capture the lyrical nature of the original:

There are corpses,
there are feet of clammy stone,
there is death in the bones,
like pure sound,
like a bark without a dog,
growing out of certain bells, certain tombs,
swelling in the humidity like a lament or like rain.

A poorer translation, in my opinion, by Robert Bly, which can be found here:

And there are corpses,
feet made of cold and sticky clay,
death is inside the bones,
like a barking where there are no dogs,
coming out from bells somewhere, from graves somewhere,
growing in the damp air like tears of rain.

The “clunkiness” of English is clearer here. There appears to be less attention to the music of the poem as opposed to the more literal translation. Even an entire line is missing. Translation is an art, but a “lossy” one. Shapes and movement may be clear, but some meaning is lost. A desire to only read in your own language seems lazy to me—those time I want to learn French to read Derrida are fleeting, but I generally drown those thoughts in beer—yet there will still be a cultural barrier. Ngũgĩ highlights this in showing how the comprador class uses native languages—often forgotten and rejected by the intellectual elites—to heighten fear and superstition in the working class. His refusal of English in his own work, and his desire to speak to the working class in their own language feels like a repossession of discourse that some of the writers that came before him abandoned. We English-speaking, intellectual-elite should take note and remember that for the American working class, academic English reads as another language.

It’s time to translate.