by Jeremy R. Strong
“Our people have rituals and ceremonies meant to bring us vision. I have never participated in any of them, but I have seen things. I have been lifted up and out of this physical world into a place where time and space have a different rhythm. I always remained within the borders of this world, yet I had the eyes of one born to a different plane. Our medicine people would call me a seer. But I was in the thrall of a power I never understood. It left me years ago, and the loss of that gift has been my greatest sorrow. Sometimes it feels as though I have spent my entire life on a trek to rediscover it.”
—Richard Wagamese, Indian Horse
The Canadian literary landscape is currently seeing an unprecedented surge in popularity for indigenous fiction that is distinctly decolonial, supported by a vibrant and engaged national readership. Authors such as Leanne Simpson, Richard Wagamese, and Waubgeshig Rice are producing novels that simultaneously operate within the British colonial literary tradition while still asserting cultural autonomy and drawing attention to social injustice. A strong tradition of postcolonial literature, both Canadian and global, has contributed in laying the groundwork for contemporary minority literary art to bring to light some of the injustices of the past and the struggles of the present. This essay will explore one particular conduit that postcolonial gothic writing has helped broaden in the ongoing struggle for voice in a field too long dominated by the white male heterosexual tradition; that conduit is an alternate mode of accessing literary experience and expression through the senses. The western scientific and literary traditions have long focused on the visual as an arena in which science and spirituality intersect, but the critical emphasis—as María del Pilar Blanco and Esther Peeren point out in The Spectralities Reader—has mostly been on “the body’s limitations (and the need to overcome them)” (200). Exploring sensory experience in two texts, Erna Brodber’s Myal and Larissa Lai’s When Fox Is a Thousand, demonstrates that memory plays a key role in informing assemblages of embodied identity, removing many of the bodily limitations imposed by western colonialism. Erna Brodber’s Myal provides readers with a primarily visual experience of early twentieth century colonial Jamaica, while Larissa Lai’s When Fox Is a Thousand thoroughly tests the limits of the olfactory system against the backdrop of late twentieth century Canada. The two novels fall at different ends of a wide spectrum of twentieth century postcolonial literature; from the bleak and strife-riddled experiences represented through Ella’s fragmented identity in Myal to the projection of resilient and self-reinforcing cultural identity through Artemis in When Fox Is a Thousand. Examining the differing sensory engagements of these two main characters—both how they access memory and experience the world around them—reveals minority feminine embodiments are assemblages capable of vital resistance against the slow march of western imperialism and its advancing of minority cultural genocide. I find fiction the most useful source through which to explore these ideas; as Edward Said writes in his introduction to Culture and Imperialism, “stories…become the method colonized people use to assert their own identity and the insistence of their own history” (xii). The two novels document different stages of decolonizing embodiment through their sensory incorporation of memory into the assemblages that make up their respective characters. While the field of the visual is both imposed and repurposed through the spectral in Myal, Lai’s novel serves as document of the expanded gothic landscapes made available to contemporary Canadian authors through the sense of smell.
Before investigating the treatments of the senses in the two novels, it is first useful to establish why using the term assemblage in a postcolonial gothic context is useful. In her book Deleuze and the Postcolonial, Simone Bignall argues that Deleuze’s work is “part of an alternative tradition of Western thought that offers potentially non-imperial conceptualisations of sociability, motivation and self-comportment” (79) and that the Deleuzian assemblage establishes that a body is “not a discrete entity defined by stable boundaries and a set of fixed characteristics; rather, it is an assemblage of components bound into a coherent form, but this bodily consistency is only ever temporary and is always shifting” (83). Understanding Ella and Artemis as assemblages invites investigating memory as one of the primary actants in the always-shifting notion of the embodied subject. Bignall makes a strong case for why one might consider the Deleuzian assemblage (and in turn Spinozan ethics of embodiment) in a postcolonial context:
While one’s identity constantly shifts and transforms according to social context and particular constitutive relations, such becomings are only ever partial and incomplete, since one is never affected all at once in one’s entirety: some continuity of identity is retained. This is true also of cultural encounters occurring with the colonial collision of communities: each body is transformed by the meeting, and old traditions and concepts shift and change as new connections are formed which alter the internal consistency of each body. (88)
What is needed in further exploring Bignall’s use of Deleuzian assemblages for postcolonial theory is to focus in closely on exactly how “continuity of identity is retained” even while “each body is transformed” (88). What first seems to be a paradox is actually logical if these ideas are examined through the lens of memory, as memory can be used to both interpret and drive sensory experience. In the first line of the first chapter of Culture and Imperialism, Said asserts: “appeals to the past are among the commonest of strategies in interpretations of the present” (3). Memory, as a primary method by which an individual directly accesses his or her past, is the primary actant in the assemblage of postcolonial identity; therefore, how a given individual accesses memory and how writers choose to depict such experiences are crucial to dynamic understandings of postcolonial embodiment and the uncanny. The act of remembering, after all, can be thought of in terms of its familiarity. Though one could certainly remember something inaccurately, it is generally assumed that memory channels some former experience, whether direct or indirect. The changeable nature of Ella and Artemis, as well as their shifting understandings of the landscapes they inhabit, make their surroundings uncanny to them and perhaps make them uncanny to the reader. The narratives constructed around Ella and Artemis also bring forth “sublime terror”, such as that discussed by Alison Rudd in relation to Shani Mootoo’s novel He Drown She in the Sea (16). Memory becomes the key actant informing these postcolonial gothic assemblages as: “individual response[s], shaped by national, cultural, historical, political and social influences, to objects or events that arouse […] frightening” (17). The investigation of Myal and When Fox Is a Thousand that follows takes into account the fact that assemblages capable of generating a decolonizing discourse depend in two very unique ways on the senses, which in turn “are subject to the reach of sensory communities across cultures and societies” (Vannini 7).
In Erna Brodber’s Myal, the visual is both how Ella is persecuted by white and black communities for her hybrid identity, but also the doorway through which she is able to access the spectral realm. Though to some readers the uncanny elements of the text might arouse sublime terror, for Ella they are her only means of escape from the oppressive colonial forces represented by the authority of the Christian churches and by her husband Selwyn Langley. In essence, narrative primacy in Myal is placed upon how individuals are seen and what and how individuals see. Ella in particular has a unique relationship to the visual portals and reflective surfaces in the text, such as the eyes, water, mirrors, doorways and windows. In his book Postcolonial Literature and the Impact of Literacy, Neil Ten Kortenaar gives some attention to the focus on the ocular in the novel: “at recess, Ella would often stand at the door of the classroom and ‘stare into space’ (10). Not surprisingly, the solitary child whose gaze turns inwards seeks solace and escape in books” (138). I agree with Ten Kortenaar’s conclusion that Ella suffers from “mental disassociation” driven by her mixed-race status, and that reading could contribute to her fractured sense of identity (138-9). I also feel that Ella’s memories are deeply influenced, if not actively colonized by the stories Ten Kortenaar points out she reads obsessively, such as Peter Pan. However, I think that it might be important, in the context of the same scene Ten Kortenaar reads, not to underestimate what a more nuanced understanding of Ella’s positioning and her seeing could mean not only for her psychological state, but also for her embodied experience throughout the novel.
Ella makes the liminal space of the doorway, “her recess spot” from which position her teachers and classmates “stopped seeing her and she too stopped seeing them” (10-11). But while Ten Kortenaar reads Ella’s tendency to “stare into space” as a form of introversion, I see reason in the text that this “space” could be considered Ella’s access point to the landscape of an alternate reality that denies the colonial project. Her standing in the liminal position of the doorway refuses the indoctrinating mental process of the classroom and the tightly controlled bodily conditioning of the outdoor play yard. There are also indications later in the text that Ella was incapable of properly seeing her inner self when she was younger due to a “gauze barrier” (80). Brodber’s use of gauze in this instance—a medical supply for covering wounds—seems designed to indicate that Ella’s inward eye was blinded in her youth. This barrier, when finally stripped away, allows Ella to thoroughly investigate the construction and partitioning of her various identities and its removal drives her to an outburst of alliterative madness, when she tells Selwyn “Mammy Mary’s mulatto mule must have maternity wear” (84).
What Ella does see when she stares into the alternate reality I am proposing is the world in which Obeah operates. Even while simplified colonial notions of white and black identity are being imposed on her and causing identity crisis, Ella still seems to have access to what David Howes, in his introduction to the book Empire of the Senses, terms “indigenous sensory values” (11). Howes notes that these values persist in “situations of culture contact (whether colonial or postcolonial)” and that any time period of “great cultural change will be a time of sensory confusion” (11). The novel depicts the world that encompasses Obeah as one that exists in denial of the top down discourse of instruction and diminution assumed by colonial authority. Ella looks across into this world and sees “the scarecrow high in the air walking as if on two roots of cane sugar” and the sight triggers a cultural memory of Ole African that transcends Ella’s individual memory and resonates with that of all the children of Grove Town, who had been “hearing about him for centuries” (55). Selwyn sees Ella’s fear of Ole African as trivial and considers it “delightful theatre”, though “the memory of it” sends “a sharp electric shock through her body” (55). Ella’s experience of the threatening potency of Obeah in the text is echoed by other characters that participate in some fashion in colonial projects and are threatened or harmed for doing so. For example, Anita is assaulted by the mysterious stones while she is practicing her English Major Scales in Chapter 5, but cannot see her attacker, feeling that her highly visible “beautiful fifteen-year-old body” is the likely cause of such an assault (29). Euphemia is horrified when “the sight [of Ole African] dawned on her and she saw that the greenish early dawn, the colour of young boiled breadfruit, was coming through the door” (40). In all three cases, the women are in some way experiencing a form of the sensory confusion proposed by Howes. However, their sensory experiences of seeing are also reflections of the power of cultural memory to inform embodied experience.
As the key actant in Ella’s assemblage, vision-oriented memory proves capable of generating a distinctly anti-colonial discourse through interactions with Obeah in the novel. As Tabish Khair points out in The Gothic, Postcolonialism and Otherness, Obeah should be underscored for its otherness and as a “site of potential resistance and hence alterity” to the west, as opposed to Myalism, which is “a site of ‘creolisation’ — by definition, a potential site of collaboration and opposition” (129). In this sense, the novel first gestures towards a more violent decolonial project through the spectral but also physical threat of Obeah practices, though the efforts of the Myalist characters in the text, like Reverend Simpson, triumph as the dominant influence and creolization becomes a stand-in term for colonization. The implications for the female characters of this cooperation with the western world are made quite clear at the end of Myal, when Ella returns to embrace her destiny as a fully indoctrinated western school teacher, a zombie who will create more zombies: “Now with the end of the war about a year old, Ella came back to Grove Town, the same staring person who had lived there before. Only she was now Miss Ella, the new female school teacher […] This time her staring had a clearer pattern” (96). Ella questions Reverend Simpson as to whether or not she is to teach the children that the world is “made up of zombies who cannot think for themselves” and the Reverend turns the question back on her to ask if she has ever “been zombified” (107). This conversation alludes to the fact that although Ella may have at one time been able to access the memory of a cultural tradition more distinctly resistant to colonial projects, she is now, like the other Myalists, thoroughly creolized. Brodber’s text, despite revealing many negative realities for female colonial subjects, does provide an early exploration of embodied decolonial resistance through the ways in which Ella sees the world. Ultimately though, Howes “indigenous sensory values” seem reduced and regulated by the end of the novel, as does memory as actant in Ella as a decolonial assemblage.
While Brodber’s novel demonstrates first the possibilities and then the limitations of the sense of seeing for the decolonial assemblage, Larissa Lai’s When Fox Is a Thousand serves as evidence of the expanded gothic sensory landscape through its unique use of the olfactory sense. Lai establishes the sense of smell as the primary means by which her characters experience their present environment and also how they remember the past. For example, the character Artemis is boarding a bus when she trips into the lap of the Fox, disguised as an “Asian woman who was growing out her dyed blonde hair” (113). Artemis is sure that she has “seen the woman before” and when Fox helps her up, Artemis thinks “she smell[s] chicken on the woman’s breath” (113). In the wider context of the novel, the chicken smell recalls both an earlier passage depicting cooking in a T’ang Dynasty kitchen, but also the predatory nature of the Fox herself. In her essay “The Witch’s Senses”, in Empire of the Senses, Constance Classen points out that the sense of smell has long been considered “inferior and subservient to the masculine gaze” (70). However, once “brought within the irrational, feminine domain of the witch […] sight was degraded until it resembled one of the lower senses” (76). Though the witch Classen discusses is a western construction that should be distinguished from the Chinese Fox legend, the feminizing and lower ordering of the sense of smell seems common to both traditions. In his book Transgressive Transcripts: Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary Chinese Canadian Women’s Writing, Bennett Yu-Hsiang Fu examines the capacity of the characters to cross such traditional boundaries in the novel, arguing that Lai “constructs an exclusively female/feminine space to accommodate more complex issues of diaspora, history, hyphenation and sexuality” (54). Fu notes that the three tales in the novel are “progressively interwoven” until they are “reterritorialize[d]” by Lai and ultimately serve to break down dualisms (55). So Lai’s heavy focus on smell throughout the novel likely represents more than just the simple oppositional challenge to patriarchal colonial authority that the seeing in Myal does. This begs the question of how smell contributes to the formation of Artemis as a more complex decolonial assemblage than Ella.
Despite her uncertain romantic life and seemingly unsupportive relationship with her family, the olfactory stimulated memories that haunt Artemis serve as a more potent actant in her decolonial assemblage. These memories are complexly woven into the experience of two other characters in the novel, troubling the ability of the reader to solidify identity as a definite individual form. In The Senses in Self, Society and Culture, Vannini, Waskul and Gottschalk make it clear that: “The embodied self is both the material basis and reflexive outcome of perceived sensations and sense making practices” (85). This makes smelling, scenting and the quality and measure of odor the primary means of connection between past and present in Lai’s work. A decolonial assemblage in this case is also a sort of hauntology—of ancestral or cultural memory—and so this is the primary reason it is logical to measure Artemis alongside Ella. While such a hauntology seems primarily to operate in opposition to the western imperial project, I propose that any assemblage that truly has decolonizing power will also attack the sentimentality of cultural memory. This occurs in When Fox Is a Thousand when Artemis accompanies Eden to his apartment for the modeling session, and he throws an old Chinese garment at her. The garment represents the unpleasant weight of cultural obligation. Artemis feels it “limp and as heavy as a body” (31), as much a burden to her as Ella’s mother’s skin colour is in Myal. Here, smell triggers an unsavory response to cultural heritage when Artemis is exposed to the “stink of mothballs […] strong and poisonous […] The smell of mothballs was the smell of China” (31). In Colin Davis’s “Etat Present: Hauntology, Spectres and Phantoms” in The Spectralities Reader, he discusses Abraham and Torok’s interest in how the “undisclosed traumas of previous generations might disturb the lives of their descendants even and especially if they know nothing about their distant causes” (54). I argue that the smells of China in the text are exactly where such disturbances are revealed. A decolonial assemblage is a grouping of actants with the collective capacity to resist directed embodiment within a postcolonial context, whether that embodiment is through a forced cultural sentimentalization (in this case perhaps an orientalization) or through assimilative structures.
Artemis and other characters do experience smells that recall China in distinctly pleasant and nostalgic ways in the text. Many intimate moments with lovers are set against pleasant odours of the cooking of savory meats like chicken, juicy vegetables like Daikon, and spices such as cinnamon. Artemis is also placed in positions in which the smells of colonialism are presented to her. These smells are depicted in more neutral terms, and Artemis is given the opportunity to reserve judgment of them until she has decided if they represent a positive presence or not. One of these key moments comes when Saint drapes his jacket over Artemis’s shoulders during the rally for the victim’s of the Tiananmen Square massacre (89). This garment could be read as symbolic opposite to the ancient Chinese smock that stinks of mothballs through its capacity for olfactory memory replacement. The smells of Saint’s jacket are connotative of a western-capitalist-patriarchal narrative, reminiscent of motorcycles, Wall Street, and cowboy culture. Lai writes, “Someone draped a heavy black leather jacket over her shoulders. It was lined and the leather was soft and smelled of cattle, tannin, and fashion magazine men’s cologne” (89). When Saint drapes Artemis in the jacket, he guides her away from the rally, through “an ocean of dark heads”, as if to show her that she does not have to be Chinese, he can protect her from embodying that identity (90). Artemis ultimately rejects these overpowering smells of the west, even though she and Saint later have a one-night stand. The sexual release she achieves with him is described in terms reminiscent of monotony and Artemis allows her mind to drift to thoughts of her former female lover. When her and Saint make love, they rock “back and forth like a wooden horse with stunned eyes” and at the moment or orgasm, Artemis is on the verge of sleep, her focus on the “sagging futon, preserving the curved indentation” of Diane’s spine (122). The “stunned eyes” are interesting, as they recall the moments in Myal when Ella is described as staring; rather than indicate vapidity or self-reflection however, the staring for both characters indicates the ability to access another plane of cultural knowing. But unlike Ella, Artemis—perhaps through her less constrained sexuality—becomes a decolonial assemblage resistant to both the forced embodiment of her cultural history and also resistant to efforts of assimilation into dominant western culture. Her interactions with Saint are useful markers of the dynamic and powerful role the olfactory plays as actant in the novel, versus the limitations placed on the ocular in Myal. It is therefore significant that in the same scene that Artemis simultaneously accepts and rejects Saint as lover, the identical smell of mothballs is “for the first time […] comforting”; and also significant that immediately following this one night stand Artemis decides to travel to China (122-23).
In her essay “Questions of Voice, Race and the Body in Hiromi Goto’s Chorus of Mushrooms and Larissa Lai’s When Fox is a Thousand”, Charlotte Sturgess asserts that border crossing is “clearly a political practice in Lai’s writing, not just a way of combining cultural attributes” (190). This is both a literal and figurative crossing of borders in the novel, from the opening travels of Artemis and Mercy across the US-Canada border to the ability of the Fox to embody human form. When it comes to the border between eastern and western culture however, the frequency and intensity with which smell allows Artemis to adapt her embodied reality without succumbing either to oriental romanticism or to western imperialism make When Fox is a Thousand a more optimistic text for the place of minority women in the colonial landscape than that presented in Myal. Ella’s access to collective cultural memory seems limited to the visual sensory experiences that are condoned and directed by colonial enterprise, itself focused on the categorization and cataloguing of bodies based on appearance. Nevertheless, as I have argued, earlier in the novel, Ella is able to maintain a connection with a form of cultural memory that operates outside of colonial history through her spectral seeing. That she is frightened and even threatened by what she sees influences her embodied reality; and her dissociative state—although a threat to her own well-being—also makes her a decolonial assemblage capable of derailing patriarchy by denying Selwyn the submissive, creolized partner he desires. Both texts can be read as document of decolonial feminine assemblages, within which sensory-guided memory operates as an integral actant. Jaishree K. Odin best captures the use of reading postcolonial texts through the lens of certain characters as decolonial assemblages in the book Hypertext and the Female Imaginary. Odin writes: “works that hold together different, sometimes contradictory worlds make [assemblages] effective in conveying experiences of minority cultures that unfold at the pressure points of the social and the political” (104). Accessing sensory driven memory as an important actant in decolonial assemblages invites questioning what other actants might coalesce to inform postcolonial gothic embodiments and how those embodied realities might subtly resist contemporary and ongoing legacies of the colonial project.
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