Poetry is one of those writing genres that everybody expects an emotional response out of. Whether it be despair, anger, beauty, loss, pain, we all expect poetry to do something for us. When I started reading Urayoán Noel’s book of poetry, Buzzing Hemisphere, I expected the same thing. I expected to read about love and heartache and everlasting feelings of longing and hopelessness, you know, all those poetry things. What I didn’t expect out of Noel’s book was to feel immense nostalgia for my childhood.
This nostalgia came from reading one poem in particular, titled “Signs of the Hemisphere”. In this poem, Noel begins and ends each page with in-all-caps descriptions of the signs he sees during his bus ride through the state of New York. One example reads:
TAGS AVAILABLE REDUCE SPEED SERVICE AREA VINCE LOMBARDI $AVE MONEY GEICO GET LOST RIO FORT LEE GEORGE WASHINGTON HACKENSACK PATERSON HAMPTON INN CHALLENGER ROAD LOEWS THEATER SAMSUNG AVAILABLE LAND NO TURNS KEEP RIGHT LEONIA TEANECK EXPRESS NORTHRAMP YOUR SPEED WELCOME TO HACKENSACK RAINBOW CLEANERS QUEEN ANNE THEATRE LITTLE FERRY LUKOIL NO TRUCKS MORE FUN IS MORE FUN MT. AIRY SWIFT AT&T COVERS 97% PERCENT OF AMERICANS WOW!
As I was reading this passage and others like it, I found myself a bit confused and at a loss. I couldn’t figure out what exactly Noel was trying to convey with all of these un-related words and strange names and phrases. It wasn’t until I stopped looking for the meaning behind it that I actually found one for myself.
Once I started reading these passages just to read them, and without trying all that hard to actually understand them, I started getting images in my head of all these words and phrases posted up on billboards or outside of motels. I started seeing them flying by over my head with just enough time to read what they were saying. I started picturing myself in the backseat of my mom’s car, poking my sister, kicking the back of my mom’s seat because that’s as far as my legs could reach, and watching each new colorful sign fly past my head. I remember asking my mom “What does that one say?” I remember road trips to places I now can’t remember, and I remember truck stops with greasy men I was told not to talk to. I remember playing the road sign game with my sister, where we made a competition out of how many wacky and unexpected signs we could spot out.
As I read this poem by Noel, I remembered the signs of my childhood.
…or in other words, “Would you like to have sex with me for money?”
“Do you have the time?” might as well be the catchphrase for Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s Tram 83, considering it was by far the most repeated phrase in the entire novel. Upon the first few readings of the unavoidable phrase, readers may just think, “Wow, no one in this book carries a watch on them” but soon enough it is uncovered that the persistent question is used by prostitutes (of all shocking ages) to invite men to pay them for sex. This phrase is seen in many difference sections of the book but is extremely prevalent when our characters are in the chaotic and busy train station, which is inevitably filled with eager prostitutes. “Do you have the time?” shows up in almost every chapter of the book, and nearly every page.
Mujila emphasizes this repetition and in a sense shoves it in the reader’s face for two different reasons. The first, is to show just how persistent these women are in getting their jobs done. In a sense, persistence can even hint at a bit of desperation that these women face just to make ends meet and how the average 9-5 job has started to disappear in this society. The second reason he repeats the phrase so much is to show just how unavoidable prostitutes are in this setting. The train station is basically crawling with all kinds of “baby chicks” and “single mamas” looking for a job. Our main characters, Lucien and Requiem, can’t get anywhere without being asked for a good time, and they especially can’t hold a solid conversation without being interrupted by a girl at work. The men have even grown so used to this every day occurrence that they don’t stop their conversation to respond to the women, unless they are taking them up on the offer.
Mujila’s repetitive “Do you have the time?” in Tram 83 shows readers the sad and unavoidable nature of prostitution in this post-colonial setting.
One of the biggest themes in Ahmed Khaled Towfik’s Utopia is the idea of dehumanization. This idea is prevalent throughout both sides of society that are shown in Egypt at the time. The rich side of Utopia dehumanizes their own people by avoiding human connection, doing drugs, and separating themselves from virtually the rest of the world. The “others” experience dehumanization in the simplest ways of being treated as less than human by those in Utopia, by normalizing violence in their everyday lives, and by popularizing and normalizing prostitution as a viable career choice.
This act of dehumanizing the people you are surrounded by struck me as very interesting and made me curious to look further into why societies do it. What is the point? Do we do it on purpose or is it something that just happens when desperate times are upon us?
My theory is that dehumanizing a group of people (especially the ones you are trying to take control or power over) is a method used to help subconsciously relieve some guilt and avoid the harsh reality of what you’re doing. If you were to look a person in the eyes, and know their name and their whole life story, it would be pretty impossible to kill them or hurt them because of the guilt you would feel. Should you look away, it would become a bit easier. Don’t know their name or their story? Even easier. Treat them as if they are sub-human, animals, dirt, rodents? Easy peasy.
This tactic as a way to divert from the horror of what you’re doing is what I believe leads societies to commits things like mass genocides. We can see this in the Holocaust and how Jewish people were illustrated as rats, as sub-human, to make people feel a little less guilty for the awful things that were being done. I think Towkif’s imagery of what it means to dehumanize can teach us a lot about out society and how we handle (or avoid) guilt.
When we think about borders, many different images can come into mind. Wether it be physical borders such as a wall or fence that goes on for miles, or the metaphorical borders that are built by prejudice and ignorance, everybody has some kind of feeling or idea about what a border is. For me, that idea was genuinely altered by Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World.
In Herrera’s novel about Mexican-American migration, we follow a young girl named Makina who is on a journey from her small village in Mexico to the United States in search of her brother. Throughout her journey we see her change in several different ways and at one point in the story we read about her rebirth as a new person. Toward the end of her journey through several trials and tribulations she is given her American ‘papers’ and expresses the chilling words “I’ve been skinned.” These words from Makina were so powerful that they changed my entire view on immigration and what it means to ‘cross the border’.
Until Makina’s story I had never considered the amount of change that occurs when you take on the journey of leaving your native country and entering a new one, whether it be legally or not. My own father is a Hispanic immigrant who entered this country through coyotes about 30 years ago. Although I’d heard more stories than I can count about his experience coming into the United States, I never considered the possible rebirth he might’ve experienced. Through Makina’s “skinning” we can see the transformation that occurs because of the journey she has just embarked on. The old Makina is dead and gone, and a newer, more wise version has been reborn. This idea of death and rebirth is something that thoroughly opened my eyes to the experience of immigration and has even made me look at my own father’s experience in new ways.