Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Humanity and Animals

Maus II, through its title and form, portrays humans as animals. The Jews are mice, the Germans cats, Poles are pigs, Americans dogs, and so on and so forth, each different ethnicity being represented by a different species. The form then casts mankind as nothing more than animals. As strong as the message that the form sends, so too does the content portray humanity as nothing better than dumb beasts. There are many examples through Vladek’s narrative that show this. It should also be noted that both the Nazis and Jews are shown to behave this way, a sign of the dehumanizing nature of violence and hatred. Everybody that comes in contact with it is negatively and demonstrably touched by it.

This comparison is most strongly shown on pages 82 and 83. After watching a prisoner writhe around in the grips of death, Vladek says, “And how I thought: ‘How amazing it is that a human being reacts the same like this neighbor’s dog” (82). In just a few panels later, several escaping Jews are shot down in an escape attempt by a dishonest Nazi guard they believed could be bribed. In fact, he did accept their money, but murdered them anyway. In this case, the Nazi is worse than the dog, as dogs are at least considered, in many cultures, to be honorable and loyal.

Much like in Those Who Do Not Grieve, the violence that is perpetuated by a strong force is transferred to those oppressed by it. Just as women oppressed other women in Samoa, so too do fellow Jews fight amongst each other. Vladek says, “And, God forbid, if someone got soup and someone spilled him a drop… like wild animals they would fight until there was blood” (91). The cycle of violence repeats itself even within already oppressed communities. Violence inherently begets more violence, even among fellow prisoners.

And yet, as horrifying as the Holocaust was, as much as it showed how far mankind could sink, Spiegelman still leaves the reader with a feeling of hope. Through solidarity, even the most intimidating struggles can be overcome. This is demonstrated in Vladek’s run in with the French prisoner. Because the two both speak English, they strike up a friendship. When the Frenchman receives a package he says, “My family sends. I want that you also eat something” then Vladek says, “He insisted to share with me, and it saved me my life” (93). For all the horrors that both men experienced in the war, Vladek is convinced that this simple act of human kindness, of brotherhood, saved his life. It is a lesson worth noting.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Last Blog

When we first started talking about travel one of the definitions we proposed was “leaving one’s comfort zone.” Taking a step back from this definition, what exactly is a person’s comfort zone? What is it about a place – the people, the environment, the landmarks, the styles, the language – that makes it comfortable for a person? Typically, someone thinks of a place as comfortable it is something known, safe, or somehow connected with that person. Ultimately this is a question of how a person defines him or herself. We are comfortable in a place because we define ourselves as being part of that place. The place has had an active part in shaping us and making us who we are. However, being comfortable in or identifying ourselves with one place doesn’t mean that we can’t leave that place without giving up our former identities. In fact, our lives tend to lead us on a natural progression of continually redefining ourselves. So it seems very natural for a person to desire to travel in search of new ways to define oneself.
In Invisible Cities, Calvino claims that “elsewhere is a negative mirror” where “the traveler recognizes the little that is his, discovering the much he has not had and will never have.” This image gets to the core of what we are meant to learn through traveling and taking on new experiences. By seeing the many things that different places have to offer, a person can truly decide what it is he or she really wants out of life. In new experiences we can find new things to add to our definition of ourselves. We can more clearly define what makes us who we are: our interests, our skills, our style, the people we call our friends, and perhaps most importantly what makes us happy. In On the Road, we see this idea taken to the extreme as the characters travel all over the country in search of new ways to define themselves but can sadly never seem to do so. They are on a constant search for some “IT” for which to live their lives, and struggle to discover whether there is only one thing for every person or an infinite number of possibilities.
Every person comes to the point in their life when they must reexamine who they are and what defines them in order to move on to the next stage. Many of us in this class, myself included, have come to this point in our lives as college seniors. On that note, what defines me? I’m a native of Brooklyn New York, the one place that I will always call home. I’m the younger of two sons. I’m a baby brother. I’m a nephew and an older cousin to many. I’m a former student of Xavier High School (a Son of Xavier) and a current student of Loyola College in Maryland (a member of the last class to graduate from Loyola the college). And I’m on the verge of becoming something new. I’ve defined myself at home and I’ve defined myself here at college and I’ve become comfortable in both places. Now when it comes time to move on to the next stage I can only hope that I will find comfort there as well and successfully add another title to my definition of myself.

Reflection and Future

I was one of the few students in this class that did not go abroad and I always felt that I would not get the same value from this class as those who did. However, I see now that everyone travels in their own way, whether it is a semester in a foreign country or a weekend trip to visit a family member. From this class I learned to appreciate the significance of a journey no matter how close or short. I am actually happy that I am traveling to South America in January because I believe I will get a much better experience out of it after taking this class.

First of all, I plan on keeping a blog of my trip. Although I will probably not have time to go on in the internet and post everything I’ve learned every day, I will certainly make an effort to at least write down what happens in order to organize and record them later on.

Just like in Krik? Krak!, I plan on writing letters home about the things I do. These letters will be like a blog except it will be a way to share my experiences with my family at home. In this class all semester I enjoyed listening to the life-changing experiences everyone else had because I truly connected with them. My parents are paying for this trip so the least I can do is keep them informed of my experiences and they can try to relate to them. With computers and the internet being everywhere there’s no reason why I couldn’t e-mail many of my family and friends a few times telling them all about who I’ve met and what I’ve learned. Also like Krik? Krak! I plan to tell many stories when I get home in the hopes that the people who weren’t fortunate enough to travel with me to South America can share some of the knowledge I gained while over there.

This evening we had a class for my trip to South America where we watched a video on Argentina’s culture and how Americans should interact with the people. One of the things the video showed was that Argentine people are not too happy with American politics. This does not mean they hate Americans as individual people, but they do hate America as a whole. Because of this, the video encouraged us to go out of our way to be nice the people of Argentina and show them that Americans can be good people too. Immediately I thought of some of the readings from this class, which emphasized respecting foreign cultures and even more so, respecting the individuals of such cultures. I will be open-minded and respectful to anyone I meet in my travels and I would hope a visitor to the United States would do the same.

Another thing that was mentioned in the video was that Argentines speak Spanish, and their own kind of Spanish dialect known as Castazano. Unfortunately I don’t speak a word of Spanish, but I have realized from this class that there is so much more to be communicated than just through language alone. Our teacher for this trip told us that the locals always befriend the students on the trip and take them out to the clubs at night to show them the local dances and what a typical night is like. I can only imagine what an experience it will be to meet someone from a foreign continent and not even speak the same language as them yet share an evening just as I would with a Loyola student on a typical Friday night.

Finally, I plan to reflect on my trip daily just as we did in class the other day. It was amazing to see how much I got out of my relatively lazy day just by going back and thinking about all my choices and interactions. Although I only get a ten day trip to Chile and Argentina, I know that if I reflect daily I can amplify the learning experiences I have. I will be encountering so many new people, places, and ideas that it is only right I take it all in as slow as possible. This semester has already flown by so quickly that I can only imagine how quick a ten day trip to South America would pass me by. By using this method of reflection practiced by both Jesuits and Buddhists, I can get the most out of my trip.

Haitian Dyaspora

When I read ''Krik ?Krak !'', I thought about the Haitian dyaspora, all those Haitians who have fled their country because of political or economical reasons. I met a few of them and though they were ‘‘disconnected from the physical landscape’’ of Haiti (Joanne Hyppolite,‘‘Dyaspora’’), their heart was still connected to it. I met several young Haitians who studied abroad and interestingly, they manifested the desire to go back to Haiti to use their skills and improve the situation of their country. I remember last year in Montpellier, I met this seventeen years old boy who did not know Haiti because he had been adopted by a French couple when he was a baby, but still, he had the desire to go back to Haiti and change things. I also met this young Haitian girl who studied tourism in Guadeloupe. She was on the beach with her brother who came to visit her and lived in New York. She told me that her ultimate goal was to go back to Haiti to help develop tourism. This optimism showed by young people radically contrasts with the situation of other Haitians who left their homeland to make a living in other parts of the world. Almost every morning, when I went to High School, the police would stop the bus to check if there were Haitians. Those Haitians were going to work and sometimes could not reach their destination because their papers were not in order. The most important thing for those Haitians was not to go back to Haiti where they lived in dire straits.

The author herself is part of this Haitian Dyaspora. She left Haiti when she was twelve during a dictatorship. Interestingly, in the introduction of the ‘‘Butterfly’s Way,’’she mentions those people who critize the Haitians who left their country. She writes that when she talks to her family in Haiti about political matters they tell her : ‘‘What do you know ? You’re a dyaspora.’’But once, the Haitian journalist Jean Dominique defined theDyaspora to her : ‘‘They are people with their feet planted in both worlds.’’ He meant that all Haitians whether they live inside or outside the motherland are sons and daugthers of Haiti. This reminded me what I read in Hau’ofa’s ‘' Our Sea of Islands.’’He defends the fact that the world of Oceania is larger and richer than what people tend to think, because it also includes the Oceanic dyaspora, those Pacific Islanders who come in and out the Pacific borders. However there is a difference regarding the motives of travelling between Haitians and Pacific Islanders. Hau’ofa says that ‘‘Pacific Islanders have broken out of their confinement (…) not so much because their countries are poor but because they were unnaturally confined and severed from many of their traditional sources of wealth and because it is in their blood to be mobile.’’

Mobility motivated by a desire or a necessity is a leitmotiv in Danticat’s short stories. In ‘‘Children of the Sea’’, the narrator escapes political persecution, in ''Nineteen Thirty-Seven'', Défilée is thought to have wings and did escape the night when Trujillo ordered the massacre of Hatians or in ‘‘A Wall of Fire Rising,’’ Guy coverts his boss’ balloon. He wants to fly in order to escape the harsh reality offered by Haiti. It seems that if one wants to survive, one has to travel physically, mentally or through storytelling.

Storytelling associated with travelling was a key point in all the readings we have done so far. For instance, In ‘‘Invisible Cities’’ storytelling allowed Khan and Marco Polo to establish a human contact. In ‘‘They Who Do Not Grieve’’, the grandmothers tell their granddaughters past stories that help them to know who they are. In the same line, travelling and storytelling allow the narrator of ''Children of the Sea'' to identify himself with his African ancestors who crossed the Middle Passage. Danticat underlines the healing power of storytelling. For example, some of the women tell stories to each other to appease the vomiting in the boat.The realities told by the narrator who travels to Miami such as the crimes and numerous rapes commited by the Tonton macoutes are unbereable but still, we can read them. Storytelling provides a kind of distance that allow us to face harsh realities and maybe to heal from past wounds.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Escape as Both Good and Bad

Throughout the semester we have focused on the different ways that the notion of “travel” operates for and within the participant. We have discussed travel as a method used for the attainment of knowledge, a new wisdom that may not have been achieved if the venture had never taken place. Also, we referenced how travel allows one to interact with people of other backgrounds, of other situations and cultures that he or she would not necessarily have had contact with otherwise. I believe that a person will always be affected by the travelling that he or she does. It is a must, a requirement. It is impossible to remain unchanged by the distance covered or the people met.

However, after reading the past two novels “On the Road” and “Krik? Krak!” I am realizing more the capacity that travel has to present an escape from reality. For many of the characters in “On the Road,” travelling across the country and eventually beyond borders allows a person to flee that which is thought to be limiting or that which is not capable of satisfying ideals. In particular, Sal and Dean are the most restive among the group and are consequently the most prone to travelling. They are searching for something to quell the restlessness within them. They realize, or at least perceive themselves to realize, that something in their lives is not being fulfilled. The road is initially seen has a physical escape for Dean, a way to experience as much of America as he desires while looking for that “missing something” which is masked by his seemingly nonchalant disposition and attitude towards life; however, by the end of the novel the road falls short of fulfilling his desires and giving meaning to his life. The road, after a while, only exacerbates his understanding that something is missing. The more Dean travels and the more places people he encounters, the further he realizes that he is unable to attain that “something.” The road that was thought to have the answer is able to offer only a mental escape, the same mental escape which eventually turns on him leaving him disillusioned and alone.

This notion of a mental escape to distance oneself from life’s hardships is also seen in Danticat’s novel, “Krik? Krak!” especially in the short story of “Between the Pool and the Gardenias.” Although not necessarily travelling, it touches upon the same theme of a separation from reality that I think is crucial. Here, Marie uses her own imagination (of a different life) to provide the same escape that travel is thought to do, to provide that way out from one’s given situation. The hope granted by her inner imagination allows her to give life to a dead baby. The baby, only alive in her mind, has since taken away her pain of her own lost child and her husband’s infidelity. The hope her own mind gives to her is a way to reconcile her position while simultaneously providing an escape from the reality in which she is forced to operate.

The connection that I hope to make from the readings throughout the semester is the approach to which travel should be undertaken. Sal from “On the Road” and Eustace from “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” are lucky in that they benefit immensely as a result of their journeys. Both experience types of inner, mental conversions. Sal eventually realizes that the road can only offer so much and that it is time to settle down with the woman he genuinely love. Eustace’s conversion is his newfound understanding of his own shortcomings and pledges to become a new young man with new behaviors and ideals. Both become strong, confident individuals as a result of their travels. However, it could also end in despair. For Sal (and to an extent Marie with her “mental” movement away from reality – a type of travel) his discourse with interstate highways leaves him alone and broken. He has been affected by the road but has seemingly taken nothing away with him. As harped upon earlier, one is always affected by the travelling they do. In this sense, a person must remain conscious of the good lessons it offers and weary of the downfalls it can also possess. Sal and Eustace are great examples of travel’s effects in that they have been changed for the better and thankful for it. Dean is a brilliant example of one who tries to impose himself on the travel, rather than the other way around, therefore gaining nothing and losing most.


We speak about literature as a mode of travel, and it is the stories in those works that carry us abroad. Those authors are storytellers; they allow the reader an experience. The communication between the storyteller and the reader is important, and 'Krik? Krak!' has countless examples of how communication is so fundamentally instrumental in people's lives and relationships.

There is an interesting complexity in the communication of the first story, 'Children at Sea' At the base layer, there is the author relaying the story of these two people who obviously have feelings for each other. Then, once involved int he story there is the communication between those two in their letters and finally amongst the people they are involved with individually. What is unique about this communication is that the reader is allowed to see both sides of a letter exchange that never had the chance to take place. we are given the experience of their lives, their journeys, their travels, when it is not us that were the intended audience of those writings they were supposed to be for each other. There is an awkward disconnect.

This disconnect is repeated throughout the stories, as yet we are connected to the characters through Danticat's narration. In 'Nineteen Thirty-Seven' there is a brutal lack of communication between the mother and daughter. It was odd that it wasn't prison that separated them, as the daughter appeared to have ample opportunity to visit bu it was their inability to prperly communicate with one another that separated them. The stories that are communicated to us hav the ability to teach us, to give us experience to show us how things are, how people act, and how they live so how can one person know about another if they never speak? The daughter wanted to know only one thing from or about her mother. She wanted to know if her mother could 'fly' or had flown and she will never know. She lost her chance.

Communication has played such a strong role in all of the travel literature we have read this semester though it is probably most evident in 'Invisible Cities'. The communication between Marco Polo and Kubla. It exemplifies the importance of relaying experience from one person to another, and how information can be conveyed in a completely different manner than it was obtained. Although 'Krik? Krak!' shows us these members of Haitian communities the experience can be universal to the struggles, the pains, the familial bonds, and growth amongst so many other ideas. Danticat not only wrote her stories in away that express her understanding of the value of communication, but also within the text itself showed how communication can foster bonds between people on the rough boat expedition in 'Children at Sea'. Even then the passengers would ask one another 'Krik?'.

The Road We Walk On

I believe what caught my attention most readily within “Krik? Krak!” was the many examples of art, or art forms. This presence of art forms carries on heavily throughout all of our reading this semester, but especially within the second half through tattoo, and even within Kerouac’s “On the Road” for the actual tempo of the travels mimics a jazz tune. What Danticat establishes in her writings however, that I did not initially pick up on in the other novels yet is certainly present within each, is the way art forms are essentially a filter for devastation, a means of coping, a method for hope.

One significant instance that depicts this conception properly is established in the opening lines of the novel when Danticat writes, “I also know there are timeless waters, endless seas, and lots of people in this world whose names don’t matter to anyone but themselves” (3). The timeless waters, and endless seas depicted reveal the sense of no end to the devastation, that the hardships are eternal like the waters. Similarly, the name which holds such importance to an individual as repeatedly discussed in class essentially means nothing to anyone but the person owning it which unveils a purposelessness coexisting with hopelessness whose combination is unsettling.

Yet, the same young man who can not escape his devastation, and who believes people and names go forgotten is also asked by an old man to write down his name. When revealing his identity (which is an obscenely long name) “he says it all with such an air that you would think him a king” (27). It is further important to note that the old man believes the journal to be a book. Thus the dual identity of the writings serves an important purpose. While a journal is personal, it is a form of writing that allows the young man to cope. Yet in scripting the old man’s name upon request, the journal has become shared, and is now a book. In this sharing of the journal, the old man’s name has also become important to more than just himself, allowing hope to creep upon the two men by means of writing which is art. Even more symbolically, the journal is thrown to the ocean, bringing us back to the opening lines, which is to say that by placing art in an endless sea of despair, we are in turn creating an endless sea of hope.

A similar instance occurred within my service learning at St. Mary’s, though not as dramatic as dropping a journal off the side of a ship. The students were taken to the computer lab, given pen pals, and a prompt. They were to simply tell their pen pal about themselves: their name, family members, activities, likes, dislikes—whatever they desired, similar to the young man’s journal. The first drafts of their letters were only a few sentences long, humbling if you will. When I asked one of the girls why her letter was so short she responded, “’cause I don’t have anything nice, or expensive or whatever to talk about that would be interesting.” Before that encounter I never realized how close the association of having a lot materially was to being “interesting.” The pang of inferiority and the disillusionment of hope that is embedded within the students because of financial depravations is detrimental to their sense of self. They believe themselves to be swept away in the “timeless waters and endless seas” as depicted by Danticat.

Fortunately however, when I asked the same student to think about what other things she has in her life that dose not entail money and to write about them it took her a few moments but her pages were soon filled. Therefore, through this writing prompt in the form of a letter, she and her classmates were able to share their re-defined identities, which evoked a sense of hope in their new interpretations of themselves, as well as excitement in being able to share their hope with another, whether it is their classmates or pen pal.

Danticat’s novel, as well as the others this semester, has helped me to adequately assert that the greatest form of travel is the journey we make internally. What is even more fascinating is that these internal journeys are usually provoked by the external, and later become the lens by which we view the world. More importantly, through both this class and my service I have learned that it is not only experiencing the internal journeys yourself, but sharing them with others that allow us to fully travel. It is presumably under these circumstances that writers are inspired to share their stories, painters to paint, sculptors to sculpt, and people to receive tattoos. In this sense we literally “make the road we walk on.”