Category: Conveners’ posts

Social Critique and Dreams in Kushner’s Angels in America

A clip from Angels in America performed

Hi everyone!

For the next four classes, we will finally be discussing Kushner’s Angels in America, for which the augmenters’ posts about Wojnarowicz may come into our discussion.

In class, we’ve been talking a lot about contagion narratives and how they’re structured. More specifically, we’ve identified that, for example, the disease is never the main issue but rather is the backdrop as the narrative develops, grappling with various issues related to identity, politics, race, and more. And Angels in America is no exception. In a journal article titled “Cold War Science and the Body Politic: An Immuno/Virological Approach to Angels in America,” Daryl Ogden argues that

Kushner makes visible a Cold War political discourse that underlines the ideological similarities between the McCarthyite 1950s and the Reaganite 1980s, calling attention to the parallels between communism and homosexuality as American identities of otherness and disempowerment. (243)

So, in other words, as Kushner tackles issues of identity and politics, namely homosexuality and communism — and although Ogden does not explicitly state it — while the AIDS epidemic serves as a backdrop.

However, what is even more interesting is that some characters in the play conflate homosexuality and AIDS, much like Reaganite politics conflates the two, calling the epidemic the “gay plague.” But through this conflation, AIDS is not only a backdrop; rather, it is brought to the foreground as a key character in play — except even more pervasive, permeating the whole narrative. In this way, AIDS is both in the background and the foreground of the narrative. As a result, we nuance the role that the disease plays here. While it serves as a backdrop and creates an opportunity to bring up Reaganite politics and communism, it also allows for a more direct engagement with the perception of homosexuality and AIDS.

To question our assumptions about contagion narratives: to what extent do you think this narrative is different from others we’ve read? Is the disease as salient in other narratives such as Welcome to Our Hillbrow?

In Angels of America, some of the narration happens through dreams and imaginary conversations. The video embedded earlier depicts an interesting scene in the play where Prior is having an imaginary conversation with his ancestors on the theme of contagion. In what appears to be a nightmare, Prior is woken up by two men dressed in thirteenth and seventeenth century clothing, claiming to both be Prior Walter. They then go on to describe how their own pestilences (the plague) have led to their demise. They detail the curse “The spotty monster” that binds a couple of Walter family descendants to be carried off by the plague. This is done to try to explain why the current Prior is suffering a similar death, one by disease. This idea of mortality combined with inescapable fate makes us question the effect of one’s ancestors has on making up their own identity, and what affect that ultimately has on a person’s life. Thinking of narration in this play, the notion of dreams is a particularly interesting form of narration. In Scene 7, Harper and Prior share a dream. Although these two characters have never met before, in the previous scene, their partners meet each other for the first time. Scene 6, Joe and Louis meet in the men’s room of the Brooklyn Federal Court. The lives of Harper and Prior are connected through the lives of their partners, and their shared dream Prior informes Harper that her husband is homosexual. In the following excerpt, Harper questions imagination and her own dreams as she cannot believe that her dreams reflect reality that she is unaware of. Harper says,

“If I didn’t ever see you before and I don’t think I did, then I don’t think you should be in here, in this hallucination, because in my experience the mind, which is where hallucinations come from, shouldn’t be able to make up anything that wasn’t there to start with, that didn’t enter from experience, from the real world. Imagination cannot create anything new, can it? It only recycles bits and pieces from the world and resembles them into visions … Am I making sense right now?” (Kushner 32–33)

In the Dream of Ding Village, Grandfather’s dreams reflected real-life events and information that he was not consciously aware of. How does narration through the medium of dreams function in each piece? Are there similarities between the two?

Moral Issues in Dream of Ding Village

Yan Lianke was interviewed by Laura Dombernowski in connection to the Louisiana Literature festival at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Denmark in August 2015

From 10:35 to 14:06, Yan talks about the composition background, the theme of love and his understandings of Dream of Ding Village

The Dream of Ding Village is based on the government encouraged blood-selling tragedies in Yan’s hometown, Henan, China in the early 2000s. Through the medium of the grandson’s ghost narrative and the dreams of Grandpa, Yan narrates the demise of the AIDS-stricken Ding village while raising a series of moral questions in a detached and surreal tone.

The novel opens with the sudden realizations of Grandpa, who pinpointed the origin of AIDS to the blood-selling campaign he acquiesced in ten years ago. Pressured to meet development metrics, the local officials aggressively allured the skeptical villagers with monetary benefits, yet failed to inform them the danger of excessive blood sales or unhygienic practices. Consequently, as limited official blood stations in rotation and inadequate regulations of black market gave rise to the explosive growth of private blood collectors, under-informed villagers became the prey of ruthless blood sellers, who prioritized commercial gains at the expense of citizens’ health. The novel thus brings our attention to the devastating implications of a public policy that lacks of a proper set of supporting regulations. It also prompts us with the question of how should a government balance between overall capitalist progress and individual human well-beings. Is it righteous to boost the overall economic growth of the country while inflicting some “unintended” regional sufferings?

On the community level, moral issues centered around the paradoxical theme of justice. In an attempt to revenge on Hui, who exploited them by extracting blood unhygienically and selling coffins they were entitled to, villagers poisoned Hui’s innocent, defenseless child to death. Without the slightest regrets, the villagers believed the sufferings Hui inflicted upon them justified for such acts and that it was only fair for Hui to suffer like them. This similar mindset resurfaced again when the community destroyed their living environment under the excuse of justice. Upon the approval of the new leaders, Jia Genzhu and Ding Yuejin, who were trying to reinforce their popularity, the villagers looted all the property from their communal shelter, the school, and stripped bare of all the trees in the Ding village in a revelry. Again, they were unapologetic, believing that these acts were “righteous” compensations for their coffins taken away by Hui. Are they becoming better off defending their rights to coffins or are they digging their own graves by tearing down their own shelter and environment? Here, Yan also brings into question the role of a leader in crisis.  Should leaders conform to popular opinions to maintain popularity, like Jia Genzhu and Ding Yuejin? Or should they prioritize the overall sustenance of their people even if such acts would incur discontent, as in the case of Grandpa and former village head Li Sanren?

Moral questions are also manifested in the degeneration of core relationships between individuals. Hui continued with blood selling, despite the consequential death of his son and Grandpa’s threats to sever relationship with him. Married couples turned their back to their diseased partners, as in the case of Tingting and Xiaoming, while the sick sought to vengefully infect their partners. And to help Genbao get married and be a real man (Yan, 160), the whole village was willing to lie to a girl from another village, while judgement was passed on to Grandpa, the only person who found such act troublesome. One may then ask, did the crisis lead to such degenerations or did it only bring out the dark sides of people?

In summary, the Dream of Ding Village is a sad story ridden with moral issues spread across the government, the community and the individual levels.

Philosophical matters, fear and confidence in Camus’s The Plague

A video on Camus’ philosophies, especially Absurdism

In true existentialist fashion, the themes of mortality, fear and the passage of time are most overtly expressed in Albert Camus’s, The Plague. The novel confronts the reader with the notion of the Absurd and finding meaning in an inherently meaningless world. The Plague argues that the fear ingrained in the citizens of Oran isn’t much so derived from the sheer number of deaths, but instead, because the idea of death becomes tangible rather than something abstract. it doesn’t raise the question of how we should spend time? or what we should do with our time? but, rather tells us that there is meaning to be found as long as we are aware of our time is spent. For instance, Tarrou’s curious habit of taking the time in the day to sit out on his terrace and spit at cats passing by. The narrator acknowledges that the act is incredibly tedious and, frankly, a waste of time by anyone’s standards. However, it is an excellent reflection of how Camus navigated his philosophies. In The Plague, Tarrou’s actions are not seen as a waste of time because he is completely aware of how much of a waste of time it is. Camus did not believe in the trivial idea of finding a sole true purpose or meaning in life, in order to escape or have a moral meaning in death. If one were to imagine that Tarrou was completely happy in his choices to waste his time when in reality, he has found enough meaning in his tedious hobby to not be a waste of time and actually personally satisfy him. His satisfaction is all that should matter.

Moreover, it is also important to consider the role of fear in the novel. Halfway into the chapter (36), the book diverts from the narration and goes into a short reflection about how people respond to pestilences with “conflicting fears and confidence.” (37) At this point in the chapter, the reflection sums up the picture of what happened before with the situation of dead rats and foreshadows what comes after when the plague starts. There is a pattern in these two scenarios where people have a sense of what will happen but try to deny it and let it escalate beyond control. This brings a new idea into our discussion about how people respond to outbreaks. We usually see how people protect themselves against diseases (quarantines, fortune-telling, etc.). However, here in this part of the chapter, Camus explains how the way we respond to pestilences, and wars, turns us into victims. The conflict between fears and confidence is best exemplified by the authorities in this chapter. It was their denial of the plague and the reluctance to alarm people earlier that let the plague go out of control. In addition, the bureaucracy behind their decisions, such as the doctors waiting for the Prefect to issue orders or the committee arguing about how to phrase the epidemic, also aggravates the situation.

In essence, the novel raises important questions about what happens to the passage of time when there is an imminent threat? What are the effects of the plague on the idea of mortality? How do religion and fate tie in with it? To what extent is mankind’s pride culpable in its downfall?

Narrative Technique in Katherine Anne Porter’s “Pale Horse, Pale Rider”

One of many woodcuts by Albrecht Dürer depicting the Apocalypse. It is argued that Porter derived inspiration for her book while doing research at University of Basel Library and the Kunstmuseum, which house these woodcuts.

By Dürer –, Public Domain,

Hello everyone!

Since we will not have the chance to discuss “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” again in class, this post will be a bit longer than usual.

For those of you who missed the waffles and class discussion, we are first going to briefly talk about narration, which is a topic that we touched upon on Saturday.

Porter employed free indirect discourse, a narrative technique where we cannot differentiate between the narrator and the characters. At the end of the novel, the narrator’s voice is fused with the voice of Miranda as we cannot distinguish who says “a ghost but more alive than she was, the last intolerable cheat of her heart” (208).  Miranda also imagines herself through other people, such as the young couple in the bar, and as the narrative voice is filtered through other voices, this creates another layer of obscurity. Since this narrative layer blurs the line between Miranda and the society she observes, the question of whether it is possible to separate oneself from a social formation is one to be raised.

Miranda’s voice and personality allows the reader see things from a female perspective. Her voice brings feminism to light, by showing objection to patriarchy. For instance, she showed resistance, in a male dominated society, when she was being coerced to pay the bond. She also claps back when Adam makes an allusion of roles being gender specific (157). Other parts of the text portrays Miranda’s tastes in a way the female audience can relate. Also, mentioning her tastes and ability to make sole decisions of what she wants on her shopping list shows the power the author gives the narrator, Miranda, in the text.

This contrasts with the strength of another female character, Mrs Alving, in Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts, that we’ve discussed in class. Mrs. Alving, unlike Miranda, cannot make sole decisions and her life is based on the norms of the society and the partriachical display of her husband and Manders. Both texts were written by authors of different genders and judging by the outcome, it becomes clear how the masculine gender sees females or the position the masculine gender wishes to place females.  This raises the question: Do we only relate to people’s struggles if we have walked/are walking their path, just as Porter is able to relate to feminism and give the female character a voice? It would also be interesting to see how a female writer portrays the character of a woman.

Building off this question of the author’s experience and whether it feeds into the short novel, something else we didn’t touch on extensively in class is the fact that this book is to a large extent autobiographical; it is reported that Porter almost died of the Spanish flu in 1918 in Denver. Given this fact, one can question the legitimacy of this work as a history — or historiography, rather — of the Spanish flu in America during the war.

In a 2013 article titled ‘Trauma, Influenza, and Revelation in Katherine Anne Porter’s “Pale Horse, Pale Rider”’, Laurel Bollinger discusses this issue of autobiography. She cites some contemporary critics who read “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” “as a record of the trauma itself (whether personal or communal) rather than on the degree to which Porter creates a highly structured and carefully fictionalized version of the experience” (366). Seeing the story as a psychological/traumatic narrative that explores the infected self — more of an anthropological and psychological exploration — can be well-supported by the narrative technique employed by Porter, and

However, Bollinger is interested in exploring this relationship between fiction and autobiography. She argues that is exactly that fusion between truthful societal accounts and personal experience that strengthen the narrative, which is then ultimately tied together through biblical allusions:

[H]istorian Alfred Crosby describes the novella as “the most accurate depiction of American society in the fall of 1918 in literature. It synthesizes what is otherwise only obtainable by reading hundreds of pages of newspapers” (318). Porter offers similarly precise descriptions of the impact of the flu, both on her own body and on the victims who surrounded her. Yet far from simply recording what LaCapra worries will be “confused or undisciplined thought,” Porter’s hybridized account of the events takes its power specifically from its fusion of the autobiographical and the fictional as she works through the trauma by turning to the mythic. … Looking back on her memories over twenty years later, Porter depends upon biblical allusions, particularly to the Book of Revelation, to give shape and presumably meaning to her experiences (370).

Another significant element of this book is death and its the role throughout the story. One instance where the meaning of death is juxtaposed is in one of the multiple dreams that Miranda has throughout the text. In this dream, Miranda yearns for death as it is an escape from her worldly life and unwanted relationships; she wants to be transported to a world that would rid her of these inconveniences. But it is also apparent that she flees from death when she states “This journey I do not mean to take” (142).  Here, we see her hesitation about actually facing death as well as its consequences. This is interesting as it shows the uncertainty that comes along with making decisions that are absolute as nobody really knows what the result of them could be. This juxtaposition also reveals the contemplative and uncertain nature of her thoughts — it could be interesting to refer back to religion in this case and see how much she does indeed draw from Christian beliefs when she evaluates the concept of death.

If you made it all the way through here — thank you! We hope this post generates some questions and food for thought. Enjoy your break!

19th Century Immorality & Co.

A clip from Ghosts, from the 2014 Richard Eyre production at the Almeida Theatre in London, featuring Lesley Manville as Helene and Adam Kotz as Manders.

Ghosts is a play written by Henrik Ibsen in 1881 and was first staged in 1882. The play is shown to have critical views on 19th century immorality, which then breaks off to further factors that follow underneath this main idea. The overarching theme of immorality forms a throughline across the various topics the play touches on, the larger of which are STDs, sins, incest, and euthanasia. Not counting euthanasia, the way the play talks about these topics draws on the language of inheritance and links it to the wider motif of ‘ghosts,’ forces from the past that have a force on the present. Thus we know that Oswald wishes his illness was inherited instead of acquired, that his interest in Regine is immoral because they both have the same father, and that the shadow of the father’s sins seems to materialize itself in fire with the burning of the orphanage built using the money Oswald would have inherited.

Another underlying theme related to immorality is the role of ethics in this play. With the sins of one’s parents, the act of unfaithful affairs, and the role of ending one’s suffering, we should ask to what extent are all these situations and themes ethical? Both in modern day’s time and in the 19th century? Additionally, try and think about the transmission of not just disease, but of sins and tragedies as well. How can we connect the affairs of Oswald’s dead father to his own tragedies? Of Mrs. Alving keeping all her husband’s affairs secret and away from her own son, to Oswald’s shortcoming in the end? There is a line and history we can connect between immorality and the transmission of disease that can illustrate different perspectives and aspects of the story within Ghosts.

We should also consider the ethics and role of euthanasia within the text, the painless killing of a patient suffering from an incurable and/or painful disease. In the end of Ibsen’s play, Oswald requests his mother the difficult task of ending his life through a morphine overdose, if the time of his utmost suffering shall come. In addition to the ethics of one given the role to end a person’s disease-ridden life, what does it mean to have one’s own mother fulfil that role? Does the immorality of a person ending another’s somewhat vegetative life suddenly lessen if it is the mother ending her own son’s suffering? How can we even consider and determine a person’s suffering if we ourselves are not that person?

Overall, the overlying theme within Ibsen’s Ghosts is the topic of 19th century immorality. We break immorality within this play into different mini-themes, such as the transmission of STDs, the act of sinning, incest, and euthanasia. Moreover, we discussed the interplay of ethics and morality within all these themes and question what is the difference between ethics and morality? Are they different or the same?

Reflecting on Decameron by Boccaccio

Miniature by Pierart dou Tielt illustrating the Tractatus quartus bu Gilles li Muisit (Tournai, c. 1353)

While the context of the Decameron is rather macabre, its story is rather uplifting and it revolves around the brigata made up of ten storytellers, predominantly women. We would like to bring to your attention the framing of this story: the contrast between the morbid plague and the peaceful garden, which brings to mind the question whether this was a form of escape or therapy for the brigata? The brigata secluded themselves in an almost utopian garden and embarked on several techniques to prevent bad humors from entering their body.

More importantly, we would like to ask what is the role of storytelling in Decameron? This question potentially links back to our last reading where Harrison argues that “the more important question, perhaps, is how these epidemics were understood by contemporaries” (58). Perhaps then the narrative framework provides us with a depiction of the public opinion at the time, which could really enhance our understanding of the plague as Harrison suggests.

Additionally, in class, we have discussed that at the time, many people believed that the plague was a form of punishment by God and hence appealed to religion to try to stop the plague. In the introduction to Decameron, the narrator mentions that “in the Face of so much affliction and misery, all respect for the laws of God and man had virtually broken” (7). And we also learn that people abandoned their friends, neighbors or even refused to help their own children. In this setting where people died like animals, was the brigata spiritually blind? To answer this question we may want to consider the numerology and the belief system that the brigata agreed upon.

Building on the theme of religion, Decameron employs several themes, the seven deadly sins (pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed and sloth) being some of which stand out. With a setting that is infested with disease and death, many have resorted to indulging in their urges and succumbing to worldly pleasures, almost as a way to avoid reality. It seems as though people have disregarded their religious beliefs and are unaware of the consequences of their actions in the afterlife.

Conversely, what would one make of the fact that the plague interrupted people’s religious rituals? Describing the decline in communal/familial burial rituals, the narrator says, “But as the ferocity of the plague began to mount, this practice all but disappeared entirely and was replaced by different customs” (10) (see header image in which people are buried in large numbers due to the amount of deaths). This example is one of many that illustrates the plague’s intrusion into people’s rituals. When people are robbed even of their rituals, are they to blame for abandoning everyone and everything and seeking happiness?

As we’ve seen in the various issues raised above, relevant themes to be raised include reality vs. escape, storytelling, religion, rituals, and spirituality, all of which link, somehow, to the socio-psychological effects of the plague on the people at the time.

Kino der Toten


Whitehead’s Zone One is definitely an unusual post –apocalyptic scenario set in New York. The novel opens with the narrator describing Mark Spitz’s dream of wanting to live in New York City.  We as the audience are walked through a pre-apocalyptic Manhattan apartment that belonged to his uncle. A considerably wealthy man, living the New York City high life, his uncle’s apartment makes Spitz dream about residing in the heart of the city. Fast forward to the apocalypse, and none of his wealth mattered. All of New York City slowly evolved into a wasteland.

New York City is unique in many aspects of its pace, people and culture. In a city that never sleeps and is always in motion, what was the author’s intention of situating the narrative in New York? Could it have been any different if it were in some other city?

Mark Spitz, the protagonist, is the most average guy. He wasn’t the best of the lot neither was he the worst. “He was their typical, he was their most, he was their average” ( Whitehead, 11). This average guy is part of the sweeper force comprised of other civilians. This raises an interesting question, why were regular civilians placed in-charge of a critical task of eliminating the zombies? Why didn’t the Marines handle the task completely when they had the chance?

Post Apocalyptic Stress Disorder appears multiple times by far and is an significant issue in the novel. In the interview with Whitehead, this is how he defines PASD:

“It seemed that if the world ends and everyone you know is mostly dead, you’d probably be a little bit bummed out… so the remaining psychiatrists have come up with the diagnosis of Post Apocalyptic Stress Disorder, the symptoms of which are insomnia, sleeplessness, eating a lot, eating too little, irritability. Basically, it’s like a case of the Mondays. The things that were making you stressed out before the apocalypse are pretty much the same after the apocalypse.”

The zombie apocalypse seems to turn everyone into a kind of zombie. Not only do they have the symptoms, “The soldier sprang in and out of a fetal posture, collapsing and exploding, smearing his body through a clump of vomit.” (68), they also get the mindset of it. Those who survived, who suffered from PASD, seem to take up the mindset of the stragglers which they cling too hard to the world they used to know. The memories of the horrors during the apocalypse made them act in irrational, unpredictable ways akin to the mindless zombies. Something interesting is that the abbreviation PASD sounds similar to the word “past”, which corresponds to the situation they’re in– dwelling in the past. This notion is further emphasized through the multiple flashbacks appeared throughout the book. DIfferent from previous readings that have clear markings to highlight different narrations, such as the use of Italic in Dream of Ding Village and wavelike frames in Black Hole, these flashbacks often start and end without warning which makes the reading quite confusing. What is the intention of the author to write it this way?

Whitehead portrays two types of Zombies. Those who eat flesh (majority) and those who become “Stragglers” (minority). The latter travel to a place that was once meaningful during their lives. They stay there, in their disturbed states, slowly dying although in no need of food and a threat to no one. The Straggler makes it easier for Whitehead to stress the similarities between real zombies and figurative zombies stuck in their own routines.  To what extent is the zombie a dead metaphor for an unfulfilled person or a mindless consumer, and is Whitehead successful in giving this metaphor new life?

Zombies in zone one are not treated as zombies of a single entity but rather each is their own even though they are separated into two types. If we compare the way zombies are set in this universe to for example zombies in a show/comic like The Walking Dead or of video games like Resident Evil; there are varieties of Zombies but they all have the same purpose of being used as props for setting a survival based story where the zombies are nothing but dangerous. where the zombies are presented with no history, they are just dead dangerous beings.However, Whitehead steers away from that cliche and creates a new type of Zombies called Stragglers whose purpose is to just go back to a place that was once meaningful to them and just stay there. This in a way is kind of sad as the comparison between the zombies and the living has been drawn, there are people who care about nothing but achieving and working and becoming just part of a repetitive zombie like routine who are represented as almost a single entity, the skells. Whileas the Stragglers struggle to stay in places where they once belonged, where their memories still lie. Is there something bigger to be seen in Zone One about the way that humans and society functions that Whitehead is challenging? Is there a reason to empathise(sorry) with the zombies considering they are technically dead but are still showing human emotion?

In popular media, zombies are easy targets. They are easily killed without motive, thought or moral repercussions. Whitehead emphasizes this aspect of the mainstream zombie narrative by making every person in Mark’s team see something different when they kill Stragglers. They see their targets as their worst enemies. Mark sees himself. Can we read this aspect of the text as a meta-commentary on other zombie texts, and readers’/viewers’/gamers’ participation in those texts?

This is the website of the interview with Whitehead. Hope it helps you gain more insight into what the author thinks about his creation!

Happy Reading!

  • Neha, Kai-Wen, Lateefa, Abdulla


The first thing you notice when you open Black Hole by Charles Burns are the “normal” faces of teenagers in a high school yearbook. The inside cover presents this novel as an “eerie portrait of the nature of high-school alienation itself”. If you flip to the end of the book, you see these portraits grotesquely disfigured and literally turned alien. Here we see, the term alien operating at different levels. There seems to be a literal transformation of people into aliens and a social alienation of characters within a high school drama.

Just to give some background context, Black Hole was presented as supposedly an autobiographical book. It took Burns 10 years to create Black Hole (1995-2005) and he published the story over time as twelve separate comic books. The graphic novel takes us into the lives of angsty and disaffected American teenagers from the 1970s. Using the woods as a hangout spot, these teens drink, do drugs, have sex. It is slowly revealed throughout the first half of the graphic novel that these teens are also transmitting, knowingly and unknowingly, a sexually transmitted disease which they refer to as “the bug”. This teen plague physically changes their bodies in different ways for everyone. All of the deformities experienced by the victims of the bug are different in their own way.  Is the bug a metaphor for some other disease? HIV/AIDS? The disease is strange in that it does not cause death or pain, only mutations: tails, or mouths where they don’t belong, or skin that moults, or webbed fingers . What do these strange growths represent? Why does it affect everyone differently? Are their deformities a portrayal of how they feel in the inside? These deformations cast each of the victims into social isolation. To what extent is this disease acting in the social realm vs. purely biological realm? It raises the question of how do we sympathize with the outsider?

The novel begins with a hole inside of a frog and Keith’s dream. We are then presented with a foreshadowing of three more types of holes that recur in the novel.

“I froze. I can’t explain what happened. It was like a deja vu trip or something…a premonition. I felt like I was looking into the future… and the future looked really messed up. I was looking at a hole…a black hole and as I looked, the hole opened up… and I could feel myself falling forward, tumbling down into nothingness. For a while I was just floating… I was in this totally black place, it was kind of spacey but it felt nice… nice and safe. Then it was like things started pushing into the blackness…voices, blurry shapes.”

The events are told in a non-linear fashion and the narration shifts between Chris and Keith. With no strict chronology, how and why does Burns play with time and memory throughout the novel? Keith refers to the dream as as a deja vu trip and a premonition. What is the significance of pairing these ideas: a feeling of nostalgia vs. a vision of the future?

Let’s take a look at the two main narrators: two typical high schoolers, Chris and Keith. The narration is constantly shifting between their points of view. Keith is in love with Chris, who doesn’t seem to notice him. Instead she has fallen in love with Rob and inadvertently got the bug from him. Once Chris contracts the bug she is socially isolated from her peers. She wanders through the woods and sheds her skin. What is the significance of this transformation? It is reminiscent of the scene in Angels in America, when Joe sheds his second skin, his Mormon undergarments at the beach. Burns is taking a typical teen angst drama and transforming it into a teen mutant story that visualizes and fantasizes their fears experiences into deformities. How does the bug heighten the social tensions and emotions like anxiety, insecurity, alienation that are common in drama of high school life?

A graphic novel like Black Hole presents the readers with beautiful and bizarre images and settings. How do the natural surroundings and the metaphysical dream worlds Burns illustrates work in the novel? Why do those infected with the bug alienate themselves from society and escape to the woods? Why does Planet Xeno exist? The beginning of each chapter, the two page picture spreads (called diptychs). The left picture is a single object, like a foot, a moon, or a broken bottle, set against a jet black background. The photo on the right shows one or more of the characters mimicking the geometry of the left. Throughout the novel the construction of one page almost always reflects the construction of the previous in some way. How does its black and white presentation add to the overall moody, gloomy, angsty, creepy dysfunctional tone of the graphic novel?

Revenge in Nemesis

Goddess of Revenge and Retribution
A portayal of Nemesis: Goddess of Revenge and Retribution

Nemesis, the Greek goddess of revenge and retribution is the mythological woman who gives title to Philip Roth’s novel about Polio-stricken New Jersey. Set in 1944, our narrator tells us the story of Eugene “Bucky” Cantor, a 23-year old Jewish playground director whose life is filled with loss: his mom died at childbirth, his dad was imprisoned for stealing and was never present in his life, his grandfather — who took the role of father — died three years before the novel takes place to a heart-attack, his girlfriend Marcia took a job at a faraway camp in the Poconos, and at present, Bucky’s playground children are one-by-one contracting Polio and dying. Not only is Mr. Cantor stricken by the loss of people, he was also born with very poor eyesight, a factor that prevents him from joining the army and as he sees it, from serving the nation honorably, and helping his fellow generation in the battle of WWII. It’s hard to believe that a character struck by so much loss is still so devoted in preserving the well-being of others. What determines a person’s character? What factors define whether a person will turn out good-intentioned or bad-intentioned?

In page 27, we get a glimpse into how devastated Bucky was after being rejected by the army for his eyesight. “He felt the shame of someone who might by himself have made a difference as the U.S. forces in the Pacific suffered one colossal defeat after another.” One interesting thought here is that bureaucracy has no sympathy. The rules are the rules and it doesn’t matter if Bucky is better able than anyone else to join the war, his eyesight doesn’t meet the army’s requirements. His disability predetermines much of his life: the job he can get and the way he perceives himself. Partly this, and partly the unfairness of Polio stealing away the lives of the purest children, like Alan, are what cause Mr. Cantor to begin questioning God and religion: “How could there be forgiveness—let alone hallelujahs—in the face of such lunatic cruelty?” In Nemesis, Roth paints a picture in which the Jewish community seems to be the most affected by the outbreak of Polio, and in a way, this shows the historical persecution of Jews. At the time the novel is set, the Jews are still being persecuted by Nazi Germany. Not only is humanity striking against the Jews, but also contagion. This idea brings us back to the title, Nemesis: what is Roth trying to tell us about Revenge and Retribution? Could it be that the Jews are being punished by Nemesis for something they’ve done as a community? (It’s very unlikely that this is where Roth is guiding us; a Jew himself, Roth actually graduated from Weequahic High School, in Newark, around 1950.) Perhaps, the whole point of the novel is to challenge the idea of revenge and retribution. Can anyone fairly judge people and grant them the retribution they deserve? Is there an alternative to looking for a scapegoat, or for someone to blame? Is it possible for humans to find justice without blaming one another?

At the same time that Nazis used the Jews as scapegoats for all the bad things that were happening to Germany, many families in the book are looking for scapegoats, someone to blame for their children contracting Polio. One of these cases is the mother of the brothers who bullied Horace. When Mr. Cantor calls her to give her his support for her kids contracting Polio, she insults him, asking him how he even dares to call her, after causing the children of the neighborhood to get Polio. In this way, Nemesis shows us the inevitable human nature of seeking for the guilty one. Also, What’s up with Horace? What should we make of him? He’s described as an idiot, and a moron. Before learning that he actually has a medical condition, the description of Horace seems to be that of a very bad person, but when we readers learn he’s actually mentally disabled, it is striking the cruelty with which he’s described and treated. Could Nemesis be punishing this community because of their cruelty towards an innocent child? They even point fingers at him saying he’s a carrier of Polio. Why is the community so cruel towards him? Horace suffers of a collective discrimination because of his mental disabilities that makes him a pariah, an outsider, rejected by the rest. Likewise, Mr. Cantor’s eyesight disability causes him to be rejected by the army, however, with his strong build and charismatic personality, he is very respected in the neighborhood.

Towards the end of the section, we find that Mr. Cantor has taken up on Marcia’s offer for him to take the job close to her. Many are the reasons why he is finally convinced that leaving is a good idea, but are these reasons respectable? Mainly, his leaving is questionable because he’s leaving his grandma, an old widow who devoted her life to him. But can we really judge him? The typical quote about having kids is, “And just like that, they’re gone.” This raises the question, What’s a child’s duty to their parents, or those who raised him/her?


FDR and Polio, beginning in 1921


Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People, set in the city of Khaufpur (meaning “the city of fear”), serves as a reenactment of Union Carbide city gas leak that affected the people of Bhopal in 1984. The story is set almost two decades after the leak, around 2001, when Animal reaches the age of 19. Unlike other novels and plays we’ve been exposed to in this class, the “contagion” being described was neither brought about by divine prophecy nor natural forces. Counter to other popular reads, the sufferings and terrible diseases affecting the people of Khaufpur was as a result of a man-made chemical spill in The Kampani — a pesticide plant. The people who survived suffer from terrible diseases that cannot be treated because of the poverty in the city. When doctor Elli Barber comes to Khaufpur to start a free clinic it is harder than she expects because everyone thinks she is part of the factory that caused destructions.

The audience of the text is quickly ushered into the novel with the lines, “I used to be human once […] people who knew me when I was small say I walked on two feet just like a human being.” Hence, before delving deep into the heart of the novel, we (the audience) begin to grapple with the question: What does it mean to be human? Does being human equate to able-bodiedness? Or the quality of being bipedal? Consequently, the book also draws to light the question of what it means to be an animal. Grappling with these questions led us to look up the term “animal” in the Oxford English Dictionary and we came up with the following definitions:

  • “A living organism which feeds on organic matter, typically having specialized sense organs and a nervous system and able to respond rapidly to stimuli.”

  • “Any such living organism other than a human being.”

  • “A person without human attributes or civilizing influences, especially someone who’s cruel, violent or repulsive.

These definitions may be framed in terms of the literal sense of the word but it will be important to apply some of these definitions when assessing some of the qualities displayed by twenty-year-old orphan boy. The most obvious depiction of the boy is with his name “Animal”. Indra Sinha, thus far, hasn’t divulged the true name of the boy. The author and our main character choose to stick to the name “Animal”. Similarly, the audience is made aware of his seemingly crude behaviours, which include extreme aggression, biting, and eating his feet for pleasure (Sinha 13). Interestingly, these “animal behaviours” do not manifest because he is an animal, but because of society’s reactions to having such a “creature” in their midst. He had to learn to defend himself from the “humans” who treated him so callously because “…if you act powerless, you are powerless…” (Sinha 19). Perhaps, he’s adamant about not identifying as human because, ironically, being human doesn’t just entail bipedalism but the attributes of evil, callousness and the inability to tolerate anyone who’s “especially abled” (Sinha 23).

There are a lot of connotations that go with one’s name: “Zafar Bhai, Zafar brother” because people respect him,”Eyes” because of his abilities to read and perceive and interpret information, “Banjara” or gypsy because “she belongs nowhere and everywhere is her kingdom” (Sinha 18) and then “Animal” because he’s perceived as a four-legged creature. What is the significance of “names” in this text and how do they influence how characters in the text are perceived in their society?

The use of dark humour is also a noteworthy feature of the book. For the most parts, this humour creates a satirical, almost cynical tone of the whole post-leak situation, tickling the audience to laugh but then rendering them to feel guilty afterwards. Recall how Animal makes fun of his condition by telling a joke about “the turd lying in the dust” that still “resemble the kebab you once were” (1). The audience would definitely find this funny, but the realization that this joke is a form of lamentation told by a real person suffering from a real fatal consequence of a real event suppresses them from laughing. This troubling effect, in a way, is fostered by how the narrative perspective is played. The book is directly told by Animal, which is supposed to remove the possible gap between him and the audience that might exist if the delivery of his story was done by the journalist. Yet the use of dark humour in the book somehow reiterates the faint line that separates Animal from the audience. Animal makes it clear that he is the victim and we are just mere spectators. Of course he is entitled to satirize the gas leak and its impacts on the locals, but does that mean we, as outsiders, can appropriately laugh at his jokes? How should the relationship between Animal and the audience be perceived? What is the significance of humour in the development of this relationship?

Like most other texts too that we’ve read this semester, this one introduces a seemingly complicated love plot; Animal is in love or lusts after Nisha, a girl whom is presumably already in a relationship with Zafar. Because he doesn’t identify as a “(hu)man” Animal doesn’t feel like he’s deserving of Nisha’s affection because he’s abnormal. In his words:

“Of course I had no chance with Nisha. She was besotted with Zafar and my back was bent as a scorpion’s tail. Over and over I’d tell myself, if only I could stand up straight, it might be a different matter, that old guy wouldn’t have a chance. This made me feel better but changed nothing. What hope was there that my back will even unbend? I complained to Nisha that everyone else would one day get married, but no girl would ever look at me.”

Sinha 47.

Animal’s feelings towards Nisha, however, serve a deeper purpose in assessing the texts that some readers may be unaware of. Going back to the definition of an animal in the Oxford English Dictionary, an animal lacks “human attributes”. Animals feelings of affections towards Nisha serve as a reminder to the audience that Animal is still very much human. His ability to recognize some form of romantic love for Nisha, sets him apart from most animals, whose definition of love is perhaps confined to that of sexual lust, even though he constantly reiterates that he’s an animal. Following from the first question, To what extent does the character of Animal either influence or alter the literal definitions of “human” and “animal”?

The text, unlike other texts we’ve read, gives a different portrayal of “the foreigner”. In previous texts, the foreigner is depicted as the cause of the contagion. However, this text portrays the foreigner as both the cause of the chemical spillage and as the saviour of the Khaufpuris. The “Kampani” from “Amrika” has been blamed from the onset of the novel as the leading cause of the oil spillage. Zafar is even adamant about taking them to court and bringing them to justice for the sufferings inflicted on the Khaufpuris. On the other hand, it’s the American doctor — Dr. Elli Barber — who abandons her job in America to come start up the Khuafpur free clinic geared towards the poor and destitute. Why are foreigners depicted as literally the cause of and probable solution to the problem of the Khuafpuris? What is the significance of this portrayal to the nature of the contagion in the book?

Throughout the book, we are presented with scenes where Animal displays an incredible talent of hearing voices unheard by other characters. His ability to translate French without having knowledge of the language, his awareness of Aliya’s calling him out to play even though she is nowhere in sight, his talking to Kha-in-the-jar who is literally just an aborted baby — all these scenes make the audience question whose voices Animal is hearing. One would probably be inclined to think that this is just a reinforcement of Animal’s identity as a dog-like creature. Dogs in general have the capability to perceive sounds with frequencies twice to human’s range, and they can even sense the arrival of someone or something from as far as 80 feet away just by hearing their footsteps. Given the frequent mention of Animal’s equation with dogs, is it possible that these voices attempt to signal Animal to pay attention to whatever’s coming his way? Do these voices, coupled with his disability, instead enable him to carry out his spying mission? We definitely need to keep note of this as we read through the rest of the book.

Happy reading! And here’s an Animal sculpture by Eleanor Stride photographed at the Stride Gallery in Vers, Midi-Pyrenées, France.


Odera, Dayin, Noora and Nada.