Symbolic use of the Sea and Shit in The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born: Crossing Boundaries

Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are not Yet Born laments a fragmented existence where individuals are alienated from others because of the fetishizing of consumer goods. It is a novel overtly concerned with hypocrisy, corruption, loneliness, scales of power and subjectivity. But amongst the decay our unnamed protagonist seems to find a peculiar release in nature: “The man leaves the ship behind and walks out in the direction of the main breakwater swinging out into the ocean. The sounds of violent work grow fainter as the wind rises past him, and keeping to the edge where he can see quite far down into the sea, he walks without any hurry, not having to think about time or going back, feeling almost happy in his suspended loneliness, until he comes to a flight of stairs built into the side of the breakwater, leading down into the sea…” (112). Here, the man seems to embrace his solitude almost in the spirit of romanticism. Yet in contrast to this solitude in nature is the man’s seeming obsession with filth and decay. For instance when smoking with Maanan, the drug and the insight the man gains from the experience is deeply tied to the sea, again reiterating the potential for connection in nature, but also sharpening the impact of human filth: “The night air carried the smell of mixed shit strongly into our stomach and into our blood now” (71).  What does the prevalence of excrement, vomit, spit and rot that we are met with as readers throughout the novel signify? There is an institutional refusal to collect the waste piling up in the town, the rotting wood of the banister, and of course the end scene when the Koomson and the man escape through the outhouse. Of course this obsession with bodily waste reminds me of, as Erica brought up in class, abjection. Is it possible that the man is coming to terms with the lack of clean distinctions in the world in which he is forced to live? Is the imagery of shit a metaphor for the breakdown of distinctions/ideal represented by nature? After jumping off the boat taking Koomson to safety, the man “had begun to feel much colder, too. But at the same time, even the cold feeling gave him a vague freedom, like the untroubled loneliness he had come to like these days, and in his mind the world was so very far away from the welcoming sand of the beach beneath him” (179). Is the freedom the man experiences the mixing of polarities he was unable to accept previously? Perhaps the reason the image of the sea is used in the novel is because it symbolizes the boundaries the man is crossing in his search for meaning in a disillusioned and corrupt Ghana.

Works Cited

Armah, Ayi K. The Beautyful Ones Are Not yet Born. Great Britain: Pearson, 1969. Print.

Interpretation of Sonbai as a Dream

In the first scene of Mirch Masala (1987), there are many symbolic elements that when analyzing them as a dream sequence provides an even deeper interpretation of the scene’s meaning. Turning to the scene where the subedar first meets Sonbai, I found many symbolic overtones tied to water, thirst and drinking. The reason for looking to this scene through a psychoanalytic lens is to provide another way of identifying the presence and representation of power in this post-colonial setting.

In Sigmund Freud’s essay “The Interpretation of Dreams,” he describes the term “dreamwork” as a system that censors ideas in the dream world between the conscious and unconscious. In other words, you can dream of drinking water because in your dream you are thirsty, but the action of drinking water actually represents something else your unconscious needs to work through. What the unconscious needs to work through comes from unfulfilled conscious experiences—due to repression or censorship. “Dreamwork” is identified as psychic mechanisms producing messages from the unconscious that were repressed in the waking and conscious world. This occurs in three steps: (1) wish fulfillment, (2) condensation, and (3) Displacement. Freud identifies wish fulfillment as the purpose of dreams—a way for the unconscious mind to fulfill a wish. Condensation is the thing or object that is dreamt about that consists of multiple meanings. Displacement refers to the process of distinguishing a latent translation into manifestation and this latent content is of psychic value.

This first scene after the opening sequence functions as an introduction to a relationship between desire and power. In this scene Sonbai quenches the tax collector’s thirst, by pouring water into his hand while he kneels before her and drinks. Yet, he looks up her with pleading and still thirsty eyes.

According to, water and drinking hold many symbolic meanings in the dream world. The website’s interpretations explains:

“drinking… in a dream may indicate our need for comfort and sustenance. Drinking–the taking in of liquid–symbolizes the interplay between the inner need to sustain life and external availability of nourishment… Drawing water from the well and seeing impurities and filth in such water means the person doing so will pollute his wealth with haram wealth… Water is the universal symbol for emotions. How water looks and behaves in a dream is very significant… Throwing or spilling water on anyone indicates a need to control your temper… A water carrier in a dream also represents one who can go near high-ranking people. He also represents one who delivers people’s belongings to their hands.”

To read into this further, the subedar drinking becomes symbolic of his need for comfort and sustenance—his only companions spend their time with him because they are curious about his fancy things and also are afraid of him. It is then perhaps why he craves Sonbai once he drinks from her pot. Since the subedar comes when the women are drawing water, the connection to filth and polluting wealth draws in the loss of the factory’s profits because of his greed in wanting Sonbai. Since Sonbai slaps the subedar when he wants her to sleep with him, her pouring the water into his hand in this first scene and spilling it down his suite and mustache appears to foreshadow her temper that isn’t controlled and propels the conflict of the story forward.

Tying this back to Freud’s “Interpretation of Dreams,” this scene alludes to the upper class power that unconsciously recognizes it can never fully own those that work for them. The continuous taking, of money and goods, from the lower classes does not provide the nourishment the upper class seeks. The wish is to be able to take whatever they desire at the moment; however, this is displaced by the objectification of the married woman who is ultimately an unattainable object. The subedar drinking is his wish-fulfillment to have Sonbai, where the water he is drinking represents statements of colonial rule and objectification of lower class systems for nourishment.

Because films are creative outlets that allow filmmakers to work through conflict in story worlds, I find it interesting to view the unconscious symbolic presence of the drinking water scene because it provides a multitude of readings beyond providing conflict that moves the story forward.



Why Food Matters


In this interview on Indonesian restaurants in the Netherlands (from the Dinner Party Download podcast), Amsterdam-based food blogger Vicky Hampton mentions a few important historical facts about their prevalence and the kinds of food that are served. Indonesia was a Dutch colony, and as a result, many Indonesians now live in the Netherlands. Hampton also notes that the rijsttafel — “rice table,” an abundant sampling of dishes that one might order to share and which will be brought out to fill the table in such a way that one has hardly any room left for a glass — is not strictly Indonesian, but a colonial mode of serving. When we eat rijsttafel, we are eating as Dutch officers might have eaten, waited on by their Indonesian servants.

It’s problematic to talk about the delicious abundance that comprises a rijsttafel, to order it and savor it, without talking more openly about colonialism and about the contemporary realities linked directly to that history. Yet Dutch institutions (to stay at an institutional level here) have a complicated relationship with the idea of historical openness: in Leiden, the folk art museum features an impressive collection of Indonesian artefacts without mentioning who collected them, or how. The Tropenmuseum (Tropics Museum) in Amsterdam, formerly the Colonial Museum, has apparently only begun to include references to a more complex (read: racist / colonial) history in the last decade. And in just a few weeks begins the season for the annual denial of colonial or racist origins for the now-world-infamous Zwarte Pieten, the “black Petes” who arrive on a ship with Sinterklaas to help him deliver gifts around the country.

History and its contemporary consequences are indeed traceable in widespread cultural practices, of course, but also in the seemingly benign dishes we order at dinner out. The Zwarte Piet controversy sometimes itself fails to acknowledge Dutch people of color and immigrants living in the Netherlands. The recently founded Black Heritage Tour initiative marks a small but important move to talk about these histories in city spaces that recall them.


Talking Writing – Mahasweta Devi

I found this video in which the author of “Draupadi”, Mahasweta Devi, is being interviewed by Naveen Kishore, the founder and director of Seagull Books, a left-leaning publishing house based in Kolkata, India. It gives an insight into her engagement with the tribals, her motives behind writing her some of her seminal works, the language that “the subject of her works” use and her personal life.

In our reading of Vladimir Lenin the topic of war and class struggle appears to be finding it’s way into our classroom discussions frequently. By war, I don’t mean military combat, but instead a war between African-American citizens and law enforcement, where shootings of African-Americans by law enforcement is becoming a common occurrence. I find that the YA novel, Mississippi Trial, 1955 by Chris Crowe, is also relevant to this discussion. In this novel, Crowe tells the story of Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old black teenager who was brutally murdered by a group of white men for allegedly making flirtatious remarks about a white woman. His murders’ trail was a national matter, highly publicized, allowing the nation to witness a horrific outcome. Not only were the murderers were acquitted, but they announced that they were indeed guilt of the murder after being acquitted.

Here I would like to turn to Lenin’s idea of imperialism as more of a national mindset and a problem that is not beyond our boarders. I feel the example of Emmett Till and the current social problem between black men and law enforcement plays into the same class power and struggle that he describes between “free world” and the oppressed. Lenin states:

“The most widespread deception of the people perpetrated by the bourgeoisie, in the present war, is the concealment of its predatory aims with ‘national-liberation’ ideology… Imperialism is the epoch of the constantly increasing oppression of the nations of the world by a handful of ‘great’ powers and, therefore, it is impossible to fight for the socialist international revolution against imperialism unless the right of nations to self-determination is recognized. ‘No nation can be free if it oppresses other nations’ (Marx and Engels).”

While Mississippi Trial, 1955 is based on a story that took place in the 1950’s, it seems that we have not truly become a free-nation, as Lenin might suggest. The horrors that are still occurring today, resemble so closely the story of Till. It demonstrates that the “land of the free” is universally forgetting all too easily about those once oppressed and killed. Is this the work of the media—to make the oppression and racism seem new? I guess, if this is the case, that means that we live in an Imperialist society not just overseas but at home, on the land of those who claim to be free and is constantly increasing the oppression to those of color.


Mississippi Trial, 1955:

Co-opting Discourses

Leila Ahmed’s The Discourse of the Veil was a historical perspective on topics I’ve come into contact with before. In a previous course, I was exposed to the book The Arabs and Muslims in the Media : Race and Representation after 9/11 by Evelyn Alsulthany. Within this book, Alsulthany discusses not only the conflation of the Arab/Muslim “Other” following 9/11 but also how Arab/Muslim women (or any woman donning “the veil”) were used as an excuse to start the Iraq War. Similarly to Amin’s argument of saving the Egyptians from antiquity and bringing them to a Eurocentric modernity, U.S. rhetoric boasted of our “real mission” being saving these brown women from the terrorists.

Ahmed’s analysis specifically of the power of discourses caused me to draw a connection to another piece I read. In Salam Al-Mahadin’s article Arab Feminist Media Studies: Towards a poetics of diversity,  she states “The Arab man is perpetually caught in the ‘woman’ trap set by a social order that constructs male subjectivity through the medium of the female body” (8). This is an interesting observation to bring in with Ahmed’s historicization of colonial discourse in nationalist movement and/or anti-colonialist movements. Since Arab masculinity is so tied to Arab feminity, colonizing discourse is necessarily invested in critiquing the women of a place in order to drive the men into certain directions.

Amin and Ahmed

1-In an introduction to his book Qasim Amin suggest that:

An observer might think that I now maintain the veil should be completely dispensed with – but this is not the case. I still defend the use of the veil and consider it one of the permanent cornerstones of morality. I would recommend, however, that we adhere to its use according to Islamic law, which differs from our present popular traditions. Our people are ostentatious in their caution and in their interpretations of what they believe to be the application of the law, to the extent that they presently exceeded the limits of the Shari’a and have harmed the nation’s interest. (35)

As the chapter unfolds, Amin provides various hadith and Quranic verses to argue that what the Shari’s requires from women is to cover their body parts, except for their hands and faces. However, he suggests that such religious saying were later infused with “harmful customs” that exaggerated such practices under the title of religion, “but of which religion is innocent” (39). What he criticizes, then, is the practice of covering up the whole body, including the entire face, when in front of men. He concludes that such practice conceals the identity of women and disables them to participate fully in social life.  Pursuant to that discussion, he asks for a reform of such un-Islamic customs that limit the activity of women outside of their homes.

Having considered these statements, why is it that Ahmed regards such claims as a reform or “the abolition of the veil?” (315)

2-Qasim Amin argues that “Some people will say that today I am publishing heresy. To these people I will respond: yes, I have come up with a heresy, but the heresy is not against Islam. It is against our traditions and social dealings, where the demand for perfections is extolled” (4).

To what extent do you think this statement satisfies the needs of colonialist intentions? To what extent is his adherence to the Islamic laws an anti-colonialist stance, if it is at all an example of one? Do you think this statement is in accordance with Ahmed’s views on the writer (318)?

3-In another instance, Amin proposes that

The Islamic legal system, the Shari’a, stipulated the equality of women and men before any other legal system. Islam declared women’s freedom and emancipation, and granted women all human rights during a time when women occupied the lowest status in all societies….These advantages have not yet been attained by some contemporary Western women, yet they demonstrate that respect for women and for their equality with men were basic to the principles of the liberal Shari’a. In fact, our legal system went so far in its kindness to women that it rid them of the burden of earning a living and freed them from the obligation of participating in household and childbearing expenses. This is unlike some Western laws, which equate men and women only with regard to their duties, giving preference to men with regard to societal rights. (7)

How do you think this statement challenges Ahmed’s idea that Amin’s narrative elevates the status of Western/ Christian women?

Dismissing Hybridity(?) in The Inheritance

Blog Post #1

As I read through The Inheritance, one of the things that struck me was how fervently so many characters insisted on a firm conception of national identity and self-identity.  In the section titled “Without Heritage,” Zayna recalls a longing for the “old country” that she herself had not known.  She shouts “We’re going back home, we’re going back home!” when her father vows to leave the United States, as though Palestine is where she truly belongs (7).  Yet almost everyone insists on coding Zayna as American.  While Zayna describes herself as “between two languages and two cultures,” her American grandmother views herself and Zayna as part of a collective American “us” (9, 17).  While Zayna’s grandmother cannot understand her granddaughter’s sense of un-belonging, her family in Palestine alternately view her as the successful, prosperous American and as part of a different “us”.  Her uncle believes Zayna should not leave the country, but rather remain part of the old country family.  Beyond material successes and accumulation (and her accented Arabic), Zayna is not an American in this geography.

Zayna’s extended family seemingly has more trouble with Kamal’s status as working in Germany.  Mazen views this as disloyalty–arguably, to kinship and to country–and he questions whether Kamal “felt himself above […] our family, our friends, and the inhabitants of this land” (226-227).  Mazen continues to reason that “the Germans are not our people,” and he spends most of the novel resenting Kamal seemingly allowing himself to become part of a different nationalist “our.”  The end of the novel clearly shows that the general disregard for a kind of individual hybridity is tied to nationalism: the governor cannot fathom Kamal doing work for anyone but his nation of origin.  His skills are somehow owed to a national project.  Yet for Zayna’s uncle, Zayna’s national allegiance is tied to caring for her “inheritance” (her infant brother)…and from this, we might gather that national identity looks different for men and women in the novel.  Women are meant to nurture the men in the family (which we also see with Nahleh, who is exploited by her brothers), and men are meant to contribute their skills to a kind of national family.

Work Cited

Khalifeh, Sahar. The Inheritance. Trans. Aida Bamia. New York: The American University in Cairo Press, 2005

Abjection in Ayi Kweiarmah’s: The Beautyful Ones are not Yet Born

Ayi Kweiarmah’s novel, The Beautyful Ones are not Yet Born, describes a postcolonial Ghana where a new government order has replaced the old one, and the changes are subtle, perhaps even invisible. Kweiarmah paints a picture of a complicated new order, and provides rich examples of the difficulties in overcoming a new state that is ruled by the those that were able to gain power by knowing people, or by knowing a friend of a friend, and corruption breeds corruption in this new order, thus producing characters such as Koomson. Koomson’s identity becomes troubled when the Ghana government is toppled by a new regime, and he is in danger of being jailed or killed by those that have gained power. Koomson spends time in the man’s house, and hides out there in order to try to devise a plan to save himself from the coup. The man helps Koomson get away, but they first have to go through the latrine hole. “He could hear Koomson strain like a man excreting, then there was a long sound as if he were vomiting down there. But the man pushed some more, and in a moment a rush of foul air coming up told him the Party man’s head was out” (Kweiarmah 168). Koomson gets out of the hole, disgusted, but alive and safe from the new government. Furthermore, Koomson then gets away on a fishing boat and is able to survive. His white clothes dirtied and caked with excrement, his new life in another land awaited him so that he could become a new self, on that is not a government official or a rich man, but a man that is a survivor and a whisper of a Party official, doomed into exile from Ghana.

Koomson abjects the Party man identity and embraces a new identity of a man with no certain identity, only that of a survivor and escaper. Even moreso, the last name that the man calls “the Party man” is “Koomson,” a cemented new self that is surviving from the post-self-the-Party-man (Kweiarmah 178). Julia Kristeva writes that “…polluting objects fall, schematically, into two types: excremental and menstrual…Excrement and its equivalents (decay, infection, disease, corpse, etc.) stand for the danger to identity that comes from without: the ego threatened by the non-ego, society threatened by its outside, life by death” (71). Koomson feels his identity threatened by the excrement that he has to go through, but he recognizes it is this or the corpse (which is the utmost abject of the abject). Furthermore, Koomson loathes “waste” and Kristeva contends “the spasms and vomiting that protect me. The repugnance, the retching that thrusts me to the side and turns me away from defilement, sewage, and muck…separates me from them” (2). By Koomson going through excrement, he is left with the self that has gone through shit in order to solidify this new identity, thus, leaving behind his old identity of the Party man and embracing the new identity of a complete and whole Koomson.


Works Cited

Armah, Ayi Kwe. The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born: A Novel. London: Heinemann, 1981. Print.

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia UP, 1982. Print.


Breaking Down Binaries in Sahar Khalifeh’s THE INHERITANCE

Bonnie Opliger

26 September 2016

Blog #1

Sahar Khalifeh’s novel The Inheritance explores and complicates many binaries: between the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the educated and illiterate, the honorable and the dishonored, the immigrant and the native, and the women and the men (just to name a few). Khalifeh presents these binaries through her characters’ experiences as they try to navigate the many conflicting and painful aspects of finding love, family, and purpose in the changing and disrupted Palestinian culture of the West Bank in the early 1990s. I am particularly interested in how Khalifeh alternates the point of view from first person with Zayna in the beginning of the story, to third person omniscient throughout the remaining pages interspersed with lapses back into Zayna’s first person narrative. The third person omniscient perspective delves into the deepest psyches and secrets of numerous characters–often revealing much more than is spoken aloud. I believe this humanizes even some of the most unlikable characters. After Zayna is accidentally shot by Nahleh and is half awake and half dreaming she notes, “There were hills, a horizon, and a slight dark substance in the blue pit forming celestial shapes of unique beauty. What disparity between the two scenes, the internal and the external, between the view seen from the outside and the reality of the place. What a contrast” (132). The cohesiveness of the family, the traditional culture and rigid gender roles are often held up as ideals of a celestial nature, but all too often in the novel the pressure to maintain these ideals leads to deep resentment, pain and suffering. Zayna feels especially stuck between two worlds. She has achieved great financial success under the guidance of her American grandmother in Washington, D.C. but feels numb, lost and disconnected from the Arab culture that she identified with growing up as a child with her Palestinian father in New York. She notes, “I didn’t say I was Arab because I wasn’t. Who am I then? Despite my mother’s citizenship, my birth certificate, my school certificate, my books, my accent, my clothes, and everything about my life, I was not truly American” (17). Similarly, Nahleh feels jaded with her life, being an educated and generous woman who supported her family but is now left without a family of her own and siblings who she feels have used her. I am also interested in the characterization of the men in this novel, most of whom seems impotent in some way. Mazen in particular struggles with issues of masculinity. Mazen idealizes Nahleh and cannot reconcile her romance with Abu Salem with his image of her perfection, “He had discovered that after all these years he had been cheated and stupid. Nahleh was no better than other women or men or above sexual temptation” (122). Yet Mazen is unable to gain any introspection into his own philandering ways and scorns the women who try to guide him. The lines between honor, love, and tradition become blurred as these men and women struggle to navigate a culture in turmoil.


Works Cited

Khalifeh, Sahar. The Inheritance. Trans. Aida Bamia. New York: The American University in Cairo Press, 2005