Erin Krebs, Politics through Three Prisms

Politics through Three Prisms

A Final Essay by Erin Krebs

American Literature in the World

Professor Wai Chee Dimock

Yale College Spring 2015

Politics through Three Prisms

As light travels through a prism, it is refracted and dispersed into different streams of

colors. The journey and the framework determine the colored perspective it offers. Through

literature, authors construct prisms that reintroduce us to the functions of the world around us,

including that of politics. Authors, through the ways that they choose to reveal geopolitical

context, reveal the characters’ relationships with their cultural identities and the implications of

citizenship. Dave Eggers and Valentino Achak Deng’s What is the What, Barbara Kingsolver’s

The Poisonwood Bible, and Junot Díaz’ The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao present

narratives that unveil geopolitical conflict through extremely different tactics. Deng partners with

author Dave Eggers to craft a novel with Deng as the narrator and delves into his life as a

refugee. As Eggers’ narrator reminisces and delivers mini-lectures on Sudanese politics to

apathetic bystanders and Kingsolver uses mainly naive narrators to paint the Congolese

independence as the backdrop of a new life, Diaz’s explanation of politics is presented through

the ever-present, timeless dictator of Trujillo.

As the story of a refugee, Dave Egger’s What is the What: The Autobiography of

Valentino Achak Deng is laced with feelings of rejection, of being ignored.  The ethnic conflict

between the Dinka, the black African peoples of the Southern Sudan, and the Arab militia, the

murahaleen (Arabic for travel), is a specifically Sudanese conflicts and determined his status as

refugee. The two ways the politics of the Second Sudanese Civil War (1983- 2005), are

gradually given to the audience is similar to the novel’s flashback structure. As the novel flips

between Deng’s story in the refugee camps of Africa and his life as a refugee in Georgia, the

revelation of politics shifts from that of a childhood naivete to a justification for his need to be

Deng initially experiences the conflict at this micro-level of ethnic conflict. He

reconstructs his childhood understanding of the conflict in a particularly symbolic scene in which

his father’s Arabic trading partner Sadiq forces him to get on a horse and to praise Allah, though

Deng is not Muslim. The horse, an animal integral to the Arabic culture, bites him, which leaves

him feeling embittered. The ethnic tension is largely foreshadowed, but it is palpable for the

reader in the unnerving, childhood experience of Deng.

When Deng’s apartment is robbed by a couple, they leave a boy named Michael to keep

watch and through his interactions with Michael, a young, tough black male, Deng begins to

vocalize the context of his story in a didactic way to a boy who sits watch for the two robbers.

Deng feels frustrated by the boy’s willingful ignorance, though the boy embodies a somewhat

comparable experience of a rough childhood. First, he brings up the initial presence of Arabic

influence. He earnestly counters the basic explanation of this conflict that he admits that the Lost

Boys themselves have perpetuated, the narrative that oversimplifies the abrupt presence of Arabs

“ Yes, sharia had been imposed, in a sweeping series of laws called the September Laws.

But the new order had not reached our town, and there was doubt that it would. More

crucial was the government’s tearing up of the 1972 Addis Ababa agreement, which gave

the south a degree of self-rule. In its place the south was divided into three regions, which

effectively pitted each of them against the others, with no region left with any significant

government power at all” ( Eggers 34).

It is unclear whether the isolated and repressed Deng is actually completely vocalizing this

history to Michael or he is only thinking this. This summary is “delivered” to Michael until the

narrator realizes that Michael is blatantly ignoring him and silences him. Dut’s, a leader of the

“Lost” boys, delivers a mini-lecture about the British to Deng as a young boy, which blends

Eggers’ two modes of revealing context.

Dut lectures to the boys about the British and Egyptian desire to control the Sudan for the

Nile River. When introducing the British, Dut frames them as almighty in the global political

sphere. The narrator retains this knowledge, reconstructs his childhood ignorance and compares

the British to powerful Arab militiamen, “thinking of the murahaleen, but larger versions of

them” (108). Dut speaks of the British as a positive influence on the South Sudan, for they bring

education to the Sudan. Ultimately, however, the British end up relinquishing their power to

focus on other global conflicts at the time. Dut describes to the young Valentino by decreeing,

“Your fate, all of our fates, were sealed fifty years ago by a small group of people from England.

They had every ability to draw a line between north and south, but they were convinced by the

Arabs not to” (109). The British presence is ultimately characterized supreme and yet

simultaneously as irresponsible and easily tricked by the conniving Arabs. In a retrospective

sense, the global players of this novel are often condemned as fools, despite their massive

Eggers continues to set the political stage by telling his story to those who seem to be

rejecting his struggles as he begins discussing the presence of oil in the Sudanese narrative.  It is

clear that he attempts to attach weight to his tales by adding the international element. While at

the hospital, he tries to secure the attention of Julian, a friendly but busy nurse. Deng recounts

the importance of George H W Bush, whom he speaks about as a well-known American figure,

and his involvement in the discovery of oil deposits in the Sudan. He reveals that when the

deposits were found, their presence challenged the north-south division of the Sudan and the

ownership of resources. This leads to the removal of the Nuer people in the areas of oil to avoid

interference, which includes the family of the protagonist’s friend Lino. Achak is aware of the

significance of oil retrospectively and reflects on this time period with a reclamatory sense of

what was occurring him as his childhood world began to fall apart. Retrospective knowledge

allows him to no longer be a powerless child. The Poisonwood Bible depicts encounters with a

similarly controversial natural resource, diamond, and colonialism and their holds on the lives of

The Poisonwood Bible is told from the perspective of outsiders, and thus the conflict of

the Congo is initially relegated to an inferior importance in their personal narratives. As a white,

Christian family from the American South, the Price’s know very little of the country they come

to change. This unawareness is integral to the novel’s exploration of geopolitical conflict because

it allows the learning to manifest differently and gradually within each of the narrators, the

Price’s young daughters. The Congolese struggle for independence is woven as a plot point of

added conflict into the domestic interactions and contentious relationships of this novel.

The novel’s first chapter is a regretful introduction by the Price mother, Orleanna.

Orleanna reveals retrospectively her sense of the African nation as colored by her own guilt. The

post-colonial status of Africa is revealed through her own admission of shame regarding her and

her family’s actions; for example, she considers what an uncolonized Africa could have been

like. Orleanna continues to emotionally describe the Congo’s importance in the 1960s, as a

territory being fought for behind locked doors (Kingsolver 8), but she distinctly claims her own

presence in these moments. Notably, Orleanna’s retrospective connection to geopolitical conflict

is laced with extreme accountability.

“You’ll say I walked across Africa with my wrists unshackled and now I am one more

soul walking free in a white skin, wearing some thread of the stolen goods: cotton or

diamonds, freedom at the very least, prosperity. Some of us know how we came by our

fortune, and some of us don’t, but we wear it all the same. There’s only one question

worth asking now: How do we aim to live with it?” (9).

The goods of the African continent symbolize this extreme burden of culpability that the self-

criminalizing Orleanna continues to hold for feeling as though she attempted to conquer the

The youthful, Christian lens of Leah is the first lens of the daughters the reader sees the

Congo through. For their domineering Baptist missionary father, Nathan Price, the austerity of

the small Congolese town that the family would be working in, Kilanga, is an alluring quality.

Ironically, Nathan asserts that there “will be no buyers and sellers at all” (13), which is soon

directly refuted by the immediate, macro-scale presence of the diamonds being smuggled on

their plane. This excites his devout daughter and reveals that Nathan price’s initial understanding

of the Congo is a selfish one, as a fulfillment of his Christian desires.  Leah’s idealized

relationship with her Father and Christianity skews her expectation of the Congo; for example,

she finds herself shocked by the guns adorned by the airport police (16).  Leah’s commentaries

confirm her impendingly unachievable Congolese fantasy when interacting with the

missionaries. The missionaries describe the challenges of a stagnated village, the lack of proper

medical attention and sufficient education system, which deeply distresses her, who “expected

everything: jungle flowers, wild roaring beasts. God’s Kingdom in its pure, unenlightened glory”

The author does not initially describe the Congolese context with much specificity,

reflecting the youthful narrators’ probable awareness. Ruth May, the youngest of the Price

sister’s, reveals in her description that she had realized that the plane they were traveling in

carried diamonds, which is the first allusion to the African diamond industry. Mr. Eeben

Axelroot, and immoral pilot, told Nathan Price that within the bags was commercially used gold,

but Ruth identifies the “rocks” as diamonds. The author does not proceed to describe to the

audience the significance of the diamond industry in the Belgian Congo. The audience can only

infer based upon former knowledge of the trade and the severity of the situation implied by

Axelroot’s threat. Axelroot assures that if Ruth May tells, “why then God would make Mama get

sick and die” (119) and binds her to silence. The author constructs a clear significance for these

diamonds, but without larger context, the reader only assumes its importance to Axelroot. Ruth

May’s naive perspective continues to deliver us the next references to the Congolese context.

The next time the colonialist presence and the Congolese diamond industry is confronted

in this novel, it is revealed through heated dialogue shared by Nathan Price and a Belgian. The

physician is not being instructive, but he does quite candidly criticize Belgian’s role in the

Congo. This conversation begins with an unexplained reference to political figure Patrice

Lumumba, who would become the first prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

From this quick exchange, it can be gleaned that Lumumba seems to be causing a social uprising

of some sort in the nation, to be growing in popularity, and to be a dangerous force in the eyes of

Price and the Belgian doctor. The doctor’s response to  the mention of Lumumba is, “Lord help

us” (120),  which both supports the notion of a remaining Belgian antipathy towards the chaotic

nature of an emerging Congolese sovereignty as well as propels Price and the doctor towards a

Nathan Price asserts that his purpose in the Congo is of a higher, spiritual importance, but

the Belgian doctor quite casually refutes this vainglorious mentality. He incorporates the Belgian

rubber industry, which was established during the reign of King Leopold II of Belgium, who

owned the Congo as a “personal concession” after the Berlin West Africa Conference. The

Belgians utilized the Congo’s rubber tree resource and enslaved the Congolese people to sustain

the growing industrial economies of America and Europe.  He comments

“We Belgians made slaves of them and cut off their hands in the rubber plantations. Now

you Americans have them for a slave wage in the mines and let them cut off their own

hands. And you, my friend, are stuck with the job of trying to make amens” (121).

Here, Kingsolver reveals a thinker who is extremely frank regarding colonial inequities. This

speaker does not attempt to palliate the Belgian history. For example, the Belgian mutilation of

the Congolese hands refers to the tactic of King Leopold’s armies to cut off the hands of the

rubber slaves to enforce production quotas. It is a stark contrast from the apologetic and

remorseful tone of Orleanna Price’s introductory passage, the first time this situation is

mentioned and furthermore characterized as exploitative. The Belgian perspective it that the

American presence in the Congo is not morally superior, and that Nathan Price is a merely there

to make the apologies. Interestingly, it is to be inferred that Ruth May misunderstands the last

sentiment that the Doctor communicates because she reports the use of the religious word she

would probably have understand as “amens”, which would more likely and ironically be a

utilization of the word “amends” (121), or reparations for wrongdoings.

Nathan Price takes offense to this flagrant reduction of his holy purpose and retorts that

American influence was the force behind Congolese “civilization”, which he later awkwardly

constitutes as the railroads. The doctor responds, “I do not like to contradict, but in seventy-five

years the only roads the Belgians ever built are the one they use to haul out diamonds and

rubber” (122). The acceptance of sociopolitical accountability Orleanna addresses earlier is seen

once more; the doctor confirms the Belgian self-serving role in the Congo and goes on to

furthermore unveil the Belgian policies of restricting education from the public. Notably, the

doctor alludes to the impending violent nature of this change of power by a very pragmatic

statement that the people of the Congo so appreciate Lumumba’s nonviolent approach to

independence that they rioted and ultimately killed twelve people. Kingsolver, once again,

utilizes “reported dialogue” which has been crafted to foreshadow larger political strife.

As Dave Eggers uses protagonist’s Valentino’s status as direct victim of the Sudanese

crisis, Kingsolver employs the character Anatole Ngemba, a former child slave on a rubber

plantation and then in a diamond mine to further comment on the geopolitical nature of the

industry. As Anatole grows closer to the daughters, the emerging interactions force the

Congolese politics to be of greater significance to the girls. Rachel, the personification of

American material culture and the oldest of the daughters, introduces the reader to the

multilingual town tutor and political activist. Rachel communicates to the audience a familiar

shame, and thinks of Marilyn Monroe crooning “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” when

Anatole shares his biography, stating that he toiled in Katanga, where one-fourth of the global

supply of diamonds is sourced from. Upon realization of the gruesome nature of the manual

labor Anatole endured, Rachel decides to repress her awareness of the situation. She rejects the

political as personal and her actions contribute to a larger culture of consumerism.

As the first concern of the girls become that of their own safety, Kingsolver continues to

subtly weave in major geopolitical events through reported dialogue, but it seems the girls begin

to pay more attention to the issues surrounding them.  The second half of the section of the novel

entitled “The Revelation” is focused almost entirely on the unraveling turbulent Independence of

Congo of May 1960; it takes place over a casual dinner conversation, a similarly routine

interaction like the doctor’s visit. Firstly, with Rachel as narrator, the Underdowns reveal to the

Prices the anticipation that the Congo will have an election in May and declare their

independence in June. The Underdowns also denounce the USSR as a global player with the

potential for takeover, and state that the great worry concerns Africans taking over Africa.

Though Rachel goes initially unscathed by this news, her parents reaction is deeply felt. Rachel

describes, “… she just blanched out and kind of stopped breathing. She put her hand on her throat

like she’d swallowed a shot of Mr. Clean, and that look scared me. I started paying attention”

(162). The dialogue reveals the shaky plan for granting independence, and Orleanna becomes the

voice of commentary as she uncontrollably condemns the abusive Belgian-Congolese relations

and the lack of a political interim period or a safe shift in power. The power does indeed change

ownership, and though Lumumba wins, Nathan Price does not allow his family to leave.

For Leah, the effect of the newfound independence is a concern for finances because the

Prices become extremely impoverished. The character of Anatole continues to serve as a didactic

tool for the reader as he communicates the succession of the Katanga province under the

leadership of Moise Tshombe and the controversial possibility of aid from Nikita Kruschev and

the USSR. Once again, the growing closeness of Anatole and a daughter’s relationship also

personalizes the political, as he and Leah heatedly discuss the role that the trade plays in the lives

of the Congolese. Anatole poignantly communicates the Congolese desire for self-definition,

proclaiming in reference to neighbors “That is Congo. Not minerals and glittering rocks with no

hearts, these things that are traded behind our backs. The Congo is us. (231). If The Poisonwood

Bible reminds its readers that people’s livers are more important than the geopolitical players at

large, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao paints a different society in which one

dictator’s dominance is larger than life itself.

The personalized significance of the omnipresent figure of dictator Rafael Trujillo

cannot be overstated in Junot Díaz’ novel The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The

political and personal is almost indistinguishable and this fusion is a clear goal of Díaz. Though

almost all political context is channeled through Trujillo, he is not characterized as a government

figure in the realm of the novel, but rather an antagonistic character marked by his extreme,

authoritative libido and his spiritual connection to “fuku”, the destructive curse he has brought

upon the Dominican Republic. Almost initially, narrator Yunior emphatically states,

“ For those of you who missed your mandatory two seconds of Dominican history:

Trujillo, one of the twentieth century’s most infamous dictators, ruled the Dominican

Republic between 1930 and 1961 with an implacable ruthless brutality. A portly, sadistic,

pig-eyed mulato who bleached his skin, wore platform shoes, and had a fondness for

Napoleon-era haberdashery, Trujillo (also known as El Jefe [The Boss], the Failed Cattle

Thief, and Fuckface) came to control nearly every aspect of the DR’s political, social, and

economic life through a potent (and familiar) mixture of violence, intimidation, massacre,

rape, co-optation, and terror ( Díaz 3).

This clarification that comes in the form of a much lengthier footnote allows the reader to glean

two things about this narrator. Firstly, Yunior feels as though this story cannot be told

completely without the reader’s sense of Trujillo’s identity. Secondly, the narrator relates to

Trujillo in an unconstrained, direct manner despite the cosmic proportions that he attributes to

Trujillo’s presence is felt directly as a constant threat to the lives of all characters, even

posthumously, because of this supernatural embodiment. Yunior describes “It was believed, even

in educated circles, that anyone who plotted against Trujillo would incur a fukú most powerful,

down to the seventh generation, and beyond (3). The de Leon family demonstrates this sentiment

by choosing the origin of their family history to be the moment of vocalized dissidence against

Trujillo ( 213). This foreshadows the omniscience of the colloquial discussion of “fuku” which

leads the author to his first discussion of the global political context of Trujillo’s reign,

specifically the nature of American-Dominican interactions. President John F. Kennedy is

lambasted for having orchestrated the assassination of Trujillo in 1961. The narrator continues to

assert that the “Curse of the Kennedys” as well as the American loss in the Vietnam War can be

attributed to American aggression against the Dominican Republic, against the spirit of Trujillo.

The construction of a strong sentiment of other-worldly power continues to grow, as Section II of

the novel begins with a quote from “La Nación”, a Dominican newspaper and source of

propaganda stating “Men are not indispensable. But Trujillo is irreplaceable. For Trujillo is not a

man. He is… a cosmic force…” (204).

In conjunction with the supernatural elements of Trujillo, the worldly interactions with

Trujillo and his regime establish the framework of this plot, which differs greatly from the

removed nature of the “political figure” status in What is the What. The Poisonwood Bible does

include reference to Lumumba, but more as a symbol of rising hope for Africa and not as a

character. Trujillo appears in a series of vignettes that traverse time, depicting multiple

generations of Oscar’s family in connection to Trujillo. Oscar’s grandfather, Abelard Cabral, is a

dissident of Trujillo’s and lives in perpetual fear of Trujillo’s sexual proclivity for his beautiful,

physically mature daughter Jacquelyn. Díaz reflects that Trujillo “… had hundreds of spies whose

entire job was to scour the provinces for his next piece of ass…” (217); his political power

endows him with the ability to have sex with whomever he so desires. Trujillo requests

Jacquelyn’s presence at a social function, but Abelard fears for his daughter and shields her from

this. The author distinctly characterizes their relationship as one-on-one. He fears “Trujillo and

Company” (218), not a local police force or his cronies. Abelard is ultimately imprisoned for

dissidence against Trujillo. Belicia, Oscar’s mother, also experiences a very close interaction

with the dictator through her relationship with “The Gangster”, a wealthy, connected but

mysterious man who helps to execute assassinations. Belicia becomes pregnant by him, but “The

Gangster” turns out to be the husband of Trujillo’s sister, who employs gangsters to violently

assault Belicia as representatives of the Trujillo family.

It is no coincidence that the three novels examined all heavily deal with the concept of

fate as well, for the powerlessness. In The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, it is an extremely

supernatural depiction and the Trujillo possesses a deliberate connection to the lives of these

civilians. However, through What is the What’s utilization of a reconstructive and reclamatory

perspective, the narrator allows us the reader to truly understand the powerlessness he felt as a

refugee and the knowledge he has gained of the world since fleeing. The Poisonwood Bible

immerses the reader into the world of the Congo through reported dialogue and quick references,

and like the daughters of the Price family, the reader learns to make sense of the conflict for

themselves. Still, global power in these novels is ultimately juxtaposed as the background for

everyday life, for the human experience. The triumph of the thoughts of the distinctive, maturing

Price daughters or of Oscar Wao falling in love repeatedly as the plots of these novels, rather

than descriptions of their sociopolitical contexts reminds their readers that the human spirit is not

crushed. The experiences of conflict are not homogenized, they are, in fact, immortalized and

restored with the power which was once taken from these individuals.  As narrator Yunior

recalls, “Nothing ever ends” (331).

Works Cited

Diaz, Junot. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. New York: Riverhead, 2007. Print.

Eggers, Dave and Valentino Achak Deng. What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino

Achak Deng. San Francisco: McSweeney’s, 2006. Web. 15 April 2015.

Kingsolver, Barbara. The Poisonwood Bible: A Novel. New York : HarperPerennial, 1999,

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