Saturday, April 13, 2013

Review: Intertextuality and Literary Tradition in Bechdel's Fun Home

Granted, Fun Home is not a text that deals with specifically with colonial issues, but I was so impressed by the novel that I wanted to write a little bit about it. And yes,
I'm definitely  late to the party on this one.
 Fun Home is a densely intertextual graphic novel. As we read the text, we are consistently bombarded with other texts and connections to other texts in many different ways. We  see snapshots of pages from Joyce’s Ulysses, “handwritten” copies of personal letters, reproduced diary pages, court documents, maps, and even scribbled marginalia all alongside more traditionally drawn graphic figures. In addition to the actual reproduction of other texts, Bechdel also draws our attention to texts outside the novel through references, both in words and images. For example, on page 7 the drawing of her father is a direct reference to the story of Christ carrying his cross, which is reinforced by the text “It was his passion. . .martyred”. On this page the word “passion”, connotes her father’s love of architectural restoration, as well as his homosexual desire and the passion-story of Christ.  Other texts are interwoven with the narrative of the graphic novel itself that the plot and affect of the novel seem almost entirely dependent upon them. Would Fun Home be so critically acclaimed without mentioning Christ, Icarus and Daedalus, James Joyce, Ruskin, Camus, and a host of other literary/mythic figures? 
            Bechdel’s literary enmeshing of the graphic novel is very effective, but aside from the accomplishments of aesthetics, the intertextuality seems to also be a direct challenge to the popular conceptualization of traditional “superhero” comics or graphic novels. Literature (and decidedly critically acclaimed and canonized literature) is almost the star of this novel alongside Bechdel’s characters, and the actual visibility of "literature" (both in text and images) raises many questions about canonization, i.e." What texts get canonized and why? Who decides?". We are directly asked to engage by the text with excerpts from literature, as on pages 48 (Sisyphus) and 222 (Ulysses), but we are also exposed to literature through less overt mentions through the author’s own writing, as in the Christ reference (Bible counts as literature for my purposes!) previously mentioned and her Icarus and Daedalus reflections on pages 3 and 4. Texts also appear in the background and foreground of images without explicitly being written about (15, 116), as we see her father and mother reading “Architectural Digest” and “Vogue” , as well as Ruskin, and Fitzgerald. The inclusion of these various texts (mostly literary but not all), outside of the literary texts Bechdel explicitly uses to further her story, reinforces the affect of the graphic novel as a literary text. It is almost as if she is saying “Pay attention Joyce! I can do with images and and a smattering of words in 232 pages what it took you to do in 800! This IS literature!”
 Fun Home could have been composed without such a heavy reliance on intertextuality, but Bechdel’s inclusion of multiple texts makes her story not just a personal memoir, but a text with a larger message; “comics” can be just as composed and versatile as written novels. We have the epistolary, autobiography, drama, myth, religious parable, and straight-up novel genres inside this graphic novel because of its “sampling” and re-purposing of other texts. What Bechdel creates is not a Shakespearean “play within a play” but rather, an entire literary tradition inside of a comic book. This textual interplay is what puts Fun Home in the “graphic novels for educated adults” category while making the case that such a category does (and should) exist, and I doubt the novel would be as critically acclaimed without it. I personally would love to see a this text on more college (if not high school) syllabi, not just because of its intertextuality (though that would justify its presence alone), but also because it is a well-written book that wrestles with many complex identity, sexuality, and coming-of-age issues. If we're going to require young folks to read Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, why not include Fun Home, a text that basically "proves" the cultural relevance of Joyce, in the classroom conversation?

Monday, March 25, 2013

India and "India": Critiquing the Centre by Imagining the Colony

I've recently applied for a fellowship which required me to put into words (finally) where my academic research interests are directed. While I've been struggling with trying to "choose a century", I have come to terms with the fact that areas of inquiry do not always correspond precisely with the limitations of the Gregorian calendar, and so I decided to limit my research to the long, or rather, loooooooooong twentieth- century. Within this "period", I am currently invested in examining early (i.e. 1860-1900) discussions of India, the geopolitical entity, as well as "India"*, the constructed idea.
Now for some examples:
During this time period we find figures like Burton (mentioned in the last post) ascribing some works of his own satire like "Vikram and the Vampire" to ancient Indian texts, often vehemently so, but by 1893, reviewers of the second edition of this text note that it is not really a translation of anything Indian, but mostly "Burtonics". (India as an idea)

Around the same time period, we also find an author like Kipling using India not just to talk about "The White Man's Burden", but in "The City of Dreadful Night", using a discussion of the Indian Congress to critique the "fall-out" of England's imperial enterprise. Though Kipling might seem to be reserving his critique for the "colonized" peoples, as one reads through more of Kipling's writing (like "Without the Benefit of the Clergy" and "The Head of the District"), his modern reputation as a die-hard imperialist is complicated, as Kipling seems to have just as much to say about good ol' English practices as he does about Indians.(India both as the colony and the idea)

In addition to these two "literary" figures, we also have lots of "New Women" political activists using the plight of Indian women as a way of arguing for greater consideration of things like marriage and reproductive rights in BOTH the West and the outer reaches of the empire. There are far too many mentions in the British Periodicals Database of rhetorical turns like "our Indian sisters" for me to list here, but one such woman is Kitty Marion. Marion is actually born in Germany, but then takes up residence in England while campaigning for women's rights, and is later naturalized as a citizen of the United States. Talk about a transnational figure.(India as a people as well as an idea)

What all these writers have in common is the colonization or territorialization of the term, "India", for use in arguments largely directed towards their own cultures. Burton's satiric rendering of "Vikram and the Vampire" could be considered greatly offensive in that it claims attribution where there is hardly any, but what is interesting to me is that he found it necessary to distance himself from his critiques of tradition in the face of change, and rather than describing his satire within the terms of his own culture, he chose to locate it in the history of another.
Kipling also engages with this practice, though in somewhat different mediums. Though Kipling critiques the Indian population, his reputation seems to obscure the often harsh critique of British imperial policies that his lesser-known writings contain. At times it seems that Kipling, (Indian-born, English-educated, American resident) is almost overtly bitter towards the "mother" country's policies, as when his Englishman in the Indian Civil Service mourns being transferred from post-to-post away from his female Indian "companion" and mother of his child in "Without the Benefit of the Clergy".

Lastly, we find another international figure like Kipling in Kitty Marion, who is specifically politically engaged but does write her own memoirs. While she argues for the right of women to control their own reproductive capabilities in India, she uses the "trope" of "Indian women" as an example through which to argue the same thing in the West!
While there are many more authors using "India" as a loaded term in this time period, these are three that I am currently involved in researching, specifically because of the ways they adopt a "cloak of Indianness" in order to create a (necessary?) distance between them and their own cultures, thus creating a space where critique is possible.
As I move into considerations of "Indianness" when India begins to "write back" (both through translations and works in English), I would like to look at how this rhetorical strategy gets re-inscribed by figures like W.B. Yeats,  and perhaps even co-opted by authors like Chandhu Menon and Rabinadrath Tagore.

*For future reference, in case I slip up in my pronoun usage throughout this and future postings,  India is a "she", for many reasons that I'm not going to go into right now. Maybe in a later post.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Sexy in Translation?: Burtonics, Politics, and The Kama Sutra

 This semester I am taking a class in which we are creating a postcolonial anthology of the late 19th Century, specifically focused on the English Empire. I say "English" but this of course brings up all sorts of geographical/political/national issues of "boundary", so I defer to the above helpful video to answer any questions such a term might raise. I would like my section to examine issues of translation and adaptation,  thinking specifically about how Indian texts are "mined" as a resource, with the intention of enriching the English body as well as the English "body" of literature. The first that I chose (i.e. forced) my seminar mates to read was The Kama Sutra, as translated (term used very loosely here. no VERY loosely) by Sir Richard Francis Burton (translation available for free via Kindle store) . The Kama Sutra is, according to its "presenter", an ancient "hindoo" text. So, what is it doing in a proposed anthology of the late 19th -century English literature?  Lawrence Venuti, a scholar of translation, suggests a pedagogy for reading translated texts that acknowledges the context of their translation. The Kama Sutra may be an ancient Indian text, but, considering the "paratext" of Burton's introduction and concluding remarks, his rendering of it is very firmly rooted in the 19th-Century. Ben Grant (of the University of Kent) has written a very accessible and concise article on Burton's framing of the text available here, in which he discusses this very practice. The Kama Sutra is described by Burton as a foundational text, of a kind which many cultures produce, a text describing a "philosophy" of love. It is directly compared to Victorian texts a la Foucauldian scientific sexualis , and also differentiated from them. Grant points out that the Kama Sutra is introduced as a text appropriate "only for students" in Burton's preface, but by the time the reader reaches the "concluding remarks", the text is changes into one from which "men and women", presumably English men and women, could learn much. The text is thus presented as a union of contradictions; it is both too illicit for anyone but the mature student, and yet should be read and learned from by all English men and women, it is both "foreign" and "quaint", and yet also akin to "cutting-edge" English scientific manuals on sexuality, and lastly, the text is both an ancient Hindu guide to love and living, as well as a 19th-century political vehicle through which Burton and his "Clubland" (Clubland?) buddies could critique English censorship and sexual austerity. In fact, I might even argue that the popular allure of the Kama Sutra that remains to this day is a direct result of Burton's framing of the text. As my seminar mates discovered with me this semester, the Kama Sutra is a text that seems to exist in almost direct opposition to the popular "idea" of itself. Forgive my interpretive judgement here, but what is supposed to be the most titillating part of the text, the description of, let's call them "acts" (Foucault again, right?), is probably its most "unsexy". There are no "illustrations", and absolutely no "affected" romantic language at all. The text reads more like a "how-to-assemble" manual than the "taboo" text it is "set-up" as.This is undoubtedly where the "scientific" part of Burton's dual-description comes from.
(I will of course acknowledge that as a 21st -Century individual that's lived through things like The Matrix and Dangerous Liasons:The Movie, my reading experience might be very different from a 19th-Century reader, but, come on, 120 Days of Sodom and The Monk were published/translated almost a century before this "translation".)
What might engage our interest instead of the "acts" are passages like those concerned with the Padmini, or "feminine ideal". We read that the ideal woman should not only be beautiful and well- versed (double-meaning intended) in the "Arts/acts" of the Kama Sutra, but also skilled in many areas  that transcend traditional gendered occupational roles. As we find that the Padmini should possess skill in music, carpentry, and even archery, we are not only surprised by the "progressive" assertions that the text makes ("a woman should possess these skills so that she can achieve independence without a husband/male support"), we are also forced to encounter the reality of the text's translation in words like "longsword" and "architecture". Moments like this seem to imply that the Kama Sutra, though marketed as a bit of scholarly "exotirotica", is perhaps, dare I say it, a "political" text for its "introducers" (for lack of a better word). When the translation mentions "fencing", a reader familiar with Burton cannot help but remember Burton's treatises on the sword, and his wife Isabel's "New Woman" position as her husband's fencing partner and amanuensis, in addition to Burton's own opposition to the Obscene publications act. What is at stake in such textual connections/observations? We  come to realize that Burton's rendering of the Kama Sutra might offer just as much "wisdom" about 19th-Century England (if not more) as it claims to offer about ancient India.