East of Eden by John Steinbeck

I had long wanted to read East of Eden by John Steinbeck, for several reasons, the most important one being that you all love it. I read some Steinbeck back in college, some selected chapters from The Grapes of Wrath and although I thought the writing was really good – I could almost feel sand coming out of the pages – it was suffocating. However, last summer I read Confessions of a Sociopath, by E.M Thomas where the author said that Cathy was the quintessential sociopath. So, I was giving a copy of the book by Mr. B&R last Christmas and I decided to wait until summer, so that I had the time to read as much as I wanted, whenever I wanted.

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From Goodreads:

Set in the rich farmland of California’s Salinas Valley, this sprawling and often brutal novel follows the intertwined destinies of two families—the Trasks and the Hamiltons—whose generations helplessly reenact the fall of Adam and Eve and the poisonous rivalry of Cain and Abel. Here Steinbeck created some of his most memorable characters and explored his most enduring themes: the mystery of identity; the inexplicability of love; and the murderous consequences of love’s absence

Since East of Eden is such a wonderful, complex and widely-read text, I will organize my review differently. I hope this helps both to organize the information and you go and read whatever you are interested in, but I also hope it helps literature students. When I had to read The Grapes of Wrath, I was grateful to find many posts written like this one, because they helped me to better understand and study the book. The study guide contains spoilers, so if you want to read my review, please scroll down.

1. Summary

East of Eden tells the story of two families: the Hamiltons and the Trasks in the Salinas Valley (California). The narration starts in the 19th century and progresses to the narrator’s – named Steinbeck as well – present, in the 1950’s. These two very different families have decided to move West to start a better life, but each have their own troubles. Samuel Hamilton has bought infertile land and although he is a great inventor, he barely earns money enough to support his family. On the other hand, Adam Trask has migrated from the Eastern coast with a fortune in search of a new start with her new wife, Cathy. The novel focuses on these two families and the relationships they built, both between them and with their past. While Adam is longing to leave behind his rivalry with his brother Charles, Samuel and her wife, Liza, have moved from Ireland to escape the late 19th century famines that decimated the country.

Once in the Salinas Valley, Cathy gives birth to two sons, one by Charles and another one by Adam and, after shooting Adam, leaves him and starts working on a whorehouse in Salinas. There, thanks to her phenomenal manipulation, she convinces the owner to leave the business to her and, eventually, poisons her. Meanwhile, Adam spends years suffering from depression until Samuel Hamilton gives him a lecture on living. From this moment on, the narrative focuses on Adam’s two sons, Caleb and Aaron who – like Charles and Aron beforehand – stand for a modern version of Cain and Abel.

When Samuel Hamilton dies, the narrative centers on his children, each of whom represent a new way of living in the 20th century: a savvy businessman, a poet, a teacher, a housewife, etc. As they grow up, Adam decides to move to Salinas in search for a better education for the boys and they start to wonder about their mother. When Caleb finds out that she is the owner of the most terrible whorehouse in town, he keeps the secret to himself, knowing Aron is too sensitive to know. Aron himself is dating Abra, a girl they had previously met, but his religious calling stand on their relationship. When he finally leaves for college, they break up and Abra starts a relationship with Caleb. He is the one who feels guilty and starts pondering on whether he can escape his mother’s evil heritage. Finally, in a state of rage he tells Aron about Cathy and he desperately joins the army to fight in World War I. When he dies, Caleb feels totally responsible for his death, but he is forgiven by his father before he dies.

2. Main Characters

a) Samuel Hamilton.- If East of Eden is to be taken as an allegory, then Samuel is one of The Bible’s patriarchs. He is wise, practical and teaches every other character in the novel how to be happy. He is also very philosophical and his mind is very much advanced for the times he is living in. He is also quick in discovery that there is something strange about Cathy and, when she bites him, she develops an infection, as if a snake had bitten him. His wife, Liza, is a very religious, hard-working and stern woman and together they raised 9 children in the Salinas Valley.

b) Adam Trask.- The novel begins exploring Adam’s childhood in Massachusetts. After the early death of his mother, Adam’s father remarried to a young, local woman and they have another boy: Charles. From that moment on, Adam’s life will consist on surviving the extreme competition between himself and his brother while trying to avoid their father’s recently discovered military obsession. Adam and Charles stand for a version of Cain and Abel, and Steinbeck explores sibling rivalry from a very honest point of view. While Adam only wants to be left alone, Charles suffers from extreme jealousy from him and tries and fails to become the preferred son in their father’s eyes. When Adam moves West, there are many references to Eden, however, Cathy will not turn out to be the Eve he expected.

c) Cathy Ames (also appears under the names Cathy Trask/ Cath/Kate).- Cathy was the reason why I wanted to read East of Eden and I thoroughly enjoyed every page I spent in her company. She is – to put it simply – purely evil. From the very beginning, the omniscient narrator shows Cathy to be manipulative, selfish and without a sense of good and evil. In fact, she is described as “a monster”. When she later on marries Adam, she plays with the 19th century idea of being a wife and a mother, but she quickly dismisses it. After she gives birth to two sons, she abandons them and Adam and goes to Salinas where she inherits and runs the most depraved of the whorehouses.

3. Themes

The main theme in East of Eden is the fight between good and evil, embodied by Adam and Charles and, later on, by Caleb and Aron. Steinbeck explores the many different ways in which human beings can or cannot choose their actions and the consequences of these. More often than not, characters are able to choose whether to be good or evil: Cathy when she has her sons, Adam when he is abandoned by Cathy, Charles when he sleeps with Cathy and many others. However, Steinbeck also plays with the idea of each character having their own personal circumstances. When a partner leaves, one can choose to rise or to fall, but one cannot change the fact that they have been abandoned. But, we do have the ability to do what is best with the situations/times/people we are given or encounter, and that is what I liked the most about the novel. This ability to choose also gives us, human beings, agency and freedom to choose and to be and to make the most of the only life we have. Steinbeck makes a symbol of this idea through the world “timshel”, the original Hebrew word in the fourth chapter in Genesis that determines whether Cain would conquer sin or not. You can read the excerpt form the novel where they examine the word here.

Time and the passing of time also become central to the narration. Since the novel explores two different generations, their two ways of living and of growing up are very different. While Samuel wants to be happy and contents himself with his family and surviving, William, one of his sons, is obsessed with making money and, eventually, does not have a family. So, time and money connect two generations and two centuries that represent the most important innovation and technological breach in the history of human beings: 19th and 20th century.

4. Women’s Representation

Reading the books in context is something I always try to keep in mind. East of Eden was written and published in the 1950’s the decade that marked the revival of the Angel in the House image for housewives. American women dreamed of new domestic utilities that would make their lives easier and, eventually, there was a return to very conservative domestic ideals that repressed women. However, the book has a very critical view on women, even those in the 19th century. Steinbeck clearly writes that marriage was the only secure place for a woman and that it gave her social status. However, two of Samuel’s daughters represent two new ways in which women could live: Dessie goes on becoming a dressmaker and Una becomes a teacher.

But it is Cathy Ames who deserves our whole attention. Having already established on a first encounter with her that she is a monster, a modern reader cannot but deduce that she is a sociopath. Her evil actions have, according to the narrator, no purpose and the reader gets the feeling she is a snake looking for her next pray to appear. However, she is described as “masculine” in some parts of the novel, which made me ask whether Steinbeck could not imagine a woman psychopath because of the traditionally lovely attributes of women. She does not care about neither her husband nor her children, she only cares about money, her career and herself to the point of trying to make herself an abortion with a knitting needle. In the meantime, she would be happy to ruin anyone’s life just for the sake of doing so. And Steinbeck also gives her what traditionally and classically she would deserve: her body starts to deteriorate, she loses her beauty and, eventually, she commits suicide.

The book also pays attention a new ideal of beauty for women where “tights had lost their clutch” and when fashion mass-production made Dessie lose her business in San Francisco. It is also Dessie who has an affair with a married man and whose fall in disgrace ends up in her death as well, a death the reader suffers and does not feel as deserved.

5. Postcolonial Representation

Lee is one of the most important characters in the text, because he links Adam, Samuel, Cathy, Aron and Caleb. He plays the role of a maid at the Trask house and he performs typically feminine tasks such as cooking, cleaning, looking after the babies and all the other housework while Adam is lost in his grief after Cathy abandons him. Lee is also of Asian ancestry: he was conceived and born in the USA and, still, he feels a foreigner. Steinbeck explores deeply and with a fresh point of view the lives of those Chinese men who migrated to help build the West. Lee is said to be a foreigner both in the USA and in China and, at the beginning of the novel, hides her mastery of the English language under pidgin because that is how people expect him to speak. But, he is a central figure in the Trask household and once he lets his real identity out, he is a source of help, inspiration and strength for the three Trask men. However, postcolonial critic Edward Said commented on his work Orientalism (1978) on the main ways the “Orient” is constructed in the West and, interestingly enough, Chinese men are seen as feminine, so Lee’s role as a housekeeper could not escape this bit of criticism. He also associates himself and his Orientalism with calmness and, when he fails to remain calm, says he is losing his Oriental qualities. You can read a thesis on Lee’s identity called “CONVENIENT DISGUISE: ENGAGING LEE IN JOHN STEINBECK‟S EAST OF EDEN” by Lowell D.Wyse from the Wichita State University here.

6. Quotes

The following are some quotes that contain – in my opinion – some of the most important psychological and philosophical ideas:

Without money, you cannot fight money.

Steinbeck’s insight of capitalism and the Western world is a pessimistic one, but a realistic one for the 20th century.

It would be absurd if we did not understand both angels and devils, since we invented them.

I think this quote pretty much sums up one of the ideas about good and evil in the novel, and that is that we build them. Humans have a role in society and we can influence and construct each other. It does not take away responsibility from us and constructs us against nature where there is no evil/good.

Go through the motions, Adam […] Act out being alive, like a play. And after a while, a long while, it will be true.

This is, by far, the quote that I loved the most in the whole novel. When Cathy leaves, Adam suffers from a depression and does not take responsibility for his two sons or the estate, so it is Lee who plays the role of the father. However, when Samuel Hamilton visits him, he says this. I have long believed in conductism (Skinner) and perfomativity (Butler), that is simply put: we are what we do. If we want to be writers, we’d better write. If we want to be sporty people, we’d better practice some sport, and if we want to be readers, we’d better read. Or, as many say it as well: “fake it til you make it”. I think if we paid much more importance to actions and we saw the real power they have, we would all act differently.

The human is the only guilty animal.

Also true and also very complex: if we can be guilty, we know the difference between good and evil. If we know so, we can act accordingly. But, still, there is room in our actions for guilt and for repentance. I think they are the tools to improvement. No one of us is perfect, but we have the ability to repent and, as a consequence, learn from our mistakes and – hopefully – be better in the future. Adam and Charles had a flawed relationship, but Caleb’s final repentance, Lee’s lecture and Adam’s “tinshel” show that things can change and it is within us to do so.

7. My review

As you can imagine after reading this post, I loved East of Eden. I think it is one of the most complex novels I have ever read and I loved learning about 19th century and early 20th century California, when it did not mean fashion, glamour and movies. The philosophical questions Steinbeck posts are very interesting as well, and I think he leaves room enough for the reader to think and get their own conclusions. I was also very happy to read that Steinbeck inscribed Chinese men and the work and tortured the suffered while building the West. It is not very often that migrants’ work on the construction of a country is known and inscribed in their classic works.

The reason I wanted to read this book was Cathy and I enjoyed every moment I spent with her. She was very complex and very evil, quite a contrast with the other women in the novel who were more classically constructed. I noted down Chapter 21 as one to look up because of how masterful she plans her actions and the consequences they will have.

So, I totally recommend East of Eden to anyone who enjoys reading and, also, to those in search for a complex and very evil female main character. However, the book is long and posts some very important questions, so I recommend having plenty of time to read it, write about it and think about all the philosophical, theological and psychological questions Steinbeck posts.

The Australian Fiancé by Simone Lazaroo

The Australian Fiancé is Simone Lazaroo’s second novel. I borrowed the book from a professor after Simone’s lessons and read if right after The World Waiting to be Made because the writing was so good, I wanted to see how the author’s style developed.

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From GoogleBooks:

In 1949 a young Eurasian woman who survived the Japanese occupation of Singapore meets the son of a privileged Australian family and accompanies him to Broome. Captivated by this life and his photography, she comes to see herself anew, but is the image true? Themes of the novel are the aftermath of war, prejudice and alienation. Author was born in Singapore and lives in Fremantle, Western Australia.

Although I am a crime fiction fan, sometimes I feel like reading other kind of stories and those usually center around a young woman’s life. Simone Lazaroo’s The World Waiting to be Made was partly autobiographical and explored what it mean to be Euroasian in Australian during the 1970’s and 1980’s. However, after the novel being conceived as totally autobiographical, Lazaroo decided to do some research and write a historical novel always keeping the focus on the Eurasian community and their history. The Australian Fiancé came as part of that research.

The unnamed narrator struggles to live in Singapore with her mother and her little sister after the Japanese occupation of the city. The family is having a hard time covering even the basic needs and they usually suffer from hunger and horrible living conditions. However, one day the narrator finds an Australian tourist who wishes to be guided through the most interesting parts of the city to take pictures. Or maybe he wants something more. Lazaroo explores how being a woman changes completely how others see you and how the prospects of making a living out of your body become a real danger. The narrator struggles to define what kind of relationship she has with the Australian tourist who, as you might have guessed, becomes the Australian fiancé on the title.

I did not enjoy The Australian Fiancé as much as I did The World Waiting to be Made. The style is more ornate and the reader does never really get to know the narrator. However, the novel explores how racism intersects with being a woman in a post-war context. I was very glad – and sad – to learn about the Japanese occupation of Singapore. Lazaroo compares the British and the Japanese occupation as colonial enterprises that oppressed people with a hardest take on women. Lazaroo made a great effort to inscribe a forgotten period of our global history in Australian literature.

The Australian Fiancé is then the perfect reading for anyone interested in women’s representation in fiction and history. Word War II has been explored from very different points of view, but almost usually from a European or American one. This novel presents the reader with a different historical and social perspective and it does a great job of letting us know that WWII also happened in a part of the Pacific that was not Pearl Harbor.

The World Waiting to be Made by Simone Lazaroo

I learned about Australian writer Simone Lazaroo and her works during her lessons at my M.A. Her debut novel, The World Waiting to be Made (1994) is partly autobiographical and can be studied as an amazing example of diasporic literature written by a woman.

From Book Depository:

A young woman journeys back to her birthplace, Singapore, and to Malacca, her ancestral home, to discover rich, complex and mysterious aspects of her own identity. Aspects of herself that had only been half remembered, hinted at, or understood during a dislocated childhood and adolescence growing up in contemporary suburban Australia.The World Waiting to be Made charts the uncertain progress of an outsider in search of both her personal history and a meaningful place in the world.

I have to say that The World Waiting to be Made is much more than a diaspora story. The narrator, born in Singapore, moves to Australia with her family when she is only 3 years old and she spends the next 20 years there. Her story is then one of struggle and adaptation in the 1970’s Australia.

The novel explores what it means to be Eurasian in Australia, but also what that means when you are a woman. Although Australia was no longer a colony in the 1970’s, the unnamed narrator faces covert racism from some the Anglo-descended people. She just listens other people talk how Asian she is or how non-normative she is while she struggles to understand her real identity. At one point, she is even told she is not “that kind of Asian” and she wonders what people mean with the word “Asian” that compromises so many different nationalities, ethnicities and cultures.

Lazaroo has a real talent for writing and creating characters. I found myself immediately sympathizing with the main character and her story. For example, her high school struggles make her experience universal: she wants to become friends with what she calls “the cool kids”, but her appearance seems a barrier to do so. When she is done with high school she has no idea what to do either, what to study, where to live. Apart from this, reading is addictive due to the organization: the book is divided into sections, chapters and little thematic excerpts. I found myself awake at 1 a.m saying to myself “just another excerpt more”.

I would totally recommend The World Waiting to be Made to anyone interested in Australian literature, women’s stories and migrants’ stories. Although Lazaroo admitted that the novel is partly autobiographical, one needs to keep in mind that once you organize your life and write about it, it becomes a sort of fiction. However, she explores growing-up, maturing, sexuality, relationships, friendship, religion, travelling and any other topic that a young woman faces nowadays.

Just as I finished writing an essay about this novel I came across the hashtag #DiversifyYourShelves on Twitter. I think Lazaroo is the perfect writer to add some diversity to anyone’s reading and although her books are not easy to find in Europe/USA, do not hesitate to buy one if you see them. I had the opportunity to borrow mine from the school library, something I had not done in a long time and which brought me as much pleasure as discovering Lazaroo as a writer.

On a side note, I would like to add that Simone is an amazing and inspiring teacher. She told us about her creative process and how she just writes and edits and puts a lot of hard work on her writing which she combines with her Creative Writing teaching at Murdoch University in Australia. She truly is passionate about her work and her writing and she showed us that although it may not always be easy to sit down and write, the important thing is that you just do it and work on the text. Just the perfect advice when I’m about to start my PhD!

The Engagement by Chloe Hooper

The Engagement is a novel by Australian author Chloe Hooper. I was lucky enough to win this novel at Naomi’s blog and I was really excited about it. Sadly, the book didn’t turn out the success both Naomi and I thought it would be. However, I would like to thank her for running the giveaway.

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From Goodreads (excerpt):

Liese Campbell is working as an estate agent in Melbourne when she first meets Alexander Colquhoun. The handsome scion of a prominent farming family, he is searching for a pied-a-terre in the city. At another disappointing viewing, Liese leads Alexander to the bedroom, and they sleep together. Afterwards, he pulls out a roll of cash, and she takes three hundred dollars. ‘Half price’, she says jokingly, ‘because I like you.’ Liese is not a prostitute, but it is an erotic game, she thinks, that both parties are playing.

Whenever Alexander is in the city he calls her, and pays for sex. For Liese, who has travelled to Australia from England after losing her job, the relationship is fun, and a useful way to begin paying off her debts. When Liese decides to return home, she receives a letter from Alexander inviting her to the country for the weekend, and offering a price she cannot refuse. A few days of sex and luxury, she thinks – a final fling before she departs.

As you can see for the description, the book seemed perfect for me. But, from the very beginning I felt a detachment from the main character that remained with me the whole novel. Liese was a confused and chaotic character that should have appealed to me, since these kind of characters always do. But all throughout the novel I thought she had been careless and had behaved like a teenager. In fact, her behavior did not help me understand her choices.

However, what I did like was the Australian landscape. It had been a long time since I read a book settled in Australia, even though I am a huge Kate Morton fan. One of the things that I like the most about postcolonial settings is the contradictions tha come from the settlement and the place. In The Engagement Liese is trapped in a typically Victorian building in the middle of the hot, vast Australian landscape. That alone is a very powerful tool to make readers feel uneasy and out-of-place and it did help me feel like Liese did.

I read that this book is similar to Gone Girl, but I apart from a messed and confused main female character I do not know where the comparison comes from. Amy was a much more calculating and psychopathic character than Liese. I certainly cannot imagine Amy making the mistakes Liese did, but then again, I did not understand Liese at all.

So, maybe this book came at a difficult reading time for me, or maybe it was not my kind of story. But I suggest it to anyone interested in Australia and Australian literature because the contradictions of what the place was intended to be and what the landscape and geography was play a key role in the novel.

Poem: A Far Cry from Africa by Derek Walcott

Just recently I did a series on postcolonialism and did not include a wonderful author I did not know yet: Derek Walcott. He is a West Indian with mixed ancestry: two of his grandparents were black and two were white. Being superficial, the result could not be better: he got both blue eyes and dark skin.

But, leaving superficial comments besides, his mixed ancestry has also influenced his work as an artist (a decision he took being a kid). However, reading one of his poems, I also found he is very influenced by the sea and the fluidity. This last concept of fluidity is very important in postcolonial theory: we are not fixed entities, we are in continous change and can adapt ourselves to new situations and contexts. Just like water does in different containers!

So, I leave here the first poem I read by Walcott, the one I liked the most and that deals with that reconstruction of an African past based on a continent many descendants of slaves have never visited and means nothing to them. Hope you enjoy it.

A wind is ruffling the tawny pelt
Of Africa, Kikuyu, quick as flies,
Batten upon the bloodstreams of the veldt.
Corpses are scattered through a paradise.
Only the worm, colonel of carrion, cries:
“Waste no compassion on these separate dead!”
Statistics justify and scholars seize
The salients of colonial policy.
What is that to the white child hacked in bed?
To savages, expendable as Jews?
Threshed out by beaters, the long rushes break
In a white dust of ibises whose cries
Have wheeled since civilizations dawn
From the parched river or beast-teeming plain.
The violence of beast on beast is read
As natural law, but upright man
Seeks his divinity by inflicting pain.
Delirious as these worried beasts, his wars
Dance to the tightened carcass of a drum,
While he calls courage still that native dread
Of the white peace contracted by the dead.

Again brutish necessity wipes its hands
Upon the napkin of a dirty cause, again
A waste of our compassion, as with Spain,
The gorilla wrestles with the superman.
I who am poisoned with the blood of both,
Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?
I who have cursed
The drunken officer of British rule, how choose
Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?
Betray them both, or give back what they give?
How can I face such slaughter and be cool?
How can I turn from Africa and live?

I have added links to the most complicated works so you can read a little bit and understand the poem. Basically, Walcott criticizes both African and European people because they both did the same: end other people’s lives. He also sees his mixed ancestry as something poisoning instead of enriching but still praises the African landscape, separating it from its inhabitants. At the same time, he also praises the English tongue, despite being an important tool of colonialism.

I would like to know your opinion about the poem:

As I said on my last post, I am a narrative girl, but I’ve discovered a like postcolonial poetry too much. I find it enriching and easier to understand thatnclassical poetry (Whitman, Dickinson etc). So, I have bought an antology on the diaspora poetry called Ten and which I have already recommended to any reader interested in postcolonialism.

Did you like the poem? Do you agree with the idea of returning to an African past (unknown to many) as something dangerous?

I personally agree with Walcott. Such a return is on a myth and not a reality. I understand that your ancestors being slaves may affect you, but, how can returning to a landscape you don’t know, a language that means nothing to you and to a culture that may be a slight part of you, enrich your life? I would rather focus on the multiculturality of my present and try to enjoy it as much as I can.

Further reading on the influence of slavery HERE.

Postcolonialism and Literature – Reading the others. Suggested readings

This is my last post on postcolonialism for the moment, so here you have the long-awaited and promised list of suggested works. Click on the titles to buy the books at Book Depository.

UPDATE: I will update this list with works I get to read in my courses.

POETRY

Ten by Bernardine Evaristo
The Next Poems by Mutabaruka
Postcolonial Poetry in English

NARRATIVE

How to read the Air by Dinaw Mengestu (US migration)
Small Island by Andrea Levy
(Jamaica)     REVIEW
The Long Song by Andrea Levy
(Jamaica)
The Help by Kathryn Stockett (US racism)  REVIEW
The Constant Gardener by John LeCarré (Kenya)
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe REVIEW
Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid (West Indies)
Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid (West Indies)
Bless me Última by Rudolfo A. Anaya (Chicano/Mexican)
How the Garcia Girls lost their Accents by Julia Álvarez (Chicano/Mexican)
Crick Crack Monkey by Merle Hodge (West Indies)
The Secret River by Kate Grenville (Australia)
Bush Studies by Barbara Baynton (Australia)
Mr. Pip by Lloyd Jones (South Pacific)

PLAYS:

Anowa by Ama Ata Aidoo 

THEORY

Orientalism by Edward W. Said SUMMARY
The Empire Writes Back by Various Authors
Beginning Postcolonialism by John McLeod
A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid

Thanks everyone for coming and for your suggestions and opinions. Feel free to complete this list so other readers can enjoy your favourite works!

Postcolonialism and Literature – Reading the others. A personal experience by Risa

Risa has kindly answered some questions for us regarding postcolonialism. She is a young, educated woman, from India. She studied English literature at university and is currently on hiatus from work, but she lent us some of her precious time. So, thank you a lot, Risa! Also, I would like to show you her blog, Bread Crumb Reads – it is great and very well informed, so don’t forget to pay her a visit as soon as posible.

Risa for Books and Reviews:

1. When did you decide you wanted to study English Literature? Why? Did any particular work inspire you?
I knew I was going to study English Literature from the time I was about four or five years old. I believe this was because my mother was a teacher of English and she taught me to love reading. From the time I could read I devoured abridged versions of many popular classics. Strangely enough, Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe was a favourite for a long time, and there was Little Women and The Wizard of Oz. I also enjoyed reading plenty of Enid Blyton in those very early years. I graduated to reading the classics unabridged, and by the time I was ready for university I knew that all I wanted to do was teach English Literature, be it in school or university.
2. How many languages apart from English do you speak? Do you use them on a daily basis?
Now this is where I have some explaining to do. I am a South Indian whose mother tongue is English. I know this doesn’t make much sense but this too is the result of postcolonial India. My grand-parents and their generation belonged to the era when India was gaining its freedom. It was also a time when any educated Indian could speak excellent English and studied English Literature and Western Philosophy. ‘Educated’ Indians were more well-versed in Western culture and literature than they were with all things Indian. (I would just like to mention that there was no ‘India’ until the British came and brought most of the little kingdoms here, under their domain.) My mother grew up on a heavy diet of, not only Western Literature, but Western classical music, dance, movies and the popular music of the day. Consequently I learnt much of this from my mother. My father belonged to a family, where though they all knew English, spoke in their native tongue, which in our case is Tamil – a language that is as old as Sanskrit, Greek and Latin. Unfortunately, (again, I am sure, the consequence of what the British colonization has done to our psychy) my father refused to talk to us in anything but English, and my mother could talk to us in nothing but English.
In very good private and convent schools, students were not allowed to speak any other language but English. If anyone spoke any other language they were punished quite severely. In the past decade, though, these rules have been relaxed as the government has been trying to encourage learning of the mother tongue. Personally, though  English is the only language I speak fluently, I know enough Tamil to buy something at the market, bargain rates and speak to my maid, and I can understand some Hindi.
3.  At university, did you study postcolonial literature or just the canon?
Postcolonial Literature has become quite important in academics in these past eight or nine years. Indians are beginning to realise how much they have been caught up in all things Western that they’re missing out on something that is quite their own. Therefore, Indian literature from the post colonial era has become important and recently universities have begun studying Australian, Canadian, African and Caribbean post colonial literature as well. We also have separate courses that study translations of Indian literature.
4. How are “typically Western works” perceived in India?
Again, this might sound strange, but those of us who have grown up with British classics and popular literature feel like we know England better than we know our own country. However, we are greatly in the minority as our population is vast, though we do make up a pretty huge percentage among those who have had access to a good ‘English’ education here in India. To us, British Literature is the literature. Only in recent years have we been striving to let go of this attitude.
5. At school (from ages 7 to 18) what do studendents read: more English authors or Indians?
As far as I know there have always been works by Indians in the school syllabus, namely works by R K Narayan, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Nissim Ezekiel, Sarojini Naidu, Rabindranath Tagore and Toru Dutt. However, the western writers have always dominated the scene in school. This does not mean that students aren’t introduced to Indian writers who write in their own mother tongue. These writers are studied in their respective language classes.
6. Can you recommend us some contemporary Indian authors?
Kushwanth Singh, Rohinton Mistry, Vikram Seth, Anita Desai, Shashi Deshpande., Kamala Markandaya – these apart from Arundathi Roy and Salman Rushdie. I haven’t read all of these authors’ works, but they are all supposed to be really good writers.
7. As a mother, what do you encourage your child to read? Do you pay attention to racism/discrimination and use literature to help you? How do you protect him from comment such as “congratulations for your good English!”?
My son is only a year old, but I know I would start him out on the things I started out with – Enid Blyton, and other English writers of children’s books. The only Indian books I could see my son reading at such a young age would be the Panchatantra stories. (they are rather similar to Aesop’s Fables) All other Indian books for children that I have seen are all based on Hindu mythology which I would object to from a religious point of view. Actually, now that you’ve brought up this question I realise that there aren’t many books for children by Indian writers writing in English. And you might have noticed that I do not mention children’s books in our Indian languages; that’s because, as far as I’m aware, there aren’t any, or they are very few.
8. You are obviously young and a working mum, but, have you ever felt the need to be “more English”? Is there still presure in India? (I ask this because I read somewhere that Aishwarya Rai was offered a whitening skin product and she refused to promote it. In that particular moment I realised that the English stereotypes are still present in India, even for an ex-Miss World)
You just quoted an example of Aishwaria Rai and a fairness cream – believe it or not, skin colour is a huge problem in India. If you’re fair, you’re beautiful. If you’re dark, you’re not. It breaks your heart to see young, dark girls who come from very poor families, desperately buying fairness creams and applying them to their skin in the hopes that what the advertisements promise will come true. In the marriage classifieds you’ll find that men always want fair or ‘wheatish’ looking women. Even in terms of foreigners, you will find that the locals (when I say locals I mean the average man on the street with a minimum amount of or no education) will treat a white man with a great deal of respect, while a black man (there are quite a few people from Nigeria) is treated horribly.
Just a quick example for this last: a few years ago, one afternoon after college, I was sitting in a city bus waiting for it to start. I was occupied with a book when someone asked me if she could sit beside me. I looked up to find this tall Nigerian with a bandana round her braided bangs. I was startled that she had asked, but I said sure she could, I wasn’t expecting anybody. I went back to my book while she sat down. After a few seconds she asked me, “You really don’t mind my sitting beside you?” I realized there was something rather odd about the question, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. “No, I don’t,” I said, “why do you ask?” What she said completely through me off gear. Apparently there were people who did mind when she sat next to them. She got dirty looks and not very friendly comments. I learnt she was in the same college as I was, and that her classmates made a great deal of fun at her Nigerian English accent and the way she dressed. To me, this was something very new and horrifying. But this is the reaction of the locals in any part of India. (Her classmates were mostly first-generation learners from the local area, belonging to lower-middle class or poor families.) If you’re white they worship you. If you’re black you’re treated like a demon. I have a friend who is quite dark. She is such a lively, charming person, but her family has convinced her that because she is dark she is ugly, as a result she has such a terrible complex about herself that she hasn’t been able to allow herself to get married – something she’s been wanting to do for years!
As far as English as a language goes, it is said the reason why many Indians do better than like countries abroad is because they can communicate very well in English. So, you find many small places offering crash courses in English so that people from poorer families who are looking to grow, can improve their English. Really, if you want to succeed in any type of career in India you need to know English. In schools and colleges every child is introduced to the likes of Milton and Shakespeare, Keats and Wordsworth, Dickens and Hardy!
9. Your personal view on postcolonial studies and the “Western re-discovering the East”. Anything you’d like to read more about?
I am a typical product of postcolonial India. Although I’m an Indian, I’m very western in my dress, behaviour and outlook. I dream, think and speak in English. My native tongue is as alien to me as it would be to a person who is British. I have always loved pre-modern British Literature. When I was in college post colonial literature put me off. Everything was rather the same, and most often the writers were people who wrote from outside their own country. I could never stomach that (I still don’t, I think). It’s only in the past couple of years or so that I have pushed myself to explore beyond my comfort zone of the Romantics and Victorians. I don’t always succeed. For me, good literature is more than just complaining or ‘writing back’. If you can capture the soul of what you are representing then it’s worth it.
I find it rather ironic that the East has given up so much to ape the West, only to leave the West to ‘re-discover’ the East. But it’s a prime example of how much the West influences us. We, the once colonised, are unwilling to let go of years of being mastered. We’re still trying to wean ourselves away…and yet it is irksome that the West treat the (re)discovery of the East like Columbus’ ‘discovery’ of America. At the end of the day everything is about power-play in trade and commerce; what suits the super-power of the era goes for everybody. Personally, I think nations are still colonised by the super-power of the West via technology and the world wide web!
I asked her, for personal interest: Also, I’m not sure about the term Indian (my super polite teachers don’t let me use it, I have to use Hindi and God forbid me to say a black man!) so, change it if my use is not correct please.
I’m curious to know who these teachers are. Are they Indian? Have they ever been to India or had any first hand experiences with Indians? I’ve never heard of these things before!
To begin with, Indian is just as much a term as say American, English, Chinese, Japanese and so on. Hindi is one of thousands of languages that exist in India. It is also one of the newest languages, though most won’t admit it. It was a language created during our fight for Independence in order to have a common language among the people of the many cultures that are prevalent. Foreigners tend to get Hindi and Hindu so confused that they refer to all of us as such. As I said, Hindi is a language. Hindu is what a person, whose religion is Hinduism, is called.
If you were to come to India and call just anyone Hindi they’d be most offended, especially the further south you come. Depending on which state they’re from Indians will identify themselves as a Telagu, Kannadiga, Tamil, Malayali, Maharashtrian, Bengali, Punjabi, Gujarathi, Assamese and so on and so forth. In fact, we all tend to identify ourselves with our States first. Then comes our country as a whole. So yes, we’re all Indians.:)
As for being called ‘black people’, again we’re a variety of races and skin colour. People from the north of India tend to be very fair of skin, and it’s not uncommon to find those with light green or brown eyes. These people are said to have strains of the Aryan race. Towards the north-east part of India you find people of the Mongolian race, and as you come further south the skin colour darkens until you reach people who have almost the same skin-colour as the Africans. These people are said to belong to the Dravidian race. Of course, these racial differences are not clear cut since we’ve had many, many centuries of mingling. We’re really a very mixed up bunch of people – geographically, culturally, religiously, racially, linguistically – and we’re incredibly proud of it!:)

Don’t forget to come back tomorrow for the last post on postcolonialism with a list of recommended works.