The Profitability of Suffering

In Chapter 3 on page 85, there is a passage that intrigues me. The passage begins with a description of Baby Kochamma and Kochu Maria watching a man sing on a show called The Best of Donahue. The audience is shown a video of him singing in a subway where he keeps getting interrupted by the passing trains. Then the video ends and the man is revealed to be on the stage and begins to play. Roy says of the man: “He was ragged as a rock star, but his missing teeth and the unhealthy pallor of his skin spoke eloquently of a life of privation and despair” (85). The moment that the man is able to achieve his dream of singing on the show is no doubt supposed to be a moment that warms the audience’s heart (and it did if their compassionate clapping is any indication), but Roy does not let the book audience take such a rosy view. She says, “It had been his [the man] dream to sing on the Donahue show, he said, not realizing that he had just been robbed of that show too” (85).

This moment made me think, and thinking about it made me uncomfortable. Particularly the line “The studio audience clapped and looked compassionate”(85) annoyed me. How compassionate were they really? Couldn’t they see what Roy had pointed out? That the man had been interrupted yet again, not allowed to have more than a few seconds basking in the glory of his dream before it was snatched away uncompleted? Then I realized that no they couldn’t. They, just like the man, were caught up in how good the moment felt and completely missed it!

They didn’t see the way the man was being treated like an object. He was given the chance to be on The Best of Donahue, not to show his singing talents as shown by the fact they cut him off, but to give them a sob story. To me, that is a gross perversion of his dream. It is something that people should be repulsed by, and yet they weren’t. They participated in the manipulation of a man’s misfortune for entertainment value and kindness points for Phil Donahue.

If I am being honest though I think the reason they bother me is that, in truth,  I can’t always see what Roy pointed out. It’s easy for me to judge them for not seeing how the man’s misfortune was exploited when the narrator kindly tells me that. Ultimately, that passage made me uncomfortable because it made me wonder how many times had I bought into the manipulation and objectification of another person for entertainment value. I don’t know, I guess I’ll just have to try to pay better attention in the future.

Don’t Call It a Comeback

Thanks to COVID-19, Orientalism is making a return in major ways, including the President of the United States immaturely referring to a professionally-labeled virus as the “Chinese virus” on several occasions. The truth is that Orientalism went pretty dormant for a while but that would not last forever. Historically, people, regardless of ethnicity, have felt the need to assign blame on a culture if society is trending negatively or if they perceive a major threat. In WWII, Germans believed it was the Jews’ fault for Germany’s economic downfall. After 9/11, Muslims everywhere were blamed for any terrorist attack. In a time of uncertainty, people like to make one thing certain: who is to blame. Orientalism can be overcome just like the Jews overcame the antisemitic reign of Hitler and Muslim-Americans are toughing out a battle with Islamophobia. It is important to actively protest Orientalism in all forms and consider what truly matters more in a time of crisis, blame or resolution. (The answer is resolution).

Orientalism and the “Other”

Junior year, I read Orientalism by Edward Said and it has stuck with me ever since. Said traces the roots of orientalism to the centuries-long period in which Europe dominated the Middle and Near East, and from Europe’s position of power, defined “the Orient” as simply the “other.” As a result, this view continues to dominate western ideas and does not allow the East to truly represent itself. Said’s Orientalism is eye-opening and incredibly applicable to our society today. 

In the book, Said argues that the orientalist perspective depicts the Orient as weak, irrational, and the “other.” On the other hand, the West is seen as the exact opposite: strong and rational. Said states that this binary originates from the European psychological need to distinguish itself from the East. 

I believe that Said’s concept of “other” is immensely relevant to our world today. Issues such as racism, sexism, and xenophobia stem from thinking that those who are different from us are inferior and threatening by default. Through this lens, there is little room to acknowledge the humanity inherent in every single culture and individual. 

This way of thinking is present all over the media in regards to the coronavirus. As the coronavirus has spread around the world, anti-Asian discrimination has followed closely behind. For example, Donald Trump calling coronavirus the “Chinese Virus” instead of its actual name. Also, people posting blatant xenophobic jokes on social media about China and its culture. 

I believe that Orientalism effectively traces the origins of inequality between the West and East as well as gives valuable discourse that is very relevant to our world today. Overall, the concept/reality of the “other” only serves to divide us. We should not focus on our differences, but instead acknowledge the humanity that is inherent in every individual.

Who is the God of Big Things?

There are a few things to consider when discussing the novel’s title. On one hand, we can concentrate on the main portion of the title and think about the specific individual it may be referring to – the God of Small Things. All things considered, from Ammu’s fantasy, we get the possibility that the God of Small Things speaks to Velutha, the man whom she cherishes, regardless of the way that society will never accept them being together. In her fantasy (which happens in Chapter 11 and happens to be entitled “The God of Small Things”), Ammu dreams of a man with one arm who holds her near him: He could only do one thing at a time. “If he held her, he couldn’t kiss her. If he kissed her, he couldn’t see her. If he saw her, he couldn’t feel her.” (205)

When Ammu wakes from her dream, Rahel and Estha are there with her. Ammu notices a curl of shaved wood in Rahel’s hair and knows that the kids have been to see Velutha. She knows even more, “She knew who he was – the God of Loss, the God of Small Things. Of course she did.” (206) Velutha’s identity as the God of Small Things is fortified toward the end of the book when we find out about Ammu and Velutha’s first romantic encounters. Since they know it’s impossible for their love to exist, they never talk or consider the future, or what one may consider to be the “big things”; they just adhere to the present.

The Structure of Society in God of Small Things

God of Small Things is a novel written by Arundhati Roy. The novel unfolds the lives of a family who lives in Ayemenem, a village in southwestern India. The novel follows two characters, Estha and Rahel, twins living with their divorced mother, Ammu. The main event of the novel involves their American cousin Sophie Mol who visits Ayemenem with her mother, Margaret Kochamma. We learn at the beginning of the novel that Sophie Mol drowns in the river by the family’s house. The rest of the novel pieces together the events that led up to her death and the aftermath that ensued, darting back and forth between Estha and Rahel’s childhood and adulthood in the process.

With a street-fighter’s unerring instincts, Comrade Pillai knew that his straitened circumstances (his small, hot house, his grunting mother, his obvious proximity to the toiling masses) gave him a power over Chacko that in those revolutionary times no amount of Oxford education could match. He held his poverty like a gun to Chacko’s head. (14.63-64)

In the novel society and class is shown through characters/parties in the novel. For example the communist movement basically represents the lowest members of society – the workers of the world – looking to break class lines and fight for their own rights, whether it means marching in the streets or taking more violent measures. While Estha and Rahel family is a high upper class in India culture, with Chacko running the pickle factory and having a education. While their family seems wealthy in India, in British culture the would be considered as one of the workers of the world, and be classified as low members of society.

Orientalism And Discrimination Are Certainly Not Dead

Orientalism was defined by Edward Said as “a political vision of reality whose structure promoted the difference between the familiar (Europe, West, ‘us’) and the strange (the Orient, the East, ‘them’).” This theory of differences in culture and lifestyle turned into differences in personality and lead to many grave stereotypes.

And the saddest part is that these are still around today. This has become extremely evident with the Coronavirus Pandemic, an outbreak that originated in Wuhan, China.

I am a firm believer that if people are surrounded by people, especially those in leadership, saying something, they will begin to think it is normal or okay. And this is a huge issue when President Donald Trump refuses to call the virus by it’s name, and instead calls it the “Chinese Virus.” Not only is this incorrect, but it is also giving everyone else the go ahead to blame China for this outbreak.

Throughout the country, and even the world, this has promoted many stereotypes of Orientalism and racism towards people of Asian heritage. This is a major issue because this type of hurtful behavior and discrimination cannot continue. It has been around for way too long and it is time for everyone to take a step back and stop blaming other people for issues that are very hard or impossible to control.

This new form of Orientalism brought on by the pandemic is putting our whole world a few steps back and not moving the people and humanity in a good direction. It is up to us to promote a different outlook on people from different places; one that is more inclusive and understanding.

Unconditional Love… Or Not

A common reassuring phrase a child will hear growing up is that there is nothing they can do as a person to make their parents love them less. This phrase is usually used after a fight when a parent and child makes up.

In The God of Small Things, Ammu says to Rahel, “D’you know what happens when you hurt people? Ammu said. When you hurt people, they begin to love you less. That’s what careless words do. They make people love you a little less” (107).

This exchange of words from Ammu to Rahel stood out to me especially because it defeats everything most children hear throughout their whole childhood. In this scene, Ammu’s unconditional love is being taken away from Rahel after her careless and hurtful words.

Ammu says this to Rahel after Rahel disrespectfully and sarcastically recommends that she marry the Orangedrink Lemondrink man. This enrages Ammu and deeply offends her. In consequence, she tells Rahel that she loves her less now.

Photo by Pixabay on

Throughout the book, Ammu is represented in many ways. Ammu places a lot of emphasis on how her children behave and wants them to be good. When Rahel shocks her with this disrespectful comment, she is ashamed and wants Rahel to know that she must behave better if she wants to be loved. Ammu acts this way because she wants society to see that a woman on her own can raise good children without a husband.

Mulan and Orientalism

As a kid, Mulan was one of my favorite Disney movies. I loved the whole story, the clothes, the colors, and especially the music. Watching it now, I can see clear examples of orientalism portrayed throughout the entire movie.

The most noticeable form of orientalism present in the movie is the combination of Japanese and Chinese culture. This is clearly visible by the clothing (Kimonos), white face makeup, and hair styles present throughout the movie. It is also seen in the song “Honor To Us All” by the way the ideal woman is portrayed.

Mulan is supposed to take place in China and be about the Chinese culture, but instead the creators mashed Japanese culture with Chinese. The idea of viewing many Asian cultures as similar or the same is an orientalist approach, when in fact Asian cultures are all very diverse and unique from one another.

Secondly, the way family honor is portrayed in the movie is a very orientalist view. The movie emphasizes and promotes self-sacrifice in order to keep a family’s honor. While family honor was and is a very important part of many Asian cultures, it does not mean that one should sacrifice their own important values for others. The way this concept of family honor is represented in the movie paints a picture that all Asian people will sacrifice themselves to honor their family and country.

Mulan is a form of orientalism, because the directors thought of Asian culture as one, and disregarded if cultures became mixed. In addition, the representation of self-sacrifice for family honor is seen as orientalism and is not how all Asian cultures are at all.

Is The God of Small Things ruined in the first chapter?

Despite the title of this blog post, I actually enjoy the set up of this book very much. When I read the first chapter, I remember feeling like there was a lot going on, but not in a hectic way, more like a lot of events were being thrown out with not a lot of details. Going in to class the next day, we were informed that everything talked about in the first chapter was actually the events of the rest of the book. I have never read a book even remotely like that, and at first, I didn’t know what to think.

But the more I read and the more I thought about it, that is a great way to get readers interested in the book. Especially recently, I have struggled with the motivation to read my English books, but the sneak peak that was revealed to us at the beginning, made it a lot easier to get hooked and want to know what happens next.

The one event that sticks out to me more than the others is the one with Estha and the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man. This name is mentioned in the first chapter, and as one might be, I was confused and intrigued. I did not know what this story would lead to and the dramatic events that would unfold, but the brief mention of these characters and their encounter prompted me to read a lot further.

I don’t think that this style and structure of writing is something that would work in every book. Obviously in a fiction or dystopia series, this structure would be very hard to manipulate without ruining the whole thing. But in this sense, Arundhati Roy did a fantastic job at telling a good story in a way that made it even more interesting and dramatic to read.

A Sensuous Prose

This novel took me into a very magical state of mind. Since this was Roy’s debut novel, we can really tell that there is a lot going on in it. Set in the late 1960s, the story begins with the funeral of a very young Sophie Mol, the cousin of Estha. Roy reveals the families tensions that led to the bad behavior and killing Sophie. While Roy’s powers of description are intimidating, the stress of a family death shows the social restrictions and boundaries that we face now. The character Ammu works in the family’s pickle factory in spite of which she and her kids are denied any rights, love, by Chacko.

“Maybe they’re right, Ammu’s whisper said. Maybe a boy does need a Baba” (196)

Right as we see the relationships become an importance in the book, the absence of other family members is powerful too. In this quote we see that other people are telling Ammu that she can’t do enough to play the role as a mother and father to Estha. Ammu is starting to believe it for herself that she can’t do an adequate job.

The Effects of Eurocentrism

Firstly, my opinion of the novel could be higher. The God of Small Things had some brilliant moments of storytelling, but its nonlinear plot and slow pace often made it a confusing beast to read. The constant and unexplained time jumps often lead to my confusion, and from time to time, I felt dissatisfied by seemingly dull or flat characters. The characters could feel one dimensional, which would often block me from really connecting or empathizing with a character, with Velutha as an exception.

There was however, many insightful moments in the novel showing both the deep rooted self-loathing in the characters and revealing wisdom.

“Baron von Trapp had some questions of his own

(a) Are they clean white children?

No. (But Sophie Mol is.)

(b) Do they blow spit bubbles?

Yes. (But Sophie Mol doesn’t.)…

(e) Have they, either or both, ever held strangers; soo-soos?

N…Nyes. (But Sophie Mol hasn’t.)

‘Then I’m sorry,’ Baron von Clapp-Trapp said. ‘It’s out of the question. I cannot love them. I cannot be their Baba. Oh No.'”

Chapter 4 Page 101

This scene takes place while the family goes to see The Sound of Music after Estha returns to the theater from outside. He creates a scenario in his head contemplating if a fictional character would accept him. His own mind crushes him as he convinces himself that Baron von Trapp wouldn’t love him or Rahel. The reasons he decides that Trapp couldn’t be his father are heartbreaking. Estha’s believes that he can’t be loved because he isn’t a “clean” white child and because he believes he was at fault for being forcibly molested. He hates himself for his actions and appearance.

Another crucial aspect of this passage is that Estha doesn’t blame Trapp for his decision and takes the opportunity in his head to raise Sophie Mol on a pedastal. Despite knowing his answers wouldn’t please Trapp, Estha mentions, at least to himself, that Sophie Mol doesn’t share in the behavior that Estha has been taught to identify as barbaric. This behavior is simply being a child, but Estha was raised in a Eurocentric household that placed whiteness and Western culture over their own native culture. Even if Sophie Mol blew spit bubbles, she’d still be treated like princess because she was white and European.

Sci-Fi/Fantasy Writers Could Take a Tip from Arundhati Roy

Recently, I have been reading a lot of popular Sci-Fi and Fantasy books that all feel like they are lacking something. While the world is usually intriguing, I often find myself bored or unsettled by the characters who are the stars of the novels. Through reading GOST, I have figured out just what these books are lacking and why.

In the first chapter of GOST, we are taught more about Rahel and Estha’s world than I was taught about any of the Sci-Fi/Fantasy worlds that I have read in the entirety of their first novel. Along with this, the chapter doesn’t feel rushed or jam-packed and all the transitions are swift and unnoticeable. This is quite different than the Fantasy book that I most recently read called An Ember in the Ashes, where the transitions between perspectives were abrupt and random.

I think Roy’s writing differs from many of these Sci-Fi and Fantasy writers because of what/who she centers her story around. GOST is primarily driven by the characters, particularly Rahel and Estha. Their desires and feelings decide where the plot will go and what conflict will arise. In a Dystopian book that I just read called Legend, it felt as if the world was the main character and drove the plot while the actual protagonists were a mere backdrop.

I believe that many of these authors get too caught up in making their make believe world into something that is bigger and better that they forget about what is supposed to be the driving force of the novel. This does not mean that big and beautiful book worlds cannot exist, for Roy explains all the intricacies of Rahel and Estha’s world. The difference is that she does this in a swift and coherent manner that ultimately supports the action and conflict of the main characters. This is why Roy’s writing has come to inspire my current sci-fi story writing, even though it is a completely different genre.

Orientalism in “The Nutcracker”

A few years ago, back at my old dance studio, I participated in the annual “Nutcracker” ballet that always took place around Christmas. Everyone would dress up in their fun costumes and go out and perform amazing choreography. While I always remembered it as a time of joy and cheer, I now see “the Nutcracker” for all of it’s faults. These faults came in the form of obvious culture stereotyping all throughout the ballet.

Because it has been around since 1892, the Nutcracker has been performed countless times by a countless amount of famous ballet companies. It is so ingrained into the ballet world, that many fail to recognize the Orientalism that plagues it. In particular, this exists in “the Land of Sweets” section of the ballet, and is abundantly present in the “Chinese Dance” and the “Arabian Dance.

While the “Chinese Dance” of the Nutcracker is often completed with many different variations, the most popular versions of it include movements with the index fingers pointing upwards and many bows from the waist. In addition to this, many of the variations include fans or umbrellas. This portrayal is both inaccurate and highly stereotypical.

Another dance that exhibits Orientalism is the “Arabian dance” which has been most popularly done as a pas de deux (dance between a man and a woman). The costumes for this dance usually include a woman in a bejeweled bra top and flowy pants and a man in pants and no shirt. The movements are often slow and the woman is supposed to be seen as beautiful and alluring. This promotes the common and inaccurate western stereotype of Eastern women as existing solely for a man’s pleasure.

All in all, I hope that major ballet companies can work in the future to alter the Nutcracker so that it does not exhibit such blatant Orientalism. Not only this, but many other ballets such as La Bayedere and Le Corsaire also need to be edited to remove all to present Orientalism. While many choreographers feel the need to preserve the historical roots of dance, Orientalism should not be something that is accepted.

Orientalism in Dance

In fifth grade, I distinctly remember learning and performing a dance for our studio’s June recital. Our role was to be Chinese court dancers, in the studio’s ballet-adapted version of Marco Polo. Later, in eighth grade, my friends were asked to preform traditional Burmese and Balinese dances, that Ruth St. Dennis had “discovered”, as a part of a study on the origins of modern dance. My classmates and I loved the dancing and the costumes, but it wasn’t until our high school years that we realized just how strange we felt performing dances that weren’t part of our cultures. We adored learning the new styles, but looking back we acknowledge that we were a group of American kids dancing a style from an area of the world we didn’t know much else about.

Who's St. Denis? What Is She?
Ruth St. Dennis

Dance and its relationship with Orientalism is fascinating. The representation comes in the form of a story to be performed for an audience, leaving many obvious examples of Orientalism intact. Many studios/companies today still don’t quite understand what it means to teach their students about the true nature of the cultures they learn dances from, or how these dances do not accurately depict these cultures.

From modern dancer Ruth St. Dennis’s “discoveries” of traditional dance during her Denishawn School’s 1925 travels to Asia to one of the most famous ballets, Le Corsaire, the examples of Asian culture depicted from an Orientalist view are endless. In particular, Le Corsaire is glaringly obvious. As it is based on a Lord Byron poem, the ballet is a perfect example of Orientalism. According to an article from Dance Magazine,

…[Le Corsaire] is morally repugnant: Centered around the selling and stealing of sex slaves, it basically portrays women as weak, non-human objects, and Muslims as evil or buffoon-like. (Yep, the last stereotypes that need to be reinforced today.)

The ballet only depicts the western idea of the “East”, however, there is obviously much more to the culture there than what is shown through the story. Although today there is much more information available to the people performing the stories, it is important to recognize them as inaccurate.