The American Nightmare

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In Signs Preceding the End of the World, written by Yuri Herrera, and later translated by Lisa Dillman, the reader follows the journey of Makina, a young woman who ventures to the United States from Mexico utilizing less than legal means. The novel continues to explore the various trials crossing the border entails, the dangers inherent in the endeavor. But along her journey to reunite with her brother, Makina bears witness to the very real nature of the United States and how much it fails to live up to its reputation.

The United States of America, home of the ‘American Dream’, where honest hard work and effort allows one to build any life you may desire. A place where all are treated equally and given the same opportunities for success, and treated with the respect everyone deserves. Everything that Makina experiences since crossing the border into the United States is a direct contradiction to these ideals.

Soon after her disappointing reunion with her brother, Makina is quickly accosted by a police officer who had forced a dozen of her fellow immigrants to kneel, though there is never an indication whether they are legal, or illegal. Yet towards the end of the encounter in an effort to disconcert the officer Makina writes a long traumatic excerpt that includes, “We who came to take your jobs, who dream of wiping your shit, who long to work all hours.”(99). This excerpt captures a great deal of what it is like to be an unwelcomed foreigner simply trying to eke out a living. It shows that they way they debase themselves in such humiliating ways is incredibly prevalent, a regular occurrence that they endure for the sake of supporting themselves and those that rely on them.

The officer in the aforementioned scene is also an example of blatant racism, a person of authority abusing their position to blatantly debase, and intimidate people simply because he dislikes them. These sorts of incidents, where racial prejudice has an influence on people with power has become commonplace in the United States where almost all that is required to see the effects of these prejudices is turn on the television.

Makina is never one to bend in the face of adversity, and her journey to the United States in Signs shows this. Her stoic endurance of all the collapsing ideals that America envisions for itself is a unique look into the tribulations that the reality of Americans, both foreign and domestic experience everyday.

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Words and Power

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What exactly is the most powerful tool people possess?

In Baho!, written by Roland Rugero, the power of communication is drawn to light in a cruel and vivid way. The protagonist, Nyamuragi, is an interest character in the sense that his ability to speak is compromised by both his own doing, and the cruelties of his environment. While initially able to speak throughout his childihood, he ultimately chose not to, seeing no real reason for it as his parents understood him well enough that it was ultimately unnecessary, “The verdict returned: The boy is in good health, he simply doesn’t want to speak! There was nothing more to say”(12).

However this self imposed silence is later made to be permanent, as an attempt at healing his muteness, ultimately removes any chance of his voice working ever again. This inability to speak returns to his detriment, as something as simple as asking where the nearest place to relieve himself is the catalyst to his own unfortunate fate. His urgent approach, and the silence that accompanies him constantly, is intimidating to the young girl Kigeme, whom he seemingly assaults in his desperation.

Unable to properly articulate himself through words, he resorts to desperate attempts at wild gesticulation which unfortunately only furthers the misunderstanding, and cementing in Kigeme’s mind that Nyamuragi intends to rape her. His lack of communicative ability is damning even further when he gets captured by the villagers, when he attempts to say, “ego”, or ‘yes’, to hopefully plead innocence, but in the context of the situation it could also be interpreted as “ejo”, or yesterday or even tomorrow. This confuses the developing misunderstanding further as the villagers are unable to determine whether he was admitting to another crime committed not too long ago, or begging for mercy on the coming holiday.

Baho!, as a novel shows the consequences of words, and the power they have. Even the absence of words is inherently significant and Nyamuragi is the unfortunate vessel through which we learn the significance of communication.

 

Vice and Progress

Bangladesh RamadanFiston Mwanza Mujila, author of Tram 83, paints a vibrant and viscerally colorful image when he penned the nightlife of an impoverished City-State of the African Congo. Throughout the novel’s telling, the reader is introduced to a variety of characters all indicative of various aspects of livelihood that exists throughout such a rich, and untapped source of potential. The physical location of Tram 83 in the novel, is one in which people from all walks of life in the City-State, come together to indulge in drink, sex, violence and art.

The many personages of such this kind of place, are culminated in the various characters, namely Lucien, Requiem, and Malingeau to cover the major archetypes. Lucien is a character that is the closest thing to a hero that the novel has, though he fails to live up to any expectation that a hero might strive towards. No, the heroic nature of Lucien is solely in his capacity for hope. He doesn’t have any desire to endorse the wrongs propagated by the General, even going so far as to state, “I don’t have a penny, and even if I did, I hate informing, corruption”(138). Even when given a simple out of a terrifying imprisonment in a country far removed from a fair trial, he holds true to integral parts of his character in hopes of influencing some good into the darkness of the city-state.

Requiem however, is the polar opposite of Lucien. He has come to expect the absolute worst in all things, whether it is people, the government, or the future of Africa as a whole. He exploits anyone he can with impunity, seeking advantages at every turn to further cement his own survival. His resignation is articulated as, “Poverty is hereditary just like power, stupidity, and hemorrhoids. It’s even contagious this locomotive life”(182). Where Lucien sees potential in a dreary world, Requiem merely sees chances to harm others to further his own indulgence in momentary pleasures, the only thing he considers of any true value.

It is this crippling indulgence of pleasures, that ultimately ham-strings the people of the City-State. Their lives are inherently miserable and so they seek raw, unadulterated pleasures in the moment to function just another day. They seek out music, sex, food, the only things that they have access to within their immediate reach. While understandable, this shortsightedness is what leads to the endurance of such a corrupt, and exploitative government. This is one of the cruel truths that runs beneath the surface the entirety of Tram 83, that the only pleasures the citizens of the City-State can indulge in, strictly prevents them from considering their futures beyond tomorrow.

Shifting Faces

Signs Preceding the End of the World is a novel written originally in Spanish by Yuri Herrera, and later translated by Lisa Dillman. It follows a young woman from Mexico, Makina, who ventures to the United States to search for her brother whom has been out of contact for an extended period of time. Makina’s trip is not strictly the legal sort, and so is ferried across the border with little to nothing to her name. The trials she faces on the trip are by no means easily navigated, but she is resourceful enough to make her own way, and ultimately find her estranged brother.

The reunion is not quite what Makina hoped, and brings to light a strange concept of identity. Makina’s brother ultimately found himself unable to conceive the notion of returning to Mexico, his old home where his family resides. This distancing is in a way, a cultural indoctrination that immigrants face whenever they travel to a new land for any extended amount of time, especially when they plan for a more permanent stay.

Makina even asks her brother, “Why not leave, then?” to which he responds, “Not now. Too late. I already fought for these people. There must be something they fight so hard for. So I’m staying in the army while I figure out what it is”(93). Makina’s brother originally came to the United States to retrieve land that supposedly was owned by his family, in hopes of making a profit before returning home. However when that plan proved fruitless, he was roped into the army in the hopes of making his trip worth something.

That vague idea of something, a ‘meaning’ for his journey is a goal forever out of reach due to its inherent ambiguity. After losing his simple plan of ‘retrieve land’‘profit’, Makina’s brother is without purpose. Yet, he still has the drive to make something of himself and so he stays in America, rather than returning home to Mexico empty-handed.

Now that he has it in his head that he plans for an extended stay, naturally he would wish to become comfortable in his new surroundings. This means adapting, or even conforming. Being in the army this concept is exacerbated to an even greater extent as uniformity is important to the cohesion of the military. While strict, this structure provides a measure of predictability to his life, and in that routine comes comfort.

Furthermore, Makina’s brother arrived alone, and lived with and among Americans nearly his entire stay in the United States. Without a constant presence of a family from his home’s culture, there is nothing immediately tying him to his heritage. And so, he slowly sheds his identity as the Makina’s brother, the Mexican boy, to the young American that has fought for the sake of his country.

This slow shifting of identities is frightening in a sense, as it is a simple thing for smaller cultures to become absorbed and diluted by significantly larger ones. Yuri Herrera captures this gradual indoctrination with frightening accuracy throughout the novel.

Man and Beast

Utopia, written by Ahmed Khaled Towfik is a dystopian novel that explores the dynamics of a society split decisively between those who ‘have’, and the ‘have-nots’. Those who reside in ‘Utopia’ within the wall, are those who have wealth, status, security, and power. Whereas those without the wall are simply known as ‘Others’, the poor who struggle day-to-day to survive and fight at every turn for their longevity. This separation between the two distinct classes is stark, and well-enforced by ex-marines from America.

Yet these two classes reflect each other in ways that are not immediately apparent, ways that make flaws obvious, and the humane easily noticed. A large part of that arises from the dichotomy between the humans being human, or humans being beastly. The Utopians for example, are enamored with the grotesque, the violent and the unusual. This arises because they are separated from these things, violence, death, struggle even are artificial to those who reside within the walls.

This sort of ambivalence is amusing in a way, seeing as they are essentially caged within their paradise. They’ve become figuratively house-broken, the prized cat or poodle with a diamond choker who hasn’t seen any part of the wild beside from their owners television, or perhaps from the windows of their home, their cage. This separation breeds a fascination within Utopians with things that are not clean or perfect, and reflects in the way they behave. Recklessly taking drugs, wounding themselves in an artificial manner to evoke a sense of savagery. They become men and women dressing themselves in the skin of the Big Bad Wolf.

Without the wall however, the Others are well acquainted with struggle, with savagery. Beauty has no real place outside the wall, among the Others practicality is key, the respect and safety that arises from being genuinely dangerous becomes a shield between the poor man, and the man starving next to him. The Others unlike the people residing within Utopia are walking a knife’s edge every day of their lives. No one gives their lives any worth so they are easily ended, and so they struggle with all they can.

This primal instinct, the base desire to survive makes these people more akin to beast than man, yet in such an environment the humane thing becomes a weakness almost, even as it is the genuinely good thing to do. That is why the Other, Gaber is exceptional in this story, he seeks something more than the base, he carries himself as more than a beast, he behaves human.