Word Becomes Voice

In his book of bilingual / self-translated poetry, Urayoán Noel explores multiple themes and ideas. One such ideas is the discovery of voice. Colonized and marginalized peoples are often silenced and made to be obedient and grateful. We have already seen this idea propagated in Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World, in which a border patrol officer lines up several Mexican men and women (the protagonist, Makina, included) and gives a speech about how they have to fall in line.

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Fall in line and “ask permission” for just about everything. This is one concept which Urayoán Noel fights against in his book, and he does so through the creation of voice:

could it be that the mammoth guitar  / became a desert

dissolving in the tide / and wrecking in hands

smaller than ours / showing us the way

without academy / without institute

toward the edge of the park / where word becomes voice? (71)

Without academy or institute is particularly significant, as those are incredibly privileged and Euro-centered concepts accessible only to those who are offered the opportunity. However, Urayoán Noel points out that the “mammoth guitar” showed them the way without that path, and showed the way to discovery without it.

There is also a poem, Langu, in which the line “noise memory language land brain body” is repeated. This is significant because it is not simply the creation of voice, but the rejection of colonial influence and standards.

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Appropriation, Rhythm, & Resistance in Mujila’s Tram 83

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“Jazz is no longer the story of the Negroes” writes Mwanza Mujila in his novel Tram 83. In his novel, Mujila takes colonialism and whiteness to task. One example of this is the first glimpse into the popular club which the novel is named for: Tram 83. In this scene, Mujila paints a picture of appropriation through Jazz:

In the labyrinths of the City-State, you don’t listen to jazz to get a whiff of sugar cane or reconnect with Negro consciousness or savor the beauty of the notes: you listen to jazz because you have to listen to jazz when you make your bed on banknotes, when you deliver your merchandise daily, when you manage an extraction plant, when you’re cousin to the dissident General, when you keep a little mistress who pins you to bed in a dizzy haze. Jazz is a sign of nobility… (Mujila 11).

Jazz originated from African American Blues in the USA, which developed from slave songs. Jazz in itself carries a long history of oppression and resistance. Here, Mujila demonstrates the way in which colonists appropriate that history for themselves, and also highlights the way in which the citizens at Tram 83 play into this: “…the jazzmen continuing to prostitute music” and “the yelling of the tourists and other upstarts who identified with the atmosphere, waxing ecstatic, grooving” all “fueled the fervor of the bank, and consequently the lynching of that beautiful melody” (10).

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This warping of jazz for commercial use and commodification, the appropriation of a cultural component by the colonizers, is criticized by Mujila in this excerpt. The jazzmen “prostitute” the music out to those who don’t connect to it’s history but just want to use it for trivial fun. This use of the music devalues it, and it is instead taken by those who colonized the Congo and benefit from extracting its minerals and other aspects of the corrupted system put into place by the colonial project.

It is also a critique of those who are a part of this problem, as “the diggers and the students adopt the manner of the tourists… Smiles like the Queen of England, they mime imaginary empresses. Jazz is the only lever used by all the riffraff of Tram 83 to switch social class as one would subway cars” (11).

The Congolese peoples here are shown to try to mimic those who created the system which they are in many ways stuck in, rather than resisting the narrative that has been created and resisting the power structure which has been created due to the politics of extraction. However, Mujila’s novel is in itself a resistance of that, because the novel mimics the rhythm of jazz and through this novel, Mujila tries to create a narrative depicting the Congo by someone who is from the Congo – not an outside white gaze, and he also reclaims Jazz in doing so and makes it a narrative of resistance once again.

Weak Womanhood in Towfik’s Utopia

In the novella Utopia, author Ahmed Khaled Towfik depicts a world in which the Egyptian economy has collapsed and the middle class has been eradicated, polarizing the population. There are those who live in the privileged and indulgent Utopia, and those who live in abject poverty outside – The Others.

The Others are depicted as animalistic and inhuman by the Utopians, but here a disparity arises between men and women – Utopian or Other. While the male protagonists are given center stage, the women are used as symbolic props in the background, much in the way which women’s bodies have historically and continue to be objectified today.

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Through me, she will see what she’s never seen before Aren’t the guys of Utopia just girls with facial hair? Aren’t we the studs that their women tremble for in fear and desire? Don’t their women wish, as they lie in the arms of their husbands or lovers, that one of us would ravish them? (116)

The first example of this is Germinal, a Utopian girl who gets trapped in the Other’s territory with her partner. Here, the man, Gaber, envisions his rape of Germinal as a sort of retribution for what the Utopians have done to him and the Others. The only thing which stops him from the rape is that he cannot stop envisioning his sister, Safiya, as the Utopian girl.

This is where the frailty of womanhood in this novel begins to truly show.

The girl from Utopia had passed out, of course, because of the mix of cough medicine and Parkinol with opium that Safiya had given her to drink…

Safiya, Gaber’s younger sister, assists in his attempted rape of Germinal without a moment’s thought. This is particularly troubling due to the similarities which the novel tries to draw between the Utopians and Others: “The most important thing is that every moment makes me feel that the points of similarity between us are quite strong” (104). Yet, neither of the prominent women in this novel are able to bridge that similarity between their womanhood, and each assists in the rape or attempted rape of the other.

Loyal Safiya had done as I ordered. She’d washed the girl’s dirty face and her filthy feet, which had begun to look like our women’s feet… She ran her fingers over the girl’s soft hair and said, ‘Take your time… You deserve to enjoy yourself, poor thing. You need clean hair and smooth skin. Enjoy yourself

When Alaa tells Germinal that he is going to rape Safiya, he commands her to “Get out!” Germinal, although unhappy, does as he says, allowing the rape of young Safiya, who, Germinal states later, is “just a child” (133).

Safiya’s rape, as Germinal’s attempted rape, is used as one big symbol as Alaa ridicules her: “Your poverity isn’t our fault … don’t you understand yet that you’re paying the price for your foolishness, your stupidity, and your submissiveness?” (132).

While the novel, for all the disparity it depicts between the Utopians and the Others, does attempt to draw similarities between the two classes, showing both their humanity and inhumanity. At least, it does this for the men. The women are utilized purely as symbol through the violations of their bodies, and with no sympathy extended to one another.

The Serpent Will Devour the Name

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“I’ve been skinned,” speaks Makina, the heroine of Yuri Herrera’s novella Signs Preceding the End of the World, just moments before the book’s end. While this sentence may evoke a forced removal of one’s old self, it simultaneously suggests a shedding – a transformation necessary due to growth. By the end of her journey, Makina must shed.

Throughout this transformative process, Makina enters the Coatlicue State, or what Gloria Anzaldúa, Chicana writer and theorist, would call a “stage of denial.” In this state, the subconscious mind processes what the conscious mind is not ready to. Makina is a carrier – she carries messages across borders, whether they be physical, temporal, or cultural. As a messenger, she exists in a liminal third space. As she enters this journey which mirrors Quetzalcoatl’s journey to the underworld, she enters into the space between who she once was and who she is becoming – a transitional space, a space of contradictions and possibilities.

“…she tipped briefly into panic, she felt for a second – or for many seconds … – that the turmoil of so many new things crowding in on the old ones was more than she could take” (Herrera 106)

This space, however, is also one of pain, which leads to denial. This is why Makina enters into the Coatlicue State: “During this stage you denying everything, you repress things you don’t want to think… While you’re in this darkness underneath todo lo que está pasando (everything that is happening), your unconscious is processing it” (Anzaldúa).

Coatlicue is an Aztec goddess with a skirt and head of snakes, who represents both the womb (life) and the grave (death). She is a cycle. Makina must exit the Coatlicue state and so she figuratively sheds, calling into mind a shedding snake, as she exits the in-between space which she has occupied. She receives a new identity, “with another name, another birthplace … [a] new home” (Herrera 106).

“…but a second – or many – later she stopped feeling the weight of uncertainty and guilt; she thought back to her people as though recalling the contours of a lovely landscape that was now fading away … and she saw what was happening was not a cataclysm; she understood with all of her body and all of her memory, she truly understood…” (Herrera, 107).

Makina’s shedding is an exiting of the Coatlicue State. At the end of the novel, she has worked through the import of her subconscious mind and emerged from her journey anew, a rebirth in death.