Monday, June 28, 2010

The Transformation

Spahr, Juliana. The Transformation. Berkeley, CA: Atelos, 2007.

The Transformation “tells a barely truthful story of the years 1997-2001” (217), when the author lived in Hawai'i, Brooklyn, and her travels between the two locations. Written in a dense, lyric, and repetitive style, the book works “under the sign of contradiction” (213), displaying characteristics that one finds in both prose and poetry, thus challenging readers to question the manner in which we assign genre distinctions. For example, the book, which Spahr composes in sentences and paragraphs, contains a protagonist, a somewhat linear plot, and culminates in a specific, transformative change within the protagonist's consciousness that often marks a work of prose; but, of course, there are several aesthetic elements that confound that designation, infusing the text with poetic qualities. One such technique is the hyperbolic repetition of complex kennings. For instance, instead of referring to Hawai'i as “Hawai'i,” Spahr refers to it as the “island in the middle of the Pacific” (14); likewise, inhabitants of the island that are from an indigenous blood-line are called “those who had genealogical ties to the island from before the whaling ships arrived” (84). Phrases such as these are used repeatedly throughout the book, frequently multiple times in a single paragraph, and overload the text with identical, rhythmic, and lengthy patterns that produce “awkward repetitions or...weird turns of phrases that [can be] heard in [the] writing as musical” (62). Spahr's “musical” writing enacts, to a certain extent, “avant-garde” practices that use “fragmentation, quotation, disruption, disjunction, agrammatical syntax, and so on to make them like a foreigner in their own language” (99). The Deleuzian concept of the stutter, or that which makes one “a foreigner in [one's] own language” is of utmost importance to the text because issues of imperialism, colonialism, and the author's complicity with those concepts are at the forefront of her writing. Specifically, English, or “expansionist language,” acts as “a cultural bomb” that “absorb[s] in order to kill out...local languages” (94); while doing so, it fails to “carry all the local knowledge” of a colonized culture (98), thus eradicating indigenous languages/cultures while simultaneously promoting “legacies of imperialism” (95). If a writer who is complicit with “expansionist language” desires to work against these tendencies, “they would have to say sideways” (99) and not in a straightforward, appropriate, or traditional manner. Another important aesthetic technique Spahr employs is “troubled and pressured pronouns” (205). To generate “pressure” on pronouns, the author uses the third-person plural (in the form of “them” or “they”) exclusively throughout the text. In the one instance wherein she invokes the first-person, readers find out why she implements this choice; she writes: “when a certain singer sang out I am, I was a statement of male assertion and privilege” (185). Identity, more specifically gender identity and the manner in which language transmits and enforces it, is yet another theme within The Transformation. As Spahr states, her book “is a story of coming to an identity, coming to realize that they not only had a gender that was decided for them without their consent and by historical events that they had not even been alive to witness” (22). By choosing to write in the third-person plural, she attempts to find “an ease in discomfort” (22), undermining “male privilege” and the identity assigned to her which she had no part in deciding. At the conclusion of the book, there is an “admission that they didn't have any real answers” with regard to imperialism, gender, etc., but we are left with “the hope that if they kept writing others might point them to answers” (214). The pointing, then, will take place on a map (i.e. The Transformation) that offers “a new sort of conceptualization that allowed for more going astray than any map they had ever seen” (211) and lead to “a love of the varieties” (212) and differences that we as humans encounter each moment of our lives.

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