Author: Sharon

Surviving Adolescence 101

According to the Urban Dictionary definition, adolescence is: “The most supreme torture in a form that most humans can understand.” Indeed, Charles Burns seems to agree with this definition, as he uses the disease in Black Hole as a metaphor for adolescence. The novel focuses predominantly on teenage characters who all deal with different symptoms of “the bug” and likewise, struggle with different aspects of adolescence.

Below is a list of the symptoms that each character develops from “the bug” (and my interpretation of what symptom of adolescence it represents):

  • Rick “The Dick” Holstrom – skeletal face (socially empty)
  • Chris – sheds skin (like shedding her identity)
  • Rob – mouth on his neck (self-conflict; hiding the voice of truth)
  • Lisa – webbed fingers (? not sure what this could represent – any ideas? parallels to dissection of frog at the beginning, perhaps?)
  • Eliza – lizard tail (was raped – treated like an object/animal)
  • Keith – tadpole-like protuberances (struggle with sex/sexuality)
  • Dave – yeti-like face (impossible to recognize – why would he shoot all his friends?)

As we all know, there’s more to adolescence than just the physical changes. It is a tumultuous transitional period between childhood and adulthood, where one is old enough to know better yet young enough to still do something (reckless/bad) anyways. Often, teenagers find themselves disengaged from their parents, families, teachers, and sometimes even society itself, which gives rise to our class discussion on the adolescent obsession with vampires, as both teenagers and vampires feel shunned and misunderstood by their peers.

Here is an article outlining many “symptoms” and aspects of adolescence, as well as providing “survival tips” to parents on how to deal with their teenagers.

Much like infected individuals, adolescents endure huge transformations and pain as they grow and learn what it means to belong within society as a responsible, knowledgeable adult. Along the way, there are numerous symptoms of this painful process, but once an individual survives the “disease” of adolescence, he/she is better prepared to face “the real world.” Adolescence teaches strength and patience. In essence, quoting Kelly Clarkson, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

P.S. Here’s a short film adaptation of the novel that encapsulates the essence of adolescence, as portrayed in Black Hole. Enjoy!

Short Film Adaptation of Black Hole

Human Being, or Being Human?

Following the recent trend of unusual narration in our studied texts, Sinha’s Animal’s People depicts the story of the fictional, poor city of Khaufpur, India following a poisonous chemical leakage, all of which is narrated through the taped voice of the protagonist, Animal. Interestingly, the protagonist himself is an unconventional character, as he repeatedly claims, “Je suis un animal” (40).

The protagonist endures his name and status as a devastating effect of the “Kampani’s” chemical leakage. As one of the survivors from the catastrophe, Animal experiences the toxic effects of the poisonous chemicals six years after the explosion, when his spine becomes deformed and forces him to walk on all fours, like a dog. The change in his physical form also causes him to change in his attitude towards others and himself. The relationship he has with his name provides insight to his character. Although he adamantly demands to be called “Animal,” he does not allow people to treat him as inferior. Rather, he stands his ground, which is displayed in the way he protects himself as a response to the attempts to tease him. Animal seems to be torn between the two worlds: human and primitive. This is reflected in the following passage:

““My name is Animal,” I say. “I’m not a fucking human being, I’ve no wish to be one.” This was my mantra, what I told everyone. Never did I mention my yearning to walk upright. It was the start of that long argument between Zafar and me about what was an animal and what it meant to be human” (23).

It almost seems as though Animal has to convince himself that he does not want to be viewed as a human. This behavior goes hand in hand with the jealousy he felt for everything that was able to walk, paralleled with his desire to be able to walk upright. Animal also succumbs to primitive, instinctive desires, and often justifies his decisions by reassuring himself that he is not human (87). Thus, before he meets Nisha and Zafar, he lives on the street performing elaborate scams until he agrees to work as a spy for Zafar. Even so, Animal’s success as an information scouter is mostly due to his ability to extract meaning from people’s unspoken thoughts and feelings, as well as through unfamiliar words. His subhuman (or arguably, superhuman) ability to read others and communicate with both people and animals (like his dog, Jara) suggests he is neither fully human nor beast, but is living in limbo between the two categories.

What does it mean to be human? What is the distinction between humans and animals? How does Animal’s instinctive perception of the world reflect his more-than-human nature? What does the title, Animal’s People, suggest about the division between man and beast?

The oral nature of the narration enhances Animal’s animalistic characteristics, as some of the words are transcribed with incorrect spelling, such as when he agrees to spy for Zafar and says, “Namispond! Jamispond!” (26) (translation: the name’s Bond, James Bond). Also, the text is embedded with sounds and words from various languages, including “Inglis” (English), Hindi, and French. The rapid switching between languages, which can often be confusing, contributes to the authenticity of the book. The mixture of dialects and sounds reflects the rough language of animals, an idea that is highlighted by Ma Franci’s inability to understand other languages after the poisonous chemical leak:

“On that night all sorts of people lost all kinds of things, lives for sure, families, friends, health, jobs, in some cases their wits. This poor woman, Ma Franci, lost all knowledge of Hindi. She’d gone to sleep knowing it as well as any Khaufpuri, was woken in the middle of the night by a wind full of poison and prophesying angels. … But there was a further twist to Ma Franci’s madness, when she heard people talking in Hindi or Inglis, or come to that in Urdu, Tamil, Oriya, or any other tongue used in Khaufpur, she could no longer recognize that what they were speaking was a language, she thought they were just making stupid grunts and sounds” (37).  

How is language/speech related to being human? How does language work as a distinction between people, and between humans and animals? What aspects of a language reflect the people who speak it, and how do we perceive people who speak a foreign language (compare with Arthur Mervyn)? What is the significance of language in terms of delivering a story, particularly Animal’s?

Aside from language, the question of sexuality and lust arise as other aspects of being alive and being human. Although Animal constantly dehumanizes himself, he develops feelings for Nisha even though he knows he has no chance with her. Despite his inner voices of reason, his love and desire for her grow to such an extent that he is willing to do anything to impress her and take care of her (47).  Also, when he spies on the “Amrikan” (American) woman, Elli, who moves to Khaufpur and prepares to open up a free medical clinic, he accidentally sees her bathing – the first time he sees a woman naked. He involuntarily lusts for her, which causes him to dream about his desires and his beloved Nisha:

“Often I’d dream of making love with I won’t say her name. I never told anyone because if people got to know, what would they do, laugh at me, pity me? “Animal, don’t have those kind of hopes.” … Animal mating with human female, it’s unnatural, but I’ve no choice but to be unnatural. Many times I would dream that she and I were in love, sometimes we were married and naked together like in the movies having sex. In such dreams was my back straight? Did I stand upright? No and no. I was exactly as I am now and it did not matter. Such dreams! I woke from them shaking with hope. This frightened me, I despise hope” (78).

Time and time again, Animal reacts to Nisha and Elli with uncontrollable lust. In tape nine, Animal sits in between Nisha and Zafar at the town meeting to discuss the opening of Elli’s clinic, and the physical presence of Nisha causes “the monster down there [to stir]” (124). He struggles to hide and subdue “the unruly beast” which “immediately starts to rear and buck, damn that f***ing thing, it has no respect.” Thus, Animal’s lust is itself given animal-like characteristics, which further complicates the definition of the human essence. The fact that he is able to differentiate love from lust reminds us of his more ‘human’ side.

Is love a human characteristic, or is it a natural instinct? If lust, love, and jealousy, and hope are all aspects of being human, what does this indicate about human nature? How does this answer the bigger question on what it means to be human?

Since in this novel, the disease is entirely caused by man-made means, it offers a new insight into the issue of responsibility in the face of an epidemic. Moreover, it allows for an analysis of the inherent problems behind the disease, much like how Dream of Ding Village introduced the question of the role of government vs. individuals in the propagation of and response to the spread of AIDS. As explained by Animal’s narration, the employees and managers of the “Kampani” are accused guilty in the aftermath of the factory leak, but for eighteen years, they never make an appearance in court (52). In fact, they also fail to pay the costs for the recovery efforts and for the victims of the leakage, placing the Kampani’s selfish needs before the poor citizens of Khaufpur (112). Khaufpur’s own government fails to respond appropriately to the catastrophe, as minimal action is taken by the (ironically named) Minister of Poison to alleviate the victims’ suffering (131).

What is the role of the government in Animal’s People, and how does its (in)action compare with the Chinese government in Yan’s Dream of Ding Village? In what ways is the government criticized and satirized by the Khaufpuris? What is the significance of politics and business within the context of this novel? How does the issue of politics relate to the issue of foreigners vs. insiders, in terms of the “Amrikan” presence in and influence on the town?

Hopefully this post and the questions posed above help us to begin delving into the complex fabric of this fascinating text. Happy reading!

– Azmyra, Laura, Maisie, and Sharon

You Shoot, You Score

From today’s class discussion on Welcome to Our Hillbrow, we identified a number of themes that emerge in the text, such as xenophobia in South Africa and the issue of cultural identity. Another important aspect of the novel is euphemism and metaphor, of which soccer (a.k.a. football) is a notable example.

In both the novel and reality, football plays a major role in South African culture, as it brings a common sense of pride to the nation and it represents the best (and worst) aspects of the contemporary South African society. Interestingly, the narrator mentions soccer in the first sentence of the text: “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” (1). For the South Africans, soccer is the only event in which they “momentarily [forget] xenophobia” (27), as it serves as a platform for fans to unite in support for Bafana Bafana  – “The Boys”.

However, soccer is not merely a sport. It reflects its society, much like how theatre and fictional writing reflect reality. The passive act of watching soccer is unfortunately similar to the common act of spectatorship in society. For instance, in the following passage, the citizens of Hillbrow witness a 7-year-old girl die from a reckless car driver:

“Most people, after the momentary stunned silence of witnessing the sour fruits of soccer victory, resumed their singing. Shosholoza … sounded its melodies from Wolmarans Street, at the fringe of the Johannesburg downtown, to the head of Clarendon Place, at the boundary of the serene Parktown suburb. Shosholoza … drowned the choking sobs of the deceased child’s mother” (2).

An unfortunate consequence of a soccer victory is the unnecessary celebratory violence that follows, which is evident from the above passage. However, what is even more unfortunate is the reaction of society to this violence. Like spectators watching soccer, society is detached from the action and from the foul play of violence, and respond accordingly.

Soccer also serves as a metaphor for other “social disease”, as the narrator uses soccer terms to describe Terror’s, a rapist’s, malicious thoughts and intentions toward Refentše’s love: “Because he was full of spite towards you, Terror wanted to take Lerato’s thighs for a playing field, in which his penis would be player, referee and spectator simultaneously” (65).

In terms of the issue of xenophobia, though soccer temporarily distracts the Hillbrowans from their hatred of foreigners, it actually makes xenophobia more noticeable since its absence highlights the fact that it is usually present. In reality, South African football also highlights the issue of xenophobia, which can be seen in this article and this account of soccer’s history in Africa. 

It is often said that soccer is truly an international sport. Why is soccer such a popular sport, in both the novel and in reality? Why is soccer such an effective means of analyzing society? What are the implications of this metaphor, and how else does soccer reflect society?

P.S. On a side note, this article discusses the recent murder of South Africa’s national soccer captain and its implications. (Take note of the article’s mention of Ebola.) Again, what is the role of soccer in highlighting current societal issues? How does the victim’s identity as a soccer player in this case add to the severity of the murder? 


New Plague, New Playlist

Music always enhances situations; just imagine any movie without its soundtrack. It distracts, it expresses, it liberates, it comforts, it dramatizes – it lives. Unsurprisingly, music has played an important role in some of our previously studied novels (such as Pushkin’s A Feast During the Plague), as well as in this week’s novel: Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider. Below, I’ve compiled the novella’s playlist of mentioned songs (as well as one poem) and their respective page numbers, ranging from war tunes to anthems, and spirituals to jazz music. 

When listening to the pieces, ask yourself: Why did Porter specifically mention this by name? What is its significance in the text? Does the song in any way reflect and/or parallel the themes and events in the novel? 

Many of the war songs listed above coincidentally (or perhaps intentionally?) mention themes and images that appear in the text. For instance, “Pack Up Your Troubles” is a military tune about “Private Perks… with a smile, a funny smile,” and the chorus tells soldiers (“boys”) to stop worrying and to just “smile, smile, smile”. This notion of smiling in the face of difficulty can be seen in the novel, as both the war and plague are described as funny (158, 161), and characters such as Miranda respond to war or disease by laughing and feeling hilarious about it (184). Thus, was this a sheer coincidence, or did Porter try to highlight this behaviour when she named this particular tune? If so, why?

Aside from the justifiable mention of military songs, Porter also specifically identifies certain pop/dance songs of the early 20th century. Although this may again seem superficial or meaningless, pay attention to the lyrics and the story behind these secular songs. The quoted verse from the Blues contains the phrase “heart disease,” which in both the song and the novel, refers to an emotional rather than a physical pain. In fact, Miranda speaks of the emotional impact of war and its damage on the heart and mind: “what [the war] does to them is worse than what it can do to the body” (177). Again, what is the significance of this parallelism? How does the song enhance our reading of the text?

Here’s the video for the Blues:

And here’s the video for La Madelon:

All these songs/poems were mentioned for a reason. Give a few of them a listen and see if you can determine why they were specifically identified, and how they enhance and reflect the text. Or better yet, just listen to them for the sake of music. After all, music is “A magic beyond all we do here!” according to Professor Dumbledore.

Stomaching the Truth

During last class’ discussion, certain patterns and themes that emerge in Brown’s Arthur Mervyn were examined. Among the various motifs and images that recur, a particularly interesting one is that of the stomach. This vital organ is highlighted a number of times (8, within the entire text), often in conjunction with the yellow fever epidemic and/or the rumours that spread in tandem with the disease.

A notable example of Brown’s use of “stomach” is in relationship with the effects of rumour. When Mervyn first describes the rumours of the spreading pestilence, he says:

As often as the tale was embellished with new incidents, or inforced by new testimony, the hearer grew pale, his breath was stifled by inquietudes, his blood was chilled and his stomach was bereaved of its usual energies (Brown, 101).

It is important to note the phrase that Brown associates with “stomach” in this passage. What does it mean for the stomach to lose its “usual energies” or its “vigour” (111)? What is the significance of the stomach regaining this energy, a phenomenon that occurs to our narrator later in the novel (124)? Why use the stomach, of all organs?

According to the theory and practice of Chinese acupuncture, different parts of the human body have different functions, in addition to their biological roles. The stomach serves as the processor of “food” – both physical, mental, and emotional. Perhaps this article will shed some insight into this recurring image of the stomach, and provide reasons of why Brown chose to emphasize this organ.

Our stomachs provide us nourishment, but they also reflect our state of being. They not only indicate if we’re hungry, but they could reflect a truth beyond their physical contents. Pay attention to each time “stomach” appears in the text – and pay attention to your own!