As I prepared to teach Pornsak Pichetshote, Aaron Campbell, and Jose Villarrubia’s Infidel, a lot of things stuck out. However, when I reread the haunted house story where the monsters that terrorize the characters are the manifestations of racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia, I became intrigued by a few specific scenes where the monsters appear in the reflections of objects such as knives and mirrors. Today, I want to look at those scenes and discuss them within a larger context of ideas that I have been exploring on this blog and in my other writings.
The main scene I want to focus on occurs at the end of the first chapter and the at the beginning of the second chapter. Here, Aisha, a Pakistani-American Muslim woman, sees the monsters and they attack her. During this episode, she grabs a knife and stabs at them. When she comes out of the moment and the monsters disappear, she discovers that she has stabbed at her mother-in-law Leslie, tearing a hole in her nightshirt.
Throughout the first issue, Leslie’s Islamophobia lurks underneath the surface. She tells Aisha that as a thank you for helping her connect with her granddaughter Kris she’ll teach Aisha how to make one of her son Tom’s favorites dishes, a baked ham. Tom overhears this and chastises his mother for forgetting that pork is haram in Islam and that Aisha does not eat pork.
Tom and Aisha go outside and argue on the street. There, Tom tells Aisha to watch out because beneath Leslie’s compassionate veneer lurks her racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia. The next day Aisha’s best friend Medina reminds her of the time that Kris found Aisha’s hijab and Leslie ripped it from her granddaughter’s hands telling her, “They don’t know any better! Women who wear this let people get killed for drawing cartoons. They let men throw rocks at girls like you–!”
Aisha tells Medina that the incident occurred years ago and people change. To which Medina replies, “Yeah, but racism’s a cancer that doesn’t get cured. The best you get is remission.” Lillian Smith compared racism to a cancer in her speech “The Right Way is Not the Moderate Way” saying, “The tragic fact is, neither cancer nor segregation will go away while we close our eyes. Both are dangerous diseases that have to be handled quickly and skillfully because they spread, they metastasize throughout the organism.” In order to confront one’s own racism, xenophobia, or Islamophobia, one must open their eyes to the hate within in order to work through it.
After Aisha stabs at Leslie she drops the knife and the two stand facing one another. The final page of chapter one contains three panels: two small panels in the upper left and a full page panel that takes up most of the page. In the first panel, we see the knife and Leslie looks down at it. Reflected in the steel, we see the image of one of the monsters. Since Leslie picks up the knife, we assume that Leslie looks at her own reflection, but instead of seeing herself she sees one of the monsters.
The next panel switches perspectives and we see Leslie reaching down for the knife, perplexed at the image staring back at her, and she asks, “What . . . What is . . . ?” Over the image we also see Tom’s comments to Medina. He has already told Medina that he knows that Leslie puts on a front of compassion, and he concludes by telling her that he hopes he is wrong about his mother harboring racist, xenophobic, and Islamophobic thoughts. However, as the speech box in the large panel shows, he falls back and says, “I just know I’m not . . .”
In the large panel, we look over Leslie’s shoulder towards Aisha who stands facing us, fear in her eyes as a tear streams down her right cheek. Leslie holds the knife up, and we see the reflection contained within. We, along with Leslie, see the monster staring back at us. This moment shows Leslie’s racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia reflected back at her, and it also shows it reflected back onto us, the reader, as well. By having the reader look into the reflective knife blade, Infidel challenges us to think about ourselves, our own inward demons that stem from our cultural upbringing.
At the opening of chapter two, Aisha goes to the doctor to see if her Ativan is causing her to see the monsters and react to them. Her doctor tells her that Ativan causes hallucinations and prescribes her a new medication.This scene occurs over about five panels, beginning with a panel of strawberries and the new medication on the kitchen counter, a panel of Aisha at the pharmacy, a panel of Aisha at the doctor’s office, another of her at the pharmacy, and concluding with a flashback of her stabbing Leslie.
The flashback panel is a zoomed in image of the final panel from chapter one. Again, we look over Leslie’s shoulder, see the monster in the knife, and stare at Aisha in front of Leslie. Aisha thinks to herself, “The alternative [to hallucinating] is that two nights ago I went crazy . . . or worse.” Just as she does in the first panel, Aisha asks, “Leslie?” as they stand facing each other. Leslie looks at the knife and tells her daughter-in-law, “I could have sworn . . . I saw something.”
Leslie saw herself reflected in the knife, an image of her inner demons, an image of the monsters that stalk through the corners of her mind. Over the course of the second chapter, leading up to her death, it seems that Leslie realizes her racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia and works to change course, to root out the cancer that has infected her psyche. She opens her eyes to herself, to her own issues. In so doing, Infidel calls upon readers to do the same.
In the next post, I will pick up on Leslie’s narrative arc and look at Grace, a character who does not see the reflection of the monster in herself. I’ll discuss Leslie and Grace together, looking at Leslie’s self reflection and Grace’s still closed eyes to her own racism. Until then, what are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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