In the last post, I started talking about Isabel Wilkerson’s statement from Caste when she says, “None of us are ourselves.” I looked at that statement in relation to Chen Pan in Cristina García’s Monkey Hunting (2004). Today, I want to continue that discussion by examining a couple of more moments in García’s novel. In the next post I will look at some moments in Genaro Kỳ Lý Smith’s The Land South of the Clouds. In each of these novels, characters see their identities constructed by others. They work to construct their own “true” identities, but no matter how hard they try outside perceptions and ideas push in upon them, constraining them, placing them in boxes that they themselves did not create.
Sitting in a Chinese prison because she is a “threat” to the Communist regime on account of Western influence, Chen Fang, Chen Pan’s granddaughter, thinks about her father Lorenzo and why the Chinese government imprisoned her. While she worked to teach her students to think for themselves and introduced them to Western art, she mentions that the regime placed her prison partly because of her father.
Lorenzo is one of Chen Pan and Lucrecia’s sons, so he is Chinese-Congolese-Cuban. Chen Pan is Chinese, Lucrecia is Congolese, and they reside and raise him in Cuba. When he goes to China to work for a while, he meets Chen Fang’s mother. Lorenzo never learns Chinese well enough to speak it or write it, and he returns to Cuba, leaving Chen Fang and her sisters in China with their mother. The Chinese government does not view Lorenzo as Chinese; instead, they few him as Cuban, and thus a foreigner, even though Chen Pan is Chinese. Lorenzo is one generation removed.
Talking about Lorenzo, Chen Fang says he must be dead, and she describes the last picture he sent her, a picture of himself with a parrot named Jade Peach who could “whistle twenty-six Cuban tunes.” She continues, “For this, too, I am in prison. Because my father was a foreigner.” Chen Fang tells herself that if she survives her imprisonment she will travel to Havana and go to Calle Zanja, “where the Chinese live,” and inquire if anyone knew her father. She says, “And I must teach myself Spanish! Who knows if my Cuban family can speak Chinese?”
There is a lot here. First and foremost, the Chinese regime views Lorenzo, whose father was Chinese, as a foreigner because he grew up in Cuba and spent time in China. This designation makes Chen Fang suspect even though her mother is Chinese. As well, Chen Fang talks about moving to Cuba, essentially doing the same thing that Chen Pan did, albeit under different circumstances. If she does move to Cuba, she talks about having to adapt to her new life, create a new identity in the same ways that Chen Pan and Lucrecia did when they identified more as Cuban and Chinese than as Chinese and Congolese respectively.
Domingo Chen, Lorenzo’s great-grandson, also thinks about his identity, specifically when he serves as part of the US military in Vietnam. Domingo and his father left Cuba after the Revolution, and Domingo ends up becoming a solider during the Vietnam War even though he is not American. At one point, he thinks about the movement of individuals across the globe, and notably his own ancestors. He wonders, “Were people meant to travel such great distances? Mix with others so different from themselves?”
Answering himself, Domingo thinks about Chen Pan leaving China and falling in love with Lucrecia. Their union “created a whole new race, brown children with Chinese eyes who spoke Spanish and a smattering of Abakuá.” The use of “new race” in Domingo’s thoughts points to the ways that race is a social construct, not biological. The cross-cultural interactions, first with Chen Pan and the Spanish, then with Lucrecia, then with the children being raised in a Spanish nation, resulted in Domingo’s ancestors, ancestors who carried within them aspects of multiple cultures.
Domingo’s physical appearance made him “not immediately identifiable” to others, causing them to question and project their own ideas onto him. In Cuba, a policeman arrested him “for practicing ‘negritude'” because he grew an afro. His mother came to the precinct and spoke with the captain, whom she delivered 34 years prior, and he let Domingo go “without a word.” The policeman could not “identify” Domingo because Domingo did not fit into the ways that he identified others around him.
Chen Pan, Chen Fang, and Domingo do not easily fit into the ways that those around them see the world. They are culturally and physically interwoven, highlighting the hybridity of the world and the interaction among individuals. As a result, they continually become pigeonholed by others who think that they should conform to some preconceived notion of Chinese, Cuban, Spanish, or whatever. All of this, again, makes me think about Frank Yerby’s assessment in regard to the ways we construct the world, placing our own preconceptions onto others. He told James Hill, “I reject adjectives. Adjectives, which are the enemy of nouns, don’t mean anything.”
Others place adjectives on Domingo. They place adjectives on Chen Fang. They place adjectives on Lorenzo. They place adjectives on Chen Pan. In this manner, they do not allow Domingo, Chen Fang, Lorenzo, and Chen Pan to construct their own identities. Instead, others construct the identities to fit their own needs. This hinders one’s ability to discover their “true” self, whatever that may be.
Talking about the novel and Chinese migration to Cuba, García told Scott Shibuya Brown about her own daughter. She said, “In addition, my own daughter is part Japanese, part Cuban, part Guatemala, and part Russian Jew, and I’ve become interested over the years in compounded identities such as hers . . . not just those people trying to figure out one hyphen but multiple hyphens.” At our core, we are all multiple-hyphens, different adjectives to different people. These adjectives do not necessarily have to describe where we or our ancestors are from. They can describe what we do, what we like, how we act. They are adjectives, most of the time, that we do not necessarily choose. We may embrace them, but we did not enter the world claiming them.
So, are any of us ourselves? I still maintain that we are not because while we can define ourselves to ourselves and to others, we encounter, daily the ways others define us, both personally and culturally. These outside definitions become part of us as well, tangling up with our personal definitions of ourselves, becoming a ball that we must unravel, thread by thread. Will we even unravel the whole thing? I don’t know.
Next post, I’ll discuss some of these issues in Smith The Land South of the Clouds. 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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