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.”

Part III: Krik? Krak!

The first half of Edwidge Danticat’s novel, Krik? Krak!, compiles multiple short stories to demonstrate love and relationships among the Haitian people. Using different narrators, she demonstrates the art if storytelling. Danticat’s writing connects the narrations by intricately weaving common imagery and themes within the diverse tales.

For example, in “Nineteen Thirty- Seven”, Josephine states: “Our mothers were the ashes and we were the light”, emphasizing that our parents are our origins. Even though they are now ‘ashes’, they passed the energy down to us, giving us the gift of their past. As our mothers pass their knowledge down to us, we receive their inspiration as we live in their example. This quote helps demonstrate the ‘passing of the torch’ as we become who are parents were. The light not only represents our mother’s past and her knowledge, but the act of selflessness as she gives up everything, so that her daughter can live a life that she once led.

Also as daughters it is our duty to keep the transfer of light, so when we become ashes, there is someone to receive our light. Danticat uses this beautiful metaphor to amplify the meaning behind Josephine’s story, and the importance of storytelling. As Danticat writes “Nineteen Thirty-Seven”, she passes her light to us as readers. With her expertise in story telling, Danticat pulls the reader in by using nature and the senses to set the scene. Her descriptions are more then text, as she tells the short stories, Danticat demonstrates the importance of detail and imagination.

By setting Krik? Krak! as a collection of short stories, it embodies the concept that everyone has a story. This collage of stories demonstrates that even though our stories can be very contrasting and different, we all have similarities. The diversity found within the narrations represents the drastic extremes of life, and even though an individual’s story may seem bizarre, we are all human making us equals and allowing a sense of unity.
The novel symbolizes this unity of life and Danticat emphasizes the importance of our relationships with each other, because these connections are what make life worth living. We can relate to each other, which help us learn and grow.

Danticat uses the imagery of mountains to demonstrate this on-going presence of life on earth. The first line of the novel is: “They say behind the mountains are more mountains” (3). These mountains symbolize the existence of life, and the cycle of new people occupying the earth. Although the people may be ‘new’ the earth they represent their parents ‘ashes’ and live a similar life in the path of their guardians.

Danticat’s novel is compelling and makes the reader deeply examine life. She invites us in with her title, Krik? Krak!, which asks, ‘are you ready to hear my story?’ and “Krak!” is the reply that means ‘yes, go ahead!’. Her writing allows reader to connect to the on-going presence of storytelling, and its importance on history. Storytelling is what combines generations, it is the link among eras and it provides the idea that all things living are family.

When I was younger, I would go vacation down the shore at my grandparents house. Each year those two weeks were the highlight of my summer. My grandma would take my sisters and I to where ever we wanted to go and get us what ever we wanted, it was a life filled with candy and dolls. At sunset of each day, we all would go and watch the boats, just sit there and stare.

As I stared at the boats passing me by, wondering where the boats were going, and who was on them and why, I began to formulate fictional stories about the passengers. Something about those boats reminded my grandmother of Ellis Island, where she had came over from Italy with her family as a child. She shared her stories of her travel and drastic change in scenery.
I began to realize everything I wanted was with me, I didn’t need the candy or dolls (they were back in my grandma’s home), all I needed was right there with me, my family and their stories.
Danticat’s writing allows me to visualize what my grandmother was visioning, although the character’s context is completely unrelated to that of my grandma, they share the idea of freedom and an escape away from their past.

Just like Danticat, my grandma is a storyteller, we all are. By telling stories we then can relate to one another. Storytelling connects our souls together and allows us to see our family’s past mountains, and our mountains that await us.

Who Says You Can Go Home?

The summer before 8th grade, I went on a trip to Ireland, England, and Scotland with my family. I spent my 13th birthday in Ireland and England, pretty much the coolest birthday ever for someone who hadn’t yet been out of the United States. Unfortunately it was the first birthday that I can consciously remember not wanting to get older. I had never thought very much about the passing of every year and how I aged with each of these passing’s. But turning 13 meant I was going into 8th grade, which was awesome, but it was also the last year before high school, which was also my brother’s last year before graduating and going to college, which meant that soon enough I would be graduating and leaving my home. The comfortable town limits of Eldersburg have been my home since I was born and for the first time, coming home was not something I was interested in; leaving Ireland and England for Eldersburg meant starting school and starting another school year meant growing up and getting closer to the scary real world. This was the first time I didn’t want to come home.

The second time was just two years later: the August before my sophomore year of high school was when my parents and I took my brother, Matthew, to Nashville for college. The 12 hour car ride home was absolutely brutal, all I did was pretend to be sleeping while I sobbed silently into the pillow I’d brought along for the ride so my parents wouldn’t ask me if I wanted to talk about it. I didn’t want to go home because it was empty now. Micah and Matthew had now both left me to move on to their real lives.

The third time was one year later: my grandfather had passed away during the first week of my junior year of high school. I went to Florida with my mom and brothers for the funeral and to spend time with my mom’s six siblings and their mother, help her clean up the house after the various guests were finished passing through. My grandfather was, and is, one of my favorite people in the world. Going home meant that I had to accept that he was gone. I would have rather stayed in Florida where I could eat at his favorite Italian restaurant and sneak Werther’s Originals candies out of our secret dish on the bookshelf. Going home wasn’t a place where I could feel him so why would I want to be there?

The fourth and final time was when my brother left for the Peace Corps. And even though it happened a year and a half ago, it’s still too recent to talk about. What I can say is that I never wanted to run away from home more in my life, and luckily Loyola was far enough away that I didn’t have to think about my truly empty home, a home that was missing my favorite person.

I’ve never been in the position where I had to leave home or even where the feeling of really wanting to run away lasted more than a few days so I cannot even imagine going through what the people in Edwidge Danticat’s Krik? Krak! were feeling when their homes were taken away from them literally and metaphorically. I found this to be a very common theme that wound itself through out all of the short stories. It’s such a sad thing when the place you call home, a place that was at one point filled with family, love, friendship, and safety is taken from you.

The letters of “Children of the Sea” captured a couple who were taken from each other and from their homes, neither barely understanding what might happen to them in their future. The female character cannot accept the sacrifices her father has made to keep her safe after her mother tells her, “it is something you can never forget, the sacrifice he has made” (24). She knows her father loves her but she still does not want to let go of the life she had when she was safe at home with her love, who now floats, doomed, on a falling-apart ship at sea.

Guy, Lili, and Little Guy appear to have a happy and humble life: they always find food to eat, a reason to be proud of their smart little boy, and sometimes even some extra oil so he can read a book in his own home. “A Wall of Rising Fire” finds Guy unhappy with his life and he admits to his wife that he doesn’t want to be remembered how he remembers his father, “ a man that I would never want to be” (75). Guy feels that he has become his father, a disappointment to his son and wife, so he dreams of finding a better life to build a home on his own plot of land by flying off in a hot air balloon. The night before he leaves his home on the hot air balloon and then plummets to his death, his wife pleads with him, “I just want to know that when you dream, me and the boy, we’re always in your dreams” (73). She soon finds out that they were not in his dreams but perhaps only because his dreams ended in Guy ending his own disappointing life.

All of the stories we have read have led the characters on journeys far and wide from their homes. Whether they were escaping a terrible life, leaving to find something more, or traveling because they were forced, a starting point was necessary for them (and the reader) to relate back to when things got crazy on the road. A home isn’t always the place you want to be, but it’s a place that holds a piece of you nowhere else will ever have, even if you’re unable to go back. But a home is something always present in a travel story: how do you know you’ve been somewhere or are going some place new if you don’t have a home to start from? A place in which to ground yourself?
While reading Krik? Krak! I found myself noticing themes that connected each story. One such theme was the importance of remembering history. Danticat’s book of short stories is in itself a form of commemorating Haitian history. Each story in itself stresses the importance of remembering, and perhaps inherently provides a warning for what would happen if we were to forget. One of the phrases that most resonated with me was in the story, “The Missing Peace.” It is repeated a few times: “Write things down for posterity” (Danticat 107). Posterity refers to future generations. Danticat wrote her stories for posterity, so stories of Haiti would be remembered for generations to come. For her, it is for generations of not only Haitians, but of readers in general. I was very much reminded of They Who Do Not Grieve, because Malu is warned not to write anything down, and the grandmother in this story says “I already have posterity. I am once a baby and now I am an old woman. That is posterity” (108). This is also echoed later, when Lamort repeats the same phrase to the American journalist. One other example of writing to remember is found in the first story, “Children of the Sea.” This story brings a different twist on the matter, as the two characters are writing letters to each other that will never be sent. They are essentially writing the letters for their own comfort, either to commemorate what happened, to try to make sense of it, or both. The male character says of his companions on the boat, “I have many stories to tell you, and then they go on and tell these stories to you, but mostly to themselves” (14). Danticat’s Krik? Krak! is a compilation of short stories that ends up illustrating the power of stories themselves. I think her stories show that we must remember the history, the story, of those who came before us, or we won’t know how we got to where we are now.

I think this relates to my service-learning project as a whole. Each week, I would write about my service two times. For my Intro to Special Education class, which got me involved with my placement at Villa Maria, I would write observations after each visit. I would connect back to our textbook, class discussions, or just generally evaluate what I saw. I came to know a lot about myself and my own philosophies for teaching. I saw a lot of examples of things I hope to use in future classrooms, and I also saw some things I would never do as a teacher. Writing down the day’s happenings forced me to make sense of them. Not only will I always have a written record of this experience, but because I actually took time to evaluate my experience, I will probably never forget it.

The blog for this class has added a totally new component to my service-learning experience. I got to think less about the academic aspect (different disabilities, teaching strategies, etc.), and really consider the effect of what I was doing. Thinking about my service as a form of travel helped me to focus on the individuals I was with. I realized the human things I was getting out of the experience. This blog is actually a case of writing things down for posterity. We have recorded our experiences, service or travel, for future generations of Loyola students, or for anyone who wants to read them. The act of sharing our stories has given us more understanding and insight, as well as adding value to them as they are preserved for others to encounter as well.
By reading Invisible Cities as the first text of the semester, my perception on humanity has directly been shaped by the relationships that are formed between us, either by choice or necessity. As the varied stories of Krick? Krack? continue it becomes clear that beyond the bond of national travesty, the different characters share commonality on the basic human-to-human level. This thematic thread is particularly important in Danticat’s expression of women, as their harrowed experiences propel the text. Their relationships flurry and blossom even in the darkest moments of their nation’s histories, in the search for identity in They Who Do Not Grieve, and explicitly within the experiences of my students at the Esperanza Center.
The form of Krick? Krack! forces the reader to become confused before becoming aware. As the disjointed stories, all centered in Haiti and all referencing the coup that created national terror, are formulated we as readers are searching for points of intersection, just as we first did as we moved from books one to two in They Who Do not Grieve. Danticat forms the connections for us as she says, “My grandmother Defile who died with a bald head in a prison because God had given her wings. My mother Lili who killed herself in old age because her husband has humped out of a flying balloon and her grown son left her to go to Miami,” (94). These women all suffered incredible loss, whether loss of freedom, loss of innocence, loss of a child, or loss of a husband it is not only their bloodlines that tie them together but their misfortune.
Yet even in the moments of excruciating pain, there is comfort in the safety net of the familial link, “For no matter how much distance death tried to put between us, my mother would often come to visit me,” (93). At the same time, there is a sense of cyclical death between mother and child that leaves the reader with an unpleasant taste in his or her mouth, “‘My mother died while I was being born,’ I explained, ‘My grandmother was really mad at me for that,’” (109). It is the same perpetuation of bereavement that appears in Sia Figiel’s work, where the women of Lalolagi’s family continually punish and self-inflict suffering. The interconnectivity of these stories is intrinsically bound by and to the paths of pain. There is, however, hope or the illusion of hope at the end of each. As Malu prepares herself to give birth she promises that she will break the chain of misfortunate mothers and that her child will be different, “to live in all the confusion of the present, knowing that there are still dreams to be dreamt,” (270). As Malu takes control of her hope, control of her future, Lamort, too understands the possibility of change, “‘Yes, Marie Magdalene,’ I said. ‘I want you to call me Marie Magdalene.’ I liked the sound of that,” (122). For the pain-stricken women we’ve encountered through our own literary travels, it is the hope that inspires and creates such connection in the first place.
I promise that I did not do this intentionally, but my service site is called the Esperanza Center, esperanza meaning hope. They recently changed the name from Hispanic Apostolate to the Esperanza Center and I believe that such a designation change helps to fortify the true meaning and mission of the Center. The new name allows me view my students in a new and unbiased way. Like my new student Paz, a 22 year old immigrant from El Salvador, who fled from similar turmoil that threatened Haiti in Danticat's account. She does not like to talk about the family that she left behind, nor her struggles here. Instead, she takes our 2 hour-long sessions as a opportunity to challenge her strengthening English language skills. She said to me, “I need to learn address so I can get job.” Meaning, that she needed to learn how to say her address in English so that she could even take the first step in getting a job application. In addition to practical survival, Paz understands that the only way that she will ever get a better job than that of a housekeeper is to become proficient in both reading, speaking, and writing in English. Her determinism and personal will marks Paz as one of the most hopeful students I have encountered. Even in the face of suffering both past and present, Paz’s optimism radiates to all of the other students in my class. It is this essence of our humanity that I have found within the works of this semester. While They Who Do Not Grieve and Krick? Krack! take explicit notions of agony in order to show the resilience of their characters, all of our works have touched on the hopefulness that can come from a period of darkness. It is through this connection to each other that hope is even possible, and it is the perpetuation of our bond to each other that we learn and grow as individuals and as members of our common humanity.
Jack Kerouac, the “father of the Beat generation”, wrote his most famous novel without knowing that it would soon transform the youth generation of America. Even today, the book speaks to those who are searching for some meaning in their lives, or a way to break free from conformity. In this book, Sal Paradise is Jack Kerouac’s altar ego, who wants to leave his home of Paterson, New Jersey to explore the great unknown. More than this, though, he desires a break from the confinement of his life and a need to search for ultimate freedom, a theme that is representative of the Beat Generation. Despite Sal’s occasional excitement on the road, mostly relating to drugs, sex, and alcohol, Paradise is consumed with an extreme sense of loneliness and emptiness about his life. Although this loneliness is sometimes artificially filled by the arrival of a new woman, like Terry, or a night out drinking with Dean Moriarty, the void within him remains empty. Sal continually tries to emulate his friend Dean, someone he believes has got “the secret that we’re all busting to find” (196). Yet even Dean, who Sal thinks so highly of, does not have the answers to the questions they seek. Sal is intrigued by Dean because of his passion for life and his active, intense personality; however, as the novel progresses, Sal realizes that Dean is self-interested and possesses no more knowledge that Sal himself.

Sal’s ultimate goal is to break loose from his mundane existence is New Jersey and find something passionate and alive to experience. Although he tries to make the most out of life like Dean, he is continually brought back to a place of confusion and uncertainty. Many times throughout the book, the notion of “IT” appears, and Sal says at one point, “I wanted to know what ‘IT’ meant” (207). It seems that “IT” is the essential meaning of life, or what these men are hoping to find by being out on the road. At one point, upon reaching Mexico, Dean and Sal think they have found some sense of “IT”: “We had finally found the magic land at the end of the road and we never dreamed the extent of the magic” (276). The men are amazed at the lax regulations they encounter and the abundance of women they find. But the excitement always wears off and Mexico is no exception as Sal finds himself feeling “the same unmistakable ache and stab across the mind, the same sighs, the same, the same pain…” (289). It seems that ultimately, these men never do find what they are looking for; instead, they only find fleeting examples of happiness but never the real thing. Sex and alcohol are only momentary replacements of “IT” and do not encompass what Sal is really looking for.

While much of the road seems to be full of excitement and new experiences, Sal is continually let down and disappointed. After Dean abandons him in San Francisco, Marylou is next to desert Sal, who says, “Now I had nobody, nothing” (172). Even though Sal tries to fill the emptiness inside of him with people like Dean and Terry, ultimately the only person he can rely on is himself. He comes to realize this towards the end of the novel, as he discovers what kind of a person Dean Moriarty truly is: “When I got better I realized what a rat he was” (302). It seems that something positive does emerge from his time on the road as he matures and comes to realize that Dean always cared more about himself than he did of Sal. While at times Dean’s restlessness and zest for life are entertaining, ultimately we can see that he is someone who is too self involved and is just another lost soul on the road, looking for something to ease the pain.

The road does represent something important and even sacred for Sal who says, “The road is life” (212). However, he also says that in reality, life is not as enjoyable as he had hoped: “the raggedy madness and riot of our actual lives, or actual night, or the hell of it, the senseless nightmare road. All of it inside endless and beginningless emptiness” (254). It is as if Sal is trying to rationalize his travels on the road, but deep down he knows that ultimately, he is hopeless and continues to search for answers. The road is only a quick fix to something that needs more lasting repair. Although we can never really know what “IT” is, we can assume that it is the desire to find some sort of inner spiritual peace. I think Kerouac does a good job of portraying the sentiment of his generation at that time. Moreover, his book gives a sense of the restlessness he himself was experiencing during those years. Even though he did not intend for his book to have such a lasting impact on the nation, it did, and even more than fifty years later, people are still reading and praising it. It is truly a book that speaks to a generation of individuals who wanted something more than what they were given.

Wanting more or challenging the life one has been given is something that has been prevalent throughout this course. We’ve seen Malu embracing the spirit and life of her unborn child, the narrator in Black Rainbow who stands up for his own freedom and individuality, the Samoan culture who continues traditions of tatau despite outside criticism, and even Guy from Danticat’s “Wall of Fire Rising”, who yearns to escape his mundane existence. This idea of wanting more or the desire to experience unfamiliar things is what travel is all about; people desire change and excitement, as is shown in Kerouac’s novel, and travel gives us the freedom to do this. Not only does travel enable us to branch out and explore exciting and new places, but it is through travel that we learn about ourselves, as we’ve discussed often in this class, and in doing so, we come to understand who we are as individuals and who we are within society.

Memory as Preservation of Human Identity

In my intentional community in El Salvador, I became friends with Edith, a student from the University of Central America. I spent Holy Week at her house in northern Chalatenango, in a small village called San Jose de las Flores, which was resettled by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees after the region was destroyed by fighting during the civil war. Edith told us they didn’t get electricity until she was eleven. During my times in the campo (countryside) I learned to climb to the outhouse in the dark and shower by pouring a bucket of water over my head. Edith’s mother shared stories of life in the mountains, as she had been a guerrilla combatant. Mamita, her grandmother, measured stages of her life by how many children she had “bajo de la tierra” (under the earth). In Chalatenango, talk of the war is very present in daily conversation.

Edith’s twelve-year-old sister Claudia entertained my friend Chrissy and me during the week between the vigils and preparations. Her eyes shone as she exclaimed that on Friday we were to go “river-swimming,” a favorite Salvadoran pastime. This would be the equivalent of a day at the beach, and she was especially thrilled that her mother, who works in San Salvador to provide for the family and does not come home for months at a time, would be able to join us. Chrissy and I were nervous, as we had read about this particular river. There are many songs which refer to “El Río Sumpul,” recalling the massacre by the Salvadoran army as civilians tried to flee into Honduras.

Therefore when I read the words: “…I had expected to be still crimson with blood, but which was as clear as any water that I had ever seen…I thought that the dead would reach out and haul us in, but only our faces stared back at us, one indistinguishable from the other” (40), tears came to my eyes. It sounds silly now, that as a twenty-year-old university student, I would have believed the river would still be bloody thirty years later. And I suppose I didn’t literally think that, but I felt completely surreal unpacking our picnic and watching children splash around in the river where so many people had lost their lives. I felt the same horror and inability to comprehend the atrocities when I visited another massacre sight at El Mozote, where babies as young as three days old were shot and burned in a church.

I keep the memory of the Salvadoran’s suffering alive in the stories I tell. People begged me: “tell your friends in the United States about us,” as if I were a celebrity who could change their entire reality by my power and wealth in the north. But I do remember them. I will always remember them. I carry them with me as I enter new experiences, as my human identity evolves. As I travel to Refugee Youth Project, where little children half my size have already fled horrible persecution and must struggle to adjust to their new land, as I travel to school, where I must take advantage of my blessed opportunity for education, as I watch the stories of women in the Congo and Invisible Children in Uganda, their story and their memory lives in my heart.

If we ask: “What makes us human?” while reading Krik? Krak! we must also ask how we preserve our humanity in times of suffering. How do we remember those who died before us? How do we reconcile past memories and present human interactions? How is the evolution of our identity influenced by the memory of our parents’ story?

Haitians, Salvadorans, Turkish, Congolese, Ugandans, North Americans: we all have memory. Memory allows us to forge ahead while retaining the lessons of our own experiences and those of the people we once loved. The young couple in “Children of the Sea” write beautiful letters which the other may never receive. The boy’s forced travel rips him away from their relationship, but she cherishes his memory. She writes, “I destroyed some music tapes, but I still have your voice” (4). On the boat, he writes, “Someone says, Krik? You answer, Krak! And they say, I have many stories I could tell you, and then they go on and tell these stories to you, but mostly to themselves” (14). Here I noticed the phrase “mostly to themselves.” I ask myself, when I tell a story about El Salvador in class, do I share it to continue the power of the memory for others or to relive it myself? Perhaps it is a combination of the two.

Danticat addresses the question: What happens to our identities when we die? The boy writes to his love, “I go to them now as though the very day that my mother birthed me, she had chosen me to live life eternal, among the children of the deep blue sea, those who have escaped the chains of slavery to form a world beneath the heavens and the blood-drenched earth where you live…In any case, I know that my memory of you will live even there as I too become a child of the sea” (27-8). When the mother of the protagonist of “Nineteen Thirty-Seven” dies, she will always be remembered by her “sisters” of the river. They cling to her presence as my little sister still sleeps in my grandma’s t-shirts: “Each woman was either wearing or holding something that had once belonged to her” (47). The story of the river, no doubt, will be passed on to future generations of women.

In “The Missing Peace” Emilie explains coming of age to Lamort: “They say a girl becomes a woman when she loses her mother” (116). When one’s mother dies, the emptiness is filled with only memory of the mother’s presence. Emilie wants to preserve memory “for posterity” not just for historical purposes, but also to preserve the human spirit. When we travel, we bring all of ourselves. Our memory influences our perception of our surroundings and affects our interactions with others. Memory therefore, makes us human.

Expression Is Humanity

In Edwidge Danticat’s Krik? Krak! the title itself points to a connection that the novel works to highlight between the speaker and listener or author and reader. The book also highlights the importance that this relationship has as far as outlets for the basic definitions of humanity: expression. The relationship between the one who expresses and the one who listens is encapsulated in the idea of the call ritual before each story. “Someone says, Krik? You answer, Krak! And they say, I have many stories I could tell you, and then they go on and tell these stories to you” (Danticat 14). This call and response acknowledged the fact that it takes two to tell a story and that both sides must be willing to take part in this exchange for it to be a true moment of contact.

The significance of expression to humanity comes across in her first segment, “Children of the Sea” where two separated lovers write letters to each other that may never be read. Since these two people have agreed to write to each other and fulfill this promise in the spirit of love, their expression is genuine and they even have similar thoughts, particularly regarding their love for one another as the sea. In their writing they are able feel a connection with each other, regardless of their physical distance, “I know you will probably never see this, but it was nice imagining that I had you here to talk to” (Danticat 27). The expression through speech, in particular, is brought up in “A Wall of Fire Rising” where Little Guy is able to harness a certain inspirational power simply by reciting lines from a play. Each time he recites his lines to practice, a violent reaction ensues, both positive and negative. One time Guy punishes his son for mumbling the words once he has told him not to and “Guy made him kneel in the deep grass in punishment” (Danticat 63). However, the first time “the speech made Lili and Guy stand on the tips of their toes in great pride” (Danticat 57). The power of speech and contact comes through clearly throughout Danticat’s text and serves to expose the reader to the necessity that each human life has for expression.

In summation, the course explores the fact that there is much more to travel than simply physical displacement. Travel can take all types of form; one can travel through space, time, perspective, genealogy, bodily experience, conversation, and so on. The significance is not so much the form of travel, but the transformation that this travel can have on a person. Even further, the importance lies in how these changes affect each person and how they choose to interact and experience genuine contact with others.
One theme that is prevalent in Danticat’s novel is the idea of connectedness. She slowly and deliberately reveals the generational connections between her characters. Actions of one generation have real, concrete effects on future generations. Like They Who Do Not Grieve, there is a line of tragedy that connects the various narrators in the first half of the novel, from 1937 onward to the war-torn Haiti of the 1980’s and 90’s.

Furthermore, it seems that the experiences a person goes through, be they good or bad, make that person who they are. Take for example Little Guy. As a youth, he is cast as a Haitian freedom fighter in the school play. It might seem like a small part of his life, but it resonates. The effect of this is not lost on Guy. His tears after hearing his small son recite the play lines are truly moving. Little Guy, despite the fact that, “It was obvious that this was a speech written by a European man, who gave to the slave revolutionary Boukman the kind of European phrasing that might have sent the real Boukman turning in his grave” (56) comes to identify with his role. It seems that Danticat is implying this part of his life inspired him to be the freedom-fighting radio operator he eventually becomes. He himself seems of conscious of this when he writes, “You probably do not know much about this because you have always been so closely watched by your father … If anything I am jealous. If I was a girl, maybe I would have been at home and not out politicking” (9).

The other element that contributed to Little Guy’s desire to effect positive change is his father’s grisly suicide. Guy was a man that toiled in demeaning labor, cleaning latrines for pennies. Then, a life of menial labor ends tragically and bizarrely. When Little Guy recites his lines over his father’s corpse, it is as if he is declaring, “I will fight so that people like my father are not driven to such extreme ends.”

With the idea of connectedness in mind, it is fitting that this class performed the Examen before delving into Krik Krak. Despite going to a Jesuit high school, I had never been challenged with the Examen and the experience was interesting and rewarding. It seems that the class agreed on the connectedness of the world. In other words, like the world of Krik Krak, our actions in either the context of the Loyola community or the world at large affect other people’s lives. The example used in class of someone holding a door or slamming it in your face fits in with this line of thinking. It might seem like a trivial point, but either event could influence a person’s day positively or negatively.

More broadly though, it was said at the beginning of the semester that our values and past experiences will prejudice our travel experience. We take those past events with us, especially when traveling. It is those events that define how we view new places. Just as the events of Little Guy’s life shaped his personality, so too do the experiences of our lives affect the way we behave. Our past is connected to our future. .

But the beauty of traveling is that sometimes we take away new or at least altered lenses, which allow us see the world in different ways. We might see things we never saw before.

Those new lenses, in a sense, are the ultimate souvenirs, like tattoos. And like tattoos, they can be altered or changed depending on experience. We can’t actively remove our lenses, otherwise they would not be lenses, like we can remove or change a tattoo. But by experiencing foreign cultures, peoples, values, and religions, as well as dozens of other institutions, our prejudices can be altered.

Sharing Stories

Danticat's Krik? Krak! illustrates the power of story telling and the bond that exists between generations sharing the same history. The one bond that truly holds the Haitians together is their collective suffering and ability to pass their story on to those who will listen. In one of his letters, the boy on the boat notes that, "Some of the women sing and tell stories to eachother to appease the vomiting" (Danticat 9). Storytelling eases the pain of being at sea, and allows these women to escape the grim reality that they face. In one of her letters, the girl mentions that they "spend most of the day telling stories" and that if "someone says 'Krik?', you answer 'Krak!' (Danticat 14). This exchange functions as an invocation, in that it asks its listeners to fully immerse themselves in the story being told . The letters that the boy and girl write to eachother illustrate the power of written communication to heal and perhaps mentally or spiritually liberate those who are enslaved.

Josephine is able to remember her mother and her rituals performed every November due to the stories that have been passed on to her. In this chapter, the Madonna also functions as a common thread that serves as a bond between all of the women in prison. They place their hope in the state of the Madonna and the 'tears' that flow from her face help ease their pain. These women see power in the ability to pass something on to the next generation, whether it be a statue or a story.

The spoken word continues serve as as a healing device in ' A Wall of Fire Rising'. Even though Guy commits suicide, the play acts as a bond between him and his son while he is alive. Guy and Lili are very proud of their son when he recites the lines of his play. He says, "I call on everyone and anyone so that we shall all let out one piercing cry and that we may either live freely or we should die" (Danticat 71). These lines serve as a call to Haiti and all of humanity; they are not just lines from a play that he must memorize. His constant recitation of the lines from his play act as a therapy for the boy and his family, who are trapped by the evils of their own society. The father tries to free himself of injustice in the wrong way, whereas the boy uses the power of spoken word to make an impression on those around him. This stark contrast illustrates the generational difference that Danticat seems to be highlighting. The young have the power to change the way things are, and as each generation progresses, the story must act as a lesson, so that the evils of yesterday can be prevented.

Throughout this semester, I have noticed the importance of storytelling, in addition to diverse dialogue in general. Each of our books has touched upon the issue of interaction between generations and the importance of transformation through travel. Storytelling is an aid for this transformation that occurs when one leaves their home territory. The characters in our novels have only been able to transform themselves when they interact with others, regardless of the depth or positivity of that interaction. It is important to absorb and share experiences when we travel-not just the beautiful sights or food. We must allow the external to affect the internal. I think we can all learn a lesson from the Dean Moriarty or the 'pre-dragon transformation Eustace' type of traveler. The people that are only in it for themselves aren't going to get anything out of traveling, and in the end, they're not really going to experience the value of cultural difference.

When I travel to St. Mary's and volunteer there, I am exploring a realm completely different than my life here at Loyola, in addition to the life I live at home. Many of the kids from St. Mary's seem to lack the comfortable homelife and advice that I have been able to receive my entire life. There is nobody at home telling them what they should or should not do, and I think this is why there are so many disciplinary problems in the classrooms. The teachers do a terrific job of trying to keep order in the classroom, but oftentimes the children just refuse to behave. Their cries for attention have really left an impression on me, and every time I volunteer, I make sure to interact with each and every student as much as I possibly can. I know that I have lessons to offer them, even if they do not have an on older, more experienced person at home showing them the way. This sometimes seems like such a daunting task for me, but I know that my upbringing has instilled me with the responsibility to mentor these children the best that I can. The one thing that I have noticed about these kids throughout this fall semester is that they are desperate to tell their story and just to be heard. One of the kids I talked to has an older brother in jail and has seen kids doing drugs in his neighborhood. This is one of the first things he told me when he met me, so he was clearly eager to share his life with a stranger, which meant a lot. I am really flattered that these kids have allowed me into their lives, especially because they lack reasons to trust. It is especially uplifting for me to see this, because I have a hard time trusting people sometimes. I guess the one thing I have learned from my time at St. Mary's, is that if I can just be there to listen and to share, that is more than enough.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Just Get on the Road

“I woke up and the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn’t know who I was – I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I’d never seen…and really didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds.” (Kerouac 15)

Sal, the narrator of On the Road has found himself traveling West for the first time in his young life. His journey, while it is indeed a physical journey to be with friends, is essentially one of self discovery. He claimed that as a writer, he “needed new experiences” and that “life hanging around the campus had reached the completion of its cycle” (Kerouac 7). The narrator has recognized the end of one portion of his life and has begun the search for the next chapter, the next thing that will define him. He knows he wishes to be a writer, but he has yet to understand what and who he wishes to write about. His journey then is a search for that subject matter that will decide the remainder of his life.
As a senior in college I (and much of the rest of the class) am at a similar point in my live (sorry folks). Like Sal, we have all come to the point in our lives where a cycle is ending and are searching for the next thing to define us. We are hunting for jobs, graduate schools, new places to live, and new people who are going to dominate the next years of our lives. As with any new beginning, this is going to be extremely frightening. But I think that we can learn a lot from Kerouac and his narrator’s take on his journey of self-discovery. Fist of all, we must recognize that the decision must be our own. Sal notes that his aunt warned him against traveling West with Dean, yet he still went because he “could hear a new call and see a new horizon” (Kerouac 8). As students about to enter a new portion in our lives we must take up opportunities when we see a new horizon. The best thing to do is to dive into a new opportunity head first, without fear and with firm resolve. Sal’s journey is not an easy one, but he takes it up without question that it is something that he must do. And there are times of doubt, and as seen in the opening quote, there were times when he was unsure of whom he was. But that is only natural when a new chapter is opening in our lives. We are changing, we are growing, we are becoming new people. The strange time for Sal only lasted about fifteen strange seconds, but it was enough to wake him up to the stark realities of the difference between his past and his future. He wasn’t shook and he wasn’t discouraged, he merely took it as a sign to “get going and stop moaning” (Kerouac 15). This is an attitude that we all must take up when entering into a new journey of our lives. We may change and we may be afraid of getting lost in the world of change, but we will always find ourselves once again. So don’t be daunted by the next challenge that you must face. Merely take it up will a strong will, and when it becomes difficult, just use that as motivation to work harder and keep traveling.
In Jack Kerouac’s iconic novel, On the Road, the narrator Sal Paradise sets off on a cross-country journey, twice. He hitchhikes from New to California and back again, taking different routes each time. Sal says that he wants to travel in order to gain experiences, “I was a young writer and I wanted to take off…I knew there’s be girls, visions, everything…” (Kerouac 8). A lot of Sal’s motivation for traveling revolves around his eccentric circle of friends, in particular Dean Moriarity, and this almost utopian vision that he has of the West. Throughout his journey West, Sal talks himself through the tough times by remarking that everything will be great once he gets to Chicago, then Denver, then San Francisco, and so on. Sal’s destinations end up being less important than his actual time on the road. If anything, the destinations end up being somewhat of a disappointment. As a result of his travels, Sal comes to realize what he values about his home. He had to escape the reality of his home in order to realize what he values most about it.

Early in the novel, Sal refers to his “dreams of going West to see the country” (1). Almost immediately, he realizes that his trip is not as romantic and glamorous as he imagined it to be: “I began crying and swearing and socking myself on the head for being such a damn fool. I was forty miles north of New York…I was only moving north instead of the so-longed-for west” (10). His expectations for the trip were flawed, and this affects his experience at first. He thought he could cross the country “on one great red line across America” and found this to be very unrealistic. Even in Chicago, which he so desperately wanted to reach, Sal is a bit lost: “I didn’t know who I was—I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I’d never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside…and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds” (15). Once everything he knows is left behind him, Sal is prepared to undergo a transformation. He seems to let go of his self, his New York self, and start to embrace his journey. Interestingly, it is his New York self that he seems to end up missing at crucial moments.

Once in Denver, readers get more hints that each of Sal’s subsequent destinations will only lead him to more questions, and sometimes more of missing his home. Denver is a whirlwind. While he is whisked around by all of his friends and introduced to their lifestyle, which somehow mixes intellectualism with something reminiscent of college students partying, Sal seems a bit lost. His first question is “But where was Dean?” (39). At this point, Sal looks to Dean for guidance and answers. Later, Sal repeatedly asks, “Well, what the hell are we doing in Denver?” (44). He finds no answers, only a new destination in San Francisco.

Los Angeles is the city that makes Sal most nostalgic for home. Ironically, it is the city that people quite often associate with success and opportunity. It is described much differently in On the Road: “LA is the loneliest and most brutal of American cities; New York gets god-awful cold in the winter but there’s a feeling of wacky comradeship somewhere in the streets. LA is a jungle” (86). Kerouac also describes New York as “brown and holy” and California as “white and emptyheaded” (79). Once he has reached the westernmost points of his trip, Sal realizes his live for the east coast, and New York City in particular. It is a simple case of always wanting what we don’t have. It also relates to the cliché, “distance makes the heart grow fonder.” Sometimes we need to be removed from the places or situations with which we are most familiar in order to truly appreciate them. This is made explicitly clear once Sal returns to New York,

"Suddenly I found myself on Times Square. I had traveled eight thousand miles around the continent and I was back on Times Square; and right in the middle of rush hour, too, seeing with my innocent road eyes the absolute madness and fantastic hoorair of New York (107)".

Only after he has left and then returned does home seem “fantastic” to Sal. He left because his journey was a sort of vacation, or an escape from reality. Sal’s travels have in fact exposed him to different realities, and made it quite clear that home is a reality that he really does value.
A quote early in On the Road that really struck me was before Sal had made it out of New York. He is looking at the Hudson River and he says "If you a drop a rose in the Hudson River at its mysterious source in the Adirondacks, think of all the places it journeys by as it goes out to sea forever..." Immediately this struck me as analogous to Sal's journey and it was in my mind for the whole first part of the book. This quote is relevant to Sal's experience for two reasons. First, it emphasizes the importance of each individual stop along his journey. Second, by saying it "goes out to sea forever" it hints that once Sal begins his journey it really never ends.

Each individual place he stops at is important to his journey whether he feels he has a good experience or not. Whether it's a group of college kids picking him up while they talk about their exams, or a seedy looking man offering him a job as a Carny, everything is an experience and changes him in some way. Even just standing in the rain in the middle of nowhere while he curses himself and threatens to give up his quest out west is an experience to be learned from. He has time to reflect on his own thoughts and learn more about himself. He also can appreciate compassion and humanity more when a generous person finally stops to pick him up and rescue him. Like the rose dropped into the river, he slowly gets withered and changed by each place he winds into, and eventually it is hard to see where he originally came from.

Later in the book when his hitchhiking journey out west technically is completed, his traveling never stops. In California he is already making plans to go back to New York, and after that plans to travel once again. In this first half of the book, Sal realizes that his home might actually be on the road. He appears to idolize people like Old Bull Lee because of their many experiences, and Sal desires a similar lifestyle. Sal has left his mysterious source and seems destined to journey outward forever.

Different forms of travels

''On the Road'' makes the reader travel in several ways : geographically, since the narrator Sal undertakes a travel to the West of the United States, temporarily, but also through other embedded narratives that reveal the personality of the people he meets. Story telling is a key element in this narrative and reminds us of Calvino’s idea which stresses the act of story telling because through this act, we show that we are humans.

''On the Road'' clearly reminds us of some books belonging to the American literary canon such as ''Nature'' by Emerson, ''Walden'' by Thoreau or ''Huckleberry Finn'' by Twain. They vividly depict the American Landscape and encourage readers to go to Nature to find out essential truths, to know oneself better and to free from social constraints. Nature is often exalted and idealized. Sal is optimistic about his travel and his expectations shape it beforehand. Page 8, Sal describes his excitment : ‘‘…I could hear a new call and see a new horizon, and believe it at my young age(…) Somewhere along the line I knew there’d be girls, visions, everything ; somewhere along the line, the pearl would be handed to me.’’ The narrator is filled with wonder before the ‘‘prairies’’, ‘‘great snowy tops of Rocky Mountain’’ or ‘‘his beloved Mississipi River.’’But at the same time, he is aware that natural elements can prevent his progress. The first time Sal travells to go to Denver, he is stopped by the rain. Nature is no longer agreable : ‘‘All I could see were smoky trees and dismal wilderness rising to the skies. What the hell am I doing up there ?’’There is an ambivalence in the American landscape : it can be pleasant or unpleasant.

Sal’s travel to the West is an obvious reference to the travel of the pioneers who went to the West in order to extend the frontier. In that sense, the narrator travels temporarily. For instance, as he goes to the West, he meets the descendants of Native Americans. The names of western cities also reminds us that a history prior to that of the first Europeans existed : Sal mentions Cheyenne, Ohama, the state of Nebraska…The life that exists in the West is more rural, in other words closer to the life led by the pioneers. In a more personal level, this travel makes him question his identity and life. Page 15, Sal wakes up in a hotel room and for fifteen seconds, he does not know who he is. He explains this feeling as followed : ‘‘ I was halfway accross America, at the dividing line between the East of my youth and the West of my future, and maybe that’s why it happened right there and then, that strange red aftenoon.’’The same way the pioneers' travel to the West contributed to create and shape and an American identity, the same way Sal’s travel is also supposed to help him to shape his own identity as an American, as a writer and simply as a full individual.

Sal’s narrative is enriched by other bits of narratives related by himself when he tells the story of his friends, but also by people he meets when travelling. Those embedded narratives define travel as interacting with people, exchanging experience between individuals, forming multiple but transient bonds with others. Things are known through human contacts. For instance, when he travels with the Minnesota farmboys, he meets people with different histories in the truck. But he has to leave them to continue his travel : ‘‘It was sad to see them go, and I realized that I would never see any of them again, but that’s the way it was.’’

''On the Road'' explores several types of travels we have already studied in our previous readings. The narrator travels geographically, temporarily, but also through personal experiences he hears. It reminds us of Marco Polo whose narrative is also constituted of other narratives and anachronisms that makes the reader travel temporarily. Moreover, like Marco Polo, Sal enjoys of ''vantage point'' to depict a society.

Expectation v. Reality

From the outset of On The Road, it is clear that the narrator Sal has a zest for life that is probably unparalleled by most anybody. He boldly claims, "the only one for me are the mad ones" (Keruoac 5). He runs with a fast crowd that is constantly looking for the next adventure, and is, at the same time, overjoyed with everything to come. This is very appealing, and most likely hits a chord with its readers, especially Americans, who have been taught to venture forth and fulfill dreams. However, Sal seems to idealize the places he travels throughout the first portion of the novel. He always seems to build a place up, only to be let down once he finds himself hungry and tired. His restlessness also grows if he is situated in one place for too long. It is as if he is searching for something that he will never find.

It is quite humorous that Sal thinks he can simply follow a line that will lead him to the west. It hints at his idealistic personality. He says, "It was my dream that was screwed up, the stupid hearthside idea that it would be wonderful to follow one great red line across America instead of trying various roads and routes" (Kerouac 11). Sal really does not have a plan when he travels, and just decides to go forth with a fantastic dream of the west, without even considering responsibility, down to the very act of feeding himself. After he is picked up in Iowa City, he says, "Now I could see Denver looming ahead of me like the Promised Land" (Kerouac 14). He is so anxious to get to Denver throughout the beginning of the novel, that the reader expects disappointment eventually. Sal envisions himself in Denver in a very idealistic way. He says, "I pictured myself in a Denver bar that night, with all the gang, and in their eyes, I would be strange and ragged and like the Prophet who had walked across land to bring the dark Word" (Kerouac 35). He is overly excited to just be in beautiful Denver with the gang and sitting in bars, and does not consider anything else. When he finally arrives in Denver, he says, "the air was soft, the stars so fine, the promise of every cobbled alley was so great, that I thought I was in a dream" (Kerouac 42). Sal expects so much from Denver; he almost envisions it changing his life completely. He sees every bit of it as having everlasting opportunity.

Finally, after failing at attempts to find a job, settle down, and woo Rita Bettencourt, Sal says, "My moments in Denver were coming to an end, I could feel it when I walked her home" (Kerouac 58). Sal loses the lust that he had for his precious Denver in a short amount of time, and wants to continue to travel farther west. Sal then decides to travel to Frisco, where he plans to meet with his French friend Remi Bonceur. Just as Sal idealizes Frisco itself, he does paint an ideal picture of a friendship with Remi, that eventually proves false as he settles in with him. When speaking of Remi and his girlfriend, he says, "On Saturday night, smiling graciously at eachother, they took off like a pair of successful Hollywood characters and went on the town" (Kerouac 62). Sal perceives their relationship in a very naive manner. He knows that they have their quarrels, but does not understand the depth of their problems, much like he does not understand that every place is not as fabulous as the postcards make them out to be. Eventually, Sal acknowledges the fact that he is just as unhappy in Frisco as he was towards the end of his stay in Denver. He says, "The time was coming for me to leave Frisco, or I'd go crazy" (Keruoac 73). His living situation is not working for him, his attempts at wooing more girls are all fruitless, and his relationship with Remi falls apart. The only thing left for Sal to do is find his next destination. Sal begins to miss the east that he left in order to pursue the wild, glittering west. He says, "There is something brown and holy about the East; and California is white like washlines and emptyheaded- at least that's what I thought then" (Keruoac 79). Sal's description of the east as "holy" certainly indicates his tendency to form idealistic perceptions.

Sal's adventures continue in LA., and he eventually finds himself wanting to bring Terry home to New York with him. However, after attempting to do so, he is only let down again. He does manage to make it home, but then he has the itch to travel again once he comes into contact with Dean, who has turned "mad" with vigor for life, just like Sal. It is evident that Sal cannot be content with merely staying in one place for more than a few months. He is a restless person, and so are his friends. They are all searching for something, but it seems as though they idealize every place that they desire to travel. Eventually, they are always unsatisfied, and wish to pack up and head to the next destination. When traveling, it is easy to envision a place or future experience in the most ideal way. However, reality eventually hits the traveler, and they find themselves lonely and wanting for the place they were so eager to leave. Traveling ( and especially studying abroad), therefore, it is not all glamour. It comes with trials and tribulations, just like everything else. However, maybe the idealism and subsequent encounter with reality that comes with travel can't be prevented. Maybe it's just a part of the experience.

The Hungry Chameleon

It is evident throughout that Sal is an ever changing chameleon depending on his location and the people he encounters. Yet, what is even more interesting is the assimilation of food into this changing complex as well. One of the more imperative quotations from the beginning of the novel states: “so long’s we can eat, son, y’ear me? I’m hungry, I’m starving, let’s eat right now!” (8). Which is to say that in some way, Sal (as well as Dean who states the previous quote) has an empty soul, and sets out west to fill the void, to quench his hunger. It is then more tangible to suggest that while changing roles, Sal also changes his diet to correlate with these roles.

The first meal on Sal’s journey on the road consists of “franks and beans in a Seventh Avenue Riker’s” (7). This is the time period upon which Sal insists on being a writer, and why not exemplify that identity further by munching on a stereotypically American, writers “struggling meal.”

The second meal parallels Sal’s search for the “real westerner.” Once in Iowa he orders Apple pie with ice cream on three occasions. On the last occasion he states, “I ate apple pie and ice cream—it was getting better as I get deeper into Iowa, the pie bigger, the ice cream richer” (15). His meal then, is what he believes a real westerner would eat, and in turn they set up a direct relationship within a metaphor: as the food gets “bigger” and “richer” he begins to also find people who better fit his expectations of a true westerner. What is even more interesting is when Sal stumbles upon a man that fits his perceived notion of a true westerner, claiming “it was the spirit of the West sitting right next to me,” his order suddenly changes from apple pie to cherry pie because that is what the westerner is eating. Furthermore, not only is it cherry pie, but cherry pie “with a mountainous scoop of ice cream on top” signifying his elaborate and somewhat desperate attempts to fill his void, and attain an identity.

Similarly, the next stage in Sal’s life is his determination to become a hobo, wandering the road aimlessly—which seems to fit his character the most, considering his essential lack of identity. Yet, he can not become a hobo because even they have a certain identity that Sal can not hold on to long enough. One significant instance is when he rides with the Minnesota farmboys in the back of their pick up truck. He is so determined to assimilate himself with the other bum’s in the back of the pick up truck, and separate himself from the Minnesota farmboys, because the farmboys are not the identity he is trying to conform to.

In his determination he goes as far as to separate himself through their meals claiming, “We all shambled after them to a restaurant run by a bunch of women, and sat around over hamburgers and coffee while they wrapped away enormous meals just as if they were back in their mother’s kitchen” (24). Sal eats what he believes is a modest or typical “hobo meal” and criticizes what the boys are eating, almost in jealously because he can not eat it. The important fact however is that he still has ties to his aunt’s money, and can in fact enjoy a similar meal, yet in enjoying said meal he would be disconnecting himself from the identity he has chosen for the moment.

The next important meal is the meal he lives on when Sal finally finds his friends in Denver. They bounce from one bar to the next, one party to the next believing to be these outspoken rebels. Under this identity as the “crazy partier” he lives an absurd lifestyle, and therefore has an absurd diet. The only mention of food is when Sal claims, “Our breakfast consisted of stale beer” (55) which correlates exactly with the person he is attempting to be at that period in his travels.

The life that Sal finds himself conforming to next is the romantic life with Terry which interestingly enough he compares to food: “having found the closest and most delicious thing in life together” (85). Therefore, like all other identities and foods Sal consumes, Terry is just another one of these—however, she is also the first to give Sal some kind of substance and purpose to his existence beyond himself and that is the idea of family. Therefore, the meal within this identity is interesting because he is not eating individually but eating again as a unit, a part to a whole—just as with the hobos when he ate against the Minnesota farmboys, but with a more dignified tone. Under these terms Sal conformed to the family meal stating, “I bought cans of cooked spaghetti and meatballs, bread, butter coffee, and cake” (97).

One of the later and more metaphoric meals Sal consumes is when “everything was collapsing” (99) yet again and Sal felt compelled to hit the road one more time. However, this time unlike the others he finds no desiring in searching for an identity out west, but realizes who he is can be found at home. Thus, his failed attempts to find his identity, or to create a new identity for himself out west come to a bitter realization through sandwiches as seen when Kerouac writes, “And this was my Hollywood career—this was my last night in Hollywood, and I was spreading mustard on my lap in back of a parking-lot john” (102). What he wanted is portrayed in the repetition of “Hollywood” where as he determines who he really is again by food, or the mustard sandwiches. His failure in becoming a movie star is only realized, once he acknowledges what food it is he is consuming. To Sal, his life had come down to the mustard sandwiches which is a powerful metaphor in depicting a soul who is so irreconcilably lost and looking for something more “tasteful.”

Sal's Changing Identity

The main character of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Sal, begins an expedition across the country in order to shed his former ailing identity, as a result of his divorce, with hopes of attaining a new personality and a new direction. Depending on friend’s advice, especially Dean’s, he takes off with fifty dollars in his pocket with hopes of eventually landing on a cruise liner stationed in the Pacific off of the Californian coast. Through the novel, he “wears” numerous personalities but never really fits any of them, unless you take the saddened eternal wanderer as a personality in itself. It is on the California-destined journey that Sal “tries on” numerous identities, never actually settling on one which could establish a foundation for his life.

The first identity Sal employs is that of a husband. All we know of Sal’s wedded union is that it was a failure. We do not even know his former wife’s name. The only information we have of that marriage is that it caused (and if not caused at least happened at the same time) Sal to battle “a serious illness.” During this particular identity he was forced to contend with a “miserably weary split-up and feeling that everything was dead” (1). Once this particular path is terminated due to her absence, he assumes a new role as writer. He writes feverishly for months hoping to write the great American novel and follow in the steps of Hemingway and Eliot. Once his isolation proves too much, or upon realizing his work is not satisfactory, he desires a new course on the open-road.

It is this decision, based on Dean’s wisdom, which dictates the next few years of Sal’s life. Various other identities are assumed including hobo, student, police officer and cotton gatherer. Each identity is short-lived, regardless of weak or strong feelings for the position. This finite period of time attributed to each post illustrates Sal’s ever-increasing desire to be on the move. He physically, as a result of emotions and thought-processes, cannot remain in one place for an extended period. No place is able to become his home despite a desire to be viewed as a native or local in every town he visits. The reason for this movement, other than his searching for new places based on a desire to travel, is due to his realization of what he has from that which he does not possess. For instance, when he assumes the role as a hobo, it is fun for some time. He is able to lie idly in the grass and drink without discretion in Middle America. However, once he begins to think of the possibilities for adventure and gain in other places, namely California, he begins to shun the idea of being a homeless wanderer. Another more solid example of this condition is represented in his role as cotton gatherer and assumed position as father to Terry’s son, Johnny. At one point he says, “I thought I had found my life’s work” (89). He furthers this idea of really being enveloped into this given identity when Sal, as an Italian-American, says, “From then on I carried a big stick with me in the tent in case they got the idea we Mexicans were fouling up their trailer camp. They thought I was a Mexican, of course; and in a way I am” (90). He seems to have completely devoted himself to this new cause and career as cotton-picker. The “of course” once again stresses his desire to fit in with surrounding culture, being able to assume the native position without differentiations. He professes his love for Terry as well as Johnny. However, once the cold of October begins to settle in on the fields, his devotion fades. He wires his aunt for more money and within a few days, walks away from Terry knowing he will never see her again in his life.

The major theme of Kerouac’s novel is a desire to always obtain something more. It could be in the form of wealth, position or in understanding. Sal assumes the role of that tragic figure, lost in a losing battle to find a complete understanding of just what it is he is supposed to be accomplishing with his life.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

New Context, New Self?

Throughout Jack Kerouac’s novel, On the Road, Sal Paradise takes us on a journey of self discovery. Kerouac introduces many characters and personalities into the novel, representing the diversity seen when traveling. The importance of the people Sal Paradise meets on his voyage doesn’t seem to affect Paradise at the moment, but with reflection and time Paradise realizes the sense of connection and transformation associated with the ‘strangers’ he encounters on his way to ‘Denver’.

We are all characters in each other’s travel stories. We need each other to complete our travel because communication is vital in reflecting and understanding the experiences we accomplish. The relationships we share with each other plays a major role on who we are and who we become.

An example of this essential aspect of growth and transformation can be seen when Sal Paradise states: “I didn’t know who I was… I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost” (15). This quote is taken from the beginning of his voyage ‘on the road’, where he is searching for sense of self. Paradise feels lost and vulnerable, this sense of emptiness is can be found among many travelers, emphasizing the human dependence on each other for a sense of identity. Without the normal people or ‘others’ in our life, we become vulnerable to the idea of forming a new ‘self’. With a new context, an individual may loose their old idea of identity, but with these new experiences comes a deeper understanding of what really makes someone unique.

Throughout the novel ‘strangers’ become friends and essential tools to understanding Paradise’s identity. Paradise’s travel goes past Rt-6, into a deep connection with his idea of ‘self’ to strangers and their stories. Paradise’s identity is then molded by the people he meets on his voyage, through their dialogue and stories of their pasts.

Travel helps question the idea of identity. As seen in On the Road, a person’s idea of self is constantly changing and adapting with the new experiences and new context. This constant change helps define a person’s unique identity by using experiences to clarify what makes each person different.


Sal being a writer adds an interesting, complex dynamic to his travels both in his eyes and in Kerouac's audience. Firstly, from the very outset of the book it is clear that this is all about the journey. he is 'On The Road', it doesn't point anywhere and as he hitchhikes his way across the country his final destination seems to be of little pressing importance to him. There is too much to see along the way. There are too many friends to see and adventures to be had.
Understanding that Sal is a writer can allow one to see his travels as potential stories. He claims at least once that he is momentarily not interested in the value of the story and that he is involved in the moment for his enjoyment. His statement implies that the writing is actually on his mind the rest of the time he is making this journey and looking at the world around him. In addition, the guilty announcement of his release of this thought acknowledges its presence in his mind in the first place.
What this does is it transforms everything in his mind. His vision, his thought, his experience is all filtered through the mind of a writer. He is a storyteller and his journey is a log of potential pieces individually or a potential story in itself. He can speak of the hitchhiking. He can talk about the different cars he sees, as he seems to pay special attention to the detail of the vehicles he rides in. He can tell of the different cities and stops he makes where he most seems to pay attention to the types of women he encounters there which is natural for a man his age writer or not.
The things that are most interesting looking through the eyes of a writer are the people he meets. They are al characters in one sense or another they have these details that genuinely separate them from one another as he has his experiences with them. The drivers are a utility, but they are all from different walks of life. Young businessmen, truckers, trailer drivers from Minnesota, ten gallon hat classic westerners and small hat wearing people with a purpose of their own on the road. It highlights an interesting point in travel and that is that everyone one meets along the way is either someone on a journey themselves, or someone that can draw the traveler into the new place and teach them something, give them some experience. They all turn into stories to a writer.
The other side are the people he encounters that seem to be experiencing in one way or another the same thing he is. Fellow travelers 'on the road' making their way somewhere for all the different reasons we have spoken about in class. Looking for work, for friends, for family or just traveling to keep themselves moving. The first person he is on the road with is Eddie. One of the reasons the reader can tell that Sal tells his life as a story is that even in relaying his travels he saves some for a separate piece. He says that he will tell the reader another time why he liked Eddie so much, and it makes one press on to find out why.
The description he gives of the people on the truck bed make them into characters weather he means to or not. Again, it is the same sort of vision through the eyes of a writer that maybe make them come to life as people. The detail, the characteristics all give them a story of their own. he pays so much attention, and Kerouac is sure to relay tot he reader the intimate sort of listening ability of Sal as he observes the travelers. It is as though Sal's travel and adventure do not necessarily only revolve around the experience he has but also in the experiences of those he meets. That is certainly an interesting perspective gained by looking at travel through the eyes of a writer and storyteller