Long Paper: Prompts, Outlines, Peer Comments

Once again, I hope you’ll write on your own topics.   There are some prompts to get you started:

—  Food and Hunger in Cross-cultural Contexts
—  Dreamers: Olaudah Equiano and Valentino Achak Deng
—  Childhood in Times of Terror
—  Congo and Sudan: A Tale of Two Africas
—  Christianity in Unexpected Places
—  Human Rights and Economic Rationality
—  What’s in a Name?
—  Generational Saga and Political Trauma
—  Shadows of other continents


18 Responses to Long Paper: Prompts, Outlines, Peer Comments

  1. Erin Krebs says:

    Geopolitics is defined as “: a study of the influence of such factors as geography, economics, and demography on the politics and especially the foreign policy of a state” – Merriam Webster. I am interested in how these books are depictions of peoples governed by resources. I would like to analyze what is the awareness of citizens in relationship to their geopolitical circumstances. Concurrently, I would like to analyze the the roundabout way in which that information is revealed to us. I have begun to trace this through the two novels, and analyze what this may mean. I feel as though I am going to struggle with making this a lengthy paper, and I am considering also tracing the specific political references that these novels make, even though they are satiated by the introduction to corrupt political nations as a theme.

    The Poisonwood Bible:
    Mother is the first introduction to diamonds.
    “… 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?
    source of guilt – personal guilt or societal shame?
    what does this illuminate about the Price’s presence in the Congo
    Ruth May reveals that Axelroot is involved with a criminal enterprise and is smuggling diamonds.
    They rode in a plane with diamonds. But she is threatened to keep it quiet.
    “No, sir, it was diamonds. I found that out and I can’t tell how. Even Father doesn’t know we rode in a airplane with diamonds. Mr. Axelroot said if I told, when then God would make Mama get sick and die. So I can
    The Doctor reveals that he is critical of the Belgian influence and they have consistently served as oppressive forces.
    “I do not like to contradict, but in seventy-five years the only roads the Belgians ever built are the ones they use to haul out diamonds and rubber. Between you and me, Reverend, I do not think the people here are looking for your kind of salvation. I think they are looking for Patrice Lumumba, the new soul of Africa.”
    4. Rachel reveals Anatole’s story.
    revealed through the lens of how it affected Anatole
    revealed as a source of guilt
    the impact it has on their relationship
    5. Analysis of Rachel’s dialogue with Anatole
    what my country has that your country wants
    the ownership of resources as the ownership of a people- Who owns the Congo?
    a grief to see the best of Zairean genius and diplomacy spent on bare survival, while fortunes in diamonds and cobalt are slipped daily out from under our feet. “This is not a poor nation,” Iremind my sons till they hear it in their sleep. “It is only a nation of poor.”
    6. As Rachel ages, her understanding of the exploitative nature of diamond mining grows even further.

    2. What is the What
    revealed to address Julian in an accusatory tone- heightened awareness and ownership
    traces the way it affects Lino’s family
    specifics of actual political elements of the conflict
    George Bush
    Addis Ababa agreement
    Conversation with Noriyaki
    – demonstration of both political unawareness and political passion
    You need to talk to your people, your government, Mr. Noriyaki. It is the Chinese and the Malaysians who are making this war worse. These two countries alone own 60 percent of the oil interests in Sudan. You know how much oil they take? Millions of barrels a year, and it’s growing! China plans to get half its oil from Sudan by 2010!
    In comparison to awareness of other political circumstances

    3. Crafted as a retrospective piece
    – why, as an author, reveal to us these geopolitical features this way?

    • Wai Chee says:

      Erin —

      A wide-ranging topic, of great importance, but I don’t think it should be too difficult to write. I think your instincts are exactly right: a good way to explore the topic is to trace the roundabout ways by which the large-scale economic and geopolitical forces at work in the Congo and Sudan are revealed to us. In both books, begin with the micro and the local, and move increasingly outward, broadening the scope of the phenomena depicted by Eggers and Kingsolver, and broadening as well the scope of your analysis.

      In the case of What is the What, discuss first the conflict between the Dinka and the Arab militia as an ethnic conflict peculiar to the Sudan; then bring in the British Empire and the way the 1953 partitioning of Sudan laid the foundation for these ethnic conflicts. With this in place, bring the chronology closer to the present and multiply the players: in 1978 Chevron became interested, and George Bush Sr., “an oil person,” became interested as well. Finally, bring the chronology still closer to the present, with China emerging as a major player this time, as you point out.

      Follow the same strategy with The Poisonwood Bible, moving from the seemingly small story, Baptist missionaries from Georgia bringing Betty Crocker cake mixes to the Congo, and ending with Belgium, the U.S., and to some extent the U.S.S.R. as global players with a stake in the diamonds and rubber, and orchestrating a proxy war through Congolese politicians such as Tshombe and Mobutu.

      Let me know if this makes sense!

  2. Emily Xiao says:


    In The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver situates economic, political, and spiritual considerations within an ecological context. In particular, she explores aspects of identity, including race and childhood, as derived from society rather than biology. In light of this, I plan to examine characters’ persistent preoccupation with their physical bodies and how the failure or breakdown of those bodies — i.e., disability — is conceived of as both socially-dependent and biologically-based, as well as how it interacts with these other threads in the novel. In general, I am interested in how Kingsolver appropriates the language of disability in her discussion of evolution, responsibility, and memory.

    Defining disability

    — Adah’s disability as invisible in the Congo, where physical handicaps are widespread — disability as dependent on social context/definitions of ability
    — Types of bodily damage (e.g., physical, mental, temporary/permanent, natural decline): “Why, Nathan, here they have to use their bodies like we use things at home–like your clothes or your garden tools or something. Where you’d be wearing out the knees of your trousers, sir, they just have to go ahead and wear out their knees!” (53). // “Here, bodily damage is more or less considered to be a by-product of living, not a disgrace. In the way of the body and other people’s judgment I enjoy a benign approval in Kilanga that I have never, ever known in Bethlehem, Georgia” (72).
    — Exceptionalism, considering sub-ability vs. hyper-ability: “A principal less observant would have placed Leah in Gifted, and Adah in Special Ed with the mongoloids and all six of Bethlehem’s thumb-sucking, ear-pulling Crawley children, and there would I remain” (57). // Mama Mwanza’s “extraordinarily pretty face” (234)
    — “But without kakakaka I discover sights of my own: how the women working their field will stand up one after another, unwrap the pagne of bright cloth tied under their breasts, stretch it out wide before retying it. They resemble flocks of butterflies opening and closing their wings” (137).

    Disability and motherhood

    — Ways in which the family is constructed (Mother’s magazine pictures of housewives & nuclear families; childhood as unguaranteed in the Congo, “something more or less invented by white people and stuck onto the front end of grown-up life like a frill on a dress” [114])
    — Disability, or at least non-hereditary exceptionalism, as a unique challenge to motherhood: “[Mother] is especially beset by Leah’s and my status as exceptional children […] This was a shock to Mother, who up to that point had offered us no education higher than the names of the wildflowers growing in the roadside ditches” (56).
    — Disability as a challenge to motherhood in another sense — Adah’s initial assumption that her disability precludes her from the sexual/matrimonial spheres: “Was [Mama Tabata] exempt from marriage because of it, as I presumed myself to be? I had little idea of her age or hopes. I did know that many women in Kilanga were more seriously disfigured and had husbands notwithstanding” (72).
    — Ways in which motherhood overrides disability — Leah, not Adah, singled out for lack of femininity
    — Adah’s self-enforced rejection of love, exile from sphere of marriage: “This is my test: I imagine them back there in the moonlight with the ground all around us boiling with ants. Now, which one, the crooked walker, or the darling perfection? I know how they would choose. Any man who admires my body now is a traitor to the previous Adah” (532).
    — When Adah’s physical ‘deficiency’ is addressed, it is her intellectual capacity that takes the place of motherhood: “Adah, now she could probably get her a halfway decent boyfriend since she’s finally gotten her problem fixed, but no, she has to throw her prime of life down the test tube of a disease organism” (465).
    — Other failures of the body that pose challenge to motherhood – Rachel’s sexually-transmitted infection
    —- Leah (“the twin whose legs never failed her”) tripping over oranges in the marketplace
    — Transition – motherhood and spirituality: “My father says a girl who fails to marry is veering from God’s plan–that’s what he’s got against college for Adah and me” (150).

    Disability and evolution (convergence/divergence)

    — Both evolution and disability = context (consider Nathan’s garden and its failure to bear fruit in the jungle)
    — Divergence of mirror-image twins
    — After Adah loses her limp, she and Leah become more alike: “They hadn’t seen each other for years, and here they even showed up wearing the same hairstyle!” (482).
    — Role of guilt/betrayal in divergence – social factors leading to divergence: “Obviously, the boundary between Congo and Angola is nothing but a line on a map–the Belgians and Portuguese drawing their lots” (523).
    — Evolution in a social context: “The French Congo and the newly independent Republic of Congo are separated by one mere river and about a million miles of contemporaneous modern thinking” (460).

    Disability and spirituality

    — Idea of random advantages carries over from evolution to spirituality: “How could they not even question their state of grace? I lacked their confidence, alas. I had spent more time than the average child pondering unfortunate accidents of birth” (171).

    Adah “cured” (connection between body and will)

    — “I was unprepared to accept that my whole sense of Adah was founded on a misunderstanding between my body and my brain” (439).
    — “Will I lose myself entirely if I lose my limp?” (441).
    — Adah’s loss of poems, backwards-reading (492)
    — Disability as a failure of the body to carry out will – how is this failure questioned or sustained?
    — “A drum gives nommo in Congo, where drums have language. A dance gives nommo where bodies are not separate from the will that inhabits them. In that other long-ago place, America, I was a failed combination of too-weak body and overstrong will. But in Congo I am those things perfectly united: Adah” (343).
    — “The arrogance of the able-bodied is staggering. Yes, maybe we’d like to be able to get places quickly, and carry things in both hands, but only because we have to keep up with the rest of you, or get The Verse. We would rather be just like us, and have that be all right.”
    — “Tall and straight I may, but I will always be Ada inside. A crooked little person trying to tell the truth. The power is in the balance: we are our injuries, as much as we are our successes” (496).
    — Adah’s disability as unnecessarily sustained from early childhood — essentially, disability functions as memory
    —- Methuselah the parrot’s inability to fly after being in a cage for much of his life (although he does fly during his initial release — paralyzed by habit)
    —- Connections to Congo’s independence, crippled by the past, as Adah is limited by doctors’ prophecies

    The body’s role in memory/guilt

    — “I know you’re still here, holding sway. You’ve played some trick on the dividing of my cells so my body can never be free of the small parts of Africa it consumed” (87).
    — “If chained is where you have been, your arms will always bear marks of the shackles. What you have to lose is your story, your own slant. You’ll look at the scars on your arms and see mere ugliness, or you’ll take great care to look away from them and see nothing. Either way, you have no words for the story of where you came from” (495).
    — “And how can I invent my own version of the story, without my crooked vision? How is it right to slip free of an old skin and walk away from the scene of the crime?” (493).
    — Ruth May’s ending address to her mother – “The teeth at your bones are your own, the hunger is yours, forgiveness is yours” (543).

    • Wai Chee says:

      Emily —

      A wonderful topic, one that gets to the very heart of The Poisonwood Bible. I’m a little worried that your organizing categories might be a bit too loose and perhaps too much of a stretch (the relation between the French in the Congo and the Portuguese in Angola doesn’t seem to me especially related to Adah’s disabilities!) To sharpen and tighten them, I’d like to propose the following structure:

      1. Disabilties in Georgia
      2. Disabilities in the Congo
      3. Disabilites and Adah’s gender identity (rather than “motherhood”)
      4. Disabilities and Adah’s skepticism towards Christianity
      5. Disabilities and Ahah’s love of books

      Ending with the latter would also give you a chance to analyze the interweaving of Emily Dickinson throughout the novel. This is just a trial template, of course — you’re free to modify it (or reject it altogether) as you see fit. Let me know what you think!

  3. Jamie Nguyen says:


    Barbara Kingsolver and Dave Eggers both present a crippled and debilitated Africa in their respective novels: The Poisonwood Bible and What is the What. This state of Africa consequently stems from a long history of imperialism and colonial rule that dates back to the Berlin Conference, where Africa’s borders were carved arbitrarily by the ruling European powers of the time. These oppressors came swiftly and self-righteously, consuming the heart of the continent until only darkness remained. The continent, engulfed by the shadows of their masters, sought to retrieve independence. Yet, Kingsolver and Eggers paint a perilous struggle between the forces of light and darkness for the soul of Africa, of which the victor may not be transparent. While hope and universal justice fuels the champions of light, the entities that continue to subdue Africa are not as straightforward. The African Question still plagues the recesses of many people’s minds in today’s society. “Who is to blame for their failings?” Decades after Africa’s great wave of independence, the new political creations had already begun to resemble disasters. Kingsolver vehemently points to the greed of powerful countries while Eggers leans towards ethnic tensions; however, both authors share overlapping undercurrents of economics, politics, and ethnic factors that contribute to the failure of Africa countries to succeed on a global level.

    I am interested in why African countries, with its luscious, abundant resources, continue to collapse in the modern age. The Poisonwood Bible will bring insight to the Belgian Congo and What is the What to Sudan. I believe the reasons for Africa’s weakness are compounding factors such as; rich minerals and resources preyed upon by other nations and corrupt officials; the different ethnicities and cultures that reside within arbitrary borders drawn by imperialism; and the unbreakable ties and detrimental effects of being interlaced with Western countries. These factors are not mutually exclusive, but woven into multiple threads that cross and intersect to form a complex network that always lead to one ultimate destination: failure.

    –Preying upon the resources of Africa:
    “On a more earthly plane men in locked rooms bargained for the Congo’s treasure” (Poisonwood 8).
    “He and all the profiteers who’ve since walked out on Africa as a husband quits a wife, leaving her with her naked body curled around the emptied-out mine of her womb” (Poisonwood 9).
    “Poor Congo, barefoot bride of men who took her jewels and promised the Kingdom” (Poisonwood 201)
    All the quotes about diamonds, rubber, copper, etc in the Congo.
    “They win on many levels. They have our cattle. They have our land. They have our people to mind the cattle they have stolen from us. And our world is upended” (What 126).
    “Mr. Bush was an oil person, of course, and he was looking at some satellite maps of Sudan… the beginning of U.S. oil involvement in Sudan, and to some extent, the beginning of the middle of the war” (What 228).

    –Vast amounts of ethnic groups that entail a scattered and disjointed country unable to unite
    In book 1, chapter 5 of What is the What, there is a large Sudanese population in America but they are not unified. These different tribes are an indicator of the vast amounts of different ethnicities. They argue between each other over “justice” and “equality”.
    In book 1, chapter 6 of What is the What, sharia law and the addis ababa agreement come to divide the country. The story of the Cattle vs What and fundamental differences in people stemming from roots in religion. Muslim North, Dinka south for Sudan.
    “Tribal chiefs, heads of unions, and the like. They say it was a pretty motley assembly” (Poisonwood 163).
    “Two hundred different languages spoken insider the borders of a so-called country invented by Belgians in a parlor. You might as well put a fence around sheep, wolves, and chickens, and tell them to behave like brethren” (Poisonwood 168).

    –Long history of being interlaced with colonial motherland and new history of being influenced by powers seeking control of Africa
    “Consider, even, an Africa unconquered altogether…What would that Africa be now? All I can think of is the other okapi, the one they used to believe in” (Poisonwood 7).
    “Our father was finding the Congolese people beyond his power. Methuselah was a sly little representative of Africa itself. One might argue, even, that he was here first” (Poisonwood 60).
    “‘You’re free to go,’ my father said, waiting. But the bird did not come out. So he reached in and took hold of it” (Poisonwood 81).
    “For the native members of our household, independence day. The bird hung around, casting his vexed eyes down on us from the trees, still needing to be fed” (Poisonwood 90).
    “The Belgians and American business brought civilization to the Congo! American aid will be the Congo’s salvation. You’ll see! (Poisoned 121)
    Belgium colonialism halted education of Congolese children.
    More quotes about Belgian and American influence and greed on the paralyzed state of the Congo.
    From What is the What, American influence on Sudan and the creation of a puppet state.
    There was that talk between Noriyaki and an elder about Chinese influence in Sudan.
    +Countries that supply weapons to the SPLA.

    • Wai Chee says:

      Jamie —

      An important topic: it should give you plenty to say. I’m a little worried that your analysis might be based too much on Kingsolver’s depiction of the Congo, not quite doing justice to the full complexity of Eggers” portrayal of Sudan. To avoid that pitfall, you might want to structure your paper as a contrast between What is the What and The Poisonwood Bible. While there is a brief allusion to the politics and economics of oil in Susan, for the most part Eggers highlights ethnic conflict and the rivalries among the Sudanese, the Ethiopians, and the Kenyans, extending that emphasis in the robbery in Atlanta, and the in-fighting among the Sudanese “lost boys” in the U.S. Kingsolver, on the other hand, while alluding to the rivalries among Lumumba, Tshombe, and Mobutu, sees these as orchestrated by foreign powers, with African politicians fighting a proxy war for Belgium, the U.S., and to some extent the U.S.S.R. With this basic difference between Eggers and Kingsolver clearly stated at the outset, the organization of the essay and the specific details of your argument would also fall into place. I look forward to a rich and stimulating essay!

  4. Sasha Rae-Grant says:

    My Year of Meats, The Poisonwood Bible: perception of women across cultures, viewed through two culture clashes, and how the women break from their cultures

    “Rebel Against the Patriarchy”
    – Women rebelling against the societal pressures put upon them by their culture and the people around them, also talking about how they still play into the roles partially

    (I’ll get more page numbers and references to stuff later)

    Jane – TV director, speaks men’s Japanese, travels everywhere and searches to change the meat industry once she learns how bad it is, refuses to give in her sense of being a documentarian to cater to the sponsors and Ueno over what the show should be about, even when pregnant still goes into dangerous situations, plans to adopt once she loses her biological child

    Akiko – leaves her abusive husband, defies her husband’s wishes for children by hiding her eating disorder and lack of menstruation for a long time, still keeps the baby from her former husband despite the fact that he raped her, worked at a manga house and wrote all the gory scenes (37), but her marriage was arranged by her boss and Ueno’s boss

    Dyann and Lara – vegetarian lesbians (breaking from typical mother, but then they fulfill common lesbian stereotypes), also at this time unofficially married but refer to each other as wives (173), pillars of community and mothers and all that and vegetarians. They do fulfill a lot of lesbian stereotypes (this would probably be about the time of the lesbian baby boom, which was in the 80s-90s), Dyann taking a “father” role by her own admission and therefore still playing into heteronormativity (175), they are “rebelling” a little by being a biracial couple, but also very politically minded (177)

    Orleanna – gets the courage to leave her husband (divorce not common in US culture at the time), but even before that once she breaks out of the “woman must obey her husband” mindset she rebels against Nathan, her children take priority over her husband, loves science and flowers, makes sure the family is cared for and doesn’t believe in Nathan’s mission

    Leah – basically becomes the man of the house (learns to hunt and shoot a bow, brings home some food for her family, the one who runs around the village to care for people), marries Anatole (biracial couple in Africa at the time and in the US), though she does end up filling a fairly traditional-ish mother role, but also teaches and helps Anatole run a commune, and also her father’s daughter for much of the book

    Adah – goes off on her own a lot, refuses to believe in her father’s god, becomes a doctor, goes to college when her own father said she and her sisters never would, remains single for pretty much all her life and focuses on her work rather than marrying and having kids (there’s more, with a lot of emphasis on her perspective on the world due to her disability as a child)

    Heck, even Rachel – while the extremely superficial one throughout the book, has a streak of cleverness and ability to convey knowledge, owns a hotel on her own, never returns to the US, though she’s still superficial, she does learn to survive and would never again relate to her classmates, does marry three times, but she is essentially an autonomous person who doesn’t need others that much

    • Wai Chee says:

      Sasha —

      A rich topic, one that could potentially take off in unexpected directions. To encourage that, make sure to highlight the plural form in the title: “Rebels against Patriarchy.” You might want to begin, in fact, with an upfront assertion that this rebellion can take multiple forms.

      In the case of MYOM, the rebellion would take the form of job autonomy (Jane), reproductive freedom (Akiko), or lesbian marriage (Dyann and Lara). Do these three have anything in common, or are they three different vectors going their separate ways?

      In the case of PB, again construct a phenomenal spectrum, but you might want to argue that, in this novel, religious disaffection serves as a unifying core. The rebellion against patriarchy by Oleanna, Leah, Adah, and Rachel all take the form of some sort of rebellion against Christianity. In this light, Rachel’s flippant attitude towards Christianity in the beginning of the novel is a good predictor of where and how she ends up: still in Africa, enjoying a tough-woman business autonomy.

      Looking forward to a sharp, clear-eyed discussion.

  5. Yuni Chang says:

    I’m interested in analyzing the evolution of each protagonist’s relationship with Christianity in What is the What and The Poisonwood Bible, locating parallels between the ways in which the protagonists understand their Christian faith within the differing political contexts of each novel.

    What is the What
    • Achak’s life for the majority of his childhood is permeated by the deaths of loved ones, of strangers, as a result of the civil war in Sudan – it is a constant stream of people exiting his life in violent and viscerally traumatic ways. As a result, he often submits to the idea of death/is numbed by it, and his relationship with a higher being or ‘God’ consistently tested. His faith diminishes as unexplainable event/death after another takes place – despite this, it perseveres, ebbs and flows in a sense. His faith is arguably what has sustained him emotionally throughout his traumatic experiences + there is a theme here of there being no choice/agency in remembering, and God is used as a means of explaining the past as well as how it is inescapable even in the present, where God’s alleged wrath against Achak continues to manifest
    o “Nothing again. No one is listening. No one is waiting to hear the kicking of a man above. It is unexpected. You have no ears for someone like me.” – sense of disillusionment, also seems to be addressing a higher being here: why is nothing being done on God’s part?
    o “We’re the target, Achak. Look at us. Too many boys. God wants us dead. He’s trying to kill us.”
    o “I felt it was God giving me this gift of William K after taking away Deng.” – William K then dies in the desert
    • “It was possible that it was not random, that God was taking the weak from the group.” – persisting faith
    o “Valentine, I just don’t know what God has against you.”
    o “After a month, my stomach was no longer wailing and my head ceased spinning. I felt good in many ways, I felt like a person the way God had intended a person to feel.”
    • Seems to exempt God from culpability for his troubles with matters of intention
    o “Why should I be so fortunate? It seemed, then, that God had had a plan. God had separated me from my home and family and had sent me to this wretched place, but now there seemed to be a reason for it all. There was suffering, I thought, and then there was light. There was suffering and then there was grace. I was placed in Pinyudo, it was clear now, to meet these magnificent girls, and the fact that there were four of them meant that God intended to make up for all the misfortune in my life. God was good and God was just.”
    o “I stared at the wall over Agar’s shoulder, unsure if God would strike me down at that moment or within the day.”
    o “I have thought about his lesson many times since. I have been unsure about so many things, chief among them whether or not I have been a good child of God. I am inclined to think that I have done so much wrong, for otherwise I would not have been punished so many times, and He would not have seen fit to harm so many of those I love.”
    o “Julian, I do not want to think of myself as important enough that God would choose me for extraordinary punishment, but then again, the circumference of calamity that surrounds me is impossible to ignore.”
    o “I lived without God, even for a time, and the thoughts I entertained were the darkest my mind had ever known.”
    • “‘God has a problem with me,’ I told Bobby.” – post Tabitha’s death
     “Though whispered doubts have ringed my head and though I have had certain godless hours, my faith has not been altered, because I have never felt God’s direct intervention in any affairs at all. Perhaps I did not receive that sort of training from my teachers, that he is guiding the winds that knock us down or carry us. And yet, with this news, as we drove, I found myself distancing myself from God.”
     “God is in my life but I do not depend on him. My God is not a reliable God.”
     “I do not mean to imply that these deaths were simply trials for me, for I know God would not take these people, would not take Tabitha in particular, simply to test the strength of my own faith. I will not guess His motivations for bringing her back to Him. But her death has proven to be a catalyst for me to think about my faith and my life.”
    • “For many years, God had been clear to boys like us. Our lives were not worth much. God had found innumerable ways to kill boys like me, and He no doubt would find many more.”
    • “It was absurd and wrong that this man [Noriyaki] should come so far to die. To die while bringing some refugees to play basketball? To die because he wanted to see me leave the camp? It was a wretched thing my God had done this time. I had a low opinion of my Lord and a lower opinion of my people.”
    • “I will not trust so easily. I will look at who is at the door before opening it. I will try to be fierce. I will argue when necessary. I will be willing to fight. I will not smile reflexively at every person I see. I will live as a good child of God, and will forgive him each time he claims another of the people I love. I will forgive and attempt to understand his plans for me, and I will not pity myself.” – towards the ending
    • Islam is juxtaposed with Christianity in the book as an ‘oppositional’ religion – often depicted as the root cause of Achak’s troubles, given the context of the civil war, home decimated by Arab militias. Resistance to Islam seems to go hand-in-hand with acceptance of Christianity
    o “Until there is a separate south, a New Sudan, we won’t have peace. We can never forget this. To them we are slaves, and even if we are not working in their homes and on their farms, we will always be thought of as a lesser people. Think of it: the end result of their plan is to make the entire country an Islamic state. They plan to convert us all. They are doing it bit by bit already. Three-fourths of this country is already Muslim. They don’t have far to go. So remember: we have independence, or we will no longer exist as a people”
    • Gradual conversion of country, clinging onto faith as a means of preserving existence?

    The Poisonwood Bible
    • Leah’s eventual disillusionment with her father’s understanding of Christianity which was intertwined with an inherent sense of cultural superiority, as spurred by her relationship with Anatole/learning the ways in which her home country has caused great destruction
    o “If I could reach backward somehow to give Father just one gift, it would be the simple human relief of knowing you’ve done wrong, and living through it. Poor Father, who was just one of a million men who never did catch on. He stamped me with a belief injustice, then drenched me in culpability, and I wouldn’t wish such torment even on a mosquito. But that exacting, tyrannical God of his has left me for good. I don’t quite know how to name what crept in to take his place. Some kin to the passion of Brother Fowles, I guess, who advised me to trust in Creation, which is made fresh daily and doesn’t suffer in translation.”
    • “I understand that time erases whiteness altogether.”
    • Whenever I stopped praying, the buzz of the locusts grew horrible in my ears. So I didn’t stop. Sometimes Rachel prayed with me, and sometimes the Congolese children also prayed in whatever words they knew. I recited the 23rd Psalm, the 121st Psalm, the l00th and 137th and16th and 66th Psalms, the 21st chapter of Revelation, Genesis one, Luke 22, First Corinthians, and finally John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life. Then I stopped. It was very late in the afternoon, and I could think of no more prayers. I’d come to the end of all I knew. I listened to the world around me, but all other sound had ceased entirely. Not a single bird called. I felt terrified.”
    o “Things are not so simple as you think,” he finally said, sounding neither angry nor especially kind. “This is not a time to explain the history of Congolese revolutionary movements.” “Adah says President Eisenhower has sent orders to kill Lumumba,” I confessed suddenly. After holding in this rank mouthful of words for many days, I spilled them out into our ant-infested boat. “She heard it on Axelroot’s radio. She says he’s a mercenary killer working for the Americans.” I waited for Anatole to make any response at all to this—but he didn’t. A coldness like water swelled inside my stomach. It couldn’t possibly be true, yet Adah has always had the power to know things I don’t. She showed me the conversation between Axelroot and another man, written down in her journal. Since then I’ve had no clear view of safety. Where is the easy land of ice-cream cones and new Keds sneakers and We Like Ike, the country where I thought I knew the rules. Where is the place I can go home to?”
    • “I want to be righteous, Anatole. To know right from wrong, that’s all. I want to live the right way and be redeemed.” I was trembling so hard I feared my bones might break. No word. I shouted to make him hear. “Don’t you believe me? When I walk through the valley of the shadow the Lord is supposed to be with me, and he’s not! Do you see him here in this boat?”
    • The local people of Kilanga understand Christianity in a vastly different way than Nathan Price – although this doesn’t apply in the most technical sense, their understanding of Christianity can be seen as the ‘oppositional religion’ in this context, which serves to catalyze Leah’s relationship (in particular) with her faith

    • Wai Chee says:

      Yuni —

      A great topic. Christianity is a crucial differential axis for The Poisonwood Bible and What is the What. To sharpen the contrast between the two, and give maximum clarity to the shape of your argument, you might want to consider the following organizational structure, tr

      What is What is
      — Achak is cavalier about Christianity during the early baptism ceremony
      — Islam becomes a more intensely felt pressure point, politicized and militarized through its association with the Arab militiamen, and through its violence towards the indigenous Dinka religion of South Sudan
      — as Achak moves away from institutionalized religions, faith becomes once again a matter of indifference to him. Witnessing the frequent and meaningless deaths of his friends dilutes the importance of “god,” a being he neither gives much thought to, nor depends on for mercy or protection.

      Poisonwood Bible
      — Rachel is cavalier about Christianity, as Achak is
      — Adah has an intellectual detachment from it
      — Oleanna is burdened by her sense of complicity with evangelical Christianity as a conquering force
      — Nathan is entrenched in his Christian faith, but in some sense taking it for granted
      — Leah, most loyal to her father and to Christianity at the beginning of the novel, is the one who takes Christianity most seriously and agonizes the most about it, even as she rebels and becomes an “unmissionary.”

      Let me know if this structure makes sense to you. I look forward to a vigorous, wide-ranging discussion that captures the spirit of both books.

  6. Alyssa says:

    The Distortion of Memory: Camera Imagery and Memory in Dreaming in Cuban and The Half Inch Himalayas

    Both Dreaming in Cuban and the poem “Postcard from Kashmir” reference the shortfalls of memory and our quest to enhance memories with photographs. In Dreaming in Cuban, many characters struggle to understand and connect with their pasts. Paired with the supernatural element of the novel, memories, along with the plot of the novel, are compromised by the readers inability to distinguish what is real and what is imagined. Cameras are a man-made way of preserving memories, but they too aren’t good enough. In this paper, I will explore the importance of memory in Dreaming in Cuban, but also use the poem “Postcard from Kashmir” to contextualize the camera imagery as a means to explain the inability of memories to fully show truth.

    Dreaming in Cuban:
    pg. 47-48: “Memory cannot be captured”–> Celia used to see cameras and realizes that it is impossible to “imprison” emotions on “squares of glossy paper”
    pg. 88: Felicia tells Ivanito that “imagination, like memory, can transform lies to truths”–> she’s unstable at this point, but this quote is weirdly prophetic and wise
    pg. 176: “Distorted lens”–> camera imagery used to explain how Lourdes only sees what she wants to see
    pg. 176: Pilar can see the truth in her grandmother’s face even in photographs

    “Postcard from Kashmir” (Half Inch Himalayas)
    1. home= a postcard–> postcards are near, encapsulated representations of a especially great part of the area
    2. “colors won’t be as brilliant”: picture represents it better than real life can because a picture is the absolute best and it can be edited
    3: “My love is overexposed”: when film is exposed to too much light the photo is too bright–> his love for his own country isn’t real and it is distorting what his home actually is

    • Wai Chee says:

      Alyssa —

      Distortion of memory is a great topic, its relation to photographs is important and should definitely be discussed, but you might also want to give it maximum scope and explore it in other contexts as well. For instance, in Dreaming in Cuban, Lourdes and Pilar disagree over exactly what happened at the airport. Whose memory is distorted? Lourdes’s? Pilar’s? Or both of them? Equally interesting is the fate of historical memory in Agha Shahid Ali’s “After Seeing Kozintsev’s King Lear in Delhi.” Here, the memory of Shakespeare’s play and the memory of Zafar, poet and emperor, are both in danger of being distorted by the bustle of contemporary Delhi. It might be interesting to think about distortion of memory as operating on three scales: 1). individual 2). inter-generational and 3). transnational or transhistorical.

      Looking forward to a rich and intricate analysis.

  7. Jake Colavolpe says:

    “Hybrid Religions: Parasitism and Symbiosis”

    For my long paper, I intend on bringing into conversation Dreaming in Cuban and The Poisonwood Bible. Both novels bring Christianity (dominant in the western, American canon) into relation with two distinct African religions – Kilanga and Yoruba. However, the interactions that Christianity has with the two religious is quite different. In Kilanga, we see a push against the mission trip of the Prices. Their religion is deemed incompatible with the Baptist thought of Nathan Price, in contrast to the previous mission of Brother Fowles, who ultimately marries a native woman and assimilates into Kilangan culture. Here, we see a rigidity in the Christian framework that is parasitic to the local religion. The Prices and their Christian philosophies come to parasite off of Kilanga culture. In contrast Santeria, practiced in the book Dreaming in Cuban, has a radically different interaction with Christianity – in particular sainthood. Patron saints become intertwined with Yoruba religion, brought to the Caribbean by the long gone slave trade. Here, a Western religion is not posed in contrast to an African one, but instead as symbiotic. The religions fuse to create a practice that is both Western and non-Western. Religious culture is not lost on the island of Cuba, but redrafted. I hope to make the case that these texts shed light on the ways in which thought can merge – in religion, in Africa, in Cuba, and in American literature. I hope to engage the following points in the text to confirm my thesis. Dreaming in Cuban
    – Santeria scene – bringing into discussion saints / Yoruba practice (such as goat slaying)
    – Felicia becomes a high priestess – Santeria (the hybrid Yoruba/Christianity) becomes part of her Latina and Cuban identity, in hybridization
    – Pilar adopting Santeria practices – an ‘American’ in symbiosis with Western/Caribbean/African tradition, shows the adaptability of this religion

    Poisonwood Bible
    – ‘Demonstration Garden’- impractical Christian tradition on Congolese lands leads to the Prices needed assistance from the village
    – Failed baptism on Easter – Nathan Price tries to bring salvation to the Congolese, but instead must rely on their knowledge to navigate a crocodile infested waterway. This is also applicable to the ant scene.
    – Adah and Leah’s shift in religion – what might be interpreted as a ‘loss of religion’ is really a transformation to a more hybrid spiritual ideology
    – Nathan’s death in his unsuccessful mission – unable to hybridize and adapt to the ‘host’ killed the parasitism of the Price mission.

    • Wai Chee says:

      Jake —

      Hybrid religions and the complex negotiations between Christianity and folk religions are central to both The Poisonwood Bible and Dreaming in Cuban. You are absolutely right about the fusion of Yoruba practices and Christianity in santeria. However, don’t over-idealize this hybrid religion — the fact that it is hybrid doesn’t make it unproblematically affirmative. Indeed, as depicted by Garcia, it seems dubious in more ways than one.

      The relation between Christianity and the local faith of Kilanga is very different. I’m not sure if “parasite” is the right term, though, since Christianity is not really dependent on or feeding off the local faith. Rather, there seems to be a competition between these two, with the locals watching and waiting, and Jesus eventually losing out to the local gods by a large margin. Perhaps you should change the title of your paper to: “Hybrid religions: Competition or Symbiosis?”

  8. Sarah Oyadomari says:

    Dreams serve as a windows into the subconscious. Recurring dreams can be interpreted as indicators of an underlying problem that has not been addressed. In The Interesting Life of Olaudah Equiano, The Poisonwood Bible, and What it the What, Equiano, Leah, and Achak all have recurring dreams that are most likely manifestations of guilt/sense of responsibility. Besides helping to provide more depth in the novels, their dreams have simple, straightforward interpretations, but can also be analyzed as symbols of greater overarching issues.

    Equiano dreams that he saves everyone from a shipwreck.
    Background: He recently gained freedom. He has a sense of guilt/obligation that he must help his fellow slaves gain freedom too.
    Straightforward: Foreshadowing that he actually does save everyone on the boat, notably the slaves.
    Greater symbolism: His book historically helps to contribute to abolition of slavery in Britain.
    Strengthen novel: Helps to highlight his religious connection/belief with God.

    Leah dreams of balancing the boat, and moving a mountain of children.
    Background: Reoccurs in January when Ruth May died / loss of independence occurred. She feels guilty for having “white” grief.
    Straightforward: Struggles to find acceptance/reconciliation of Ruth May’s death and help kids in Africa.
    Greater symbolism: Struggles with identity/belonging in either America or Africa.
    Strengthen novel: Similarity between her father.

    Achak dreams he is teaching and lifting boys out of the river.
    Background: He relaxes on Sunday afternoons and has a sense of guilt/obligation for not helping teach boys.
    Straightforward: Realization that he must teach.
    Greater symbolism: He helps bring attention to the Lost Boys by publishing this book with Eggers.
    Strengthen novel: realization that transitions into him becoming a teacher.

    • Wai Chee says:

      Sarah —

      A great topic, and an exceptionally clear and coherent outline. I worry that it might be a bit too rigid, too monotonous in what it allows you to observe and discuss in the three texts. To loosen it up, perhaps you could give some attention to the ways the dreams diverge from one another. In the case of Equiano — the dream is triumphantly vindicated: the fact that he does save everyone on the boat is a tribute both to his efficient leadership and to the prophetic power of the dream. In the case of What is the What, that sense of triumphant vindication is almost entirely absent: this book is about loss, about the futility of trying, about meaningless deaths. Finally, Leah’s dream in the Poisonwood Bible seems to be somewhere between these two extremes. Perhaps this spectrum should be the main point of your paper?

  9. Edward Columbia says:

    Throughout Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story collection interpreter of maladies there are frequent descriptions of the formation of routines, and the subsequent derailing of these routines for various reasons—be it a pebble on the track or a blown up trestle bridge. I will be writing on the ways in which patterns, habits, and traditions are formed in several of Lahiri’s stories, and the ways in which they are abandoned, sometimes out of necessity, sometimes simply in favor of the next ________.

    When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine
    • contrast of Mr. Pirzada’s life in Dacca to his life in New England—shifts in expectations of ease/luxury, shifts in way of life, shifts of home
    • the routine of Mr. Pirzada’s visits—“I had grown so accustomed to Mr. Pirzada’s presence…”
    • the speaker’s observation of the routine, initially from afar, becomes an emotional involvement—“I did something I had never done before…”
    • Mr. Pirzada’s pre-meal watch winding—an equivalent of saying grace, a prayer, a comfort and familiarity in habit, when the truly familiar is absent
    • Mr. Pirzada becomes integral in the speaker’s life when her thoughts of him leave the house—i.e., at school, the book on Pakistan she selects from the library
    • the beginnings of the break in routine—carving the pumpkin instead of watching the news, only to have the carving interrupted by word that India is on the verge of going to war with Pakistan
    • Mr. Pirzada returns to Dacca
    • the anticipation and angst that follow, until the letter arrives, saying that all are safe and sound; during this period of no communication, the speaker’s solemn ritual of candy-praying grows all the more important, but when news of Mr. Pirzada arrives, the urgency evaporates
    • “That night there was no need to. Eventually, I threw them away.”
    • is it different, easier perhaps, for a child to begin and end a significant routine? in discarding the candy, and thus ending the ritual devoted to the safety of Mr. Pirzada’s family, is there a sense of solution, or of simply moving on? and if it is moving on, does that mean that the speaker no longer seeks out books on Pakistan in the library? what are the traces of the period of Mr. Pirzada’s consistent presence?

    A Real Durwan

    • Boori Ma’s routine as she moves from floor to floor of the building, particularly her memories on loop—recitations to the tenants, and to herself
    • what does it mean that she must recite throughout the day? discussing the comfort in habit—her ‘remembering’ Bangladesh as an equivalent to Mr. Pirzada’s watch winding
    • the ‘mites’ in the blanket—harbingers of change
    • Mr. Chatterjee the unchanging commentator
    • the derailment of pattern—“Mr. Dalal had bought two basins…”
    • “A sure sign of the changing times.” – Chatterjee
    • the lives of everyone in the building change. old ways are done away with. Boori Ma is literally pushed upward and upward from floor to floor of the building until she must live on the roof
    • “She grew restless on the roof…”—Boori Ma is forced out of her way and wanders the city, spending the money she has saved until it is stolen from her, as everything else has been and will be
    • the robbery, the unsettlement. suddenly there is a need for something new, because of the introduction of unnecessary things.
    • Boori Ma clings to her habits, but they have betrayed her. there is nothing at the end of her sari; there is no one listening who might believe her. she continues on; the others turn.


    • immediately we are introduced to the breaking of a marriage, the ultimate commitment. the impetus is a chance encounter on an airplane. we are thrust into the reality that something carefully built and nurtured over a long period can be uprooted in a matter of hours. this, too, was the case with Boori Ma.
    • Miranda and Dev meet and immediately begin a relationship that, for its inherent spontaneity, follows patterns from the outset because it is an affair, and there is always a third to consider
    • the change in routine—the adoption of regularity/regulation—when Dev’s wife returns. now we are all Sundays, and it is a weekly deception.
    • “Miranda knew how to wait…” – she spends her free time ‘studying’ Dev and where he comes from
    • Rohin enters the picture, the day before she is to meet next with Dev. Rohin is the unlikely upsetting force.
    • their time together, the child’s depth perception—“Why do you want to memorize it?” “Because we’re never going to see each other, ever again.”
    • Rohin calls her sexy. Miranda drifts into the realization of the power of the sudden and the arbitrary, and recognizes that the power is fading.
    • the routine ends as abruptly as it began
    • she remembers, sees him in everything they shared, but she proceeds.

    Mrs. Sen’s

    • Eliot and Mrs. Sen’s routine, but more importantly Eliot’s observation of Mrs. Sen’s routine
    • “Everything is there.” – the underlying awareness that Mrs. Sen will always pine for the one home place
    • Mrs. Sen’s enclosed days, at times her willful imprisonment, at times her solitary confinement
    • the promise and the disappointment of the ability to drive
    • the sweetness of the regular, if infrequent, letters from her family
    • fish from the seaside
    • “It was never a special occasion, nor was she expecting company.” – the desire, the wish for temporary fulfillment behind Mrs. Sen’s cooking. for whom does she chop?
    • “In November came a series of days when Mrs. Sen refused to practice driving.” – the departure, compelled by the death of her grandfather. what does it mean to realize that a loss long endured is a loss made permanent? when you wile away the hours pining for return, what happens when you realize you can never return to the precise remembered?
    • the cooking begins again, routines resume
    • “…I would visit every day.” “You say that now, but you will see, when you are a man…” – the ease with which a child commits to an unkeepable promise. and not only children.
    • the routine as a method of avoiding pain. distraction from unspoken realities.
    • after the accident, Mrs. Sen cries. she is crying not only the immediate pain, but the whole grief, for the first time outpoured.
    • the routine ends. Elliot is fine.

    I believe the examination of these patterns and their dissolution is important because it is, essentially, the examination of change—what causes us to adopt new personal customs that are intensely important in their moment, and what allows us to discard them when that moment comes to an end? interpreter of maladies is tales of displacement, transplantation, adaptation, and adoption. I am eager to explore these concepts by considering how characters shape their lives around constancy, the “daily _______,” and then prepare to reshape their lives to new rhythms when the old are either no longer possible, or no longer endurable. The natural progression of routine is commitment, and I am also interested in how commitments that characters value so deeply can be left behind on account of an unforeseen impetus. In Lahiri’s stories, which paint characters often at odds with their environments or unable to fully settle into their newfound ‘places’, routine plays a significant role, as repetition and the establishment of habit are devices of comfort and surety. What then does it mean when the routine must come to a halt, when that which it has distracted from must be met head-on?

    • Wai Chee says:

      Edward —

      “Ending the routine” is a wonderful topic, and a great entry point to Jhumpa Lahiri’s stories. In order to engage more of the material we’ve read this semester — and to a create a more dynamic analytic structure — you might want to limit yourself to just a couple of the Lahiri stories (perhaps just “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine” and “Sexy”) and juxtapose them against a similar ending of the routine in Dreaming in Cuban: Celia releasing the drop pearl earrings into the ocean, first the left ear, then the right, followed by her letter on Jan 11, 1959 that concludes the novel: “My dearest Gustavo, The revolution is eleven days old. My granddaughter, Pilar Puente del Pino, was born today. It is also my birthday. I am fifty years old. I will no longer write to you, mi amor. She will remember everything.” I look forward to reading your essay on this unexpected and illuminating convergence between Jhumpa Lahiri and Cristina Garcia.

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