Author: Rosy

The Empty Child

Hi everyone!

I apologize that I’m putting up a post so late, but these finals have been the most stressful yet! What I plan to do after finishing is watching old episodes of Doctor Who. For those who haven’t heard of it, it’s a British science fiction television show that celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. Though I feel the new seasons are not up to standard, at least the special effects are better than they were in the 60s and early 2000s.

I was reminded of one of my favorite episodes during last week’s discussion, when we talked about the perspective that a plague could be a good thing. Remember that crazy guy Abel from Zone One (with the college-sophomore socialist slant) who claimed that “The dead came to scrub the Earth of capitalism and the vast bourgeois superstructure, with its doilies, helicopter parenting, and streaming video, return us to nature and wholesome communal living” (Whitehead, 153).  We also discussed that perhaps plagues and epidemics are the Earth’s way of cleaning up and defending itself from its most dangerous terrorizers – humans.

Well, this episode, called “the Empty Child,” features a terrifying plague that transforms ordinary humans’ faces into gas masks, and reduces them to zombies who can only repeat the phrase “are you my mummy?” (Yes, very British). I won’t spoil the plot too much, but if you have time to watch both parts of it (it’s easy to find online), you’ll find that the plague turns out to be similarly well-intentioned.

Best of luck with your finals (and grading them, Professor), and I hope you have a wonderful summer!


Politics of Contagion

Hey guys!

I’m rather ashamed I’m putting up a post after the conveners have already done their job for the next book, but I promise I have been filling my weekend with constructive, sort-of-course-related activities! By this I mean I went to see “Every Last Child” this morning, the documentary that Professor Waterman told us was being screened for free this weekend. The documentary is about polio in Pakistan, and the struggle to immunize children and protect them amidst so much political distrust and violence. As we were exiting the theater, Abhi (who was with me) made an interesting remark: while people perceive India and Pakistan to be quite similar, the obstacles standing in the way of healthcare were very different.

For example, in Animal’s People the Khaufpuris of India struggle against a foreign “Kampani” that had poisoned them with its chemical factory. The blame doesn’t lie solely with the Kampani, but also with the corrupt government of Khaufpur, which is perfectly willing to make deals with the Kampani at the expense of its people. With the government continuously letting them down, and the Kampani refusing to clean up its factory that still poisons the town, it is of little surprise that the Khaufpuris mistrust the West. For this reason they turn down desperately needed offers of healthcare and medicine from Elli because she is associated with “Amrika.”

The Khaufpuris have someone to blame for the chemical contamination of their water and people, but in “Every Last Child” polio is a disease native to the land (or, rather, the water). The struggle is with the issue of vaccination, since the Taliban had imposed a ban on vaccination. As a result, polio workers were frequently attacked while on the job. Politician Imran Khan makes an appearance, when his party PTI decides to back a health campaign euphemistically called “Justice for Health,” since the mention of polio alienates many.

The entanglement of politics and healthcare is central to both Animal’s People and “Every Last Child,” yet they occur in different ways. The authorities in “Every Last Child” are eager to find a solution and immunize the children of Pakistan, but they are hindered by the Taliban. In addition, there are certain members of the population who fear anything related to the West, and find it odd that the same country sponsoring the immunization program to save their children is also the one dropping the drones that kill them. While there is a similar distrust of the West in Animal’s People, the political framework is very different and worth considering. Maybe I’m saying that as a result of observing how the recent tensions in Student Government have elicited various heated opinions. Yet politics dictates many of the characters’ ideals and behaviours and an analysis of the larger political climate might lead to some interesting discoveries about our characters.

Happy Reading (of Nemesis, sorry again about the lateness)!


Welcome to Our Conveners Post

The title of Phaswane Mpe’s novel may be Welcome to Our Hillbrow, but the xenophobia, racism and violence featured in the novel have the effect of making the reader want to turn and run the other way. Although this is post apartheid South Africa, the end of apartheid did not mean that all these social issues just magically disappeared, and the novel is, in a way, a criticism of the public’s failure to confront serious issues that hurt individual members of the wider society.

The novel is written in second person, with an unnamed narrator addressing a changing “you”. Indeed, the use of pronouns is extremely important to analyze, for it is through the language used in the novel that the themes of xenophobia and exclusion are delineated. The constantly repeated “our” and “your” serve to establish a distinct yet not very clearly defined group. The most fundamental element in defining a group is not only explicitly stating who is included, but also who is not; if everyone belonged then there is no point in there being a “group” at all. Welcome to our Hillbrow, welcome to our Hillbrow, welcome to our Hillbrow…but whose Hillbrow is it? Many people live in Hillbrow, from those who come from other parts of South Africa, such as Refentse the child of Tiragalong, to those who come from other African countries, the often discriminated against Makwerekwere. The novel takes a stance against this xenophobia through its intentional refusal to properly define “your” and “our.” Is the narrator speaking to Refentse as a “you” who is included with “us” or a “you” that is excluded?

There is a gradual shift in the usage of “our,” for slowly it starts to be applied to more foreign places and more abstract concepts than just the physical place of the Hillbrow: “our Alexandra”, “our Heathrow”, “our Humanity”, etc. This shift is also seen in the shift from the second person “you” that addresses Refentse, to the third person narration of Refilwe’s story, and eventually to the second person “you” addressing Refilwe and the warm “Welcome to Our Heaven.” Do we take this shift to imply a hopeful process of inclusion of the ostracized victims of AIDS? Or is it only a welcome to Heaven, the only haven from South African societies that reject them?

As the story unfolds, we are hit by wave after wave of highly dramatic events, a product of the turbulent times that the people of Hillbrow often xenophobically blame outsiders for:

It used to be fine in Hillbrow, until the Nigerians came. (118)

Xenophobia is a social disease. By repelling people with different identities from other groups, people attempt to protect the purity of their exclusive communities. From this perspective, xenophobia is a fear of fusion, diversity, and change. The exclusiveness or solidarity in this context is quite different from the confusion of identities in Angels in America, in which people from different backgrounds suffer together after being abandoned by God. Racism still exists, but the mixture of identities seem to be so natural that people barely notice it, and don’t need to make an active effort to interact with Others. In Welcome to Our Hillbrow, however, xenophobia is so widespread that people share prejudice towards not only foreigners, but also people from other cultural backgrounds, races, districts, neighborhoods, or even families. The fear of witchcraft is an extreme example. When Refentse’s mother was “necklaced” to die simply because her accidentally slipping into the grave was interpreted as a sign of guilt, it becomes apparent that the paranoia of Tiragalong has reached a horrifying and unreasonable level. They are afraid, extremely afraid of anything remotely different or suspicious even if it is as unbelievable as witchcraft. Both the people of Tiragalong and Hillbrow are guilty of suspecting the other communities of “contaminating” them with social decay, but they forget that

no one in particular can be blamed for the spread of AIDS. That Tiragalong should know well enough that its children are no better than others; the necklacing of witches…cousins stabbing and shooting each other in Alexandra and Hillbrow…Terror raping innocent and defenceless women and girls in our Hillbrow – all these things are enough evidence of that. (123)

The issue with naming presents itself yet again, and the novel is deliberately tainted with euphemisms to show how AIDS was treated in the Hillbrow. Even the author’s expression of his frustration at the way AIDS was discussed was presented through a euphemism:

How does it happen that Hillbrow is so popular, but writers ignore it? you asked.

Oh! I think it’s too notorious for them to handle, an acquaintance had answered one day.

They never saw enough of Hillbrow to be able to try to write about it, another suggested.

You were forced to shrug your shoulders. Nobody appeared to have a convincing answer. [30]

The Hillbrow possibly acts as a euphemism for AIDS here, showing how discussions about AIDS and sexual intercourse are kept secret. This idea of secrecy allows Mpe to simultaneously provides a critique of post apartheid South Africa’s inability to move past the ineffective and vague language of euphemisms in order to tackle the still prevalent issues of racism, xenophobia and AIDS. When writing a story, Refentse decides to pick English rather than Sepedi, because he “knew the limitations of writing in Sepedi” (59). These limitations refer to the native society’s unwillingness to confront issues of sex and xenophobia. Refilwe realizes that “calling shit and genitalia by their correct names in Sepedi was apparently regarded as vulgar by these reviewers.” [56] Euphemisms give characters a chance to make a value judgement on other characters. The difficulty with which issues such as these are accepted in society lead to the dehumanization of AIDS victims, and these euphemisms or inaccurate labels prevent society from accepting universal human values.

References to the syndrome were often hushed even though it was rampant. This has come up in previous texts we have studied, most notably Ibsen’s Ghosts and Kushner’s Angels in America. In Ghosts, the characters are unwilling to confront the social and moral decay that bred Oswald’s disease. Angels in America is highly critical of president Reagan for his refusal to address the AIDS epidemic for several years. Why are people afraid of directly addressing sex and disease? Does speaking about it increase its acceptance, and frequency of occurrence, in society if there are such things as societal standards that need to be adhered to? Conversely, does keeping it hidden prevent society from progressing, by undermining the prevalence of these very real issues in society?

We hope you have enjoyed “our” conveners’ post for this week!

Abhi, Rosy, and Yan.

The Summer they Executed the Rosenbergs

As a person who is relatively unfamiliar with American history, many of the references inAngels in America did not ring a bell and had to be looked up – except one particularly notorious reference that often shows up in literature:

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they executed the Rosenbergs…The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers — goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me at every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway.”

The above quote is taken from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, a novel chronicling the protagonist Esther’s descent into suicidal depression. Esther was fascinated by the Rosenberg case because of her fascination with death in general, but she was not the only one whose interest was captured by the highly controversial case. Indeed, the Rosenberg case generated heated political and ethical debates that found their way into art and literature – such as Tony Kushner’s Angels in America.

Kushner uses the Rosenberg case, particularly the characters of Ethel Rosenberg and the prosecuting attorney Roy Cohn, to raise up various ethical and political issues. He takes a firm stance against Roy Cohn, who was said to have taken pride in the part he played in the Rosenberg verdict. Cohn was the one to interrogate Ethel’s brother David Greenglass, whose testimony charged the Rosenbergs with espionage for the Soviet Union. He was also the one who personally recommended the death penalty to the judge, a sentence that was overly harsh especially in light of more recent revelations that Ethel Rosenberg was innocent.

Indeed, the prosecution headed by Roy Cohn appears to have been guilty of misdemeanor in handling the case, particularly regarding Ethel Rosenberg. The charges against her were rather dubious, and it is thought the prosecution was using her in order to push her husband Julius to confess. David Greenglass eventually admitted that his testimony against his sister was false and she had been innocent of espionage even if her husband wasn’t. To make things worse, while it is reported Julius died quickly after receiving the first or second shock, Ethel’s heart was still beating after the third shock, and she was given more electricity until smoke rose out of her head.

In class we wondered why Kushner chose to include Ethel and not her husband. Perhaps it is because in her treatment we see the worst, most ruthless side of Roy Cohn, who sentenced her to die when she did not deserve to do so and considered it a great achievement. For whether or not she was guilty, death by electric chair is a gruesomely awful sentence that the Rosenbergs were the only spies to receive. And whether or not we can accurately rely on Kushner’s depiction of Cohn, the historical information pertaining to the Rosenberg case does rather establish him as a Very Bad Man.

RIP Ethel,





Hyper Empathy Syndrome

In this week’s class discussion on Pushkin’s A Feast During the Plague, we often touched upon the topic of empathy, which was great because if there’s anything at all that arouses my interest more than books it’s psychology. So for this week’s post I’ve combined my love of both to bring you an exciting new…BOOK RECOMMENDATION! I’ve been assigned Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower to read by this coming Sunday, which may mean more reading but at least it gave me something to post here other than videos of cute babies teaching empathy.

In this book, the main character Lauren has a (non-contagious, sorry) disease called Hyper Empathy Syndrome, which causes her to acutely feel others’ pain. I don’t just mean “feel”  as a sort of faux sympathy, I mean feel as an agonizing physical wound. This is a terrible condition to have in chaotic, lawless 2025 America, where crime and murder are so rampant that people have to barricade themselves in walled neighborhoods, and step over severed limbs and heads when they dared to venture outside for necessities. I looked up Hyper Empathy, and it turns out it is a somewhat legitimate disease although it is so new to psychiatry that either there isn’t much information about it or the data is very questionable.

Either way, it’s interesting (if slightly depressing) to think of worlds and situations in which empathy is considered a weakness rather than the thing that makes us human. But I don’t want to end this with such a bleak view of humanity, and it would be terrible to have mentioned cute baby videos without including them. I’m attaching this and this as a reminder that empathy is such a good thing that even very young children have a sense of altruism.

Happy Reading!