Orientalism in 19th Century Interracial Relationships

While reading God of Small things set in post colonial India, I was reminded of the effects of Orientalism among British officers in the East India Company. More specifically when examining Orientalism, the relationships between British officers and Indian women came to mind.

The theory of Orientalism discusses the dangers of both stereotypes that diminish the validity of nations on the “orient” describing places outside of the West “primitive” and stuck in time, as well as stereotypes that over romanticize the culture, depicting the people, especially the women of the “Orient” as sensual, mysterious, and exotic. Both stereotypes are equally harmful because both work to dehumanize the people that live outside of the West, not allowing people who live in the “orient” the mutual recognition they deserve.

As a case study, the interracial relationships in colonial India reinforce the idea that Orientalism can manifest as a positive, or attractive view of people in India for instance, but is still extremely harmful because it diminishes humans to a single trait. Many British Officers of the East India Company, like James Kirkpatrick, married Indian women upon moving to India with stereotypes of women in the “orient” as their reason for attraction. British men claimed Indian women to be “more sexual” and “exotic” than British women and thus preferable as a sexual partners.

The British men of the East India Company were prime examples of Orientalism in action, their attraction to the women in India was motivated by stereotypes of women in the “orient” rather than the quality of their character. Thus, the concepts of Orientalism still apply even when the stereotypes are more positive, and desirable, the dehumanization no matter the stereotype remains the same.

The Doting Child

Two of the most beloved characters in King Lear, Cordelia and Edgar are the play’s doting children towards their fathers. The two are characterized as morally intact because they act as caregivers for their aging fathers. Furthermore, both characters are praised for their loyalty to their respective patriarch.

King Lear sends lots of quite obvious messages about respecting elders, power lying with the patriarch, and the role of children, but I found Cordelia and Edgar to be the most interesting incarnations of such messaging. When examining Cordelia and Edgar, especially in contrast to their evil siblings Goneril, Reagan, and Edmund, the pair is intended to show the audience the ideal children. But what does that mean? According to Shakesphere, the ideal child is doting, loyal, unquestioning, and above all respectful of the patriarch.

When reading the article “Queen Lear” similar qualities of the doting child apply to the author, and he too was praised for his kind words towards his mother. Many people are celebrated for their loyalty and respect for their parents, but at what cost? Must a child obey their parents wishes regardless of age, or circumstance? Is one child worse than another because they do not act in a way that is beneficial to the parent?

I am aware I sound very much like a young person here, and I did like the characters of Cordelia and Edgar much more than their siblings, but I found the underlying messaging of what a good child is very compelling. Through the characterization of Cordelia and Edgar, Shakesphere clearly depicts how the ideal child should act, loyal and respectful at all times. King Lear also depicts the many ways a character could be a bad child, leaving the readers with the choice to be a incredibly doting child, or a villain. I personally do not believe that being a “good” child could be so binary.

Not Not a Poetic Song

The song “Not” by the band Big Thief appears on their fourth studio album, Two Hands. The Brooklyn based quartet has a wide arsenal of Indie Rock songs, but “Not” plays with the rules of song making and thus takes on a unique, poetic form.

It’s not the energy reeling
Nor the lines in your face
Nor the clouds on the ceiling
Nor the clouds in space

The song uses the repetition of the word “Not” or nor to describe the indescribable. For me the song encapsulates the aspects of life that cannot be put into simple words, the closest one can come to explaining it is to say what it is not. What I mean by “it” is the feelings and emotions essential to the human experience. For me the song begins to grasp at what it feels like to be alive. My favorite aspect of the song is that rather than try to explain a complex subject like how to feels to be a human, Big Thief describes the describable, more simple aspects of life to draw contrast between knowable, and the inexplicable larger feelings.

Nor the boy I’m seeing

With her long black hair

These two lines blur the gender, and thus humans seamlessly. It is another instance in which the song leaves things unexplained to its audience. Rather than explicitly state who the song is talking about, a negative space is left, switching genders one line to the next has the same effect as saying not before every statement. It explicitly states the simple, but leaves the complex deliberately left unsaid. It also emphasizes the mutual human experience over the individual.

Not the meat of your thigh

Nor your spine tattoo
Nor your shimmery e

The imagery of human flesh in these lines reminds the audience of the subject of the song, humans, yet also reiterates that appearance is not what is important. Saying not before a line of dazzling imagery forces the reader to picture what they have just read, but also disregard it as unimportant. In this way, this imagery works at multiple levels to both communicate the humanity, and also disregard the physical world to better encapsulate the emotional one.

It’s not the room
Not beginning
Not the crowd
Not winning
Not the planet
Not spinning
Not a ruse
Not heat
Not the fire lapping up the creek
Not food
Not to eat
Not to die
Not dying
Not to laugh
Not lying

Apologies for the obnoxiously long quote, but here is the chorus of the song “Not.” I believe the song works to emphasize what being human feels like by describing all it does not. The use of a word, and then in the next line explaining the action of said word does multiple things. First it continues the themes of the human experience, by explain the most essential parts to life, like eating, laughter, dying. But in doing so, the song also shows that there is more to being a human, more that is inexplicable. We as the reader know there are larger emotional attached to be a human, because the ones in the chorus, while important are explainable and thus unable to truly describe what it is like to be alive. The chorus reminds the reader of shared humanity, while simultaneously proving that life is indescribable.

Nameless but Still Human

Upon finishing Exit West, and realizing Nadia and Saeed were the only characters given names in the story, I was immediately reminded of The Stranger by Albert Camus. While both stories make the conscious decision to leave some characters unnamed, I believe the reasons for doing so could not be more different.

As I read it, The Stranger left all Arab characters unnamed as a dismissal of their complexity, they were Arab and that was all the reader needed to know. It very effectively dehumanized them, subjecting them to a singular trait amongst characters as complex as Muersault.

I felt that Hamid decided to leave all characters besides Nadia and Saeed unnamed to humanize the two, by allowing them to function as singular people rather than a mouthpiece for all migrants everywhere. As soon as the first page Hamid is deliberate in naming his main characters. “His name was Saeed and her name was Nadia” (3). By naming them, and giving them fully developed, individual personalities Hamid is creating human characters that happen to migrate, not migrants that happen to be people.

What I found even more interesting about the lack of names in Exit West was that for me at least, it helped to humanize and connect all of the unnamed characters. By describing the person who helped Nadia and Saeed pass from Mykonos to London as, “a partly shaved-haired local girl” (117), and the person in Vienna fighting for protection of the migrants as simply, “a young woman” (109), the supporting characters are able to speak to a universal human experience. While every character in the book is fully developed and complex, by naming so few of them, it reminds readers that anyone could be put in the position of the migrant. It helps to break down the NATIVE/migrant binary, by not describing characters as specific people but rather in more general, easy to relate to terms. It prevents readers, from removing themselves from the Migrant experience because they are not named Cathy or Dave of whatever the name may be. Instead, it forces us (the reader) to reflect on the idea that many of us are young women or young people, and thus are no different from any character in the book.

I loved how the naming of Nadia and Saeed made them individual, human characters, and I also felt that not naming everyone else reminded me that we are all humans, capable of having the same experiences.

To Cry or Not to Cry

To me, crying is one of the most natural, genuine ways humans display their emotions. Tears do not seem to be a controllable response to something, or a type of reaction that can be repressed. In my personal experience though, tears can feel random. For instance, I have not cried at some of the most sad moments in my life, but I cry every single year at Superbowl commercials. While I believe tears are a good indicator someone is feeling emotions, I think crying says little about what a person is truly experiencing.

The people of the court in The Stranger do not agree. Throughout the court case of Meursault, his lack of tears over his mother’s death is brought up numerous times. So much so that it becomes one of the strongest pieces of evidence supporting that Muersault is a man with “crime in his heart.” (pg.96). The prosecutor is so intrigued by this idea that a man could not cry over his dead mother, that he questions both Perez and the caretaker from the old home on Meursault’s emotional reaction at the funeral. The prosecutor asks Perez if, “he had at least seen me [Muersault] cry.” (pg.91). In the trial of Meursault, his emotionless or at least tear less reaction to his mother’s death becomes a tick against him in the “morality” box. To this courtroom, tears are the primary way humans show sadness or grief. To them, anyone who does not experience grief they way they are expecting must be inherently evil. I believe this is a close minded view of people and their individual experiences, but I also cry at commercials, so who am I to say.

Is Marie a Foil or Just Woman?

I found the character Marie to be very interesting throughout the first part of The Stranger. She is a woman who comes into Meursault’s life at first through a purely physical connection, but they seem to spend more and more time together.

So far, I have been unable to figure out the purpose of her character. At times I have thought she was a possible foil for Meursault. Marie seems to exude emotion and joy at all times. She is consistently described as “laughing” after almost anything Meursault says. Furthermore, she seems to be the ultra emotional to his emotionless, even asking Meursault if he wants to “marry her” or if he “loved her” after only a few days together. This all could support the argument that Marie’s character is there to remind us just how apathetic Meursault is through her exuberance and overflowing feelings.

That being said, The Stranger was also written in the 1940’s, a time when most women were considered overly emotional and irrational. I think it is especially important to note that this book was written by a man and through the perspective of a man, so as an audience we are seeing Marie through a “double” male gaze. Thus, when reading I found myself wondering if the character of Marie was trying to comment on Meursault’s personality, or if she was just a representation of what men thought women were at the time.