Archive for November, 2021

Fallen Angels

Angels in America consists of two plays, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika. The two plays are based on the very real AIDS epidemic that ravaged the United States during Reagan era America. Millennium Approaches focuses on three sub-stories interconnected in their own way—the love shared by Louis and Prior, which is cut short by Prior contracting AIDS; Joe and Harper’s very dysfunctional marriage, and Roy Cohn’s narcissistic life. Roy Cohn is (very heavily) based on the lawyer in real life of the same name, who, similar to the Roy Cohn in the story, denied his homosexuality while still engaging in sexual acts with men, and who, similar to the Roy Cohn in the story, perished of AIDS. In Angels in America, Tony Kushner explores identity (especially relating to sexuality), religious beliefs, and death. When Kushner was writing the play, he visited the AIDS Memorial Quilt, and upon seeing the quilt memorializing Roy Cohn, he mentioned how he wanted Cohn’s character in the play to be similar to how he is represented in his quilt: “dialectical.” The quilt is a glimpse into just how despicable Roy Cohn was, as well as how complex his character is—in the play as well as in real life. What made Roy Cohn into the ball of hatred he is in the play (and was in real life), denying his own identity while engaging in its pleasures? And what made Joe feel he had to “kill” and suppress his homosexuality?

One of two quilts memorializing Roy Cohn on the AIDS Memorial Quilt.

A previous convener post presented a character map of the main characters in the play. This map places Prior Walter in the center of 7 other circles containing the names of the other characters in the play and a brief description about them. These circles are linked by arrows explaining how each character is related to Prior Walter (lover, friend, etc.) and how those characters relate to each other (patrons, spouses, family). What’s particularly useful about a character map like this is that it places a single character as a node in a network – a very complex network with multiple layers and a lot of overlap. We started the course with a very broad and open question: are we too connected? We’d like to point us back to that inquiry and use it as one of many possible lenses to read Angels in America. Who was connected to whom and on what levels (religious, political, interpersonal relationships, spousal, friendships, doctor-patient, mother-son, and even supernatural or spiritual)? And then how did those connections and choices influence the other characters in the story? What is Kushner trying to say about the level of interconnectedness at the time ? 

Rather than attempting to trace where a disease came from (as Oedipus and Ghosts do, each in their own way), Angels in America traces the origins of the belief systems that structure life in 1980s America. (References to “America” in the play sometimes gesture vaguely towards the continent as a whole, but seem to mainly be speaking about the US.) The play opens with a funeral scene, presided over by a Rabbi with limited understanding of the particular person he is burying, but a detailed theory about the social group she fit into: “a whole kind of person, the ones who crossed the ocean, who brought with us to America the villages of Russia and Lithuania …” (10). Through the Rabbi’s monologue, audiences are immersed in a conversation about inheritance and tradition before any of the central characters even speak. The instantly recognizable ritual of mourning carries the first scene, superseding the audience’s need for specificity about characters and context, and allowing Kushner to open the play with the striking warning that “soon … all the old will be dead” (11).

From the very first acts in the play we can observe how Kushner raises questions about stasis and change through the voices of his characters. As we continue reading Perestroika, it might be interesting to compare Kushner’s use of the angels in this play, with Ibsen’s use of ghosts in -well…- Ghosts. Both the angels and the ghosts can be seen as barriers between the characters, pulling them back from a changing future. 

In this text, there is no apparent belief system that unites all of the central characters. They have different sexualities, political parties, and religious affiliations. They each have individual, complex relationships with their faith and family histories. The pattern that unites them is that these relationships tend to break down when exposed to the realities of both the AIDS epidemic and the political, social climate surrounding it. Louis begins the play feeling comfortable with his own concept of an afterlife based on his Jewish belief system. But he finds that this doesn’t hold up in the presence of Prior’s actual imminent death (“not at all like a rainy afternoon in March…”) Joe has clung to his Mormon ideals of good and evil to the point of suppressing his own sexual identity, but he begins to lose his grip on them in the midst of political pressures from Roy and family tensions from Harper’s pill addiction. Though Kushner inserts plenty of critiques of the specific systems the characters inhabit, his greater focus seems to be on the way these systems clash with each other and with the realities of modernity in the US. 

And boy, these belief systems are pervasive, to the point where they forcefully shape our very perceptions of ourselves. The play touches on how society’s views can influence our self-perception through Roy Cohn’s passionate inability to accept his homosexuality. In the striking diagnosis scene with his doctor, Roy refuses to identify with the label, painting us a picture of the deep stigma Roy associates with being gay. To Roy, homosexuality is the real disease, to be avoided like the plague. As someone obsessed with power (he is described as a ‘power broker’ in the opening character list) and his position in the world, being gay is a weakness he cannot afford. 

“Like all labels, they tell you one thing and one thing only: where does an individual so identified, in the pecking order? Not ideology, or sexual taste, but something much simpler: clout…Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows. Who have zero clout. Does this sound like me, Henry?” (46)

A second quilt memorializing Roy Cohn, referring to his anti-communist work with Mccarthy which turned into a homophobic hunt of gay men in government.

Roy’s raging hatred of his own homosexuality is a manifestation of society’s perception towards gay people at the time. We see a similar internal conflict manifest itself in Joe, a closeted homosexual Mormon man, who votes for Reagan. We see Joe torn between upholding the beliefs of a ‘good’ Mormon versus his personal sexual liberation. His truth is unspeakable to him, so he chooses to live in denial, spending a large part of his life suppressing his identity. Even so, his truth comes to speak to him through dreams, as he describes to his wife:

“The angel is a beautiful man with blonde hair and wings, of course. I still dream about it. Many nights I’m…It’s me. In that struggle. Fierce, and unfair. The angel is not human, and it holds nothing back, so how could anyone human win, what kind of a fight is that? It’s not just. Losing means your soul thrown down in the dust, your heart” (52)

We similarly see Joe depict his refusal to self-identify as a violent battle, when Harper questions his sexuality directly: 

“Does it make any difference? That I might be one thing deep within, no matter how wrong or ugly that thing is, so long as I have fought, with everything I have, to kill it…As long as my behaviour is what I know it has to be. Decent. Correct.” (40)

However, even speaking the truth isn’t liberating for Joe. When Joe attempts to accept his identity, such as in the scene where he calls his mother at 4am and confesses his sexuality, he is met with flat denial. 
This brings up a question we have been returning to throughout the semester: how do we know which beliefs are actually originally ours, versus what have been inherited from our ancestors, environment or social circumstances? How much of the character’s beliefs and views are influenced by their religious upbringing, or the politics of the time? Angels in America suggests that our inherited belief systems are deeply tied to our sense of self, yet not always sufficient means of navigating the many contagions of the modern world—whether it be physical contagions such as AIDS or other forms of contagion plaguing society, such as homophobia and greed for power.

Asma, Maja, Mary, Saideep

The Blame Game, Hillbrow.

In Welcome to Our Hillbrow, the author is highly critical of the treatment of foreigners/immigrants in post-apartheid South Africa. Right off the bat, readers are given a sense of how grave the hatred or bias against immigrants in Hillbrow is. I decided to do some research of my own and see how during COVID-19, the immigrants within Hillbrow were treated. I stumbled across an article published by news24 which details the tribulation they face from police, the state, and other residents.

The epigraph at the beginning of the book, a quote by Dubois saying “reader, be assured, this narrative is no fiction” could not have described Welcome to Our Hillbrow better. Officially and formally, the novel is fiction, however there exists way too many parallels and similarities to real life. To tie this augmenter’s post to both the above news article and Mpe’s novel, I focus on how the blame game manifests in both fictional and nonfictional Hillbrow. In both instances, blame of contagion and disease such as AIDS is automatically put on the immigrants of the town. The inability to critically think about whether this is plausible or not is ignored, rather in an effort to preserve the south-african image/reputation, blame is placed on the “outsiders”.

Censorship, and The Bible

After writing Dream of Ding Village, and with the recent rise in the book’s popularity, Yan Lianke has given several interviews to provide more insight into the book and into his writing in general, and several articles about him have been written. One of these articles written in 2006—the year the book was published—especially interested me.

The article focuses on Dream of Ding Village being censored in China, and how that affected Yan Lianke. Despite his efforts to rigorously self-censor his book and avoid topics that would result in a ban, Dream of Ding Village was quickly banned anyway. Yan Lianke talks about how he regrets this self-censorship, as he feels he could have written a better book if he did not need to worry about censoring it. I think this ties back to Mary’s post. Nearly 14 years later, he told his students to write their own stories from their own experiences, without worry about “nations and other entities engaged in the act of writing histories.” He tells them that, if they cannot speak out loudly, then they must be whisperers.

I think Yan Lianke’s message here is based on his reflections on his experience with Dream of Ding Village. In the time he’s had, I think he’s realized that rather than trying to appeal to those who want his writing to conform to a certain message, it is better to write as he wishes.

The Cupbearer’s Dream

And now, for something completely different that I also wanted to mention. I regret that we completely ignored Volume 1 of the book. I very much want to hear others’ thoughts on the significance of the biblical references in Volume 1. What do each of the three dreams signify?

The Cupbearer’s Dream seems clear cut—it represents the residents of Ding Village, the cupbearers, squeezing ripe grapes and giving a full cup (of blood) to Ding Hui, the Pharaoh.

The Baker’s Dream

The Baker’s Dream, I’m not too sure of. What first came to my head was that the birds again represent the villagers, while the bread (“bakemeats”) represents the trees of the village (or the furniture of the school—it seems to be a general theme throughout). Or does it represent the bloodheads feasting on the people’s blood? Or maybe it is specific to Ding Hui (represented by the birds), who eats the bread (the coffins, or maybe the money from selling blood) carried by the baker (the government) intended for the pharaoh (the villagers).

The Pharaoh’s Dream

Last, there is The Pharaoh’s Dream. Do the ill-favoured cows represent the Ding Hui and the other bloodheads, feeding on the well-favoured cows that represent the people selling their blood? (Especially in the case of Ding Hui, who takes every single opportunity he can get to feed on others and fatten himself up, which is clear when Grandpa at the end sees that Ding Hui has more money than he knows what to do with, stored away in a vault.) Or does it instead represent Ding Hui using the authority of those more powerful than him (who in this case would be the well-favoured cows) to exert his own power over the village? (Ding Hui maintaining a garden with spicy mustard greens solely to curry favour with the deputy governer, and also marrying his dead son to the daughter of a wealthy man both come to mind). Or maybe the dream even represents the villagers as the ill-favoured cows, who repeatedly go to the rich and well-favoured Ding Hui for his help, who ransack Ding Hui’s house when he leaves, and who robbed Ding Liang’s and Lingling’s graves).

Apologies for the late post! But if anyone is willing to share their thoughts, I’m very keen to read them. It’s unfortunate we never discussed the biblical references in class. I am curious to hear thoughts on the interpretations of these dreams, the significance of them being included, and Yan Lianke’s choice to introduce the book with these dreams (and maybe why he considered them important enough to separate these dreams as their own volume).

Violence in our Language

Welcome to our Hillbrow…

Welcome to our Hillbrow, the land where crime, prostitution, and violence prevails, the land where laws do not bind its people. Throughout the novel, we observed multiple cases where violence takes place in Hillbrow, from a seven years old child getting hit by a car to hearing gunshots ringing in the streets. Curious about how violence takes form in the novel (and beyond), I did some research into how violence can be characterized. One interpretation by Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek describes the multifaceted nature of violence in his book Violence: Six Sideways Reflections as the following: “At the forefront of our minds, the obvious signals of violence are acts of crime and terror, civil unrest, international conflict. But we should learn to step back, to disentangle ourselves from the fascinating lure of this directly visible ‘subjective’ violence, violence performed by a clearly identifiable agent. We need to perceive the contours of the background which generates such outbursts.” In essence, besides the visible forms of violence that are often reported and discussed, there also exist less visible forms of violence which often perpetuate and accentuate the “obvious signals of violence.”

In his book, Žižek argues that one of the most harmful forms of invisible violence is represented in everyday language. This idea is supported in Welcome to Our Hillbrow, in which non-nationals are reduced to the label Makwerekwere, a derogatory term “derived from kwere kwere, a sound that their unintelligible foreign languages were supposed to make, according to the locals” (p. 20). They say that language is a tool used to connect cultures and build bridges between people; however, it is more than a simple tool: it is a double-edged sword that could also shatter bridges and sever relationships. Vilifying non-nationals by referring to them as Makwerekwere reduces them to less than human beings. In doing so, they are subjected to greater risks of physical violence, one reason being that perpetrators of violence are less inclined to feel guilt or remorse towards their actions. Another reason is that they even feel justified in putting what they perceive as “sub-humans” in their rightful places. Such thoughts are manifested in the 2008 xenophobic attacks throughout South Africa. In essence, dehumanization through language is a sensitive topic that warrants our attention, especially given its power in destroying social order.

Welcome to Hillbrow…

A recurring theme of Contagion literature is death – and boy did the authors come up with creative ways to kill off our beloved characters amid pandemics. Some deaths were as memorable as the singer in Orpheus collapsing in the spotlight (Camus), others were private as Tarrou’s final exhale (Camus), and few were revealed abruptly like the child narrator in Ding Village (Yan). This time around, the author Mpe wasted no time in dropping the death bomb on his readers by opening the novel with an almost eulogy-reciting sentiment:

If you were still alive, Refentše, child of Tiragalong, you would be glad that Bafana Bafana lost to France in the 1998 Soccer World Cup fiasco.



Narration is a weird thing to think about in this work. The direction is singular – someone appeared to be writing to the dead Refentše in some monologue capacity. We first followed the omnipresent narrator on a walking tour across the district of Hillbrow, Johannesburg, in a swift fashion akin to that of tourism drone videos showcasing the highlight of this town while flashing the slogan “Welcome to our Hillbrow.” At times, we forgot that the “you” was addressed to Refentše and invited ourselves to be the audience of this narration (as other works have invited us to do this semester). We marvel at the liminality and disposability of migrant lives, we marvel at the gore of news reports (five men’s ribs being ripped off by a butcher’s knife?), but then we are gently reminded that this is a story of Refentše, for Refentše, as the narration zoomed in to follow Refentše on his first day arriving at Hillbrow en route to his cousin’s house. We have so many questions – so we thought we would share a list of them here (#6 might haunt you!):

  1. Who is this narrator, and why do they know about such intimate details of our protagonist (like his affair with Sammy’s girlfriend Bohlale)?
  2. Why is the narrator recounting the life of Refentše TO Refentše himself?
  3. Oh no is this The Book Thief all over again?
  4. How long did this narrator know Refentše so that they could write about his first trip to Hillbrow and then suddenly fast forward to his post-college job as a lecturer?
  5. Why was the narrator able to know what was on Refentše’s mind when he leaped out of that twelfth story window to a “luring suicide?”
  6. Am I actually Refentše and the narrator is writing to me?

  Narration and the narratives it creates are also a prominent topic among people around Refentše. We see Refentše’s mother detesting Lerato, a “Hillbrow woman” as labeled by Tiragalong village people, despite never meeting her. The predominant narrative that city people are corrupt and cunning overpowers Refentše’s attempts to humanize his partner to his mother. We also see Refentše’s old lover Refilwe leveraging her position in the village to rewrite the narratives on events leading to Refentše’s death, and that narrative persisted even after proven false by Lerato’s family visiting the village. Refentše is dead, but who decides the narrative of dead people and what is their intention? In a post-apartheid Hillbrow, historically-oppressed people of color submitted a rewritten narrative that it was migrants who ruined this town, in a story eerily similar to how they were oppressed during the apartheid. People recount historic events with slight alterations that shine them in a better light – perhaps because they remembered it differently, perhaps because they were reckless with the power of storytelling after being robbed of their agency prior. Small alterations added up, and the past was longer how people individually remembered it – a new collective memory is laid forth, but to whom does it serve? Who is Refentše to us anyway, but a collection of memories seemingly mourning him?

Welcome to Hillbrow…

“…there was another word for foreigners that was not very different in connotation from Makwerekwere or … Except that it was a much more widely used term: Africans…

A theme that is closely connected to the concept of narrative in this reading is language. Because, as Ghirmai Negash’s introduction says (don’t read introduction if you don’t want spoilers), “in Mpe’s text the what (narrative representation) and the how (language) are blurred entities.” So, it is interesting to see how in this text, language (consciously or unconsciously) affects the narrative that is presented to the reader. One of the obvious examples would be the censorship that the main characters of our novel face. For instance, the main character of the book by Refentše wrote a novel in Sepedi – her native African language. The narrator describes that choice of language for writing as a curse and a big mistake. A character, seeking a better future by working day and night in a kitchen and trying to finish her Bachelor of Arts at the University of South Africa, knew English but chose to write in Sepedi. And as a result, her novel was then called vulgar and offensive due to the naming of ‘shit’ and ‘genitalia’ by their correct names in her native tongue. Here, we can see how the power to represent your cultural heritage, as well as simply the freedom to express yourself in your native tongue, is deprived of the Afrikaan indigenous communities. Essentially, their natural right to represent their rich culture can only be practiced among that culture and nowhere else, as it is viewed as something barbaric, vulgar, and inferior. Unfortunately, there is nothing that these people can do, as the readers and overall audience of their works follow the will of reviewers, as those represent their preferences and needs. In our case, preference and favorism of the English language, where naming genitalia by their correct names in biology books – even including graphic illustrations on the side – was considered completely fine. 

This shows us how systems of oppression persist within the society and several institutions despite the end of apartheid (shoutout to the previous convener’s post that goes into details of the context of apartheid and its role in the novel). They continue to slow down the development of communities – such as indigenous South African communities – after the damage done by the segregation systems implemented based on race. What is even more horrifying is probably how these systems actually cause members of indigenous communities to reject their cultural heritage and adopt ‘English culture’ as their new identity. In a way, acculturation of a new cultural identity becomes the only way to succeed or even survive for individuals from indigenous communities. An obvious example is the main character Refentše who wrote his novel in English; being aware of the limitation of his native language, he knew that writing a novel in Sepedi was a dead end. So, with that understanding, he rejects his native languages and pursues opportunities created by the language that dominates his culture. Another example would be the cousin of Refentše. Whenever his actions are described, the author includes “Like most Hillbrowans, Cousin took his soccer seriously” or his words of complaints about foreigners being responsible for the physical and moral decay of Hillbrow that are “echoed by many others.” We can see how another part of the indigenous community becomes accultured to their new identity, by literally rejecting their native ways of living and copying the “native” Hillbrowans or more specifically, by appropriating the white characteristic and culture. Starting from his violence towards unfortunate Nigerians, ending with the refusal to return the greeting of his fellow indigenous brother who is homeless on the streets. This all seems to speak of great difficulties South African indigenous communities face in reclaiming their heritage or more specifically in promoting their culture, saving it from being overpowered by politically and economically powerful entities. So, the question is, “How do the struggles of the main characters of the novel represent difficulties in building a new future for South African indigenous communities after the apartheid?”

Welcome to Hillbrow…

Makwerekwere, convenient scapegoat for everything that goes wrong in people’s lives”

The Migration Experience and Multiple Identities - Online Research ...
Press me!

 In addition, to the issues of reclaiming one’s cultural heritage, Mpe also focuses on the topic of the corrupt system that is used to oppress minorities. Evident from the passage,

“Makwerekwere knew they had no recourse to legal defense if they were caught. The police could detain or deport them without allowing them any trial at all. Even the Department of Home Affairs was not sympathetic to their cause. No one seemed to care that the treatment of Makwerekwere by the police, and the lack of sympathy from the influential Department of Home Affairs, ran contrary to the human rights clauses detailed in the new constitution of the country.”


On top of the xenophobia and passing pandemic, the citizens of Hillbrow felt that the justice system served as a barrier rather than a bridge to help them. A previous post focused on a YouTube video that showed police beating the citizens. Here, we see how the cousin prefers to use torture against Makwerekwere which is even worse than beating. So, as a policeman, instead of fighting for justice, he is promoting violence and colluding with the enemy to bully the victim, the minorities. In a way, that promotes his sense of belonging to that community.

Welcome to Hillbrow…

Press me!

This moves us to another central element to this novel is a place and belonging. The importance of spatial identification is made clear to us from the very first chapter, which is literally called “Hillbrow: The Map.” It is rather strange that the narrator is explaining to Refentše his own neighborhood. In fact, the narrator spends a good portion of the first chapter recalling the streets and shops that Refentše passed through on his first day in Hillbrow to register for university. What is the purpose of this hyper-focus on recreating Hillbrow for a character that supposedly lived in Hillbrow for several years?

These passages have the important effect of mapping the urban violence and segregation of post-apartheid Johannesburg onto the page. All around Refentše are markers of crime and prostitution and a seedy underworld; his first night in the neighborhood is punctuated by the echoes of gunshots, and his cousin’s introduction to the streets of Hillbrow includes a wry nod to a local brothel. Likewise, the text is littered with references to racial tensions. Hillbrow’s existence and the daily challenges that its inhabitants must navigate belie the fact that segregation laws in South Africa were supposedly repealed in 1991.

This emphasis on how Refentše orients himself in his new home emphasizes the importance of belonging. The narrator constantly refers to his friend as Refentše of Tiragalong and this repetition establishes a dichotomy between the frenzied and (especially in the eyes of his mother) dangerous life in Hillbrow and the more rural village where he is from. Refentše is a stranger in Hillbrow trying to find his way, just like the many migrants from neighboring countries who are despised by all. Despite Hillbrow’s violence, it is a “monster…full of career opportunities” for all who come, whether from Tiragalong or beyond. Yet this attempt to belong comes at a cost to all, whether it is the foreigners who attempt to form relationships with policemen or those employed by white families to protect themselves from deportation or Refentše himself who commits suicide feeling that he is without relief in this city.



Welcome to …

Image made by sleep-deprived Tamaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan



In conclusion, there are several themes that the author raises within the novel. Some of them we discussed in our post, the rest can be added in the comments. So far, the central issues seem to be related to concepts of Narrative and Language, Belonging and Acculturation, as well as Systems of Oppression. Now, the question for the audience would be, how is the AIDS epidemic connected to all of these issues? How does it tie with all the issues?

Made by lovely Sofia, Ludien, Taman and Mohammed <3

Lifeblood and Money

Selling blood in an Atlanta laboratory in 1974.
Selling blood in an Atlanta laboratory in 1974.

In Yan Lianke’s Ding village, blood represents the possibility of prosperity and creates a chance to increase one’s economic standing. The commodification of blood indirectly leads to a lot of the deaths we see in the story through the reuse of infected needles. The irony is that the blood, intended to give life, instead takes it away in the context of Ding Village. It got me wondering more broadly about the state of the plasma economy today – and it turns out demand is still pulsing.

Plasma — the golden liquid that transports red and white blood cells and proteins through our bodies — is something of an elixir. It’s used to create lifesaving medicines for people with hemophilia, immune disorders, burns and other painful conditions, and it cannot be replicated in a lab.

Although illegal in many developed countries, business is booming in several economies, such as the US, China, Germany and Hungary, where people can make $30 donating plasma in the US, up to 104 times a year. It’s now a $20 billion industry, with global exports worth more, in 2016, than global exports of aeroplanes. 

But there is an underside to all that growth, one which mirrors the reality we see in Ding Village: The industry depends on the blood of the very poor. Plasma companies strategically locate their collection centers disproportionately in destitute neighbourhoods, according to Heather Olsen, who, as a graduate student researcher at Case Western Reserve University, examined 40 years of data on collection centers across the country.

A number of people at the CSL collection center in North Philadelphia confirmed that the money they received there was their only income; they were putting it toward food, rent and bus fare. Some, like Kevin Hayway, were veteran plasma sellers; he estimated that he had sold his plasma more than 100 times a year for the past three years.

However, the Plasma Protein Therapeutics Association, a trade group, naturally disputes the idea that the industry depends on desperate people.

“When I go to centers, what I see in those centers is people of all walks of life. You see mothers, you see students, you see employed people, you see unemployed people,” said Jan Bult, the group’s president and chief executive.

Although I initially found the concept of blood selling potentially exploitative and unsettling, especially as it is not presented in the most favourable light in the novel, I found some articles that argue it should be legalised in more countries. Their argument rests on that it is a safe practice today, and that the limited medical and social risks are dwarfed by the benefits. They say that bans on paying for human blood distort a vital global market, as global demand for plasma is growing, and cannot be met through altruistic donations alone.

Is the business exploitative, taking advantage of desperate people? Or is it beneficial, offering much-needed income to those who have few avenues to make money? Should we encourage people to sell their lifeblood so frequently, or make it harder to do so?

Bottles with blood plasma derivatives stand on a packing plant at the Octapharma company in Dessau, eastern Germany.
Bottles with blood plasma derivatives stand on a packing plant at the Octapharma company in Dessau, eastern Germany. (Eckehard Schulz / AP)

Coffins & burials

Just wanted to share these very relevant articles that I read a while ago.

The Coffin Business Is Booming in Central America Due to Gang Violence

This first one is almost a modern-day mirror of the events of Ding Village as it follows how one family in El Salvador switched from the bakery business to producing coffins in the wake of high rates of gang violence. The article eerily echoes many of the same elements that we saw in the novel including family disagreements, levels of coffin intricacy, and ethical concerns about profiting off of death. Unlike Ding Hui, these families building coffins still seem to be struggling to earn a living profit because of the mass proliferation of the coffin industry in their city.

To Be a Field of Poppies

This second article deals more broadly with burials and death and examines changes in US traditions around coffins. The article follows a company called Recompose that aims to essentially compost human bodies rather than embalming and burying them or cremating them.

What constitutes desecration of a corpse is culture-bound; one man’s desecration is another’s honorable final disposition… The only characteristic that funerary mores seem to share is intentionality. Disposing of the dead in an arbitrary manner—leaving a body where it fell on the battlefield, or tossing it with others into a mass grave, limbs akimbo—is a universal sign of disrespect. Intention is how we signal care, whether or not we believe that the soul persists, or whether we believe in a soul at all.

Although the workers at this company take a very different approach to burials than the residents of Ding Village, there is still a common thread of purpose and care for the dead. These dilemmas over how to bury our dead signify an ongoing preoccupation with honoring them, despite the fact that the dead do not know whether they have been cremated or decomposed (in the eyes of some).

Ding Village: UWM Great World Text site

Thanks to this semester’s conveners for Dream of Ding Village, we discovered the site at University of Wisconsin-Madison dedicated to reading the novel as a Great World Text. (The program brought the novel into 26 high schools across the state.) A number of resources are compiled there, including a 30-minute overview of the text and its contexts and a 127-page (!) handbook on teaching the novel. Here’s its table of contents:

Anyone who missed one of our discussions should probably listen to the overview. Anyone intrigued enough by the novel to think about using it in your final paper/project may benefit from looking at the guide.

It’s all sick – the whole body.

In a previous conveners post, Listen to the Dead Man Sing, the authors explained how “in Chinese culture, there is the idea of doing good (积福)to pay back your sin, so you will have a good afterlife [and how] these themes and ideas are also shown throughout the novel.” The authors highlighted how in Chinese society “the collectivity of a community comes before each individual”. They built on this explaining both the positive and negative implications of this belief. While reading this I was reminded of a Hadith I was taught in middle school which says: 

عن النعمان بن بشير رضي الله عنهما قال‏:‏ قال رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم ‏”‏ مثل المؤمنين في تواده وتراحمهم وتعاطفهم، مثل الجسد إذا اشتكى منه عضو تداعى له سائر الجسد بالسهر والحمى” ‏

This translates from Arabic to: “Nu’man bin Bashir (May Allah bepleased with them) reported: Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said: “The believers in their mutual kindness, compassion and sympathy are just like one body. When one of its limbs suffers, the whole body responds to it with wakefulness and fever”. 

We were taught this Hadith in Islamic studies to highlight the impact every single individual has on the society and community at large. The Hadith highlights both the positive and negative implications of this collectivity. The benefits and risks so to speak. I find the use of the body as a metaphor for society to be particularly interesting. As well as the metaphor of the disease. When one part of the body aches and suffers, the entire body becomes feverish and ill.

“In society we are seen as one”, wrote the conveners. And in that Hadith, the metaphor suggests that we are quite literally like one body. If one tiny part of the body gets a virus, it’s not just a single part that becomes hot, and lays awake at night. The entire body heats up, becomes feverish and weak in response. The whole body slows down. The insomnia and struggle to fall asleep isn’t something experienced by a singular part. Our elbows, arms, or ears don’t stay awake fighting an infection on their own. The whole body -in its entirety- suffers from insomnia and struggles to rest and sleep. 

What I find particularly interesting in the Prophet’s Hadith is the contrast between the first and latter part. The first highlights noble and positive values like kindness, compassion and empathy. Whereas the latter focuses on suffering and disease. It seems to warn that the lack of the values listed first (in a few individuals) will cause the latter; and affect the whole body, as in all of society. We see exactly how this played out tragically in the Dream of Ding Village. It was the greed of a few individuals (the officials in Henan provinces) … their  lack of empathy, kindness and compassion; combined with some of the villagers’ poverty and blinding desperation for wealth that brought about the entire village’s doom. People who never sold their blood were at risk of dying and getting infected. The many masses were harmed and hurt by the actions of the few. One limb suffered from greed and made the whole body ill and feverish. 

I really appreciate the duality of the metaphor in the Hadith. Yes, the believers, (the community), are like one body which gets to enjoy the rewards of reciporical kindness, love, compassion, and empathy. But that same body is vulnerable to every limb in it and can be easily affected by it. It’s an appreciation of our collectivity as a community as well as a warning.  

Let us be whisperers

While researching the author of Dream of Ding Village, Yan Lianke, I came across this speech that he delivered to his graduate students at The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. It addresses the prospect of celebrating the “end” of the COVID-19 pandemic, which feels relevant to our current situation following Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed’s announcement that the UAE has overcome the COVID-19 crisis.

Yan’s speech (presented translated into English) focuses on the concept of memory, a theme that we have traced throughout the majority of our readings this semester. He introduces the capacity for memory as a uniquely human trait:

“The ability to remember is the soil in which memories grow, and memories are the fruit of this soil. Possessing memories and the ability to remember are the fundamental differences between humans, and animals or plants. It is the first requirement for our growth and maturity. ”

He goes on to call on his audience (creative writing graduate students) to continue remembering their own personal experience of the COVID-19 pandemic, resisting the urge to buy into the collective narratives demanded by nations and other entities engaged in the act of writing histories. I found this to be a powerful reminder of the “real-world” relevance of many of the skills we’ve been developing in this class (or, more accurately, a reminder that the study and creation of literature is “real-world,” but that’s a whole other convo), and I would encourage you all to take a few minutes to read it (it’s short and engaging!)

He finishes the speech with the following advice to his students:

“If we can’t speak out loudly, then let us be whisperers. If we can’t be whisperers, then let us be silent people who have memories.  Having experienced the start, onslaught, and spread of Covid-19, let us be the people who silently step aside when the crowd unites to sing a victory song after the battle is won—the people who have graves in their hearts, with memories etched in them; the people who remember and can someday pass on these memories to our future generations.”