Marjane Satrapi’s The Complete Persepolis is a text about revolution told revolutionarily. The character of Marji lives through the Iranian Revolution and, throughout the text, revolts against status quos in Iran and Austria and from the West. Persepolis is a revolutionary text in that itambitiously combats stereotypes Westerners have about Iran. Telling a biased, personal story about the lives of ordinary Iranians not represented by the Iranian hemegeny and Western media is revolutionary, and made more so by how Marjane Satrapi uses comic elements and techniques in non-traditional ways. Satrapi uses comic techniques that resemble the theatrical stage. Though most likely unintentional, Persepolis exemplifies how graphic narratives adapt or mirror theatrical elements to tell narratives and inspire revolutionary change or resistance in the spirit of Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed.
The theatre stage and the comic page are not the same. Theatre and comics are different media: theatre techniques as comic elements are not equivalent. They can, however, be analogous. That is the intent of this argument. To make such an argument, however, requires an establishing of foundational vocabulary, assumptions, and conceits.
graphic narrative: In essence a graphic novel, but the decision of narrative concedes that some works are not solely fictious novels, but non-fictional accounts (453). “A graphic narrative is [any] book-length work in the medium of comics” (453).
Aside from coinging “graphic narrative,” Chute also articulated the built-in ethicacy of the genre. She sees “[a]n awareness of the limits of representation[…] is integrated into comics through its framed, self-conscious, bimodal form; yet it is precisely in its insistent, affective, urgent visualizing of historical circumstance that comics aspires to ethical engagement” (457). Persepolis, as a graphic narrative, aspires ethical engagement. It does so in the same way Augusto Boal’s “The Theatre of the Oppressed” does.
“The Theatre of the Oppressed“
Inspired by Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which sought to transform the teacer-student relationship to that of a student/teacher-teacher/student process in a “quest for mutual humanization” (Freire 75).
“Theatre pedagogy: The use of theatre to develop language and social awareness; Theatre of the Oppressed is a form of theatre pedagogy.”
“Theatre of the Oppressed: A system of theatrical games and techniques that examine and dismantle dynamics of oppression.”
audience = reader; character = actor; Satrapi = playwright, art director, director, and chorus/narrator (breaking the fourth wall)
I am following in an academic tradition of appropriating terms and ideas from other disciplines and applying or proving their application on the comics page. Joseph Darda did this, using Judith Butler’s concepts of “precariousness” and “precarity” in his analysis of Persepolis. Jennifer Brock also did this when quoting Iranian film critic Hamid Naficy and how he “contextualizes the history of the presence of Iranian women and the politicization of their gaze in the context of post-Islamic Revolution filmmaking” (229-30). I am, in a way, swapping theatre for cinema in comparing that medium to comics.
My limitations/biases as ignorant American
Lack of expansive or extensive research
Going on a fermented thought, and my conviction that it is worthwhile.
My conviction comes from seeing Darda and Brock both do this.
Technique 1 – Persepolis
Aristotle’s Poetics and catharsis, which is Greek for “laxative.” : As a bildungsroman, Perspeolis follows the Airstolean model of forward, linear plot momentum using scenes that build upon each other, in how panels in a deliberate sequence build upon each other to denote forward temporal and spatial momentum in narrative.
Examples: catharsis – humorous catharsis and 301 (“Don’t look at my ass!”) or sad release, page 153 (Marji is pressed against the airport glass, physically and emotionally diivided by her passed out mother and equally grief-stricken father.
Emersion in the text.
Narration as Brecht’s “distancing effect,” defined by Encyclopædia Britannica as “the use of techniques designed to distance the audience from emotional involvement in the play through jolting reminders of the artificiality of the theatrical performance” (The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica).
p. narration jolts from submergence in scene: 3, 142
repetition as consciousness
McCloud’s closure: “ “phenomenon of observing the parts but perceiving the whole” (63).
Brecht used “distancing effect” in his plays to engage in conscious political engagement. Satrapi elicits this too: think critically and recognize hypocrisy of within the story. Ebi and Taji’s Marxist views and privilege/wealth; the hypocrisy of Marji in “The Make Up” chapter and at other times. Oppressive nature of what Chiamanda Ngozi Adichie calls the “danger of a single story,” or in this case, the dangr of a single storytelling, is a tool of fighting oppression (Adichie). The Iranian Revolution created a single story; the West created a single Iranian. The danger of a single story is “It robs people of dignity.It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult.It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar” (Adichie).
Kabuki theatre make-up and masks of noh and Greek theatres — movement, musicality, words (implied multi-sensory in comics – motion and emotion lines p. 207; 218)
While make-up is also seen and used in Persepolis, such as in narrative propulsion 274, 318, characterization in 259, and both, such as in “The Makeup” chapter, a more accurate and meaningful comparison can be found in the faces, made up or others, of the Persepolis characters.
Darda’s Levinisian face and role of the face in Persepolis. Darda summarizes Levinias’ notion of the face in his own words: “The face positions the other not as alien but as a neighbor incomprehensible in her complexity[…]The face tempts us with murder at the same time that
it prohibits us from committing it. The face is neither the same nor different.”
The comic face is similar to make-up or a mask because representation of actual, lived people. Non-fiction story, but the character of Marji does not present Marjane Satrapi’s life anymore than Satrapi presents the Iranian Revolution. That is to say, Persepolis is a history, but not the history of Marjane Satrapi and the Iranian Revolution. All of the characters in Persepolis are static, painted tools and metaphors — in essence, masks — of lived people and larger ideas. The comic face and theatrical mask/make-up are tools of mimesis, or representation.
Comic face is made of color (black and white: unifying principle of characters), linework, (smooth and not jagged lines; body lines curved and never straight; thinner line) and cartoon as “amplification through simplification.” EXAMPLE: 233, 191,
Face is never in statis — can move in meaning and metaphor from scene to scene on both the stage and the page. EXAMPLES: Marji – as her face ages between different periods, correlates to different emotional registers and possibilities.
Lack of emotional control an act of resistance against Iranian government, seeks to control the spiritual, meaning psychological, lives of the Iranians and do this through controling the physical. How do collegiate girls within story resist: make-up and clothing and parties. Reader is made to feel resistance in how they interpret the face: are not allowed to control the face of the women in Persepolis. Not all just women in black chador, indistinguishable from one another.
Technique 3 – Persepolis p. 194; 290, 336
stage blocking: deliberate positioning of bodies for the benefit of the viewer.
(1) Visibility of actors in scene
(2) Communicate relations
(3) Communicate atmosphere
(4) Stage and comics, always fourth wall. Can be broken to great effect, or not. Regardless, that wall is the audience or reader. Establish meaning from viewing.
Dismantles oppressiveness theatre can have on audience. Theater as dialogical performance, coined and defined by Dwight Conquergood as “self and other together so that they can question, debate, and challenge one another” (qtd. in Thompson 17). Theatre is not the answer, but the conversant. Story does not hold unchecked power over spectator/reader. It is all about dialogue, cmmunication — mutual betterment. That is the purpose of Theatre of the Oppressed.
Conclusion – Theatre of the Oppressed and Persepolis
Brock, Jennifer. “Chapter Twelve: ‘One Should Never Forget’: The Tangling of History and Memory in Persepolis.” Graphic History: Essays on Graphic Novels And/As History, edited by Richard Iadonisi, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012, pp. 223-41.
Chute, Hillary. “Comics as Literature? Reading Graphic Narrative.” PMLA, vol. 123, no. 2, 2008, pp. 452-65.
Darda, Joseph. “Graphic Ethics: Theorizing the Face in Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis.” College Literature, vol. 40, no. 2, 2013, pp. 31-51.
Satrapi, Marjane. The Complete Persepolis. Pantheon Books, 2003.
Thompson, Ayanna. “Practicing a Theory/Theorizing a Practice: An Introduction to Shakespearean Colorblind Casting.” Colorblind Shakespeare: New Perspectives on Race and Performance, edited by Ayanna Thompson, Routledge, 2006, pp. 1-26.
Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis saga has, among its many accomplishments, a wonderfully varied panel-page layout. Instead of following the standard American comics panel layout of six or nine panels, three panels forming a tier, and three tiers to a page, Persepolis refreshingly deviates from formula, using six or nine paneled grid page besides splash pages, two panel pages, pages with different shaped panels on the same page, square panels, stacked panels, and so on. For such a monochromatic color palette, Satrapi’s graphic novels offer a plethora of panel-page type. The type of panel-page layout used on a specific page is always deliberate, aiding in conveying information or inspiring pathos. When it comes to markings on a comic page, every line, from those that appear to those that are absent, are intentional. Establishing what something is, how it functions in context, and why it exists are part of the fun of studying comics. Pages 336 and 337 of Pantheon’s first American edition of The Complete Persepolis are a positive case study in how page-panel layout effectively contributes to Persepolis‘s overarching narrative themes of duality and revolution. These two pages convey, in both content and framing, a revolution. A minor one, compared to the Iranian Revolution, but still a revolution all the same.
Dualism is an overarching textual and visual theme of the Persepolis saga. Opposing dualities, and the tensions that arise from living in and between two opposing dualities, prevail as textual themes: revolutionaries v. the Shah, revolutionaries v. the fundamentalists, Persian v. Arab culture, secularism v. sacracity, West v. Iran, treatment of men v. treatment of women, one’s bourgeoisie lifestyle v. one’s radical beliefs, assimilation v. loyalty to one’s roots, and so on and so forth. Visually, many panels contain some type (or types) of visual contrast both within the panel, when compared to other panels, or when compared to other pages and cultural images (examples include the top left panel on page 6; the middle panel on 13; the two panels on pages 102; all of the panels on page 279; the two panels on page 305; and the bottom panels of pages 153, 250, and 281 contrast with Michelangelo’s Pietà). And, of course, the most apparent duality on the page: Persepolis‘s black-and-white color scheme. Yet, just as the black ink and white page create a visual tension, contrast can also simultaneously create harmony. Page 336’s layout is a good example of this.
Page 336 contains eight panels: two panels a tier, four tiers total. Each panel is the same shape and size, so that the single gutter separating the panels on each tier is attached to the one above or below it. The center of the page, therefore, consists of a single gutter, dividing the page in half. Not only is this centering visually appealing to the eye, but the page is symmetrically balanced as well. This single gutter creates a y-axis, and along this axis, the panel on the left reflects the panel on the right, and vice versa. While the scene within each panel is not geometrically reflected with the panel beside it — if that were the case, the characters of Marjane and Gila on the left side of the left panel would be on the right side of the right panel. This is not the case (nor should it be, as that would distract from the narrative of the story and break from the internal rules of the reality already established in Persepolis). Instead of geometric reflection, Satrapi reflects the panels on the left from the panels on the right in a different way. She reflects the panels contextually.
The page’s context is that Behzad Radi, a colleague of Marjane and Gila’s at the economics magazine they work out, is seen as a hero by the two women because he was arrested by the government for two weeks on account of drawing a bearded man having his beard climbed by another character (Satrapi 334). Radi, however, knocks himself off his own pedestal by mansplaining: he speaks for and over his wife, Mandana, every time Marjane or Gila ask her a question. The term “mansplaining” is inspired by Rebecca Solnit (who will be speaking at Hofstra the Monday we come back from break) after her 2008 essay “Men Explain Things to Me.” The internet invented the term, so it is only fitting that the internet provide us with a definition of “mansplaining,”
The panel-page layout is divided in an oppositional way: one panel against another. In the panels themselves, the same layout is seen, as Marjane and Gila are divided from Behzad and Mandana by the table. The table serves as a divider, or a battle line, where Marjane and Gila are annoyed with/against Behzad. The table is a physical dividing line between Behzad’s ignorance and his co-workers’ annoyance. Like the background and couches, the table is all white. The only black comes from the clothing and hair of the characters. Despite the resemblance between the characters, all in black attire, the different “teams” are established through the difference in clothing: the left team, Marjane and Gila, have short hair, short tops, and wide pants. Behzad has the same appearance, but Mandana, the suffering wife, has long hair (pulled back) and a long tunic. Mandana is more traditionally feminine in appearance. Her husband is traditional in his appearance. In this way, the viewpoint of the rival teams is reflected in their differ attire: Marjane and Gila are nontraditional in their belief that a woman can and should speak for herself, whereas Behzad (and, by extension, Mandana) represent traditional gender roles, where the husband’s word is the final word. The teams are assembled and, once Mandana fetches the tea and cakes and the food is set in a symmetric order resembling a soccer/sports field (the tea at each corner, the box of cakes in the center), the field is set for battle.
The only sequential progression of time shown on the field. The tea glasses are full on the left panel on the second tier and gradually the contents decrease until there is none left on the right panel in the third tier. The next tier, the last, features a reversal. In the left panel, Mandana, instead of now being asked the questions, asks one of her own. In the right panel, Marjane and Gila, mouths agape (at Mandana speaking up, or at the being asked if they have children, or both?), are spoken over by Behzad. Instead of speaking for his wife, he now speaks for his guests to his wife. Behzad is mansplaining on behalf of Marjane and Gila. Behzad’s swollen, blackened eye, the mark of his punishment from the tyrannical government, is now closed for the first time on this page. Perhaps this is meant to illustrate how, symbolically, Behzad has a blind eye to his own chauvinism and the anger his guests feel towards him. The reversal seen on this last tier is cognitively stimulating, but also telling in terms of content. Their opinion of Behzad, who Marjane says “was my hero for twenty days” on the first panel of the next page, is permanently reversed in the eyes of his co-workers and the reader. Behzad has lost won the battle but lost the war — to himself.
Satrapi’s harmonious symmetry of the page and panels compositions is contrasted by the antagonistic context of the scene. The reader is better able to cognitively “see” the ideological battle, angered feelings, and reversal of opinion that takes place over the course of the scene. The page, content-wise, is as divided as the panels are along the y-axis: there is the before and the after. There is a change: a change of esteem. This change of esteem sparks Marjane’s revolutionary change on page 337.
Page 337 visually contrasts page 336. Where 336 consisted of four tiers with two panels a tier, page 337 contains three tiers with a panel per tier. This new page layout creates two horizontal gutters. The page does not contain a y-axis, but instead two gutters, divided along the x-axis.
The reader’s mind has to readjust to this new layout. Thought page 337 is also symmetrical, for the three panels are of equal shape, size, and distance apart, it contrasts with the previous page in how it is symmetrical. The panels are wider and of a longer length, and the tiers are therefore bigger in size to page 336. This creates a “widescreen” like effect, showing the larger world (and larger worldview) Marjane and Gila inhabit. Furthermore, the dominant color is not white like before, but black. The background, shadows and clothing are all black, whereas the cars and skin tone are white, with the physical landscape on the bottommost panel being outlines in white. The black background may be meant to denote that it is nighttime and that the Radis household was lit, but regardless, it still contrasts sharply with the dominating whiteness of the previous page. Further contrast is made through the change in POV. Unlike the static, same perspective used on all eight panels on page 336, 337 changes the perspective in each panel. The first panel takes place behind the women inside Gila’s car. The next panel has the reader seeing the characters from the front of the car, but outside the car, as the motion lines and shading on the car to the left of Marjane illustrates. The final panel on page 337 is again behind the women, but also behind their car: the reader is on the highway, seeing the cars and landscape of Tehran. Gila’s car is moving (again, see the motion lines of the second tier panel) and so, too, is the POV. But what are we moving towards?
Marjane and Gila are contextually moving towards their homes (and away from Behzad’s provincial sexism), but Marjane, and therefore the reader, are moving cognitively as well. The reader must reorient, due to the contrasting layout and coloring between pages 336 and 337. Yet, this reorientation works to the page’s advantage as it mirrors the reorientation within Marjane. The scene’s content consists of Marjane venting her frustration at Behzadi’s hypocrisy: the hypocrisy being that he believes in freedom of expression but won’t let his wife speak on her own behalf (337). When Gila notes that this is not unique to Iranian men but, in fact, even Western men mansplain, Marjane rebuts that in Iran the law privileges men over women. Marjane (presumably, given that she is given the last speech bubble in the previous panel) goes into a lengthy speech, listing how women are legally oppressed under Iranian law. The last three sentences of Marjane’s speech in the last panel on page 337 are written in a larger font than that of page 336 or any text prior on page 337. Marjane says, “Do you realize??,” then her font increases even more at the final, climactic words: “I CAN’T TAKE THIS ANYMORE. I WANT TO LEAVE THIS COUNTRY!” (337). Marjane and the reader have reached their destination, the climax of the two pages: the declaration of revolution.
Despite visually contrasting, page 337 compliments 336 in terms of story narrative. Page 337 completes 336, being not just a continuation of the page prior but completing a revolution within Marjane. Marjane revolts from the sexism and overall oppression Iran places on her and decides to return to the West in order to live her live to her full potential. She makes the decision to leave and acts on it in the final four pages of Persepolis. She divorces Reza, gets accepted into the School of Decorative Arts in Strasbourg, spends her last days traveling Iran, paying her respects to her grandfather and Uncle Anoosh, and enjoying her last days with her grandmother and parents before departing from Tehran’s airport. The set-up for these final four pages are found in the visually contrasting but narratively complimenting pages of 336 and 337. Those two pages create a yin-yang: visually opposites, but creating a whole, and illustrating the cyclical revolution within Marjane. From her adolescent fascination with the West’s punk movement and materialism, to feeling so alienated in the West that she returns to Iran depressed and dejected, to her frustration with Iran and resolve to return to the West this time as a more confident and ready adult, Marjane has come full circle. The revolution on pages 336 and 337 are the last stages of the evolution Marjane has taken throughout Persepolis. Marjane has grown-up and come to her own.
Of course, there is a cost to every revolution. With the Iranian Revolution, it was the lost of lives and subsequent, with adolescent rebellion it is the lost of innocence. The last tier on page 337 illustrates what Marjane loses in emigrating from Iran The detailed landscape of the city, the mountains, and foliage foreshadows what Marjane will lose, and must, in leaving Tehran for “[f]reedom has a price” (341). Marjane will lose the physical and material world that made her: her home country and childhood home. She will lose the comfort of being an Iranian in Iran and of her family and friends. She will lose what is natural to her and her identity. Still, Marjane continues. The revolution must go on, and in Persepolis, the revolution is drawn.
In the Romance languages — Italian, French, Portuguese, Romanian, and Spanish — every noun is gendered. Every person, place, thing, idea is either masculine, feminine, or neuter(-ed?) I was not born into any of these lingual cultures. I was born into a world constructed of non-gendered words. The world that made me was as sexed as the bricks that made up my Catholic schools. From the outside, though, I can only imagine the existential rabbit holes I would have entered, trying to figure out what was gendered and why it was gendered so. I remember my pubescent years being difficult enough without the added anxiety of whether my guilt-ridden feminine Catholic ass sitting on a masculine chair makes me an unquestionable slut. Baby Jesus had enough to cry over without my tochus being involved, thank you very much.
Facetiousness aside, as a feminist I am grateful for Standard English’s lack of gendered nouns. Simone de Beauvoir, pioneering feminist and born and raised francophone, noted in The Second Sex that:
The terms masculine and feminine are used symmetrically only as a matter of form, as on legal papers. In actuality the relation of the two sexes is not quite like that of two electrical poles, for man represents both the positive and the neutral, as is indicated by the common use of man to designate human beings in general; whereas woman represents only the negative, defined by limiting criteria, without reciprocity. (Introduction)
If one believes that language makes us, then to born into a reality without a lingual gendered presumption is plus (even though Anglo-American society did and does equate “human” with man in language, thought and practice). If your reality is not built, like stacked Lego bricks, on gender, then perhaps one has an edge in relinquishing the vice grip patriarchy has upon your consciousness. One has a better chance, or a greater privilege, in recognizing and resisting patriarchy. If nothing else, it is one less hassle in a hassle-filled life. Then again, just because Standard English lacks gendered nouns does not mean it lacks identity.
The writings of Richard Rodriguez and Gloria Anzaldúa, hispanophones writing in and on Stndard English, bring to light that Standard English has a constructed identity not dissimilar from that of a Latino man or Mestiza woman. Perhaps Rodriguez and Anzaldúa’s fraught relationships with Standard English stems in part with the language’s relationship to them and not simply the writers’ relationship to Standard English. The authors have different relationships and different feelings (or, perhaps, different types of mixed feelings) towards Standard English and the Spanish languages, Standard and creoles, they were made in. Examining how these authors describe and feel about Standard English and the other languages they were raised in/speak should provide insights into what Standard English’s identity is.
One of the most apparent differences between the authors is that Rodriguez’s piece is much more subtle and implying in what English is, whereas Anzaldúa directly states what English is. These different approaches to a shared theme — the effects Standard English had on forming their sense of self — signifies different perspectives on what Standard English is. Rodriguez in “The Desire of Achievement” portrays Standard English as a source of power. As a child, a life phase defined by its immense vulnerability to others, Rodriguez took pride in “correct[ing] the ‘simple’ grammatical mistakes of [his] parents” (598). His understanding of Standard English allows him to create a hierarchical relationship to his parents in this regard, where young Rodriguez is clearly the superior. Rather than reprimand this somewhat snotty behavior, his parents encourage this behavior. His mother asking Rodriguez for reading material and her whisper[ing] that [Rodriguez] had ‘shown’ the gringos“enforce the notion that Standard English is a tool of hierarchy building (602). Not just hierarchy building, but wall building.
Young Rodriguez discusses how Standard English created “two very different worlds” (598). Yet instead of being a bridge between worlds, à la Bridge to Terabithia, Standard English is more akin to the Berlin Wall, meant to obstruct the view of the other so as to keep one firmly planted in one over the other. Young Rodriguez chose the world of his school over his home. He began “imitating [his grammar school teachers’] accents, using their diction, trusting their every direction. The very first facts they dispense, I grasped with awe. Any book they told me to read, I read — then waited for them to tell me which books I enjoyed” (601). Standard English is controlling and manipulative: Rodriguez’s “[m]emory gently caressed each word of praise bestowed in the classroom,” coaxing him to submission with validation and a sense of worth (601). Part of that coaxing also comes from Rodriguez’s implication that Standard English is attainable or material, as much so as a grammar school trophy or college diploma. The way he covets the joy he finds in “first-learning” to himself, hoard[ing] the pleasure of learning” reminds me of the Gollum character from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Rodriguez clearly covets the language, which is not inherently problematic (602). What is problematic is the hierarchical value he, as an adult, still places on Standard English over any other language/dialect.
Rodriguez says that “It was not that I ever thought they were stupid, though stupidly I took for granted their enormous native intelligence” (602). Several weeks after reading and re-reading this piece and I still have no Earthly idea what “native intelligence” means or is meant to mean. I am not going to question a grown adult when he says he does not think his parents are stupid, as that is not place to insert value judgement. I do, however, assert the right to question whether the notion of a native versus domestic intelligence is not implicitly establishing separate values to intelligence. This questioning is further validated after the anecdote about Rodriguez’s mother’s typing job for the governor. Int he advertisement for the position, “A knowledge of Spanish [is] required” (603). Yet, Spanish is clearly the lesser language at the workplace because the mother’s Spanish accent is too thick for her to be allowed to answer the phones, while her typo in spelling “guerilla” as “gorilla” is a fireable offense (604). Rodriguez introduces the idea that Standard English wears many forms: written and verbal, native and foreign. In light of that, his praise of his parent’s “native intelligence” and not simply “their intelligence” in discomforting and saddening. This discrepancy highlights another quality of English: it is transforming as much as it is transformative. Standard English transforms in the mouths of its speaker, from proper to improper, and similtaneously transforms its user: “A primary reason for my success in the classroom was that I couldn’t forget that schooling was changing me and separating me from the life I enjoyed before becoming a student [sic.]” (598). Standard English has transformed Richard Rodriguez: whether it not is actually has or that he believes he has makes no different. He became what he believed, and what he believed is the infaliability of Standard English.
If there is any writer of English who has remained uncorruptable to the siren call of Standard English, that person is Gloria Anzaldúa. Her direct remarks on what Standard English is and how it works stand in stark contrast to Rodriguez’s. Furthermore, her intertwining of Chicana Spanish with Standard English (without providing translation for non-Spanish readers and vice versa) is a stunning deflation of the egos of those who hold either Standard Spanish or Standard English as being of greater value. Take cover: Anzaldúa is firing shots at everyone.
In regards to Standard English, Anzaldúa protrays it as oppressively specific, a language where one must be fit into it, even if it means cutting out her “wild tongue” (54). Learning English in grammar school and the Pan American University, she is critiques as “talking back” to her teachers when she is only telling her teacher how to say her name (53). The overbearingness of Standard English is not just felt at home, for “[her] mother[…was]mortified that I spoke English like a Mexican” (54). Standard English, therefore, has certain requirements that cannot be bent. The penalties for not tailoring one’s self is specific: “talking back to my mother[…]having a big mouth, questioning, carrying tales are all signs of being mal criada. In my culture they are all words that are derogatory is applied to women — I’ve never heard them applied to men” (54). “Having a big mouth” and “questioning” are as much derogatory terms given to women over men in American culture as it is in Mexican culture. More than just having specific punishments, Standard English punishes specifically: it punishes women differently than it does men. Perhaps, then, Standard English is gendered. While not having grammatical rules that assign words a gender, Standard English creates gendered punished and expectations for its speaker. Like Rodriguez, Anzaldúa suggests that Standard English transforms its users —unlike Rodriguez, Anzaldúa says that transformation is that of the punished.
Anzaldúa also differs from Rodriguez in giving ethnographic identifiers to Standard English. Standard English is, apparently, American “(If you want to be American, speak ‘American.’); male (“Language [not specifically stated which] is a male discourse”; and a colonizer (for when Anzaldúa speaks English she is sometimes critiques as speaking “the oppressor’s language[;] by speaking English, you’re ruining the Spanish language”) (53, 54, 55). Standard English has a profile: a male American of a colonizing (white) race. That profile is the same as the most privileged individual in both Mexican and American societies —I suspect this is not a coincidence. Neither is it a coincidence that the language Tex-Mex, a name derived from and used by those living on the border of these two nations and societies, is a language birthed from “the pressures on Spanish speakers to adapt to English” (57). Anzaldúa makes a strong case for her belief that “Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity — I am my language. Until I can take pride in my language, I cannot take pride in myself” (59). If one is pressured into valuing a language that is oppressive to them and their identity, than how can one have pride in his/her/theirself?
One cannot. In this way, Anzaldúa agrees with Rodriguez in that English is a combative, dividing language. Even when it takes the facade of being concilatory — chicanas, according to Anzaldúa, will often speak English with Latinas and Mexicanas because “English is a neutral language” — the fact that Standard English is made the default and not chosen is telling of its coerciveness (58). Anzaldúa says that North American Hispanics “use our language differences against each other,” echoing how Rodriguez used Standard English against his parents as a child (58). Once again, Standard English is not a bridge, but a tool to keep others a part. However, where Rodriguez is combative, Anzaldua refuses in her essay to fight her people. She instead fights the problem. She combats the oppression. She speaks eight languages and not one, alternating to fit the scenario and people around her: not to fit into the context, but to create a larger one (55). Anzaldúa exemplifies her nonconformity in the use of multiple languages, sans translation, in her essay. This essay’s language, structure, and existence are an act of rebellion. Furthermore, one of those langauges is Pachuco, the “language of rebellion, both against Standard Spanish and Standard English” (56). In this way, Anzaldúa’s work often reminds me of the Frida Kahlo painting The Two Fridas. The two Fridas, one representing her German heritage, the other her indigenous one, are clearly joined, despite the cutting of ties (or, rather, vein) by the German Frida. The artist Frida, the mestiza, paints the two different personifications of herself as joined, despite their desire to be so or not. Anzaldúa does the same in her essay: despite whether her forked tongue, one prong English and the other Spanish, want to share a tongue, Anzaldúa forcs them. She resists the easy way, the society tells her to. She has a double consciousness, yet acts consciously in being her most authentic self. Talk about resistance to power.
Standard English has an identity: it is in dialogical performance with its users. Rodriguez and Anzaldúa’s essays inform their readers as to the identity of their Standard English and their relationship to it. Despite their varying relations and feelings towards the language, their works both allow the reader to see where they stand in their relationship to their language and put them one step closer to equal footing.
My only lingual fluency is in English, and only then with a certain level of caffeine in my system. I am not proud of this fact: I constantly tell the Freeport middle schoolers I work with how lucky they are to be bilingual, whether it be in Spanish or Creole. Even to the kids that do not speak English, molding clay beside a classmate-cum-translator, I tell them (rather their translator) how envious I am of them. They are young enough to learn. Starting Italian this semester at 25, I physically feel the struggle to comprehend these foreign rules of grammar. Knowing two languages is having two brains, four ears, four eyes, and still one heart. They are lucky. Except they aren’t: they are brown, poor and “academically challenged.” They’re stuck, and for too many of them, they will remain stuck in American. Despite their lingual gifts —or maybe because of them.
Where, how and how well one knows Standard English reflects one’s privileges (or lack thereof) in American society. If one learns English from Schoolhouse Rock videos shown by their parental figure on the family computer, or in for single period five times a week in a public school ESL classroom matters. It matters because there is an intersectional relationship between how one obtains English fluency and one’s status in American society. Fluency in English, and the journey to said fluency, was a privilege when Chief Standing Bear of the Poncas and Luther Standing Bear of the Lakota, and it remains so today.
Chief Standing Bear may not be the author of the work he narrates. Written in the first person plural, Chief Standing Bear notes that the 10 Ponca chiefs tell the inspector “The interpreter is ours. We pay him…” (Chief Standing Bear). Seeing as Chief Standing Bear was not fluent or fluent enough in English to speak directly to the American inspector, it is possible that Chief Standing Bear’s interpreter is writing this down or telling a person fluent in English Chief Standing Bear’s story. It is possible Chief Standing Bear wrote better English, or learned to, than he spoke and that these are his direct words. Though perhaps not: his use of the first person plural, in comparison to the first person singular used by the formally educated inspector and Luther Standing Bear, indicate either a lack of formal education in English or a purposeful misuse of the language, reflecting Ponca values. Nevertheless, the introduction of translation is a constant reminder to me the reader that there may be several degrees of removal between Chief Standing Bear’s experience of the events and what I am reading. The questioning and balancing of multiple truths in this story of injustice is distracting in reading and feeling this story.
From this tension of authorship (and thereby, ownership of truth), interesting ideas do spring forth. Rereading my sentence, I note how Chief Standing Bear may not be fluent enough. What does it mean to be “fluent enough”? To be understood, or to master a language? Can a language be mastered in the same way the Poncas were (unjustly) “mastered” by the American soldiers. Those soldiers killed 158 men, women and children: those soldiers took mastery of their lives and ended it (Chief Standing Bear). More often than not I believe one is awarded fluency by another. Fluency then requires a master. If so, who is the master? I am told I am fluent in English yet I do not feel any mastery over it. I have been told that one’s relationship with language and words is a lifelong journey: that you get better, but never perfect. You can become the President of the United States, arguably the most powerful person in the “free” world, and still not be a master of Standard English, as George W. Bush exemplified.
I don’t know how one progresses the stages of fluency to become fluent. Could Chief Standing Bear become fluent in Standard English? Yes, of course, but would Chief Standing Bear be acknowledged as fluent in Standard English in the 19th century courtroom where a judge, military men, journalists, and native English speakers witnessed his speech? Was it possible for him, if he were fluent, to be called so then? I am not confident he would be, given the treatment he received by the inspector and jailers, who kept Chief Standing Bear in jail even after the President’s telegram was received, proving the Chief correct (Chief Standing Bear). Who gets to call you fluent is a symbol of privilege.
Luther Standing Bear was most definitely the writer of his words. As a student at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, learning Standard English in an academic school setting was part of “the ‘civilizing’ process” (Luther Standing Bear 376). This process he and his fellow pupils were inflicted with treats language as a material object. Under the umbrella of “civilizing,” markers of culture from the concrete (high collars, leather boots, white bread) to abstract (the significance of cutting one’s hair, one’s name, the prohibition of speaking any language but English) become tangible through the bodies of these children (376, 377). Cultural identity, rather than being a process, seems to Pratt and the Carlisle educators, to be a commodity. Because of this, I feel Luther Standing Bear is the writer, but not the editor of his words. His narrative structure, expository essay and proper English seem imply his audience is American. If it were his fellow Lakota, the specificity of his schooling years would not be framed like this, but include references and the language of his people.
Luther Standing Bear is writing for an American audience and this, coupled with the fact of how English was taught to him at the expense of his native language, makes me believe that his Carlisle teachers are his mental editors. In a way, all of our English teachers, from our parents to our friends to actual institutional instructors, are our mental editors. However, given the means by which it was taught and the environment the Lakota children were taught — in uncomfortable clothing with random inspections of their rooms, rooms overlooking a child graveyard — there has to be a psychological difference in a person’s usage and understanding of Standard English. My use of Standard English puts me at a much more privileged position, psychologically speaking, than the Carlisle children. Forget cogito ergo sum: “I speak, therefore I am” is far truer.
With all this said, how does one resist using a language oppressed upon you by your oppressors? Luther Standing Bear’s indifference to his English name selection has been called in our class an act of resistance. I hesitate to call it that. Is one performing resistance when done with lack of intent or consciousness? Is resistance deliberate and only deliberate? I hope to find that answer out by the end of the class. What I do believe, now at least, is that all language should serve its users, not vice versa. Grammar and the rules of language, rather than being a wall excluding those they find undesirable, ought to be a bridge allowing for common knowledge to create exceptional bonds via understandable communication. A number of people I met who learned English as a secondary language tell me of how difficult a language it is to learn. I am privileged to not know this struggle firsthand, and I speak from this privilege when I assert my belief that English is not inherently a difficult language. English wasn’t born hard: it was made hard by self-proclaimed gatekeepers.
To combat these Standard English Grammar Nazis/Alt-Righters, improper English, deliberately and continuously employed, can be a tool of liberation. Chief Standing Bear’s use of the first personal plural versus the first person singular, slang, and creole: these words challenge the oppressive hegemony of Standard English by showing the true flexibility and durability of English. Language is a tool of liberation. The dictionary is subservient to us, the living. As Luther Standing Bear says, “Only the people themselves, and never the scholars, can nourish [a language] into life” (377). Language creates not the one and only Word or Truth, à la N. Scott Momaday, but several. The possibilities are limitless and that is the germ from which liberation, societal and individual, blooms.