Recovered Writing: Undergraduate Postcolonialism Final Paper, Identity and History in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Fall 2004

This is the fourth post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

This essay was my final paper in Professor Narin Hassan’s Postcolonialism class at Georgia Tech in Fall 2004. Besides this being an important class in forming my ideas and attitudes about the postcolonial experience, Professor Hassan’s enthusiasm for the subject matter and encouragement to us to understand its theoretical underpinnings led me to want to read Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and to meet the author when he visited Emory University during that semester. This class and the work that it inspired me to do led to my further work in the field as a graduate student with Professor Masood Raja at Kent State University. Also, it broadened my reading and viewing interests, which led to presentations and publications.

Like my previous post from my undergraduate Gender Studies class, I am including some “special features” on this post after the essay. These include my project proposal, annotated bibliography, and outline. These might be interesting to you and my students.

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Narin Hassan

LCC 3316 Postcolonialism

November 29, 2004

Final Paper: Identity and History in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children

Salman Rushdie uses a nonlinear personal narrative to work through issues of identity, truth, and history in his novel, Midnight’s Children.  Rushdie writes Midnight’s Children from the point of view of the main character, Saleem Sinai, who is in turn writing his confessional autobiography.  Rushdie and Saleem each have their own unique histories, which play a part in the construction of this novel.  Saleem drifts between his present, his own past, and past events (which are not part of his direct experience).  The narrative centers on Saleem being born at midnight at the birth of India’s independence (along with 1,000 other children).  There is a connection between Saleem and India as well as between Saleem and the other Midnight’s children.  Saleem, however, is the narrator, and his choices and admissions reveal the fluidity of memory as well as the choices that one makes in remembering the past in a particular way.  Rushdie challenges the reader to reflect on why Saleem records the past in the way that he does and why he is the voice for the birth of a nation.  Additionally, Saleem uses the narrative to construct his own identity by connecting memory and self to the new nation, India.

Rushdie uses a nested structure to form the non-linear narrative of Midnight’s Children.  Speaker (Saleem) and audience (e.g., the reader, Padma) form the inner layer of the matryoshka-like novel.  The author, Rushdie, writes a novel that is a memoir written by a character, Saleem Sinai.  Saleem’s narrative expands in different directions with his story being told for the audience to read, his conversations with Padma in the present, his written description of his nightmares, and his telling of stories about people and events that are outside of his own experience.  Saleem seems to record everything, but he cannot commit every thought and action to paper.  Rushdie, through Saleem, is making choices about what he should and should not record.  In effect, Saleem’s voice is not objective, but is based on his memories as well as the choices that he makes in recording those memories for his audience.  Rushdie uses Saleem’s memory and choices to present a particular view of the birth of India, as well as to construct a voice for a young India.

Memories are the central theme of Midnight’s Children.  Rushdie writes in his essay, “Imaginary Homelands”:

…what I was actually doing was a novel of memory and about memory, so that my India was just that:  ‘my’ India, a version and no more than one version of all the hundreds of millions of possible versions.  I tried to make it as imaginatively true as I could, but imaginative truth is simultaneously honourable and suspect, and I knew that my India may only have been one to which I (who am no longer what I was, and who by quitting Bombay never became what perhaps I was meant to be) was, let us say, willing to admit I belonged (“Imaginary Homelands” 10).

Midnight’s Children is “a novel of memory and about memory.”  Because Rushdie unifies Saleem’s birth and life with the birth and life of India, he is constructing “[his] India, a version and no more than one version of all the hundreds of millions of possible versions.”  He claims, “imaginative truth is simultaneously honourable and suspect.”  It is honorable because he is attempting “to restore the past to myself, not in the faded grays of old family-album snapshots, but whole, in CinemaScope and glorious Technicolor” (“Imaginary Homelands” 10).  Rushdie also rationalizes his hybrid state when he says, “I knew that my India may only have been one to which I (who am no longer what I was, and who by quitting Bombay never became what perhaps I was meant to be) was, let us say, willing to admit I belonged.”  Rushdie, as a postcolonial writer, connects to his homeland through his memory.  That connection is mirrored in Rushdie’s fictional narrator also connecting to his past through memory.  Rushdie is writing about India and Saleem is writing about his experiences as one of the midnight children.  Rushdie gives voice to the postcolonial subject as he recalls “his” India from memory.  Saleem, in turn, builds his narrative from memory.  In both cases, author and

There are parallels about reclamation in his essay, “Imaginary Homelands” and Midnight’s Children.  He writes in “Imaginary Homelands,” Bombay is a city built by foreigners upon reclaimed land; I, who had been away so long that I almost qualified for the title, was gripped by the conviction that I, too, had a city and a history to reclaim” (10).  In Midnight’s Children, Rushdie writes of the failed business attempts by Saleem’s father at constructing tetrapods to reclaim land around Bombay.  The failures of Saleem’s father reflect the challenge of reclaiming land and of reclaiming memory.  Both the reclaiming of land and the reclaiming of memory are monumental tasks with the former challenging physicality and the latter challenging the psychosocial experiences of the author who in turn applies these to a fictional narrator.

The task of reclaiming the past is as problematic as traveling through time.  Traveling to the past can create a paradox.  Rushdie writes about Saleem’s return to Bombay, “yes, it was my Bombay, but also not-mine…the past failed to reappear” (Midnight’s Children 522).  Memories, recalled by the narrator (or author), replay on the stage of the mind.  One may relive the past, focus on the elements of an exchange, or zoom in on a particular character.  Along with “the past [that] failed to reappear” are Rushdie’s old photographs and his memories of his past.  The reality that he witnesses in the present does not match his expectations and imaginings of the past.  The past and present are two different “places” that are divided by the expanse of time.  Because the past is not a place which can be revisited in a real sense, Rushdie constructs Midnight’s Children as a way to “create fictions, not actual cities or villages, but invisible ones, imaginary homelands, Indias of the mind” (“Imaginary Homelands” 10).

Midnight’s Children presents one of the many possibilities created on the night of India’s birth.  Rushdie writes, “A thousand and one children were born; there were a thousand and one possibilities which had never been present in one place at one time before; and there were a thousand and one dead ends, Midnight’s children can be made to represent many things, according to your point of view” (Midnight’s Children 230).  Saleem and his narrative represent one of these possibilities.  Additionally, Saleem represents one of the author’s possibilities had he remained in Bombay.  He writes in “Imaginary Homelands,” “I knew that my India may only have been one to which I (who am no longer what I was, and who by quitting Bombay never became what perhaps I was meant to be) was, let us say, willing to admit I belonged” (10).  Through the narrative, Rushdie establishes his connection to his past and his belief that he has a legitimate claim to the place of his birth.

Rushdie is the successful native who left India for a Western education.  He gains notoriety through his writing in the West.  Frantz Fanon writes about the returning native intellectual about twenty years before Rushdie writes “Imaginary Homelands.”  Fanon writes:

The native intellectual who comes back to his people by way of cultural achievements behaves in fact like a foreigner.  Sometimes he has no hesitation in using a dialect in order to show his will to be as near as possible to the people; but the ideas that he expresses and the preoccupations he is taken up with have no common yardstick to measure the real situation which the men and the women of his country know (Fanon 41).

Rushdie is “the native intellectual who comes back to his people by way of cultural achievements.”  He illustrates the settings and people with cultural signifiers (e.g., the perforated sheet’s drops of blood and the description of Allah’s creation of man from drops of blood), but he is no longer part of that culture.  He also uses words, foods, and locations that are native to India.  Rushdie feels nostalgia for India and Bombay, the city in which he grew up.  He uses his memory to build a (possible) history of himself through Saleem and he does this from a room in North London (“Imaginary Homelands” 10).  Saleem and the other “super power” gifted Midnight’s children are far removed from the actuality of life of the Indian native.  Rushdie is unable “to measure the real situation which the men and the women of his country know” because he is no longer part of the continual dynamism of that country and culture (Fanon 41).

Rushdie builds suspicion in the narrator’s accuracy of recollection in Midnight’s Children because the author is an outsider to his native culture.  He gives the following explanation about why he did this in his essay, “Imaginary Homelands”:

This is why I made my narrator, Saleem, suspect in his narration, his mistakes are the mistakes of a fallible memory compounded by quirks of character and of circumstance, and his vision is fragmentary.  It may be that when the India writer who writes from outside India tries to reflect that world, he is obliged to deal in broken mirrors, some of whose fragments have been irretrievably lost (“Imaginary Homelands” 10-11).

The author cues the reader to Saleem’s suspect nature throughout the novel such as at the end of the book he writes, “Although already, already there are fadings, and gaps; it will be necessary to improvise on occasion” (Midnight’s Children 442).  Memory is selective and it can be edited for improvisation.  This is the nature of telling stories in general.  One may hear a joke and the individual embellishes it to make the joke “their own.”  Similarly, memories are already our own, but the individual adds their own flavor or perspective to their memories.  This is why Saleem has “the mistakes of a fallible memory compounded by quirks of character and of circumstance.”  Additionally, “his vision is fragmentary.”  This is a different analogy than saying that parts of his memory are lost.  When Rushdie writes, “he is obliged to deal in broken mirrors,” he means that memory within the mind reflects off these mirrors into the mind’s eye.  It is the mirrors that are broken and which “some…fragments have been irretrievably lost.”  When Saleem becomes buddha after being brained by the silver spittoon, his memories are still there, but he cannot access them.  This is an extreme example, but the point is that access to memories and the re-memory of memories may be incomplete, fuzzy, and embellished by the individual.  This process creates a space that is not really the past, but it is not really the present either.  It is a compromise between the two.

Saleem’s memory, however, is also selective.  There is a strong example where Saleem rejects what he sees because of the horror of the situation.  When he is called the “buddha” and he does not remember his past or his name, a fellow soldier, Shaheed, and he walk into the town of Dacca on December 14, 1971.  Saleem records:

Shaheed and I saw many things which were not true, which were not possible, because our boys would not could not have behaved so badly…we saw the intelligentsia of the city being massacred by the hundred, but it was not true because it could not have been true, the Tiger was a decent chap, after all, and our jawans were worth ten babus, we moved through the impossible hallucination of the night…Shaheed was staring at a maidan in which lady doctors were being bayoneted before they were raped, and raped again before they were shot…The notary public was absent, so I could not ask him to verify what was happening” (Midnight’s Children 432).

Saleem could not believe that his fellow Pakistani soldiers were capable of the killing and raping that was taking place.  He says, “it was not true because it could not have been true.”  Saleem’s disbelief is absurd because he records in graphic detail the “many things which were not true.”  Saleem reaches out for an objective source to verify the accuracy of what his eyes are reporting to him.  He notes, “the notary public was absent, so I could not ask him to verify what was happening.”  Rushdie purposely includes the emotive disbelief of Saleem as well as the remembrances of the events that he and Shaheed saw take place in the city of Dacca.  Saleem’s retelling of his memory is more accurate than his giving a non-commentary linked play-by-play list of events.  He is giving the reader a multi-track recording of his memory.  One track is his emotional disbelief of what was taking place.  Another track is what he actually saw (regardless of whether or not he believes it to have taken place).  These tracks are synced and played back for the reader in the text.

Saleem gives the following explanation for his giving the gory details in his narrative in Midnight’s Children:

Family history, of course, has its proper dietary laws.  One is supposed to swallow and digest only the permitted parts of it, the halal portions of the past, drained of their redness, their blood.  Unfortunately, this makes the stories less juicy; so I am about to become the first and only member of my family to flout the laws of halal.  Letting no blood escape from the body of the tale, I arrive at the unspeakable part; and, undaunted, press on (Midnight’s Children 62).

Rushdie does “flout the laws of halal” by relating stories of things that would normally not be permissible to write or talk about.  In this regard, he breaks with tradition so that he can more fully relate the story that he has to tell.  His disregard of halal however is not an attempt on his part to be all truthful or objective.  Saleem’s story is one that is based on memory and re-memory.  Over time, one forgets or remembers things from his or her past, but in doing so, one may embellish or slightly alter that memory (innocently or surreptitiously).  There is the sense that by Rushdie writing, “drained of their redness, their blood…makes the stories less juicy,” that he is taking part in sensationalism.  Thus, his motives for not draining the blood from his stories may not be merely one in which he is attempting to present an unbiased portrayal of the events of the narrative.  On the other hand, his giving greater detail (particularly graphic and focused details) gives Saleem a certain credibility that plays against his suspect narrative.

Expanding on his air of suspicion, Saleem, as narrator, makes an admission toward the end of the novel that he lied about Shiva’s death.  Saleem says, both to the reader as well as to Padma:

To tell the truth, I lied about Shiva’s death.  My first out-and-out lie…Padma, try and understand…I fell victim to the temptation of every autobiographer, to the illusion that since the past exists only in one’s memories and the words which strive vainly to encapsulate them, it is possible to create past events simply by saying they occurred (Midnight’s Children 510).

Rushdie puts in print the one issue that is at the core of autobiographical writing when he writes, “I fell victim to the temptation of every autobiographer…it is possible to create past events simply by saying they occurred.”  Additionally, after Saleem admits the lie about Shiva, he notes that available meteorological data contradicts the long midnight.  M. Keith Booker writes, “The net result is an evocation of the liar paradox, and the reader finds it impossible to reach any satisfactory conclusion as to what in the text is true and what is false.  Moreover, by tying his text so closely to history, Rushdie suggests that the authority of all our representations of the past may be somewhat questionable” (983).  Traditionally, eyewitness testimony and autobiography are believable, but Rushdie destabilizes the believability of the autobiographer as well as the history that is irretrievably linked to the identity of the narrator.  In writing an autobiography, the author claims that the narrative is based on his or her own life experiences.  Rushdie’s novel is more difficult to pin down because it is not a real autobiography.  It is an autobiography of a fictional character, but there are similarities between Saleem and Rushdie that further problematizes this issue.

Both Rushdie and Saleem were born in 1947.  Rushdie was born before India’s independence and Saleem was born at the exact moment of India’s independence.  Both author and narrator are from Bombay.  Rushdie comes from an affluent Muslim family in India, he traveled to England for his education, and he makes his home in the West.  Saleem (due to his switch with Shiva at birth) was raised in a Muslim, middle class home, received his education in India (which was not distinguished), and he lived most of his life in India, and a short while in Pakistan.  Rushdie has maintained a good life because of his notoriety and his writing.  Saleem began with a good start in life, but due to the upheavals that took place in India and Pakistan, he ended up in the slums that his archrival, Shiva, had ascended from.  Rushdie has lived most of his life away from India.  He writes in “Imaginary Homelands, “Writing my book in North London, looking out through my window on to a city scene totally unlike the ones I was imagining on to paper” (10).  Not only is his novel about memory and history, but it was written far away from the physical location of those memories and histories.  In addition, Saleem was biologically half-European and half-Indian.  His birth mother died and he was switched with Shiva so that he became part of the Sinai family.  Rushdie is the product of being born in Bombay and living in the West.  Rushdie, as postcolonial writer, links himself to India through Saleem.  The narrator is Rushdie’s manifestation of what could have been.

Rushdie and Saleem have similar, but also, different hybrid statuses.  The difference between the two is that Rushdie has become a Western intellectual while Saleem ends up writing, pickling, and remaining in India.  Rushdie’s “metropolitan hybridity is underwritten by the stable regime of Western secular identity and the authenticity that goes with it, whereas post-colonial hybridity has no such guarantees:  neither identity nor authenticity” (Radhakrishnan 755).  Rushdie’s hybridity allows him to establish his own identity within the West.  Saleem however represents “post-colonial hybridity” and he “has no such guarantees.”  How would Midnight’s Children been received if Rushdie had published it under the pseudonym of the novel’s narrator?  What if it had been published in Hindi?  These things would have significantly altered the reception of the novel in India and the West.

The autobiography novel that Rushdie constructs around the narrator, Saleem, is different from most Indian autobiographies.  According to Dipesh Chakrabarty:

Our autobiographies are remarkably “public” (with constructions of public life that are not necessarily modern) when written by men, and they tell the story of the extended family when written by women.  In any case, autobiographies in the confessional mode are notable for their absence (9).

Midnight’s Children clearly has a “confessional mode” in that Saleem is writing a narrative similar to that of Saint Augustine in his Confessions.  Saleem is laying out all of his stories and he questions himself and his memory.  His questioning and introspection work to construct his identity.  The Confessions is considered part of the core of Western literary tradition and this reflects in Rushdie’s work because he had an extensive Western education.  Additionally, Rushdie chooses to write this story about his native country in the language of its former colonizer, English.  Rushdie left his homeland to travel to the West for a Western education.  Rushdie is a hybrid postcolonial writer who has usurped the language and literary tradition of the colonizer in order to write “his” story about “his” India.

Rushdie writes Midnight’s Children out of a sense of nostalgia and he uses memory to reconnect him to a place and a time from early in his life.  Saleem makes this admission regarding why he has chosen to write down his story:

Please believe that I am falling apart…I mean quite simply that I have begun to crack all over like an old jug–that my poor body…buffeted by too much history…has started coming apart at the seams…This is why I have resolved to confide in paper, before I forget.  (We are a nation of forgetters) (Midnight’s Children 36).

Saleem continues on the next page, “Things–even people–have a way of leaking into each other…like flavors when you cook…the past has dripped into me…so we can’t ignore it” (Midnight’s Children 37).  The “[buffeting] by too much history” has led him “to confide in paper, before I forget.”  The waters of history are going to burst through Saleem’s cracks.  Rushdie’s novel is Saleem’s release.  His memories gush out onto the written page.  Saleem adds, in parentheses, “We are a nation of forgetters.”  Even though the narrative is primarily about Saleem’s trajectory through history, his life is linked to the hardships and atrocities that took place at the time of India’s independence and the subsequent Indian-Pakistani wars.  Additionally, power mongering by Indira Ghandi led to the undoing of the Midnight’s children because she could not be identified as embodying India when those born to symbolize India could usurp her position and power.  This fictional past with the Midnight’s children links to the atrocities that did take place during the wars following independence.  Rushdie, through Saleem, reminds the reader that there are histories and memories that are forgotten by a nation’s people.  Rushdie and Saleem have not forgotten and it is with Saleem’s narrative that these stories are presented to an (Western) audience.

Therefore, Salman Rushdie tries to bridge the gap between the past and memory.  There is not an absolute past for all observers in Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.  He writes, “there were a thousand and one possibilities which had never been present in one place at one time before” (Midnight’s Children 230).  The author chooses Saleem from the “thousand and one possibilities” to be the writer of the fictional autobiography.  Saleem’s writing down his memories construct both his own identity along with the history of India.  Rushdie’s act of writing the novel reconnects himself with India through memory.  The narrative structure connects the individual with country and the individual’s memory with the country’s history.  Within Saleem’s narrative, Rushdie also shows there are a multiplicity of truths, voices, and histories which are all interconnected.  Saleem’s narrative is one of many perspectives, but within Saleem’s imagined life, Rushdie allows Saleem to give voice to those persons who have been a part of his life (e.g., Aadam Aziz, Padma, and Parvati the Witch).  Thus, Rushdie utilizes history and memory as the keys to building connections between the past and present as well as between self and country.

Works Cited

Booker, M. Keith.  “Beauty and the Beast:  Dualism as Despotism in the Fiction of Salman Rushdie.”  ELH, Vol. 57, No. 4 (Winter 1990):  977-997.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh.  “Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History:  Who Speaks for “Indian” Pasts?”  Representations, No. 37, Special Issue:  Imperial Fantasies and        Postcolonial Histories (Winter 1992):  1-26.

Fanon, Frantz.  “On National Culture.”  Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory:  A Reader.  New York:  Columbia University Press, 1994:  36-52.

Radhakrishnan, R..  “Postcoloniality and the Boundaries of Identity.”  Callaloo, Vol. 16, No. 4, On “Post-Colonial Discourse”:  A Special Issue (Autumn 1993):  750-771.

Rushdie, Salman.  “Imaginary Homelands.”  Imaginary Homelands.  New York:    Penguin, 1992:  9-21.

—.  Midnight’s Children.  New York:  Penguin Books, 1991.


Proposal

Jason W. Ellis

LCC 3316 Postcolonialism

Final Paper Proposal

My final paper will be a close analysis of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1980).  I will be arguing that Rushdie uses a nonlinear personal narrative to work through issues of voice and truth.  Rushdie writes Midnight’s Children from the point of view of the main character, Saleem Sinai, who is in turn writing his autobiography.  Rushdie and Saleem each have their own unique histories which play a part in the construction of this novel.  Saleem drifts between his present, his own past, and past events which he doesn’t have a direct experience of.  The narrative revolves around the point that Saleem was born at midnight at the birth of India’s independence (along with 1,000 other children).  There is a connection between Saleem and India as well as between Saleem and the other midnight children.  Saleem, however, is the narrator, and his choices and admissions reveal the fluidity of memory as well as the choices that one makes in remembering the past in a particular way.  Rushdie challenges the reader to reflect on why Saleem records the past in the way that he does and why is he the voice for the birth of a nation.  Additionally, Saleem uses the narrative to construct his own identity (through memory and layers of the self, community, nation, sex, race, and religion) which mirrors the emerging identity of India.

I have found two articles that I will use as starting points for my research.  The first is Dipesh Chakrabarty’s “Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History:  Who Speaks for “Indian” Pasts?”  (Representations, No. 37, Special Issue: Imperial Fantasies and Postcolonial Histories.  (Winter 1992):  1-26).  The second is R. Radhakrishnan’s “Postcoloniality and The Boundaries of Identity” (Callaloo, Vol. 16, No. 4, On “Post-Colonial Discourse”: A Special Issue. (Autumn 1993):  750-771).


Annotated Bibliography

Jason W. Ellis

LCC 3316 Postcolonialism

Final Paper Annotated Bibliography

Booker, M. Keith.  “Beauty and the Beast:  Dualism as Despotism in the Fiction of            Salman Rushdie.”  ELH, Vol. 57, No. 4 (Winter 1990):  977-997.

Keith writes about Rushdie’s use of dualism in his novels.  He notes that dualisms (e.g., good vs. bad, yin and yang) are not like real life because they do not contain the ambiguity present in the real world.  He begins with discussing Rushdie’s use of the game, Snakes and Ladders in Midnight’s Children as an illustration of dualism and its breakdown if applied to real world experiences.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh.  “Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History:  Who Speaks for          “Indian” Pasts?”  Representations, No. 37, Special Issue:  Imperial Fantasies and        Postcolonial Histories (Winter 1992):  1-26.

Chakrabarty is writing about the subalternity of India and its written history.  He argues that histories of colonized spaces such as India are inevitably histories of Europe.  The history of India is subject to the history of the west.  If this is the case, is there a one, true history of India, and if so, who has the authority to write it?

Prakash, Gyan.  “Writing Post-Orientalist Histories of the Third World:  Perspectives         from Indian Historiography.”  Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 32, No. 2 (April 1990):  383-408.

Prakash attempts to “map the different positions occupied by India in the post-Orientalist historiographies” (384).  He writes that the third world consists of shifting positions of historical discourses such as “Orientalist, nationalist, Marxist, and other historiographies” (384).

Radhakrishnan, R..  “Postcoloniality and the Boundaries of Identity.”  Callaloo, Vol. 16, No. 4, On “Post-Colonial Discourse”:  A Special Issue (Autumn 1993):  750-771.

Radhakrishnan writes that hybridity is part-and-parcel of postcoloniality and that identity colors our perceptions and attitudes.  In addition, the representation of one’s identity and location (i.e., the elements of hybridity) give weight to the representation of truth in claims made by the author.


Outline

Jason W. Ellis

LCC 3316 Postcolonialism

Final Paper Outline

I.          Non-linear narrative, chained structure

A.        Rushdie writes Saleem writes memories retold

1.         Salman Rushdie and Saleem Sinai – similarities, differences, why                                        does Rushdie choose to write through Saleem?  why does he                                               mention his last name in the novel in a way that would be                                                      indicative of his “real” self?

B.        Events roughly follow chronological order, but Saleem’s memory fails                                 him, dates are wrong, events are interchanged, tells it as best he can

C.        Structure (3 books) and chapter titles, Saleem is telling a story that he is                              writing down, speaking with Padma which he also writes down, his                                    dreams in sickness are also written down

II.        Big Truths and little truths

A.        Memory (Saleem’s)

B.        Saleem’s narration, retelling, recalling from his memory, choosing what to                           include, what to tell, what to embellish

C.        Is there an ultimate truth?  Is one person’s truth/perspective valued over                              another’s?  Multiple realities, multiple possibilities.

III.       Building Saleem’s identity/India’s identity

A.        conflicts (e.g., Indira takes issue with the midnight’s children–she wants to                        be identified as India)

IV.       Voice (links to section I)

A.        Whose voice is represented here?

B.        Audience

Recovered Writing: Undergraduate Postmodernism Final Paper, Family and Kinship in King Rat and American Gods, Summer 2005

This is the third post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

I wrote this essay at the end of the Summer 2005 semester in Professor Eugene Thacker’s LCC 2216 Science, Technology, and Postmodernism class at Georgia Tech. Besides being introduced to many of the important figures in postmodern theory, Professor Thacker offered us the class opening, “What is the postmodern? The postmodern is ‘whatever.'” Our class discussions and private conferences were invaluable to forming my thinking in the years to follow about 20th- and 21st-century literature and the condition of living in postmodernity.

My final essay draft below explores kinship in China Miéville’s King Rat and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. King Rat was one of the novels that we read as a class. American Gods was a novel that I had recently read on a recommendation from my friend James Warbington (who I worked with on two 48 Hour Film Festival projects and interviewed here. He has gone on to shoot the feature film, The Black Earth).

Below, I am including my final essay, an earlier and signficantly different draft of the essay, and notes. Professor Thacker met with me to discuss the earlier draft and said, as I recall, “This is trying to do too much. Your essay is going in too many directions.” He talked me through the  dominant ideas in my essay and offered me significant advice about focusing my argument and discussion. I offer these essays not only as explorations of China Mieville’s King Rat and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, but as an example of significant revision for my students (put another way: revision is not copyediting).

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Final Paper

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Eugene Thacker

LCC 2116 – Science, Technology, and Postmodernism

Summer 2005

Family and Kinship in Two Postmodern Fictions:  King Rat and American Gods

King Rat and American Gods are two recent postmodern fictions that explore issues of hybrid identity by looking at relationships based on family and kinship.  Family relationships are represented by father-son conflicts and kinship is illustrated by the coalitions that are formed between different people within the novels.  Family and kinship are two of the ways that we think about our identity.  For hybrids such as the protagonists, Saul and Shadow, ambiguity surrounding identity leads to questions asked but not necessarily answered.  This is what leads to conflict for these characters.  Both authors use hybrid characters to explore what it means to have a hybrid identity in postmodern fictions and how those identities interact with others.  Donna Haraway’s concept of the cyborg coupled with Chela Sandoval’s idea of affinity politics are two useful guides in exploring these relationships.

What is the difference between family and kinship?  For the purposes of this paper, I define family as relationships based on blood ties and kinship as relationships that are chosen or based on emotional ties.  Family is a connection that is unavoidable, but it can be ignored or unknown (e.g., a child may not know one or both parents or a male may not know that he sired a child).  Kinship is a connection that is chosen by two or more people “on the basis of conscious coalition, of affinity, of political kinship” (Haraway 156).  Family and kinships figure prominently in King Rat and American Gods because both novels feature father-son relationships as well as affinity based coalitions.

The primary representation of family in King Rat involves the father-son relationship of the protagonist, Saul, and King Rat.  King Rat rapes Saul’s mother in order to conceive a child who King Rat plans on using as a tool to destroy his archenemy, The Piper.  Saul is therefore rendered as a technological artifact that is capable of evading the song played by The Piper.  According to Donna Haraway, “a cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction” (149).  Saul is a cyborg because he is the fusion of human and animal (i.e., rat) and he is also the combination of reality (e.g., modern London) and the fantastic (e.g., King Rat).  When Haraway writes, “Modern medicine is also full of cyborgs, of couplings between organism and machine, each conceived as coded devices, in an intimacy and with a power that was not generated in the history of sexuality,” she could as easily be talking about biotechnology.  Breeding and purposive species diversification are simple forms of biotechnology.  King Rat wanted a “secret weapon” that would be capable of occupying both the rat world and the human world (Miéville 188).  Only such a creature would be able to defeat The Piper, because, as King Rat says to Saul, “ You’re rat and human, more and less than each.  Call the rats and the person in you is deaf to it.  Call to the man and the rat’ll twitch its tail and run…He can’t play two tunes at once, Saul.  He can’t charm you” (Miéville 134).

At first, Saul’s cyborg/hybrid identity is ambiguous and mediated by his father, King Rat.  His father wants to utilize and control the actions of his son in order to arrive at the destruction of The Piper.  These issues conjure images of military command and control.  King Rat is at war with The Piper, and Saul is the military technology under his command.  Haraway writes, “The main trouble with cyborgs, of course, is that they are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism…But illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins.  Their fathers, after all, are inessential” (151).  King Rat represents “militarism” because he lusts for revenge after being humiliated by The Piper in Hamelin.  He represents “patriarchal capitalism” because he is a male monarchical ruler who, in the past, used his rat hordes to appropriate the means of production.  He, in effect, becomes the “the boss-man” or manager of the town of Hamelin (Miéville 127).  After Saul learns the truth behind King Rat’s machinations, he becomes “exceedingly unfaithful” to his origin and blood-related father, King Rat.  His father is “inessential” because he wasn’t there to raise Saul.  This further indicates King Rat’s objectification of Saul because King Rat “killed the usurper” (i.e., Saul’s human father) in order to bring about the chain reaction that supplies King Rat with his weapon (i.e., Saul) (Miéville 34).

Before Saul’s ascension to a hybrid awareness, he maintained a kinship with several close friends.  Natasha, Fabian, and Kay are Saul’s friends and they all share a deep interest in Jungle and drum’n’bass music.  This musical core forms another layer of Saul’s hybrid identity because this musical genre is itself based on appropriation, remixing, and pulling things together into something new.  Miéville describes Jungle as “the child of Raggamuffin, the child of Dancehall, the apotheosis of black music” and it’s “rhythm was stolen from Hip Hop, born of Funk” (Miéville 59).  The spirit of this music and Saul’s chosen kinship with his friends is related to Sandoval’s conception of affinity politics.  Haraway discusses Sandoval’s argument surrounding the political cohesiveness of “US women of colour” thus, “This identity marks out a self-consciously constructed space that cannot affirm the capacity to act on the basis of natural identification, but only on the basis of conscious coalition, of affinity, of political kinship” (Haraway 156).  The affinity between the Saul’s friends is the musical style of Jungle.  Interconnected to that musical style are politics, movements, ideologies, and activism that connect the music to the people and the people to one another.  A hybrid musical style like Jungle is best representative of the affinity and political kinships that Haraway is writing about.  Because the music is based on different genres, naturally it represents those genres within itself.  Jungle becomes something new and representative of those different groups through the people that choose the affinity of Jungle.  Kinships form when “the capacity to act on the basis of natural identification” is not possible.  These kinships form in-between the borders of the larger groups.  Miéville writes about this when he says, “The rhythms of London are played out here, in the sprawling flat zone between suburbs and center” (15).  He is talking about a physical location, but it is representative of the in-between space.  By extension, Jungle is a type of border music that exists on the edges of other music.  Thus, it is aptly suitable for representing kinship and affinity politics.

Affinity politics and the power of kinships are embodied within the character of Saul.  Saul uses the power of Jungle embedded within himself to overcome the charms of The Piper.  Because Saul listens for the bass within the treble dominated “Wind City” song, he “rediscovered himself.  He knew who he was.  He danced again” (Miéville 300).  Saul fights back against The Piper’s flat version of drum’n’bass and he says, “One plus one equals one, motherfucker…I’m not rat plus man, get it?  I’m bigger than either one and I’m bigger than the two.  I’m a new thing.  You can’t make me dance” (Miéville 301).  Saul is making the point that he is not the addition of two separate selves.  He is the creation of something new, whole unto itself, from the human and rat biological components that came from his mother and King Rat.  His hybrid identity thus sets him apart from his family, both human and rat alike, while his hybrid identity brings him closer to those he has kinship with, such as his human friends in the Jungle scene.

The representations of family and kinship in American Gods is similar to those in King Rat in many respects.  Again, there is a father-son relationship that forms the core of the narrative.  The protagonist, Shadow, learns that he is a human-god hybrid whose father is a god called Wednesday.[1]  As in King Rat, Shadow is conceived to serve a utilitarian purpose for Wednesday’s plans.  The father envisions the son as a technological tool that will fulfill a particular task.  Wednesday is, in part, a god of war and death.  He concocts a plan whereby the new gods of credit cards, the Internet, industry, and media feel that they need to wipe out the old gods of mythologies and beliefs that are a part of our cultural history and memory.  The battle will be dedicated to Wednesday, which will give him more power.  Shadow’s purpose is to redirect attention from Wednesday’s trickery.  The cyborg analogy for Saul in King Rat does not completely apply to Shadow in American Gods.  However, there are two ways of approaching technological issues brought about in the relationship of Shadow and Wednesday.  First, the parlor tricks and coin tricks that Shadow does through out the novel are a technology because they are a type of skill.  The tricks appear to be magic, but they are in fact sleight of hand (i.e., a special effect) that he does to pass the time and impress others.  Additionally, Wednesday teaches Shadow how to use technology to pull off larger tricks in order to make money.  Using social engineering and the local Kinkos printing service, Wednesday and Shadow are able to convince many local business people to give their deposits to Wednesday instead of the ATM that they hung an “out of service” sign on (Gaiman 106-116).[2]  Thus, Shadow and Wednesday use technology for different purposes.

The relationship between Wednesday and Shadow shifts from that of employer-employee to father-son through the course of the novel.  Wednesday sets events into motion that allow his path to cross that of Shadow’s.  Because Shadow has nothing left for him after he is released from prison, he agrees to work for Wednesday.  This capitalist relationship points back to Haraway’s analysis of the framework in which cyborgs exist.  In reading Shadow as a cyborg, he is the son of the god of war, or “the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism” (Haraway 151).  Additionally, Wednesday doesn’t tell him that he is Shadow’s father.  Instead, he offers Shadow a job within the capitalist system.   Later, Shadow proves to act “exceeding unfaithful” to his origins (Haraway 151).  This shift takes place after Gaiman presents Shadow and Wednesday as doubles of one another.

The author doubles father and son through the mythic story of Odin’s attaining the nine runes.  Early in the novel, Wednesday tells Shadow how he came in possession of nine runes which give him certain powers:

Those were the first nine charms I learned.  Nine nights I hung on the bare tree, my side pierced with a spear’s point.  I swayed and blew in the cold winds and the hot winds, without food, without water, a sacrifice of myself to myself, and the worlds opened to me (Gaiman 288).

Wednesday is able to endure his “sacrifice of myself to myself” because he is a god.  Shadow’s vigil (which is a mirror of Wednesday/Odin’s “sacrifice of myself to myself”) is the galvanizing point where Gaiman doubles father and son.  Mr. Nancy, the human form of the African mythological creature, Anansi, tells Shadow what is required of him in the vigil.  He says, “The person on the vigil–gets tied to the tree.  Just like Wednesday was.  And then they hang there for nine days and nine nights.  No food, no water.  All alone.  At the end they cut the person down, and if they lived…well, it could happen.  And Wednesday will have had his vigil” (Gaiman 451).  Despite Mr. Nancy’s protests, Shadow agrees to endure the vigil.  Shadow doubles Wednesday because his being tied to the tree is “just like Wednesday was.”  Through the act, both are granted understanding which is what leads to power.  Wednesday gains the use of the nine runes, while Shadow learns his true identity[3].  Once Shadow learns that Wednesday is his father, he acts to mitigate the damage that his father wrought in order to solidify his identity as being separate from that of his father.

Shadow’s hybrid identity is also reflected in his ambiguous physical appearance as well as the kinships he makes with others in the novel.  People within the novel see certain traits in him, but when he is asked about it, he tells them that he isn’t the ethnicity in question.  For example, Shadow picks up a hitchhiker named Sam on the way to Cairo and they have this conversation:

“Mm.  You got Indian blood in you?

“Not that I know of.”

“You looked like it, was all” (Gaiman 166).

Shadow represents an amalgamation of American identities.  He is, in a sense, the prototypical American.  Sam, not-coincidentally, is part American-Indian.  Therefore, the people that Shadow encounters see themselves embodied within him.  Also, Sam represents what it means to be an American (i.e, to exist in a state of hybridity, to be American-Indian).  We are a nation of hyphenated ethnicities and nationalities.  This point is made earlier in the novel when Wednesday tells Shadow, “Nobody’s American…Not originally” (Gaiman 105).  The author’s point is that America has been a land of immigrants for a very long time.

Because people see a bit of themselves in Shadow, this allows him to connect with many different kinds of people and gods through affinity politics.  He connects with the American-Indian college girl, Sam, he works for Mr. Ibis and Mr. Jacquel, he becomes friends with the people of Lakeside (under an assumed name/identity), his dead wife, Laura, continues to help him, and he is rescued from jail by his friends, Mr. Nancy and Czernobog.  His human-god hybridity allows him to be the focus for both human and god relationships.  Shadow is able to walk in the real world and the in-between world of the gods or “backstage.”  He forms kinships with the people and gods that he meets who want what he wants–to live and not be troubled by the kind of conflict that Wednesday is brewing.  Ultimately, he reveals his father’s plans in order to achieve a peace between the old and new gods.  Shadow uses his new found powers to expose his father for the liar that he is.  Shadow stops the battle at the end of the novel and says in response to the question, “who are you?” by saying, “I am–I was–I am his [Wednesday’s] son” (Gaiman 539).  He goes on to say, “You know…I think I would rather be a man than a god.  We don’t need anyone to believe in us.  We just keep going anyhow.  It’s what we do” (Gaiman 539).   Perhaps Shadow is similar to King Rat’s Saul in that “[he’s] bigger than either one and [he’s] bigger than the two” (Miéville 301).  Clearly, Shadow has become something different than what he thought he was before he got out of prison.  He struggles through the realization that he is a hybrid of human and god and he mediates that challenge by connecting to those around him who share similar goals.  Therefore, it is his hybridity that allows him to connect with others.

What do these two novels have to say about one another?  Both feature a father-son relationship that is based on deception on the part of the father.  The father lies to the son about his origin in order to lead the son on a path of the father’s design.  Additionally, the son is conceived to be a technological tool for the father’s use.  The fathers, King Rat and Wednesday, are not concerned about the welfare of their sons.  Their sons are made to be objects that fulfill a particular purpose and once that purpose is fulfilled, they may be discarded.  The father and son relationship is, from a psychoanalytical perspective, based on competition and conflict where the son, at an early age, desires to kill the father and assume the father’s role with the mother.  The father-son conflicts in King Rat and American Gods is not delineated along those lines.  Instead, the conflict arises out of the fact that the son gains awareness of his hybrid identity.  The son’s question of “who am I” leads to conflict because the father in these two examples is trying to mediate the son’s hybridity as a technological artifact instead of as a hybrid identity.  The fathers want to objectify the son completely because if the son becomes a subjective hybrid identity, the son will become a threat to the power of the father over the son.  The family blood-ties therefore is a weak link for the son, once the awareness of hybrid identity is awakened.  It is kinships shared by the son that offer salvation, as well as understanding of what it means to have a hybrid identity.  Kinships are interstitial connections built of different identities who share a common political affinity.  Therefore kinships offer a character with a hybrid identity a community for mediating the growing awareness of what it means to be a hybrid.  These two examples show that Haraway’s connecting cyborg identities with feminist awareness is equally applicable to other hybrid identities.

In conclusion, King Rat and American Gods are two novels that explore identity by investigating father-son conflicts and the kinships that form in response to the familial conflict.  These father-son conflicts can be viewed using Donna Haraway’s concept of the cyborg as representing a person with layered, non-inclusive identities such as “US women of colour” (156).  Hybrid identities can serve to exclude one from the group identities that make up one’s whole identity, but Sandoval’s conception of kinship through political affinity allows the hybrid to form new groups around the intersection of goals and ideologies.  Therefore, these two novels represent hybrid identities in postmodern fiction while engaging the ideas of cyborg identities and affinity politics.

Works Cited

Gaiman, Neil.  American Gods.  New York:  HarperTorch-HarperCollins, 2001.

Haraway, Donna J..  Simians, Cyborgs, and Women:  The Reinvention of Nature.  New York:  Routledge, 1991.

Miéville, China.  King Rat.  New York:  Tor, 1998.


[1] Wednesday is actually the Norse god, Odin, but I will refer to him as Wednesday unless I am quoting a passage that directly references Odin.

[2] Another approach to technology in American Gods surrounds the new gods.  The new gods are all based on modern technologies ranging from industrialization to information systems.  Gaiman is commenting on where our beliefs are placed in the here and now with these forms of technology being held in the same realm as our beliefs in gods and mythologies.

[3] Shadow, who is neither completely god nor completely man, must decide how to approach the problem at hand.  In a sense, he becomes a problem solver (i.e., an engineer).  Shadow’s problem solving is analogous to that of the lone inventor who experiments by trial-and-error.  Shadow uses his tools of dreams, questions, and insight for better understanding.  However, it is his vigil for the dead Wednesday that leads to his great break-through.

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Draft Paper

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Eugene Thacker

LCC 2116 – Science, Technology, and Postmodernism

Summer 2005

A Comparison of Two Postmodern Fictions:  King Rat and American Gods

China Miéville’s King Rat and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods are two recent postmodern fictions that speak to one another because they each feature a hybrid protagonist who is caught up in an appropriated mythic framework.  The authors of these two books use postmodern literary techniques to appropriate and reinvent those myths in their own narratives.  Both authors explore questions of identity by utilizing postmodern characteristics in these two novels.

Because both novels feature a mythic character based on the spider semi-deity from African mythology known as Anansi, let’s begin by examining this connection.  Anansi from King Rat and Mr. Nancy from American Gods, serve as a bridge connecting the two novels because they are both drawn from the same African myths.    Edward Parrinder gives the following description of this mythic figure in his book, African Mythology.  He writes, “In West Africa, where the Spider is called Anansi, the Annancy of America, he is the cleverest of animals and often appears in a mythology where he is the chief official of God though at first he has no name.”  The appropriation of Anansi by Miéville and Gaiman is best described using the terminology of Fredric Jameson who formulated two kinds of literary appropriation:  parody and pastiche.  These are defined thus, “Parody, according to Jameson, has a critical edge:  it challenges and subverts that which it mimics.  Pastiche, on the other hand, is concerned only with the superficial appropriation of different modes and genres for the generation of its own performative style” (Malpas 25).   Neither work is challenging the myths of Anansi by mimicking them.  However, they are appropriating the character and his stories in order to reinvent, remix, and recreate Anansi as is required by their narrative.

Miéville’s Anansi and Gaiman’s Mr. Nancy are based on the same source material, but they are represented in different ways in the two works.  Miéville describes Anansi as “a tall, fat man” with “very dark skin and a massive belly jutting over his belt, but arms and legs that were ridiculously long and thin” who speaks “to himself in patois” (114, 116-117).  Some of these descriptions are distinctly spider-like.  For example, he writes that he has “ridiculously long and thin” limbs, a “massive belly jutting over his belt” that reminds the reader of a spider’s abdomen, and Anansi’s unending supply of “rope” is reminiscent of spider’s silk.  Gaiman uses a different tact in describing Mr. Nancy at the beginning of chapter six in American Gods.  First, Mr. Nancy is introduced as an “old black man” with “a faint twang in his voice, a hint of a patois that might have been West Indian” (Gaiman 124-125).  Then, Shadow observes the multifaceted reality of Mr. Nancy as they are traveling to a meeting of gods.  The narrator reports Shadow’s observations thus:

He was looking at Mr. Nancy, an old black man with a pencil mustache, in his check sports jacket and his lemon-yellow gloves, riding a carousel lion as it rose and lowered, high in the air; and, at the same time, in the same place, he saw a jeweled spider as high as a horse, its eyes an emerald nebula, strutting, staring down at him; and simultaneously he was looking at an extraordinarily tall man with teak-colored skin and three sets of arms, wearing a flowing ostrich-feather headdress, his face painted with red stripes, riding an irritated golden lion, two of his six hands holding on tightly to the beast’s mane; and he was also seeing a young black boy, dressed in rags, his left foot all swollen and crawling with blackflies; and last of all, and behind all these things, Shadow was looking at a tiny brown spider, hiding under a withered ocher leaf.

Shadow saw all these things, and he knew they were the same thing (131).

Whereas Miéville strips Anansi of most of his cultural connections and reinvents him for the purposes of his novel, Gaiman is showing the multifaceted reality of Mr. Nancy.  Mr. Nancy is the composite of “an old black man,” “a jeweled spider,” “an extraordinarily tall man,” “a young black boy,” and “a tiny brown spider.”  The mythic character of Anansi exists as Mr. Nancy for Gaiman, but the author is also pointing to the many other faces that are that character also.  He is showing that Mr. Nancy has a history beyond that which the author has concocted, but he is not crossing over into parody because he is not subverting Anansi.  Both authors are building and adding to Anansi’s mythic history.[1]  Therefore, Miéville and Gaiman appropriate the mythic Anansi in order to invent their own imagining of Anansi based on that character’s history along with their own creative vision.[2]

Connected to the authors’ appropriation of cultural mythologies is the way that they situate their narratives within culture by linking to culture outside the novel itself.  This postmodern characteristic is called referentiality.  Miéville and Gaiman reference culture throughout these two novels.  One literary reference in King Rat appears at the final battle when Saul enters the warehouse.  Miéville writes, “The rats and Saul left the relative safety of London’s night lands and entered the warehouse, the frenzied jaws of Drum and Bass, the domain of smoke and strobe lights and Hardcore, the Piper’s lair, the heart of Darkness, deep in the Jungle” (281-282).  “The heart of Darkness” is a reference to Joseph Conrad’s novel, The Heart of Darkness.  Conrad’s novel takes place in a literal jungle whereas Miéville is referring to the Jungle music.  American Gods is also peppered with literary references.  For example, after the beginning of the novel, Shadow is speaking with one of Odin’s ravens.  Gaiman writes:

“Hey,” said Shadow.  “Huginn or Muninn, or whoever you are.”

The bird turned, head tipped, suspiciously, on one side, and it stared at him with bright eyes.

“Say ‘Nevermore,’” said Shadow.

“Fuck you,” said the raven (158-159).

Odin’s raven does not appreciate Shadow’s reference to Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, “The Raven.”  The literary references that Gaiman employs points to a sort of American mythology because they integrate into the characters of the novel such as one of Odin’s ravens (i.e., an American poetic work connected to a Norse/imported myth).  These cultural references integrate these works into a web of relationships beyond the work itself.  Building these connections not only positions the novel in relation to culture, but it also helps the reader orientate their own relationship to the novel.

Both authors also utilize referentiality in constructing the hybrid identity of their respective protagonists.  The postmodern usage of hybridity involves the mixing of two dissimilar things into something new.  Miéville, in particular, combines a thesis (human/political awareness-Marxism) and an antithesis (rat/monarchy) in order to construct a synthesis (human-rat hybrid/“Citizen Rat”).  He also does this on multiple layers of a character’s identity in King Rat.  On a biological level, Saul is a human-rat hybrid.  His biological mother is human and his biological father is King Rat.  Additionally, he was conceived because of King Rat’s desire to have a hybrid child who would be capable of defeating the Piper.  King Rat reasons to Saul, “You’re rat and human, more and less than each.  Call the rats and the person in you is deaf to it.  Call to the man and the rat’ll twitch its tail and run…He can’t play two tunes at once, Saul.  He can’t charm you” (Miéville 134).  Saul’s dual biological identity empowers him against the unrelenting force of the Piper.  Layered on top of Saul’s biological self, he is a hybrid of two worlds with different experiences and teachings.  He grew up in the human world of London where his human father taught him about Marxist ideology in an industrialized world.  Then, Saul finds himself separated from the human world by choice, but it was a decision brought about by events outside his knowledge.  He finds himself in a “new world” that King Rat describes as, “This is the city where I live.  It shares all the points of yours and theirs [i.e., human], but none of its properties.  I go where I want.  And I’m here to tell you how it is with you.  Welcome to my home” (Miéville 32).  King Rat later adds, “You can’t go back now, can you” (Miéville 43)?  Once he makes the decision to follow King Rat, he cannot return to his former identity and orientation in the human world.  Then, King Rat goes about teaching Saul how to be rat.  He says, “You’ve an awful lot to learn, matey, and you’re looking at the teacher, like it or not” (Miéville 48).  As the novel progresses, Saul become more and more rat-like and it becomes apparent that King Rat and Saul are doppelgangers, or doubles of one another.  Saul “was shedding his humanity like an old snakeskin, scratching it off in great swathes.  It was so fast, this assumption of a new form inside” (Miéville 83).  Later in the novel, Saul even begins to look like King Rat with his face hidden in shadow.  But at the end of the novel, Saul recaptures his past and decides to found a revolution in the rat world based on his understanding of his human father’s teachings.  Instead of telling the rats that he was the new King Rat, he breaks up the hierarchical monarchy system and he says, “I’m just one of you…I’m Citizen Rat” (Miéville 318).  Thus, Saul ends the novel by choosing to be both rat and human which is his formulation of being “Citizen Rat.”  Therefore, Saul becomes a hybrid of his human self and experience and of his new, rat self and experience.[3]

Miéville further develops Saul’s hybrid identity by connecting it to the musical genre of Jungle or drum’n’bass.  Jungle is a hybrid style of music that the author describes thus:

This was Jungle.

The child of House, the child of Raggamuffin, the child of Dancehall, the apotheosis of black music, the Drum and Bass soundtrack for a London of council estates and dirty walls, black youth and white youth, Armenian girls.

The music was uncompromising.  The rhythm was stolen from Hip Hop, born of Funk…

And above the bassline was the high end of Jungle:  the treble.  Stolen chords and shouts that rode the waves of bass like surfers.  They were fleeting and teasing, snatches of sound winking into existence and sliding over the beat, tracing it, then winking away (Miéville 59).

He reveals that Jungle is a “child” of various other musical styles and it’s “rhythm was stolen from Hip Hop.”  Jungle is created by taking from these many other styles and remixing them into something new.  It is a style based on appropriation of other musical forms of expression.  Saul and his friends are a part of the Jungle scene, but it is ultimately only Saul who is capable of using Jungle to his advantage during the final battle with the Piper.  Saul knows that the treble in Jungle should be “fleeting and teasing, snatches of sound.”  The Piper inundates his controlling Jungle song, “Wind City” with more flute than a real Jungle song would have.  He says, “Your friend Natasha…showed me how to make my flute multiply” (Miéville 297).  This allows the Piper to play to both the rat and human within Saul.  But Saul realizes as “the flutelines swirled around him…urging him to dance, teasing his rat-mind and his humanity in turn…But something inside him had hardened.  Saul was straining for something else.  He was listening for the bass” (Miéville 299).  This breakthrough allows Saul to seize his own identity and to dance his own dance (Miéville 300).  Therefore, Jungle, as a hybrid musical genre, is the keystone that allows Saul to connect his separate selves into a hybrid whole.

Gaiman’s protagonist in American Gods, Shadow Moon, is also a hybrid character.  First, the story is about gods that travel to America with the people that brought them along through faith and belief.  Being American is itself a state of hybridity.  We are a nation of hyphenated ethnicities and nationalities.  Wednesday tells Shadow, “Nobody’s American…Not originally” (Gaiman 105).  Taking hybridity to another level, Shadow is the child of his human mother and the god, Odin (who is masquerading as Wednesday).  Shadow, and probably his mother, did not know that Shadow’s father was the physical manifestation of the god Odin.  Like King Rat, Odin wanted a child that would serve a particular purpose that only a hybrid could accomplish.  Shadow is never really described other than being a big guy.  People see things in him, but when he is asked about it, he tells them that he isn’t the ethnicity in question.  For example, Shadow picks up a hitchhiker named Sam on the way to Cairo and they have this conversation:

“Mm.  You got Indian blood in you?

“Not that I know of.”

“You looked like it, was all” (Gaiman 166).

Shadow represents an amalgamation of American identities.  He is, in a sense, the prototypical American.  As the conversation continues, Shadow is revealed to be a double of Wednesday/Odin.  Shadow tells Sam what she is doing in school when he says, “I figure you’re at school…Where you are undoubtedly studying art history, women’s studies, and probably casting your own bronzes.  And you probably work in a coffeehouse to help cover the rent” (Gaiman 167).  Sam’s response is to “put down her fork, nostrils flaring, eyes wide” and she says, “How the fuck did you do that” (Gaiman 167)?  This is similar to the first conversation between Shadow and Wednesday when the god begins telling Shadow things that a complete stranger should not know.  There are also numerous examples of Shadow being a trickster (usually for good) like Wednesday (usually for selfish reasons or evil) (Gaiman 36-37, 110-116, 166-167, 587).  Additionally, the doubling is symbolized by the fortune that Shadow receives early in the novel at the House on the Rock.  It said, “EVERY ENDING IS A NEW BEGINNING…Motto:  LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON” (Gaiman 121).  At that time, Shadow did not know that Wednesday/Odin is his father and the “EVERY ENDING IS A NEW BEGINNING” phrase points to the Shadow’s vigil for Wednesday.  This relates to one of Odin’s mythic exploits, “involves his self-sacrifice on Yggdrasill.  He hangs on the tree for nine nights and wounds himself, an offering of “myself to myself,” as he says.  His reward is a draft of mead — creative insight” (Stitt, par. 4).  Mr. Nancy describes the vigil to Shadow when he says, “The person on the vigil–gets tied to the tree.  Just like Wednesday was.  And then they hang there for nine days and nine nights.  No food, no water.  All alone.  At the end they cut the person down, and if they lived…well, it could happen.  And Wednesday will have had his vigil” (Gaiman 451).  Shadow agrees to go through with Wednesday’s request for him to hold the vigil.  Wednesday doesn’t anticipate Shadow surviving the vigil and Shadow being granted understanding of what is actually taking place in the narrative.  This mirrors Wednesday’s own self-sacrifice that he endured to gain new wisdom.  Earlier in the novel, when Shadow and Wednesday are discussion Shadow’s dead wife, Wednesday says:

Those were the first nine charms I learned.  Nine nights I hung on the bare tree, my side pierced with a spear’s point.  I swayed and blew in the cold winds and the hot winds, without food, without water, a sacrifice of myself to myself, and the worlds opened to me (Gaiman 288).

Shadow and Wednesday endure similar trials on the “World Tree.”  Shadow’s sacrifice is really for himself because they are doubles of one another (i.e., if the vigil is intended for Wednesday it reflects back onto Shadow).  Shadow’s self-sacrifice leads to knowledge that allows him to act to the end the battle brought about by Wednesday’s selfishness.  Therefore, Shadow and Wednesday are doubles of one another, but Shadow’s hybrid identity, like Saul’s in King Rat, leads him to make different choices than his father.

These novels can be described as fantastic because they feature mythic and almost unbelievable elements.  Because they are considered fantastic, they require a suspension of disbelief from the audience in order for the narrative to unfold.  This characteristic is defined as an awareness that is projected by the work to the audience that indicates that the work knows what it is and it is also aware that the audience knows what it is.  It is employed to a great extent in American Gods, but to a lesser extent in King Rat.  Samuel Taylor Coleridge described the concept of the “suspension of disbelief” when he wrote in Chapter XIV of his Biographia Literaria, “it was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith” (par. 3).  He is talking about making something fantastic believable enough that a reader will be able to enjoy it without immediately balking at how unbelievable the story really is.  Most fiction works because of the suspension of disbelief.  The audience has to “buy into” the story otherwise the story doesn’t work.  The suspension of disbelief is linked to the postmodern characteristic of reflexivity.  Postmodern reflexivity, however, casts aside the need for the suspension of disbelief.  Of the two works, American Gods presents the most bald-faced example of reflexivity.  Gaiman writes near the end of American Gods, “None of this can actually be happening.  If it makes you more comfortable, you could simply think of it as a metaphor.  Religions are, by definition, metaphors, after all…So none of this is happening.  Such things could not occur.  Never a word of it is literally true.  Even so, the next thing that happened, happened like this” (508).  What follows is the climax and denouement of the novel.  Before that point, he relied on the suspension of disbelief for approximately five-hundred pages to tell his story about gods and how they came to be in America.  By doing this, Gaiman is engaging the reader to think about the story in more than the literal presentation of the narrative.  He is asking the reader to consider the other implications he has brought up during the course of the book.  One can argue that it is his statement that “None of this can actually be happening” is really the climax of the book.  That is the flag signaling that there he hopes the reader will consider the novel in a new way (i.e., metaphorically, not literally).

Miéville, on the other hand, never pulls back the curtain in King Rat in the same way that Gaiman does in American Gods.  He does, however, drop reflexive hints throughout the narrative.  One example takes place during Saul’s jailbreak at the beginning of the novel.  Saul thinks to himself, “Here be monsters…and [he] felt ridiculously close to giggling” (Miéville 37).  The idea of monsters in the real world is almost funny to him.  Another example is when he first encounters the homeless woman, Deborah.  Saul says, “Listen to me.  You won’t understand this, but don’t worry…They won’t hurt you, do you understand” (Miéville 165)?  He begins with telling her that she won’t understand, but then he asks her if she does understand.  Granted, Saul knows he is talking to someone with mental problems, but at the same time, the author chose to write this passage like this.  Miéville is indicating to the reader that it is okay to both understand and to not understand what is going on.  The author is reinforcing the (sometimes) necessity of the suspension of disbelief with this passage.  Therefore, in regard to reflexivity, American Gods is the more postmodern of the two novels because Gaiman relies on reflexivity to make a point about his novel whereas Miéville uses it teasingly to reinforce the traditional usage of the suspension of disbelief.

King Rat and American Gods are examples of postmodern fiction that closely relate to one another because the authors employ shared postmodern characteristics to develop a hybrid protagonist who must grow into and mast his “synthesized” identity.  Both novels appropriate myth, reference culture, investigate hybrid identities through doubling, and pull back the curtain with reflexivity.  Thus, King Rat and American Gods are connected to one another through appropriated mythologies and postmodern investigations of identity.

Works Cited

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor.  Biographia Literaria.  1817.  24 July 2005 <http://www.english.upenn.edu/~mgamer/Etexts/biographia.html&gt;.

Gaiman, Neil.  American Gods.  New York:  HarperTorch-HarperCollins, 2001.

Malpas, Simon.  The Postmodern.  New York:  Routledge, 2005.

Miéville, China.  King Rat.  New York:  Tor, 1998.

Parrinder, Edward Geoffrey.  African Mythology.  London:  Hamlyn, 1967.

Stitt, J. Michael.  “The Norse Pantheon:  Óðinn.”   English 480 Mythology.  Course home page.  Dept. of English, University of Nevada, Las Vegas.  July 24, 2005 <http://www.unlv.edu/faculty/jmstitt/Eng480/odin.html&gt;.


[1] In fact, Anansi exists in many different stories that have different origins and those stories have changed over time.  Some of the many stories that come from Africa about Anansi include, “Anansi and the Corn Cob,” “How Anansi Tricked God,” “Anansi and the Chameleon,” “How Anansi Became a Spider,” and “Tales of Spider and Hare” (Parrinder, 128-131, 136-139).  Gaiman relies on Anansi’s past in order to create his present while Miéville loosely bases his character on Anansi for the purposes of his story.  One representation of Anansi is not more accurate or essential than another.

[2] It should be noted that others have appropriated the Anansi stories.  The stories originally come out of an oral tradition which lends to embellishment and reinvention due to the creative capacities of the human mind as well as the fallibility of memory.  A popular retelling of the Anansi stories are those by Uncle Remus.  Parrinder writes, “All across Africa fables are told of the cleverness, deceit, and triumph of the Spider or the Hare, called by various names according to the language.  These yarns were taken to America by slaves and became the Brer Rabbit tales related by Uncle Remus” (128).  Uncle Remus’ tales are not verbatim retellings of the original African stories.  The stories have been added to and subtracted from due to differences in language, personal experiences, and setting.  This reflects the fact that postmodern devices can be found historically outside of the postmodern era that is typically identified as occurring since the end of World War II.  Reinvention and appropriation are tried and true tools of storytellers both in oral and literary traditions.

[3] The novel can be considered a bildungsroman story because Saul builds a new, hybrid identity after he learns that there is more to his identity than he could have possibly imagined.  In a sense, it is a coming of age story or, more accurately, a building of identity story.

——————————

Notes

In the same vein that “no one lives in a vacuum,” no work of literature exists in a vacuum.  These authors embrace the interconnections because they add to their work by allowing the reader to build connections between the work being read and works the reader may have already read or knows of.  Referentiality only works when the reader has a certain cultural knowledge or historical awareness of what has come before, but it is effective in situating a work within that which is familiar to the reader.

Another reference made in King Rat features the musical genre of Drum’n’Bass or Jungle. 

The author’s choice of using Drum’n’Bass is important not only because he is employing referentiality, but because he is also using it to highlight another postexists almost as a separate character within the story.  The reason that it is so important to the story is that it represents remixing, resampling, and reinventing by taking two different things and putting them together to form something new.  Saul, the protagonist of the novel, is a hybrid himself. 

It is that kind of music, that at first seems to be the way the Piper will subdue Saul, but it actually sets Saul free.  At the climax of King Rat, Saul thinks to himself, “fuck the treble, he thought, because when you dance to Jungle what you follow is the bass…Saul rediscovered himself.  He knew who he was.  He danced again” (300).

Another form of hybridity that relates to appropriation is Fredric Jameson’s conceptions of parody and pastiche.   Miéville employs pastiche when he created the character of Loplop because he appropriates.  Loplop isn’t derived from a mythic creature like Anansi.  Loplop is described as the alter-ego of the German painter, Max Ernst.

Gaiman is presenting Mr. Nancy as the synthesis of all of the Anansi stories and myths.  Mr. Nancy represents all of these things simultaneously in this reserved space where gods are able to reveal themselves in ways that they cannot in the modern world.

These characters represent the epitome of the postmodern.  They are reinvented and remixed into something new while at the same time they remain connected to their past representations.

Referentiality

Reflexivity

Another interesting postmodern element that both novels exhibit is reflexivity.  Reflexivity is the awareness exhibited by the work that it knows what it is.  The author is essentially winking at the reader.

Postmodern fictions provide a space for authors to explore contemporary issues by reinventing and reinterpreting mythologies and religions.

The novel is a bildungsroman in that from the point that Saul is rescued from jail by King Rat, Saul must come into his own based on the circumstances that he finds himself in.  In a sense, it is a coming of age story or, more accurately, a building of identity story.

Recovered Writing: Undergraduate Gender Studies Final Paper on Kathleen Ann Goonan’s Queen City Jazz and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, April 26, 2004

This is the second post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

This essay is particularly important to me, because I can confidently say that it was my day spent speaking with and listening to Kathleen Ann Goonan that helped me decide to study SF as a profession. Ms. Goonan is a very important contemporary science fiction writer. I wrote the essay as my final paper in Professor Lisa Yaszek’s Gender Studies class at Georgia Tech in Spring 2004. I had already thought a lot about teaching on the college-level after having great learning experiences with (to name a few in no particular order) Professors Lisa Yaszek, Carol Senf, Kenneth J. Knoespel, Eugene Thacker, Narin Hassan, Hugh Crawford, and Robert Wood. I wanted to do good work in the classroom like they had done for me, and I wanted to publish original research in those fields that I wanted to teach. However, I was not yet decided. My conversations with Ms. Goonan on that day helped the tumblers of my mind fall into place and unlock the door that lead to the present. Now, Ms. Goonan and I teach at Georgia Tech, which is a lucky happenstance.

In addition to the leading essay on Queen City Jazz, I am including below my outline and essay notes. I am copying them as-is from my files without any corrections. Think of these extra additions as the “special features.” However, I cannot vouch for their completeness for quotations and citations–I can only do this for the essay itself. Therefore, the “special features” are meant to be an interesting appendix for readers and my students (who I will send her to look at my approach to writing at that time).


Jason W. Ellis

Professor Lisa Yaszek

LCC3224 – Gender Studies

April 26, 2004

Final Paper: Gender Issues in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Kathleen Ann Goonan’s Queen City Jazz

            Kathleen Ann Goonan’s Queen City Jazz is a novel that takes place in Earth’s future that is about women taking the initiative to save the people of the nanotechnology mediated city of Cincinnati.  The story uses new technologies and the dangers associated with them to illustrate the development of a strong heroine who uses many elements of the history of feminist thought to fulfill her destiny on her own terms.  Cincinnati was envisioned as a city built on nanotechnology assemblers and modifications to the city’s inhabitants so that they can receive and send information pheromonally.  The city would provide for everyone’s needs and wants because of the near zero cost of nanotech assembled goods and foods.  Rose, a woman from the time of the first Conversion, sets events into motion that will eventually lead to the breaking of the cycle of unending rebirth instituted by the Flower City architect, Abe Durancy, and controlled by his mother, India, the Queen Bee.  Rose’s plan culminates with the return of a (prodigal) child formed in the city, Verity.  Verity is a hybrid of nanotechnology and a life spent outside the Seam (the nanotechnology barrier between the outside world and Cincinnati).  Only a hybrid can make her way into the heart of the city to bring about fundamental change that will give the inhabitants a choice about their futures.

The reason the story begins is because a son becomes a bad father and a mother becomes an evil Queen.  If Abe Durancy hadn’t perverted the Flower City model to the end of bringing his mother back from death, then none of this might have happened.

Both Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein and Abe Durancy are the products of bad parenting.  Victor Frankenstein was allowed to continue his reading of the great alchemists and Abe Durancy was allowed to feed his appetite for books without being taught to complete what he had started.  Verity experienced one of Abe’s memories, from when he was twelve.  Rose comes over to his house to watch him while India is away.  He tied up his hammock in a haphazard way.  Rose said, “oh, you’re always so careless…just don’t want to take the time to do it right” (Goonan 397).  Rose proceeds to take the hammock down and tie it up correctly.  Frankenstein never learned the value of family and personal responsibility.  It doesn’t seem like Durancy was ever disciplined or taught personal responsibility either.  Verity experiences no memories of Durancy learning from someone else except in this example with Rose.

Durancy recalls, in a memory that Verity experiences, that instead of being in Cincinnati when it had the vote for conversion, “I went up to the Big Lake.  The beach was gratifyingly cold:  windy, with distant islands gray smudges like cardboard blips on the knife-edge of the horizon” (Goonan 281).  Abe is confident that the vote will go in favor of Conversion.  This vote is in a sense the birth of the Flower City, or at a minimum, its choice to be conceived.  Victor Frankenstein secluded himself from family when he was creating his monster.  When the creature first opened its “dull yellow eye,” Victor runs away from his creature (Shelley 58).  Abe’s Flower City was not yet a reality, but he makes the choice not be there at the vote that would enact its creation.  He turns away from his responsibilities.

After India had been infected with a nanplague, she agreed to let her mind be transferred to the City archives.  There were complications though.  Katy, Abe’s coworker and ex-wife, said to Abe, “I have to tell you, there was something odd about the redundancy tests…I’m not sure if the copy is any good.  She–died in the middle of it, you know, and there was some sort of break” (Goonan 329).  Abe “turned and walked out onto the snowy streets of Cincinnati a completely changed man (Goonan 329).  The memory continues, “Abe was never sure why he chose to live, that night.  Maybe it was just some odd, bizarre, sprouting hope.  The hope that Katy was wrong.  And the beginnings of the formulation of his Great Plan, wherein Cincinnati had to vote for conversion.  Only in that way could his mother live again” (Goonan 330).  Abe changes after his mother dies.  He might have had the best intentions for the City before her death, but now the City serves a purpose to him instead of to the people of Cincinnati.  He wants his mother to live because, in a sense, that is the only woman he really loves.  He could never bring himself to go against the way his mother felt about Rose.  Durancy became a selfish person who thought of his mother as a thing to be recreated for his own gratification.

India’s storage in the City archives was imperfect.  Because she died during the procedure, some parts of her mind were destroyed or corrupted.  Dennis Durancy explains to Verity, “Where exactly was the place where I stopped giving and she started taking.  Where you see…it’s hard to talk about…I just don’t exactly know when that simple and powerful childlike part of her that was indelibly, powerfully saved, without any sort of older personality overlay, any kind of maturity, took over.  Simply took over the City” (Goonan 339).  “It’s hard to talk about” it because Abe lies under the surface limiting what Dennis can do or speak about.  Abe’s intentions might not have been for his mother to assume complete control, but it does seem inevitable.

The recording of India’s mind into the City archives seems to have captured her id but little of her ego and superego.  She has created her own new set of rules that apply to the Flower City that goes against the reality outside the Seam.  Inside the City Ignatz Mouse, a cartoon-like character, may throw a brick at you, or a woman can be transformed into a human with a lion-like appearance.  Famous (dead) authors, musicians, and playwrights inhabit the Flower City.  The people of the City have not developed but have been infused with memory that may or may not have been their own.  The Queen controls these functions.  She may have been a good mother who had experience tempered with maturity, but after India’s death during the memory transfer, her “self” became unleashed from the maturity she had gained though time and experience.  She became a Queen who rules for her own fancy.  A new Queen must take the place of India in order to save the City.

Verity makes her way to Cincinnati in an attempt to save the young man she loves, Blaze, and her dog, Cairo.  Blaze and Cairo had been shot, but they were wrapped in preserving nansheets that Russ had hidden away long ago.  Verity’s destiny had been to return to Cincinnati one day despite the tragedy she encountered at her home on Shaker Hill.

Verity learns from unlocked memories that she was created in the Flower City of Cincinnati.  She listens and watches from within herself when she was very young.  A woman is talking to Dennis Durancy, “She’s the brightest one we have, Dennis…We need someone different” (Goonan 331).  After doing some other things to Verity, they wrap her up and send her out of the city carried under one of the large Bees.  She is dropped off near a house around Edgetown.  She knows her own history from that point on.  Her family at Shaker Hill brings her to their home from Edgetown.  They raise her in a neo-Shaker tradition where she able to show off her Gift of Dance.  She has other gifts such as a gift of pictures (her memory is based on pictures and she can communicate with Cairo through projected pictures), internal maps, and she can access the Dayton Library and it’s information cocoon.

Verity is a mestiza, a hybrid.  She is originally from the Flower City of Cincinnati.  She has memory sponges implanted in her skull.  She is permitted access to memories and maps at certain times during her life.  Once a year, a resonating Bell calls her to the Dayton Library where she interfaces with the information cocoons that give her more information (that she may not recall after getting out of the cocoon, but she feels changed after every visit).  To be able to challenge the City, Rose devised a plan where a young girl (Verity) would be made from the Flower City, and sent to the outside world.  Verity would live a life that was unknown to the City and the Bees.  This would make it more difficult for the Bees to control Verity when she returned.  Also, she would gain experience of life that would hopefully help her fulfill her destiny to become the new Queen Bee.  Choice is made possible by having options and knowledge about those options.  Her choices are aided by Durancy’s memories she experiences throughout the story.

Verity exhibits elements of Third Wave Feminism in obtaining her final goal of becoming the New Queen of Cincinnati.  The first is her reliance on other people who have different goals than she does.  She engages in coalition politics along her journey to the Flower City as well as once she is in the City.  Verity’s primary goal in the beginning is to find a way to save Blaze and Cairo in Cincinnati.  Over time, this changes to saving all the people in the City as well as saving Blaze.  After Verity is set adrift by the woman with the ferry, she aligns herself with Cheyenne, a boy who hunts Bees to earn a bounty.  Verity is fascinated by the Bees (particularly after her “Day of Miracles” and she used to dream of the flower topped buildings when she was little) (Goonan 16).  She cannot understand why someone would want to destroy the Bees, but she is hungry and Cheyenne offers his help in return for Verity helping him carry off the dead Bees.  After Cheyenne takes off with Verity’s solar car, she meets the musician, Sphere.  Sphere also wants to go into Cincinnati to explore his musical interests.  In the city, he becomes a hybrid of the outside world and nan that is more than the people who have always lived there.  He attains his goal of becoming more musical.  The waitress, Dezeray, helps Verity, Sphere, and Blaze.  Dezeray puts Blaze in a cocoon to help him out of his arrested state.  She hides Verity from the Queen’s thugs who are looking for her.  She also “initiated” Sphere with nanotech assemblers that allow him to interface with the City and music in ways that he could not before (Goonan 373).  Blaze is also a hybrid.  He was born in the outside world and he was altered twice by nanotechnology.

The story emphasizes new science and technology.  From Verity’s standpoint it is not so much a discovery of new technology but a rediscovery of old technology.  Shaker Hill had come about because of the nanplagues and the break down of the Flower Cities.  After the plagues, earthquakes, and the mysterious radio blackout (supposedly caused by a quasar in our galaxy’s nucleus) there was tremendous social upheaval.  Instead of developing new technologies, those technologies that were not nan (Enlivened) were scavenged and used as need required.  Before the fall of the Flower Cities, nanotechnology was the cutting edge technology that would allow humanity to create a real utopia.  Nanotechnology would allow people to reach their full creative potential because food, goods, and shelter would cost virtually nothing (similar to what was said about nuclear energy in its infancy–electricity would drop to near zero prices).  Reality often differs from the hopeful possibilities of a new technology.  There were risks and dangers associated with the new technology that wasn’t voiced as loudly as it should have been (or was that voice even allowed?).  Verity, however, uses the old/new technology to save Blaze and the inhabitants of Cincinnati.  She turns the nanotech system against itself, not in a destructive way, but in an unforeseen way that shifted the power of choice from the Queen Bee to the individual.

Verity’s Gift of Dance is analogous to the concept of the “riot grrl.”  Dance and music are essential ingredients of the neo-Shakers that Verity lives with.  After Verity’s “Day of Miracles,” “she heard Blaze begin to play once more, as if from far away, a melody which hummed like a swarm of bees, then burst like bright flowers within her vision, and she heard the shuffling steps of others as, one by one, they joined her.  She opened her eyes and watched as she and they scattered, re-formed, swirled, and finally stopped, all in the same moment, as if they had practiced but they had not:  this Dance, this manifestation of her Gift, was new” (Goonan 27).  She is challenging the status quo because “until Verity, the New Shakers had just imitated old pictures and descriptions” (Goonan 27).  Verity’s Gift of Dance empowers her.

The Shaker tradition itself is an attempt to overthrow patriarchy.  The neo-Shakers lived a simple life where Verity’s “days and nights were part of a larger Shaker cycle bound to the land, exploiting nothing, using what they needed” (Goonan 15).  Utility and usefulness was valued over beauty.  When Verity walks in on Tai Tai building something she says, “That’s beautiful” and Tai Tai responds “Beauty has a purpose too” (Goonan 48).  Verity’s thoughts continue with, “everything had to be useful, have a function” (Goonan 48).  Shakers traditionally believed that living a celibate life removed sexism and the power struggles of the private sphere that existed elsewhere in the world.

At the final moment of decision on Verity’s part, she had used her background and experience to develop a solution to the problem of Cincinnati.  Her approach was much like the Second Wave Feminist era’s Radical Feminism.  She knew that she could not change the system from within.  She had to overthrow the system (or at least catch it unawares) by introducing an element from outside.  In part, her being there to assume the role of the Queen Bee was an outside factor.  The other part was her using the Territorial Plague that had infected Blaze.  The nansheets and the cocoon in the train station had arrested the progress of the plague in Blaze.  In doing so, it had been analyzed and categorized in the Cincinnati information system.  Verity needed to assemble as many people as possible to enact her plan.  Goonan writes, “The sorting she initiated in the Hive had shuffled down to a common interest swiftly.  Everyone…seemed to remember baseball, the one constant core element that could draw them all together” (385).  She then had the City put the Territorial Plague assemblers in the food, drink, and air (released by large flowers by the scoreboards) in the baseball stadium.  The plague broke the cycle of the Bees controlling the emotions and decisions of the inhabitants of Cincinnati.  Some people decided to stay, and the others were drawn to the river so that they could proceed to Norleans–the plague’s attractor.  Verity wanted as many people as possible out of the City before Conversion took place.  Conversion would change the City again, but she had made the choice to not be there when it happened.  She was going to relinquish her crown as the new Queen Bee.

The Flower City of Cincinnati was billed as a utopia.  Because of Abe’s desire for his mother to live again, the possibility for a utopia is lost to the fact that the City is governed by a despot who is more a creation of Abe than the reality of his mother before she died.  Utopia is essentially not obtainable in this life.  The process of working towards utopia is the goal.  Abe wanted it all right now without the process.  After Abe creates the Flower City, his program, “perhaps his living intelligence, hiding deep within the Hive, so deep that it no longer had any vestige of humanity–had been able to keep [Dennis’] understanding limited.  And each time the whole sad mess began again” (Goonan 403).  Durancy succeeded in having a part of his mother live again, but the incomplete India was more selfish than he was.  She maintained a utopia of one by controlling the lives of the people of Cincinnati.

Queen City Jazz uses elements from the history of feminist movements and ideologies to create a story about a mature 16-year-old girl who reacts in a competent way to a challenging set of circumstances.  She makes her own decisions and she offers others the opportunity to make their own choices.  Verity seeks to democratize the Cincinnati system by giving people the choice to leave.

Works Cited

Goonan, Kathleen Ann.  Queen City Jazz.  New York:  Orb, 2003.

Shelley, Mary.  Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus.  London:  Penguin Classics, 2003.


Outline for Final Paper

Queen City Jazz – Outline for Final Gender Studies Paper

1)         Verity is a mestiza, a hybrid.  She was created in the nancity, Cincinnati.  Her creators sent her away from the city to learn and live away from the influence of the Bees.  Her experience would be unknown to the Bees who might attempt to influence her thoughts and decisions.  Only a hybrid, made of nan, but with a life experience of the world outside the nancity, would be capable of challenging India, the old Queen.

2)         Elements of Third Wave Feminism

a)         Verity’s path to and through Cincinnati is accomplished by her willingness to engage in coalition politics.  She aligns herself with others to forward her primary goal (to go to Cincinnati to save Blaze and Cairo who are rapped in the nansheets).  The people she works with may not necessarily share her same views or have the same goals as she has, but she recognizes the need she has for the help of others.  Additionally, in each encounter with others, she learns something new.  This learning can be about the views of others, a clue about her past or about Cincinnati, or something that triggers a memory or the presence but not physicality of a memory.  She aligns with Cheyenne (the Bee killer) and Sphere (who follows her into the city).  She also aligns with people in Cincinnati:  Azure (offers her coffee and an insight into the religion built up around the Bees and Verity as the future Queen Bee, p320), Dezaray (the waitress that helps the arrested Blaze by putting him the cocoon and later, she initializes Sphere).

b)         There is a strong emphasis on new science and technology.  Verity has grown up on Shaker Hill with the neo-Shakers.  They avoided enlivened/nanotechnology because of fear of the nanplagues.  After Blaze and Cairo are shot by John (who is in turn killed by Verity’s throw of her “radio stone”), Russ wraps the dead bodies in nanwraps in the hope that they will be preserved until they can be carried to a place like Cincinnati.  Everyone except for Russ and Verity had caught the Territory Plague which changes the mind of the person infected in strange ways as well as makes the person drawn to go down the Ohio River to Norleans.  At this point the fear of technology is a moot point.  Russ helps Verity to begin her journey to Cincinnati with Blaze and Cairo.  They pull out the old solar car that had been hidden under the floor of the barn.  It is not so much an interest in new technology, but a rediscovery or a return to technology because of these people’s needs.

c)         Verity is a riot chick and a net chick all rolled into one.  This links back to her identity as a mestiza.  These Third Wave Feminist identities are based on women grabbing the new technology and using it for their own purposes.  Verity didn’t pick up a guitar, but she did have the Gift of Dance.  The importance of Dance for Verity and her family at Shaker Hill is different than our concept of Dance.  Dance was integral to the religious beliefs of the neo-Shakers.  Verity had a skill of Dance that was unrivaled by any of the other inhabitants of Shaker Hill.  It relates back to technology because of the way she gained the Gift of Dance and the purpose for which it was used.  She was able to get others to dance with her, the way that she did.  Her skill of Dance was necessary for her later destiny to become the new Queen Bee of Cincinnati.  She used this ability with her family on Shaker Hill and she used her Dance to become the new Queen of the Hive in Cincinnati.

Her status as net chick rose from her yearly calling to the Dayton Library which had a cocoon that she could interface with to get information and maps.  She did not always remember the things that she learned but they were stored in her mind to be accessed when the necessary chemical pathways were laid down when she went to Cincinnati.  Her ability to handle the burden of information when she gave herself over to be the Queen of the Hive illustrates her power and abilities.

Her control over these gifts and her decision to use them might not have been as conscious as a woman picking up a guitar or building a website, but these were things that were built into her, Verity, a young woman.  They were not abilities given to a male character.  A woman had to have these abilities to save the City.

3)         Sons Who Become Bad Fathers

Abe Durancy was the primary architect of the nancity of Cincinnati.  Following parallels with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, he leaves the city on the eve of the vote for conversion to nan just as Victor flees his creation when it comes to life.  Also, the humanity of Abe is lost to some strata far beneath the surface of the city.  Dennis Durancy (who looks and acts like Abe, but is not Abe) is the creation of Rose as a mechanism to try to save the city.  There was an interplay between Abe and Rose about saving the City.  Abe would make one move to have the city his way and Rose created another mechanism to combat that.  Each time Abe won the upper hand until Verity came along.

Abe tried to save his mother from death by integrating her into the City.  Unfortunately, India died during the process of transferring her mind (her “self” and memories) into the City.  They captured her youthful self without the overlay of maturity and superego.  India was the Queen of the City to do with it as she pleased.  When the pain of her past intruded she would wipe the city clean and start over (conversion/surge).

Abe was the father of the City but he gave birth to a city that was ruled by his insane mother (she had literally lost most of her mind) and the Bees.  The people of the city lived their lives like stage actor robots who read their lines for the benefit of the Bees who collected and disseminated pheremonal memories.  Memories were the “junk” that got the Bees off.  India ruled the City so that she could relive the past through the present by creating a landscape of the books and people that she enjoyed in her youth.

Verity was designed by Rose to be the random factor that could throw the system off kilter.  Anyone who lived a life (which was uncoupled from age) in the City was easily controlled by the Bees and the pheremonal information network.  Verity lived an age linked life outside the city with her neo-Shaker family.  Her experiences and the information given to her in the Dayton Library cocoon shaped her in a way that was unknown to the Bees.  She had been given choice (to a certain extent).  As much as this story is about self-awareness (memories are what make us human) it is also a story about destiny.  Verity was designed to become the new Queen Bee, but there were some things that had to be done that were outside her control to get her to become what she was destined to be.

4)         Verity’s choices to save the people of Cincinnati are examples of Radical Feminism.  Verity tries to save the inhabitants of Cincinnati by giving them a choice to leave.  Because of their connection to the city merely giving them the choice to leave would not have been feasible.  Instead, she choose to infect everyone with the Territory Plague that Blaze had before he was shot by John (the nanwraps and lockers in the terminal in Edgetown had arrested the Territory Plague).  The plague changed the people in ways similar to the way the City could change a person through conversion, but it only targeted the mind.  The people wanted to leave for Norleans by rafting down the Ohio River.  Some decided to stay in spite of the plague.  Sphere, who had been initiated by Dezaray to interface with the City, decided to stay because he was changing in ways that he wanted.  He wanted to become infused with music and his ideal could only be accomplished by staying in the City.

She could not work within the system of patriarchy which was ruled by India.  It was a patriarchy because it was built by a man, Abe Durancy.  He was the “mad scientist.”  He worked mostly alone and he constructed a system that was very complex.  It was filled with his ideas about how things should be.  Did the people who voted for conversion really know what Abe had in mind for them?  Rose had reservations about Abe’s plan for a Bee City.  That is why she decided to build-in systems to put his machinations in check.  Ultimately, Rose’s plans, through Verity, saved the inhabitants of Cincinnati by giving them the ability to leave before the next conversion came.

I.          Verity is a mestiza/hybrid

II.        Elements of Third Wave Feminism

A.        Coalition Politics

B.        Emphasis on New Science and Technology

C.        Roles of the Riot Grrl and Net Chick in Verity

III.       Sons Who Become Bad Fathers and Mothers Who Become Bad Queens

IV.       Verity’s Solution – Radical Feminism


Notes for Final Paper

Abe had convinced his mother to be encoded in the City archives before she passed away.  He had promised her eternal life to enjoy her books and stories that had brought her joy in life.  Because of Abe’s love and adoration for his mother, he had placed her at the head of the Bee hierarchy that controlled and mediated the processes of the City.  She was the Queen Bee.  Using nanotechnology assemblers and DNA and pheromonal encoded information, she ruled over the City to make it the landscape for her own memories and the stories that she loved.  In life, she was probably a good mother to Abe.  Abe followed in her footsteps regarding his love for books.  India might have been a little overbearing and too vocal in her scorn for Rose (and Rose’s mother).

Why is Abe Durancy not present when Verity enters the City?  Before Conversion took place, Rose was killed on her way back to Cincinnati after leaving the family house on the lake.  India had died from a nanplague while her memories were being transferred to the City archives.  When Verity returns to India’s home on the hill overlooking the City, she confronts the core memory.  She rips down the wind chime that was the source of the resonating Bell that had guided her whole life.  Below, in the garden, she witnesses a crisis between Dennis Durancy and the young India.  Dennis says to India, “You’re not her…and I’m not him.  We’re both imperfect, incomplete, insane” (Goonan 365).  He pulls a gun out of his jacket and he first points it at India.  He then brings it up to his head and he kills himself.  Verity is a witness to this in a way that Rose and India could not have been in real life because they were both dead.  Dennis, reacting to his inability to “live” and act in the way that he wanted to, he shot himself to resolve the frustration.  The young India thinks of Dennis as her Abe.  She reacts violently toward Verity because India believes that Dennis had brought Verity/Rose there to save himself.  India blames Verity for the loss of her son, Dennis/Abe.  Abe might have killed himself at some point before Conversion.  He had not included himself in his program that controlled the development of the City.  He had placed all control in his mother, the old Queen.

The people of Cincinnati choose to “buy into” conversion of their city to a utopian Flower City.  Abe Durancy recalls about the illegal memory sponges that he had implanted in his head, “they interfaced directly with the brain, and could hold an infinite variety of assemblers and pheromonal analogs.  They terrified and exhilarated me.  Encyclopedic information flooding into the brain–but whose information, and under whose control” (Goonan 281)?  The memory sponges come part and parcel with Cincinnati once it becomes a flower city.  This is part of the mechanism that allows information to be passed by the Bees and the City through corner interstices.  It could also be perverted into a dangerous weapon because malevolent assemblers could be unleashed in a city to change how a person thinks or to cause injury to the person’s body or mind.  Durancy’s own concern about the memory sponges and implications of the pheromonal information network are pushed aside in his mind when he asks himself, “was I any better than those imagined fascists” (Goonan 281)?   Durancy proceeds with his plans for a Flower City.  He doesn’t try to stop the vote.  Clearly he must consider himself to be better than those who would do evil.  His ideas were good because they were to better humanity in the City of Cincinnati.  He was a fascist, but he did not perceive himself to be so.

Verity uses many different skills to figure out what she must do to correct the cycle of Conversion in Cincinnati.  She is a strong example of someone who steps up to the plate when she is needed by others.

Goonan uses Verity not only to end the rebirth cycle of the Flower City, but Verity also gives voice to those that that have none.  Through Verity we hear Abe Durancy.  We “see” her before she is sent out of the city.  We hear Verity’s thoughts concerning where she fits into the complex game that is played out between Rose and Abe.

The story seems like the progression of destiny.  For example, the characters are travelling down train tracks.  But there are points where the tracks set off in another direction and it is the choice of the character to make the engine jump the tracks in the other direction.  This is the concept of choice in Goonan’s novel.

Abe said in one of Verity’s flashbacks, “some of us, you see, never learn” (Goonan 290).

Rose’s program had been designed to match, play by play, Abe’s program.  Rose’s final action was the creation of the hybrid girl who would be born from nan, be left outside the City to live and experience life that was different from the City, and then be called back to save the City and its inhabitants.

After the Flower City is created and it has undergone (possibly) several iterations of conversion, what has become of Abe Durancy?  What happened to Rose?

Verity interacts with a creation of Rose called Dennis Durancy.  He looks and acts like Abe did, but he is a physical construct.  Dennis is and of the city.  He was never a real person.  Verity contains many of Abe’s memories.  In a sense, Abe Durancy is a part of Verity.  Before the conversion, “Rose, unbeknownst to anyone, had quietly kept herself fully updated in the City archives, as had Durancy” (Goonan 403).  Their memories and experience was encoded in a storage medium.  The life cycles that the City had gone through since Conversion were a game of chess, or a game of tag-you’re-it between Rose and Durancy.  Durancy had built the City to perpetuate his ideas of how the City and its people should be.  Rose had introduced herself to play against Durancy’s narcissism.  Dennis Durancy was a program designed by Rose.  “Abe’s program–perhaps his living intelligence, hiding deep within the Hive, so deep that it no longer had any vestige of humanity” had moved beneath the surface (Goonan 403).

He is like Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein in that he secludes himself when attention is most needed.  Abe has a certain responsibility regarding the creation of the Flower City as did Frankenstein to his creation of the monster.

Verity’s role as mestiza is rooted in the ideas established in Third Wave Feminism.

Verity, a 16 year old young woman, in Kathleen Ann Goonan’s novel, Queen City Jazz, is structured around

Kathleen Ann Goonan’s Queen City Jazz is a novel that is rooted in Third Wave Feminist ideas.  It is also about the mestiza, Verity, who is a hybrid that returns to the city from which she came to unravel its unending cycle of rebirth.  Goonan also uses the mestizos, Blaze and Sphere to augment Verity’s destiny.

Choice is a theme that runs through out the book.  Verity has a choice to become or not to become the Queen Bee of the nancity Cincinnati.  But she was built to fulfill a particular role.  The likelihood of her success was slim (and had been failed by her sisters that tried before her).  The architects of the city (Abe Durancy and Rose)