In a letter to Pornaski Pichetshote, Aaron Campbell, and Jose Villarruba about Infidel, Matthew Kirshenblatt wrote about the impact that the series had on him as a reader, specifically he notes the potential for the characters to connect across cultures, ethnicities, and religions, but they become hindered in this connection through the baggage they carry, a lot of it unconscious. He continues by noting that the series affects him because he watches “Tom and Leslie trying to overcome prejudice, and kind of feeling a sense of futility in doing so.” In a recent post, I wrote some about Leslie, Tom’s mother and Aisha’s mother-in-law. Today, I want to continue that discussion, looking at the ways that Leslie, upon seeing the monster staring back at her in the knife, seems to work harder to overcome her prejudices.
Kirshenblatt continues by stating that “Leslie has prejudice and that there is a passive aggressive past in that within her.” This comes up, as he points out, when she clutches her purse on the subway as a Black Nation of Islam member walks down the aisle. We get an insight into Leslie’s past as she speaks with Kris in chapter 2. As they look for Kris’ Captain Phasma, Kris pull out one of Aisha’s hijabs, and Leslie, holding the hijab, tells her granddaughter, “I’m sorry for yelling at you about this. That was very wrong of me.”
Leslie’s apology is followed by a flashback of Leslie ripping the hijab off of Kris’ head as she screams at her. Kris’ dialogue in the present lays over the scene. She tells her grandmother, “That’s ok. Aisha said you weren’t mad. She said you were just scared.” What was Leslie scared of? We never get much with Leslie’s past, but when Kris asks her what scared her, we see three panels where Leslie reflects on where that fear may have originated.
The first panel is wordless and shows Leslie in profile as she contemplates her response to Kris. In the next panel, she turns towards the reader, and Kris, as she says, “I guess honey, your grandpa. Before you were born. He . . . well, he was working when one day something bad happened.” Leslie doesn’t specify what happened, and we’re left wondering what exactly occurred. Considering that the narrative takes place in New York, we can assume Leslie’s husband died on 9/11. Leslie continues, turning back into a profile, looking away from Kris and the reader, telling her granddaughter, “And I guess seeing you in this brought up bad memories. But that’s not an excuse. It’s just sometime’s being scared . . .”
Leslie’s words trail over into the next panel which shows Aisha climbing the stairs and hearing the conversation. Leslie asks Kris, “Does Aisha ever talk to you about . . . I don’t know, God or . . . or Allah or . . .” During the latter part of Leslie’s question, we see from Aisha’s point of view as she sees them talking near the window, backs to us. Kris tells her grandmother that Aisha told her to wait till she’s older to pray, to see if she wants to, and then she asks her grandmother if praying is just giving God or Allah thanks for what one has why can’t she just pray now. Here, Aisha stands in the doorway, leaning on the frame, with a sort of smile on her face.
In her conversation with Kris, we see Leslie working through her own prejudices, specifically her Islamophobia. These prejudices stem, in part, from what happened to her husband, but they also became exacerbated through the media’s depiction of the events that happened in the apartment building, the depiction of the explosion being caused by a “lone-wolf Islamic terrorist.” Earlier, Mendia watches a news program where the talking heads discuss the “Rise of Extremism.” As she watches the pundits go on and on talking about the explosion, she sighs, “Oh, look, we’re getting namechecked again.”
This same language appears throughout Infidel, and it a rhetoric that the text works to interrogate. We know that Ahmad Shahazad did not detonate the explosive material. We know that Mitchell Fisher, a white resident of the complex, wanted Ahmad out of the complex because he thought he was a terrorist, and when him and his girlfriend went to Ahmad’s apartment, they tripped over the boxes outside and the explosion occurred. We do not know what, if anything, Ahmad had planned, and it does not necessarily matter. What matters in this discussion is that Mitchell’s actions, his racist actions at trying to get Ahmad and others he did not approve of out of the complex, set off the explosion and he haunts the building. At the end, when Medina sets off an explosion in the basement to rid the building of Mitchell and the other racist, xenophobic, and Islamophobic entities, her sacrifice gets labeled by the media as a terrorist act.
Grace, another of the building’s occupants, works to be politically correct, but she buys into the fear and rhetoric and calls Aisha a killer after, during an encounter with the monsters, she appears to push Kris and Leslie down the stairs, putting Kris in a coma and killing Leslie. As she drinks coffee with Ethan and Reynolds, she talks about not wanting to be racist when interacting with Ahmad and she believes that Aisha purposefully pushed Kris and Leslie down the stairs. She tells Ethan and Reynolds, “So, no, I’m not automatically giving those people the benefit of the doubt just because I might sound closeminded.”
Even though Grace knows Aisha, she still labels her as “those people” alongside Ahmad, refusing to state her name. When Grace and Ethan enter Reynolds’ apartment before they go to coffee, Ethan sees the reflection of a monster in the mirror as Reynolds stares into it Grace, however, does not. Later, when a monster attacks her partner Miguel, he sees it but she doesn’t. Unlike Leslie, Grace does not see or acknowledge the prejudices she has imbibed, so she does not work through them. However, Leslie and Ethan do see themselves reflected in the mirrors, the monsters staring back at them.
In the next post, I will finish up this discussion by looking at Ethan and his self-reflection. 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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