Monday, December 16, 2013

Upton Sinclair's “The Jungle"

One of the most infuriating tribulations of being an English major is answering the ignorant question: “What’s the point of analyzing literature?” Even more infuriating is the follow-up question: “How do you know the author really meant that?”
My main answer—among many—to this question is: Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906).
The book is, at face value, a scathing exposure of the abject poverty in which American immigrants had to live at the turn of the twentieth century. From its discussions of hazardous working conditions to his condemnation of financial and social hierarchy, The Jungle was among the first texts to inspire change in governmental treatment of its workers.
The Jungle’s most crucial “subversion” was putting meat-packing practices in the limelight. Sinclair illustrated portraits of adult and child workers falling into rendering tanks and being ground with animal parts, which would then be packaged and sold to the public.
Sinclair cynically observed that the only reason his book garnered attention was “not because the public cared anything about the workers, but simply because the public did not want to eat tubercular beef.”
The public’s reaction spurred The Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906 – a United States Congress Act that forces supervision of meat processing and prevents meat produced in unsanitary or unhealthy ways to be sold to the public. Even more, the book opened America’s eyes to the filthy, unpleasant living conditions of the poor, as well as obstacle to social mobility. The treatment of immigrants waned painstakingly slowly, but The Jungle was indeed a protest that made change possible.
That, my friends, is the contribution of literature. The Jungle is a fiction novel, and therefore not as straightforward as an essay or newspaper article would be. The novel required close readings, analysis, dissection. And without any of these, the meat you eat on a daily basis might very well be laden with a human appendages.
-Alex Hajjar 

I watch as men burn for their sins on earth
Just to again burn for their sins on earth
I watch those who judge
And think their selves just
Then thank their selves for how just they are
In burning the men whose hands steal
I watch “him” burn along with this man
For how he stole me away with his flames,
Burned me from inside out
I watch how men like him burn for things
They steal with their eyes
And burn for things the steal with by mouth
I watch how greed consumes them like flames do a match
I watch how they burn in their fat
From things that they steal to consume
I watch them choke on the flames like
Choking back on tears
I watch soot faced and stubborn
The men that burn for their Justness
          -Paul Francois

          When I was growing up, my elders will always say, “when you point one finger at someone there are four pointing back at you.” I bring this up because this poem reflects on the unjustness of human kind and the cyclical blame game we play. The poem is a response to a story I wrote where men are burnt to death for stealing. Young girls are sexually abused and have no choice but to pretend like nothing ever happened. The story was a reflection on things I saw growing up in Nigeria. Although it is fictional I feel that it address issues that need to be dealt with. This poem highlights the main points of the story. There is a collective “burning” going on among the human race. And it is up to us to stand up and fight for each other. 
– Eta Oyarijivbie 

From Tombstone as a Lonely Charm (part 3)
D.A. Levy

if you want a revolution
return to your childhood
and kick out the bottom
dont mistake changing
headlines for changes
if you want freedom
dont mistake circles
for revolutionsoki
think in terms of living
and know
you are dying
& wonder why
if you want a revolution
learn to grow in spirals
always being able to return
to your child
and kick out the bottom
This is what ive been
trying to say––if you
attack the structure––
the system––the establishment
you attack yourself
& attack if you must
challenge yourself externally
but if you want a revolution
return to your childhood
& kick out the bottom
be able to change
yr own internal chemistry
walk down the street
& flash lights in yr head
at children
this is not a game
your childhood
is the foundation
of the system
walk down the street
flash lights in yr head
at children but be wary
of anyone old enough to kill
learn how to disappear
before they can find you
(that is, if you want to
stay alive)
if you want a revolution
do it “together”
but dont get trapped in
words or systems
people are people
no matter what politics
color or words they use
& they all have children
buried in their head
if you want a revolution
grow a new mind
& do it quietly
if you can
return to your childhood
and kick out the bottom
then become a being
not dependent on words
for seeing
whenever you get bored
change headlines
colors politics words
change women
but if you really want
a revolution
learn how to change
your internal chemistry
then go beyond that
walk down the streets
& flash light at

D.A. Levy was a lesser-known poet and publisher of the sixties. His promising poetic output was tragically silenced when he committed suicide in 1968. I chose this poem for our protest segment because this poem reminds me that sometimes the most radical thing we can truly change is ourselves.

Pussy Riot

      You’ve probably heard of Pussy Riot by now. Last February, the group grabbed international attention, performing an anti-Putin song in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior. The performance caused three of the members to be arrested and two of them sentenced to two years of penal labor for “disrupting social order by an act of hooliganism that shows disrespect for society and is motivated by religious hatred or enmity.” Seeing the performance doesn’t feel like quite the same thing. Rather than calling for the destruction of the church, the song performed in the Cathedral calls for the Virgin Mary to confront the Church-State relation in favor of a connection between subversive social values and religious figures (one of the lyrics goes, “Virgin Mary, Mother of God, become a feminist…Mary, Mother of God, is with us in protest!”), however jokingly such an invocation is made.
     As opposed to the desecration of religious sentiment, Pussy Riot’s work, like many forms of protest, argues instead for the desecration of religious symbols—which is not totally the same thing. Nadya Tolokonnikova, who recently went missing in the Russian penal system for about two weeks, stated in her defense during her trial, “Pussy Riot is a form of oppositional art.” An art that defines itself as such is a complicated expression, especially if it is trying to communicate itself into a greater message, as Pussy Riot tries to. If our messages are only oppositional, what happens when it wins? What does it mean when our expression serves the purpose of opposing, instead of presenting and subverting on its own behalf?
     Their protest, at least as it is taken up outside of Russia, covers a broad sort of opposition. The system that Pussy Riot speaks against is not similar to that of the US, as members of the group said that their music draws from the Riot grrrl movement, “whose equivalents don't exist in Russia,” implying that we have already had this discourse and shattered the model that Pussy Riot is trying to reject. Pussy Riot addresses itself to issues in their home country: their songs often figure around being anti-Putin, though they are imbued with anti-capitalist and feminist power. Though the social policies of his office certainly have implications that spread wider than Russia, the international attention that Pussy Riot has gotten makes it an interesting case to examine how we are still stuck in the throes of second-wave feminism. While the messages of Pussy Riot may be applicable in their environment, I’m a little hesitant about all the American pop stars that have pledged their allegiance to the band without pledging allegiance to the cause.

     One of the pitfalls that I find to feminist discourse and protest that is communicated through visual means is that it is never really clear where the line is drawn between internalization and reappropriation. All visual communication communicates itself through symbols: the words, images, and actions that we load with meaning. Therefore, all forms of protest either need to use the established imagery to subvert it, but then they are again portraying established imagery, or completely reject patriarchal symbols of communication, often alienating the audience they are trying to convince. It’s almost comical that when I go through Youtube to find videos and interviews of Pussy Riot I need to make it through at least 3 seconds of a Victoria’s Secret ad. But the music video itself features lightly-clothed women enacting violence on each other. The song is damn catchy, and their live-performance “uniform” of bright balaclavas definitely confronts the sexualization of female performance, but all in all, I don’t know what to make of it. However, one of the makers of the documentary, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, Maxim Pozdorovkin, states in an interview that when showing the film, it especially resonated with young viewers, who began to look at the balaclava-clad artists as inspirational icons. This alone, that the mainstreaming of this form of protest has offered young, subversive, female voices as an alternative to the pop sludge that young girls are presented with, is at least a first step in beginning to confront patriarchal oppression in both a radical and well-articulated way.
          -Isabel Stern

Pussy Riot lyrics
St. Petersburg Times
New York Times
Nadya Tolokonnikova's prison statement

Narco Cultura

Juarez Mexico, the southern border of El Paso Texas, is one of the most dangerous cities in the world, where law enforcement fails to quell the violence. Police stand powerless against large drug cartels fueled by lax U.S. gun laws, which seem to promote the spill of handguns to military assault rifles over the border. 

     Narco Cultura is a documentary by Shaul Schwarz that illustrates the war on drugs and its influence on Mexican pop culture. Narco Cultura brings its viewers a plethora of AK-47s, dead bodies, and narcotics which are glorified by music artists who thrive on writing Narcocorridos, or “Drug Ballads.” Artists exploit these horrors for profit: the glorified married to the horrific through a romanticized notion of being above the law, bad boy music which appeals to the impressionable youth both in Mexico and the U.S. 
     What is the appeal of this? When poverty and a lack of opportunity combine with a cultural identity that is wrapped up in drugs, war, and death, one way out may be to embrace the Mexican Gangster as a hero, their very own “Robin Hood.” When the law doesn’t affect you, your invincibility feeds the minds of the vulnerable. Drug kingpins aren’t brought to justice and they provide avenues for those struggling to survive and allow the struggling to be a part of something bigger than themselves, a rising trend that the youth wants to be a part of.  Shaul’s documentary illustrates this by panning across emptied shells, left in the Mexican streets, ready for investigation, a very small percentage of these cases ever leads to a resolution. The sheer volume of murders is simply unmanageable for the CIS department in Juarez Mexico. 
     Through the appropriation of violence into the mainstream pop culture, a community’s nightmare is hijacked and turned into a party where people can celebrate their cultural identity. These artists promote gaining respect and gaining affluence through glorifying illicit behavior, violence and drugs, a culture where lyrics such as “with an AK-47 and a bazooka on my shoulder cross my path and I’ll chop your head off we’re bloodthirsty, crazy, and we like to kill,” are what you listen to in your car or in a club with a drink and a lady on your arm. Praised icons who are living in luxury due to their popularity, a popularity based on such lyrics. 
     Art emulates life, life emulates art. Violently themed music both comes from and helps create violence. Pop culture icons get to live in luxury for writing songs about murder, as though violence has become a central value in our cultural identity that we feel we should rewarded. To become what we fear, because it is what we have to do to survive.
          -Maegan Ciolino


Video source:

Street Art as Protest against Drone Warfare in Yemen

            In Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, there was a seven-foot long rendition of an unmanned drone spray-painted on a wall. Below this is the image of a child that writes a heart-wrenching message: “Why did you kill my family?” This message, which is blood red in color, is written in both English and Arabic.
            Murad Subay, a Yemeni artist, created the painting to criticize the United States’ usage of drones. Although the United States mentions that the purpose of drone warfare is to target suspected terrorists, drones end up destroying families and especially endangering the lives of women and children. Subay’s art piece, criticizing drone warfare is a part of a larger project called “12 Hours,” which addresses twelve problems in Yemen. Four of the main problems are weapons proliferation, sectarianism, kidnapping, and poverty. Drone warfare is the fifth issue addressed. However, it is perhaps the most controversial of the five issues mentioned.
            “Graffiti in Yemen, or street art, is a new device to communicate with the people,” Subay states. He started street art two years ago and has caused the movement in Yemen to grow. He then says, “In one second, you can send a message.”
            Subay mentions the influence of street art in Yemen, stating that it applies to the common person. “[Art] galleries in Yemen belong to one class. Graffiti is for all people.” Two years ago, when Subay started the movement, there were no stencils or graffiti on public spaces. Due to Subay’s influence, stencils and graffiti have been in spaces all over the country. Exposure to street art in Yemen has extended to millions of citizens.
            Some may wonder if Subay created this piece especially for American people to see so that they could take action. Subay is more skeptical, believing that the drone policy will “carry on” regardless. He mentions, “Maybe I don’t expect any action [from the U.S.] but I’ll always keep hoping.”
            Baraa Shiban, a Yemeni activist and project coordinator for Reprieve, a British coordinator that fights for the right to a fair trial for prisoners, is more optimistic than Subay is. Shiban believes that artistic protest is a first step to ending drone strikes in Yemen.
            The benefit of Subay’s artwork is the same as the benefit of many works of street art and other public art pieces: it gives a voice to the common people. In our modern society it is mainly people from more privileged backgrounds that can make their voice heard through art. Street art, which is by and for everybody, challenges the concept that art is solely for the elite.
            Subay’s artwork is also interesting in a time where drone warfare has increasingly become more of a necessary topic to address. On November 25, Archbishop Silvano M. Tomasi criticized the United States’ usage of drones. On November 28, the United States apologized for a drone that killed a child and harmed women in Afghanistan. More people are realizing that there is something terribly wrong with the United States’ usage of drone warfare.
            It is unsure whether United States policy regarding drone warfare will actually change. What is certain, however, is that peaceful protest in an environment riddled with violence is always a good start.
          - Jacqueline Retalis

Ulysses Jenkins—Mass of Image (1978)

      Performance art can be a pretty scary thing to watch. It’s the unpredictability, or even just the anticipation of unpredictability, that gets me. Take the above video for instance. Social context of the video aside, the sound of Jenkins’ voice creates a very ominous atmosphere. It’s nerve raking. Though his voice is soothing, his haphazard appearance and the dilapidated environment create a tension that forces the viewer to the edge of his seat. It’s very reminiscent of the eerie calm before the big scare in a horror film. In a way, Jenkins’ laughing in the middle of the video works as the scare, and though not scary, it puts the viewer in a very uncomfortable position. Is the laughing unscripted, or is it a part of the act? Is it a way of maintaining the eeriness of the video, or is it a random reaction to the random mass of images which the video itself, is commenting on?
     Speaking of images, the video is called “Mass of Images” for good reason. The video is critiquing the portrayal of blacks in media. This is done by way of quick cuts in the video to popular black characters of the day. Most of them are minstrel characters. However, better-known characters, like the Hattie McDaniel from Gone with the Wind, do make an appearance. Jenkins goes a step further. Alongside critiquing the images, he is also critiquing the people who watch, and thereby internalize these images. In this way, the viewers, or the audience Jenkins is targeting in the late ‘70s, become the stereotypes the media is portraying. It’s interesting to see how far back the idea of reclaiming one’s image goes. You can see it in the antebellum slave narrative. You can see it during the Harlem Renaissance. You can also see it during the Black Arts Movement of the ‘60s. Jenkins is specifically reacting to the portrayals of blacks in television. Toward the end, it looks as if, in a crazed frenzy, he is about to smash the stacked tower of televisions behind him. He doesn’t. Instead, he turns to the camera and advances with sledgehammer raised. Is he going to attack us? The television is one thing, but is it ultimately the fault of the viewer for the proliferation of false portrayals and the internalization of stereotypes?       
          -Shayne McGregor  

Video source:

Monday, December 9, 2013

Finally! The semester is nearly over. So while you are all hitting the books and preparing for finals, keep in mind that Game of Thrones Season Four is less than four months away! Yes, Winter is officially here.

In other exciting news, The Magner Career Center is offering a Business Boot Camp for all liberal arts majors on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 10am-4:30pm at the Brooklyn College Student Center. This is a great opportunity to build and expand your career network in an engaging and comfortable environment.
Boot Camp participants will:
-Increase awareness of exciting and doable career paths for liberal arts students within business fields.
- Participate in an interactive and resume-building training with the Dale Carnegie company on transferable skills for the job market.
-Better understand terminology, job functions, and skill sets valued by employers in business, finance, management consulting, human resources, advertising, and more.
-Expand networks with alumni professionals in diverse fields and learn how to leverage these relationships.
-Hear from a Keynote Speaker, a Brooklyn College alumnus successful in business with a liberal arts background.
-Learn how to become competitive for opportunities after graduation.”

So in a nutshell, if you want to maximize your career potential after departing this lovely Brooklyn institution of higher learning, attend this workshop! Space is limited to only 50 students, so hurry and register now at:

For any questions or inquiries regarding this event, please contact suzanneg [at] brooklyn [dot] cuny [dot] edu

Enjoy the wind and snow!


Image from OhHellWhatTheHell

News Briefs

Smog in China

     Last Friday, Shanghai was forced to cancel and delay hundreds of flights going out of its Pudong international airport due to low visibility. However, what makes this story a story is not the act of closing the airport, but rather, it’s evaluating the cause of the low visibility. It wasn’t a winter storm, as we in the United States are used to seeing. It wasn’t a fog. It wasn’t even heavy rain. It was air pollution. Shanghai was covered in thick smog on Friday. This isn’t anything new though. Northern China has battled, or seemingly battled, air pollution in its cities for years. The people of Northern China still wear masks to protect themselves from the hazardous air and things don’t seem to be getting better. Schools cancelled outdoor activities in a similar way that the airport cancelled flights. In general, people were told to stay inside. To fight back, factories throughout Shanghai, by order of the government, either cut or completely stopped production.
     The World Health Organization uses a scale, called PM 2.5, to evaluate the condition of air. A level of twenty is the recommended daily amount while anything over three hundred is considered hazardous. On Friday, Shanghai was somewhere between 466 and 503. Shanghai has measures in place that will allow for a decrease in pollution, but whether it will ultimately work or not is yet to be known, seeing as a lot of the air pollution is wafting in from neighboring cities like Beijing and Harbin (especially from Harbin, a city where the particulate matter level was measured to be over one thousand at one point in October). This is too large for one city to handle. This is going to take communication and a sustained commitment to make the environment more habitable.
     Fan Jianjun, a resident of Shanghai, said, “I don't think it's fit for people to live in this kind of environment. But I have no choice. I still need to work.” It’s incredible to see human experience transcend culture, language, and place. Fan Jianjun isn’t the only one who feels like this. People across the globe feel like this—trapped by circumstances, for the most part, out of their control to feed a system that just seems to oppress them. China is one of the largest superpowers in the world and there is a lot of talk, especially in the United States, of their economic growth. But at what cost is this economic growth?
          -Shayne McGregor


India's "Pink Sari" Revolution 

     A lot of press has emerged recently about the plight of women in India. In particular, a new movement, driven by Indian women, put pressure on individuals and institutions responsible for the oppression of women: the Gulabi, or "Pink Gang." 
      It should not be surprising that when political and legal institutions systematically refuse to protect a certain strata of society, some members of that group will organize in order to protect themselves. We saw this in our own country with the Black Panthers. What is unique about the Gulabi is that it is run by and for Indian women. Dressed in their distinctive pink saris and carrying bamboo staffs, the group is most famous for coming to the aid of women who have been sexually assaulted, but they also protect inter-caste couples (who have often defied their families by refusing their arranged marriages) and avenge women who have been murdered by their husbands for their dowries. 
     The group is led by the powerful and charismatic Sampat Pal. Sampat Pal grew up in a low-caste family and received no education. She did have a sense of justice and sharp wit. She used them to organize the Gulabi into a formidable force for women's rights. The Gulabi, though technically considered a vigilante gang, operate almost entirely within the law. They put pressure on local police to report and investigate rape allegations properly, something that is often not done. Their strength in numbers and belief in their cause allow them to stand up when an individual may feel too much fear and shame to press charges. The overwhelming support of the Gulabi often inspires those protected by them to join their cause. According to the last report, there are about twenty thousand Gulabi members. 
I will be following this story with great interest and have put Amana Fontanella-Khan's new book, "The Pink Sari Revolution" on my reading list for winter break. 
          -Josane Cumandala

Be a Hijabi for a day...

     ...Or do you really? That’s what students at Eastern Michigan University got to experience. Seventy hijabs were donated as women of all ages and religions came to the Women’s Resource Center to be properly fitted with a hijab.
     The coordinator of the event, Nadia Bazzy, shares more than her name with me. She started wearing hijab in her teens against the will of her parents. Our stories couldn’t be more common in the post-9/11 Muslim community. Interestingly, Bazzy was inspired to wear hijab after attending Catholic school and observing the Virgin Mary for quite some time. Isn’t the Virgin Mary wearing hijab? Earlier this year, around the time of Halloween, a customer at my work (which requires that I wear all black) asked if I was dressed as a nun for Halloween. I was offended by her hurtful and ignorant words but after a while, realized that a hijabi wearing all black may as well look like a nun! Why do nuns receive respect (generally) but not so much hijabis? The dress code of nuns symbolizes their commitment to God. What about ours?
     I think it is an excellent idea for people to try on hijab for a day. I think they’d be up for a rude awakening or maybe even a pleasant surprise. I can’t recall the amount of times I’ve been spat at, cursed at, or laughed at, but I do remember seldom instances when people went out of their way to vocalize their admiration for my commitment. Gestures like those reaffirm my trust in humanity. After all, it’s what’s in my head that counts, not what’s on it.

          - Nadia Hamidi


The Letters of James Joyce and Nora

     Anyone who is reading this probably has some degree of appreciation for the power of language. It can disturb, infuriate, sadden, excite, whet, confuse; evoke laughter, shouts, tears; it draws us into the world of the speaker, it toys with audience’s understanding of certain words and their connotations, it can completely contradict the mood it establishes.
     The language of James Joyce’s letters to his wife, Nora, achieves the latter. These letters are arguably the most ghastly, perverted, depraved texts I’ve ever read…yet I can’t help but be intrigued. They’re so elegantly written, poetically constructed, and euphonic. But it’s difficult to read, “My prick is still hot and stiff and quivering from the last brutal drive it has given you when a faint hymn is heard rising in tender pitiful worship of you from the dim cloisters of my heart” and not feel mildly horrified, mellifluous diction or not.
     I’ve so often read works from bombastic writers like Joyce and wondered, Did he actually sit down and carefully think out each word, or did it just pour from him like carbon dioxide exiting his nostrils? It must have come easily for Joyce, who clearly had no problem articulating his sexual fantasies and memories to his wife in the most eloquent, artistic ways imaginable.
     As I read these letters, I laughed, grimaced, recoiled in horror, laughed again, and cradled my face in my palm. Only language can make me do such things. These letters are not for the squeamish, but they are for anyone who can admire the power language has over a reader. Joyce’s manipulation of language to make even the most hideously wicked sexual acts sound beautiful and romantic is a microcosm of the effect language has on its recipients. Whether we’re watching a news segment, reading a book, watching a film, or listening to an opening statement in a courtroom, we are the victims of this untamed force.
     Read his letters, fall victim to his beautiful language, so that you, too, may find yourself enticed by his poetic vulgarity.

Read the letters here
          -Alex Hajjar

Honoring Nelson Mandela

     Last week, Nelson Mandela, an anti-apartheid activist and the first president in South Africa who was democratically elected, passed away. Many honor Mandela as a phenomenal leader and a hero. Since I am doing Poem of the Week (Or Should I say, Poems of the Week?), I will focus on two poets who honored Nelson Mandela. The first poem is “A Poem for Nelson Mandela” by Elizabeth Alexander, an African-American poet. In addition to being a poet, Alexander is also an essayist, playwright, and professor. The second poem is “Testament” by Felix Morrisseau-Leroy, a Haitian poet and playwright. Morrisseau-Leroy writes in Haitian Creole but some of his work, including the poem, “Testament”, is translated into English. Even though I considered analyzing the poems, I think it would be best to let the poems speak for themselves. Here are the poems:

A Poem for Nelson Mandela by Elizabeth Alexander
Here where I live it is Sunday.
From my room I hear black
Children playing between houses
And the El at a Sabbath rattle.
I small barbeque from every direction
And hear black hands tolling church bells,
Hear wind hissing through elm trees
Through dry glasses
On a rooftop of a prison
In South Africa Nelson Mandela
Tends garden and has a birthday,
As my Jamaican grandfather in Harlem, New York
Raises tomatoes and turns ninety-one.
I have taken touch for granted: my grandfather’ hands,
His shoulders, his pajamas which smell of vitamin pills.
I have taken a lover’s touch for granted,
Recall my lover’s touch from this morning
As Mandela’s wife pulls memories through years
And years

My life is black and filled with fortune. Nelson Mandela is with me because I believe
In symbols; symbols bear power; symbols demand
Power; and that is how a nation
Follows a man who leads from prison
And cannot speak to them. Nelson Mandela
Is with me because I am a black girl
Who honors her elders, who loves
Her grandfather, who is a black daughter
As Mandela’s daughters are black 
Daughters. This is Philadelphia
And I see this Sunday clean.

Testament by Felix Morisseau-Leroy

When I die, make me a beautiful wake
I’m going neither to paradise nor hell
Don’t be scared of talking latin to my head

When I die, bury me in the yard
Gather all my friends, make a big feast
Don’t go past the church with my corpse

When I die, everyone should really get it on
Laugh, sing, dance, tell jokes
Don’t be sappy, yell into my ear

I won’t altogether be done when I’m dead;
All the places where there were great bashes,
Where people were free--- they’ll remember me,

-Translated from Haitian Creole by Jack Hirschmen and Boadiba

                                                                                                                                                               - Jacqueline Retalis