Khaled Sharrouf: Terrorist or Transnational Figure?

Khaled Sharrouf is one of the sixty or so Australian nationals fighting on behalf of the Islamic State, most often referred to in the media as ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria). Before this August, he was relatively little-known. He had been in and out of local courts throughout his childhood, had plead guilty to a terrorism charge in 2009 on the basis of mental illness, and had fled to Syria on his brother’s passport last year- none of which sparked more attention than usual. But on August 10th he captured the disgust and outrage of people around the world with a photo posted on Twitter. It was of a young boy, around 7 years old, who is likely to be Sharrouf’s son. He is dressed like any suburban Australian kid, with a blue polo shirt, plaid shorts and a baseball cap, but in his hands he is holding a severed head. From the expression on his face and the way he is hoisting it up with two hands, you can tell it is almost too heavy for him to carry. “That’s my boy!” says the caption.

Some of globalization’s more optimistic proponents believe that encouraging contact between people around the world using social media tools like Twitter will foster a greater understanding of humanity, making violent conflict less likely. But here is an example of a father purposefully exposing his 7-year-old son to the barbarity of an extremist ideology in a region that is very far from home. Sharrouf and other expatriate terrorists raise the possibility that the flow of information constantly at our fingertips is not always a positive product of globalization, and that it can even exacerbate the violence it claims to prevent. Are there other situations in which globalization has been harmful rather than helpful? And how is the violence that is inevitably tied to globalization portrayed in the readings of our class?

(Apologies for this post’s morbid content. A link to the article is here.)

Xanthe Gallate

Sea is History

Sea is History

Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?
Where is your tribal memory? Sirs,
in that gray vault. The sea. The sea
has locked them up. The sea is History.

First, there was the heaving oil,
heavy as chaos;
then, like a light at the end of a tunnel,

the lantern of a caravel,
and that was Genesis.
Then there were the packed cries,
the shit, the moaning:

Bone soldered by coral to bone,
mantled by the benediction of the shark’s shadow,

that was the Ark of the Covenant.
Then came from the plucked wires
of sunlight on the sea floor

the plangent harp of the Babylonian bondage,
as the white cowries clustered like manacles
on the drowned women,

and those were the ivory bracelets
of the Song of Solomon,
but the ocean kept turning blank pages

looking for History.
Then came the men with eyes heavy as anchors
who sank without tombs,

brigands who barbecued cattle,
leaving their charred ribs like palm leaves on the shore,
then the foaming, rabid maw

of the tidal wave swallowing Port Royal,
and that was Jonah,
but where is your Renaissance?

Sir, it is locked in them sea sands
out there past the reef’s moiling shelf,
where the men-o’-war floated down;

strop on these goggles, I’ll guide you there myself.
It’s all subtle and submarine,
through colonnades of coral,

past the gothic windows of sea fans
to where the crusty grouper, onyx-eyed,
blinks, weighted by its jewels, like a bald queen;

and these groined caves with barnacles
pitted like stone
are our cathedrals,

and the furnace before the hurricanes:
Gomorrah. Bones ground by windmills
into marl and cornmeal,

and that was Lamentations –
that was just Lamentations,
it was not History;

then came, like scum on the river’s drying lip,
the brown reeds of villages
mantling and congealing into towns,

and at evening, the midges’ choirs,
and above them, the spires
lancing the side of God

as His son set, and that was the New Testament.

Then came the white sisters clapping
to the waves’ progress,
and that was Emancipation –

jubilation, O jubilation –
vanishing swiftly
as the sea’s lace dries in the sun,

but that was not History,
that was only faith,
and then each rock broke into its own nation;

then came the synod of flies,
then came the secretarial heron,
then came the bullfrog bellowing for a vote,

fireflies with bright ideas
and bats like jetting ambassadors
and the mantis, like khaki police,

and the furred caterpillars of judges
examining each case closely,
and then in the dark ears of ferns

and in the salt chuckle of rocks
with their sea pools, there was the sound
like a rumour without any echo

of History, really beginning.

Derek Walcott, a prolific writer of St. Lucian descent, synthesizes diasporic and Western literary histories, using his poetic prowess to develop narratives that  encourage readers to expand their theoretical frameworks. To many, the Caribbean is a region lacking the rich history found in the West. In the first few lines a critical voice asks, “Where are your monuments, your battles, your martrys? Where is your tribal history? In response, Walcott offers the sea as a source of history, as point from which the Caribbean can develop a source of identity. Using the sea as a transnational space, this poem develops a history, present, and future for the Caribbean.

Walcott draws from canonical texts, especially the Christian bible, to reimagine iconic scenes from the Western imagination. Genesis is masterfully renvisioned as the lantern of a caravel, while Exodus is depicted as bone soldered by coral to bone. Walcott serves as the reader’s guide, showing her the sea’s renaissance and cathedrals. As Walcott transitions from ancient history to the present, the imagery also begins to change. The reader is introduced to a host of colorful animals: she meets the bullfrog bellowing for the vote, fireflies with bright ideas, and bats like jetting ambassadors (Walcott “Sea is History”).

In the first half of this poem, the sea is put forth as a transnational space, one where diasporic and western history share common themes and structures. The latter half breaks from narrative of the earlier portion. Soon after reaching emancipation, the transnational space Walcott created suddenly ruptures: “But that was not History, that was only faith and then each rock broke into its own nation” ( Walcott “Sea is History). For Walcott, history is just beginning.

-Kailyn Amory

Chandra Talpade Mohanty and Transnational Feminism

“I say, ‘What do you ladies do on the [military] base all day?’ They say ‘We go into the local Taliban-run town and speak to the women there about women’s rights.’ I say, “Oh. Do you all speak Afghani or whatever it [language] is?” They say, “No.” I say, “Oh…Well. Do they speak English?”. They say, “No.” So I’m like, “Let me get this straight: our federal government is paying for you to go into the local Taliban-run town and play a game of charades…and try to trick [Afghani] women into leaving their husbands?”

This anecdote is by no means from Mohanty herself, but rather from comedian Kathleen Madigan as she discusses a conversation that occurred during her time in Afghanistan performing for American troops. I relay it here as it provides a poignant introduction, or maybe even a trickling down to a colloquial level, of the ironies central to Western feminism’s difficulty in crossing borders, or even encompassing a global female experience; ironies that post colonial and transnational feminist Chandra Talpade Mohanty has been drawing attention to in her studies for the several years.

As a professor and department chair of Women’s and Gender Studies Sociology at Syracuse University, Chandra Talpade Mohanty has been advancing the conversation about feminist dealings beyond the sphere of Western conventions for the past three decades. Born in Mumbai India in 1955, Mohanty remained in the country throughout her young life, receiving her Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree in English from the University of Delhi, before finishing her education in the US with a Master’s Degree in Education from the University of Illinois Urbana – Champaign. Her first published paper, “Under the Western Eye: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses”, as well as her recent book  Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidaritybrought critical attention to the multifaceted nature of the female experience, as it develops differently across eras, regions and classes throughout the world. Mohanty posits that this understanding or viewing of womanhood as globally diverse is often glossed over in the Western feminist construct; or worst yet, is regimented to a category of the “Third World Woman”, which squeezes females living in the southern hemisphere into a boxed conception of the based on what little information is known about the plights of their countries or regions. Mohanty points out these issues not simply as a means of critiquing Western feminism, but of illustrating areas for reconciliation – of building “transnational solidarity” between the women of the Third World, and the women of the West. What Mohanty brings to light, in a substantially more intellectually rooted way than Madigan, is essentially the need to move away from a “game of charades”, and toward real, equal and intelligent discourse.

Tayryn Edwards

Bilingual Blues

Throughout We Need New Names, the characters use the languages they speak (and the levels of grammatical correctness they use) as a way of expressing their personal identities and showing how they are able to interact with the people around them. In a poetry excerpt from “Bilingual Blues,” Gustavo Pérez Firmat shares some of the difficulties he has encountered while juggling two languages by shifting back and forth between Spanish and English at varying frequencies throughout the stanzas (he explains more of his personal bilingual experiences in this interview with NPR):

Soy un ajiaco de contradicciones.

I have mixed feelings about everything.

Name your tema, I’ll hedge;

name your cerca, I’ll straddle it

like a cubano.

I have mixed feelings about everything.

Soy un ajiaco de contradicciones.

Vexed, hexed, complexed,

hyphenated, oxygenated, illegally alienated,

psycho soy, cantando voy:

You say tomato,

I say tu madre;

You say potato,

I say Pototo.

Let’s call the hole

un hueco, the thing

a cosa, and if the cosa goes into the hueco,

consider yourself en casa,

consider yourself part of the family.

Soy un ajiaco de contradicciones,

un puré de impurezas:

a little square from Rubik’s Cuba

que nadie nunca acoplará.


This poem seems to call into question which language—and accompanying cultural context—Firmat wants to use at any given time. The idea that he is constantly “hedging” and “straddling” the divisions between sides of how to look at situations indicates that each language comes with its own way of thinking. Referring to oneself as “hyphenated” may also speak to the “twoness” of having the heritage of one culture and then living in and trying to assimilate into another.

One of the concepts that appears most striking to me in the second half of We Need New Names is the significance of “home” languages and the changes that occur in language use in the context of immigration. Darling explains that “TK doesn’t understand his father’s language…because he is not from Ghana, his mother is American and he was born here” and then later comments “Because we were not in our country, we could not use our own language, and so when we spoke our voices came out bruised” (154, 242). For Darling, as a first-generation immigrant, using the language that she grew up with seems to act as a form of self-expression that can only occur in limited ways. For TK, who ostensibly grew up expressing himself in only English, having an understanding of his parents’ languages does not seem to appeal to him as a way of sharing in his parents’ experiences of their cultures.

With this in mind, it seems that multilingualism could, at its most extreme, make it difficult to form and maintain one worldview. In the example of We Need New Names, I wonder whether or not Darling would consider English the “default” language of her American household, or which language she thinks in while in Zimbabwe versus America, since we read the entire text as English.


Dvorak, Larsen, and the Americas

Dvorak was born in 1841 in the modern day Czech Republic. His interest in American music was piqued when he traveled to the United States in 1892, soon falling in love with the melodies of African-American composer and singer Harry T. Burleigh. Seeking to capture “the spirit” of American music, Dvorak began composing “convinced that the future music of this country must be founded on what are called Negro melodies.” He finished his Symphony From The New World in Spillville, Iowa, a colony of Czech immigrants who allayed the composer’s debilitating sense of homesickness.

The Largo movement of the symphony is notable for its similarity to the American spiritual. The piece sounded so patently American that it was often mistaken for a traditional folk song. Many claimed that Dvorak’s Largo ripped its melody from the negro spiritual Goin’ Home – some scholarship suggests that in fact the reverse is true.  Regardless of whose story you believe, the confusion underscores a collapse in the once distinct spheres of trans-Atlantic music, a collapse that would come to define twentieth-century popular music in both the Americas and Europe (consider the reciprocity between American Rock music and the British Invasion).

It is thus fitting that the symphony features prominently in the concluding chapters of Quicksand. Larsen writes that Helga’s sudden decision to return to America is inspired by a “wonderful” rendition of Dvorak’s “New World Symphony.” Indeed, it is the piece’s “wailing undertones of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”’ that ultimately compel Helga to return the United States(94). The inclusion at first seems uncanny – why would a Czech composer’s rendition of the American spiritual fill Helga with nostalgia for the states?  Upon closer examination, however, the inclusion points to the way Europe functions as a foil in Quicksand: it is only through the lens of Europe that Helga manages to see the promise of America and its culture.


Las Vegas: Transnational?

In Antonio Gomez’s photo series “Las Vegas Boulevard Project,” he takes pictures of different landmarks along Las Vegas Boulevard and overlays them, often creating surprising or contradictory images. When speaking about his work, Gomez says, “Las Vegas is a place where you can travel to different countries just by crossing the street. You can be in New York on one side of the street and be in a European castle on the other. In creating these simulacra, Las Vegas became a wonderful one-of-a-kind city found nowhere else in the world.” This feature of a city, which he also notes is something that can be thought of in a less positive way, in that the city is simply an imitation, or illusion, presents an interesting kind of transnationalism.

In our discussion the “We Need New Names” by NoViolet Bulawayo, we talked about the media’s role in our perception of places, for example, America for Darling is all fancy cars and TVs and wealth. Las Vegas is an interesting example of this aspect of transnationalism because not only is it a place that really has no unique landmarks of its own; it also takes only the best-known landmarks of each city that it imitates. While you can find the Mona Lisa, the Eiffel Tower, and a pyramid all in the span of a few blocks, even these already artificial imitations of these landmarks are further limited by the fact that they are such cliched representations of each place. While the Eiffel Tower is certainly iconic of Paris, it is hard to imagine a Parisian arguing that they feel at home in Las Vegas because there is a replica of the Eiffel Tower on Las Vegas Boulevard. In a similar way that the “NGO people’s” photos of Darling and her friends reinforce stereotypes that all of Africa is nothing but starving children who need humanitarian aid, these singular, iconic representations of entire cities or countries intend to make Las Vegas cosmopolitan, but really just reduce these places to a singular stereotype or icon. Gomez’s photos juxtapose these symbols in such way that the viewer questions these assumptions and stereotypes, and recognizes the illusory aspects of them.

Full gallery here:

National Geographic Article here:

Yevanit Reschechtko

Italian immigration: a transnational issue

This photo was taken by a Guardian photographer earlier this year. It shows a boat of African immigrants (sometimes referred to as refugees, depending on the source…) on their way to southern Italy. In many African countries, poverty, unemployment, malnutrition, war, national service conscriptions, and other issues compel citizens to pay people-smugglers to ship them to Italy, one of the closest European countries to the northern coast of Africa. This eerie picture portrays a boat crammed with 300 people just off the coast, right before it was intercepted by the Italian coast guard. The birds-eye view conveys the terrifying, cramped anonymity of the situation: according to the article accompanying this photo, 60 thousand immigrants arrived on the Italian coast between January and June 2014, and tiny towns are struggling to house and support influxes of several thousand refugees at once.

My family lives in Florence, where the African “community” consists of Somalian immigrants who sell fake designer bags on the streets. Residents of southern Italy are hugely critical of the situation; they believe the European Union isn’t doing enough to divert immigrants from Italy and “protect” Italian borders. They claim that because the immigrants come in search of EU citizenship and just happen to land in Italy, the EU should be sending more resources and aid to the borders. The EU in turn blames the Italian government for being inefficient and failing to handle the issue well.

The transnational dynamics of the situation are really delicate. The typical narrative about “illegal” immigration usually leaves out an important detail– that immigrants often have no choice but to leave their countries. This point is echoed in We Need New Names— there is nothing in Zimbabwe for Darling and her friends and family. The only way to imagine a future is to see it in America. So the solution can’t be as simple as deportation. But in this case, Italy’s porous borders belong not only to the nation but to a larger transnational group– the EU. The decision of what to do about the immigration issue must occur in a transnational space, where the Italian government, the EU, and the country-less Somalian (or Eritrean, or Syrian, or Ghanaian) immigrants can compromise.

The immigrants in this tiny boat must literally sit on one buttock lest they be asked to leave. They often come into Italy seeking asylum– they can’t claim the country as a home, only as a refuge. In this situation, unfortunately, the multi-layered responsibilities of the different authorities who can take action have caused a deadlock in policy, so that it seems that they won’t be able to sit comfortably for a long time.


Ethical Consumerism and Glocal Slactivists

This video, produced and distributed by Greenpeace (the transnational implications of which I think will yield a discussion too much for this blog post, so I’m not even going there), depicts the environmental impacts of clothing factories that produce garments in impoverished regions for sale by major brands and chains in wealthier nations. Greenpeace lauds the efforts of activists, bloggers, models, designers, etc. to persuade big brands such as Zara, H&M, Valentino, and UNIQLO to commit to “toxic-free fashion” – manufacturing their product in ways that don’t contribute to environmental destruction or degradation of human health and livelihood. Of course, consumers also operate in this, compelled to boycott brands that fail to exhibit corporate social responsibility lest they play a complicit role. People often go out of their way to purchase products that have been manufactured responsibly, readily paying higher prices for organic or fair trade coffee, chocolate, textiles, jewelry – nearly every kind of good boasts a brand of this type.

Reading We Need New Names has left me fixated on the implications of humanitarianism in a globalized or transnational context – which is, of course, necessarily the arena in which humanitarian efforts are undertaken as the local becomes increasingly global.

It can be argued that ethical consumerism is effective in that it is a manageable and accessible way to contribute positively to the global good; a small alteration in an American’s habits that ostensibly better the lives of coffee farmers in Guatemala. But is it effective? Is ethical consumerism simply a mode of “slacktivism”? What even constitutes slacktivism, and is remote involvement always categorically defined as such? How can we categorize the effectiveness of the transnational reach of such efforts? Are these questions even answerable in the forum of our class blog?? Comment and let’s find out!

– Isabella Mckinley-Corbo

Czeslaw Milosz: A Transnational Poet


Czeslaw Milosz, a Polish poet who defected to the United States in the mid-20th Century, exemplifies the cross-cultural influences characteristic of transnational literary figures. Born in Lithuania in 1911, the child of recent immigrants from Poland, Milosz grew up familiar to the transient spaces of migration and transnational living. He would inhabit many different spaces throughout his lifetime, each movement corresponding to periods of political upheaval and change. Milosz witnessed several regime changes throughout his lifetime, living in Eastern Europe through both World Wars and during the rise of the communist state. Eventually, in the 1950s Milosz defected to the West, leaving his native Poland to live in Paris, where he would remain for the next decade before finally immigrating to the United States. Throughout this time, Milosz made a name for himself as a prominent writer and poet, examining his life of social and political turmoil through the lens of a transmigrant.

Milosz’s writing closely reflects his own experiences, examining Eastern Europe through its many periods of conflict and political transformations. Yet, as a resident of both the East and West, Milosz is able to characterize these historical events through a new, transnational lens, incorporating views and influences from both his communist past as well as from western capitalism. As a resident of multiple, dissimilar places across the world, Milosz is able to merge an array of cultures and bring his own experiences to new national audiences. Even after moving to the United States, he continued to write in his native Polish, further connecting his subject matter to his homeland and transcending borders as a transnational poet.

Audrey McFarland


This poem, written and performed by a Stanford student, makes use of the word “transnational” in an unexpected way. The poet presents a multifaceted exploration of identity through his own experience as a young transgender man of color. He describes the process of becoming a man as a dual struggle. There has been debate in the trans community (as mentioned in last week’s New York Times Magazine piece about Wellesley College) about whether or not trans men—especially white trans men—can contribute to patriarchy. This question, and the white man’s historical role as a colonizer and oppressor, makes him consider whether coming to terms with his identity alienates him from women in his community and from his own culture.

He argues that becoming a man does not necessarily entail aligning oneself with the group that has always held the balance of power: “There are ways of being a man that do not involve being a white man.” He also describes the classic second-generation difficulty of taking advantage of a modern, permissive American culture while maintaining a connection to the nation of his mother and grandmother. He comes to the conclusion that it is possible to unite the two, and that the most important thing is that he is honest with himself and does not lose touch with the feminine values with which he was raised.

I found this to be a touching and topical piece: while the world is becoming more open to a spectrum of gender identities, trans people still spend their lives being told they are not “real” men/women, and white members of the LGBTQ+ community are often accused of ignoring or drowning out the voices of their POC counterparts. I’d be interested to hear others’ perspectives on the transnational concepts that are at work in this poem.

Sophie Downes

(The text of the poem is below.) Continue reading trans/national