Reading “Leaves From the Mental Portfolio of an Eurasian” as Sentimentalism

April 5, 2017

Reading any biographical information on Sui Sin Far (there is a good brief one in note 1 of the article I’m using), it would be fairly easy to make a connection between Far’s memoir-essay and Homi Bhabha’s theory on cultural hybridity. That is an option if you want to answer a theory question.

I decided to try to give a genre option about the literary tradition of Sentimentalism, using Min Hyoung Song’s article, “Sentimentalism and Sui Sin Far”. Far offers that sentimentalism “is the name we give to the culture of private feelings made public, a process of making emotions into conspicuous display” (137).

But before Song explains what she wants to add with a sentimentalist reading of Far, she presents two popular debates within Asian-American literary studies. So alternatively, you can choose to use one of these debates to frame your essay and you can make a strong argument.

The two main debates Song presents are the Chin-Kingston debate and the Douglas-Tompkins debate. She draws a parallel between the two debates by claiming they both revolve around the popularity and commercial success of a text, and whether this is a negative or positive quality making it worthy of close reading.

Chin-Kingston debate:

Deals with a gendered versus a political reading. Song uses Frank Chin, an editor of a well-known anthology of Asian American literature, as one of the more vocal examples of critics making an a priori assumption of what being Asian-American means, and therefore which texts should be taught. This vision is largely masculine, heroic, and explicitly political in its resistance. In contrast, the writer Maxine Hong Kingston (whose popularity Song claims Chin takes issue with) deals with both ethnicity and gender in her work. Her work then, challenges this an underlying assumption that popular writers, especially dealing with female oppression, can’t qualify as successful resistance literature and therefore do not deserve prominence.

If you wanted to write critically about this debate (the majority of it is covered in the first two pages of the article) you would have to relate your text to the “uneasy legacy of pitting feminism against…‘ethnopolitical critique’” (135). You can look for examples of where sentimentalist writers (particularly female writers according to Song) either follow or challenge the Asian-American patriarchy that ascribes “desirable traits such as originality, daring physical courage, and creativity under the rubric of masculinity” (135).

For example, Far complicates this because she remembers as a young girl fantasizing about heroic deeds, and she attributes it to her Chinese heritage. However, she clearly follows the sentimentalist conventions when talking about her personal experiences or gives singular accounts of Asian-American women marrying white men. You can also add to this debate by choosing a male writer that seems to be writing in the sentimentalist tradition, to ask what qualifies as masculine or feminine (Junot Diaz or Ralph Ellison could work here. If anyone has read David Henry Hwang’s short play M.Butterfly, that could be really interesting in this debate).

Douglas-Tompkins debate:

Ann Douglas (whose definition of sentimentalism Song is using) sides against the genre because of its roots in “religious populism”, or the didacticism of sentimentalist texts trying to impart Christian values onto oppressed groups. She argues that “Sentimentalism…never exists except in tandem with failed political consciousness” (137). Again, like the Chin-Kingston debate, critics assume there is a divide between feminist and racial readings because the popularity of sentimental texts from the feminine perspective are regarded as distracting from and trivializing the racial concerns that require active resistance. Sui Sin Far’s writing is so highly debated because her writing doesn’t fit neatly into either category.

Jane Tompkins argues that if the popularity of a sentimentalist writers in the 19th century signals their being overly parochial, it’s a fault of the modern reader and not a shortcoming of the writer. Instead, Douglas suggests that their popularity signals their importance rather than deserving criticism.

 

Song departs slightly from these arguments, siding more with Tompkins, by focusing on the Christian roots of American sentimentalism. While she agrees that there’s reformism and therefore oppression implied, she says you can’t ignore the fact that a Christian education allows oppressed groups a way to navigate a culture they would otherwise not have a voice in (138 and note 3 on 148). If you want to focus on this part of the argument, you can possibly also use Gayatri Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?”

 

Other texts that I think can best relate to this article, possibly under the sentimentalist genre, are Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Fun Home, “The Yellow Wallpaper”, possibly some of Brooks’ poems. Also Bartleby (if looking at the morality of Christian values, or the apparent lack of feeling/attachment in Bartleby) and the previous suggestions of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao or Invisible Man if examining masculinity.


Using Rob Nixon’s, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, for historical reading of Arundhuti Roy’s God of Small Things

April 3, 2017

“Slow violence” is the idea that violence (particularly environmental damage and the poor disproportionately hurt by this damage) which builds up incrementally is easier to ignore due to temporal diffusion. In the face of immediate economic gains, the violence and the victims are forgotten and essentially erased from collective memories. Because the damage is less visible than the spectacle of a cataclysmic disaster, Nixon suggests that slow violence only postpones an inevitable catastrophe that is accruing.

 

Some themes/examples in the book that relate to Nixon’s ideas. I would suggest choosing only one as plenty to talk about in a short essay.

Domestic abuse, post-traumatic stress (3 Nixon).

This can relate to the domestic abuse that Ammu sees between Pappachi and Mammachi. Also, the trauma that Estha experiences, and then both the twins.

 

Memory and memory loss due to temporal distance and abstraction (Nixon 41).

The twins’ separation and what this does to their psychic bond and their shared traumatic memory of seeing Velutha die. How he is forgotten among the “Love Laws” carried out in the History House.

There’s a disconnect between all these experiences (including between the abuse in each generation) like an active effort to forget or not see these events.

As children, their imagination allows for abstractions that distance them from the trauma (ie. Pretending non-existent Velutha’s twin brother died, or how their positive reaction to The Sound of Music movie lessened the blow of slowly understanding their inferiority to their half-white cousin Sophie Mol).

 

The difficulty is representing slow violence, and using narrative strategies to less the invisibility or temporal distances (2). Also, how “writer-activists” can expose injustices and help them stay relative in the face of growing speed with technology (42). Nixon actually quote’s Roy on the first page of his book, she’s known to be one such writer-activist.

 

Other texts that this novel can relate to:

The Buried Giant– topics of memory/“uneven memory loss” (Nixon 41). This can also work well with Bhabha and how to locate identity.

Sui Sin Far’s essay– hybrid identities (if you would like to use Bhabha instead). The twins identities are an obvious choice, but also Baby Kochamma can be examined for her Anglophilia, unrequited love for a pastor, her gardening habits, etc.

The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao– Nixon’s thoughts on the writer activist’s role (could fit a genre or historical context question).

Invisible Man– a lot of topics can relate to this trauma, violence, visibility

Foucault– as secondary theory. Topics of visibility and violence tie in with Nixon.

Culler’s article “Why Lyric?” and/or Seo-Young Chu’s definition of the lyric – There are a lot of lyrical moments in the novel. Could also be used with one of the poems on the list. (If using one of the Brooks’ poems, can possibly focus more on the topic of slow violence vs explicit violence)

 


Group Theory Presentation on Homi Bhaba

April 3, 2017

I’m posting this very late, but here’s my part of the group presentation. These are definitions for the main terms that Bhabha uses. Some of them are similar or overlap with each other.

 

(cultural) hybridity– This refers to the mixing of culture between the colonizing and colonized people. In the postcolonial setting, both sides are changed after the encounter. The implications of hybridity are that there is no essential identity to return to, as it’s constantly evolving.

(Parker mentions though that some critics take issue with the fact that the term carries a biological connotation of crossbreeding, which emphasizes a binary of identities, a binary that Bhaba is trying to get rid of with the non-essentialism of the hybrid).

 

Third space – This is the place where hybridity takes place, specifically where the hybrid identity is expressed through enunciation (by using language). Again, this emphasizes that every individual is a hybrid of sorts, and must enunciate its own identity for itself.

(the third space is similar to liminal spaces because it’s a middle space between fixed identities. However, for Bhabha, reaching a fixed place/identity is not important, because we are constantly in this evolving third space).

 

Mimicry – Is when the colonized people imitate the colonizers, and vice versa. However, it’s not always seen negatively as cultural hegemony. For Bhabha it can be subversive in that the colonized people can show they can just as easily act like and take on the mannerisms of the supposedly superior colonizer.

 

Unhomeliness – Relates to dislocation of people and the subsequent blurring of borders. Feeling the unhomely is not the same as having no home, rather it’s the disorientation of trying to situate culture. Bhabha adds that because borders are blurred (between what is home or global) there is also a blending of public and private.

Bhabha does borrow the term the “uncanny” from Freud (it can be a consideration if someone wants to use two works of theory together). He also mentions that even though unhomeliness is related particularly to the colonial and postcolonial condition, it can apply to any work of fiction dealing with cultural difference.

 

It can also be helpful to keep in mind Parker’s attempt to define the term postcolonial. To assume that “post” implies only “after” or “anti” imperialist, would ignore the fact that there is ongoing neocolonialism. Also, Bhabha warns against exactly the same implication when he explains that there is no essential identity from a “pre” colonial state to return to. Bhabha’s hybridity deals with temporality and the present so much because of the need to reframe identity within the ongoing changes to borders.

 


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