Fiction for Fissures in Orientalism

In my life, I feel like my learning of the East and “other” cultures is pretty limited and after hearing about Orientalism it makes sense when I get a certain confusion about other cultures and lifestyles. The confusion can be frustrating and the lack of knowledge I have sometimes is real and this makes me think about why. The TV I watched or the books I read glamorized finding oneself in the East or oversexualized women from different cultures and realizing the extent of that is scary. The framework of analyzing these images has been opened up to me through discussions of literature that immerse readers into the “other’ that Orientalism misrepresents way too often. 

Last year, I got into reading and a fantasy fiction two-book series caught my attention, which inevitably led to a reading binge with breaks to eat, sleep, and repeat. Written by Hafsah Faizal, We Hunt The Flame and We Free The Stars raptured what I originally expected in reading a book. The books are based on ancient Arabia and I recall starting the book and being so clearly confused that I was desperately looking up terms like what sirwal were or what damma meant. Now reflecting on it I think Orientalism that has been around in my life became all too normal to me and while reading those concepts were challenged with the precise details that brought wonder and a desire to know more in this different setting. Faizal incorporated all these aspects into these characters’ lifestyles with terms and structures that I had little to no knowledge of. In my learning of history, I acknowledge the bafflement that comes with the fact that I did not cover much of it with the importance it deserves and being immersed in a society based with Orientalism, there is a lack of understanding that comes with trying to know real aspects of different lifestyles around us. Instead of associating deserts with personal European discovery journeys, the author immersed readers into the realistic details of life at those times for people not normally represented accurately in media with aromas, food, clothing, hierarchies, transportation, and decor. Despite the series being a part of fiction, the books taught more to me in the value of self-reflecting on what knowledge I lacked and thinking about wonder/romanticizing the details of different cultures than I ever really had known. I acknowledge that numerous factors are playing into the perception of these cultures that Orientalism in our society puts into categories such as exposure, effort, and conscious thinking but I still believe that literature opened me up to perceptions that cracked the one mind path track that Orientalism tries to manipulate into being accurate. 

Courageous Usurpers of Morals

Throughout King Lear by Shakespeare, class remains an ultimate heavy part of characters and the journeys they take. Lear goes through the storm and has a reflection on poor people and how they are supposed to fend for themselves in the storm (III.iv.30-38). This is a breach into the social structure the play originally constructs with Lear as the King and thus his daughters having mighty power in the kingdom with many servants. The most intriguing parts of the book however were the bold actions of those around these characters that were built up into such a high level of class that they appear at first untouchable. King Lear at the start of the play seems in control and then Kent goes against what he says and claims he is making a mistake with his harsh actions towards Cordelia (I.i). Kent being lower in status compared to Lear demonstrates yet another occasion where the shakiness of the status is portrayed as a good thing in the play when thought about carefully. The self-clarity Lear has in the storm from viewing a status perspective other than his own is positive and Kent speaking up for Cordelia when she received unwarranted rage is a good thing as well. 

One of the most shocking parts of King Lear that grab readers’ attention is in Act III scene viii was when a servant halts Cornwall from plucking out Gloucester’s other eye and tries to tell Cornwall that right now is the breaking point where he needs to stop. The servant and Cornwall physically battle in a sense of who is morally right while Cornwall fights purely out of rage that the servant has stood out against him despite their huge gap in status and the servant battles for the morale of not gouging someone’s eyes out. At first, readers think that the servant was not that important because of the fact that he dies but he wounds Cornwall which causes both of their deaths. Further, this comes as a shock that someone would even speak so openly out of turn while a person in power is torturing a supposed traitor is surprising. Then that the servant inflicts fatal damage can prove to support the idea that in the end, the people with good morals and who fight for their causes will be successful with their intentions. The servant wanted Cornwall to realize the consequences of his actions and get him to by physically making him weak and bringing him on to the afterlife. The power coming from this random servant in King Lear makes readers feel that sense of hopefulness that the morally strong people in the world can make a difference no matter what class they are in.

Please Keep Your Shoes Out of Our Hearts-Mitski and Me

In “Washing Machine Heart” by Mitski, a part of her album Be the Cowboy that got the title from an inside joke with herself to be the “cowboy” or just a person in power who has the right to do whatever they want, she poetically strings her words to articulate her feelings. In her case, she does this by writing her music the way and about what she wants. Throughout her album, Mitski develops her raw cut lyrics about grappling being lonely and trying to understand adult love with her want of control in herself. She uses hyperbole and physical imagery to develop her loneliness in only being used by lovers briefly and how it can break her down. 

Toss your dirty shoes in my washing machine heart

Baby, bang it up inside

A lover is not literally tossing dirty shoes in a heart that is in this case a washing machine. Instead, Mitski is making listeners imagine how carelessly people will step all over your heart, and as a washing machine, this can happen again and again. The assonance present in the “Ba” on the second line stresses the consequences of the messiness in these relationships. The contrast of banging being dominating but reckless and the soft tenderness of a heart with the term baby conveys the deeper sensitivity in Mitski that is almost out of her control. She wants to portray herself as strong but in reality, the actions of those around her or lack of them can break down the version of herself she wants people to see. Universally, these lines purposefully are poignant to the everyday person who can feel used by those around them while feeling vulnerable for letting them inside. Plus, how trying to have a relationship with other people romantically can be messy like “dirty shoes” when we are trying to have a clean and pure love like what a “washing machine” does. 

Another important element of how the song is poetic is Mitski’s stream of consciousness in her lyrics. 

I’m not wearing my usual lipstick

I thought maybe we would kiss tonight

Do me ti

Why not me?

Why not me?

The rawness of her admitting in her thoughts and lyrics that she desires love and is trying to attract it by simply wearing a different lipstick illustrates how she is struggling with finding the company she wants. The chorus repeating the questions coming from her emotions flow into how people can feel that they are not wanted or not enough. The upbeat tempo contrasts with her deep lyrics that make all of society relate to feelings of not being appreciated for who you are and how people can use us. 

“Put Your Records On”

Nadia, a main protagonist in Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, explored her own freedom through living by herself in her apartment and moving away from her family. Fulfilling some of her personality, Hamid writes in details and moments that portray her power and individualism. She rides a motorcycle, controls her own vision in front of males so they do not mess with her, and chooses the restaurant Saeed and her meet at (17-23). Specifically, I want to focus on the collection of records described that Nadia chose and filled part of her apartment with. One time when Saeed came into her apartment, Nadia picked one of her records of an old American woman soul singer and let it play (28). At first, I thought this was not that important but later on, when the records came up again I was curious. Now I realize that the records were part of the key in understanding how Nadia develops her own image and identity through her choices. 

Further, how the ability of Nadia’s record collection can serve to satisfy or offer to readers a glimpse into who she is and what she values. Later on in the book when Nadia is living with Saeed and his father she got the records and the player back from her apartment but kept the music hidden because it was forbidden by the militants who would search their homes (84). At first, an act of hiding can be seen as cowardness but upon a closer look, it is evident in this case that even taking the time and risk to retrieve the albums and the player and choosing to hold them in a place illustrates Nadia’s subtle strength. From the simple records, readers can see that Nadia individually still combats conformity by not following all the rules and supports her adventurous nature in exploring herself whether it be through records or a speedy motorcycle. Also, how even the selection of her records including an American singer conveys that Nadia is open to and appreciates global aspects of the world and wants to expose herself to them. Overall, I think the records are a little detail that makes all the difference in composing Nadia’s character throughout the book by giving her her own self-identity development and strength to hold onto aspects of that identity if she wants to.

Peaking Thinker, But Still Normal

Throughout the book The Stranger by Albert Camus, Meursault is seen as a kind of strange and detached character. And only through further close reading do readers notice the existentialism connections between Meursalt and his surprising presentness and acceptance of the absurdity of life (including his willingness to give up on some illusions). However, towards the end of the book I think he finally lets go completely and reaches the peak of existentialism that we talk about in class. I think before that he was not fully there yet. When he brings up his Maman, I originally thought it was gonna be about him playing into his bond to her or a profound comment about them and their relationship. Camus instead steers along this questioning path and talks about how Meursault begins to understand his mom, “playing at the beginning again” and how Meursault, “opened myself (himself) to the gentle indifference of the world” (122). I think the realization of Meursault, after the aggressive confrontation earlier, confirms to readers that he truly/fully started to free himself of the burdens of illusions in the book only towards the end. Additionally, it prompts the discussion of how people like Merusault’s mom decide on how they want to live their lives and freely change their path if they desire something different.

Another part of the book I would like to comment on is the times where Meursault does not just come across as this existentialist being and instead more like a normal person living and thinking. When he is waiting for his sentence to be acted upon he describes that he must distract himself and tries to look at the sky and find something interesting about it (112). The stressful waiting situation Meursault is in has put his reactions to the forefront and I think they exemplify that he does not feel nothing about death and instead is trying to process his fate anxiously. As humans I think we all have been in extreme situations that get us on edge and I think it is important that we acknowledge Meursault as a human and not just the ideas of believing in nothing at all. The anxiety he has while waiting as he describes hearing himself breathing, “like a dog’s panting” illustrates the normal behaviors he has, like anyone else would while waiting for their looming fate (113). And other times throughout the book when he wants ways to waste time whether to distract himself from his emotions or use it as an excuse to feel nothing, I think most everyone has a part of themselves that feels this way at times. Although it might be a flying thought that people want to dismiss, it still occurs at times when we simply wish something would end quicker so maybe we stare at a clock to waste time. The normal tendencies in Meursault are interesting to note and I think do not diminish his other strange actions but combine as a whole to form this complex character. And I wonder if in existentialism death is another illusion to diminish or if it is to be accepted as an absurdity of life. 

Rebellious Curiosity in Shady Meursault

Throughout part 1 of The Stranger by Albert Camus, the main character Meursault seems evasive in confronting what he feels or even dealing with the people around him. The repetitive phrasing of Meursault internally thinking or verbally expressing, “it didn’t really matter” makes readers think that he is a person without a personality (41). Despite the book being told from the character Meursault’s point of view, Camus places a cloak of perception on who the narrator really is and how he may be deeply feeling at times. The lack of clarity in his emotions gives readers confusion and the feeling of following someone down a rabbit hole of complicated expectations barring the truth.

Despite the tone sometimes being flat in the text there are sneak peeks throughout the passages that clue readers into details about the main character. When Meursault was talking about moving to Paris for his job with Raymond, he explains that he used to have ambitions in life but realized they did not matter after he had to quit his studies (41). The first time his studies came up was in this context but granted to readers with the mystery of why he had to quit his studies unexplained. The elusive nature of the writing entails readers to strive to want to learn more about the curious nature of the main character. And in peculiar moments we see the shift from the monotone character that seems to lack security and present himself as indifferent to a subtle personality resurfacing after his mothers death. 

In some events of part 1 Meursault initiates actions that deter readers from believing that he is truly indifferent or conveniently “didn’t have anything to do” (43). The indifference of Meursault falls short on a couple occasions. When the main character follows the apple faced woman from the dinner and leaves after a while there is a humorous tone to the action (43). The humor stems from readers being surprised by the unpredictability of Meursault shifting from one minute being the type of person to keenly observe and follow a stranger, to also being the type of person who flatly expresses repetitive daily life actions. The rebellion of details in this story paints a different picture of the character than what readers initially expect. When there was the physical conflict with Raymond, Masson, Meursault and the Arabs at one point, Meursault smokes to avoid explaining and then at another he blatantly disregards the aggressive nature of Raymond wanting to sulk alone by following him anyways (54-55). And at other times he even describes Raymond as, “repulsive” (47-48).  While also adding earlier in a passage that he does not like the cops without reasons as to why (36-37). There is a rebellious hint to the actions and thoughts Meursault sometimes has that as readers we need to snatch onto. Camus writes the book with unexpected rifts in indifference and sets up Meursault as a challenge for readers to learn, try and discover who he may be or stand for.