Decolonizing the Mind & Why We Should Be Angry

UMF’s Native American Film and Performance Symposium came to a close last Wednesday with a poetry reading and talk by William Yellow Robe Jr., followed by a staged reading of his play Wood Bones and a Q&A. Yellow Robe is about to publish an e-book tentatively titled Spam Rants of that Crazy Indin Yellow Robe.

While Yellow Robe’s poetry concerned itself mainly with the loss of his first wife to cancer, the mere act of writing poetry (as well as being an accomplished playwright) signals his concern over indigenous peoples’ ownership of emotions and storytelling. He gives his audiences a unique Native perspective and even when we’re angry, disturbed, or saddened by what we hear and see on stage, we (especially non-Native people) need to pay attention. As Yellow Robe tells it, he might be angry and write about it, but if we have no problem asking a crying person why they’re sad, then we need to ask angry people why they’re angry. And Yellow Robe is angry, at least in print. He’s not ranty, or spewing vitriolic negativisms as White people, but he is contesting both White and Native stereotypes and ethnocentrisms and as he said at dinner, it gets tiring to feel like he’s saying the same thing over and over and wondering if anything is changing.

One of Yellow Robe’s talking points surrounded the commercialization of Native figures as team mascots. I happen to agree with Yellow Robe, but more importantly he illustrates the diversity of opinions amongst Native peoples. James Francis, historian of the Penobscot Nation, speaking last year at Colby College, said that the official stance of the nation is ‘they don’t really care.’ What matters here is that because indigenous peoples are not mascots or costume, but cultures, they are made up of people of differing opinions. In a step towards decolonizing our minds, there must be an acknowledgement that indigenous cultures are not homogenous. In other words, not all Native peoples want the same things! Some care deeply about eliminating discriminatory team mascots while others are concerned about the trampling of environmental or land rights and, frankly, don’t give shit about mascots (to paraphrase Francis).

Yellow Robe is what we might call “pro-contamination.” As puts it, Native peoples have been contaminated by everyone: “We’re even kosher!” His writing is infused with his perspective as an Afro-Native writers and with the idea that authenticity can be found in actions, not in federal papers or the way one dresses. Purity is a moot point in this case. In owning his emotions and writing about them, he validates himself and his identity. But he doesn’t think his identity (or the identity of Native Americans generally) should be a point of novelty. As he tells it, numerous people have come up to him and touched his hair and his necklace and other wares. Another component of decolonizing our minds will be a rejection of exterior features as points of fascination, as something to marvel at and, by extension, eulogize. William Yellow Robe Jr. is not wearing his necklace or telling his stories to pay tribute to the past; like most indigenous writers, he’s writing to say ‘we’re still here!’

Thinking about Film Adaptation: The Namesake

One of the best entry points to talking about a film adaptation is to find the differences between book and film. Mira Nair’s adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake adheres closely to its counterpart in most respects and I think that little of the narrative is lost overall. One of the differences between book and film is, of course, the ability to turn a narrative on the Indian-American experience and cultural conflict into an emotional tale. Though viewers lack the thought bubble characters so often need, the actors in The Namesake employ fleeting glances and moments of stillness and silence to tell us what they’re thinking.

I can think of no better example than Ashoke and Gogol’s post-grad conversation in which Ashoke gives his son The Collected Stories of Nikolai Gogol. Those of us who are aware of Ashoke’s past know this is supposed to be a monumental moment; the man who changed Ashoke’s life has been presented to Gogol as a link to father and son. Gogol –managing the disinterested teenager role quite well (probably thanks to Kal Penn’s baby face…or is he just typecast all the time?) –dutifully thanks but dismisses his father, finding the music more appealing than the obscure Russian author. Ashoke in this moment is stuck. He is pensive and teeming with desire to tell his son about the train accident, but he doesn’t want to intrude after his son has thanked him (and he seems sadly unaware of his son’s insincerity). It’s no coincidence that he hovers between a door frame: is he leaving or staying? The emotion in Ashoke’s face is fleeting and overall it is a brief scene (Ashoke returns to his stoic-proud father look quickly and remains there most of the film), but I think it underscores the way in which the film is not about Gogol, but his relationship to and with others. Arguably the novel is also about Gogol and his relationships, but the reader never peers into the emotional aftermath, the effects of Gogol’s curt and dismissive nature. Notably, Gogol’s attitude is not attributed to his displeasure with his own name, but rather the effects of assimilation; Gogol is infected by the disease of American teenager-ism, cured partially by the loss of his father.

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I want to devote a portion of this post to talking about sound, following up from my last post). Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen in Film Theory and Criticism point out that “many of the classic film theorists considered the cinema an essentially visual medium” (286). They also note Christian Metz’s argument that sound is never ‘off-screen.’ We find Metz’s idea prevalent in The Namesake as the first sound Ashima Ganguli wakes to in the U.S. is ice melting and dripping. It is a sound signifying the Northeast, a sound native New Englanders would argue is unique to their region. It’s cold, wintery feel stands in contrast to the fun and sensual: the traditional Indian music, Indian-techno mixes (strategically deployed as Gogol and Sonia grow up; descendants inherently becomes less and less traditional), British electro-pop when we meet the libertine Ratliffs, and rap at the death of Ashoke. Here, sound is certainly ‘on-screen’ as Gogol sees his father’s body while we hear Mykill Miers sing “I came from nothin/Now I’m somethin.” Isn’t this the story of Ashoke and Gogol? Gogol is something –the accomplished architect –as his father is gone, nothing.