Unrooted: Dangerous Anonymity

Unrooted: Dangerous Anonymity

 

“Create dangerously, for people who read dangerously,” instructs writer Edwidge Danticat. “No matter how trivial your words may seem, someday, somewhere, someone may risk his or her life to read them.”1 To have someone risk their life to read your words because their political livelihood depends on it, this is what it means to create dangerously. However, dangerous creations are not always as obvious or apparent as one may think. “Dangerous” work doesn’t have to be explicitly journalistic, biographical, or political: It can be beautiful, it can be humanizing, and it can bear no name. In both Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Boundary” and Edwidge Danticat’s “Night Women,” these “immigrant artists at work” (to borrow Danticat’s term) construct narrators without names or true salient identities to inspire detachment from the characters and, instead, inspire an attachment to the story’s purpose. The device of a nameless narrator is so effective at drawing wider societal commentary because the speaker’s unrooted anonymity allows for a story’s message to connect with a greater diversity of readers and shows the tale isn’t a unique or singular story: It’s a larger societal pattern.

In a 2018 New Yorker interview with Cressida Leyshon, Jhumpa Lahiri addresses the artistic choices in the short story “The Boundary,” discussing the “deliberate choice” she made in maintaining a sense of anonymity between her audience and the narrator.2 Lahiri describes how this impersonality allows her work to convey a more abstract sense of place and how she “prefer[s] that the story is unrooted, that it is free to cross boundaries.”3 The story is unrooted; not deeply established, not fixed in one specific place or person or time, not confined by biographical considerations, not unique. In “The Boundary,” Lahiri’s unrooted narrator passively observes a wealthy city family on vacation as they take up residence in the countryside cottage that her immigrant family maintains. The narrator is less of a true “character” and more of a witness; she rarely engages with the family because she is more focused on surveying their actions. She observes how they take pleasure in all of the minute details that she experiences every day and ponders the fact that the family will soon be gone. She can’t help but wonder “what they know about the loneliness here” and wrestle with the family’s detached, shallow enjoyment of the landscape, and consequently, their shallow perception of those who live there.4 Although the narrator spends the story observing this specific family, she notes that “every Saturday, a new family comes.”5 This isn’t a unique family. This is not a unique story. This story is meant to represent all of those who come to visit, not one particularly shallow, marked case.

This unnamed family is a template for all of the privileged people that enter immigrant spaces so flippantly. This parable is employed in order to express how removed the general populace is from the everyday lives of worked immigrants, just as we have removed ourselves from the narrator herself.6 Lahiri also mentions that “it was a deliberate choice not to specify the origin of the family,” and this is for the purpose of expanding audience.7. By not assigning a particular identity to the family, Lahiri has freed her “work from geographical coordinates and arrived at a more abstract sense of place.”8 She doesn’t reach only an Italian audience, though Lahiri lives in Italy and writes in Italian. She doesn’t reach only a Bengali Indian audience, though Lahiri is a Bengali Indian. She doesn’t reach only an immigrant audience, though Lahiri is an immigrant. By not ascribing her characters the biographical details of her own life, she reaches readers who may not share them, such as more privileged audiences whose identities may align more with the family’s than the narrator’s. Through this lack of identity, she is able to reach an intersectional audience—a human audience.

Names are often used as important cultural tools: They give away origin, gender, identity. The absence of names and the generality of anti-immigrant rhetoric employed when the narrator’s father is told to “go back to wherever [he] came from” allows for more people to identify with the general pattern Lahiri wishes to expose than if she’d associated the character with a particular country, region, or ethnicity.9 She exposes the pattern of dehumanization of immigrant families that stems from the belief that immigrant families have a shorter history in a place and therefore a shallow attachment to their environment, and subsequently a shallow attachment to their humanity, as is frequently seen today with the gentrification and erasure of immigrant spaces. Pointing to the overarching pattern and not ascribing the character a particular identity allows for all immigrant families to be seen in the story, and prompts all native persons to reflect on their own attitudes and behaviors. The discrimination in “The Boundary” is not a sad, individual event that an immigrant girl named Jhumpa, Mei, or Isra happened to go through; this is a prominent problem in societies everywhere, affecting everyone.

Edwidge Danticat takes a slightly different approach to the unnamed narrator. Instead of discouraging the detachment she cultivates towards her narrator’s working life, she encourages it. In her short trance-like story about a sex worker’s commitment to and love for her son, she encourages her audience to allow women to remove themselves from their work (even if it’s “taboo” sex work) and be able to “thank the stars” for the security and flexibility their work may provide.10 By normalizing sex workers that remove their sense of identity from their work, we not only stop shaming them, but we humanize them. The story’s capacity for humanization is where the unnamed narrator is most crucial: Danticat isn’t just humanizing this uniquely positive case in a profession of only unhappiness, abuse, and sin; she’s humanizing and giving voice to the countless women that feel exactly the same. There is not a singular “Night Woman,” there are numerous Night Women, “ghost women,” beautifully depicted women who “ride the crests of waves while brushing the stars out of their hair.”11 They’re not huddled, scared victims; they are humans, and they don’t have to fit into any culture’s narrow perceptions of them.

The unnamed narrator of “Night Women,” coupled with the story’s notably ethereal diction, allows for Danticat to reach a larger audience. Her tone is inviting, the mood dreamlike. Reading her pretty words and magical phrases compels the audience to read more, regardless of the audience’s background or relationship to the subject matter. Her unnamed narrator whispers “mountain stories” of hibiscus and goddesses, looks for angels “resting their pink heels” on her son’s nose, watches her “fingers coil into visions of birds.”12 That’s what’s dangerous about Danticat’s writing. She doesn’t write entirely for those who already agree with her perceptions, she extends her audience to those who appreciate the aloofness of dreams, those who crave the aestheticism she offers. It’s an activist’s story, it’s a feminist’s story, but it’s also a poet’s story, a Romantic’s story, it’s anyone’s story. It puts whoever reads it in direct “disobedience to a directive.”13 On the whole, societies around the world are only able to see sex workers as only their job, denying them full humanity. This implicit link between one’s humanity and their job is toxic, and it is up to the dangerous creator to sever it.

Where Lahiri and Danticat differ most is in what they are trying to achieve with their detachment from particular contexts. Danticat aims to uncouple the audience from the societal stereotypes swarming sex work while Lahiri seeks to disengage the audience in hopes that they will realize the harm that comes from such a detachment. Their unique goals are actualized in their contrasting plot structure, with Danticat maintaining a dream-like stream of consciousness for the entire story while Lahiri’s observational style is punctuated with an extreme account of the anti-immigrant attitude she’s denouncing at the end. There is no true climax or story in Danticat’s tale, it’s simply a day in the life. Nothing unique or special, a mere stream of consciousness that follows a young mother through her day and night, highlighting how Danticat’s purpose is to destigmatize this routine.

On the contrary, Lahiri does not maintain the quiet surveillance she introduces at the beginning throughout the story. While Lahiri’s unnamed narrator “pretend[s] not to watch” this new family and tries “to be discreet” initially, she then transitions into describing the event that pushed her family into living in the country in the first place.14 After overhearing the guest family mention a piazza where the narrator’s father used to work, there is a shift in the narrator’s tense for the first time, moving from present to past. The “rural, unchanging landscape” is wiped away by the memory of the urban dwelling they used to live in, one where the narrator’s father’s “mouth filled with blood” and broke into shattered teeth, one where there were direct calls for an immigrant family to “go back to wherever [they] came from.”16

Even given the advantages the device of the nameless narrator affords, some may argue that names and identities allow for a deeper relationship between the character and the reader. They may argue that the audience will remember these names and therefore forge a deeper connection to the story. These claims hold some validity, but what they fail to realize is that the lack of an adulated connection we feel for anonymous fictional characters is the whole point of broader cultural commentary in fiction. We often take fictitious characters and idolize them as just that: fictitious. For example, we feel great empathy and pity for Pip in Great Expectations, but do we meaningfully consider how any of us could be Pip? Do we feel for real people, or is our empathy stunted by our connection to a character that isn’t real? Even if we come to think of him as a representation of the Victorian tragedy, we don’t tend to think of him as a larger humanitarian pattern of suffering, removed from time. He’s not present; he’s not real.

In writing that aims to highlight societal patterns, the point of inspiring detachment to fictitious characters is to forge connections to the real people in the world experiencing the circumstances of the story—not to pity unfortunate caricatures and file away our empathy with the book we put back on the shelf. It is a tradeoff: in a nameless story, we forego our attachments to fiction’s actors in order to make way for a more nuanced and meaningful attachment to purpose. Utilizing a narrator without a name, as Lahiri and Danticat do respectively, allows for a piece’s message to connect with a wider human audience and emphasizes the dangers of seeing social critique as a singular account—an individual account that disregards the possible applicability to the number of people in the real world that are impacted by these issues. It is a privilege to attach oneself to fictional characters while remaining coolly uninvolved from the real world these characters represent. In order to be critical consumers of literature, in order to “read dangerously,” we must read those who “create dangerously.”17

  1. Edwidge Danticat, Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work (Princeton University Press, 2010) 10-11.
  2. Cressida Leyshon, “Jhumpa Lahiri on Writing in Italian,” January 22, 2018, newyorker.com.
  3. Leyshon, “Jhumpa Lahiri on Writing in Italian.”
  4. Jhumpa Lahiri, “The Boundary,” The New Yorker, January 29, 2018.
  5. Lahiri, “The Boundary,”
  6. Leyshon, “Jhumpa Lahiri on Writing in Italian.”
  7. Leyshon, “Jhumpa Lahiri on Writing in Italian.”
  8. Leyshon, “Jhumpa Lahiri on Writing in Italian.”
  9. Lahiri, “The Boundary.”
  10. Edwidge Danticat, “Night Women,” Krik? Krak! (SoHo Press, 1996).
  11. Danticat, “Night Women.”
  12. Danticat, “Night Women.”
  13. Danticat, Create Dangerously, 11.
  14. Lahiri, “The Boundary.”
  15. Lahiri, “The Boundary.” This is Lahiri’s call to action. For the duration of the story, the audience has been held at a distance, simply observing the family through the narrator’s gaze, and here Lahiri shocks readers out of this indifference. In turn, she urges the audience to stop their apathy for immigrant environments in real life as well, to recognize the harsh realities that face these communities worldwide. She warns us not to be the nice, ignorant, out of touch family. She implores us to “know about the loneliness.”15Lahiri, “The Boundary.”
  16. Danticat, Create Dangerously, 10.
 
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