Author: Sara

The World’s Worst Industrial Disaster: Who’s To Blame?

In the early hours of December 3rd 1984, between 30-40 tons of methyl isocyanate, a highly toxic gas, leaked from the Union Carbide pesticide plant just three miles outside of Bhopal, India. The poisonous gas burned people eyes, throats, and resulted in the immediate death of at least 3,800 people. In a 2006 affidavit Indian government figures estimate that over 5,200 people were killed and several thousand other individuals were severely disabled. Following the disaster, Union Carbide tried to avoid any legal responsibility. Survivors fought for years to bring justice to the suffering they faced. The cause of the disaster remains under debate even today. Many, including local activists and the Indian government, argued that poor management and maintenance led to a backflow of water into the methyl isocyanate tank and led to the leak. However, Union Carbide disagreed. In 1985 they began an extensive investigation into the incident, conducted more that 70 interviews and “examined some 70,000 pages of plant records and documentation that the Indian government had reluctantly released”. They concluded, around 3 years later in The Jackson Browning Report, that a large volume of water had been put into the methyl isocyanate tank. In short, it was an act of sabotage.  Eventually the company reached a settlement with the Indian government. They accepted moral responsibility and paid a compensation of $470 million. This disaster created sentiments of distrust and hatred of American companies, as seen so clearly in Animal’s People. So, who’s to blame for what happened? The “Kampani” from “Amrika”? Or those who sabotaged the pesticide plant? How does this change the way we think about the book and how blame is divided? 

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“Reader, be assured this narrative is no fiction.”

Hillbrow is an inner-city residential neighborhood in Johannesburg, South Africa, that used to be a whites-only zone during Apartheid in the 1970s. Post-Apartheid, it became a melting pot for people from diverse ethnic backgrounds and became home to one of the first prominent LBGT communities in South Africa. The neighborhood, however, slowly decayed into an urban slum due to a massive influx of poor migrants and the exodus of middle class communities. Mpe dedicates the first chapter of his novel to explore Hillbrow in the second person perspective through the life of Refentse, a writer who committed suicide.  He explores the social issues of xenophobia, AIDS, racism, crime and poverty through what would have been Refentse’s typical routine through the city. He describes the people, street corners, and city rhythms of the “menacing monster” that is Hillbrow as if you were walking through its streets like a local. This brings up the question: What language does Mpe use to construct Hillbrow and why does he use it? The neighborhood takes on a life of its own for Mpe: “You discovered on arriving in Hillbrow, that to be drawn away from Tiragalong also went hand-in-hand with a loss of interest in Hillbrow. Because Tiragalong was in Hillbrow. You always took Tiragalong with you in your consciousness whenever you came to Hillbrow or any other place. In the same way, you carried Hillbrow with you always” (49).  This makes one ask: What is a place? How does one’s environment shape their identity? What is the relationship between place and identity? What does it mean to have ownership of place?  At first, there seems to be a clear distinction between the Hillbrowan and foreigner aka Mackwerekwere identity, but this gets confused as we learn that most of the so called locals were actually migrants. Refentse points out “There are very few Hillbrowans, if you think about it, who were not originally wanderers from Tiragalong and other rural villages, who have come here, as we have in search of education and work. Many of the Makwerewere you accuse of this and that are no different to us sojourners, here in search of green pastures.” How does place fit into our identities? How does it fit into the identity by descent or the identity by consent categories we discussed in Angels in America? Mpe repeats the title of the novel “Welcome to Our Hillbrow”. Notice the use of “Our”. Our Hillbrow suggests a sense of ownership of the place. Hillbrow isn’t just a geographical location, it is the sum of experiences, relationships and connections that its citizens create together.

He repeats this phrase multiple times:

“All these things that you have heard seen heard about felt smelt believed disbelieved shirked embraced brewing in your consciousness would find chilling haunting echoes in the simple words… Welcome to our Hillbrow….” (27)

And again at the end of the second chapter:

“If you were still alive, now Refentse child of Hillbrow and Tiragalong, if you were still alive, all of this that you have heard seen heard about felt smelt believed disbelieved shirked embraced brewing in your consciousness would still find chilling haunting echoes in the simple words… Welcome to our Hillbrow…” (62)

What does this repetition signify? The phrase seems to take on a new tone, becoming more ironic as Mpe repeats it.

The repetition of the phrase “Welcome to our Hillbrow” tells the readers that the narrator is from Hillbrow due to his/her reference to it as “ours” — something that belongs to him/her, too. In its irony, we can also tell that the narrator is unhappy with the way things are in Hillbrow — with the explicitly aforementioned issues of xenophobia, AIDS, and racism.

This novel addresses contagion, not only in regards to AIDS but also the spread of ideas, rumors, and generalizations. The dissemination of information, and the problem of separating truth from rumor, has been discussed in nearly every book we have read thus far. From the start of the novel, in discussing the presence of the “strange illness” that “could only translate into AIDS” the narrator suggests that the disease “according to popular understanding [and] certain newspaper articles, was caused by foreign germs” (3-4). The people of South Africa were constructing their preliminary understanding of the source of AIDS from “such media reports”. The narrator continues on to explain different “scandalous stories” about the bizarre sexual behavior of men who slept with other men. These stories “did the rounds on the informal migrant grapevine” (4). It is through word of mouth that ideas about AIDS, intertwined with xenophobia, generalizations, and preconceived notions, are spread and in a sense, infect the minds of those who listen.

Not only do rumors of disease plague the people of South Africa, rumors about the characters’ own tragedies circulate as well. The devastating consequences of gossip are most strongly witnessed in the stories that “moved with ease to and from Tiragalong and Hillbrow” by car, landline, and cellphone service providers about Refentse’s suicide. The story of his death was embellished and changed by many, but most significantly by Refilwe, Refentse’s past lover. Refilwe blemished his name and sent him “hurtling towards [his] second death” by the stories and rumors she told. Refentse’s mother was set on fire and killed by the people of Tiragalong based on rumors that she had bewitched her son, causing him to commit suicide. Refilwe rewrote the story of Refentse’s suicide and convinced others that is was instead “a loose-thighed Hillbrowan called Lerato” who bewitched him, not his mother (43-44). The spread of misinformation continued on and on, reputations were destroyed, and very little regard was paid to hard facts. The constructed story of his suicide only helped to perpetuate the generalization that the women of Hillbrow were dangerous. These rumors also created a ripple effect, starting with Refentse’s suicide, leading to other characters loss of sanity or violent deaths. Was it Refentse’s suicide that set off the chain of tragedies that affected the other characters of the novel, or were the rumors and constructed stories to blame?

The novel is from the point of view of an omniscient narrator who seems unrelated to any of the  characters, yet is still included in their life stories. The first part of the novel is told from the second person point of view, addressing the life of Refentse, the protagonist, and the lives of those connected to him. The narrator is aware of every last detail within the events occurring throughout the characters’ lives, despite the fact that the narration is not at all chronological.

Judging by the way the story is told, the narrator seems to know and expect all these terrible events to happen — and is merely watching them unfold without interfering. It’s almost as if the narrator is familiar with the characters on a personal level — based on the amount of details known about them — but never once makes remarks that insinuate any sort of personal feelings towards them, instead simply telling the events as they occur.

The language that the narrator uses also changes throughout the novel. For example, at some point in the first part, it seems as if we are inside of Refentse’s head; when he is shocked, the narrator’s language changes to accommodate that sense of shock. In other instances, however, the narrator takes the role of a storyteller and is simply there to inform the reader of the events taking place in these characters’ lives.

So, what is the narrator’s relationship to Refentse? Since he/she dedicates such a large portion of the story with Refentse being the protagonist, the reader can assume that the two must be connected in some way. Also, what is the significance of the second person point of view? Does the author succeed in using this technique, or would it have worked better if the narration took on a more distant perspective?

One additional resource: Al Jazeera Documentary about Hillbrow
Sara, Mira, Shaikha

In the Words of Kushner

Hey everyone,

In order to gain more insight into the creation of the play and Tony Kushner’s personal experiences that influenced it, I’ve included different sections from multiple interviews with him over the years.

The Seattle Times sat down with Kushner and asked about where the image of the angel came from (2014).

“There was a dancer I had a crush on in college, who got AIDS and died early in the epidemic. The night I found out he died, I dreamt he was in bed in pajamas and this angel crashed through the ceiling, and he was terrified. I decided to write a poem, which I almost never do, and titled it ‘Angels in America.’”

Apparently he has never looked at the poem, or shared it with anyone else, since the day he wrote it. I found the fact that the figure of the angel, arguably the most prominent figure of the play, came from Kushner’s dream very interesting. Dreams, visions, and escape from reality are concepts that Kushner explores deeply throughout the play. Many of the characters, including Harper and Prior seem to constantly be straddling both the real world and that of fantasy, even entering into one another’s hallucinations/dreams. I can imagine that the fact that this image came to him in a dream influenced his decision to include such elements of fantasy, visions, and dream-states in the play.

Kushner goes on to explain that as a medieval studies major, he has “always been fascinated by the angels’ intersessional role between the human and the divine”. They act as a liaison, as messengers between god and people. In Angels in America the angel comes to Prior as just that. She delivers the message that change must be stopped, as the progress made by mankind thus far has forced God to abandon heaven.

In an interview with Yale Literary Magazine (2013) he discusses why each time the angel refers to herself it begins with “ I I I I”.

“Because she’s actually four beings in one. She’s not a single entity, she’s an aggregate entity. That’s been part of the angelological lore for a very long time, that you can’t really think of them as being singular beings. In the Holy Scriptures, and also in Revelations, they frequently appear as weird things: wheels of fire, and myriads of eyes, multiple wings, multiple heads. They’re not human beings with wings, they’re something else”.

The angel image is far more complex than one would first expect. When reading the play, I didn’t pay much attention to this repetition of “I”. This repetition subtly allows for the character of the angel to become more dynamic, complicated, and fantastical. It enforces the understanding that they are certainly not “human beings with wings, they’re something else”.

In anticipation of our conversation of the role of Mormonism on Sunday, here is Kushner’s, rather unexpected and simplistic, response to how Mormonism entered the play during a New York Magazine interview (2008).

“There were these Mormon missionaries that I used to see at my subway stop, in Carroll Gardens, around 1983. One of them was, I thought, kind of hot. They were always there in the morning, in front of a bunch of people who could have cared less about the Book of Mormon. And I was kind of touched by that.”

Relating to religion, in a 1993 interview with Bomb Magazine, Tony Kushner explains that he is “an honest to god agnostic”.

“I’m in a position of constant confusion about it. I don’t understand how to incorporate the existence of evil into any theological system, I just don’t… and justice is something that I do believe in. Louis says in Angels that justice is God.”

In the play we see Kushner challenging and questioning religion, pitting religions against one another, and exploring ideas of evil, justice, and God. We have characters who are Mormon, Jewish, politically and morally corrupt, amongst other labels. What is Kushner suggesting about religion, especially in the face of an epidemic? Or in the face of a politically and socially evolving America?



A Pandemic’s Effect on the Mind and Heart

Have you heard of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic? It killed more people than the first World War did, yet it is not widely remembered. Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter is one of the few literary records of a traumatic event that killed between 20 million and 40 million people. This is Porter’s most autobiographical work as she nearly died of the plague herself when she was working for the Rocky Mountain Newspaper. According to a 1936 interview with Porter, 18 years had passed before she set down to write this fictional novella. This suggests she may have tried to forget the pandemic and was unable to repress her memories of it. Perhaps the act of writing this novella was her way of coming to terms with her personal experience of surviving the influenza pandemic of 1918, and suggesting that events like this should be remembered. In the 1936 interview, she recalls her experience as identity-shattering.

 “It simply divided my life, cut across it like that. So that everything before that was just getting ready, and after that I was in some strange way altered, really. It took me a long time to go out and live in the world again. I was really “alienated,” in the pure sense. It was, I think, the fact that I really had participated in death, that I knew what death was, and had almost experienced it. I had what the Christians call the “beatific vision,” and the Greeks called the “happy day,” the happy vision just before death. Now if you have had that, and survived it, come back from it, you are no longer like other people, and there’s no use deceiving yourself that you are. (“Interview” 85)”The Forgotten Apocalypse

Surviving a plague or a war is a life-changing event for an individual survivor and a community. Porter draws upon her own personal experience of alienation and disorientation after a plague when she describes Miranda’s painful and bitter recovery. It raises the question of what survives in a survivor after a plague? Or after a war? Even after the pandemic and the war (suggested by Miranda to be the root cause of her illness) are over, Miranda remains traumatized and is haunted by the ghost of Adam. Pandemic and war have irrevocably disrupted her sense of place, identity, time and the world. What kind of trauma, beyond physical, does a pandemic and war generate? Miranda, at one point suggests that the emotional and psychological trauma is much worse than the physical. “It’s what war does to the mind and the heart, Adam, and you can’t separate these two – what it does to them is worse than what it can do to the body” (177). Since the body cannot be separated from the mind, and vice versa, where do we draw the line between physical and psychological impacts of war?  How do survivors and a community remember this trauma and live with it? Perhaps this reflects Porter’s decision to tell the story from alternating third person and first person perspectives in a nonlinear and chaotic narrative. War and disease are so chaotic and disorienting they have disrupted the narration. It isn’t until the end of the novella that we realize Miranda has been dreaming the whole time.

Was Miranda ever really awake until the end of the story, when she is no longer sick and the war has ended?  What does it mean for Miranda to be awake or feel alive? When she ‘wakes’ up, she feels numb and like a zombie of herself, a ghost haunted by her past. In the final moments of her fevered dream, she achieved a sense of tranquility and enlightenment. She felt more alive close to death than she does when she wakes up. This irony reminded us of a scene in the animated film Corpse Bride, when the main character enters the underworld and finds that it is far more enchanting and lively than the living world.

Miranda has changed. She is haunted by the ghost of Adam who was “a ghost but more alive than she was, the last intolerable cheat of her heart..” (208). She still feels tied to the memory of the dead. Is she obligated to honor and remember Adam? Her post-traumatic identity is now cynical of more than just the “silly” and “filthy” war; she is now incredulous about being alive in general. At the end of the novella, it is only her memory of the past and the dead that remains after the war and the plague have ended. Is there any way for Miranda to preserve her former self through her memories as a survivor? What are the responsibilities of a survivor towards the dead?

-Sara, Shaikha, and Mira

A Feast: Remixed, Recreated, and Reimagined

“The “little tragedies” contain a number of scenes that are so intensely dramatic that they demand to be seen and heard, rather than merely read” (Anderson, 6).

From our reading aloud of Pushkin’s A Feast During the Plague it became clear that the play is chock-full of emotion, ranging from love to guilt to horror. In the introduction to The Little Tragedies, Anderson puts forth the importance of experiencing the play rather than reading it in one’s own head. The words of the characters must be given a voice if we want to even begin to understand them. I did a bit of research and found some dramatic recreations of the play, old and new. I’ll highlight some of the ones that stood out:

All four of The Little Tragedies have been made into one act operas by Russian composers. A Feast During the Plague was set into opera by Cesar Cui and gives the spotlight to three characters, Mary, Walsingham, and the priest, similar to the focus given to them by Pushkin. Walsingham’s song is referred to as “confronting death with a fine bravado” while Mary sings “with gentle resignation”. Finally the priest “gravely intones his admonition” of the revelers feast. The opera is fairly long, and in Russian, but skip through it to get a sense of the different musical representations of the three main characters.

Next, in the late 1980s Yuri Lyubimov, a Russian stage actor and director, put on his own version of A Feast in Time of Plague. Among other significant changes, the play opens with A Feast and uses it as a framing device. The play is more like The Decameron whereas the revelers sit around and “tell” one another the remaining three little tragedies. The main characters from each of the little tragedies become the revelers at the feast, allowing for their own little tragedies to cumulate to the biggest tragedy of all- the plague and imminent death. Kinda cool right? For more on Lyubimov and his play check out this book by Birgit Beumers.

Back to music: Three out of the four plays have songs that are to be performed by at least one character. The two songs in A Feast are as important than the actual dialogue of the play as they serve to develop Mary and Walsingham and provide insight into how they react to death. The “Theatre Collection” acted out their own version of Mary and Walsingham’s songs, both of which prove to be very different. Mary’s is more of a melodramatic a capella lullaby, while Walsingham aggressively strums an acoustic guitar, shouts, and gets the other revelers to cheer with him.

 Lastly, a more modern, seemingly hipster, and of course Russian spin on Pushkin’s play.

Check out the trailer and more promo photos of the rendition here.