Diaz’s Golden Mongoose and the Rhetoric surrounding “Non-native” Species

I’ve consistently found that the study of transnational literature in this course has been the study of definitions. Not only those brought to us by Appadurai or Merriam Webster, but definitions of geographic boundaries, as well as conceptual understandings of genres, politics, nationality and race. I continually found myself looking for the “fine lines”, and trying to figure out what lay on this or that side of them – not necessarily to bolster these definitions (as I’m sure we would all sooner interrogate these concepts than reinforce them) – but to thin the lines further, and demonstrate their permeability.

I lead with a digression, primarily because another fine line has come to my attention: that between “Non-native species” and “Invasive species”. The former suggests the controlled introduction of an animal species to a certain area, most often with the intention of using said organism to favorably change the landscape, by eating pests or cultivating the habitat. The latter is the downside of the prior definition; a creature that after migrating to (or have been brought knowingly into) a new continent, becomes uncontrollable, spreading and damaging its surroundings.

The “golden” mongoose that shows up repeatedly in Diaz’s narrative, coming to the aid of Beli and Oscar in turn, performing what might be classified as a Zafa for them both, was once a innocent non-native species, but eventually came to be seen as invasive by farmer’s and average citizens alike. Originally from Asia, the mongoose was deliberately introduced in the 1800s into Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, West Indies and Hawaiian islands in an attempt to control rat populations in sugarcane fields. Since their introduction, they’ve expanded their populations, becoming agents of disease, and economic hindrances to poultry industries.

It is difficult to ignore the way that the language of invasive animal species can translate to the language of human foreignness; of immigration, of the slave trade, of any number of conflicts caused by ethnic and racial tensions that increased with the globalizing world. In truth, it saddens me how easily transferable this way of speaking is to the subject of humanity. What transnational movement itself exposes, in Diaz, in Bulawayo, in Hamid, in Larsen, in Didion and Bowles even, is how we prickle at the idea of the unfiltered flowing of people across borders and boundaries. Most notably, these works have revealed our short memories; how easily we can forget that the individuals now decried for residing in a certain region may once have been those introduced for the purposes of aiding that region. We might forget that they did their jobs well. We might only remember to see them as foreign, a slippery slope to the term “invasive”.

This picture has more or less been painted multiple times over, globally and historically. Yet the fine line between “native”, “non-native” and “invasive” in terms of human politics, continues to be utilized (although the language has transformed, or been bolstered or disguised) despite the fact that the rhetoric is hazy at best, and hateful at worst.

Tayryn Edwards

Multinational Muppets: Sesame Street Around the World

A few years back I visited my cousins in India, and one day we turned on the television in the living room looking for something to watch. After scrolling through news channels and Indian soap operas, we landed on the local cartoon station, greeted by a band of furry creatures immediately recognizable as Jim Henson’s muppets. I would later find out that the show we happened upon was Galli Galli Sim Sim, the Indian version of Sesame Street. The characters on the show speak a mix of English and Hindi, and most of them have counterparts in the original, American version of Sesame Street. For example, Boombah the lion bears several similarities to Big Bird, Googly the blue muppet is a pretty clear match with Grover, and Kewal Khadoosa is actually related to Oscar the Grouch himself (according to Muppet Wiki). Anyway, the point to all of this is that these Sesame Street characters are manifestations of transnational figures. Having grown up in America watching shows like Sesame Street, I was shocked that Indians would be able to watch Sesame Street in their own homes, let alone have their own modified version of the show.

Original Cast

In fact, Sesame Street has over 25 spinoffs in various countries around the world, ranging from Takalani Sesame in South Africa to Sesamstraße in Germany, and each show has a modified version of the original cast. Usually the cast is modified in a way reflective of the adopted culture, such as Boombah’s love for the Indian dance form of bhangra or the name Googly’s double meaning as a cricket term for a type of delivery bowled by a right-arm leg spin bowler. In this way, the various iterations of Sesame Street characters are actually an interesting lens through which to look at transnationalism, as they highlight the universal love for children across the world for these multicolored creatures, while also playing off of the cultural differences that make each show’s characters unique.

– Joe Joseph

Transnational Unity in Casablanca and The Sheltering Sky

Set during World War Two, Casablanca stars Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine, an American expatriate who runs an upscale nightclub in Morocco. Rick is entirely apathetic to the war in Europe, seeking no part in the traffic of human lives from war-torn Europe to the (then) peaceful United States. His apathy is challenged when an ex-lover, Ilsa Lund, arrives in Casablanca. She comes dating a new man — Victor Laszlo — a Cezch resitance leader struggling to escape to America. Rick’s nightclub is a veritable model of heterogeneity, featuring small clashes between a group of Nazi officers and allied patrons.

Tensions come to a head when a group of Nazi officers sing the German patriotic anthem in the middle of the club. Laszlo responds by telling the house jazz band to play La Marseillaise, the French national anthem. For a moment, the potentially disjoint group comes together in song. This is not Appadurai’s modern world – syncretism is not chaotic and plurality does not cause disjuncture. Spaniards, Americans, Brits, Moroccans, and Frenchmen all fervently unite in singing a French national anthem. Gone are the individualistic concerns of solitary nations; in their place a new transnational mode of thinking is born. The cries of “Vive la France” don’t refer to France as a specific nation, but rather to France as an ideal of Allied unity.

It is likely that the moment could only have occurred during wartime – during a period in human history wherein mutual fears of destruction push humans to hitherto unseen levels of solidarity. One has a hard time imagining anything of the sort happening in a post-war world (I count myself as one of the doubtless many Americans who does not know the words to La Marseillaise). World War Two pushed disparate people together in perhaps artificial and unsustainable ways. It is thus interesting to consider The Sheltering Sky as a foil to Casablanca — as an exploration of the limited forces that bind together men once war’s unifying thread is removed. For if Casablanca  ultimately urges the unification of Allied forces, The Sheltering Sky is by in large an exploration of what little binds those forces once war is over.


Maternalism and American Exceptional In Lazarus’ “The New Colossus”


Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Written in 1883 to commemorate the State of Liberty, Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus” helps reify our discussion of American Exceptionalism. The poem was immortalized in 1903 when it was engraved on the statue’s lower pedestal. Its placement upon such prime real estate creates a relatively unique intersection of literature and international policy – the sponsorship of New York City governance transforms this poem from an exclusively literary object into a state-sponsored affirmation of America’s (ostensible) relation to the world.

The poem attempts to place America outside of a traditional imperial framework by defining America in maternalistic terms. If the international relations of other countries are dominated by a testosterone-fueled desire to conqueror with “limbs astride from land to land,” the Statue of liberty is a “mother of exiles” – a compassionate protector of the homeless. Possessing both “mild eyes” and an ability to “command / The air-bridged harbor that the twin cities frame,” Lazarus imbues the statue (and thus America) with a latent power that is held in check by a mild, “welcome[ing]” countenance.

In this sense, the poem is reminiscent of Sarah Jewett’s “The Foreigner.” Both works strive to exempt America from the pernicious effects of being a world power by framing America as a maternalistic nation – a country devoted to protecting oppressed peoples of the world, a country with none of the imperial intentions that define those other superpowers.

It is thus with the most bitter irony that the New-York State Woman Suffrage Assocation was denied attendance at the Statue of Liberty’s unveiling. To retaliate, the group “hired a boat for themselves and without asking anybody’s leave took up one of the most favorable positions for viewing the ceremonies on the island.” If the governors of New York were not willing to allow the Women’s Suffrage Association to attend the unveiling of this ostensibly maternalistic statue, it is dubious that Lazarus’ maternalistic ideal represents the reality of American ideology.


The Displaced Person–Flannery O’Connor


(Preface: I love Flannery O’Connor. Read her.)

Flannery O’Connor is one of the most regionally specific writers I can think of. She’s up there with Jhumpa Lahiri or Steinbeck (India & Boston and Central California, respectively.) Flannery’s stories all take place in the South and are about Southern people and the values they may or may not possess. Flannery O’Connor hated the south and I love her for it. Raised in the south, she went away to the University of Iowa to study creative writing, but had to return to her family’s farm in Georgia after being diagnosed with Lupus. She was a devout Roman Catholic, which I think really informs her understanding of human nature. She’s part of the “Southern Gothic” subgenre, which is characterized by a critique of southern values.

At this point, you might think I’ve forgotten this is a transnational lit class, however, I have not. O’Connor’s story “The Displaced Person” tells the story of a farm run by a widow that employs both black and white farmhands. The woman’s pastor has arranged for her to hire a family of Holocaust survivors, the Guizacs,  termed “displaced people,” coming from Poland after WWII. The father of the family is quite good at his job and has a variety of skills that the other white farmhand does not have. The widow eventually fires the white farmhand so that she can pay the D.P. more, to incentivize him to stay. The wife of the white farmhand has a stroke the day they have to leave the farm. The widow finds out the DP (to use O’Connor’s abbreviation) wants to bring one of his cousins to the US, securing her green card by marrying her to a black farmhand. The widow freaks out and intends to fire him. When she goes to fire him, he is run over by a tractor, which is sort of crazy. The widow dies lonely and destitute. This all occurs because the transnational enters the regional. 

This story deals with both xenophobia and racism. Until the point that the white farmhand is fired, the story focuses on the white farmhand’s wife, Mrs. Shortley, who is friends with the widow, Mrs. McIntyre. After they are fired, the focus switches to Mrs. McIntryre. Both women are extremely ignorant but insanely self righteous. Mrs. Shortley repeatedly says the DP cannot talk. The entire Guizac family can speak of course, they just don’t speak English. Shortley believes that their inability to speak English translates to an inability to drive a tractor or, strangely, tell that their curtains are made of red and green burlap, and so they don’t match. She also tells McIntyre that the Guizacs probably speak more English than they’re letting on, they just want to pretend to not understand so they can do whatever they like. Shortley is concerned about the stability of her husband’s job, and is suspicious of the pastor’s motivations in placing the Guizac’s at the farm.

McIntyre is in denial of the severity of the Holocaust. This is made evident when she finds out that father Guizac has plans to bring his cousin over to marry a farmhand. She says, “You would bring this poor innocent child over her and try to marry her to a half-witted thieving black stinking nigger! What kind of monster are you!” O’Connor is being heavy handed, because the cousin has literally been in three different concentration camps, subjected to the monster that was Hitler, but I think that her use of subject and situation makes the story intelligent and readable, rather than a straightforward tale of morality. She later says, “My obligation is to the people who’ve done something for their country, not to the ones who’ve just come over to take advantage of what they can get.” and repeatedly mentions how ungrateful the Guizac’s are of her hospitality.

I think what strikes me in this story is the conflict between these women’s racism and their fear of immigrants. Shortley hates the Guizacs because they are better workers than any of the “american” farmhands, black or white. McIntyre loves the immigrants until they do not share her racist ideas, at which point she attempts to get rid of them, saying that they don’t deserve her help. As I’ve reread this story, and now writing this, I just have to wonder; has anything changed? Sure, the homelands of the immigrants are different now, but fear of the other and racism are still present today. The judgement in O’Connor’s story is clear—Shortley dies, McIntyre loses her entire staff and dies alone, knowing she caused the death of a Holocaust survivor. Again, it’s heavy handed, but maybe it needs to be.


Frank McCourt

After writing my last post, I began thinking about the ways in which the people of a certain nation are exposed to the characteristics of people of different cultures and nationalities than their own (whether within that nation or throughout the world). Specifically, I was interested in how various kinds of media (and especially more “historical” accounts of certain peoples) can greatly influence cultural understandings or perceptions of them within a nation. I also thought it important to note the reliability and potential agendas of the source producing that media, and whether even the most “personal” of accounts carry more weight than they originally set out to. In essence, I came to wonder at how we choose which sources to give more weight to in shaping our understandings of various cultures, how we deal with subjectivity, how we attempt to bridge the gap between cultures, and if we can even do the latter.

To this day, my father contends that Angela’s Ashes (1996) by Frank McCourt is “the greatest book ever written in the English language.” My father is not Irish (as was McCourt), but he is an immigrant and is also familiar with Irish history. Still, I believe that his love for the book stems from the way in which McCourt describes the struggles that he and his family faced upon moving to New York in the 1930s. I have only read part of the memoir, but there is something of the universal experience of the (impoverished) immigrant traveling to the U.S. and struggling to assimilate and thrive which is quite apparent and quite compelling within even the first few chapters. Angela’s Ashes also deals with his family’s interactions with the Irish community within New York.

Thus, I thought that Frank McCourt would be a good candidate for an important transnational figure. McCourt was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1930 to two Irish immigrant parents: Malachy and Angela Sheehan McCourt. From McCourt’s youth, his father squandered much of the family’s money on drinking; the family thus struggled with poverty. After one of McCourt’s siblings died, the family moved back to Limerick, Ireland, wherein their quality of life worsened. Angela’s Ashes describes the desperate circumstances under which McCourt’s family had to survive in Ireland while navigating through its poor economic conditions and its entrenched cultural, social, and religious expectations. It is only by the time McCourt is nineteen that he finally earns enough money to travel back to the United States to endeavor, as did his family, once again for a better life. McCourt passed away in 2009.

On one hand, with recountings like McCourt’s, a nation might come to understand the unique contexts (and especially struggles) that people of other nationalities face. On the other hand, one cannot ignore that McCourt was writing from his personal experience and perhaps did not intend for his memoir to become the account of the Irish immigrant experience that it did. What makes such an account so compelling?

Could it be, perhaps, that its portrayal of the hardship of immigration is actually transnational in nature? That Frank McCourt is a figure for the transnational experience within a person (pitting the Irish experience against the American one)?

Angela’s Ashes won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography in 1996.


Ethnic Diversity in Fandoms


One experiment in diversity that’s gained a lot of attention on the internet is the idea of “race-bending” disney princesses. It started from an artist on tumblr known as Let There Be Doodles who reimagined the different Disney princesses if they came from different ethnicities. This was partly in response to the introduction of Princess Tiana, the first African-American Disney princess, to the franchise. This shows the discrepancy that the media franchise has with its fan base. One common criticism of the American media is that it has a tendency to “white-wash” movies and television, showing a far smaller representation of minorities than would be accurate within the time period and place of the movie. (I addressed this in a previous blog entry regarding Cinderella.) Fandoms are born from enjoying a certain genre, book, tv show, or another form of media, but they also are known to give opinions and make decisions about how they wish they could change aspects of the thing that they enjoy. This is one such example. It shows a new power in the social media: Any person with access to a computer may now respond critically to a form of media largely controlled by a homogenous elite, and converse with other people who share the same, similar, or different opinions. In this case, it shows a fandom wanting to impose more ethnic diversity in a well-known, largely white movie franchise.