In The Waiter’s Wife by Zadie Smith, readers are faced with the subject of immigration, race, social class, age, and gender. One of the biggest themes (which can also be considered their own themes) in the story is the clash between modern thinking and traditional thinking, as well as cultural displacement. I want to focus on this clash, because I also struggle with my own. Alsana and her husband Samad have moved to London from Bangladesh to start their lives as a married couple. Their marriage was arranged, which is very traditional in many Eastern countries, and they have a large age gap between them.
We are also introduced to Clara, who is from Jamaica and is married to an Englishman named Archie. She befriends Alsana through Archie and Samad’s friendship and becomes pregnant at the same time as Alsana with a baby girl, while Alsana is pregnant with twin boys. We also meet Neena, who is Alsana’s “Niece-Of-Shame”, and it is Neena who brings in the modern, Western thinking that clashes with Alsana’s more traditional way of thinking.
As I read and began to make more connections, I realized that Alsana’s struggle with cultural hybridity and displacement will be shared with her sons, no doubt, and with Clara and her daughter as well. Alsana admits her struggle with the hanging between cultures when she has a conversation with Clara and Neena at the park. For her sons to have a father from a much different time (different, even, from Alsana’s), her son’s will indeed probably be living with “one leg in the present, one in the past” and “their roots will always be tangled” (3068). You also have to keep in mind that these children will grow up in London, not in Bangladesh or Jamaica like their parents. This clash between tradition/modern and cultures is something that is inescapable.
After reading this story and reading more about it and cultural hybridity and displacement, I seriously related. My mom immigrated here from Panama 30 years ago and my dad lived in Puerto Rico from eight years old until he finished his first four years of college (living in New Jersey beforehand). They are incredibly traditional and our culture is so alive in our household. But being raised in Ohio all my life (Dayton since birth), hybridity and displacement has been with me forever, and my mother experienced it like Alsana did. I had friends from all different backgrounds (only two Latinas, like me, in my life) which I didn’t entirely notice until I was in college. It was very confusing for me, figuring out who I was (a combination of three different cultures) and to be honest, it still is confusing sometimes, especially with regards to the traditional vs. the modern. I struggle with that almost every day, mainly leaning toward traditional but trying to implicate the modern because it’s just as important. There’s a tug from all directions and all kinds of influence. At the end though, I have hope for Alsana’s boys and for Clara’s girl. I think the more culture, the more beautiful, even if it’s difficult sometimes.
Photo taken by me
The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats transcends through time like many of the poems we’ve been reading. With the pandemic, climate change, growing tension within our country and between other countries, the first stanza seems to depict the times we’re currently experiencing. Of course, Yeats was reflecting on World War I and his reference to Christianity is balanced with something a little less Christian; rather than Jesus as the second coming, he describes “A shape of a lion body and the head of a man, a gaze blank and pitiless as the sun.” He describes how innocence is gone, how the best people aren’t motivated to act and how the worst people are filled with intense passion. I know that most of us have never gone through a pandemic before, and I think that’s where the innocence is lost when I connect the current events with this poem. I also think the mention of the worst and the best people is quite accurate when compared to today.
The second stanza is a little disheartening and sort of a downer. Essentially, when one thinks “there has to be hope, there has to be light at the end of the tunnel”, the universe responds with “no, there is no light.” Or maybe the light is a different shade, is dimmer, or just a flicker. This second stanza describes how the deity above or around us, whether that be the universe or the lion/man creature, holds no pity for us. I thought the mention of Spiritus Mundi was really profound; I had to look it up and found that it describes “the collective soul of the universe, containing the memories of all time.” If I had read this a month ago, I think it would have affected me at a much deeper level. There was a point, during this pandemic, when I felt so utterly helpless and with little hope. The bad (death) just felt inevitable and after being cooped up for two months, it felt (and sort of still feels) like it will never end. But looking back at when Yeats wrote this, the war came to an end and things recovered for a little bit. I guess one just has to hold onto hope, even if it’s a foolish thing to do, considering the universe is, according to Yeats, looking down with such a gaze and with such seemingly dark intent.
Photo taken by me: front cover of Madwomen by Gabriela Mistral
Although written during an incredibly difficult time in history for women, Mary Elizabeth Coleridge’s The Other Side of a Mirror is still so relevant in today’s age. I found myself relating to this piece and making my own connections, as I’m sure many others have as well. Coleridge’s ambiguity surrounding the narrator’s lost hope opens the door for the narrator and her reflection to have a timeless connection with the women to come. The image of a woman facing “the self” she is suppressing (whether forced or not) forms a raw glance at the human psyche in those days and in today's. This image is powerful and almost frightening after one considers the times it was written in when emotions, such as despair and envy, in women were seen as possible signs of insanity. The reaction to threat against one’s “shade of a shadow”, which is naturally of the self, is easily seen in the descriptions Coleridge uses. The image of the narrator bleeding from the mouth in line 16 can indicate one dying; she bleeds secrecy, and this also wears a veil of ambiguity that many can find relatable, as secrecy can lead to an endless supply of subjects and scenarios. This secrecy or “speechlessness” may be a result of the suppression the narrator is experiencing; unable to freely express her true thoughts and feelings about situations she is faced with, such as family conflict or the unfair treatment she has to endure overall.
I connected this piece with Carl Jung’s slightly more contemporary structure of the mind. Although Coleridge wrote this in reflection of the oppression women were facing and the impact it had on the psyche, this piece transcends through those times into ours as a result of the ambiguity she sprinkles throughout it. I personally resonate with Jung’s structure of the mind, which includes the ego (consciousness), the self (personal unconscious), and the shadow (collective unconsciousness). The shadow/the collective unconscious is composed of weaknesses, desires, and instincts and is known to contain all the things that are considered unacceptable in society’s eyes and in our own. It can also represent wildness and chaos and many tend to deny its existence in their own psyche. The image of one looking at their own reflection to face what is suppressed (the shadow) is what resonated with me when I read this. I think women especially tend to internalize their sufferings. And as a result, the suffering tends to grow so much more intense, resulting in what can feel like madness.
My name is Yasel and this website will be filled with my analysis on the British texts I'll be reading in class. I enjoy reading poetry and fiction and I occasionally write my own poetry. I welcome all comments with open arms so long as they pertain to the literature.