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Caroline Clifford (essay date October 1994)

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SOURCE: Clifford, Caroline. “The Music of Multiculturalism in Leïla Sebbar's Le Chinois vert d'Afrique.French Review 68, no. 1 (October 1994): 52-60.

[In the following essay, Clifford discusses the treatment of “les croisés”—characters who belong to more than one culture—as depicted in Leïla Sebbar's Le Chinois vert d'Afrique.]

Set in the present-day France of the increasing cultural tensions between immigrants and French de vieille souche, of the rising popularity of the Front National, and of a perceived need to defend French cultural purity, Leïla Sebbar's novels give a voice to the Beur children and other croisés growing up between the culture of their parents and that of the country in which they live. Sebbar ultimately affirms these children's right not to choose between cultures, but to incorporate distinct cultural particularities within a new composite identity. In Le Chinois vert d'Afrique (1984), she shows the characters with multiple cultural ties as more autonomous, less conscious of or limited by cultural boundaries, and ultimately more interesting than the characters that exist squarely within the French culture. Twelve-year-old Momo, of Vietnamese/Algerian father and Turkish mother, and fifteen-year-old Myra, of Italian mother and Moroccan father, emerge as strong and independent. On the other hand, the two French police officers, Bonnin and Mercier, are prescribed and limited to the point of being cartoonish because they act only in the strictest accordance with police regulations in their attempts to catch the “little savage,” Momo.

These characters represent two opposing forces at work in Le Chinois vert d'Afrique and the struggle between these forces provides the framework for the novel's narrative structure. Characters with multiple cultural ties, called “les croisés,” constitute the multicultural force, or actant in Mieke Bal's narratological terminology (Bal 26), and characters with ties only to one culture constitute the ethnocentric actant. These two actants work at cross purposes in the novel, the first striving for mobility, cultural pluralism within society and within personal identity, and the second for cultural homogeneity and the eradication of cultural differences. The narration of the struggle between these two actants in Le Chinois vert d'Afrique emphasizes alternance rather than hierarchy of elements, and thus expresses a multicultural theme. In this paper, I will examine the narrative structure of Sebbar's novel primarily by comparing its features to certain musical structures, but with the added theoretical support of Bal's narratology, in order to show how the particular structure of Le Chinois vert d'Afrique expresses a multicultural ideal.

For several reasons, music offers a privileged path to understanding Sebbar's novel. On a thematic level, music plays an important role in the lives of characters on both sides of the cultural divide. Momo plays the flute, Myra the piano, and Jean-Luc and Inspector Laruel have a fascination with opera. On a theoretical level, music lends an aspect of fluidity to the discussion of culture, as Julia Kristeva shows in Etrangers à nous-mêmes, a book which seeks to redefine notions of culture. Finally, the structure of language, upon which narratological concepts are based, is by definition linear and teleological (Yaguello 40), whereas the structure of music allows the superimposition or coexistence of elements within a single space and thus is a fitting tool with which to analyze a narrative with a multicultural ideal.

Etrangers à nous-mêmes provides an excellent starting point for an examination of the relationship between structure and intent in Sebbar's novel. In this book, Kristeva presents images of the foreigner in different time periods and different cultures, from ancient Greece to the European age of enlightenment to twentieth-century France. Her final chapter, “Pratiquement,” describes modern France as heterogeneous...

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and contains clear evidence of a multicultural orientation similar to Sebbar's, “en France, en cette fin de XXe siècle, chacun est destiné à rester le mêmeet l'autre: sans oublier sa culture de départ, mais en la relativisant au point de la faire non seulement voisiner, mais aussi alterner avec celle des autres” (288). Both Kristeva and Sebbar see French society as no longer only French, and as no longer mostly French and somewhat “foreign,” but as incorporating a multiplicity of cultures that exist side by side. Both authors suggest that people from these various cultures not try to erase their difference in order to meet the French standard, but affirm their own cultural particularities.1

In her introductory chapter, Kristeva suggests that the reification of the strangeness of the foreigner is the most traditional way of keeping him or her at a distance. In order to close the gap between French and foreign, and to assure the possibility of the coexistence of various cultures, both an alleviation of the strangeness of the foreigner and an acknowledgement of universal strangeness are necessary, according to Kristeva. She recommends that we not “chercher à fixer, à chosifier l'étrangeté de l'étranger. Juste la toucher, l'effleurer, sans lui donner de structure définitive” (11). The deliberate fluid view of the foreigner is more than a practical suggestion for harmonious coexistence in present-day France; here Kristeva underscores the orientation of her book in which she presents the reader with multiple sketches of the foreigner. This collection of images creates a work whose structure, or fluid form, is similar to that of Sebbar's novel.

Furthermore, Kristeva's suggestion of a musical metaphor has parallels in Le Chinois vert d'Afrique. Kristeva says of the “strangeness” of the foreigner:

L'alléger aussi, cette étrangeté, en y revenant sans cesse—mais de plus en plus rapidement. S'évader de sa haine et de son fardeau, les fuire non par le nivellement et l'oubli, mais par la reprise harmonieuse des différences qu'elle suppose et propage. Toccatas et Fugues: les pièces de Bach évoquent à mes oreilles le sens que je voudrais moderne de l'étrangeté reconnue et poignante, parce que souleveé, soulagée, disséminée, inscrite dans un jeu neuf en formation, sans but, sans borne, sans fin.


The amorphous, directionless, and infinite movement Kristeva describes in her ideal “jeu neuf en formation” could easily apply to the central character of Sebbar's novel, Momo, who is characterized by motion and multiplicity. However, even more significant than this similarity is Kristeva's choice of a musical metaphor to explain her ideal view of cultural difference. In Le Chinois vert d'Afrique, several characters have a penchant for opera and Momo and Myra both play musical instruments, making music an important thematic element. I would like to argue that music can also be seen as playing an important part in the novel's structure. Following Kristeva's choice of the metaphor of toccata and fugue as a way of approaching cultural difference, I will use these terms as models for examining the structure of Sebbar's novel, a structure which, I believe, carefully supports Sebbar's validation of multiculturalism.

Toccata has been defined as “a virtuoso composition featuring sections of brilliant passage work, with or without imitative or fugal interludes” (Ness 859) In addition, “quasi-improvisatory disjunct harmonies” are identified as one of the principal elements of toccata style. The terms “brilliant passage work” and “disjunct harmonies” lend themselves well to a description of the mosaic-like composition in Le Chinois vert d'Afrique. In other words, the parallel emergence of a multiplicity of story lines results in achronicity or the impossibility of establishing a precise chronological order for narrated events (Bal 42). Sebbar's novel, although its narrative spans three generations, is anything but a developmental account of the creation of Momo's identity.

In fact, so many characters and different points of view are present in Le Chinois vert d'Afrique that it is incorrect to say the novel represents the story of Momo's life. Out of 241 pages of text, almost forty are devoted to the three cops and their investigation, eleven to Kader, Simone, and their son Karim, and four to Myra's music teacher Tina. These characters are accorded a place in the novel although Momo never comes into direct contact with the cops, meets Simone only briefly, and does not even know of Tina. The episodes involving these characters do not serve the purpose of fleshing out the presentation of Momo but exist in their own right, adjacent to the Momo episodes. The closing sentence of the “Tina” episode, in which Tina's relationships with Serge and Fiodor are described, is telling, “Tina ne parlait pas d'elle à Emile Cordier et Myra ne sut jamais rien de la vie amoureuse de Tina” (87). This sentence emphasizes the disjunct quality of the Tina and the Emile Cordier/Myra passages in this section and shows the fabula to be segmented in nature (Bal 24).

If some of the episodes appear as “disjunct harmonies,” others seem to emerge spontaneously, in the “quasi-improvisatory” style of the toccata. For example, at one point, Myra is described as playing the piano (89). She hears flute music through the window and remembers how Moroccan children played the flute while herding sheep. She recalls the time she listened to a young boy playing the flute for an hour until she was interrupted by her mother and grandmother sounding the car horn. The description of Myra's memory of the young flutist seems to emerge spontaneously from the description of her, in the present, listening to the flute music floating in through the window. In a similar way, Momo's memories of the way his mother made stuffed green peppers and of a specific time when he secretly returned home and enjoyed peppers Melissa had cooked emerge as Momo smells green peppers while walking down the street. These memory episodes are characteristic of the novel's improvisatory style and seemingly spontaneous production of narrative. These qualities, along with the achronicity and segmented nature of the fabula, show Sebbar's refusal of a teleological and hierarchical structure for her story.

If the disjunct episodes and improvisatory style of Le Chinois vert d'Afrique can be seen in terms of toccata, the dissemination of its cultural theme can be explained in terms of fugue. Ernest D. May defines fugue as “the most fully developed procedure of imitative counterpoint, in which the theme is stated successively in all voices of the polyphonic structure” (327) and adds that the structure of a fugue has been likened to that of a formal rhetorical discourse, of an argument, or of a debate (327-28). Susan McClary describes the structure of musical narratives in terms of a gendered conflict: “the masculine protagonist makes contact with but must eventually subjugate (domesticate or purge) the designated [feminine] Other in order for identity to be consolidated” (14). McClary adds that the Other need not necessarily be interpreted as female, but could incorporate anything that stands as a threat to identity (16). This addition taken into account, McClary's structural model of musical narrative can be applied to Le Chinois vert d'Afrique where the monocultural characters would function as the masculine protagonist force and the multicultural characters as the Other. The multicultural characters pose a threat to the identity of the monocultural characters precisely because they possess no cultural identity, no cultural oneness.

In Le Chinois vert d'Afrique the theme of cultural multiplicity is most clearly voiced by Momo and is repeatedly imitated or opposed by other characters. The letter of introduction Momo writes to Myra is significant in this regard, in both its form and content:

Je sais ton nom.
Moi, c'est:
Mohamed pour mon père
Mehmet pour ma mère
Madou pour ma sœur Melissa
Hammidou pour ma grand-mère Minh
Momo pour les copains
ou Le Chinois
ou Le Chinois vert d'Afrique


By according a new line to each of his names, Momo not only presents all his cultural ties, but shows them as equally important.2 Even his signature does not favor one culture over another. Momo's identity can best be understood as a composite of discrete cultural particularities, and this composite identity is the main theme of Le Chinois vert d'Afrique.

This theme is repeated by other characters who are croisés, such as Karim and Nadia, Mélissa, Slim, Philippe the technician, Myra, Flora, and others. The composite identity or the multiplicity of cultural ties is explored at length in some instances, and only alluded to in others. For example, Karim's participation in both the Algerian Islamic circumcision ceremony and rural French pig slaughter are shown in detail and as equally important parts of his composite identity. The multiplicitous identity of other characters is only superficially stated, as in the case of Philippe the technician. Philippe meets Momo only briefly and explains that he is Eurasian, of Laotian mother and French father. This short exchange constitutes Philippe's entire role in the novel, yet it is powerful because it echoes the theme of multiplicity of cultural ties.

This theme is also indirectly repeated by monocultural characters who are in cross-cultural marriages, or who are accepting of and interested in people with multicultural ties. Characters such as Minh and Mohammed, Kader and Simone, and Emile Cordier and Marina fall into this first category, while Inspector Laruel and Jean-Luc the bookseller fall into the second. The cross-cultural marriages are generally characterized by an acceptance and even an embracing of the spouse's culture.3 Kader learns to enjoy the pork pâté and rillettes prepared by his wife Simone's mother, and Simone learns to make the chorba almost as well as Arab women. The Vietnamese Minh, even after her Algerian husband dies, remains in his natal village and takes care of his second wife.

The theme of cultural multiplicity, although not represented in such monocultural characters as Jean-Luc the bookseller and Inspector Laruel, is supported by them. These two characters could be viewed as helpers in Bal's terms because they ultimately support Momo in his goal of freedom from his parents, from the police investigators, and from cultural marginalization. Jean-Luc and Momo clearly have different cultural identities, as exemplified by Momo's refusal to take Jean-Luc with him to hear his friend Ali play the flute in cafés. “C'est pas pour toi” (75) explains Momo. However, despite these differences, Jean-Luc proves to be an accepting and generous friend. He allows Momo to trade with his bookstore clients, shares with him his love of Wagnerian opera, and offers his Cambodian friend Norodom a part-time job. Jean-Luc's generosity towards the two boys shows his acceptance of non-French cultures, an acceptance which serves, if not to echo the novel's theme, at least to uphold it.

Inspector Laruel's acceptance of cultural multiplicity is not quite as pervasive as Jean-Luc's, for it emerges gradually throughout the course of the investigation of Momo. At the outset, Laruel is every bit as monoculturally anchored as Bonnin and Mercier. When he cannot put his finger on the cultural identity of the boy, he posits him as exotic or culturally other, calling him an Indian, a Samourai, Bruce Lee, the Savage (16). However, Laruel's desire to classify and categorize, and his subsequent frustration with his inability to do so, is diminished once he recalls his experiences from the Algerian war while looking at Momo's war photographs. From this moment forward, Laruel has an affective tie to Momo and becomes increasingly fascinated with him. “Les enfants français des villes sont insipides, Bonnin, ce petit sauvage m'intéresse” (188) he admits. By the end of the novel, the work of investigating Momo's flight and taking inventory of his possessions has become Laruel's pretext to keep Bonnin and Mercier occupied so that Momo can escape.

Laruel's eventual protection of Momo and Jean-Luc's generosity towards Momo and Norodom show an appreciation of cultural multiplicity that, because of its source in monocultural characters, strengthens the novel's theme of fluid cultural identity. Not all the monocultural characters are as generous. The members of the neighborhood militia and the two cops, Bonnin and Mercier, view children from non-French cultures as subversive and threatening to their idea of French culture. These characters constitute the ethnocentric actant which opposes the multicultural actant discussed thus far. The conflict between the two groups serves to structure the novel as an argument or debate between various voices.

For Bonnin and Mercier, Momo is a bougnoule or a bronzé (43), a voyou who is wasting their time, a crazy kid who keeps changing his name (241). If only they could get their hands on him, they would teach him a lesson and make him pay for the trouble he has caused them. Bonnin and Mercier's desire to catch Momo, to limit his flight, and to beat him up shows their lack of understanding of his cultural difference. They wish to force him to enter into their traditional ethnocentric order where the majority of people resemble each other and those who are different do not cause trouble.

Bonnin and Mercier's view is not to be taken too seriously in this novel, however, for it is exaggerated and stereotypical. Sebbar portrays Bonnin and Mercier as relatively flat characters who act as the classic pair of buffoons. Although Bonnin's character is somewhat more developed than Mercier's, most of the time the two act as if they literally shared a brain between them. When the Inspector examines items they have retrieved from Momo's cabin, Bonnin and Mercier have identical reactions, they are both simultaneously bored, sleepy, hungry, passively silent, and tired. They even think simultaneously when Laruel smells the ink from a bottle confiscated during the investigation, “on dirait qu'il sniffe, pensent ensemble Bonnin et Mercier” (43), or when he decides that Momo must be an Arab, “Bonnin et Mercier avant lui ont pensé: un bougnoule presque en même temps” (43). The comic portrayal of Bonnin and Mercier is further enhanced by their dogged camaraderie in the face of Laruel's demands. In order to inventory the items confiscated from Momo's cabin, they prepare several sheets of typewriter paper with carbons in advance and one resignedly dictates while the other types (144). At the end of the novel, Bonnin reassures his friend Mercier that they will ultimately catch Momo, “te fais pas de bile, Bill, on l'aura” (241). The elements of simultaneous reactions and resigned camaraderie make Bonnin and Mercier into somewhat ridiculous figures. Although their ethnocentric discourse structurally opposes or balances the multicultural discourse of the other actant, it is humorously trivialized by Sebbar so that it cannot equal the opposing discourse in thematic power.

Emile Cordier's concerned neighbors constitute a second group of ethnocentric characters who oppose the multicultural characters. This group of community members, Monsieur André the car mechanic, Louis Petit of the police, Félix Lenoir the railroad worker, and Jean the taxi driver, is headed by the vociferous Tuilier, who was a radio technician in the war of Indochina. Tuilier talks to Emile Cordier of the unsafe nature of French suburbs due to the invasion of young hoodlums from government housing. He thinks that young Arabs are colonizing France and that a neighborhood militia is a necessary and legitimate defence.4 Although he has only briefly seen Momo wandering around the neighborhood and has no substantial rational cause to worry about his presence, Tuilier feels threatened by Momo's racial and cultural identity. He says to Cordier “j'ai juste vu ses cheveux, noirs et frisés […] vous voyez ce que je veux dire” (137) as if Momo's racial “otherness” were reason enough to suspect him of mischief. Tuilier's comment “ce gosse […] a une façon de traîner qui n'est pas très catholique” (169) is filled with irony for it underlines his distrust of Momo as well as the cultural difference between the boy and himself.

The neighborhood militiamen seek to exclude Momo from the community they are trying to keep culturally and racially homogenous. Whereas Momo signified an everyday annoyance and a strange, incomprehensible otherness to Bonnin and Mercier, he represents a threat to the neighborhood militiamen who cannot integrate him into their cultural order. A telling episode occurs when Louis Petit describes the recurring anti-police graffiti around the area: “Les flics sont tous des dèbe” (237). He is outraged at the attack on members of the police force, but perhaps even more so at the spelling mistakes and neologisms. He has no appreciation for the creation of the word dèbe from débile and cannot tolerate the absence of an “s” to make the word plural. In showing that Louis Petit views these as unacceptable deviations from the traditional grammatical order, Sebbar is making a reference to conservative institutions such as l'Académie française which attempt to preserve the perceived purity of French language in the face of the invasion of foreign words. In Le Chinois vert d'Afrique, these linguistic deviations are erased from the walls where they appear, in much the same way as Louis Petit would like to eliminate Momo's deviation from traditional French cultural order.

In this novel, the monocultural voices argue with the multicultural voices as is characteristic of the debate-like quality of a musical fugue. The term fugue has a double significance here because faire la fugue is Momo's main activity. He has left the restrictive shelter of his parents' house to live on his own in the cabanon des jardins, and spends much of his time fleeing the police. Momo's running is presented in a lyrical way in the seven short “Il court” sections that punctuate the novel. If the back and forth dialogue of the various monocultural and multicultural voices imitates the repetitive and responsive nature of musical fugue, the recurring “Il court” fragments can be viewed as a leitmotif. This comparison is particularly apt in light of the fact that the term leitmotif is most often used in connection with Wagner's works (Greenspan 443) and that Wagnerian opera figures prominently in Le Chinois vert d'Afrique as a deep interest for Jean-Luc, and subsequently, for Momo.

Wagnerian leitmotifs combine the compositional techniques of thematic recollection with thematic transformation (Greenspan 443-44). In Le Chinois vert d'Afrique, the “Il court” fragments function as lyrical reiterations of the novel's most important action, but do not announce a transformation because the movement of this action is circular rather than developmental. In the first fragment, the narrator stresses “il n'a pas l'air de quelqu'un qui se sauve” (9) and in subsequent fragments alludes to the time when “il” will return. If these fragments recall Momo's very real flight to escape the police, they also work on a figurative level as a more positive emblem of his identity.5

The boy in the “Il court” sections runs so gracefully and instinctively that onlookers step aside so as not to disturb his rhythm. He does not look back, does not run out of breath, and stops only briefly to pick up a piece of bread on the side of the road or to write a quick note to Myra. “Il court, souple. Souverain” (47) says the narrator. The word souverain is significant, for it shows the power inherent in Momo's desire for and successful possession of autonomy. Against all the forces that try to limit him physically or marginalize him culturally, Momo is victorious. He refuses to be caught and he defies categorization, all the while affirming his composite multicultural identity through constant movement and contact with people from a variety of cultural backgrounds.

The musical concepts of leitmotif, toccata, and fugue work well as models with which to examine the structure of Le Chinois vert d'Afrique. Many of the novel's episodes emerge spontaneously, as in the improvisatory style of the toccata. The theme of cultural multiplicity is one that is alternately affirmed by multicultural voices, opposed by monocultural voices, and reaffirmed by certain other monocultural voices. The successive imitation of and response to the statement of the multicultural theme recalls the conversational or debate-like nature of fugue. The “Il court” fragments reiterate the main action of the novel, in the manner of a leitmotif, and pull a thread of continuity and profound lyricism through the collection of episodes. On the whole the narrative fragments balance each other to form an intricate composition which supports Sebbar's theme and ideal of the coexistence of cultural particularities in a multicultural world.


  1. In Lettres parisiennes, Leïla Sebbar says of children of immigrant parents living in France: “je les voudrais inassimilés, singuliers et violents, forts de leurs particularismes et de leur capacité de saisir la modernité” (60).

  2. This parataxis of identities recalls Kristeva's description of the necessary alternation or juxtaposition of cultural identities in present-day France.

  3. It is important to note that even in the less durable or unified cross-cultural marriages, it is not specifically the spouses' difference of cultures that causes them to part, but rather life-style differences or work constraints.

  4. Jean the taxi driver goes a step further, describing the situation as he sees it as being gnawed away by rats.

  5. In an interview with Monique Hugon, Leïla Sebbar explains that faire la fugue is not only a running away from a limiting environment, but also a running towards new encounters: “ce n'est pas un hasard si tous les héros que je choisis et que j'aime sont des fugueurs; ‘fuguer,’ cela veut dire sortir du ghetto, cela veut dire ‘rencontrer,’ souvent dans des situations de conflit; mais ces situations de conflit sont aussi porteuses d'autre chose, elles ne sont pas seulement destructrices” (37).

Works Cited

Bal, Mieke. Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative. Trans. Christine van Boheemen. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1985.

Greenspan, Charlotte. “Leitmotif.” The New Harvard Dictionary of Music. Ed. Don Michael Randel. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1986.

Hugon, Monique. “Leïla Sebbar ou l'exil productif.” Propos recueillis. Notre Librairie 84 (1986): 32-37.

Huston, Nancy, and Leïla Sebbar. Lettres parisiennes: autopsie de l'exil. Paris: Barrault, 1986.

Kristeva, Julia. Etrangers à nous-mêmes. Paris: Fayard, 1988.

May, Ernest D. “Fugue.” The New Harvard Dictionary of Music. Ed. Don Michael Randel. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1986.

McClary, Susan. Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality. Minnesota: U of Minnesota P, 1991.

Ness, Arthur J. “Toccata.” The New Harvard Dictionary of Music. Ed. Don Michael Randel. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1986.

Sebbar, Leïla. Le Chinois vert d'Afrique. Paris: Stock, 1984.

Yaguello, Marina. Alice au pays du langage. Paris: Seuil, 1981.

Deborah Bowen (essay date July 1997)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4897

SOURCE: Bowen, Deborah. “Spaces of Translation: Bharati Mukherjee's ‘The Management of Grief.’” ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature 28, no. 3 (July 1997): 48-60.

[In the following essay, Bowen evaluates how the protagonist of Bharati Mukherjee's short story “The Management of Grief” functions as a bridge between Indian and Canadian society by employing a new language of hybridity that takes into account universal human emotions.]

The word “translation” comes, etymologically, from the Latin for “bearing across.” Having been borne across the world, we are translated men. It is normally supposed that something always gets lost in translation; I cling, obstinately, to the notion that something can also be gained.

Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands

In the final article of the special January 1995 issue of PMLA on “Colonialism and the Postcolonial Condition,” Satya Mohanty observes that “vital cross-cultural interchange depends on the belief that we share a ‘world’ (no matter how partially) with the other culture, a world whose causal relevance is not purely intracultural” (114). There are occasions on which such a shared world is traumatically imposed upon diverse groups of people. If ever there were an occasion for a human compassion that transcends boundaries of race and culture in the need for vital cross-cultural interchange, the Air India crash of 1985 surely must have been it—an occasion when the attempt to be “borne across” the world was itself “translated” in a particularly macabre way. During the spring and summer of 1995, the anniversary of this disaster brought it back into the Canadian news, specifically because the belief that “its causal relevance [was] not purely intracultural” had led some people to continue to fight for a Royal Commission of Inquiry into an unresolved crime.

The initial tragedy of the plane's destruction was, in the eyes of many, compounded by the fact that the Canadian government treated the event precisely as an Indian intracultural tragedy, not immediately relevant to the ordinary Canadian citizen. Bharati Mukherjee and her husband Clarke Blaise published a book about the disaster in 1987. They pointed out that over 90٪ of the passengers on the plane were Canadian citizens. They described the disaster as, politically, an “unhoused” tragedy, in that Canada wanted to see it as an Indian event, and India wanted to see it as an “overseas incident” that would not train an international spotlight on the escalated Sikh-Hindu conflicts in India (ix). In the last sentence of that book, The Sorrow and the Terror, one of the bereaved requests, “Mr. Clarke and Mrs. Mukherjee, tell the world how 329 innocent lives were lost and how the rest of us are slowly dying” (219). Blaise and Mukherjee declare in their introduction that in researching the book they spoke with a wide range of people directly and indirectly involved with the tragedy; “mainly, however, we have visited the bereaved families and tried to see the disaster through their eyes” (xii). It was perhaps in order to manage the grief involved in such seeing that Mukherjee found it necessary to write not just. The Sorrow and the Terror but also the short story “The Management of Grief,” which appears in her 1988 collection The Middleman.

It is a story about the effects of the Air India disaster on Toronto's Indian community and specifically on the central character and narrator, Mrs. Shaila Bhave, who loses her husband and her two sons in the crash. Because she is rendered preternaturally calm by the shock, she is perceived by the government social worker, Judith Templeton, as “coping very well,” and as “a pillar” of strength, who may be able to help as an intermediary—or, in official Ontario Ministry of Citizenship terms, a “cultural interpreter” (Cairncross vii)—between the bereaved immigrant communities and the social service agencies, though of course she has had no training. Shaila wants to say to Judith but does not, “I wish I could scream, starve, walk into Lake Ontario, jump from a bridge.” She tells us, “I am a freak. … This terrible calm will not go away” (183). In fact, then, the “pillar” and the “temple” are both unstable; figured as tottering buildings in a collapsing of hierarchy, both women are initially beyond knowing what to do. Death is the great leveller, even of the social worker's neocolonial benevolence. “I have no experience with a tragedy of this scale,” says Judith; and Shaila interjects, “Who could?” When Judith suggests that Shaila's apparent strength may be of practical help to others who are hysterical, Shaila responds, “By the standards of the people you call hysterical, I am behaving very oddly and very badly, Miss Templeton. … They would not see me as a model. I do not see myself as a model.” Instead, she says, “Nothing I can do will make any difference. … We must all grieve in our own way” (183).

Judith is caught between worlds; she does not know how to translate the grief she shares with Shaila and the Indian community into cultural specifics that will be acceptable to both Indian and Western modes of thought. Shaila is initially caught, too, between different impulses coming from different cultural models which she has internalized within herself. The question of how to effect moral agency while practising the acceptance of difference is in both instances a tricky one. Satya Mohanty addresses the question of the immobilizing effects of difference by proposing a revisionary universalist perspective. “Given the relativist view of pure difference, difference can never represent genuine cross-cultural disagreement about the way the world is or about the right course of action in a particular situation” because cultures are seen as “equal but irredeemably separate” (112). Edward Said had already taken an overtly polemical stance against such separateness, at the end of Culture and Imperialism:

No one today is purely one thing. … No one can deny the persisting continuities of long traditions, sustained habitations, national languages, and cultural geographies, but there seems no reason except fear and prejudice to keep insisting on their separation and distinctiveness, as if that was all human life was about. Survival in fact is about the connections between things.


But the practical question remains intransigent: how are such connections to be made?

Mohanty argues that “[g]enuine respect depends on a judgment based on understanding, arrived at through difficult epistemic and ethical negotiations”; otherwise, “the ascription of value (and of equality among cultures) is either meaningless or patronizing” (113). Mohanty proposes what he calls a “post-positivist ‘realism’” (115) of socially negotiated knowledge, undergirded by a moral universalism: “Perhaps the most powerful modern philosophical ally of modern anticolonial struggles of all kinds is this universalist view that individual human worth is absolute; it cannot be traded away, and it does not exist in degrees.” Such a universalist claim concerns a basic capacity for agency shared by all humans; it invites cultural articularization but does not depend upon it for support of the underlying claim, and thus provides “the strongest basis for the multiculturalist belief that other cultures need to be approached with the presumption of equal worth” (116). Perhaps this is not to say more than Gayatri Spivak, quoting Derrida—“there are no rules but the old rules” (Critic 22). But then, perhaps this is to say something quite momentous. Universalism has had a bad press, associated as it has been with a manipulative essentialism and the blindnesses of liberal humanism to inherent racism, sexism, paternalism, phallocentrism, Eurocentrism, and all those other distressing -isms from which we in the late-twentieth-century West are anxious to dissociate ourselves. But perhaps a universalist ethic always already underlies much of our ism-rejection: on what other basis do we respect difference? On what other basis do we assume worth?

In Mukherjee's story, the assumption of moral universalism is a necessary precursor to the problems of negotiating social knowledge. Judith wants to help exactly because she is presuming the equal human worth of the Indian bereaved. But Mukherjee addresses questions of cultural particularization head-on by showing how inadequately translatable are institutionalized expressions of concern: as Judith says to Shaila when she is trying to persuade her to help, “We have interpreters, but we don't always have the human touch, or maybe the right human touch” (183). This distinction between “the human touch” and “the right human touch” is crucial: one is universal, the other particular. The grief is transcultural; the management of grief is not. Thus it is that grief shared rather than managed may have more chance of adequate translation.

Here is how the issue could be formulated: a shared world: the trauma of violent death; a universal: the experience of grief; a cultural, even intracultural particularization: grief “in our own way.” For the bereaved relatives in Mukherjee's story, this grief is figured as “a long trip that we must all take” (184). The story enacts a kind of diaspora through death, a doubling of cultural displacement for those immigrants whose chosen initial passage was to Canada, and who must now embark on a voyage out grimly parodic of those earlier “civilizing missions” of the colonizers, journeying first to Ireland, to identify the wreckage from the ocean, then to Bombay, to mourn and reassess in the mother-country, and thence back to step-mother Canada, to find another new identity.

Both in Mukherjee's story and in the non-fiction account of the tragedy, the people most able to connect viscerally with the grief of the bereaved are the Irish, off whose shores the plane went down. They have the quintessentially “human touch.” They weep with the bereaved; strangers hug strangers in the street; once one mourner has picked flowers from a local garden to strew on the ocean, a newspaper article asks residents to please give flowers to any Indian person they meet. All this really happened. Such transcultural expressions of empathetic connectedness, however impractical, construct an equal and opposite subjectivity; even the difference between the Eastern mode of management, the “duty to hope” (186), and the Western, the spelling out of grim knowledge and the request to “try to adjust your memories” (188), is rendered tolerable by grief so obviously felt and shared and by a compassionate regard for the privacy of pain. In fact Blaise and Mukherjee suggest in The Sorrow and the Terror that there may also have been a kind of cultural knowledge at work here, in that the Irish, as a chronically subalternized people who have firsthand experience of terrorism, may have been particularly sensitive to a tragedy like the Air India disaster.

The practical distinction between universal human emotions and their particular cultural manifestations seems to be one that a writer like Neil Bissoondath does not clearly draw, when he declares that “Culture, in its essentials, is about human values, and human values are exclusive to no race” (71). The visceral connection made between the Irish and the Indians would seem to support Bissoondath's view. But Mukherjee does not allow the reader to be lulled into sentimentality by such a connection: she presents the reader also with the dissonance between Shaila and Judith. More useful here is Homi Bhabha's distinction between “the semblance and similitude of the symbols across diverse cultural experiences,” including death, and “the social specificity of each of these productions of meaning” (Location 172). In Shaila and Judith, Mukherjee figures the problems of this social specificity: how does one translate even shared grief into practical action? What is more, this is a story in which the characters are not merely “shuttling between the old and the new world,” as Mukherjee has remarked of her characters elsewhere (“Melting Pot” 28). She does not allow the reader a straightforward binarism between Shaila and Judith; here there are also differences within the “old” culture—differences of sensibility and differences between different generations and belief-systems.

Shared ethnicity is in itself no guarantee of the presence of “the right human touch.” In the story, the customs officer at Bombay airport, who is presumably Indian, is as obnoxious an example of petty officialdom as one might hope to avoid, and unlike Judith he is therefore treated to vociferous anger from Shaila. Even though “[o]nce upon a time we were well brought up women; we were dutiful wives who kept our heads veiled, our voices shy and sweet” (189), the universal human experience of grief can be so extreme as to free such a woman from the patriarchal customs of her culture into the beginnings of an effective moral agency. The women get the coffins through the customs, despite the official's officiousness. That is, grief neither shared nor decorously managed may itself translate into a power of cultural resistance.

Moreover, when Shaila finds herself “shuttling” between Indian and Western modes of managing grief, the sense of being “trapped between two modes of knowledge” (189) is not unlike what she had experienced within her Indian upbringing, which had pitted the irrational faith of her grandmother against the no-nonsense rationalism of her mother. In Bombay after the rituals of death are over, Shaila struggles: “At thirty-six, I am too old to start over and too young to give up. Like my husband's spirit, I flutter between worlds” (189). Shaila's response at this point is to make her journey one of “courting aphasia”—dancing, riding, playing bridge (190). She is in any case paradoxically “luckier” than some: because the bodies of her family did not surface from the wreckage, she is marked as unlucky, and therefore does not have parents arranging a new husband for her. In a wry reversal of patriarchal oppression, she has widowers, “substantial, educated, successful men of forty,” phoning her and saying, “Save me. … My parents are arranging a marriage for me.” Most will succumb, because “they cannot resist the call of custom” that decrees it is “the duty of a man to look after a wife” (190). But Shaila returns to Canada alone: in the end, she is saved by faith—by visions and voices, by the irrational world of temple holy men and prophetic dreams.

“[O]n the third day of the sixth month into [her] odyssey, in an abandoned temple in a tiny Himalayan village,” her husband appears to her and tells her two things: “You're beautiful,” and “You must finish alone what we started together” (190). Like other travellers, Shaila returns to her starting-place “translated” in more than physical being: she returns to Canada with “something … gained”—with a personal affirmation and a mission. It is through the universalizing power of grief that she experiences metaphysical intervention and the freedom to choose even between different Indian behaviors within her own cultural background. Thus in her translating and her translation, the narrator not only experiences the aporias inherent in attempts to communicate between cultures; she also recognizes the gaps in her own cultural constructedness. These gaps are traversed most powerfully in the story not by Mohanty's cognitive negotiations—Judith trying so hard to understand—but by the metaphysical “translations” of mystical experience: the voices and forms of the longed-for dead who comfort the living and direct them through their grief. This unapologetic introduction of the metaphysical is of course, on Mukherjee's part, in itself a “writing back” to the poststructuralist theorists of the West. Back in Canada, Shaila is surrounded by the spirits of her deceased family who, “like creatures in epics,” have changed shapes and whose presence brings her both peace and rapture. But what is the shape of her mission?

Initially on her return she gets involved in trying to help Judith help the bereaved. She realizes that she has become Judith's confidante. As Judith's management skills lead her to compile lists of courses on bereavement, charts of how the relatives are progressing through the textbook stages of grief, lists of “cultural societies that need our help,” Shaila tells her politely that she “has done impressive work” (192). She goes with Judith to translate for her to an elderly Sikh couple who had been brought to Canada two weeks before their sons were killed in the crash, and who refuse to sign any of the papers which would secure them money, lodging, and utilities, because they are afraid, and proud. The interchange is laced with the ironies of half-translation, mistranslation, and non-translation. Because Shaila is Hindu and the couple are Sikh (something she, though not Judith, has recognized from their name), there are already unspoken stresses. Shaila stiffens involuntarily, and remembers “a time when we all trusted each other in this new country, it was only the new country we worried about” (193). In Toronto as in India, Mukherjee explores the doublenesses and duplicities of intracultural differences. The Indian characters in Canada are united by their grief at the very moment that they are also divided by their fear and suspicion of those supposedly of their community who have caused that grief: Sikh extremists were likely responsible for the bombing. It is only when Shaila identifies herself to the Sikh couple as another of the bereaved, and not merely a translator, that real communication begins between them. The common reference provides a shared world; nevertheless, the cultural particularizations erect barriers, and those separating Judith from the Sikh couple are all but insuperable, because her neo-colonial expressions of concern inadvertently enact a recolonization. Shaila is drawn more to the Sikh couple's obstinate and impractical hopefulness than to Judith's anxious and bureaucratic goodwill. After all, Shaila too has lost sons. After all, the Sikh couple too are managing their grief.

The scene is interwoven with Shaila's awareness of the difficulties of translation: “How do I tell Judith Templeton?” “I cannot tell her”; “I want to add”; “I wonder”; “I want to say”; “I try to explain.” But in the end, reading without words the elderly Sikh couple's stubborn dignity, their determination to fulfil their cultural duty to hope, she asks to be let out of Judith's car on the way to the next appointment. Judith asks, “‘Is there anything I said? Anything I did?’ I could answer her suddenly in a dozen ways, but I choose not to. ‘Shaila? Let's talk about it,’ I hear, then slam the door” (195). Words will not do. Words cannot enable the Sikh couple to appreciate Judith's concern; words here can construct only a kind of cultural enmeshment, Judith's mode of managing grief. Mukherjee seems in this moment of decisive action to be making an equal and opposite point to that of Gayatri Spivak when she writes, “If the subaltern can speak, then, thank God, the subaltern is not a subaltern any more” (Critic 158). Sometimes silence itself may be a choice, against both subalternity and forced assimilation, a kind of “claiming ownership of one's freed self,” as Mohanty puts it (116). Hybridity is not of itself necessarily productive: Ella Shohat has distinguished between the hybridities of forced assimilation, internalized self-rejection, political co-operation, and social conformism, as well as creative transcendence (110). If, to use E. D. Blodgett's formulation, we posit translation as a threshhold, a kind of “ur-language” or “language” that is between languages, preventing assimilation while allowing for interpretation, then Shaila lives on this threshhold in her dealings both with Judith and with the Sikh couple; and it is her choice to translate into silence.

In fact, the relationship to one's own language is also problematized in this story. One of Shaila's first responses to news of her husband's death is to lament that “I never once told him that I loved him” because she was so “well brought up.” Her bereaved friend Kusum says, “It's all right. He knew. My husband knew. They felt it. Modern young girls have to say it because what they feel is fake” (181). This distinction between words and feelings reinforces the notion of a prelinguistic realm of universal capacities. But later in Ireland Shaila lets drift on the water a poem she has written for her husband: “Finally he'll know my feelings for him” (187). Not that her feelings are fake; rather that words are a survival technique, a management tool for her, just as, at the beginning of the story, the woman who got the first news of the crash must tell her story “again and again” (180). After the second diaspora and return, Dr. Ranganathan, alone in Montreal, having lost his whole huge family, calls Shaila twice a week as one of his new relatives: “We've been melted down and recast as a new tribe” in which “[t]alk is all we have” (191). Eventually he accepts “an academic position in Texas where no one knows his story and he has vowed not to tell it. He calls me now,” says Shaila, “once a week” (196). Inside the tribe, he chooses speech, outside, silence; each is a means of survival, a mode of agency.

At the end of the story, Shaila's voyage is still incomplete. She accepts the mission to “go, be brave,” received through the final message of the other-worldly voices of her dead family; she “drop[s] [her] package on a park bench and start[s] walking”; but she tells us that “I do not know where this voyage I have begun will end. I do not know which direction I will take” (197). The story is encircled in unknowing: it opens, “A woman I don't know is boiling tea the Indian way in my kitchen. There are a lot of women I don't know in my kitchen, whispering, and moving tactfully” (179). Where that first unknowing conveyed shock and repressed hysteria, the last unknowing figures acceptance and reconstruction, another journey, willingly undertaken beyond the pages of the story. Acceptance and reconstruction: Judith would recognize these words, the last two stages of her textbook description of the management of grief. She might not, however, recognize their manifestation in Shaila, who hears voices, who drops packages, for whom grief is ultimately managed more through metaphysical translations than physical ones. True, she has sold her pink house for four times what she and her husband had paid for it; she has taken a small apartment downtown; she has plenty of money from her husband's careful investments; she is even looking for a charity to support. In Western terms, it seems that she has managed her grief very well. But this alone would be what Bhabha calls colonial mimicry (Location 89); it is not where the story ends.

Grief must in the end also manage Shaila—almost, stage-manage her. If grief shared rather than managed is the most effectively translated, it is perhaps appropriate to point to the doubleness of Mukherjee's title. “The Management of Grief” can mean “how people manage grief,” or “how grief manages people”—in other words, “grief” in this phrase can be understood as grammatical object or subject of the action of managing. Moreover, the phrase can be read as what Roland Barthes calls a “structure of jointed predication” (qtd. in Location 180) in which the translator figures as the fulcrum, the pre(and post) position “of.” This little word itself contains and signifies the space of translation, whose function is to hold substantive concepts together, a liminal space, an almost unnoticed minimal word signifying possession—in this case, possession of the ability to construct the self.

Thus when Shaila hears the voices of her family giving her her mission, “I dropped the package on a park bench and started walking” (197). Interpreting for propositional meaning, a reader might wonder if she is going mad. If so, what happens now? Does she get home for supper? If not, who finds her? Looking for symbolic meaning, a reader might think that it is now that the most personal journey begins, in privacy and solitude. But a postcolonial reading is likely to note the performative structure of the text (Bhabha, Location 181), and to recognize the tension between these two interpretations—the cognitive and the phantasmatic, the rational and the intuitive—as precisely that experienced both interculturally and intraculturally by Shaila as translator throughout the story. We know that she got back to her apartment: the story is composed in such a way that she is telling us about the final moment of insight a week after it happened. She is herself the fulcrum, the translator and the translation, undoing the traditional oppositions between West and East, reason and faith, physical and metaphysical. She is settled in a good apartment, and she walks off the page. Nor is this merely a West-East difference of response: Shaila's mother and grandmother themselves represented this same difference. Shaila is a figure for productive cultural hybridity. Standing on the translator's threshhold, looking in both directions, she comes to possess the power to understand her liminality as itself a space for “effective (moral) agency” (Mohanty 116).

The phrase “space of translation” is Bhabha's: in discussing the language of critique, he suggests that such language is effective

to the extent to which it overcomes the given grounds of opposition and opens up a space of “translation”: a place of hybridity, figuratively speaking, where the construction of a political object that is new, neither the one nor the other, properly alienates our political expectations, and changes, as it must, the very forms of our recognition of the “moment” of politics.

(Commitment 117)

In Mukherjee's story, Shaila journeys into figuring just such a language of critique, just such a place of hybridity, and she stands at a new and unexpected political “moment”: the immigrant translator who learns how to be translated, how to inhabit the productivity of the threshhold. The package that she drops stands synechdochally for the weight both of her grief and of her translator's role. Having journeyed thus far in her odyssey, she leaves behind the weight of translating as she steps beyond the narrative into her own translation: she “started walking.” In moving from translator to translation she breaks open the management of grief, each part of the substantive proposition falling away from her because the preposition has taken upon itself its own self-possession. Through this figure, Mukherjee suggests that, despite the cultural misunderstandings inescapably exposed in a transcultural tragedy, the experience of being “borne across”—or through—grief itself opens up a space of translation in which, as Salman Rushdie hopes, “something can also be gained” (17): Shaila deconstructs apparently opposing modes of knowledge into a productive hybridity without denying either of them. Shaila thus becomes in herself an embodiment of Mohanty's “understanding, arrived at through difficult epistemic and ethical negotiations” (113). No longer “fluttering between worlds,” Shaila reinscribes herself through self-translation, and possesses her own space beyond the page, outside the sentence, a space of moral agency where the place of both words and silences is a chosen one.

Mukherjee has written of “colonial writers” like herself that “[h]istory forced us to see ourselves as both the ‘we’ and the ‘other,’” and that this kind of training has enabled her to inhabit a “fluid set of identities denied to most of my mainstream American counterparts” (“Maximalists” 28). In a similar way, she chooses to write of immigrant characters for whom re-location is a positive act requiring “transformations of the self” (Hancock 44, 39). This story suggests that such an embracing of hybridity can actually be empowered by the experience of grief, because grief first exposes an inner world irrevocably divided and estranged by loss, a world from which there is no turning away, and then acts as a form of energy to enable the dislocated mourner in the task of management, reconstruction, and translation into acceptance. In writing out of the political and personal tragedy of the Air India crash, Mukherjee achieves a particularly fine figuring-forth of such transforming hybridity; I would argue that this is because the universal nature of grief is a powerful if complex force for change, cultural resistance, and moral choice. It is partly because such transcultural grief is still at work that two years ago a million dollar reward was offered by the RCMP for information leading to the prosecution of the six prime suspects in “the worst terrorist act involving Canadians” (Canadian Press, “RCMP Offers”). Indeed there are many mourners who hold to the strong hope that their grief may yet translate into a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Air India crash, even though it is more than a decade after the fact.

Works Cited

Bhabha, Homi. “The Commitment to Theory.” Questions of Third Cinema. Ed. Jim Pines and Paul Willemen. London: BFI Publishing, 1989. 111-32.

———. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994.

Bissoondath, Neil. Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada. Toronto: Penguin, 1994.

Blaise, Clark, and Bharati Mukherjee. The Sorrow and the Terror: The Haunting Legacy of the Air India Tragedy. Markham: Viking Penguin: 1987.

Blodgett, E. D. “How Do You Say ‘Gabrielle Roy’?” Translation in Canadian Literature: Symposium 1982. Ed. Camille La Bossière. Ottawa: U of Ottawa P, 1983. 13-34.

Cairncross, Larissa. Cultural Interpreter Training Manual. Toronto: Ontario Ministry of Citizenship, 1989.

Canadian Press (Vancouver). “RCMP Offers $1M Reward to Crack Air India Case.” The Ottawa Citizen 1 June 1995: A3.

Mohanty, Satya. “Colonial Legacies, Multicultural Futures: Relativism, Objectivity, and the Challenge of Otherness.” PMLA 110.1 (1995): 108-18.

Mukherjee, Bharati. “Immigrant Writing: Give Us Your Maximalists!” New York Times Review of Books 27 Aug. 1988: 7:1, 28.

———. Interview with Geoff Hancock. Canadian Fiction Magazine 59 (1987): 30-44.

———. “The Management of Grief.” The Middleman and Other Stories. New York: Grove, 1988. 179-97.

———. “The Melting-Pot Lady.” Interview with Joel Yanofsky. Books in Canada 19.1 (1990): 25-8.

Rushdie, Salman. Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism, 1981-1991. London: Granta, 1991.

Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Knopf, 1993.

———. “The Politics of Knowledge.” Falling into Theory: Conflicting Views on Reading Literature. Ed. David H. Richter. Boston: Bedford, 1994. 193-203.

Shohat, Ella. “Notes on the ‘Post-Colonial.’” Social Text 31-32 (1992): 99-113.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. The Post-Colonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues. Ed. Sarah Harasym. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Theresa M. Kanoza (essay date summer 1999)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5599

SOURCE: Kanoza, Theresa M. “The Golden Carp and Moby Dick: Rudolfo Anaya's Multi-Culturalism.” MELUS 24, no. 2 (summer 1999): 159-71.

[In the following essay, Kanoza identifies parallels between Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima and Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, arguing that Anaya's multicultural style embraces Indian myth, biblical references, and echoes from the traditional literary canon.]

In Bless Me, Ultima, Rudolfo Anaya presents a world of opposites in the New Mexican village of Guadalupe. The parents of the young protagonist Antonio have strikingly different temperaments, as dissimilar to each other as the backgrounds from which they hail. Maria Luna Marez, the pious daughter of Catholic farmers from the fertile El Puerto valley, steers her son toward the priesthood and a ministry in an agrarian settlement. Gabriel Marez, Antonio's adventurous father, is descended from a long line of nomadic horsemen; he expects his son to share his wanderlust, and he hopes that as compadres they will explore the vanishing llano (plains). The thrust of Anaya's bildungsroman, however, is not that maturation necessitates exclusionary choices between competing options, but that wisdom and experience allow one to look beyond difference to behold unity.

Historic continuity and spiritual harmony are recurrent strains in much of Anaya's work as he often laments man's weakened connection to the earth, to the past, and to the myths that reveal the proper balance of the cosmos. In “The Myth of Quetzalcoatl,” Anaya criticizes the heavy toll which economic and political realities exact from the fragile landscape of the Southwest and its ancient cultures, but, a conciliator, he also cites some merit in change. Rather than condemning or shunning innovation, as do many who, like Anaya, want to protect an endangered heritage, he advocates a measured application of modernization. “Technology may serve people,” he reminds those whom he claims are wont to retrench in the old ways, but “it need not be the new god” (198). Likewise, informed engagement in the legislative process, a political reality of the here-and-now, can serve the cause of preserving the landscape and the cultures it sustains. Anaya urges that just as the present can safeguard the past, historical awareness can “shed light on our contemporary problems” (198). He reaches back through the centuries to the Toltec civilization of Tula to bring instructive parallels to bear on current rapacious materialism in the United States (199). As a writer, Anaya practices the rich admixing across time and space that he preaches, for his novels of the American Southwest blend diverse cultural strains. In Bless Me, Ultima he draws deeply on Native American mythology and Mexican Catholicism,1 and, though the novel is written in conventional English that the protagonist deems a “foreign tongue” (53), the prose is to be read as a translation of the Spanish which most characters speak. When his characters use English, they typically engage in code-switching.2

Bless Me, Ultima has earned acclaim for its “cultural uniqueness” and is lauded for such distinctive Chicano features as its use of Aztec myth and symbol, its thematic emphasis on family structures, and its linguistic survivals. Furthermore, Anaya is renowned as one of the “Big Three” of the Chicano canon, alongside Tomás Rivera and Rolando Hinojosa (Sommers 146-47). Set in a sacred place imbued with a spiritual presence and long inhabited by indigenous peoples, his book presents a world where the Anglo is of little consequence to its strong Chicano characters.3

Yet this highly celebrated ethnic novel also reveals the strong imprint of Anglo-American belles-lettres. Many critics observe Anaya's reliance upon James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to relate the anguished rites of passage of his own protagonist.4 Both Antonio Marez and Stephen Dedalus ask bold questions about the nature of good and evil as they examine their roles within the families and Church that circumscribe their lives. William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Katherine Anne Porter, among others, have also been cited as literary influences on Anaya.5 But in a novel that uncovers shared tenets among seemingly discordant worldviews by an author who prizes cross-cultural connections, Anaya goes even further afield in choosing his literary models. Bless Me, Ultima, lauded as a masterpiece of the margins, also evokes that text which is most often cited as the epitome of the white, northeastern literary paradigm—Herman Melville's Moby-Dick.6 Both novels tap into biblical and mythological archetypes as their main characters plumb the mysteries of creation. In their quests for experience, knowledge, and mastery, the protagonists in each book break religious taboos and push the limits of human awareness as they try to fathom the unknowable mind of God. In fact, both novels have drawn similar criticism for their weighty, abstract subject matter and for their individualist rather than social focus.7

But to detect a Melvillian influence in Bless Me, Ultima is not to charge Anaya with being derivative, nor is it a back-handed attempt to “prove” the universality of the traditional canon by asserting that it presciently accommodates the Chicano experience. For in many ways, Anaya's book testifies to the triumph of the Chicano cosmology. As presented by Melville, the negative romantic and “sick soul,”8 the world is a place of horror and despair; Anaya, revealing his Jungian bent as he taps into the collective unconscious, finds vigor, beauty, and order there.9 Indeed, Anaya's text reads as though he, along with Ishmael, has survived the wreck of the Pequod but that he has lived to articulate the harmonies of the universe which Melville's sailors could not recognize. In Bless Me, Ultima, Anaya reconciles into a unified whole the dichotomies which loom chaotic and rend the cosmos in Moby-Dick.

Both Melville's Ishmael and Antonio Marez, the schoolboy protagonist of Bless Me, Ultima, are novices. Generally untrained in the ways of whaling, Ishmael proves to be a quick study after signing on as a deckhand aboard the Pequod. He is ostensibly in pursuit of whales and then more specifically the whale, after Ahab commandeers the crew to his own vengeful mission. But more significantly Ishmael pursues experience and wisdom, goals which make him a milder version of the blasphemous Ahab, who lashes out at the God-head to avenge his own human limitations. Antonio, also seeking to understand the complexity of life, tracks a fish of his own, the legendary golden carp, the avatar of an Aztec nature-god.10 By sighting the river-god which swims the waters that surround Antonio's village and by pondering its history of sacrifice for the salvation of others, Antonio hopes to learn the secrets of the universe. His journey into paganism is an exhilarating quest but one which induces guilt and anxiety as he breaks the first commandment of his Christian faith.

Guadalupe, an isolated village that is set apart from the greater New Mexican landmass by a river which encircles it, is at once as insular and internally diverse as the Pequod, the island-ship which sails the world's oceans. Melville's sailors represent widely differing nationalities and religious beliefs: Ahab is a Quaker-turned-atheist, and Ishmael a Presbyterian; the harpooners are described as heathens, Queequeg as a Polynesian idolater and cannibal, Daggoo as a “gigantic, coal-black negro-savage,” and Tashtego an “unmixed Indian” (107). Of Ahab's secret East Indian crew, Fedallah, a Parsee, is a fire-worshiper. Although not as wildly diverse, a varied constituency also comprises Antonio's world. Besides the stark differences in the mores and temperaments of the peaceful farmers who are his maternal relatives and his raucous, rootless paternal uncles who ride the llano, Antonio finds sharp contrasts among his friends. Catholic and Protestant classmates taunt each in the schoolyard about their conflicting beliefs of heaven and hell, while those secretly faithful to the cult of the golden carp, such as Cico, Samuel, and Jason, are contemptuous of these arcane concerns. Children of no particular religious persuasion, some of whom are eerily animal-like in appearance and endowed with preternatural strength and speed, watch the squabbles in amusement. All are terrified by the three Trementina sisters, who are legendary for practicing black magic.

Both Melville and Anaya ascribe a mystical, seductive beauty to the natural world—or more specifically to bodies of water—for, as Ishmael explains, “meditation and water are wedded for ever” (13). In “Loomings,” the first chapter of Moby-Dick, Ishmael describes the magnetic pull of the ocean. Seeking a spiritual sustenance not found in the commerce that occupies them during the workweek, “crowds of water-gazers” gather at the wharfs during their leisure. Ishmael pronounces these “thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries” (12) to be narcissists, for they seek in their reflections thrown back by the mirror-like “rivers and oceans … the ungraspable phantom of life … the key to it all” (14). Ishmael, of course, is no exception to these questers. Hoping to learn the secrets of the “wonder-world,” he says he is drawn to the whaling voyage by “a portentous and mysterious monster [that] raised all my curiosity” (16).

Later in “The Mast-Head” when Ishmael is assigned watch high above the ship's deck, he experiences the dangerous allure of pantheism. As a meditative man surrounded by the glory of the universe, he fears he could lose himself both literally and figuratively in the beauty of nature.

Lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie is this absent-minded youth by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts, that at last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature; and every … undiscernible form, seems to him the embodiment of those elusive thoughts that only people the soul by continually flitting through it. In this enchanted mood, the spirit ebbs away to whence it came; becomes diffused through time and space. …


To yield rationality to revery, Ishmael cautions, is to lose one's footing and plummet to the sea; to merge with the natural world is to surrender one's distinct identity. He concludes his warning with the stern note, “heed it well, ye Pantheists” (140), and Melville proves that it is advice best followed. In “The Life-Buoy,” a subsequent chapter, a crew member who passes into a “transitional state” while posting lookout from the crow's nest falls to his death in the sea.

A pantheistic-like spirituality is an equally strong contender for the religious affections of the soul-searchers in Bless Me, Ultima. Anaya handily debunks the merits of dogmatic Catholicism in the cold and ineffectual Irish priest whose sole method of reaching his first communicants is a meaningless catechism. The children respond by rote but have no deeper understanding of the faith to which they are being indoctrinated; Father Byrnes neither encourages nor facilitates any fuller awareness. Antonio's pathologically devout mother, though honest and loving, is further testament to the Church's ineffectuality and harm. A fearful, superstitious woman for whom religious devotion means passivity, she is the epitome of weakness that Melville derides in Roman Catholicism as “feminine … submission and endurance” (315).

Worship of nature—wild, free, and seemingly benevolent—is an attractive alternative to the Catholicism which many in Antonio's world find stifling. (The parish church, in fact, is described as dark, dank, and musty). But Anaya, like Melville, also conveys the danger of a spirituality derived from nature. When the cult member Cico seeks to convert Antonio to his pagan beliefs, he is careful to caution the initiate about the possible hazards that loom in a mystical merger with the natural world. Like Ishmael, Cico is a “water-gazer,” one who is drawn to the river by its “strange power [and] presence” (Bless 108). He recounts to Antonio that he became spellbound while perched on an overhanging cliff high above the hidden lake, and that he only narrowly resisted the strange music that beckoned him to the depths below: “It wasn't that the singing was evil,” Cico explains. “It was just that it called for me to join it. One more step and I'da stepped over the ledge and drowned in the waters of the lake” (109).

Actual fatalities follow Cico's close call. Narciso, a cult member (whose name echoes the narcissists who gaze into the water to find their bearings at the outset of Moby-Dick), is, like the drowning victim of Melville's “Life-Buoy,” trapped in his own “transitional state.” Pegged as the pathetic but good-hearted town drunk who has lost control over his faculties, Narciso is eventually murdered by the villainous Tenorio Trementina. Another casualty of nature-worship is Florence, Antonio's friend, whose tortured boyhood has destroyed his faith in God. Though scornful of the limitations and cruel paradoxes of Catholicism, Florence is no simple heretic. He searches for “a god of beauty, a god of here and now … a god who does not punish” (228). He is drawn to the lake, much as Antonio and Cico are, but, unable to resist the beckoning water, he drowns. Florence's death dive is described as an underwater exploration that lasts too long.

In seeking to resurrect the spirit of the land and the power of ancient myth, Anaya is certainly sympathetic to Cico, the believer in “many gods … of beauty and magic, gods of the garden, gods in our own backyards” (227). Yet when Cico counsels Antonio to renounce Christ, whom he calls a jealous deity that would instruct his priests to kill the golden carp, Anaya does not endorse this exclusionary vision. For though Cico observes the link between the natural and the divine, he does not recognize the affinity between Christianity and the indigenous spirituality. The kinship of Christ with the nature-god, who transformed himself into a carp so as to live among and protect his people who were likewise transformed into fish as punishment for their sins, is lost on Cico.

With his blindered vision, Cico is reminiscent of those Melville characters who also reduce the complex unity of the world to polarities. Richard Slotkin has named “consummation” as the main thrust of Moby-Dick, a merger conveyed through such metaphors as the Eucharist, marriage, and, more literally, the hunt. But he explains that, finally, Melville delivers no such consolidation since his characters achieve no lasting spiritual balance or cosmic bonding. Ishmael, for example, heeds too well his own warning to pantheists. While he warns that mysticism can leach away individuality, he also bemoans social interdependence as one of life's “dangerous liabilities” (271).11

Ahab, like Cico, is unable to reconcile seeming opposites; like Ishmael, he perverts the notion of unity. If Ahab sees a “common creaturehood” with Moby Dick, his own self-loathing forces him to destroy what he perceives as an extension of himself (545). And if Moby Dick is an avatar of God and the wound it inflicts is a punishment, the whale represents the power which Ahab covets and can attain only by subduing. For the monomaniacal sea captain, there is no coexisting with the white whale, no possibility that Moby Dick is a mediator between the human and the divine. Ahab believes he must either kill the whale, or be killed by it. His binary vision makes him hopelessly paranoid: what he cannot fully understand he construes as malign and warranting pre-emptive destruction.12

It is Ultima, an ironic counterpart to Ahab in their shared capacity as mentors, who teaches Antonio to look beyond difference to recognize transcendent parallels. Though their respect for life varies greatly and, indeed, their worldviews clash, the curandera (medicine woman) of the New Mexican llano and the captain of the Pequod are similarly enigmatic and powerful figures. Their marred outward appearances attest to their intense engagement with life—Ahab with his ivory leg and the scar that runs the length of his body and Ultima with her shrunken frame and wizened face. Both are cut off from family. Ahab was orphaned before his first birthday, and as an adult he chooses Moby Dick and the sea over the wife and infant son he leaves in New England. Ultima, aged and apparently childless, is homeless until Antonio's father Gabriel moves her from the unsheltered llano into his home in Guadalupe.

The most significant parallel the two share is their own hybridity from which they draw their awe-inspiring strength. Captains Bildad and Pelag, the Pequod's owners, aptly sum up Ahab's contradictory nature: “He's a grand, ungodly, god-like man. … Ahab's been in colleges, as well as 'mong the cannibals” (76). “Old Thunder” vows to lash out at the sun should it insult him, a threat he later carries out by smashing the quadrant that requires him to rely on the heavens to determine his bearings in the sea. Yet he clearly “has his humanities,” as when he consoles the crazed Pip or recalls the warm home he has left behind. He is vulnerable too, dwarfed and deformed as he is by his uncontrollable obsession. Such dualities within Ahab do not comport well; they are in constant conflict and drive him to war with the universe. His internal chaos manifests itself in his fractious nature, which causes him to perceive a fragmented outer world. He will brook no compromise nor accede to any mediation: Moby Dick is pure evil and Ahab must destroy him, or lose his life trying.

Ultima is not without her own dark side, since she too encompasses dualities. “La Grande,” as she is called, is part saint but also part witch. Her ability to cast out demons and to remove curses derives from her own acquaintance with evil. Yet her dualities do not taint or confound her; they complement her. In fact, her understanding of evil enhances her capacity for goodness. Recognizing that the disparate elements of creation work in concert, she instructs Antonio to respect rather than to fear difference, for “we fear evil only because we do not understand it” (236). Her universe, in all its splendid diversity, is coherent, not chaotic.

In the broad sweep of Ultima's vision, cooperation rather than competition is the driving force of the cosmos. For her, pagan and Christian precepts are not mutually exclusive. Whereas Cico counsels Antonio to renounce the Christian trinity as impostors so that he might pledge his faith to the golden carp, Ultima, who also worships the golden carp, integrates her heterogenous beliefs. As Cordelia Candelaria observes, Ultima's spirit, embodied in the owl which always hovers near her, suggests at once Christ as dove and Quetzalcoatl as eagle (Chicano Literature 39). There is no hypocrisy or sacrilege as she joins Maria in praying to the Virgin of Guadalupe, nor in her attendance at Sunday mass with the Marez family. Yet as much as she is a companion to the devout Maria, she is the compatriot of Gabriel, the begrudging Catholic and restive villager. He is unfulfilled by the Church and reluctant to join Maria in praying the rosary. Instead he draws spiritual sustenance from the llano, where he finds “a power that can fill a man with satisfaction.” Ultima, who participates in Catholic rituals but whose faith is never dictated by dogma, shares Gabriel's reverence for the untamed plains and responds in kind to his praise for the land: “and there is faith here … a faith in the reason for nature being, evolving, growing” (220). The merger of her pagan and Christian beliefs is complete in her answer to Antonio's plea, which is the title of the novel. As she offers her blessing, she adopts the cadence of the Catholic benediction and invokes her own secular, benevolent triune: “I bless you in the name of all that is good and strong and beautiful” (247).

As Ultima's apprentice, Antonio learns that Christianity and native mythology are compatible. Initiated into the awareness that the whole is comprised of its many parts, he resolves as well the conflicting agenda his parents set for him. When Antonio dreams that he is being riven by his parents as each issues a self-interested plan for his future, Ultima intercedes on his behalf. Maria claims that her son is a true Luna, a child of the moon who was baptized by the holy water of the Church and thus destined for a vocation as a priest; Gabriel counters that the boy, like all Marez men, is a product of the restless salt-water sea, and that he is therefore meant to ride the plains. Ultima refutes his parents' false and limiting dichotomies to reveal an underlying mystical holism:

You both know … that the sweet water of the moon which falls as rain is the same water that gathers into rivers and flows to fill the seas. Without the waters of the moon to replenish the oceans there would be no oceans. And the same salt waters of the oceans are drawn by the sun to the heavens, and in turn become again the waters of the moon.


Ultima's insight into the harmony of the universe is the understanding which Ahab lacks. Her cosmology features no aspect of creation as foreign, superfluous, or malign, for each has a contributing and complementary role. “The waters are one,” she tells the relieved Antonio. “You have been seeing only parts … and not looking beyond into the great cycle that binds us all” (113). Just as Antonio comes to comprehend the kinship of the golden carp and Christ,13 he realizes the obvious—that as the offspring of his mismatched parents he is living proof that opposites can integrate. As Ultima's eventual successor, he will grant his mother's wish for a priest by ministering to the needs of others and by mediating between the earthly and the spiritual; and, blending his Christianity with pagan mysticism, he will fulfill his father's desire for an heir who is in touch with the supernatural forces of the land.

The union achieved in Antonio Marez is always thwarted in Moby-Dick. Aboard the Pequod, co-mingling is misconstrued as a blurring of identity that threatens the extinction of the self, or as a dominion over another. Queequeg's taste for human flesh and Stubb's relish for freshly killed whale meat further perverts the Eucharist into cannibalism. Suggestions of fertility and fruition merely tease, as in the crew members' coming together to manipulate the spermaceti in “A Squeeze of the Hand,” a pleasurable and erotic bonding but one that is ultimately frustrating and unproductive.

That Ahab works against rather than with nature is clear in his uneasy alliance with the instruments by which he navigates the seas, such as the quadrant that he destroys and the compass which reverses itself. The interchange over the ship's log and line, tools for gauging speed and direction, further reveals that he is out of sync with the dynamism of the universe. When the rotten line snaps and the log is lost, Ahab announces that he “can mend all” (427). The claim is self-delusory, since Ahab, having denied the synergism in the complex world around him, cannot forge the vital nexus he desires. In proposing to “mend the line” as he reaches out to Pip, who then urges that they “rivet these two hands together; the black one with the white” (428), Ahab suggests that he will continue and fortify his lineage through crossbreeding. But the union will not hold: the partners are not of sound mind as they take their vows. One is “daft with strength, the other daft with weakness.” Reeling in the broken line as Ahab departs with his young black “mate,” the Manxman prophetically observes, “here's the end of the rotten line. … Mend it, eh? I think we had best have a new line altogether” (428). The prognosis for any new hybrid “line” is grim, since Ahab persists in seeing the world as inexorably oppositional: He dies pursuing the whale that he maintains is wholly evil, the ship and crew go down, and Ishmael, the lone survivor, is left afloat on a coffin until the Rachel, on its own death watch, picks him up.

When in Bless Me, Ultima the townspeople of Guadalupe object to the sacrilegious over-reaching of science as manifest in the atomic bomb tests that are conducted south of their town, they could easily be describing Ahab's quest for omniscience. “Man was not made to know so much,” they contend. “[T]hey compete with God, they disturb the seasons, they seek to know more than God Himself. In the end, that knowledge they seek will destroy us all” (183). Ahab, dissatisfied with what he deems his lowly place in the universe, seeks mastery through destruction. In contrast, Antonio, who, like Ahab, pursues and attains wisdom, is not antagonistic in his search for knowledge. He comes to luxuriate in the synchronized workings of the world, for he credits Ultima with having taught him to “listen to the mystery of the groaning earth and to feel complete in the fulfillment of its time.” Through her he learns that his “spirit shared in the spirit of all things” (14).

Communion in Moby-Dick is perverted by a murderous urge; man's relationship to nature and to God is adversarial, and his goal is destruction or the absorption of another. True “marriage,” Richard Slotkin asserts, occurs only when there is a mutual acceptance of each by the other, in which neither is destroyed (554). Bless Me, Ultima achieves this beneficent reciprocity. In tune with the cosmic harmonies, Antonio joins together diverse and discordant beliefs, temperaments, and values, for he realizes that he can “take the llano and the river valley, the moon and the sea, God and the golden carp—and make something new” (236). His communion is neither conquest, as it is for Ahab, nor the cancellation of the self, which Ishmael fears; it is true consummation.

In Bless Me, Ultima, Anaya's method is his message. The worldview which Antonio achieves by reconciling a host of opposites is repeated in Anaya's own literary multiculturalism. Influenced by Biblical and Indian mythology, Spanish lore, and the traditional canon, Anaya reveals his pluralistic cultural consciousness. He attains the “integrity of memory” which coheres across boundaries of time, ethnicity, and ideology.14 Such mutually respectful and beneficial co-existence is the mode of being that Anaya advocates for Chicano literature in the United States, even as he seeks a broad readership for his work.15 Chicano writing need not be self-sequestered nor shunted aside by others under a dubious celebration of “difference” to be legitimated, nor should it be stripped of distinguishing characteristics so as to gain entry into the traditional canon. “I believe that Chicano literature is ultimately a part of U.S. literature,” Anaya maintains, continuing to see the whole as the sum of its parts. “I do not believe that we have to be swallowed up by models or values or experimentation within contemporary U.S. literature. We can present our own perspective. … But ultimately it will be incorporated into the literature of this country” (Bruce-Novoa 190). The thematic and tonal links between Moby-Dick and Bless Me, Ultima—as well as their divergent outlooks and resolutions—attest to cross-cultural interconnections amid rich heterogeneity.


  1. Carmen Salazar Parr explains that, more specifically, the Indian lore reflects Nahuatl thought, that of the Mexican and Central American tribes (139).

  2. Translating and discussing “Degradacion y Regeneration en Bless Me, Ultima,” by Roberto Cantu, Cordelia Candelaria notes Cantu's more grim observation about language use in the novel. Claiming that Antonio undergoes a loss of spirituality, Cantu cites a progressive absence of Spanish after Antonio enrolls in school as evidence of this decline. See “Anaya, Rudolfo Alfonso,” Chicano Literature 47.

  3. The setting of Bless Me, Ultima is often regarded as a world apart, a separate and protected enclave. The German critic Horst Tonn, however, detects the encroaching Anglo presence—in the highway that runs near the idyllic town of Guadalupe, in the tours of military duty which Antonio's three older brothers must serve during World War II, and in the atomic bomb tests run close to the Marez's New Mexican village.

  4. Raymund Paredes's “The Evolution of Chicano Literature” and Robert M. Adams's “Natives and Others” explore Anaya's ethnic distinctiveness as well as the influence of Anglo-American writers upon his work.

  5. Candelaria notes the influence of Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha stories in the way characters from Bless Me, Ultima return in Heart of Aztlan (1976). In Anaya's third novel, Tortuga (1979), Candelaria finds echoes of the persistent turtle from The Grapes of Wrath and of Katherine Anne Porter's use of a hospital as a microcosm of humanity in Ship of Fools. See “Anaya, Rudolfo Alfonso, Chicano Literature.

  6. Anaya's graduate work in the 1960's emphasized the traditional canon, and he cites an abiding interest in American Romanticism. See Juan Bruce-Novoa, “Rudolfo A. Anaya,” Chicano Authors 188.

  7. Paul Lauter maintains that literature of the American Renaissance is tantamount to escapist fiction in its portrayals of single (white) males striking out for a frontier of some sort—the sea, the woods, the prairie. Many minorities, he reminds us, faced the other side of the adventure, invasion. Lauter contends that for them, “individual confrontations with whales or wars were never central, for the issue was neither metaphysics nor nature but the social constructions called ‘prejudice,’ and the problem was not soluble by or for individuals … but only through a process of social change” (16). Hector Calderon uses Anaya and Bless Me, Ultima as examples of a too-heavy emphasis on meditative abstractions and individualistic introspection. Antonio's egocentrism, Calderon claims, comes at the expense of a collective vision (112-13).

  8. See William James for a discussion of the opposing temperaments, sick souls and healthy minds.

  9. Candelaria discusses Anaya's use of Jungian themes in “Anaya, Rudolfo Alfonso,” Chicano Literature 36-39. In “Rudolfo A. Anaya,” Dictionary of Literary Biography she is critical of Anaya's penchant for happy endings, which, she charges, gloss over unpleasant or grim realities. Anaya's search, Candelaria contends, “always finds its uplifting grail of enlightenment and happiness. Alienation, irony, ambiguity, and the myriad uncertainties of a dynamic cosmos, whether ancient or modern, seem to lie beyond the boundaries of his fictive universe” (34).

  10. Herminio Rios and Octavio Ignacio Romano connect the myth of the golden carp to Atonatiuh, the first cosmic catastrophe in Nahuatl cosmology (ix).

  11. On numerous occasions Queequeg and Ishmael are happily in sync and mutually served by each other, as in “The Monkey Rope” for example. Yet Ishmael remains ambivalent at best about their interdependence. Consider D. H. Lawrence's reading of Ishmael's casual regard for Queequeg after bunking with him at the Spouter-Inn in “A Bosom Friend”: “You would think this relation with Queequeg meant something to Ishmael. But no. Queequeg is forgotten like yesterday's newspaper. Human things are only momentary excitements or amusements to the American Ishmael” (147-48).

  12. See Slotkin's discussion of Ahab's Puritanical response to the spirit of nature, which allows only two lines of action: he can either be nature's captive or its destroyer (547-48).

  13. Vernon Lattin, rather than seeing Antonio's accommodation of Christianity and pantheism, contends that Antonio rejects the Church to embrace the pagan gods. Likewise, Raymund Paredes sees Antonio affecting no reconciliation of his parents' conflicting ambitions for him. He maintains that “at the end of the novel, Antonio rejects the confining traditionalism of the Lunas in favor of the Marez's doctrine of personal freedom” (101).

  14. Explaining the “integrity of memory” and its role in canon revision, Annette Kolodny urges Americanists to dissociate themselves temporarily from reassuringly well-known texts to become immersed in the unfamiliar. The result she foresees is an awareness made full by interconnections and new decipherings previously unrecognized.

  15. William Clark explains that Anaya, “wanting to reach a wider audience,” has recently completed a six-title contract with Warner Books. The mass marketing deal includes paperback and color-illustrated hardcover editions of Bless Me, Ultima (24).

Works Cited

Adams, Robert M. “Natives and Others.” Rev. of Bless Me, Ultima, by Rudolfo A. Anaya. New York Review of Books 26 March 1987: 32.

Anaya, Rudolfo A. Bless Me, Ultima. Berkeley: Tonatiuh-Quinto Sol International, 1975.

———. “The Myth of Quetzalcoatl in a Contemporary Setting: Mythical Dimensions/Political Reality.” Western American Literature 23 (1988): 195-200.

Bruce-Novoa, Juan. “Canonical and Noncanonical Texts: A Chicano Case Study.” Redefining American Literary History. Eds. A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff and Jerry W. Ward, Jr. New York: MLA, 1990. 196-209.

———, ed. “Rudolfo A. Anaya.” Chicano Authors: Inquiry by Interview. Austin: U of Texas P, 1980. 183-202.

Calderon, Hector. “The Novel and the Community of Readers: Rereading Tomás Rivera's Y no se lo trago la tierra.Criticism in the Borderlands: Studies in Chicano Literature, Culture, and Ideology. Eds. Hector Calderon and Jose David Saldivar, Durham: Duke UP, 1991. 97-113.

Candelaria, Cordelia. “Anaya, Rudolfo Alfonso.” Chicano Literature: A Reference Guide. Eds. Julio A. Martinez and Francisco A. Lomeli. Westport: Greenwood, 1985.

———. “Rudolfo A. Anaya.” Dictionary of Literary Biography: Chicano Writers, First Series. Eds. Francisco A. Lomeli and Carl R. Shirley. Vol. 82. Detroit: Gale Research, 1989.

Clark, William. “The Mainstream Discovers Rudolfo Anaya.” Publishers Weekly 21 March 1994: 24.

James, William. Writings, 1902-1910/William James. New York: Viking, 1987.

Kolodny, Annette. “The Integrity of Memory: Creating a New Literary History of the United States.” American Literature 57 (1985): 291-307.

Lattin, Vernon. “The Quest for Mythic Vision in Contemporary Native American and Chicano Fiction.” American Literature 50 (1979): 625-40.

Lauter, Paul. “The Literatures of America: A Comparative Discipline.” Redefining American Literary History. Eds. A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff and Jerry W. Ward, Jr. New York: MLA, 1990. 9-34.

Lawrence, D. H. Studies in Classic American Literature. 1923. New York: Viking, 1961.

Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. 1851. Eds. Harrison Hayford and Hershel Parker. New York: Norton, 1967.

Paredes, Raymund. “The Evolution of Chicano Literature.” MELUS 5.2 (1978): 71-110.

Parr, Carmen Salazar. “Current Trends in Chicano Literary Criticism.” The Identification and Analysis of Chicano Literature. Ed. Francisco Jimenez. New York: Bilingual P/Editorial Bilingue, 1979. 134-42.

Rios, Herminio and Octavio Ignacio Romana. Foreword. Bless Me, Ultima. By Rudolfo A. Anaya. Berkeley: Quinto Sol, 1972. ix.

Slotkin, Richard. Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 1973. 538-65.

Sommers, Joseph. “Critical Approaches to Chicano Literature.” The Identification and Analysis of Chicano Literature. Ed. Francisco Jimenez. New York: Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingue, 1979. 143-52.

Tonn, Horst. “Bless Me, Ultima: A Fictional Response to Times of Transition,” Aztlan: A Journal of Chicano Studies 18.1 (1987): 59-67.

Jonathan Little (essay date fall 2000)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11876

SOURCE: Little, Jonathan. “Beading the Multicultural World: Louise Erdrich's The Antelope Wife and the Sacred Metaphysic.” Contemporary Literature 41, no. 3 (fall 2000): 495-524.

[In the following essay, Little focuses on Louise Erdrich's treatment of culture and personal identity in The Antelope Wife, characterizing Erdrich's depiction of both as fluid and continually evolving.]

In his recent study of multiculturalism, philosophy, and identity, Satya P. Mohanty criticizes the debilitating insularity of identity politics on the one hand and liberalism's universals on the other. Mohanty charts a postpositivist space between these two positions that combines relativism's antifoundational insights about the historical entanglements of knowledge with liberalism's social hope. Attacking traditional empiricism by stressing subjective knowledge, Mohanty claims that objective knowledge “is based on a conception of human inquiry as profoundly historical and socially mediated; no a priori incorrigible epistemological principles are possible. … we do not only ‘discover’ reality; we ‘make’ it as well” (193). Therefore, “cultural diversity [should be] based on the claim that ‘cultures’ are fields of moral inquiry, with room for objective knowledge as well as for error or mystification. Multiculturalism … should be defined as a form of epistemic cooperation across cultures” (xiii). Without this redefinition, “we cannot conceive of what genuine tolerance might mean and what a genuinely multicultural society would look like” (21). Such a position, argues Mohanty, serves as a powerful foundation for the social-justice agenda and the “ongoing struggles against racism, sexism, and social inequalities of all kinds” (xiii).

Mohanty's perspective is designed to forge a more politicized postmodernism, capable of combating social injustices of all kinds with appeals to moral universals and to objective or cross-cultural knowledge. Mohanty argues that the pervasive epistemological skepticism of the postmodernist position seriously underreads “the real epistemic and political complexities of our social and cultural identities” (216). But would this epistemic cooperation work between secular and nonsecular cultures? Mohanty's antimetaphysical bias and his reliance on confirmation and evidence to evaluate cultural perspectives would seem to make it difficult. Although he does not address religion directly, Mohanty leaves room for accepting alternate world-views as part of his synthetic philosophical multiculturalism. He calls for an approach that takes into consideration “theoretical positions from fields other than literary and cultural studies, bringing to center stage such methodological issues as ‘explanation’ and ‘confirmation’ and examining alternative definitions of theory and knowledge” (252). Indeed, there may very well be “a nonhuman universe about which we might find out more and more things … which then change the way we think of our own human world” (158). In considering alternative epistemologies, however, we must not accept “that the nonhuman world out there can be completely described once and for all.” Instead of a totalizing “god's-eye view,” more emphasis should be put on the “partiality of our knowledge and our (human) situation in the world.” There must always be a sense for “what there is and our relation to ‘it’” rather than a claim of metaphysical comprehensiveness.

Compelling parallels can be drawn between Mohanty's position and Native American theology, which already contains some of these post-structuralist features.1 For example, Steven Leuthold argues that unlike analytic Western thought, “native thought is primarily synthetic, involving a search for and appreciation of the connections between categories of experience” (190).2 Dennis McPherson and J. Douglass Rabb phrase it a little differently, arguing that Native American theology is polycentric:

This perspective, this polycentrism, recognizes that we finite human beings can never obtain a God's eye view, a non-perspectival view, of reality, of philosophical truth. Every view is a view from somewhere. Hence it follows that no one philosophical perspective can ever provide an entirely adequate metaphysical system. But this does not mean, as [Richard] Rorty thinks it does, that philosophical systems do not point toward the truth, that they have nothing to say about truth. It merely follows that no one perspective can contain the whole truth. … The fact that different cultures can have radically different world views reveals something very interesting not just about culture, not just about language, but about reality itself and the way in which we come to know it. Though none is privileged yet each culture's world view, each different metaphysical system, contributes something to the total picture, a picture which is not yet and may never be wholly complete.


Like Mohanty, McPherson and Rabb argue that “[o]nly by attempting to accommodate and reconcile as many different world views as possible can we hope to build up an accurate picture of reality”; indeed, this is a requirement of the “polycentric perspective” (11). As part of their ethno-metaphysical study of Canadian Native American philosophy, McPherson and Rabb assert a perspective that joins metaphysics with perspectivism. Echoing some of these ideas while discussing Native American views of the sacred, Vine Deloria writes:

Each holy site contains its own revelation. This knowledge is not the ultimate in the sense that Near Eastern religions like to claim the universality of their ideas. Traditional religious leaders tell us that in many of the ceremonies new messages are communicated to them … each bit of information is specific to the time, place, and circumstances of the people. No revelation can be regarded as universal because times and conditions change.

(God 277)

With emphases on process, incompletion, interdependence, synthesis, and context-specific objective truth, Native American theologies and metaphysics to some extent mirror Mohanty's desired epistemological methodology, albeit with much more reliance on belief in a nonhuman spiritual realm than Mohanty exhibits.3 And while Mohanty positions himself within the framework of the dominant culture eager to learn and benefit from minority cultures (and to evaluate them), Native American artists are often more interested in immediate survival and empowering identity creation.4 As Jace Weaver writes, Native writing “prepares the ground for recovery, even re-creation, of Indian identity and culture. Native writers speak to that part of us the colonial power and the dominant culture cannot reach, cannot touch. They help Indians imagine themselves as Indians” (44-45). Despite differences in perspectives, Mohanty and Weaver share a commitment to battling ethnic injustice beginning with epistemological and aesthetic influence.

Certainly the flourishing of Native American writing (along with other ethnic literary production) since the 1970s has aided in the progressive philosophical and political projects Mohanty and Weaver outline. Novels such as N. Scott Momaday's groundbreaking House Made of Dawn (1969) and Leslie Marmon Silko's canonized Ceremony (1977) have done much to bring the injustices of the past and present to light and to advance important literary representations of Native American identity and culture. In The Antelope Wife (1998), Louise Erdrich makes an equally important contribution to this project by demonstrating how her Ojibwa culture survives amid the chaos of intersecting bloodlines, cultures, and belief systems.5 Through the traditional Native American metaphor of beading, Erdrich creates a narrative of overlapping spaces between cultures while also depicting the enduring strength and resiliency of the Ojibwa heritage. In the context of Mohanty's thinking, Erdrich avoids the debilitating insular spaces of essentialism and identity politics and the potential invisibility of assimilation while still crafting a narrative of resistance, counterepistemology, and cultural maintenance. As she states in “A Writer's Sense of Place,” “Contemporary Native American writers have before them a task quite different from that of non-Indian writers. In the light of enormous loss, they must tell the untold stories of contemporary survivors, while protecting and celebrating the cores of cultures left in the wake of the European invasion” (41). Perhaps the key factor in maintaining the core culture for Erdrich is her exploration and perpetuation of a specifically Ojibwa sacred metaphysic. Her novels, especially The Antelope Wife, demonstrate the ways in which unseen spiritual forces imbue everyday reality with life-affirming meaning.6 Instead of protecting and perpetuating culture through static principles, however, Erdrich demonstrates how conceptions of culture, identity, meaning, and the sacred are forever evolving, perspectival, and interdependent.7 Despite their relative metaphysical open-endedness, her spiritual beliefs serve as a powerful source for individual and cultural transformation, comfort, and survival.8

There are parallels between my position on Erdrich's work and Catherine Rainwater's in Dreams of Fiery Stars, a semiotic analysis of a broad selection of contemporary Native American writers. Rainwater argues that Erdrich is part of a group of Native American writers who “dream of nothing less than revision of contemporary reality, beginning with its representation in art” (ix). Through their semiotic recreation of the world, Native American writers are engaged in a project to subvert the dominant discourse and expose “the ways in which both Native and non-Native frames of reference constantly undergo revision” (xiv). Native American writers use written narrative to increase “solidarity bonds with an audience consisting primarily of sympathetic, non-Indian outsiders” (9). Such “counter-colonizing texts expand the Euro-American epistemological frame and facilitate the entry of other such texts—and their concomitant worldviews and ‘realities’—into the dominant domain” (34). While I am in full agreement with Rainwater's points about Native American writing and Erdrich's participation in this movement, Rainwater's discussion of Erdrich's work tends to highlight Erdrich's self-conscious juxtaposition of competing social codes and symbols to emphasize cultural and epistemological incompatibility: “[She] emphasizes irreducible otherness yet suggests that all views are part of a larger, mysterious picture” (64). More so in The Antelope Wife than in the earlier novels that Rainwater examines (especially Love Medicine and The Best Queen), Erdrich dramatizes a vast web of interdependence brought about by the intersection of many cultures, pasts, and heritages.9 Instead of showing the irreducible incompatibility of different cultures, the bead imagery in the novel demonstrates the “remarkable interpenetration of colors” (Antelope Wife 209) as cultures, individuals, epistemologies, and myths interact, overlap, and become part of a vast kaleidoscopic synthesis. This synthesis does not erase cultural difference or the injustices of the past; instead, it includes them in a portrait of complex cultural interrelationships to show the tensions and conflicts inherent in a multicultural society.10

The Antelope Wife should therefore go far in answering Louis Owens's critiques of Erdrich's writing. Owens argues that Erdrich overemphasizes negative portraits of Native Americans in contrast to the more desirable community-affirming messages and unified characters presented in Silko's Ceremony, Thomas King's Medicine River, and James Welch's Winter in the Blood (Mixedblood Messages 73-82). Owens complains that in Erdrich's “very popular novels, the reservation seems to be little more than a place where people live in cheap federal housing while drinking, making complicated love, feuding with one another, building casinos, and dying self-destructive and often violent deaths” (71). While The Antelope Wife certainly contains examples of self-destructive and violent deaths, the emphasis of the novel is less on fragmentation and victimization than on individual growth and weaving new patterns for individual and communal cohabitation and survival out of the chaos and pain of the past.11

The important bead metaphor is introduced before the narrative of the antelope wife starts. Each of the novel's four parts begins with a short introduction numbered 1 through 4 in Ojibwa: “Bayzhig,” “Neej,” “Niswey,” “Neewin.” In the first of these, “Bayzhig,” Erdrich sets in motion a beading competition: “Ever since the beginning these twins are sewing.” One twin sews with light beads, the other with dark, “glittering deep red and blue-black indigo,” in contrast to “cut-glass whites and pales” (1). Each tries to “set one more bead into the pattern than her sister, each trying to upset the balance of the world” (1). The opposition between light and dark contains many levels of symbolic significance. On one level, the battle between the twins can be read metaphorically as different fates (fortune and misfortune) warring against each other, both being equally present in the rich tapestry of life. The mythic twins who try to outdo each other at the beginning of The Antelope Wife represent the dual forces in nature and experience that are dramatized in the accompanying narrative, as I will discuss. The neat oppositions that are set up in “Bayzhig” are, however, quickly deconstructed as the beaded pattern of the narrative moves forward.

Another possible reading of the “Bayzhig” preface is related to race or ethnicity. The different colored beads, including the contrast between the pale whites and the darker beads, signify the opposition between the different races. Such a racial contest for dominance has ominous overtones, as each twin tries to upset the balance of the world through this coded racial warfare. The bead pattern is immediately filled with the blood red of Anglo-colonialist oppression and violence. Already blending myth and historical realism, the narrative begins “[d]eep in the past” (3) with the entrance of cavalry soldier Scranton Roy, who is an embittered man after a “pale and paler haired” (4) woman breaks his heart. He participates in a massacre on a small, isolated Ojibwa village near the Minnesota-North Dakota border “mistaken for hostile during the scare over the starving Sioux” (3). Sioux-federal government conflict has a long history, escalating with the Sioux War of 1865-67 and continuing to the massacre at Wounded Knee Creek in 1890 during which two hundred Dakota men, women, and children were slaughtered. Although it is not clear in what year the cavalry raid in the novel takes place, Erdrich's reference to the starving Sioux places the novel in a particular historical time frame. This attack on the Ojibwa village probably occurs near the end of the Sioux-federal government conflicts when, particularly in 1889, starvation and disease were widespread among the Sioux reservations in South Dakota. The novel's Ojibwa massacre bears a striking resemblance to the Wounded Knee massacre. Erdrich's rendition of this violence is an act of historical reclamation; it is recounted “in order that it not be lost,” since “What happened to him [Scranton Roy] lives on” (3).

Scranton Roy's destiny is changed when Roy bayonets an elderly woman who sacrifices herself so that he will not kill any more Ojibwa children. As she dies on the end of his sword, she curses him with the word “Daashkikaa,” meaning “cracked apart,” then uses her shamanistic powers to alter his behavior.12 Drawing his gaze into hers, she grants him a vision of his own prebirth, birth, and mother, which is “A groan of heat and blood” (4). Roy runs away, horrified, and sees a baby-bearing dog, a sight that stirs in him a “human response,” which motivates him to leave the massacre and follow the baby (3). In a way perhaps ordered by the elderly woman, Roy becomes the surrogate mother of Blue Prairie Woman's baby. The baby educates Roy “past civilized judgment” into love. Miraculously, he is able to breast-feed the baby (whom he renames Matilda Roy). Brought up in the Quaker tradition, Roy reads this miracle strictly in biblical terms instead of from within the controlling frame of Ojibwa mythic narrative.

The line between myth and reality is blurred both by the curse of the powerful elderly woman and by what happens to Blue Prairie Woman after her baby is carried away by the dog. Members of Blue Prairie Woman's Ojibwa tribe must call upon the power of the spiritual realm, or the “in-between,” in order to save Blue Prairie Woman from going insane with grief. After her still nameless baby is gone, Blue Prairie Woman splits into two selves; she has been cracked apart into Ozhawashkwamashkodeykway (Ojibwa for “Blue Prairie Woman”) and Blue Prairie Woman. As she sends her shadow-soul forth, she worries that she will come across her daughter's bones and eats clay, dirt, and leaves in her fear and worry. The careful tripartite balance between her souls and her body valued by the Ojibwa has been upset.13 She “at last so viciously took leave of her mind that the old ones got together and decided to change her name” (13). The elders of her Ojibwa tribe cover her name in blood and burn it, since “the woman who had fit inside of it had walked off” (13). She has crossed into the spirit realm to find her “half-spirit” unnamed baby, and the elders want her “to return to the living” (13). Her new name Other Side of the Earth, grants her the power to be in “both places at once” (14), searching for her daughter and at home with her husband and community.

Other Side of the Earth is now able to perform routine domestic duties while simultaneously tracking “the faint marks the dog left as he passed into the blue distance” (14). Within her grow the twins Mary and Josephette (Zosie), who are creating themselves “just as the first twin gods did at the beginning,” further solidifying the connections between “Bayzhig” and the Roy-Ojibwa narrative. The disembodied journey she takes, which is made possible by the power of her name, prepares her finally to take the embodied journey west to follow “the endless invisible trail of her daughter's flight” (15). In other words, her journey will yield objective knowledge not at all akin to mere dreaming or fantasy. The ability to read both the real and visionary realms at once allows her to locate her lost baby.14

Soon after she finds her daughter, Other Side of the Earth dies of a virus. Before dying, she leaves her daughter her name and sings a song “to the blue distance” (19). Her song attracts “pale reddish curious creatures, slashed with white on the chest.” These multicolored antelope “emerge from the band of the light at the world's edge,” where the sky and heaven meet. The seven-year-old child joins these dreamlike creatures and becomes part of their liminal existence, still wearing the blue beads given to her by her mother to protect her. As an antelope person, Other Side of the Earth crosses the line between human and nonhuman. In his study of Ojibwa ontology, Thomas Overholt states that other-than-humans consist not only of gods but also of “dream visitors and guardian spirits; the sun, moon, and winds; Thunder-birds; the ‘bosses’ of animal species; and certain stones, animals, and trees” (160).

Both the blue beads and the antelope people are representative of the fluidity of forms and interpenetration between the human and other-than-human realms. As Zosie tells Cally Roy (Zosie's granddaughter), the beads represent “the mystery where sky meets earth” (21) and the “depth of the spirit life” (214).15 In emphasizing this point of dialectical intersection, Erdrich again draws from Ojibwa belief. The source of spiritual and life power comes from the manitous, or the spirits. In a compensatory gift to the Ojibwa after the Great Deluge (when the heroic Nanabush re-created the earth), the manitous gave the Ojibwa the midewiwin (literally “mystic doings”) society, allowing its shamans access to the spiritual realm and its gifts of power.16 The force or power of the midewiwin society comes from the interaction between the sky and water spirits. As Smith argues, spiritual power in the midewiwin society is “an immeasurable gift for it holds within it a mysterious and tremendous fulfillment” (187). The place where the midewiwin seminal gift is made to humans is at the midpoint between opposing mythic sky and water spirits: “We see that the meeting [between Nanabush and the manitous] takes place just above the earth, perhaps at the level of the clouds” (187). In the layered Ojibwa cosmos, the gift is made possible only through cooperation by the manitous that exist in the upper and lower realms between which the earth floats. While Erdrich does not explicitly invoke the complete mythic story, this creation myth informs the novel's deepest level of poetic symbolism.

When the narrative skips ahead to the present, Blue Prairie Woman's descendant carries on her mythic legacy. In the second chapter, “The Antelope Wife,” Klaus Shawano, who is a direct descendant of Blue Prairie Woman's husbands and brothers, focuses on her in-between or mythic status. After letting his brain “wander across the mystery of where sky meets earth” (21), Klaus sees her and immediately plans her capture. For Klaus this as yet unnamed woman represents the sacred unity of the human and natural realms; her hair is “Dark as heaven, with roan highlights and arroyos of brown, waves deep as currents, a river of scented nightfall” (24). As an antirealist character, Sweetheart Calico exists on the borderline between the human and the spirit beings. Her character emerges most clearly from Ojibwa mythic heritage. As Hallowell asserts, “Whether human or animal in form or name, the major characters in the myths behave like people, though many of their activities are depicted in a spatiotemporal framework of cosmic, rather than mundane, dimensions” (“Ojibwa” 27). Hallowell and others argue that although the Ojibwas make distinctions between different kinds of beings in the historical reality of mythic characters, myth “is accepted by them as a true account of events in the past lives of living ‘persons’” (27). Sweetheart Calico, or the antelope wife, is such a “person” who is not only a person. Klaus Shawano is deeply attracted to this core embodiment of his collective past and the spiritual magic she represents. The antelope are the only “creatures swift enough to catch the distance” (32). Through her looks, Klaus is able to envision traditional stories of her people and to hear the voices of the antelopes: “We live there. We live there in the place where sky meets earth.

In taking Sweetheart Calico away from her natural environment and her family, however, Klaus commits a crime that nearly destroys him and the object of his obsession. Named after the fabric that he uses to capture her, Sweetheart Calico is miserably trapped within the concrete confines of the city. Even though she often “loped crazily through the park” looking for ways to escape, there seems to be no exit for her. The dream represented by Sweetheart Calico quickly turns into a nightmare for Klaus, as he starts to dream of the antelope people taking their revenge on him. They “sprang into his dreams. Galloped at him. Brandished their hooves like polished nails” (94). As a self-destructive alcoholic unable to live with Sweetheart Calico but also unable to set her free, Klaus is nearly torn apart by conflicting impulses. His story has an allegorical meaning. It is a cautionary tale that enacts the Ojibwa ethical code warning against wanting too much or being too greedy.17 It is also Erdrich's embedded message about the necessity of keeping Ojibwa mythology alive and free, and closely aligned to its original narrative and physical space.

Layered into the narrative about Sweetheart Calico is Cally Roy's related and updated struggle to understand her identity in a diversified urban multicultural context. At eighteen, Cally Roy wanders in the “bloody heart” of Gakahbekong (Minneapolis) to begin her spiritual quest. As one of the youngest characters in the novel, she is struggling to define what her relationship is to Ojibwa culture and the past. Still aching after the death of her twin sister Deanna, she searches for her grandmothers, Mrs. Zosie Roy and Mary Shawano, the abandoned twin daughters of Blue Prairie Woman. Cally and her sister Deanna are themselves of mixed blood. Their mother Rozin was born to Zosie and Augustus Roy, the grandson of Scranton Roy.

The theme of cultural intermixture goes beyond blood with Cally. After the accidental death of her twin sister, she moves north to the Ojibwa reservation to live in her great-grandmother Midass's house. On the wall of Cally's room is an eclectic mixture of objects reflecting her cultural synthesis: “On the wall of my room up north, there hangs a bundle of sage and Grandma Roy's singing drum. On the opposite wall, I taped up a poster of dogs, photos of Jimi Hendrix and the Indigo Girls, this boyfriend I had once and don't have anymore, bears, and Indigenous, my favorite band, another of a rainbow and buffalo trudging underneath” (103). The sacred objects and the artifacts from dominant culture exist in a random mixture, reflecting her uncertainty about her identity. She comes to Gakahbekong to live in Frank Shawano's bakery and to try to determine what the underlying design of her past is (106). She believes that “[f]amily stories repeat themselves in patterns and waves generation to generation, across bloods and times” (200). Cally represents the newest voice of tradition in the novel, since she thinks that once the pattern is set “we go on replicating it.” She comes to Minneapolis to try to discern the “old patterns in myself and the people I love.”

As part of this personal quest, Cally wants to interview her grandmothers about getting a new name. She reflects on the diversity of her past: “I am a Roy, a Whiteheart Beads, a Shawano by way of the Roy and Shawano proximity—all in all, we make a huge old family lumped together like a can of those mixed party nuts” (110). Erdrich uses Cally to explore the meaning of blood intermixture. Cally feels that “Some bloods they go together like water,” especially those of the French Ojibwas, which she claims to be. Other mixtures are more problematic. Mixing, for example, a German and a Native American results in “a two-souled warrior always fighting with themself” (110). The most volatile mixture of all is that of her Aunt Cecille, who is Irish and Native American. When Cecille begins teaching the martial arts, Cally sees her as possessing an “Irish-Anishinabe-girl-Wing-Chun-Jackie-Chan-flying-monkey demeanor” (118).

Cally is educated about her past largely through her association with Sweetheart Calico. She calls her Auntie Klaus, since she has been kidnapped by Cally's Uncle Klaus. Although no one communicates this to her directly, Cally recognizes her aunt's mythical status immediately. Her enigmatic and silent aunt “is not just any woman. She is something created out there where the distances turn words to air and thoughts to stone” (218); she “alters the shape of things around her and changes the shape of things to come” (106). Cally's personal identity is thus corrected or transformed through her allegorical and literal interaction with her aunt, a living embodiment of the power of the past and collective Ojibwa myth. Her aunt also represents the interconnectedness of the narrative strands in the novel, since the Roys are descended from Blue Prairie Woman, who was the original “deer woman.” Blue Prairie Woman married a Shawano brother after living on the prairie with a deer person who solved her hunger with his love for her. It is the deer people who warn Blue Prairie Woman of the coming attack and advise her to put her nameless baby on a dog's back so that the baby may escape.

After learning about the significance of her aunt's beads (and their connection to her heritage), Cally aids the antelope wife's liberation by offering to trade her freedom for the beads once owned by her great-grandmother. Zosie tells her granddaughter in a key passage that the blue beads not only represent the intersection of worlds but offer access to another state of being. Through them you can “[s]ee into the skin of the coming world” (214). To survive and complete her search for contentment and identity, Cally must internalize this cultural legacy and realign herself with her cultural heritage and its source of power in her urban displacement. Her aunt holds these powerful blue beads under her tongue, symbolic of her alienation and silence in such a foreign and inhospitable environment. After the bargain with Cally is made, she speaks a “blue sentence” as the beads emerge: “Let me go” (218). A flood of words ensues. “I'm drowning in stuff here in Gakahbekong,” says her aunt. “In so many acres of fruit. In warehouse upon warehouse of tools, Sheetrock nails, air conditioners, and implements of every type and domestic and imported fabrics, and in the supermarkets and fish from the seven seas and slabs of fat-marbled flesh of warm-eyed cows who love and nuzzle their young” (219). As the most complete representative or repository of the Ojibwa sacred metaphysic, the antelope wife is endangered by her imprisonment in materialist white culture. Despite her mythic stature, she is dependent on human agents for her ultimate liberation, again reflecting the reciprocal and interdependent web of relations in the Ojibwa cosmos.

As Cally and her aunt walk north together away from the center of Minneapolis, they are both transformed by their interaction with various forces. When they wake up together outside of town, Cally realizes the exact nature of her longing. In listening to some Hmong grandmothers talking and digging in their gardens, Cally realizes that what she misses is her “birth holder,” or the turtle connecting her back to her mother and her mother's mother. The turtle is a significant figure in Ojibwa mythology. As Basil Johnston notes, the turtle was granted special powers, “enabling him to transgress time periods from present to future or to the past and back again; and to transform his being from its physical to an incorporeal nature” (171). The turtle represents the power of liminality, the ability to transcend the limitations of time and physical being. In her subsequent continuation of her mother's adolescent dream-fast vision, Cally is similarly able to see into both the past and the future. Her mother, after spending six days alone in the woods, sees “a huge thing, strange, inconceivable” (220), which comes out of the sky.18 This huge shape “pierced far into the ground, seethed and trembled.” All her life her mother wondered what this vision meant. Perhaps inspired by the liminal power of the turtle, Cally's secondary vision identifies the object as “the shape of the world itself. Rising in a trance and eroding downward and destroying what is. Moment by moment until the end of time if ever there is an end to this. Gakahbekong. That's what she saw. Gakahbekong. The city” (220).

Cally's conclusion and continuation of her mother's dream-vision reconciles her understanding of cultural intermixture and cultural displacement with her longing for pattern and family order. Instead of believing now in a strict, predetermined order based on old family stories and blood designs, Cally now believes in a more chance-influenced version of her family's history and her own identity. This realization is foreshadowed by “Niswey” (“Three”). In this mythic prelude, the great-grandmother of the first Shawano is surprised by the unpredictability of the color of her quill dyes. Similarly, Cally learns to appreciate the role of accidents and the unexpected in the beaded patterns of ongoing cultural narratives. It is in the city “[w]here we are scattered like beads off a necklace and put back together in new patterns, new strings” (220). In other words, Cally accepts the fragmentations and randomness of the new multicultural design and its inherent overlapping spaces and intermingling colors. The new patterns and new strings that shape the beaded multicultural fabric of present and future identity do not, finally, displace Ojibwa heritage and the past. The new patterns instead show the resilience and creativity of myth and the sacred metaphysic as it shapes new narratives, new strings (such as The Antelope Wife itself) out of the scattered and mixed beads which it has been given. After this vision, aided in large part by her interaction with embodied Native American myth (her aunt), Cally realizes that the “part of my life where I have to wander and pray is done” (220); her quest for identity is completed.

The antelope wife's related quest for freedom is achieved only after the mediation of her human counterparts. First Cally and then her captor, Klaus Shawano, have to intercede in her imprisonment and disempowerment. Apparently, after Cally had led her north, her aunt returns to the city to wait for Klaus to liberate her. Although she feels the intimations of freedom, she is still bound to Klaus Shawano. The psychological band that connects them “slowly winds tighter. It clenches at the base of her stomach” (221). Once asleep, however, she feels a “swarm of ecstasy” that “pulls her deeper, gently and in waves, into the softness, until she is curved against a great fur belly of mothering sunlight.” Her experience with Cally reminds her of her previous, empowered existence when she was unified with nature and its nurturing forces. In this state she can feel the “world breathing, the air, the turning order,” as opposed to the deadness of materialistic Minneapolis, which can only appropriate and commodify nature. The antelope wife's re-immersion in the nurturing spirit of the land and nature reinforces Erdrich's belief in the central role that place plays in constructing a coherent and lasting cultural identity:

And although fiction alone may lack the power to head our government leaders off the course of destruction, it affects us as individuals and can spur us to treat the earth, in which we abide and which harbors us, as we would treat our own mothers and fathers. For once we no longer live in the land of our mother's body, it is the earth with which we form the same dependent relationship, relying completely on its cycles and elements, helpless without its protective embrace.

(“Writer's Sense” 44)

Sweetheart Calico, or the antelope wife, recovers that sense of place and is empowered by her re-immersion in the land of her mother's body, from which she has been so cruelly separated.19 As a liminal, other-than-human figure from Ojibwa historical mythology, she wonders how Klaus was able to take away her freedom when her “traverse of boundless space” was so powerful. How was a human able to capture her, when her ability to travel in the realm between the material and sacred worlds was so strong? Such an entrapment is consistent, however, with the reciprocal and interdependent Ojibwa world-view as identified by Hallowell, Smith, Johnston, and others.

The antelope wife's release therefore occurs only after Klaus wills it. He does not arrive at this decision alone. His change of heart is influenced by animal spirits. He is visited by a joke-telling, white windigo dog, whose “confiding dog grin … started Klaus drinking” (126). Ruth Landes helps to define the windigo: “Ice and snow could be friendly, as when crippling the tender-footed deer; but often they shaped up into cannibalistic skeletons, each called windigo” (7). Additionally, “All insanities were termed windigo. … Psychically, the windigo disorder involved projection of the sufferer's fears and vindictiveness, besides the experiences or anxious anticipations of starvation” (12-13). Similarly, Erdrich connects the windigo disorder with a comic dog and with Klaus's own guilty conscience.

Despite the windigo dog's sarcastic irreverence, he and the other dogs in the novel play an important role in the bead pattern. Almost Soup, the other windigo dog, had saved Cally by keeping her soul while her body suffered a life-threatening fever, thereby returning her life-saving favor when she kept him from being cooked in a pot. This interdependence and chain of favors goes further back, since it was Almost Soup's ancestors who saved Blue Prairie Woman's daughter. Further, Blue Prairie Woman suckled Almost Soup's relative Sorrow to alleviate her suffering. As Almost Soup relates:

We dogs know what the women are really doing when they are beading. They are sewing us all into a pattern, into life beneath their hands. We are the beads on the waxed string, pricked up by their sharp needles. We are the tiny pieces of the huge design that they are making—the soul of the world.


Almost Soup admits that although he is not a “full-blooded Ojibwa reservation dog” and is part Dakota, he still remembers his origins in the “pure space” (76) of the reservation. He is the result of a “blend of dogs stretching back to the beginning of time on this continent” (76). Despite the fact that he considers himself “breedless,” he is proud of his origins: “We know who we are. Us, we are descended of Original Dog,” who walked beside Wenabojo, the Ojibwa's creator. Almost Soup and his ancestors are confident in their role in maintaining an Ojibwa world-view, since “As an old race, we know our purpose” (81).

This same spirit of service, protection, and devotion between the animal world and the human world continues into Klaus's narrative. Klaus's life is saved when a mysterious dog sacrifices his life for him as he sleeps in the park and a lawn mower runs over his head. Klaus would have been killed except that “a powerful stray dog bolted toward the machine and got hit, slammed into the air. Bounced off a tree and vanished” (225). The lawn mower skips and puts only a single stripe down the middle of Klaus's face, which he sees in his dream as a “sacred center stripe.” This conflation of the sacred and the comic is reminiscent of many moments in Erdrich's fiction, especially of when Lipsha Morrisey in The Bingo Palace is sprayed by a skunk during a vision quest. After Klaus awakens, the windigo dog no longer torments him. With the assistance of both dogs that are beaded into his life's pattern, Klaus decides to stop drinking and to liberate his antelope wife.

When Klaus and Sweetheart Calico meet again in a park, her hair, which was earlier so spectacular, now “hung tatty and lifeless” (228). Yet for Klaus she is still associated with antelopes. She breathes in clear air and breathes out smoke, starts but does not run away. He binds her with the calico fabric he used to capture her, and they continue the journey north and west that she and Cally had started. Similar to Cally's accompaniment of her aunt, Klaus and the antelope wife's walk is a walk back in time. It is a walk of Native American recovery and cultural maintenance. Their path turns from sidewalk to tar, “and then lighter, lighter, showing stones in the aggregate and thinning, rubbing out, erasing, absorbed back slowly into the earth and then the earth itself under their feet” (228). In other words, they leave the multicultural, collective city, to return to a more eternal sense of time. This journey reflects one of Cally's central insights, that beneath the concrete of Gakahbekong lies a more enduring presence. Part of her revelation is that “I get this sense of the temporary. It could all blow off. And yet the sheer land would be left underneath. Sand, rock, the Indian black seashell-bearing earth” (124). Even beneath the “aggregate” Minneapolis population resides the underlying Native American earth and its foundational cosmology. Thus the multiculturalism that Erdrich envisions is made possible by the eternal presence of Native American heritage, which is carried forth into the present and the future by the living and unconquerable earth and its attendant sacred metaphysic. This sentiment is a clear demonstration of Erdrich's deeply held belief in the significance of the land. “In a tribal view of the world,” Erdrich writes, “where one place has been inhabited for generations, the landscape becomes enlivened by a sense of group and family history. … People and place are inseparable” (“Writer's Sense” 34).

On their restorative journey, Klaus and Sweetheart Calico pass by the ruins of white culture. They walk past rusting cars and abandoned farms and come upon dog vertebrae “scattered beside more bones” (229). They move into a sense of the eternal, toward the spiritually charged open space from which Sweetheart Calico or the antelope wife originated. They walk until they reach a “slight rise” that lifts them into the sky (or horizon), which “suddenly and immensely opened up before them in a blast of space.” Having entered into this empowered liminal space between sky and earth and the material and sacred, Sweetheart Calico's grace or magic returns to her, and Klaus undoes the fabric that binds them together. She continues walking west, which for the Ojibwas is the traditional direction of death, until she is a “white needle, quivering, then a dark fleck on the western band” (230). She becomes again part of the inarticulate or ineffable in-between spiritual space that provides Ojibwa myth and culture with its energy and sense of renewal. One gets the impression that the energy arising out of the interaction between the two layers of existence (sacred and human) interacts with the individual beads (characters that are human, animal, and other-than-human) to form ever-shifting cyclical narrative patterns.

Rozin's spiritual quest is, like her daughter Cally's and to some extent the antelope wife's, part of an effort to deal with the loss of loved ones and her feelings of displacement and alienation. In the mythic prelude to the second part of the novel, “Neej,” which immediately follows the tragic death of her daughter Deanna, the beaded pattern suddenly “glitters with cruelty” (73). The blue beads are colored with blood and the reds “with powdered heart.” At the same time, “[t]he beads collect in borders of mercy” (74). The deepening pattern unifies opposites and is also unpredictable, since “[t]here is no telling which twin will fall asleep first” (73). In other words, there is no way of telling which colors will dominate, because there is no predetermined pattern to follow. Further adding to its complexity and unpredictability, the beading is dependent on human beings: the beaders use “endless strands of human muscle, human sinew, human hair” to sew the beads into the “fabric of the earth.” Humans, like animals, are “crucial to this making.”

Like Cally, Rozin must work her way back to a clear sense of unity with herself and her family before she can see herself in the pattern of her culture and find a measure of contentment and peace. As she reflects on the tragic pattern of her life while living in Minneapolis, Rozin identifies herself as one of “the daughters of the granddaughters of Blue Prairie Woman” who are “lightened by Roy blood” (34). She elaborates on Cally's contemporary narrative of urban racial and cultural intermixture by going farther back through the generations to identify her lineage. She is “descended of the three-fires people and of an Ivory Coast slave, who crawled under the bark of an Ojibwa house and struck a match and looked into the eyes of the daughter of Everlasting, Magid” (34-35). In the next generation there is an admixture of French through the “bastard son of a bastard daughter of a French marquis” who adventured into “the raw territory of the wolf, and married six Ojibwa women” (35). This complex fabric of a multicultural heritage and memory is a powerful legacy. When Rozin reflects back on her family history, she regrets breaking the pattern of naming as a means of cultural maintenance. In naming her daughters Cally and Deanna, she “broke continuity, and they suffered for it” (35). She wishes she had kept to the old ways and helped protect Deanna from tragedy. Rozin wishes she could reweave the past, pulling out the “pattern of destruction” that was caused by the love triangle with her husband Richard Whiteheart Beads and Frank Shawano. But she wonders, given the complexity of reliving the past, “how can you pick out the strands of all you might have changed and all you couldn't” (36).

After the accidental death of her daughter, Rozin begins to plot how to get away from her husband, who inadvertently caused their daughter's death. Despite her longing to be free, she is inextricably linked to her husband by “[o]ne thick black seam stitched of unforgiveness” (181). After Richard commits suicide in front of Rozin and Frank, she understands how fragile the beaded pattern of her life is. In a dream she watches the beaded watchband she made fro Frank symbolically unravel as it “loosens and falls apart in his hands” (188). She realizes that she is twisted in a tangle of feelings for Richard, including hatred and longing. She can see the pattern of her life only after embarking on a contemporary version of the dream-fast, in which she isolates herself from everyone and seeks union with spirit beings through her dreams. The centrality of dreams as a way of maintaining psychic health is, according to Hallowell, an integral part of Ojibwa beliefs:

Whereas social relations with human beings belong to the sphere of waking life, the most intimate social interaction with other-than-human persons is experienced chiefly, but not exclusively, by the self in dream. Social interaction in terms of the Ojibwa outlook involves no vital distinction between self-related experience when awake and experiences during sleep which are recalled and self-related.

(“Role” 274)

In the first of her dream experiences, Rozin sees her daughter Deanna, who asks “Mama, Are you coming too?” after she sees her father enter the spirit realm (186). During the second night, Rozin is visited by a windigo, who opens up his body to her, “like a fearful suit,” and who represents death (189). Although afraid of him and of death, Rozin hopes that the windigo will return so that she may see her daughter again. She uses her dreams to try to find the windigo man and “[p]ull his cold sky-colored skin around her like a grave” (190). Instead of this personification of death, Frank Shawano visits her. She straps on Frank's skin “like body armor” (191). This protection, however, is not entirely sufficient, since she also realizes in her dreams that Richard's body and “suit of anguish has become her own skin” (192). She worries that even death will not allow her to escape her tangled love for Richard. But as she is drifting off to sleep, she experiences an ecstatic moment of spiritual empowerment. “[U]nexpectedly, a radiance of goodness, a strange pleasurable intensity sifts into her body and floats her just an inch above herself” (192). In this odd state akin to astral projection, Rozin realizes the closeness of life and death, “two countries that don't know each other” (192). Staring into her own face, she realizes that it is only through living that she will be able to keep Richard safe. She is closely beaded to Richard, and both are “woven together into Cally and Deanna” (193). After this dream realization and interaction with an other-than-human being, she is able to live out life fairly contently with Frank Shawano, while still paying respects and making offerings to her dead daughter and her dead husband.

Rozin's spiritual quest, and her desire to find the pattern of her scattered beads, resembles both Cally's search and the final mythic introduction to part 4, “Neewin.” In “Neewin,” the second twin gambles everything to acquire the ruby red beads for the center of her design. When her children eat the beads as candy, she grabs her knife in anger: “She had to follow them, searching out their panicked trail, calling for them in the dark places and the bright places, the indigo, the white, the unfinished details and larger meaning of her design” (184). Similarly, Rozin has to follow her dead daughter through the dark and light places of her dream vision in order to see the “larger meaning of her design,” and her relationship to the living and the dead. Unlike her mythic counterpart, Rozin experiences some measure of reconciliation and contentment. While the “pattern of destruction” reflects the tragic nature of the mythic prelude, the destructive pattern turns into a life-affirming one in Rozin's case. She is able to negotiate her relationship with the living and the dead and to create a balance for herself at the end of her narrative. She has embraced the complexity of her life design and rejected the easy and perhaps unsatisfactory answer of death or suicide. She realizes the value of her life and the closeness with which it is related to the world of the dead. In her own way she reinterprets her mother Zosie's cryptic statement that the blue beads represent the unity of life and death. This understanding offers her the “radiance of goodness” that parallels Sweetheart Calico's final unified and empowered state, in which she feels the “world breathing” with its “turning order.”

Another version of this spiritual peace occurs at Rozin's wedding, after it is disrupted by Richard Whiteheart Beads. After Richard has been taken away in an ambulance, the wedding guests eat Klaus Shawano's famous blitzkuchen. The guests, although they are culturally and racially mixed, experience a moment of profound spiritual unity, which parallels the first tasting of the blitzkuchen after World War II. The blitzkuchen represents another message about cultural intermixture and Anglo-Native American relations and generational change. Klaus's father returned from serving in World War II ready to take revenge on whites for the death of his cousin in the war. One of the tribal elders tells him to make the Germans slaves: “That's how they would have done it in the old days” (130). Planning to kill one of the Minnesota German workers to avenge his cousin's death, Klaus's father allows him the chance of making a cake as a way of saving his own life. Klaus's namesake is saved by the miraculous cake, since it leads to a collective vision: “They breathed together. They thought like one person” (139). Such collectivity and unity prevent the Ojibwa from killing the German: “How, when they were all one being, kill the German?” (139). This moment leads Klaus to reflect that when he dies he will “taste the true and the same taste, mercy on the tongue” (139). Thus the cooperative multicultural unity that Erdrich depicts leads, in Ojibwa terms, to an enactment of respectful interdependence across cultural boundaries. In Christian terms this reciprocity or interdependence can be defined as mercy and forgiveness. The cake, whose exotic flavors and spices are unnamed in their language, nonetheless stimulate a profound, culturally specific spiritual experience. In departing from the old ways of blood revenge, Klaus's father creates something new that, somewhat paradoxically, returns his family and community to their heritage and to their beloved ancestors.

Erdrich extends and deepens this paradox in the contemporary wedding-cake scene in which Klaus Shawano serves his guests his blitzkuchen. The wedding guests are clearly multicultural. They are “[a]n eclectic bunch of people … the mixed-blood families had intermarried not only with neighboring tribes of Winnebago and Lakota origin, but with at least one sub-Saharan African and an exchange student from Brazil” (167). This intermixture, however, does not prevent them from experiencing a spiritually charged moment that blurs the line between the living and the dead:

[T]hey all ate together, and they all saw their loved ones moving in the present, around them, children running in the grass. The old people sacrificed a corner of the cake, with tobacco, for the spirits. The ones who had gone on before, the dead, even they came back for a little taste.


The original cultural mandate of avenging the death of the cousin, and the earlier cultural genocide at the hands of the European invaders (including the Germans), has evolved first into an act of mercy and secondly into a scene of inclusivity that perpetuates a very culturally specific Native American spiritual experience. Through these repetitions and alterations, Erdrich demonstrates the ongoing and unpredictable nature of the larger beaded narrative pattern of Native American culture. Drawing from the Ojibwa's sacred metaphysic, Erdrich illustrates how traditional visionary power enables cultural survival and continuity in the face of cultural encroachments and dispersals. It is a legacy that is shown to be robust in its ability to adapt as it comes in contact with different cultural forces.

The final chapter of The Antelope Wife, “Scranton Roy,” returns to the beginning of the narrative. It elaborates on the beginnings of the beaded pattern and makes the final connections between the characters in the contemporary narrative and the ever-intruding past. In his old age, Scranton Roy was visited by the spirit of the old woman whom he killed (who was related to Midass, or Ten Stripe Woman). She punishes him for his evil actions, making him violently ill, and communicates the following message to him, although he cannot understand her words:

Who knows whose blood sins we are paying for? What murder committed in another country, another time? The black-robe priests believe that Christ allowed himself to be nailed high on the cross in order to pay. Shawanos think different. Why should an innocent god, a manitou spirit, have to settle for our drunks, our rage, our heart-sown angers and mistakes?

Those things should come down on us.


Instead of the Christian absolution of sin, in Ojibwa spiritual ontology blood sins must be paid for by the sinner or the sinner's ancestors, as befits the Ojibwa's reciprocal and interdependent world-view. Scranton Roy feels as if he is being eviscerated until he bargains with the old woman to find her people, taking with him his grandson Augustus. This offer apparently satisfies the old woman, for Roy is immediately healthy again. After seeking town to town and reservation to reservation, “Scranton and his grandson came to the remnants of the village and the unmended families, the sick, the bitter, the restored” (239). Although some have healed, the Native American families are still largely Daashkikaa, or “cracked apart.”

The grandson Augustus trades his grandfather's beads for one of the tribe's young women, who is Ten Stripe Woman's granddaughter. The beads he carries are multicolored; “the old ones of highbush red, white centers, glowing glass. The ruby red whiteheart beads all the women loved” (239). The “whiteheart” beads he carries contain, in other words, the paradoxes or the dualities of existence and hark back to the imagery at the beginning of the novel, when an icicle is said to pierce Scranton Roy's heart: “it drove into his heart and melted there, leaving a trail of ice and blood” (4) when the “pale” woman he is attracted to breaks her promise to meet him. The white absence at his heart drives him to massacre the Ojibwa Indian village. Zosie and Mary, who have every reason to hate Augustus given his connection to Scranton Roy, make Augustus disappear from his grandfather's cabin years later. Through their revenge they mend or at least counter the Daashkikaa of his grandfather's blood sins in the glitteringly cruel pattern of what has gone before.

Erdrich complicates the meaning of the beading metaphor while, at the same time, providing links that the earlier narrative had skipped. The unnamed or anonymous narrator explains that the beads that Augustus Roy traded were sewn into a blanket made by Ten Stripe Woman and given to a pregnant woman, who later names her baby after the famous Whiteheart Beads. The name of Whiteheart Beads continues until Richard “ended up with it” (240). Richard marries Rozin, the descendant of Augustus Roy and Zosie Roy, who are related to Blue Prairie Woman (Other Side of the Earth) and the original Shawano brother. Further back still, relatives include the intercultural mixtures of Ojibwa and African, Ojibwa and French. Rozin Roy and Richard Whiteheart Beads's union seems ill-fated from the start since it replicates the old tragic patterns that Cally uncovers in her families' histories. The violence done to the Shawanos and the other Ojibwas by the Roys, the representative whites, seems to carry down through the generations to produce irrevocably tragic results, with the accidental death of Deanna and the suicide of Richard Whiteheart Beads. In the words of the old ghost woman, “Those things should come down on us” (238). As the anonymous narrator of the final chapter writes: “Everything is knotted up in a tangle. Pull one string of this family and the whole web will tremble” (239). The Roy-Whiteheart Beads union is fatal for Whiteheart Beads, who “would have died in his sleep on his eighty-fifth birthday, sober, of a massive stroke, had his self-directed pistol shot glanced a centimeter higher” (240), or if the bloody Roy-Ojibwa relationship had not started a hundred years earlier.

Erdrich's final narrator complicates the notion of simple causality or predestination, however, asking:

Did these occurrences have a paradigm in the settlement of the old scores and pains and betrayals that went back in time? Or are we working out the minor details of a strictly random pattern? Who is beading us? … Who are you and who am I, the beader or the bit of colored glass sewn onto the fabric of this earth?


In Mohanty's words, these questions emphasize “what there is and our relation to ‘it’” (158), rather than a claim of metaphysical comprehensiveness or confident foundationalism. These questions are foreshadowed by the appearances of indeterminacy stressed earlier in the narratives, especially in “Niswey,” concerning the unpredictability of the quill dyes, and also in “Neewin,” which reveals the difficulties of seeing in the unfinished pattern the “larger meaning of her design” (184). These examples problematize an easy one-to-one causal correlation between life and myth, between individual lives and historical determinacy. The fluidity and ongoing nature of mythological construction and its cyclical repetition, which is stressed throughout all the separate narratives in the novel, thwart any essentialist paradigm of Native American or Ojibwa identity. The confusion between the beaders and the beads reinforces the unpredictability of identity, chance, and fate. As the quotation above indicates, the beads (individual characters) are not merely passive objects. Indeed, they influence and may determine the shape of the design into which they are being beaded. Stressing the reciprocal nature of the pattern, however, is not the same as arguing for a “strictly random pattern.” Given the connections that are available to the reader and the ones that lie still hidden, the sentiment at the end of The Antelope Wife seems to echo the conclusions about order at the end of The Bingo Palace. In that novel the heroic trickster figure, Gerry Nanapush, reflects on his life in this way: “There was no such thing as a complete lack of order, only a design so vast it seemed unrepetitive up close, that is, until you sat doing nothing for so long that your brain ached and, one day, just maybe, you caught a wider glimpse” (226).

In the closing sentences of The Antelope Wife, Erdrich repeats some of this imagery. She writes, “We stand on tiptoe, trying to see over the edge, and only catch a glimpse of the next bead on the string, and the woman's hand moving, one day, the next, and the needle flashing over the horizon” (240). Through this final image of beading, Erdrich suggests that the pattern is there, but seeing it in its entirety is impossible, except for brief “glimpses.” This uncertainty is multiculturally inclusive: the narrator now refers to “we” and “us,” seeming to extend the collective audience of non-Native American readers into the beaded patterns she has been developing. She implies that our status as human beings prevents us from seeing fully the larger patterns of design, myth, and fate that affect all our lives. Erdrich provides us, like the mythic twins who begin the novel, only tantalizing glimpses or partial explanations about why something might have happened. She represents the connections between the material and spiritual realms as multilayered and at times inexplicable. Instead of leading to deconstructive postmodern despair or a sense of entropic futility, however, Erdrich's spiritually informed uncertainties lead her and her readers into a state of expectation. We are all (including the writer) standing on tiptoe “trying to see over the edge” into the future as a life force, driving us to keep moving “one day [to] the next” to a fuller understanding.

Erdrich's emphases on mystery, indeterminacy, multiple mythic meanings, and multicultural or intercultural patterns are part of a perfect narrative vehicle for articulating exactly how Ojibwa, and, by implication, Native American culture, can and does thrive in an environment of constant cultural endangerment and systematic desecration. Such a well crafted aesthetic vision can only help our larger collective society. As Mohanty argues, “Since cultural identities are not mysterious inner essences of groups of people but are fundamentally about social relations, especially relations among groups, the realist view gives us a way to envision multiculturalism as an inevitable part of a theory of justice in societies defined by deep and pervasive cultural inequalities” (239). What Mohanty and others might hope is that through such a brilliant and ongoing narrative world as Erdrich's, our society can acknowledge the overlap between Native American and European-based cultures while at the same time working to redress the pervasive inequalities and blood sins of the past. Erdrich's novels emphasize the layers of responsibility and interconnections between different ethnicities and cultures while still paying homage to Ojibwa traditions and mythology.

In The Antelope Wife, Erdrich implicitly suggests that Native American survival depends in part on extending traditional epistemologies that stress reciprocity, interdependence, and revision to the idea and practice of multiculturalism. When framed within the context of Ojibwa mythology, this intermixture can serve, paradoxically, as a means back into the empowering past. At the same time, Erdrich's insights into culture address the widest possible audience. Through the application of the Ojibwa sacred metaphysic to the contemporary multicultural world, Erdrich outlines ways of improving the broader collective society while also providing a sense of an empowered Ojibwa identity. Erdrich argues that literature informed by such a specific world-view as her own plays a key role in these accomplishments for all readers, including non-Native Americans. For example, while technology offers us the possibility of moving into a disembodied “sheer space,” free from “gravity itself, and every semblance of geography” (“Writer's Sense” 44), technological freedom has its limitations. In a statement that Mohanty would surely appreciate on a number of levels, Erdrich argues that we cannot lose our reciprocal relationship with the earth, since “we cannot escape our need for reference, identity, or our pull to landscapes that mirror our most intense feelings.”


  1. Catherine Rainwater writes about the dangers of using “Western” and “Indian” “as though the terms denoted homogeneous sets of people and ideas” (68). However, I agree with Rainwater when she argues that one can use generalizations cautiously but legitimately in order to “add to, qualify, or correct the general body of information” (69), not to claim absolute truth. This process modifies and amends generalizations with specific information. Her Dreams of Fiery Stars includes a valuable list of “pan-Indian” beliefs that underscores differences between Native American world-views and a Judeo-Christian one (158-59).

  2. In The Sacred Hoop, Paula Gunn Allen makes a similar statement. “It is reasonable,” she argues, “from an Indian point of view, that all literary forms should be interrelated, given the basic idea of the unity and relatedness of all the phenomena of life. Separation of parts into this or that category is not agreeable to American Indians, and the attempt to separate essentially unified phenomena results in distortion” (62). In The Metaphysics of Modern Existence, Vine Deloria calls for an integrative epistemological approach, one that includes combining ancient Native American world-views and mythologies with contemporary science. Deloria argues that modern physics already draws from non-Western cultures and traditions: physics is the first of the sciences to reject “the old divisions of subject-object in favor of the integrated event. The epistemology that emerges from modern physics is extremely compatible with the way in which many traditions think, speak, and derive both cultural values and rules for governing society” (211). For example, “Modern physicists, incapable of expressing space-time perceptions in the English language, now often refer to the Zuni or Hopi conception of space-time as the more accurate rendering of what they are finding at the subatomic level of experiments” (viii).

  3. In “The Religious Life of Native North Americans,” Ake Hultkrantz summarizes several key “pan Indian” concepts and addresses the dilemma of a nonhomogeneous cultural group. He writes: “North America is a continent with many diverse cultures, and it is therefore meaningless to speak about North American religion as a unified aggregate of beliefs, myths, and rituals. Still, there are several religious traits that are basically common to all the Indians but variously formalized and interpreted among different peoples. … To these common elements belongs the idea of another dimension of existence that permeates life and yet is different from normal, everyday existence. Concepts such as the Lakota wakan and the Algonquian manitou refer to this consciousness of another world, the world of spirits, gods, and wonders. … In twentieth-century pan-Indian religion the connection between terrestrial phenomena and the other world is extremely important” (3-4).

  4. Robert Warrior writes, “Our struggle at the moment is to continue to survive and work toward a time when we can replace the need for being preoccupied with survival with a more responsible and peaceful way of living within communities and with the ever-changing landscape that will ever be our only home” (126).

  5. Erdrich is of French Ojibwa and German American descent. She grew up in Wahpeton, North Dakota near an Ojibwa reservation where her mother grew up. Both her parents were teachers in the Bureau of Indian Affairs school in Wahpeton.

  6. Leuthold argues that the spiritually transformative power of art “lies at the heart of indigenous art's significance” (191) and plays a major role in establishing historical, cultural, conceptual, generational, and cosmological continuity (190).

  7. In her study The Island of the Anishnaabeg, Theresa S. Smith emphasizes the reciprocal and interdependent aspects of the Ojibwa life-world. The balance of the cosmos is determined by a rule of respect which is “born of the recognition that we exist in a web of interdependence” (194). In their study of Ojibwa world-views, Thomas W. Overholt and J. Baird Callicott write that Ojibwa mythology constructs the world “as a kind of drama in which actors of unequal power relate to each other through patterns of blessing and reciprocal obligation” (161). Irving A. Hallowell argues, “The more deeply we penetrate the world view of the Ojibwa the more apparent it is that ‘social relations’ between human beings (änícinábek) and other-than-human ‘persons’ are of cardinal significance” (“Ojibwa” 22-23).

  8. Weaver writes: “the single thing that most defines Indian literatures relates to this sense of community and commitment to it. … Literature is communist to the extent that it has a proactive commitment to Native community, including the wider community. In communities that have too often been fractured and rendered dysfunctional by the effects of more than 500 years of colonialism, to promote communitist values means to participate in the healing of grief and sense of exile felt by Native communities and the pained individuals in them” (43).

  9. Erdrich seems to cherish both her mixed-race status and her Ojibwa heritage. As she said in a recent interview: “To be of mixed blood is a great gift for a writer. I have one foot on tribal lands and one foot in middle-class life” (Max 116).

  10. I am indebted here to David Palumbo-Liu's definition of critical multiculturalism: “A critical multiculturalism explores the fissures, tensions, and sometimes contradictory demands of multiple cultures, rather than (only) celebrating the plurality of cultures by passing through them appreciatively” (5).

  11. In his discussion of Gerald Vizenor's Bearheart, Owens argues that Vizenor's work stands in “vivid contrast” to the work of Erdrich, Sherman Alexie, Adrian Louis, and others. Using deconstructive and liberating satire, Vizenor counters the victimization pervasive in Erdrich's fiction (Mixedblood Messages 86). Owens also emphasizes the negative aspects of Erdrich's writing in his earlier work, Other Destinies. About Love Medicine he writes, “the novel's fragmented narrative underscores the fragmentation of the Indian community and of the identity which begins with community and place; and the fragmentation of community, the rootlessness that results in an accumulation of often mundane tragedies among the assorted characters, subtly underscores the enormity of what has been lost” (204).

  12. According to Smith, traditional Ojibwa shamans possess unusual medicine or spiritual power. They can use this power for conjuring, for metamorphosis into different forms, and for effecting cures of prophecies (55).

  13. Smith states that Ojibwas believe the self to be tripartite, made up of “the body, the ego-soul (the part that leaves the body upon death), and the free or shadow-soul (the dream or traveling part)” (63).

  14. Such a dualistic visionary state bears a striking resemblance to what Jess Byron Hollenback labels “empowered ex-stasis” or the “transsensory” in his comparative study of mystical experiences: “The mystic and the medium utilize and direct their imaginations in ways that are no longer ‘merely’ imagining or ‘merely’ dreaming. For them the imagination is no longer just synonymous with the domain of subject experience” (200). Exstasis can therefore lead to “clairvoyant, hence objective, modes of knowing.”

  15. Like June Morrissey, who arrives on Marie Kashpaw's doorstep in Love Medicine wearing black beads on a silver chain and who is also associated with deer and the “invisible ones who live in the woods” (Love Medicine 65), Other Side of the Earth represents the persistence of the mythical spiritual realm as it is blended into the material realm.

  16. As Ruth Landes writes, “The Ojibwa regarded all religion and magic as ‘medicine’ or as ‘power,’ expressed through visions and purchased formulas and exercised responsibly or hostilely toward society” (42). Membership in the midewiwin or medicine society includes the following categories: “(1) patients cured of disease in his life through the Life midéwiwin or treated after death … (2) ritual officers, and (3) curing shamans or midé doctors” (76).

  17. Hallowell argues that one of the prime values in Ojibwa culture is sharing with others: “Hoarding, or any manifestation of greed, is discountenanced” (47).

  18. Ojibwa women's relationship to the adolescent dream-fast is interesting. Smith observes: “We should note that while women, as well as men, could and did embark on vision quests, it was not required of women and was less frequent among them. The belief was—and is—that women are already ‘complete’ humans because they have the power to give life” (63n5).

  19. Allen also emphasizes the sacred dimension of the land: “It is reasonably certain that all Native American peoples view the land as holy—as intelligent, mystically powerful, and infused with supernatural vitality” (Off the Reservation 41).

Works Cited

Allen, Paula Gunn. Off the Reservation: Reflections on Boundary-Busting, Border-Crossing Loose Canons. Boston: Beacon, 1998.

———. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon, 1986.

Deloria, Vine, Jr. God Is Red: A Native View of Religion. 2nd ed. Golden, CO: Fulcrum, 1992.

———. The Metaphysics of Modern Existence. San Francisco: Harper, 1979.

Erdrich, Louise. The Antelope Wife. New York: HarperFlamingo, 1998.

———. The Bingo Palace. 1994. New York: HarperPerennial, 1998.

———. Love Medicine. New York: Bantam, 1984.

———. “A Writer's Sense of Place.” Place of Sense: Essays in Search of the Midwest. Ed. Michael Martone. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1988. 34-44.

Hallowell, A. Irving. “Ojibwa Ontology, Behavior, and World View.” Culture in History: Essays in Honor of Paul Radin. Ed. Stanley Diamond. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1960. 20-52.

———. “The Role of Dreams in Ojibwa Culture.” The Dream and Human Societies. Ed. G. E. Von Grunebaum and Roger Caillois. Berkeley: U of Californa P, 1966. 267-92.

Hollenback, Jess Byron. Mysticism: Experience, Response, and Empowerment. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1996.

Hultkrantz, Ake. “The Religious Life of Native North Americans.” Native American Religions. Ed. Lawrence E. Sullivan. New York: Macmillan, 1989. 3-18.

Johnston, Basil. Ojibway Heritage. New York: Columbia UP, 1976.

Landes, Ruth. Ojibwa Religion and the Midéwiwin. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1968.

Leuthold, Steven. Indigenous Aesthetics: Native Art, Media, and Identity. Austin: U of Texas P, 1998.

Max, D. T. “Tales of Burning Love.” Harper's Bazaar. Apr. 1996: 116-17.

McPherson, Dennis, and J. Douglas Rabb. Indian from the Inside: A Study in Ethno-Metaphysics. Thunder Bay, Ont.: Lakehead University, Centre for Northern Studies, 1993.

Mohanty, Satya P. Literary Theory and the Claims of History: Postmodernism, Objectivity, Multicultural Politics. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1997.

Overholt, Thomas W., and J. Baird Callicott. Clothed-in-Fur and Other Tules: An Introduction to an Ojibwa Word View. New York: UP of America, 1982.

Owens, Louis. Mixedblood Messages: Literature, Film, Family, Place. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1998.

———. Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1992.

Palumbo-Liu, David. Introduction. The Ethnic Canon: Histories, Institutions, and Interventions. Ed. David Palumbo-Liu. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1995. 1-27.

Rainwater, Catherine. Dreams of Fiery Stars: The Transformations of Native American Fiction. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1999.

Smith, Theresa S. The Island of the Anishnaabeg: Thunderers and Water Monsters in the Traditional Ojibwe Life-World. Moscow: U of Idaho P, 1995.

Warrior, Robert Allen. Tribal Secrets: Recovering American Indian Intellectual Traditions. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1995.

Weaver, Jace. That the People Might Live: Native American Literatures and Native American Community. New York: Oxford UP, 1997.

Andrew S. Teverson (essay date winter 2001)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9088

SOURCE: Teverson, Andrew S. “Fairy Tale Politics: Free Speech and Multiculturalism in Haroun and the Sea of Stories.Twentieth Century Literature 47, no. 4 (winter 2001): 444-68.

[In the following essay, Teverson explores Salman Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories as “a complex allegory that emphasizes the importance of exchange between different cultural groupings,” comparing it with such works as Arabian Nights, Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, and Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland.]

Jacobites must speak in children's rhymes,
As preachers do in Parables, sometimes.

Pynchon (350)

Late in his life, either in the latter decades of the twelfth century or the first decades of the thirteenth, there is evidence that Farid ud-Din Attar, the Sufi mystic and poet, fell afoul of the Persian authorities and was charged with heresy. He had, according to Edward G. Browne, “aroused the anger and stirred up the persecuting spirit of an orthodox theologian” who denounced him as “a heretic deserving death” and caused his works to be burned, his property to be ransacked, and Attar himself to be sent from his homeland to hide (in Attar's own words) “like a ruby in Badakhstan” (Browne 509).1 As with much of Attar's biography, the exact nature of his offense is obscure, although it is reasonable to assume, on the basis of the vivid contempt Attar displays for temporal authorities in his poetry, that he did not exert himself to find favor with the political and religious powers of the land. It is also reasonable to assume that Attar was not unaware of the risks he was running by promoting his faith and ideas through his poetry; his masterpiece Manteq at-Tair (The Conference of the Birds) is replete with examples of Sufis who have been dubbed heretics for their unorthodox beliefs and either driven into banishment or murdered by jealous tyrants.

Salman Rushdie first makes reference to The Conference of the Birds in his debut novel Grimus (1975), the story of a group of immortals who, shunned by (or shunning) conventional society, converge on Calf mountain, where they hope to find solace from their wandering. In this early novel, there is no evidence to suggest that Rushdie is aware of the fate of the poem's author or that he wishes that fate to form an allusive subtext for his narrative. Attar's ornithological myth seems useful to Rushdie to the extent that it provides thematic and structural support for his meditation on exile, but it is never overtly associated with pleas for freedom of speech or freedom from persecution. When Rushdie returns to The Conference of the Birds nearly 20 years later in Haroun and the Sea of Stories, it is again without allusion to the biography of its author. Attar and his fate are not mentioned in the text or, to my knowledge, in any commentary that Rushdie has made on the text. By this time, however, the similarities between Rushdie's own experience and Attar's have become striking. Rushdie too has “aroused the anger and stirred up the persecuting spirit of an orthodox theologian,” he has had his work burned by outraged believers, he has been denounced by the Islamic authorities as a heretic deserving death, and he has gone to hide himself like a ruby in North London. It is tempting to believe, on this basis, that Rushdie makes reference to Attar's work in Haroun either because he is aware of Attar's persecution and wishes to draw strength from the fact that he is not the first (or the last) to suffer for expressing opinions in a fictional form or because he is unaware of Attar's fate but recognizes in The Conference of the Birds the work of a man who is already intimate enough with the mechanisms of earthly oppression to compose the following lines:

A [divine] king is not one of those common fools
Who snatches at a crown and thinks he rules.
The true king reigns in mild humility,
Unrivalled in his firm fidelity.
An earthly king acts righteously at times,
But also stains the earth with hateful crimes,
And then whoever hovers nearest him
Will suffer most from his destructive whim.


The persecution experienced by Attar in the twelfth century and the persecution experienced by Salman Rushdie in the twentieth are, of course, of a different order. Attar was persecuted because, as a Sufi, he was expounding a doctrine thought to be heretical by the Islamic authorities; Rushdie is being persecuted because of his secular beliefs and because of his overt attack on Islamic fundamentalism. The persecution of Attar, moreover, was a local affair, involving a sect within Islam; the trials of Rushdie have attained global significance and have contributed to the polarization of relations between the Islamic nations and the West. There are also significant differences in the role and function attributed to storytelling in the work of both writers. For Rushdie, the freedom to tell stories is connected to freedom of speech and personal liberty. Attar, by contrast, is not constructing a broader argument for a free society but is suggesting that secular storytelling is useful in a religious context, because it can be used to encourage readers (or listeners) to engage actively with the arguments of the text and endure an interpretative struggle toward revelation and religious understanding. Rushdie has no such conception of religious truth, and while he, like Attar, incorporates obscurity into his storytelling, he does so not to promote the belief that there is a transcendental “truth” beyond ordinary human understanding but to suggest that there is no definitive, final truth “out there” to be apprehended. In Rushdie's novels, unlike Attar's poetry, to use the words of Carlos Fuentes, “truth is the search for truth, nothing is pre-established and knowledge is only what both of us—reader and writer—can imagine” (245).

Despite the substantial differences in the philosophical and ideological outlook of these two writers, however, and despite the very different social and cultural contexts within which they operate, both are persecuted for expressing ideas that were considered heretical by orthodox Islam, and, in both cases, the focus of this Islamic suspicion is the literary medium in which they work. Both, moreover, use literary allegory (Attar avant la lettre, Rushdie après la déluge) to respond to their detractors, mounting a defense of storytelling in the face of an extreme and potentially brutal form of censorship.

In Attar's poem this defense is mounted primarily through the figure of the eloquent hoopoe who uses stories both to encourage the birds in their quest and to enable them, as representatives of the faithful, to negotiate the complexities of the way. The poem tells the tale of a group of birds that gather from all over the world to seek their spiritual king, the Simurg: a symbol of the Sufi conception of God, into whom the bird adepts will be assimilated if they can endure the rigors of their quest.2 The hoopoe, as figure of the sheikh who guides the Sufi adept along the path of righteousness, appears at the start of the poem to tell the birds about their king, and the birds, initially, respond effusively and determine to take wing to the distant mountain of Kaf where the Simurg lives. When they start to consider the journey's length, however, more worldly concerns assert themselves, and the birds, one by one, decline the hoopoe's offer. The nightingale claims that he has a “lover's thirst” (35) and will not abandon his beloved for a single night; the heron suggests that he is too wrapped up in his own misery to leave “the empty shoreline of the sea” (46). As each bird “according to his kind” (35) offers its apologies, however, the hoopoe responds with stories that help it to overcome its reluctance. The nightingale, for instance, is told “The Story of a Dervish and a Princess” in which a dervish becomes a fool because he is preoccupied with worldly love rather than higher love, and the heron is told a rather oblique tale about a hermit who questions the ocean and discovers that the sea cannot provide a reliable route to salvation because “[l]awlessness is her law” (47). Having been swayed by the hoopoe's eloquence, the birds begin their journey, but after only a short distance they halt to make the hoopoe their official leader and to discuss some of their reservations. The majority of the remaining poem is then taken up with this halt, during which the hoopoe, having used his storytelling skills to encourage the birds to join him, now devotes himself to maintaining their enthusiasm for the venture. The hoopoe thus comes to represent both the ancient tradition of Sanskrit storytelling from which Attar has taken him and the value of the narrative arts in which he is adept. Given this significance it is no surprise, in Salman Rushdie's novella, that when the Water Genie asks Haroun to choose a bird to carry them to Kahani (story in Hindustani)3 Haroun chooses the hoopoe, the bird that “in the old stories … leads all other birds through many dangerous places to their ultimate goal” (64). As in Attar's poem, this hoopoe signals Rushdie's connection with an ancient Sanskrit tradition. It also—at an early point of the narrative—introduces two of the primary objectives of the novella: to reassert the value of storytelling after the fatwa, and to defend free speech against what he sees as the forces of silence and oppression.


The exploration of the value of fiction in Haroun and the Sea of Stories is initiated with the question that Mr. Sengupta flings at Haroun's mother, Soraya, and that Haroun later repeats to his distraught father: what's the use of stories that aren't even true? This and other objections to storytelling in Haroun recall the Socratic objection relayed by Plato in The Republic that, for reasons both metaphysical and social, art has no claim to truth and therefore no value. On the one hand the artist is offering not a truthful representation of reality but an imperfect copy, and on the other the artist is acting upon an irrational, indulgent impulse and thus cannot proceed by rational means toward a true and philosophic understanding of actuality. These arguments are reflected throughout the tale, but primarily in Mr. Sengupta's condemnation of Haroun's father, Rashid, and in the Sengupta-inspired note that Haroun's mother, Soraya, leaves behind her: “You are only interested in pleasure, but a proper man would know that life is a serious business. Your brain is full of make-believe, so there is no room for the facts” (22). Haroun and the Sea of Stories, in the course of the narrative, offers several responses to these arguments, some of which are almost as old as the challenge to storytelling itself. Firstly, Rushdie reformulates the response to Plato suggested by Aristotle in his Poetics and later appropriated by Philip Sidney in his defense of poetry against its Puritan detractors, that the poet (or storyteller) “nothing affirms, and therefore never lyeth” (111). Rashid's intention is not to relay “facts” or tell the “truth,” so he can hardly be accused of an intention to mislead. “Nobody ever believed anything a politico said,” Haroun observes, but “everyone had complete faith in Rashid because he always admitted that everything he told them was completely untrue and made up out of his own head” (20).

A more important defense of storytelling offered in Haroun arises from Rushdie's sense that experience abhors simplification, and that the ambiguities of storytelling can do more justice to “reality” than the supposed certainties of rational inquiry can. Rashid's refusal to offer facts and truths, and his preference for yarns and fictions, make him more trustworthy than the “truth-tellers” because he is not attempting to reduce an irreducible reality into political sound bites and captions. In the revealingly titled conversation that Rushdie conducted with Gunter Grass in 1985, “Fictions Are Lies That Tell the Truth.” Rushdie tells Grass:

[T]he thing that made me become a writer was … a desire simply to tell stories. I grew up in a literary tradition. That's to say that the kind of stories I was told as a child, by and large, were Arabian Nights kind of stories. It was those sort of fairy tales. … And the belief was that by telling stories in that way, in that marvellous way, you could actually tell a kind of truth which you couldn't tell in other ways.


“I think using these fairy tales” notes Grass, in agreement with Rushdie,

is bringing us to another kind of truth: to a much much richer truth than you can get by collecting facts of this flat realism. We have many realities. Our problem is that we don't accept that there are many realities. This side only wants this reality, and the other only their own reality. This is one of the reasons we still have this struggle.


Both writers in these comments are reformulating an argument that had been made several decades earlier by Walter Benjamin in his essay “The Storyteller,” in which it is argued that storytelling is the antithesis of information, because information thrives on containment and limitation (“prompt verifiability”) while good storytelling is characterized by expansibility and ambiguity. “[I]t is half the art of storytelling' Benjamin suggests, “to keep a story free from explanation as one reproduces it”:

The most extraordinary things, marvellous things, are related with the greatest accuracy, but the psychological connection of the events is not forced on the reader. It is left up to him to interpret things the way he understands them, and thus the narrative achieves an amplitude that information lacks.


For Rushdie, Grass, and Benjamin, this means that storytelling, when unfettered, becomes the antithesis of totalitarian thinking, because it resists the fascistic (or Platonic) drive to control society by limiting potential definitions and controlling interpretations. Storytelling is complicit with “liberated man,” as Benjamin argues toward the end of his essay, because it “tells us of the earliest arrangements that mankind made to shake off the nightmare which the myth had placed upon its chest” (102).4

This is a point made vivid, in Haroun and the Sea of Stories, in the fear that Khattam Shud—representative of the totalizing tradition from Plato to Khomeini—has of storytelling. For Khattam Shud, storytelling is one of the greatest threats to his power, because the eclecticism implicit in any uncensored grouping of stories, along with the expansiveness and ambiguity of any one narrative, undermine the lust for closure and finitude that his name (completely finished in Hindustani) represents. He is obsessed with the desire to establish a univocal interpretation of culture by policing who may and who may not speak, and the story sea, as living embodiment of heteroglossia and polyphony, is a fluid rebuttal of this politics of exclusion. When Haroun asks why he hates stories so much, given that stories are such fun, Khattam Shud replies:

“The world, however, is not for Fun. … The world is for Controlling.”

“Which world?” Haroun made himself ask.

“Your world, my world, all worlds,” came the reply. “They are all to be Ruled. And inside every single story, inside every Stream in the Ocean, there lies a world, a story-world, that I cannot Rule at all. …


The aim of the novella, it is hardly necessary to add, is to reveal the destructive potential of this viewpoint, by showing how the frenzied pursuit of totalitarian rule results in a society riven with jealousy, suspicion, and mutual mistrust, and by showing how, contrary to the logic of authoritarian rule, freedom of speech and freedom of thought will ultimately create a stronger community.

This leads us to the third defense of storytelling presented in Haroun: that free narration is a form of free speech and thus is good for society. It is only through the free exchange of ideas and words that members of a community can achieve their full potential. This “free” society is represented in Haroun by the Guppees who defend the story sea because it reflects the diversity of their own community, a multicultural utopia in which mechanical hoopoes consort with many-mouthed fish and Archimboldoesque vegetable men fraternize with blue-bearded water genies. In this society “the Power of Speech” is regarded as “the greatest Power of all” and is “exercised to the full” (119), a political principle that may give Haroun and Rashid pause for thought when the city's preparations for war are hounded by disorder and chaos, but which is ultimately validated when the Guppees overrun the Chupwalas:

The Pages of Gup, now that they had talked through everything so fully, fought hard, remained united, supported each other when required to do so, and in general looked like a force with a common purpose. All those arguments and debates, all that openness, had created powerful bonds of fellowship between them. The Chupwalas, on the other hand, turned out to be a disunited rabble … their vows of silence and their habits of secrecy had made them suspicious and distrustful of one another.


A free society in which there are no limits to what can be said and what can be told, Rushdie is suggesting, will always prove stronger than a society that is superficially bound by imposed government policy and enforced ideology.

This assertion of the importance of absolute free speech, however, does raise some problems that Rushdie fails to confront in Haroun and the Sea of Stories. In theory, freedom of expression leads toward a more tolerant society in which a multitude of different, competing ideas can coexist side by side. In practice, however, it is usually the case that, even in societies in which there is no direct censorship, indirect censorship based on various social and economic factors will still operate. As Rodney Smolla argues:

The marketplace of ideas, no less than the marketplace of commerce, will inevitably be biased in favour of those with the resources to ply their wares. The ideas of the wealthy and powerful will have greater access to the market than the ideas of the poor and disenfranchised.


By arguing, in Haroun, that the principle of free speech is sufficient to guarantee a free society, Rushdie is, uncharacteristically, ignoring the impact of social and economic inequality on an individual's ability to speak out, and so failing to engage with arguments that suggest that society would be more just if speech was, in certain conditions, regulated to protect the rights and freedoms of the underprivileged and unrepresented. Rushdie is also ignoring the argument (that his own emphasis on the power of words in Haroun would paradoxically suggest) that language, far from being a materially innocuous tool, has the capacity to cause harm and should, as such, be subject to legal controls comparable to those that govern acts of physical violence.

For these and similar reasons Haroun has been criticized for naivate and for excessive simplification of complex political issues. As Srinivas Aravamudan has argued, it “becomes a banal didactic fiction that demonstrates … everything that is wrong with liberal assumptions about literature” (327). It assumes that “pluralist individualism (as large a variety of opinions as possible will be best for all concerned)” (328) is preferable in all circumstances regardless of context, and regardless of the fact that “very different kinds of multicultural considerations have to be weighed and balanced in a socially responsible manner” (325). It also assumes that speech does not have the capacity to cause direct harm, and so fails to recognize that “[m]ost speech is attempting to act upon the world in some fashion and … therefore relates to its background in a pragmatic and materially effective way” (324).

Some commentators have attempted to defend Rushdie's tale against criticisms such as these by suggesting that Rushdie is not, after all, writing a polemical work, and that it should not be read as a serious piece of political thought. “Haroun is not a tract,” James Fenton observes; “ideas are played with, but not forced into too tidy an order.” “This is a fable without a moral,” notes Rushdie himself: “It uses all the techniques in a fable without trying to operate a homily at the end” (Tushingham 5). In both these arguments the implication is that Haroun is exempt from rigorous critique because it is (as Rushdie's narrator suggests ironically of Shame) “only … a sort of modern fairy tale, so … nobody need get upset, or take anything … too seriously” (70). The narrator of Shame, however, clearly means this statement to be disingenuous and for the reader to understand that fairy tale status (pace Grass) does not disqualify a story from being political. The same must also be true of Haroun. The ideas may not be arranged in too tidy an order, and there may be no clear “homily” at the end, but in many respects Haroun remains a tract in favour of freedom of speech and the free exchange of ideas. Rushdie himself acknowledges this in a conversation held with David Tushingham: “[t]here is obviously a kind of view,” he notes, “that the values of language are superior to those of silence. So in so far as there is an author's message, it's there” (5). Unfortunately, this is precisely the message that critics of Haroun are objecting to. Rushdie, according to commentators like Aravamudan, has exchanged a blinkered and unthinking religious fundamentalism for an equally blinkered, equally unthinking form of “first amendment fundamentalism” (324, 328).

It is perhaps fair to note that Aravamudan does not extend his criticisms of Haroun to the fiction produced by Rushdie preceding the fatwa. “When [his] novelistic skill is applied to the political shenanigans of an Indira Gandhi, a Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, or a Zia-ul-Haq,” he argues, “Rushdie's novels achieve the status of responsible and context-specific political satire mediated through magic realism” (327). It is only in Haroun that Rushdie seems to advocate the blanket application of abstract principles and, in so doing, fails to recognize the importance of deploying “flexible and differential pragmatics” (327) in sensitive multicultural situations. The implication of this is that Rushdie, composing Haroun under the stress and strain of an exceptional situation, abandoned his customary political sensitivity to produce a work that (for reasons that are understandable and perhaps forgivable) is little more than a shout of anger and frustration, and should not be regarded as representative of his thinking.

Aravamudan's critique of Haroun provides a counterbalance to the growing number of essays on the novella that celebrate its vision of free speech without recognizing its tendency to simplify these issues for the sake of utopian allegory or for the sake of the children's book market, at which it is, in part, aimed. However, while there is a strain of untheorized bitterness that blunts the edge of Haroun's satire and makes some of its ideological postures look hollow, there is also more to the text's political allegory than Aravamudan gives it credit for. The battle waged by the Guppees against Khattam Shud is, after all, not just a battle for the freedom to say what you want when you want—it is also a battle fought over competing ideas of nationhood. The ocean of stories is not just a vision of “free narratives” floating vacuously in a world of speech without consequences, it is also an allegory of a utopian national culture that allows its members to be who they are without fear of persecution. To assess the ideological position expressed in Haroun more fully, therefore, we should not limit our discussion of the significance of storytelling to its implications for free speech: we should also consider the use of storytelling in Haroun in relation to issues of national and cultural identity. In order to do this, I should like, in the following section, to begin by exploring the cultural significance of storytelling traditions and narrative genres that Rushdie is drawing upon. The discussion will then broaden to show how Rushdie's idiosyncratic use of narrative tradition reflects and reinforces an argument that is being made about national identity in other dimensions of the text.


Haroun and the Sea of Stories can be described as a short literary fantasy that combines traditional elements of fairy tale with the author's own creative and surreal imaginings. It operates as a children's quest narrative that features a young boy traveling to distant lands in search of a happy ending and as a potent political allegory that confronts pertinent contemporary issues, ranging from the restrictions on freedom of speech imposed by fundamentalist regimes to the pollution of the environment by irresponsible multinational corporations. As such it can be located in the subgenre, suggested by Jean-Pierre Durix, of “the children's story which only adults can really understand” (343), a tradition that incorporates Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726) and Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland (1865).

The influence of both these predecessors is evident in the style and the structure of Haroun and the Sea of Stories. All three narratives use fantastical and nonsensical scenarios to conceal (or reveal) a satirical intention, and all three are organized around the adventures of a central hero who begins the tale in a comfortable domestic environment, travels out of that environment to visit a fantasy world full of peculiarities and marvels—though strangely parallel to his or her own world—and then returns home to find that his or her understanding of the home world has been clarified.5

Despite the similarities between Haroun and texts such as Gulliver's Travels and Alice in Wonderland, however, Carroll's and Swift's tales, unlike Rushdie's, both derive from a predominantly English storytelling tradition. Alice in Wonderland was heavily influenced by previous Victorian “juvenile” literature such as Catherine Sinclair's Holiday House and Frederick Marryat's Masterman Ready, and also reveals a debt to the fantastical, nonsensical situations portrayed in popular British fairy tales and nursery rhymes.6 Swift's novel, similarly, is influenced by popular British oral or chapbook fairy tales such as The History of Tom Thumbe and The History of Jack and the Giants.7 Rushdie's fantasy, by contrast, demonstrates a resistance to the tradition's exclusive reliance on European narrative forms and European modes of perception by taking this tradition, saturated in British folklore and fairy tale, and merging it with an equivalent tradition in Indian storytelling that derives from Indic, Persian, or Arabic oral and literary sources. In addition to a host of character types and scenarios reminiscent of Western fairy tales, for instance, Rushdie gives us plotmotifs and expressions from The Arabian Nights, Bhatta Somadeva's eleventh-century Ocean of Streams of Story (Katha Sarit Sagara), and, as we have seen, Attar's The Conference of the Birds.

There are, of course, elements in Alice in Wonderland and Gulliver's Travels that also derive from texts such as these. The Arabian Nights first became popular in Britain in the early eighteenth century, and, since Swift, as Peter Caracciolo notes, was among its first English readers, it is probable that oddities recalling “the wonderful East” in Gulliver's Travels, such as the floating island populated by transcendentalist astronomers, owe something to The Nights (2). The figure of the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland, similarly, with his hookah and his “languid, sleepy” voice, draws upon stereotypes of the drug-addled oriental that narrative collections like The Nights have been associated with since their introduction into Europe by Antoin Galland. These orientalist elements, however, do not represent attempts to incorporate the non-European narrative into the substance and body of the story; neither do they represent attempts to convey the spirit of Arabic or Sanskrit storytelling to a new readership. On the contrary, they isolate fantastic or absurd features of the non-European narrative tradition to emphasize their strangeness, and to play upon European ideas of the foreign and exotic. Rushdie, by contrast (although this is a contentious point),8 aims to transform the genre by placing both narrative traditions on an equal footing, by showing how the two are interdependent and intertwined.

Rushdie's attempt to demonstrate the compatibility of tales from different cultures is most apparent in the episode in which Haroun takes a drink from the story sea. Haroun is miserable, having failed to wish hard enough for the return of his father's storytelling abilities, so Iff, the Water Genie, extracts a story from the water to cheer him up. Haroun drinks the story water and finds himself transported to a virtual landscape in which the story is being played out before him. First he has to dispatch several monsters, which he does with considerable ease; then he finds himself at a white stone tower:

At the top of the tower was (what else but) a single window, out of which there gazed (who else but) a captive princess. What Haroun was experiencing, though he didn't know it, was Princess Rescue Story Number S/1001/ZHT/420/41(r)xi; and because the princess in this particular story had recently had a haircut and therefore had no long tresses to let down (unlike the heroine of Princess Rescue Story G/1001/RIM/777/M(w)i, better known as “Rapunzel”), Haroun as the hero was required to climb up the outside of the tower by clinging to the cracks between the stones with his bare hands and feet.


Rushdie is clearly being playful here. This passage creates a comic effect by drawing attention to the formulaic conventions of fairy tale and then confounding those conventions by introducing the extravagant device of a princess with a haircut. Despite this frivolous approach, however, Rushdie's parodic fairy tale notation suggests a serious point. The first notation, S/1001/ZHT/420/41(r)xi, calls to mind The Arabian Nights. The number 1001 evokes the thousand and one nights, and the letters ZHT (possibly) signify Scheherazade. The second notation, G/1001/RIM/777/M(w)i, also suggests the presence of The Arabian Nights (1001) but then alludes to the Brothers Grimm, the capital letters spelling GRIMM unambiguously, the lowercase w standing for Wilhelm. Both are variants, as Rushdie notes, of the “princess rescue story” that has become popularized as “Rapunzel.”

This playful notation alerts the reader to the fact that the tale “Rapunzel” is not exclusive to the Grimms' collection, and that different variants of the tale, such as the mysterious S/1001, are also floating around in the veins of the story sea. The variant of “Rapunzel” that is now most popular is undoubtedly that which was collected by Grimm in 1812, but—as Rushdie reminds the reader cryptically—this is not the only version, nor indeed is it the first. Grimm took the tale from a story by Friedrich Schultz, who had in turn borrowed it from a French tale, “Persinette,” by Mile. Charlotte-Rose de la Force (published anonymously in Contes des Contes in 1692) (Zipes 729). It is unclear where de la Force took it from, although there is an Italian variant in Basile's Pentamerone, and it is probable that Basile's version, through various complex paths, is related to early Indian versions of the tale.9 Just as Rushdie implies in his parody, therefore, there are Indian and Middle Eastern precedents for a ta le that is now predominantly thought of as European. The implication of this is that the tales of different cultures are not separated from one another by rigid cultural divides and “walls of force” but may share a number of significant features.

Perhaps this is giving too much weight to what is, arguably, little more than a passing joke on Rushdie's part. S/1001/ZHT/420/41(r)xi and G/1001/RIM/777/M(w)i are, perhaps, only jests at the expense of folklore indexers such as Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson that were not meant to be subjected to rigorous analysis. However, there are other ways that Haroun suggests to the reader that narratives evolve through a process of cultural exchange and fruitful intermingling, and are not (as the Brothers Grimm and later the Nazis were eager to suggest) indications of the purity of the national voice. This idea is presented to the reader pictorially in the image of the story sea that Haroun examines only a page before he drinks the princess rescue stories. The story waters, as Haroun observes, are “made up of a thousand thousand thousand and one different currents, each one a different colour, weaving in and out of one another like a liquid tapestry of breathtaking complexity.” As Iff explains:

Different parts of the Ocean contained different sorts of stories, and as all the stories that had ever been told and many that were still in the process of being invented could be found here, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was in fact the biggest library in the universe. And because the stories were held there in fluid form they retained the ability to change, to become new versions of themselves, to join up with other stories and so become yet other stories; so that unlike a library of books, the Ocean of Streams of Story was much more than a storeroom of yarns. It was not dead but alive.


It is this livingness, for Rushdie, that characterizes storytelling. Stories may seem to be “fixed” or “stable” if they are fixed artificially—by a canon of “official” narratives, or by direct censorship. The most cursory investigation of a story's genealogy, however, will reveal that the borders and boundaries we have erected around the stories of different peoples and nations are permeable, and that a serious assessment of a narrative's ancestry must include a recognition of the process and performance of cultural interaction. It is in this respect that the story sea as an image of Rushdie's hybrid sources comes to reflect one of the dominant arguments presented in the plot of Haroun—that the establishment of strict and impermeable boundaries between different cultures gives a false impression of the “purity” of each culture and prevents cultural groups from discovering that their respective social narratives provide as much of a basis for dialogue and communication as they do for segregation and separation. As a testament to this, the troubles that Haroun encounters on the moon of Kahani are largely the result of the separation of the moon into two halves. There is a light side populated by the talkative Guppees (derived from gup, gossip in Hindustani) on which the sun always shines, and a dark side populated by the silent Chupwalas (quiet fellows in Hindustaru) that is in perpetual darkness. The division between the two sides is maintained by a wall of force erected by the Guppees to keep the Chupwalas out, and it is this wall that is responsible for the tensions between the two communities. Its name, “Chattergy's Wall,” after the king of the Guppees, recalls the Roman emperor Hadrian's barrier against the Picts and the Scots, but it also invokes the Berlin wall separating communist East Germany and democratic West Germany which had come down the year before Rushdie published Haroun. Its symbolic function is the same as that of the wall constructed by the king in Edward Bond's play Lear (1972): it is meant to ensure the safety of the populace, but it ends up being a cage, a trap, which causes hatred, suffering, and brutality.

The Guppees, in Rushdie's tale, seem to have justice on their side, since they are defending their moon Kahani against the tyranny of Khattam Shud. As the tale progresses, however, it becomes increasingly apparent that the Guppees are as much responsible for Khattam Shud's reign as the Chupwalas, because it is their machinery that has created the division between the two cultures. They developed techniques with which to bring the moon's rotation under control, separating day from night and Chupwala from Guppee, and it is this separation that has allowed Khattam Shud's fanatical opposition to the Guppees to flourish. The success of Haroun's quest, therefore, depends on his being able to undo this binary opposition, which he does in the end by causing the moon to turn “so that it is no longer half in light, half in darkness” (170). Light shines down on Chup for the first time, causing all Khattam Shud's shadow battalions to melt away to nothing.

Once the binary is undone, the people of Gup and Chup devise a peace settlement that permits “a dialogue” (193) between the two groups. “Night and Day, Speech and Silence,” according to this peace, “would no longer be separated into Zones by Twilight strips and Walls of Force” (191). This radical transformation in the way that the two cultures interact is prelude to a total reassessment of their understanding of one an other. Each realizes that the other is not as bad, or as different, as they first thought—and both realize that the distinctive differences between the two cultures can provide opportunities for productive exchange rather than destructive enmity. This is something that the perceptive young Haroun has realized several chapters previously while watching Mudra, the shadow warrior from the “enemy” city of Chup, do his martial dance. At first he thinks:

How many opposites are at war in this battle between Gup and Chup! Gup is bright and Chup is dark. Gup is warm and Chup is freezing cold. Gup is all chattering and noise, whereas Chup is silent as a shadow. Guppees love the Ocean, Chupwalas try to poison it. Guppees love Stories, and Speech; Chupwalas, it seems, hate these things just as strongly. …


And yet, he recognizes,

it's not as simple as that … because the dance of the Shadow Warrior showed him that silence had its own grace and beauty (just as speech could be graceless and ugly); and that Action could be as noble as Words; and that creatures of darkness could be as lovely as the children of light. “If Guppees and Chupwalas didn't hate each other so,” he thought, “they might actually find each other pretty interesting. Opposites attract, as they say.”


In a tale that is largely about oppositions—between fantasy and reality, between child and adult, between good and bad—Rushdie is being careful to suggest that there can be “dialogue” and “crossover” between categories.

On several levels, therefore, Rushdie has created in Haroun a complex allegory that emphasizes the importance of exchange between different cultural groupings. At the level of theme, he has shown how Guppees and Chupwalas are able to create a better society when rigorous separation is not enforced; at the level of symbolism, he has given us the potent image of the story sea that is only healthy when stories from diverse places are permitted to intermingle freely; finally, and perhaps most innovatively, he has created a story sea in his own text by drawing eclectically from diverse narrative traditions (Arabic, Persian, Indian, and European) and allowing those traditions to cross-pollinate one another.

The allegory of Haroun, in this sense, is one that works, like traditional fabular allegories, by creating situations in the plot that “speak otherwise” about social, cultural, and political events; but it is also possible to argue that Rushdie has extended the reach of the traditional fable by making intertextuality serve an additional allegorical function.10 Not only is the story of Haroun about the dangers of ethnocentrism and its terrible impact on a fantastical other world, but the eclecticism of Haroun as a piece of writing also operates as material evidence of the benefits (in terms of lively and dynamic storytelling) that can be accrued from a willingness to traverse freely across the boundaries of diverse cultural traditions. The real tragedy of Khattam Shud, in this respect, must be that he is not only confounded by the opponents he comes up against within the tale—Haroun and the representatives of the story sea—he is also confounded by the very materiality of the story within which he finds himself. He is thus, we might say, completely finished before he is even begun.


In Rushdie's vision of a plethora of “small” stories, all set in opposition to the “grand mythology” promoted by Khattam Shud, there is an echo of Lyotard's famous distinction between petits récits and metanarratives. Khattam Shud's is the totalized account of experience that must suppress difference to maintain the illusion of its own totality; the story sea is a riot of diverse narratives that resist the drive toward assimilation and incorporation, and in so doing responds to a lyotardian call to be “witness to the unpresentable” and to “wage war on totality” (82). Whereas Lyotard's vision of competing narratives remains at the level of metaphysical generality, however, Rushdie's allegorical revisitation of Lyotard's attack on the Platonic tradition has a more specific focus. His aim is not to reimagine a form(lessness) for truth in the abstract, although this might well be one of the implications of his allegory; his aim is to reimagine a form(lessness) of social and communal interaction. Or, more specifically, his aim is to imagine a form for the nation, if nation is understood not as a unified and holistic entity defined by the exclusion of “others” but as a fluid, provisional entity defined by its capacity to incorporate difference and variation. In this respect, Rushdie's Ocean of Story can be described with more accuracy as an attempt to give shape to the Lyotardian ideal as it is appropriated by Homi Bhabha in service of a description of the disseminated nation—a nation that is

a form of living that is more complex than “community”; more symbolic than “society”; more connotative than “country”; less patriotic than patrie … less homogenous than hegemony; less centred than the citizen; more collective than the “subject”; more psychic than civility; more hybrid in the articulation of cultural differences and identifications than can be represented in any hierarchical or binary structuring of social antagonism.


The story sea, according to this interpretation, is not just a metaphor for free speech and free narratives; it also offers a model for an ideal concept of nationhood that permits unlimited interaction and exchange between cultural interests.

In the light of this interpretation we can reread the conflict between the Guppees and Khattam Shud not as the battle between absolute free speech and censorship but as the collision between conceptions of nationhood identified by Bhabha as the “pedagogical” (which sees “the people as an a priori historical presence”) and the “performative” (which sees the people as constructed—and continuously reconstructed—in the “enunciatory present” [147]). Khattam Shud represents the pedagogical (fundamentalist) ideal of a nation that exists as an essentialized entity independent of any actual manifestations of national life and that defines itself by its opposition to and difference from “extrinsic other nations” (148). The story sea, by contrast, represents the idea of a nation that is redefined in each moment of its existence and is able to incorporate new strands into the national narrative as they become part of the ongoing performance of national life. Whereas Khattam Shud demands a nation that can be homogenized according to some preestablished blueprint, in other words, the supporters of the story sea celebrate a “liminal” idea of nation that will never be complete or incomplete, neither resolving nor eliminating cultural difference but recognizing it as an insurmountable and dynamic aspect of community. It is this “liminal figure of the nation-space” that presents the supreme threat to Khattam Shud because, as Bhabha puts it, it ensures “that no political ideologies [can] claim transcendent or metaphysical authority for themselves” (148).

On this basis it is now possible to suggest that Rushdie's call for freedom of narration in Haroun cannot be reduced so easily to a facile, liberal plea for freedom of speech. The demand for free interaction of stories in the story sea is linked to the demand for the freedom of individuals, groups, minorities, to be a part of the nation with which they are affiliated. It is also a reinforcement of the rights of individuals, groups, minorities not to be excluded from a nation simply because they do not conform to a pedagogical nationalist ideal. Haroun, in this capacity is not only a vindictive cry against Khomeini and a pedantic, ill-theorized insistence on the right to say what we want when we want, it also incorporates a more radical response to Khomeini in its challenge to the nationalist and fundamentalist principles on which Khomeini's authority is based, and on the strength of which the fatwa against Rushdie's life was issued. While Srinivas Aravamudan is undoubtedly correct to critique Haroun for those instances in which it stereotypes Khomeini and Islam “through the lens of James Bond” (326), and for its occasionally simplistic assessment of the problem of free speech, a fair appraisal of Rushdie's ideological position in Haroun should also take into account the radical revisioning of traditional ideas of nationhood that the story sea connotes.

Of course, as both Rushdie and Bhabha are aware, it is still possible to misread their revisioning of nationhood as a liberal dream of a multicultural utopia. If “cultural difference” is understood as “the free play of polarities and pluralities in the homogenous empty time of the national community” (162). Bhabha has argued, then multiculturalism becomes little more than an argument for a cultural relativism in which all are equal because all are the same, and all are included because no one is different. In arguing for “perplexity” in the living and writing of the nation, however, Bhabha is insisting on a more antagonistic vision of cultural difference in which social contradictions and antagonisms are “negotiated” without being “sublated” (162). “The difference between disjunctive sites and representations of social life,” he argues, “have to be articulated without surmounting the incommensurable meanings and judgements that are produced within the process of transcultural negotiation” (162). Minority discourse, therefore, must not be seen as discourse to be incorporated into the national discourse but as a form of intervention that repeatedly subverts and transforms the national narrative without ever offering the promise that there will be a point at which the national narrative accumulates into an organic unity. Different forms of cultural knowledge and practice, in other words, should not be seen as adding up the idea of nation so that minorities and margins are subsumed in the discourse of the “many as one” but should be seen as adding to (interrupting and perplexing) the idea of nation, which remains an incomplete and uncompletable entity.

If we reread Rushdie's vision of storytelling in Haroun and the Sea of Stories along these lines, as an attempt to imagine a form of narration that accommodates the idea of supplementary subversion, then we have the model of a cultural ideal very unlike the liberal dream of multicultural homogeneity that Aravamudan accuses Rushdie of constructing. In this vision, each new narrative, or each fresh formulation of an old narrative, is not a simple addition to the body of narratives that already exists; it antagonizes it or (as Butt the Hoopoe might put it) “shakes it up a little, va-voom!” (79). That there are a thousand and one different tales in the story sea, moreover, does not imply that there is a finite number of narratives that the nation can add up to. For Rushdie, as for Jorge Luis Borges, the number a thousand and one is a magical number that suggests infinite complexity even as it suggests limitation.11 A thousand and one nights does not mean a thousand nights plus one night. It means a thousand nights and then one more night, and then one more night, and then one more night ad infinitum, where each night added will transform all the nights that have gone before and all the nights to come. The number 1001 in Rushdie's fiction thus comes to represent what Bhabha has called “the insurmountable extremes of storytelling [where] we encounter the question of cultural difference as the perplexity of living and writing the nation” (161).


In his reconception of society as a complex and multiform body of competing discourses Rushdie has moved a fair distance from the vision of society promoted by Farid ud-Din Attar in The Conference of the Birds. Attar's vision, in tune with Sufi philosophy, is based on the ideal and transcendental unity of its members. This is suggested toward the end of his narrative by Attar's use of an ingenious (and somewhat Rushdiesque) pun: 30 birds reach the mountain of Kaf expecting to find their king, the Simurg, awaiting them, but when they alight they realize that they themselves, having undergone their quest for enlightenment, are their own collective king—Simurg, in Persian, also meaning thirty birds (si: thirty, morgh: birds).12 The trajectory of Rushdie's heroes and heroines is in many respects antithetical to Attar's. When the hoopoe and his cohorts reach their goal, they discover a story sea that does not embody a principle of the many as one but on the contrary represents resistance to totality (whether it be the totality of a preexisting essential unity or a post factum totality achieved by gradual accumulation). While Attar and Rushdie have the potent symbol of the hoopoe in common, therefore, it is apparent that their hoopoes signify very different traditions of thinking, one that aims at incorporation, the other at dissemination. Rushdie's hoopoe is a postmodern bird whose quest leads toward a celebration of diversity, and who has, appropriately, a mechanical, computerized brain; Attar's hoopoe is a spiritual entity whose quest leads in the opposite direction toward the absolute eradication of difference. At the same time that we can identity these dissimilarities in Rushdie and Attar's systems of thought, however, it remains possible to detect continuities across the centuries in the motivation behind their fiction. Though they have imagined very different forms of ideal community, they have both used their “elsewhere” as a means of responding to their persecutors. Both have attempted to imagine models of communal interrelation that do not result in the marginalization or exclusion of their own dissenting voices, and both, finally, have sought solace as well as empowerment in imaginary utopias.


  1. Attar is comparing himself to another persecuted poet, Nasir-e-Khosrow, who, “in order that he might not look on the accursed faces” of his oppressors (Browne 509), was forced to spend his remaining days, like a lost jewel, in the remote province of Badakhstan.

  2. There are variations on the English spelling of Simurg. Here I have used the spelling employed by Rushdie in Grimus (adopted because it is an anagram of his titular character).

  3. The translations of the names are provided by Rushdie in a glossary, 217-18.

  4. Benjamin anticipates Roland Barthes (as he anticipates so much late twentieth-century theory) in his understanding of myth. Myth, in this context, means an official kind of story in which each element is marshaled toward some total explanation of experience. The story or fairy tale, by contrast, is a predominantly secular form of telling that tends to proliferate narratives rather than organize them under the umbrella of a single authoritarian metanarrative.

  5. This is a subject that Rushdie explores in his British Film Institute pamphlet on The Wizard of Oz, another adult-children's tale that inspired Haroun.

  6. See Reinstein.

  7. See Smedman.

  8. Whether or not Rushdie simply reinforces orientalist stereotypes in his reuse of texts such as The Nights is a matter of ongoing debate. See Baker for a full discussion.

  9. Stith Thompson identifies an early Indian variation on the motif of the princess held captive in a tower (R41.2) in his Motif Index of Folk Literature (273). One such Indian version can be found early on in the Katha Sarit Sagara, a story collection that influenced The Arabian Nights. See Somadeva 15.

  10. Other allegories operate at the level of form as well as at the level of text, of course, but in Rushdie's tale the correlations between the fictional representation of a story sea and the intertextual embodiment of a story sea are self-consciously foregrounded.

  11. “[T]he word thousand is almost synonymous with infinite,” Borges writes:

    To say a thousand and one nights is to add one to infinity. Let us recall a curious English expression: instead of forever, they sometimes say forever and a day. A day has been added to forever. It is reminiscent of a line of Heine, written to a woman: “I will love you eternally and even after.”


  12. It is partly because of this pun that Rushdie makes The Conference of the Birds a key source for Grimus, a novel that is obsessed with word games and conundrums. The word grimus itself, in fact, is a word game built on a word game—grimus being an anagram of the pun simurg.

Works Cited

Aravamudan, Srinivas. “Fables of Censorship: Salman Rushdie, Satire, and Symbolic Violence.” Western Humanities Review 49.4 (1995): 323-29.

Attar, Farid ud-Din. The Conference of the Birds (Manteq at-Tair). Trans. and ed. Afkham Darbandi and Dick Davis. London: Penguin, 1984.

Baker, Stephen. The Fiction of Postmodernity. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2000.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Work of Nikolai Leskov.” Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken, 1968. 83-109.

Bhabha, Homi. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994.

Borges, Jorge Luis. Seven Nights. Trans. Eliot Weinberger. New York: New Directions, 1984.

Browne, Edward G. A Literary History of Persia from Firdawsí to Sa'dí. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1928.

Caracciolo, Peter, ed. The Arabian Nights in English Literature: Studies in the Reception of “The Thousand and One Nights” into British Culture. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1988.

Durix, Jean-Pierre. “‘The Gardener of Stories’: Salman Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories.Reading Rushdie: Perspectives on the Fiction of Salman Rushdie. Ed. D. M. Fletcher. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1994. 343-51.

Fenton, James. “Keeping Up with Salman Rushdie.” New York Review of Books 28 Mar. 1991: 32.

Fuentes, Carlos. “Worlds Apart.” Modernism/Postmodernism. Ed. Peter Brooker. London: Longman, 1992. 244-46.

Grass, Gunter, and Salman Rushdie. “Fictions Are Lies That Tell the Truth.” The Listener (June 1985): 15-16.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1984.

Pynchon, Thomas. Mason and Dixon. London: Vintage, 1998.

Reinstein, P. Gila. Alice in Context. New York: Garland, 1988.

Rushdie, Salman. Haroun and the Sea of Stories. London: Granta, 1991.

———. Shame. London: Picador, 1984.

———. The Wizard of Oz. London: British Film Institute, 1992.

Sidney, Philip. Defense of Poesie, Astrophil and Stella and Other Writings. Ed. Elizabeth Porges Watson. London: Dent, 1997.

Smedman, M. Sarah. “Like Me, Like Me Not: Gulliver's Travels as Children's Book.” The Genres of Gulliver's Travels. Ed. Frederik N. Smith. Newark: U of Delaware P, 1990. 75-100.

Smolla, Rodney. Free Speech in an Open Society. New York: Knopf, 1992.

Somadeva, Bhatta. Katha Sarit Sagara or The Ocean of Streams of Story. Trans. C. H. Tawney. Vol. 1. Calcutta: J. W. Thomas, 1880.

Thompson, Stith. Motif Index of Folk Literature. 2nd ed. Vol. 5. Copenhagen: Rosenkilde and Bagger, 1957.

Tushingham, David. Interview. “Salman Rushdie in Conversation.” Theatre Programme. Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Dir. Tim Supple. National Theatre (Cottesloe) 1 Oct. 1998: 3-5.

Zipes, Jack, ed. and trans. The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. New York: Bantam, 1992.


Criticism: The Effects Of Multiculturalism On Global Literature


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