3/1030 : Ice-Skating as Mode of Expression in Brick Lane and ?

Wow. The days are going by quicker than I expected they would. It’s actually kind of freaking me out- good thing I finally started writing! So, yesterday I explored why I am in comparative lit. The day before I introduced what the heck my blog is turning into. Today is the first day I actually produce some content.

I think I’ll write about figure skating.

I recently started reading Wie der Soldat das Grammofon repariert by Saša Stanišić and while I am still waiting for some sort of intermedial reference, I needed to note the main character’s  observations about his mother  on page 75 of the 6th ed. of the Randomhouse Paperback (2008).

“Wenn ich so alt bin wie meine Mutter, werde ich auch eine Stunde lang ununterbrochen von Sorgen erzaehlen koennen, nur werden es nicht meine eigenen sein. Mutter hatte eigentlich Eiskunstlaeuferin werden  wollen. Jetzt laeuft sie sich in unserem Gericht muede.”

I haven’t read far enough to see if Aleksandar makes more comments about his mother’s once dreams, but I am already surprised by the use of iceskating as some kind of motif. It is definitely a motif in Brick Lane by Monica Ali, and now I’m wondering if I can make a connection.

In Brick Lane, ice-skating appears several times throughout the novel. It mostly appears in connection with a television, and the images on the screen are interjected into the text. Of course, because of this in Brick Lane I can talk about ice-skating in relation with intermedial references, and this choice is rather productive, since major themes throughout the novel are evoked by these instances, for example on page 36 of the 2004 Blackswan Paperback.

The “screen held” Nazneen as she is trying to fold laundry. She see two figures (their descriptions are almost erotic, but in a conservative ‘I can’t believe they’re wearing that in public’ way) and to her, it looks like magic.

Apparently, I talk about all this much better in my MA thesis chapter:

Ice-skating is a form of expression; it is an artistic form of movement in which the female is often considered superior to the male performer in popular consciousness (we see this in ballet as well). The movement across the ice in rhythm and with supreme control of movement is akin to language use in an unpredictable world where one is constantly in danger of transgressing boundaries. The first time Nazneen sees it on the television in her flat, the experience shifts her from her previous state so that she is “no longer a collection of the hopes, random thoughts, petty anxieties and selfish wants that made her” (41). This looks like magic to Nazneen. The word “ice-skating” first appears fairly early in the novel on page 36. Nazneen sees two figures on television and the situation is described as capturing Nazneen as the “screen [holds] her” and she tries to understand what they are doing.  In her “mis-understanding” of the actions of the two ice-skaters, she creates her own understanding. It is one of the first instances in which we see the formation of her individual voice. But then, when she wants to verbalize their act, she has difficulty.

‘What is this called?’ Said Nazneen.
Chanu glanced at the screen. ‘Ice skating,’ he said, in English.
‘Ice e-skating’ said Nazneen.
‘Ice skating,’ said Chanu.
‘Ice e-skaiting.’
‘No, no. No {e}. Ice skating. Try it again.’
Nazneen hesitated( 37).

In this situation, the pronunciation of the word, rather than its role as motif, takes the forefront:

“’Go on!’

Ice es-kating,’ she said, with deliberation.
Chanu smiled. ‘Don’t worry about it. It’s a common problem for Bengalis. Two consonants together causes a difficulty. I have conquered this issue after a long time. But you are unlikely to need these words in any case.’
‘I would like to learn some English,’ said Nazneen.
Chanu puffed his cheeks and spat the air out in a fluff. ‘It will come. Don’t worry about it. Where’s the need anyway?’ He looked at this book and Nazneen watched the screen” (37).

Underneath the structural level of the word we see in this passage all the major motives that are returned to throughout the novel: television, words, language, desire, and ice skating. In fact, learning English and ice-skating are usually in close proximity in the novel. When one is mentioned, the other usually appears as well. The final question “Where’s the need anyway?” brought up in this situation introduces the last authoritative discourse Nazneen must assert herself against: that of her husband. As Nazneen slowly moves through other layers of discourse, her relationship to the words “ice skating” and the experience it portrays changes.

The next mention of “ice skating” is when Nazneen sees it in a magazine during one of her moments of inactivity (93). The sexual expression in the action is even more pronounced here in the description of the woman’s thigh: “She felt the rush of wind on her cheeks, and the muscles in her thighs flexing. The ice smelled of limes. The cold air made her flush with warmth from deep down” (93). The succeeding instance highlights even more desire in the language and a bit of stream of consciousness.  Nazneen imagines ice-skating in her dream about Karim, “she moved without weight and there was someone at her side, her hand in another, and through her half-closed lashes she saw him. The fine gold chain around his neck” (220). The connection of ice, limes, and desire is developed into its own discourse by the time Nazneen says about Karim that he “smelled of limes” (449).

Finally, by the end of the novel, the motif is carried through to satisfy the interpretation of the ice-skating rink that Nazneen is brought to by Razia, Shahana and Bibi. Nazneen’s new “way of being” becomes solidified in the image of the ice. Salman Rushdie writes in “Step Across this Line” that “[w]e become the frontiers we cross” (410). This rink serves as a metaphor for Nazneen. It symbolizes all the things Nazneen has gone through and all the ways, and people, she has learned to communicate with without losing touch of who she is and what she wanted. “She looked at the ice and slowly it revealed itself. The criss-cross patterns of a thousand surface scars, the colours that shifted and changed in the lights, the unchanging nature of what lay beneath” (492). True, Nazneen has surface scars from the struggle in the “contact zone,” but she can have desire and multiplicity “colours that shift[…] and change” and still remain the individual she was. What changes is that she learns to express this subjectivity better.

Right. So that was my grad student self working through how ice-skating can be a form of expression. I guess I put a lot of thought into it then, and maybe that’s why it stood out to me that Aleksandar’s mother wanted to become an ice-skater. I can see how it is attractive to Nazneen. I can work with the way Monica Ali uses the motif to help present an authentic individual voice for Nazneen (though how authentic it is needs to still be questioned).

I have no real understanding yet about how it works for Saša Stanišić. I believe, however, that there is a link to be made with the way Aleksandar says he will be able to tell people about worries all day, but that they won’t be his own. He will create the worries or tell those of others. Aleksandar is also a magician in this story, and his ability to create worlds (and worries) is his magic. The links between expression and magic are definitely there, but other than mere proximal-association, I haven’t gotten enough about the mother to understand why it is significant that she wanted to be a figure skater. She’s stuck in a world where she types up reports for men and “runs herself down” in the court offices. Perhaps she, like Nazneen, longs for a freedom of expression that can be found in the physically aesthetic and exhilarating act of skating? I’ve got to finish reading before I can confirm this.

In the meantime, I’m pleased to see I’ve managed three days in a row. I’m surprised how articulate I was in my MA thesis… those months are all a blur for me now.

I need to work on my verbosity though. I could write the things I do with half the text.

What I leave today’s entry with is a more clear idea of the way ice-skating is used by different authors in different contexts. Freedom of expression and creation are in both instances, but the Stanišić version is touched by a little more politics. I also may want to acknowledge that Nazneen is a feminist’s character while I can’t make any assumptions about Stanišić.  I will return to this once I finished reading …Grammofon… 

In the future, I will also want to figure out a way to discuss the connection between the television and this form of expression. I haven’t done that very clearly yet, but I have to if I’m talking about intermedial references. I also want to be able to cite more concrete literary theory. To-do lists are being built. The game is on!

Disclaimer: this series is a collection of brainstorms and free-writes that are a part of my planning for actual text in my dissertation. Therefore, I am giving myself the liberty to make mistakes, make assumptions (call me out on offensive ones, though!), not tie up loose ends, and generally not make any sense. 

Copyright 2016 Dorothea Trotter: because these writings are planning for actual text in my dissertation, some of this will appear in my dissertation. I hold the right to the words in this post and require that interested parties ask for permission before copying the words or ideas too closely. Obviously, the date of posting is the date of copyright and I reserve the right to challenge suspected plagiarism in my future dissertation submission using these blogs as proof of originality. 

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About My Thesis

Uh… what’s that thing one has when others have faith in one to take care of one’s responsibilities and “get the job done”? Oh, yeah- accountability.

Well, that’s something I need to work on (clearly, it’s not even part of my vocabulary).

But here’s an idea of my thesis project and what most of my reading centers around now. That way, I can have an updated “about” page (and still do a lot of “not-reading”). Seriously though, I update this blog to help keep myself accountable for the academic and intellectual activity that should be a part of my lifestyle.

Quick and dirty overview: Our present is marked by a radical split between space and place. Unbound by the physical place we occupy, we have come to travel endless layers of space and the universal condition of people has become one explained by hybridity. People move between virtual and physical worlds, countries, perspectives and radical ideas. And yet the most visible form of hybridity remains immigration. We see how immigration, nomadism, and exilic displacement, and their resulting in-betweeness are crucial to intellectual, spiritual, and artistic development. We are becoming used to our national borders being challenged from within, rather than from without as it had been for much of the formative years of our nations.  Immigrants are sources of energy and creativity, “busily redefining” the culture of their accepted homelands (Rushdie).  Yet they are also sources of conflict, apathy, or difficulty, failing to accept or become accepted by the world around them. Writers, often with immigrant background, depict these contrasting views of immigrants in ways marked by their own experiences and these experiences define the state of our nations. These novels are also increasingly popular; today, we see more and more authors leave the printers of our national printing presses who expand the bubble of what it means to be a German or an English writer.
Intellectuals and non-intellectuals alike are concerned with the migrant. An act self-understood as nation building since the beginning of travel and immigration has also always simultaneously represented a threat. Yet it is often the intellectuals who successfully articulate the fear and juxtapose it against the positive aspects of migration. Often, these are writers with migrationshintergrund and they are multilingual or exophonic, choosing to write in a language that is not their mother tongue. The language created by the multilingual writer is the closest mirror for the non-bilingual to experience the vibrant and multifaceted existence of a world of migration while continuing to belong to the non-bilingual, non-immigrant. This is possible because the writer is part of the same world.

Thesis task: to determine how writers with different kinds of immigrant background explore the relationship between language, identity and the world during the contemporary postmodernist movement in Europe. This includes determining how the writer creates a world that is filled with the many voices of his or her existence. Ultimately, this thesis will provide some answers for the following questions: What does Migrationshintergrund mean? What causes us to leave our “homeland?” In what ways do Monica Ali and ­­­Olga Grjasnowa differently portray the experience of the immigrant? What determines the positive or negative experience of an “exile?” What is exile? What does it actually mean, to “integrate?” Why are these works that ask these questions becoming “bestsellers?”

Plan: for my Master’s Thesis, I intend to complete a comparative literary study of Monica Ali’s Brick Lane and Olga Grjasnowa’s Der Russe ist einer, der Birken liebt in light of Bakhtin’s theories on the novel. My introduction will provide a frame to look at these novels from a Bakhtinian perspective. Then, I will address each book individually, discussing what is unique about them in the broader genre of “exile literature.” To do this, I will focus on the use of “voices.” Finally, I intend to use the comparison of both works to help develop an idea of the differences in literary creation of contemporary second and third-generation migrants.

Theory: I am taking a Cultural Studies, Post-colonial, and Formalist (Russian and U.S. School) approach.

(and, um, I claim all the rights for this text because it’s mine and because I can. no copying without citing, please!)