Rethinking Canonicity in my English Degree (again)

This semester, I took two literature classes: English 451 and a survey course on British literature pre-1700. Because I had to (belatedly) complete my English Major Self-Reflective Advisement Paper, I spent some time thinkING about the value both classes contributed to my degree.

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Reexamining Sexual Hierarchies

In my Inspire paper, I wrote about how Xenogenesis demands that its readers re-evaluate their preconceived frameworks of hegemony in imagining and enacting social change. More specifically, though, I’d like to revisit this subject in the context of sexual power dynamics prevalent throughout the trilogy.

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“Bloodchild” and the Monstrous Feminine

As we continue our readings and discussions for the semester, I find myself routinely circling back to “Bloodchild” as I attempt to better understand the way Butler’s fiction underscores questions of gendered hierarchies. Although I’ve enjoyed all of the theory we’ve read in class so far, I especially liked reading up on Julia Kristeva’s concept of ‘abjection’ and the own research I’ve done on gendered abjection in psychological horror.

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Visual Schemas and Parable of the Sower

Earlier this evening, I was browsing The Rumpus and found a comic book review by Kevin Thomas of Butler’s Parable of the Sower:

Most of the class hasn’t read Parable of the Sower (and it’s not on the syllabus) but Thomas’ illustrations strikes me as a powerful reminder of a book I found deeply moving. I’m interested in the way he constructs the plot of the novel –from an introduction to Lauren Olamina to the establishment of Earthseed–as a visual schema, imbued by his own commentary. Obviously, his 9-panel comic only scratches the surface of a demanding and complex book (to use Beth’s phrase, Butler is not a gratuitous author), but he illuminates some important aspects of the novel, most notably the comment that “its [the novel’s dystopia] causes and effects are sadly plausible.” Thomas is correct:  I find myself thinking of the troubling, chaotic America Butler evokes in Parable at least three times a week. This is particularly true during weeks like these, where we are again confronted with a devastating intersection of environmental havoc and political instability.

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Bank of America v. The City of Miami

I realize that classes are already over, but very quickly I want to share a piece of news I came across that relates rather deeply to the course. Yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the City of Miami’s lawsuit against Wells Fargo and Bank of America. The suit alleges that the banks’  predatory lending practices violated the Fair Housing Act and targeted African American/Latino communities through subprime mortgages. You can read about the case and the Supreme Court’s decision in the following sources:

Cities Can Sue Big Banks Over Effects of Discriminatory Practices (NPR)

Bank of America Corp. v. The City of Miami (Supreme Court’s published decision)

Supreme Court Rules Miami Can Sue Over Predatory Lending (NYT)

There are certainly other media sources covering the case as well, but I felt these might be a good starting point to obtain a brief overview.  At any rate, from my cursory research the decision strikes me as a small victory for proponents of fair housing and lending practices (good news is hard to come by these days).

Many thanks to Alpha and Beth for facilitating a meaningful and compelling class this semester.

What’s In a Dystopia

Recently, my mother (who is what people sometimes gently refer to as a “Facebook aunt”) shared a video of a speech by Yeonmi Park, a defector of North Korea, which I will post below:

After watching this video, I was struck not only by Yeonmi’s moving story, but how the society she describes in her re-telling of life in North Korea sounds like a fictitious dystopia.  Imagine a place where citizens are brainwashed to the point that they felt the regime can read their minds, or where generations of a family are raised in concentration camps to due a patriarch expressing doubt on the authority of a regime. This description (coupled with North Korea’s growing hunger crisis and frequent flooding/droughts) makes the country seem like a dystopic fiction novel, but it isn’t.

When I googled the etymology of the word “dystopia,” I was surprised to find that the definition does not include any mentioning of a “future” state, but rather an “imagined” state where “everything is unpleasant or bad.” In light of this definition, what’s stopping North Korea from constituting as a dystopia? The fact North Korea is a real (as opposed to imagined) state?

In class last week, Beth commented (and I’m paraphrasing here) that when she first taught Butler’s Parable of the Sower in the early 2000s, Butler’s imagined dystopic state of North America was unthinkable to her students, and in the years since, her students report more and more frequently that Lauren Olamina’s world seems like a plausible future for our country. I wonder (and I don’t pretend to have any answers here) whether Koreans a century ago ever thought their country would be divided into two countries: one of which is a totalitarian regime that largely isolates its citizens from the rest of the world.

Further, I am struck by the line in Yeonmi’s speech in which she states “We need to focus less on the regime and more on the people who are being forgotten.” I realize that Yeonmi is correct–the limited discourse I’ve heard about North Korea tends to focus on the succession of its chain of dictators and their cult personalities, but not on the majority of North Koreans who are oppressed and often starving (instead, they appear to function as supernumeraries to a narrative about totalitarian regime).

My reading of Parable of the Sower, along with some very preliminary research on life in North Korea, prompt me to think differently about the concept of “dystopia.” Like many of Beth’s students, the 2024 California that Butler describes in Parable of the Sower seems less far removed from our contemporary society than I would perhaps like to admit.

Generational Memory and Property (a story about my grandmother)

I’m never sure how appropriate it is to share personal stories in English classes, but over Easter weekend, something happened that I felt related too deeply to our class not to document in a blog post.

Important context to the story: my grandmother is an 88-year old widow with 8 children and 20 grandchildren (a true generational matriarch). Her role as the leader of the family, however, is complicated by the fact that she lost her husband of 65 (yes!! 65!!) years last summer, and currently suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, which is degenerative in nature. She has, as a result, grown more confused and distanced from reality since her husband’s passing, a trajectory that has been difficult for us to watch.

Over the past weekend, my grandmother told my mother that she was sad her family didn’t come to visit her anymore, and that she wanted to give her children money at her Mother’s Day party. In a state of confusion, she said that she wanted to give each of her 8 children two million dollars so that each of them could buy a house. My mother had to gently explain to my grandmother that she doesn’t have 16 million dollars, and that even if she did, giving her children money wouldn’t make them visit her.

Although this anecdote is personal and sad in nature, it revealed a lot to me about the way the dreams my grandmother had for her children are inextricably linked to home and property. The story reflects a profound nature on my grandmother’s part to occupy the role of a provider as a matriarch in that she wanted to give to her children the finances to create a home for their own immediate families.  It also expressed volumes about the way not only memory, but desires, become distorted through degenerative memory loss, as my grandmother thought she had the money to provide homes for each of her children.

The story reminded me (quite helpfully, l think) of the Turner house as well as Melissa’s family tree. Like the Turner house, my grandparent’s family home in Queens (which was also the home my grandmother grew up in) was once bustling with more family members than I can count on two hands, but is now only inhabited by my grandmother and her caretaker. The house, as a result, feels haunting in the sense that each room (even each object, really) harkens back to a deep history of a family that is no longer present in the home.

Further, my mother’s gentle reminder that money won’t incentivize her siblings to visit their mother circles me back to King Lear, when Lear makes the fatal flaw of allocating his property to his daughters based on how convincingly they can express their love for him. Like Lear, my grandmother made a moving error in judgment by thinking that she could receive love and affection from her children if she offered them money (even though I hesitate to compare my grandmother to Lear any further). Here, the affective desire of a parent trying to provide for their offspring (or kingdom) becomes powerfully complicated by property and money.

I don’t have any clear solutions after hearing this story (other than it inspired me to immediately call my grandmother), but I do feel that the connection between my grandmother’s desire to provide homes for each of her children and the readings/discussions we’ve had in class prompt me to think more carefully about the link between generational memory and affection.


Gluttony and The Terror of the Great Outdoors in Lelah’s Eviction

As I traced Lelah’s story of eviction and homelessness throughout the five weeks of Spring 2008 in The Turner House, my mind kept returning to an excerpt we read in the beginning of class from Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.  In it, Morrison attests that:

“Outdoors, we knew, was the real terror of life. The threat of being outsiders surface frequently in those days. Every possibility of excess was curtailed with it. […] There is a difference between being put out and being put outdoors. If you are put out, you go somewhere else; if you are put outdoors, there is no place to go.”

Morrison’s excerpt is particularly harrowing in light of the story of Lelah: who, after being evicted from her apartment, spends much of the novel building upon lies to hide her homelessness while squatting in the Turner house as a buffer to avoid the terror of being put outdoors. The part, however, of Morrison’s analysis that interested me most in connection to Lelah was her description of outdoors as a curtailing of excess. In The Turner House, Flournoy dedicates much of the first chapter novel to narrating Lelah’s humiliating and painful eviction, in which she has two hours to pack her belongings into her car under the watchful eye of two bailiffs. Flournoy writes, “Mostly, all Lelah did was put her hands on the things she owned, think about them for a second, and decide against carrying them to her Pontiac.” Ironically, rather than trying to cram as much of her possession as possible into her Pontiac, Lelah chooses to leave the bulk of her belongings behind. Flournoy clarifies that “Furniture was too bulk, food from the fridge would expire in her car, and the smaller things–a blender boxes of full costume jewelry, a toaster–felt too ridiculous to take along.” Here, the restriction Lelah places onto herself harkens back to Morrison’s intriguing observation that being “put outdoors” means to curtail every possibility of excess. Lelah’s possessions–the sum of years of accumulating “ridiculous,” but surely meaningful, artifacts–become reduced to triviality through the act of eviction.

The relationship between Lelah’s eviction and the curtailing of excess, of course, reminds me of a point made by Roach that we’ve returned to multiple times throughout the semester–his insight that “violence is the performance of waste.” It is not coincidental that when Lelah is evicted, the sum of her possessions that she can’t take in her Pontiac (her furniture and countless objects she trivializes as ridiculous, among others) will be disposed of in a dumpster. Her eviction, then, effectively performs waste: as the collected material value of the objects in her apartment aren’t going to be recycled or repurposed into further use, but are instead reduced to trash. The eviction also performs violence onto Lelah–a point that Morrison exemplifies in her excerpt exploring the terror and fear of being put outdoors. There’s a lot more to say on this subject, but for now, both Roach and Morrison have informed my own previous reading of Lelah’s eviction and prompted me to think about the ripple effect eviction causes in both paradoxically promoting violence and restricting the gluttony of material excess.

Recontextualizing Water And Cyclical Rebirth in T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland”

In class last Friday, we ended our discussion on the language of water metaphors in finance by looking at common symbolic associations of water in literature, including the use of water to evoke symbolism of purity, vitality and renewal. We then touched on texts that aim to recontextualize the symbolic association connecting “water” to “purity,” and I mentioned T.S. Eliot’s modernist poem “The Wasteland” as a central modernist poem that invokes water imagery to highlight the growing accumulation of decay and disintegration in Modernist Europe.

Eliot plays with water imagery throughout the poem, but his most telling use of water imagery occurs in Part III of the poem, ironically titled “The Fire Sermon.” According to the footnote for the phrase “Fire Sermon” in my copy of “The Wasteland,”  “The Buddha preached the Fire Sermon against the fires of lust and other passions that destroy people and prevent their regeneration.” Here, the Bhudda’s cautions of excessive lust and passions that prevent “regeneration” serve as a stark foreshadowing of the remainder of the section, which explores devastation in modern London. Eliot suggests, then, that the West perpetuates a state of crisis in modernity, a commentary reinforced by his evocation of Eastern ideals pitted against Western gluttony. 

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