Questioning Power in Bessie Head’s A Question of Power

Reading through “Sello” in Bessie Head’s A Question of Power I was struck by how many different power dynamics and struggles existed, particularly with the use of religious and mythological figures, race/color, and female/male.

The first one, and, for me, the most in your face one, is the amount of times powerful and mythological religious figures come up. We get multiple mentions of God, the gods, Buddha, Medusa, Mahamaya, Perseus, Isis, Osiris, etc. The reason I include mythology with religion is because there is a strong overlap. When talking about Medusa, the text states, “Hadn’t they a name for her in India – Mahamaya, the Weaver of Illusions, the kind that trapped men in their own passions?” (98). Medusa seems to be a controlling force in this book.  After doing a bit of research on Mahamaya, I discovered that she was Buddha’s mom. Although I am not as familiar with Buddhism as I am with Christianity (epic fail from that minor I was a class away from in religious studies), I couldn’t help but see a God/Buddha Medusa/Mahamaya dynamic. There’s a really poignant scene where Sello tells Elizabeth that even though he has God in him she doesn’t, but she argues saying that she is. I almost wonder if the Medusa figure was a sense of control for Sello if he felt that Elizabeth was controlling him. It adds this interesting power struggle, too, because then there is a ruler of God when in many Western faiths, God is seen as the divine ruler. Medusa disappearing at the end of this section was Elizabeth letting go of power.

One scene that ties in with religion, but also with the male/female dynamic is the scene where Sello cuts a woman’s hair. They describe him cutting a lock of her hair with scissors as an “image of holiness” (37). Even though it is a gender role reversal, I couldn’t help think about Samson and Delilah. Since the woman’s hair was cut, she could never be holy, which contradicts her as an image of holiness. Also, it illustrates a male/female power dynamic because since he cut her hair, he’s keeping her away from holiness.

Then, it is important to talk about race, especially the differences between South Africa and Montabeng. Elizabeth doesn’t belong in either place. In South Africa, she is rejected for being too dark, while in Montabeng she is rejected for being too light. She is a mix of black and white, and a coming together of the power dynamics of these forces. What is also interesting here is the amount of times that the colors black and white come up throughout the novel aside from race. At one point, the text states “Human relationships with her were starkly black and white” (77). It was interesting that the relationships were described this way. Although, on the surface, we can take it to mean that it has no gray and unknown areas, I think it can be looked at as a blending of cultures as well.

Her floating between cultures and races is similar to Ono floating between two worlds, but different in the sense that she has never really belong to either. I will be curious to see where this book goes in the next section, “Dan.”

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“Artists of the Floating World” Chapter 2

Having just finished teaching about narratives in my English 130 class (and kind of failing at it), I found “Narrative Tracks Across the Floating World” not only relevant to the work in this class, but the work that I am doing in my own class. I only wished I had read this before so that I could have borrowed language such as “It is a way we give shape to the world around us and the world of our experiences” (37). I need a better way to explain narratives in my pedagogical approaches to them because my students try to make it way too academic, so, I am adding this language onto the assignment sheet for the future.

Alright, getting into the actual chapter itself, the idea of a national narrative was a new one. Although I have read and hear many things that could fall under the idea of a national narrative, I had not considered that they could be organized into a specific form. Kazou Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World seems to tie together the idea of a personal narrative and a national narrative. It illustrates the idea of a personal narrative through Ono’s stories that he is telling through first person narration. His stories are deeply connected with World War II and post-war Japan and it is a national narrative through it’s illustrations of these difficult times in Japan. The chapter we read for today describes Ono as “At one time a gifted apprentice to the aesthetic principles of the floating world, he later renounced these principles, preferring propogandistic painting techniques fueled by fierce Japanese patriotism” (43), once again illustrating the idea of national and personal narratives. I think it may even be safe to say that Ishiguro’s novel floats between the different narratives.

This chapter does point to the inconsistencies of the narrative tracks that are presented by an unreliable narrator. Ono leaves some threads hanging and floats between different stories, often leaving readers to fill in some spaces.

I was really drawn to part of this section that points out “Ono’s refusal to live inside the floating world. . .provide[s] ironic commentaries on key components of the contemporary, multicultural experience” (53). He is stradling multiple worlds, but by holding on to the old world, he is only a visitor of the new world, a foreigner learning about the new culture, like a tourist traveling to another place.

“An Artist of the Floating World” Week Two

Continuing off of my threads of thought from last week, I would like to start by continuing to look at the idea of gender, culture, and strength. Throughout this novel, Ichiro has been fascinated with being strong and manly. In the first chunk of the reading, he loved the idea of playing Lone Ranger and being an American cowboy, even trying to imitate the sounds in the English language. This week, Ichiro’s new obsession is Popeye the sailorman, trying to eat spinach so he can be strong like Popeye. During this scene, Ichiro asks Ono, “Does sake make you strong?” (152). Ono and his grandson go into a conversation about how men believe for split seconds that sake makes them strong, but it does not actually make them strong in the end. Ichiro becomes fascinated by the idea of drinking and how, since men appear stronger, they are able to intake more alcohol, making fun of the idea that women can get drunk on very little. The idea of being macho is still very ideal to Ichiro. Towards the end of their conversation about strength, Mr. Naguchi’s suicide is discussed. Ono mentions that he believes that Mr. Naguchi was a brave man for what he did. I think it is important that it was brought up during this conversation because it’s a very different take on looking at the strength of a man. It’s easy to see Mr. Naguchi’s choice as being devoid of strength or even cowardly, but, in this moment, it allows us to see him as strong and brave, two very masculine ideas in Ichiro’s eyes.

What was also interesting about this week’s reading was the idea of the “floating world.” Ono describes his “floating world” as “the night-time world of pleasure, entertainment and drink which formed the backdrop for all of our paintings” (145).  I talked about the idea of floating between memories and time last week, but now I understand more of what is meant by floating in between worlds. During the day, there is such a focus on what is happening in the real world with war and destruction, and, at night, there is a world of escapism; a world that artists such as Ono occupy and by which they promote escapism. It becomes their reality.

Not everyone, however, could adopt the concept of the “floating world.” When Ono is talking to Mori-san, Mori-san says, “I suspect the reason I couldn’t celebrate the floating world was that I couldn’t bring myself to believe in its worth. . .I suppose I thought that to pass away one’s time in such places to spend one’s skills celebrating things so intangible and transient, I suppose I thought it all rather wasteful, all rather decadent. It’s hard to appreciate the beauty of a world when one doubts its very validity’” (150). Mori-san sees the floating world as a place that does not actually exist; a place that is created to exist out of necessity for a young man to escape.

A place in the text that I felt was beautifully written and needed an extra moment to be looked at was when Ono and Matsudo are looking at the place the Nishizuru district has become in post-war Japan. Matsuda remarks that more and more places are looking like this and Ono remarks on the sadness this brings him. Matsuda says, “’Well-meaning sentiments. . .We all utter them. In every walk of life. Meanwhile, places like these grow like a bad fungus’” (166). It brings to light that although Ono feels bad in this moment, he is not actually doing anything to prevent it from happening. Words do not mean anything, actions do.

 

An Artist of the Floating World

Throughout the first 96 pages of Kazuo Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World, I tried to pay attention to themes in the text as well as the idea of “floating.” Some things that I noticed recurring were the idea of familial roles, gender roles, marriage, respect, post-World War II Japan, Art, American vs. Japanese culture, and old vs. new. Although I am curious to see how all of these play out in the remainder of the text, I took a particular curiosity to the idea of old vs. new –which does tie in with American vs. Japanese culture and gender—and the idea of respect.

Something that came up a lot was the idea of gender, particularly Ichiro’s drive to be tough and masculine at such a young age. When Masuji finally takes him to the picture show to see what I presume is a Godzilla-type movie, Ichiro says “’This is boring. Don’t forget to tell me when it gets interesting’” (82) to mask his fears. Instead of being a kid and letting himself be a kid, he feels the need to be tough and play it off as him being bored being the reason he is hiding under his raincoat.

Earlier in the text, when Masuji wants to watch his grandson play and tries to get his grandson to color with him, he is confused by what Ichiro is playing. Ichiro explains to his grandfather that he is playing “’Lone Ranger.’ ‘Hi Yo Silver’” (30). Masuji seems confused that his grandson is fascinated by the idea of a cowboy, but his daughter later explains that they had taken Ichiro to see an American cowboy movie. This is where culture seems to connect with gender. Ichiro thinks he needs to be strong and masculine, but those ideas are not necessarily being informed his own culture. Rather, they are being informed by a different culture, but a false culture; one that teaches him that a cowboy is the ideal for a man.

The other idea that came up a lot for me was respect, or a lack there of, and family. A quote that really stuck out to me was, “’Being at Takeda’s,’ I told them, ‘taught me an important lesson in my early life. That while it was right to look up to teachers, it was always important to question their authority’” (75). I think this was a pivotal moment, not because he learned the lesson, but because he learned it was OK to question authority, something he hadn’t done when he was with his father. When Masuji’s father is questioning his drive to be an artist and tells him that artists are often impoverished and he shouldn’t pursue that path, Masuji tells his mother “’The only thing Father’s succeeded in is kindling my ambition’” (47). Oddly, him pursuing art is not what made him question his father. Him finding someone who supports his path as an artist is what makes him question authority.

The idea of floating is all over the text. I think Masuji doesn’t feel like he is a grounded person. The fact that the story has him take time to reflect on different roles he has had, as a father, son, grandfather, sensei, etc., shows that he is constantly in a state of floating between those roles. I also feel like he is constantly floating between what is old and what is new, especially in terms of the world before and after the war.

 

Kazuo, Ishiguro. An Artist of the Floating World. Vintage International, 1989.