Tram 83 and Anti-Blackness Inside and Out

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Congolese author Fiston Mwanza Mujila concisely explores the issues brought about with postcolonial rule over The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in his novel, Tram 83. Though it shines the spotlight very brightly on issues such as poverty, corrupt government, capitalism, and the exploitation of women, one must read in between the lines to notice another topic that Mujila tries to bring to the reader’s attention: internalized racism, specifically anti-blackness. Despite the novel being written in the context of DRC’s society, many who struggle with racial identity would find this to be a resonant theme, and therefore, be able to catch what Mujila tries to tell the reader but does not blatantly state.

References to internalized anti-blackness manifest in the behavior of the baby chicks, who exist as a metaphor for the people of Africa, as I have written before. They use “foreign-sounding names, such as Marilyn Monroe, Sylvie Vartan, Romy Schneider, Bessie Smith, Marlene Dietrich, or Simone de Beauvoir, to make their mark on the world” (10), demonstrating that there is this belief that in order to climb higher, one must adopt white names (though, Bessie Smith is actually a black woman, but could anyone have guessed from the name alone?).

This idea persists even in American culture. Famous black actress Uzoamaka “Uzo” Aduba cites that when she was younger, she wished to change her name to Zoe to make it easier to pronounce, reflecting a sort of self-hatred towards a name that is African in origin. A name that is not difficult to say makes one seem like less of a foreigner, and in a country that has always had a controversial stance on foreigners, a whiter name would make it easier for one to be more successful.

The idealization of whiteness is not just represented through the baby-chicks. There is a constant repetition that it is perceived as something that entails intelligence. The narrator notes that many people “consider reason to be always Hellenic [Greek, and by extension, white] and emotion eternally Negro” (172). German shepherds that are brought into the DRC can “count from one to ten… walk on two legs… switch on a television… make coffee… read, and write” (166). Compare that to dogs native to the country that are constantly slaughtered and eaten and pair it with the reading that dogs in the novel also serve as an allegory for the people in the DRC (what other significance could the Save the Dogs foundation have, if not to liken the people to animals, considering the amount of African charities that bear similar titles?).

There are two things to get out of the two passages: One, both people who are European and things from these countries are seen as better than what is in the DRC. Two, the people of the DRC, and to a greater extent, Africa, are seen by both the rest of the world and themselves as savage and unintelligent. Whiteness is perceived as better, more valuable by many. The fact that it exists in both America and the DRC illustrates that this may be a global issue, rather than something that is solely tied to one country. Perhaps Mujila wrote the novel knowing that it would reach audiences outside of his native country and sought to challenge anti-black sentiments that many hold. If anything, Tram 83 should reveal to people that literature written in other countries can be applied to our own society.

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Images of Jesus in Postcolonial African Literature: Baho! and Tram 83

Though Roland Rugero’s Baho! and Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s Tram 83 are both set in postcolonial African nations—Burundi and The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) respectively—their narratives focus on extremely different topics. Tram 83 is centered on political corruption, the effects of postcolonialism, and the detriments brought about by capitalism, whereas Baho! gives more attention to African philosophy (where Africans fit into the universe) and the power of language. Despite these differences, as they are stories set in areas right next to each other, they share a few similarities as well, a significant one being their usage of the image of Jesus Christ, the central figure in Christianity, a religion brought to African nations as a result of colonialism. Yet again, however, between the two novels, this symbol is utilized in different ways that better fit their respective narratives.

In Baho!, Jesus is used as a symbol of martyrdom and innocence. Nyamuragi, a mute man accused of rape as a result of a misunderstanding, is tried for his alleged crime and brutally beaten on his way to the execution site. He tries to say, “ego” (yes), admitting to a crime that he is not guilty of and mentioned in the text as taking “upon himself the responsibility for all of humanity’s faults”, all of which mirrors Jesus Christ’s treatment at his own trial and his act of sacrifice to save humanity from sin (Rugero 30). Rugero goes on later to describe sheep, an animal that Jesus is likened to (John 1:29), as Nyamuragi’s brothers and associates them with sacredness and peace (Rugero 17, 54). These connections are made to really drive the idea that Nyamuragi is more than an innocent man. He isn’t just not guilty of this crime—he is a victim in the society in which he lives, and is unjustly reviled. Comparison to Jesus, someone that many readers are familiar with, is also used in order to better foster sympathy for Nyamuragi as well.

Tram 83 looks at Jesus through a different lens; instead of a symbol of innocence, Jesus is more of an agent of change. The final chapter of the novel is titled “The Three Kings”, who in the Bible, are three men ordered by King Herod of Judea to find baby Jesus, succeed, and ultimately run away from Herod as they find out his plans to kill the infant, as Jesus is prophesied to become a king, threatening his rule. In this analogy, the Three Kings are the main characters of the book: Lucien, Malingeau, and Requiem, who run away from the dissident General (Herod), after having published a book about the titular tram and distributed nude photos of the General to the public.

The identity of Jesus in this analogy, however, is unclear. It could be the photos of the General, a smaller naked king, nakedness being commonly associated with babies, or it could be the novel’s three kings, who ultimately bring about this change and exist in a trinity, similar to that of the Bible’s Godhead (Father, Spirit, Son). Both ultimately lead to the closure of the Tram and the mines, which served as huge sources of corruption within the novel’s society. Either way, the symbolism shows the reader that great change can be brought about by the actions of ordinary people, connecting the image of a god to simple objects and individuals. We cannot wait for those in power (those who benefit from oppressive systems) to reshape harmful structures—it is up to us.

Overall, the mere inclusion of references to Christianity in both novels illustrate lingering effects of colonialism, as it was those who colonized these countries that brought this religion to them. Since then, authors such as Mujila and Rugero have taken something associated with colonial rule and have used it to connect to their readers and establish resonant themes such as innocence and change. It is used as a tool of criticism towards those who have adapted this religion, one that is supposedly based on love, but is practiced by those whose actions contradict it.

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Tram 83’s Baby-Chicks and Their Allegorical Purpose

              Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s Tram 83 thoroughly explores a society that is seldom touched upon in literature, putting the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and to a greater extent, Africa, through much scrutiny. A significant amount of the novel is focused on the bleakness of the Africa’s future (or rather, lack thereof) due to a range of factors, such as the lingering effects of colonial rule, the tendency of its people to act within their own interests at the expense of the continent’s, and the exploitation of lower-class citizens, which make up the majority of the population. The persistent image of baby-chicks, young women that sell sex to strangers at the train station and Tram 83, the titular bar, serves as a symbol of the African people, and is used to explore the issues that plague the land.

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In order to determine how Mujila tackles these issues, however, we must first figure out how the connection between these girls and Africa is established in the first place. In my own reading, I first noticed it near the end of the novel, when the protagonist Lucien calls out Emilienne, someone who frequents the Tram, for conditioning these extremely young girls for prostitution, asking her, “What’s got into you to colonize these young girls?” (191). It prompted me to go back to the near beginning, where they are also described as “emancipated, democratic, and independent” (30). The narrative simultaneously applies an oxymoron of colonization and freedom to the baby-chicks, using language that mirrors the political changes that the DRC has seen in the past few centuries.

Though the girls are independent in that they have some sort of control over the men that use them by getting them to do favors for them, they are still seen as sex objects—things that are to be used, instead of individuals with actual agency. It is men (some of which are described as foreigners from the same countries that had colonized Africa years prior) who objectify these young women that continue to keep them from rising up and achieving better for themselves. Continued demand along with power keeps this industry afloat, in the same way that stagnancy exists in Africa as a result of capitalism and autocracy.

The static nature of the baby-chicks is even established at the very beginning of the novel, as one of them goes up to Requiem, the deuteragonist, offering her services. She is described as a “girl, dressed for a Friday night in a station whose metal structure is unfinished” (2). The image of an unfinished metal structure serves three purposes. First, the girl is implied to be a minor, as an unfinished structure sounds strikingly similar to a body that is not fully matured. Second, the comparison to something made of metal serves to treat the girl as an object, especially when metal is associated with exploitation (search for metal drives much of the evils of capitalism, and capital itself is mostly made of metal). Third, the phrase “unfinished metal structure” is repeated constantly throughout the novel, used also when describing the lingering effects of Belgian colonialism and unresolved conflicts among the people, all contributing to what the author sees as a lack of a future in Africa, should these things persist. When reading the baby-chicks as a symbol for the people of the DRC, and applying the meaning behind the phrase “unfinished metal structure”, it becomes apparent that Mujila is arguing that the abuse of the country’s citizens boxes them into a bleak future with no way out.

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What Are the Signs Preceding the End of the World?

Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World details the journey of a young woman named Makina, who crosses the border between Mexico and America in an attempt to find her brother. When one considers the novel, it seems as though its title is unfitting. What does the end of the world have anything to do with going to another country, or finding a loved one?

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       In order to figure out what the signs preceding the end of the world are, it is important to start with the very beginning of the novel. Part of the answer is right in front of us—the first chapter is even titled “The Earth”! In this chapter and the next few after, Herrera establishes the characteristics of Makina’s world, only to gradually bring it to an end as the novel progresses. The novel starts with Makina nearly falling into a sinkhole, muttering about how her city is “always about to sink back into the cellar” (Herrera 11), instantly demonstrating the instability of the world in which she lives.

Later on, we find out more about the role Makina serves in her city, running “the switchboard with the only phone for miles and miles around”. (Herrera 18). She serves as a bridge of communication between people, is able to speak in three different languages, and stays out of people’s business. This not only makes her incredibly useful in her society, but affords her a lot of prestige. We also later find out that she has some sort of power over men, being able to physically stop a man from sexually harassing her and knowing enough to offer advice to men on multiple occasions.

However, as Makina crosses into America, these things are lost—it is the loss of these things that serve as signs that America is not the same as the world that she came from. Before she even makes it across the border, and after she makes it across, she finds herself running away from men that are trying to arrest her. Right before she meets her brother, she finds herself in a position where is she in serious danger of being beaten or raped (Herrera 73). While she could speak three languages at home, in America, people “spoke none of the tongues she knew” (Herrera 69), and throughout her entire journey in America, she has no knowledge to go off of besides the words of others as she searches for her brother. In Mexico, she is strong and independent, but in America, she holds much less power and has to rely on strangers for help. Her world has not completely come to an end because she’s still holding onto the hope that she will find her brother, but it is these things that slowly tear it apart.

It is the amount of change that her brother has gone through that ultimately ends her world, I think. When she first sees him, she cannot recognize him. She soon finds out that he’d also given up a crucial part of his identity, having received a new name and numbers to even live in America. Their interactions are described as mechanical and not familial, more like a polite gesture (Herrera 93), and Makina leaves having felt as though her heart had been ripped out. Herrera seems to be saying that the ending of one’s world entails a loss of identity. Makina’s brother has a different name, refuses to come back, and is nearly broken by traumatic experiences in the military. Makina no longer has the strength and independence that she had in her city—traits that made her important in her society, and her relationship with her brother, the reason she crosses in the first place, ends up strained.

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Predator and Prey: Chapter Titles and Character Labels

Towfik’s Utopia, set in a dystopian Egypt, does something that other novels of its genre do not do often. Rather than tell the events of the story only through the perspective of an underprivileged person in the cruel society they live in, Towfik ventures to constantly switch the narrative’s point of view between oppressor and oppressed. Not only that, but he uses language in a way that dehumanizes both characters. While this partially serves to highlight their similarities, it also brings to light their differences as well.

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Perhaps the most obvious use of such words can be seen in how the story is split into parts titled “Predator” and “Prey”. The titles do not merely exist to bring emphasis to the power imbalance between the two main characters. Rather, it gives them more bestial traits. These titles beg the reader to really think about the things both men say and do and how they connect to the labels that the narrative has assigned to them from the start.

Notably, one of the first things we learn about the unnamed “Predator” is that he spends a lot of time sleeping with women. When confronted about it, he says, “It’s not my fault. It’s hormones” (Towfik 9), echoing the words of many guilty of sexual assault, and effectively painting himself as a literal sexual predator. More importantly, however, are his apathy towards the poverty-stricken, his fascination with death (even referring to it as seductive and as a game), and his thrill-seeking nature. Those three things make the narrator someone who wants to hunt people that he deems are lower than him. It makes the narrator someone who wants to be a predator that hunts for prey.

On the other hand, the “Prey” Gaber is presented as a completely different person. The second thing he says is that he knows he’s “going to die two days from now” and refuses to listen to anyone that tries to tell him otherwise (Towfik 47). He never states how he knows this, or what his cause of death will be, but we know that he’s already resigned himself to his doom—he is prey that already knows that it will die. He also recalls a film with a knight that lays out his cloak on a puddle for a woman to walk over. However, he refers to himself as the cloak instead of the knight. He is not someone that exists to serve, but someone that exists to be used and perhaps even hurt for someone else’s benefit, not much unlike how prey exists to be killed for a predator’s benefit. Gaber is ultimately not just dehumanized by Utopian predators, but by himself as well.

The chapter titles act as both labels for the two main characters and as a way to create a contrast between them. The unnamed narrator is consistently predatory, whereas Gaber’s defeatist nature makes him a perfect fit for someone’s prey. Over the course of the novel, however, this changes, as the narrator is put at the mercy of Gaber’s will, perhaps giving both chapter titles a new meaning for each character.

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