As you know, I typically choose a few new texts to teach each semester, mainly so I can expand my knowledge on topics that I may not be familiar with. I do it to educate myself as much as to educate my students. This semester, for my Multiethnic American Literature class, I chose to include Tahereh Mafi’s A Very Large Expanse of Sea and I selected to use G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona’s Ms. Marvel: No Normal again. As I work my way through these texts again, and specifically back to back, I started to see a lot of connections that will benefit my students. During our introductions, one teacher said that they had not read Mafi’s novel yet, but that they have it in their circulating library in class. Students constantly check the book out, so the teacher does not have the opportunity to read it. The fact that the students continually read the book indicates, as well, its impact on them even when the teacher does not teach it.
Today, I want to look at some of these connections, focusing on the ways that these texts challenge ideas of whiteness. Reading each text, I’m reminded of Toni Morrison who, in Playing in the Dark, wrote, “In this country, . . . American means white, and Africanist people struggle to make the term applicable to themselves with ethnicity and hyphen after hyphen after hyphen.” Reading Ms. Marvel and A Very Large Expanse of Sea I kept coming back to Morrison’s comment, especially as I thought about the ways that Kamala Khan and Shirin navigate their identities. Each places whiteness at the center of “normal” or “American” while struggling with their own self perceptions.
Writing about Kamala, Hussein Rashid argues that the hyphen between her “South Asian” and “American” identities become “irreducible entities that cannot be merged” and that this construction highlights the “power dynamic,” placing “American” about Kamala’s “South Asian” and “Pakistani” ethnicity and nationality. Rashid zeroes in on Kamala’s initial transformation into Ms. Marvel where she defaults to manifesting her new power not as herself but rather as Carol Danvers, the white, “American” Ms. Marvel. By doing this, Rashid notes, “[i]t reinscribes the categories that already exist–white and not white, American and South Asian–and submits to the dominant power.” Kamala’s South Asian identity gets subsumed by Danvers’ American identity, and this becomes abundantly clear in the Adrian Alphona’s panel from start of issue two where Kamala keeps switching back and forth between herself and Danvers’ persona.
Initially, I read this panel as the Danvers’ identity throwing up Kamala, hence Kamala’s head exiting from Danvers’ mouth, However, thinking about Rashid and Morrison, I see it as Danvers/America subsuming Kamala/South Asian, thus exerting power of any identity that is not American (i.e. white). Kamala is fighting, at the initial moment of her transformation, with the hyphenated identity. She is struggling internally to overcome the power that the American half has on her mentally. This struggle gets centered from the very beginning of the series, and we see it when the white Zoe comes into the Circle Q making racist and xenophobic comments and then Kamala saying, “She’s so nice” as her friends disparage her.
We see this as well when she sits in front of the mirror later in the first issue after her dad tells her she can’t go to the party. She stares at herself in the mirror and questions why she cannot be “normal.” Why she can’t eat “normal” food. Why she can’t have “normal” holidays. In this context, “normal” equates to “American” or to “white,” and in this way subsumes her South Asian identity and the Pakistani and Islamic culture from her household and her friends suck as Nakia. When her perception changes and she embraces every aspect of her hybrid identity she highlights that “American,” as Rashid puts it when talking about Kamala’s fashion, “is broadening.” The hyphens then start to merge her identities instead of repelling one another.
Shirin encounters these same tensions in Mafi’s novel. While Shirin is not a superhero, she is a high school student, like Kamala, and she experiences racist and xenophobic attacks from her classmates and even the community. A Very Large Expanse of Sea follows Shirin during her sophomore year of high school in 2002, one year after 9/11. Told from her point of view, it focuses on the bigotry of the community where her family moves (a community that is never named) and her relationship with Ocean, a prominent white basketball player at the school.
There are multiple moments in the novel where the multiple parts of Shirin’s hyphenated identity (Mulsim-Iranian-American) conflict with one another only to become subjugated to the “American” part of her identity. One incident occurs during her Global Perspectives class when her teacher, Mr. Jordan, asks her and a white student, Travis, to come to the front of the class and face one another. Even though they were in the same class, Shirin hadn’t met Travis till this moment. She describes him by saying he “was everything television taught you a jock was supposed to look like. He was big, blond, and burly, and he was wearing a letterman jacket.” Shirin description of Travis is similar to Kamala’s comments about Zoe and her desire to look like Carol Danvers. All three–Travis, Zoe, and Danvers–are white, and as a result, “American.”
Once Travis and Shirin are at the front of the class, Mr. Jordan tells them that he wants them to look at each other and he tells Travis, “I want you to tell me exactly what you think of Shirin.” Travis stares for a minute, getting red in the face and feeling uncomfortable before he makes general statements. Mr. Jordan presses, as Shirin, uncomfortable herself, begins to feel sorry for Travis. Mr. Jordan tells Travis to be honest, and the student looks at Shirin and says, “When I look at her I don’t see anything.” Mr. Jordan asks what he means, and Travis continues, “I mean she doesn’t, like–I just don’t see her. It’s like she doesn’t exist for me. When I look at her I see nothing.” Travis obliterates the hyphen and Shirin completely, refusing to even acknowledge her existence as a American citizen.
“America” becomes embodied in Travis’ comment. Because Shirin, even though she is from California and an American citizen, does not look like Zoe, he chooses not to see her. He chooses, instead, to act as if she does not exist to him, and as a white male, he has the luxury to do just that. This same aspect of white privilege appears throughout the text with Ocean as Shirin continually warns him about to expect if he dates her. She talks about him never having to think about these types of issues because of his whiteness. I want to pick up on this point in the next post. Until then, what are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below.