The Contemporary Multicultural American Novel
The environment, in which authors are leading their lives are reflected in their literary works. Their culture is portrayed through their writings. The novels “Bless Me, Ultima” by Rudolfo Anaya, “Ceremony” by Leslie Silko and “The Woman Warrior” by Maxine Hong Kingston depict the cultural environment of the authors, in which they have spent their childhood and adolescence. The novels focus on the struggle of the protagonists to find their true cultural identity. The theme of cross-generational transmission of cultural identity is depicted in the novels through the struggle of the protagonists.
In the novel “Bless Me, Ultima”, the protagonist, Antonio Marez is struggling to comprehend his cultural identity, as his mother preaches him to follow Catholic culture whereas his father advises him to lead his life in accordance of the culture of vaqueros. The central character in the novel “Ceremony” is Tayo, who has fought for his country in World War II. Although he survives the war and returns to his family, he is haunted by the horrors of war.
He struggles to find his true identity in a land where diverse cultures exist. In the novel “The Woman Warrior”, the author writes about her own experiences while living as a Chinese-American woman. In this paper, we will compare and contrast the handling of the theme of cross-generational transmission of cultural identity in these texts.
Bless Me, Ultima
The novel “Bless Me, Ultima” revolves around the cultural conflicts experienced by Antonio Marez, a boy growing up in Guadalupe, New Mexico. As his parents are following different cultural beliefs, Antonio is unable to find his own cultural identity. Being a vaquero, Antonio’s father liked to live his life in the wilderness of the nature. Anaya (1990) writes “My father had been a vaquero all his life, a calling as ancient as the coming of the Spaniards to Neuvo Mejico. Even after bid rancheros and tejanos came and fenced the beautiful Illano, he and those like him continued to work there.” (p.2). The thinking and beliefs of his mother were in contrast to the attitude of his father. Living in an environment where the cultural beliefs of his father and mother were in conflict with each other, Antonio is confused regarding the culture which he should follow in his life.
But when Ultima, the curandera starts living in his house, Antonio begins to understand the meaning of various cultures and their significance in the lives of the human beings. The cross-generational transmission of cultural identity takes place through the interaction of Ultima with Antonio. Antonio experiences her magical powers when Ultima holds his hand. Anaya (1990) states “She took my hand, and the silent, magic powers she possessed made beauty from the raw, sun-baked llano, the green river valley, and the blue bowl which was the white sun’s home. My bare feet felt the throbbing earth and my body trembled with excitement.” (p.1). The mystical elements, which are a part of the local culture, are learnt and comprehended by Antonio, owing to the teachings of Ultima. The young generation is represented by Antonio, which is gaining knowledge about the various local cultures from the older generation.
The novel “Ceremony” brings forth the struggle of the protagonist to connect with his native culture. The cultural conflicts experienced by Tayo, after returning from the war depict the the disturbed state of mind of Tayo who is being troubled by the memories of war. The place, in which he was living, was influenced by the culture of the white people. Silko (1977) mentions “The fifth world had become entangled with the European names: the names of the rivers, the hills, the names of the animals and plants-all of creation suddenly had two names: an Indian name and a white name.” (p.68). Tayo wanted to remove himself from the influence of the foreign culture and connect with his native culture. The Native American stories act as bridge between Tayo and his native culture. The fact that the events in the life of Tayo are not presented in a chronological order; they are interspersed among the Native American stories, present the significance of these stories in resolving the cultural conflicts of Tayo. The real stories and mythical stories, which are a part of Native Culture, are mentioned in the novel in the same tone and language. The author shows no difference while narrating the real events and the mythical stories. The mythical stories are an important part of the plot, for they are the stories which are bringing Tayo closer to his native culture. The stories are unraveling the mysteries of his native world to Tayo. Silko (1977) points out that “It took a long time to explain the fragility and….. that went with being human, old Ku’oosh said, the story behind each word must be told so there could be no mistake in the meaning of what had been said; and this demanded great patience and love.” (p. 101). The events of the past and present merge together in the novel.
As Tayo discovers his true identity and culture, he begins to free himself from the bonds of the alien culture. Silko (1977) mentions “He cried the relief he felt at finally seeing the pattern, the way all the stories fit together-the old stories, the war stories, their stories-to become the story that was still being told.” (p. 260). The stories and the Native American Ceremony are the factors which resolve the cultural conflict that has gripped Tayo. The concepts of space and time keep on changing in the novel. The events in the present and past are presented in the novel in the same manner whereas the real world and mythical space converge in the novel. The mythical world provides a meaning to the people, living in the real world. Tayo, an individual living in the real world, is able to overcome his cultural conflicts with the aid of the mythical world. The novel opens with the account of the real world, with which Tayo is struggling to cope with, but with the initiation of the ceremony, the narrative structure shifts to the mythical world.
The Woman Warrior
The novel “The Woman Warrior” presents the lives of Chinese women living in America. The protagonist of the story is the author herself, who has based the plot of the story on her own experiences of growing up as a Chinese-American girl. Kingston struggles to comprehend her true cultural identity, as she is caught up between her native culture and the culture of the country, in which she was living presently. The novel is divided into five parts, each part focusing on a story. The stories depict the Chinese culture, in which Kingston’s mother was raised. In the first story, Kingston’s mother reveals to Kingston about her aunt who was punished for committing adultery. The position of the woman in the Chinese culture is put forth through this story, as this story proves that Kingston’s aunty being a woman was punished by the society whereas the man who was the father of the illegitimate child born to Kingston’s aunty was left unharmed.
In the second story, Kingston writes about her childhood and her imagination of being a woman warrior who succeeds in removing the corrupt government from power. The third story focuses on the experiences her mother had in a Chinese medical school. The fourth story depicts the story of her another aunt who arrives in America to search for her estranged husband. The fifth story depicts the experiences of Kingston during her childhood and adolescence, and the behavior of her parents towards her. The talk-stories play an important part in the life of Kingston. It is through them that Kingston knows about her native culture and its values.
Comparison and Contrast
All the three texts are powerfully structured around those aspects of cultural identity that may or may not be transmitted across generations. In the novel “Bless Me, Ultima”, as Antonio spends more time with Ultima, he realizes the significance of both the cultures in his life. The deeper meaning that lies beyond all the cultural differences is explained to Antonio by Ultima. She advises Antonio to look beyond the cultures of his father and mother. Anaya (1990) writes “You have been seeing only parts, she finished and not looking beyond into the great cycle that binds us all.” (p.113). The culture which was part of the lives of Ultima, Antonio’s parents and the local people is transmitted to Antonio. The novel follows the manner in which a young boy is taught about his culture through the healing powers of Ultima. The cultural identity of Antonio is developed by the teachings of Ultima. The mysticism, which is a part of the local culture of the place where Antonio is living with his parents, is explained and displayed by Ultima. The boy who was confused about his cultural identity realizes the significance of independence while choosing one’s cultural values and moral beliefs. The values and the teachings of various cultures are those aspects of cultural identity which are transmitted to Antonio by Ultima.
In the novel “Ceremony” Tayo finds his true cultural identity, owing to the Native American stories which transmit the beliefs and values of the native culture to Tayo. The cross-generational transmission of cultural identity takes place when Tayo hears and interprets the Native American stories. He understands the various elements of his native culture from the stories. The novel depicts the development of Tayo’s cultural identity by focusing on the mythical world of the stories along with the real world, in which Tayo is leading his life.
Kingston, the protagonist of the novel “The Woman Warrior” struggles to live her life in an American way owing to the cultural identity her mother wants to impose on her by narrating the talk-stories. Kingston (1989) tells “To make my waking life American-normal, I turn on the lights before anything untoward makes an appearance……..Before we can leave our parents, they stuff our heads like the suitcases which they jam-pack with homemade underwear.” (p.87). The cross-generational transmission of cultural identity takes place through the talk-stories. Although Kingston dislikes these talk-stories initially, later in her life she realizes the significance of these talk-stories, as she herself tells a talk-story. She fuses the different cultures and creates a harmonious world of her own.
But the way these texts handle the theme of cross-generational transmission of cultural identity differs from each other in some aspects. In the novel “Bless Me, Ultima”, the cross-generational transmission of cultural identity is presented through the resolving of cultural conflict experienced by Antonio. As Antonio realizes the deeper meaning of various cultures and their place in his life, he begins to develop his own cultural identity which is free from the influence of the culture of his parents. The diverse cultures of his parents are a source of confusion of him, as he is unable to decide about the culture he wants to follow in his life. But Ultima opens a new world to Antonio, where mystical elements influence the lives of human beings. Antonio overcomes his confusion and finds his true cultural identity.
The transmission of cultural identity is depicted in the novel “Ceremony” through the struggle of Tayo to free himself from the bonds of the foreign culture which was corrupting his native culture. Here the conflict of the protagonist is with the alien culture that is influencing the world, in which is struggling to comprehend the native culture. The transmission of cultural identity is presented through the understanding of Tayo in regards to his native culture. The conflicting nature of his native culture and the alien culture is the reason that compels Tayo to seek the aid of Native American stories to connect with his native culture. In the end, Tayo succeeds in finding his cultural identity. The Native American stories, which are part of Tayo’s native culture, provide Tayo with a meaning to his life in the real world.
In then novel “The Woman Warrior”, although the transmission of cultural identity takes place, it does not aids in solving the conflicts of Kingston, as she struggles to live by her culture in a country whose culture is far different for her native culture. The talk-stories assist Kingston in understanding the culture of her native place but they also hinder her from creating her own cultural identity in America. Being caught up between her native culture and the culture of the country, in which she is living her life, Kingston is unable to decide which cultural beliefs she wants to follow in her life. It is in the later periods of her life that she succeeds in finding her own cultural identity by incorporating her native culture with the culture of America. Instead of basing her cultural identity just on her native culture or American culture, she takes on a cultural identity which is influenced by both the cultures. Some aspects of cultural identity are transmitted to Kingston by her mother through the medium of talk-stories.
Anaya, Rudolfo. (1990). Bless Me, Ultima: A Novel. Tonatiuh-Quinto Sol Internat.
Kingston, Maxine. (1989) The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts. Vintage.
Silko, Leslie. (1997). Ceremony. Penguin Books.
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