Independent Reading (Imagine Me Gone) and Fun Home

Over the last couple of weeks, I finished reading a couple of books, Imagine me gone (Adam Haslett), A Clockwork Orange (Anthony Burgess) and Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (JRR. Tolkein). 

 

Imagine Me Gone is essentially about a depressed man who to a certain extent is unable to find happiness as the people around him constantly let him down. The protagonist Michael finds it impossible to find a lover due to his mental condition which he inherited from his late father. He becomes obsessed with women who are unattainable because they are married or lesbians. His obsession causes them to avoid him at times. This increases his anxiety. He also has problems getting into college and later graduate school. While he finally gets in both, he does not finish. He drops out of college and a mental breakdown forces him to leave graduate school and move in with his mother. Throughout his life, he has taken out loans with no prospects of being able to pay them back. This also adds to his anxiety. Medication is the only thing that allows him to cope, but the more medication he takes, the more he needs. When Michael has anxiety attacks, he turns to his family for help. They attempt to support him as he chases after the girls who do not show up for dates and he feels as though he cannot breathe. Supporting him often means ignoring others or comes at a financial expense. At the same time, they are trying to manage their own lives. His sister, Celia is not happy with her current job and has problems committing to her live-in boyfriend. While his brother, Alec is gay and also has commitment issues. Michael’s inability to pay back his loans burdens his mother. Alec decides to intervene and proposes to help Michael slowly get off his medication. Michael agrees to give it a try as he wants what his family want for him. However, Michael cannot cope without his medication and dies, leaving a message for his family, where they finally understand him. Michael’s life has a very obvious connection with Fun Home’s Bruce Bechdel. Fun Home hones in on how Alison and Bruce are only able to connect in the later part of her teenage years through her love of books. The book focuses on the relationship and the possible causes that led to Bruce’s suicidal death as well as aspects of him that Alison did not know as a child. This is similar to Michael’s siblings who are unable to completely understand his problems, not until he dies. The misunderstanding between Michael and his family is equally evident in the relationship between Alison and her father where Bruce built walls around himself to hide or imprison himself behind. Like Bruce, Michael seems to be lost behind those walls and bursts out in various monstrous ways but never seems at ease with who he is.

A Low Art from the Penelopiad (2006) by Margaret Atwood

In the prose A Low Art, from The Penelopiad (2006), Margaret Atwood’s creative retelling of The Odyssey is a monologue of Penelope’s point of view in the first person. Atwood conveys Penelope’s escape from her oppression and her life with Odysseus. 

 

The conflict in this prose is Penelope’s frustration of having to be bound to a life with Odysseus while she was alive. It is a monologue of her realization where she regrets not understanding Odysseus’ true nature, “He got away with everything, which was another of his specialities: getting away”. She describes her husband as tricky and a liar, yet she had only realized this once she was nothing but in a state of “bonelessness, listlessness, breathlessness.” where she realizes her mistakes in refusing to see the darker side of her relationship with Odysseus. The monologue shows the amount of freedom Penelope now has, but only after her death. However, Atwood is not only highlighting the intense amount of oppression Penelope experienced but she is also discussing how it is often that women, in general, are subjected to living to submission or docility. She is describing how her defences were fragile and brittle as she played the role of an oppressed woman who, “kept my mouth shut” and “didn’t dig deep”. Penelope fell into an abyss which gave her a fabricated “happy ending” where she would shut out anything that told her otherwise, 

 

Due to this, her action of “keeping the right doors locked”, later led her to realize that because she refused to speak out against Odysseus, she began to have no spine of her own, or as she mentions, she had no mouth through which she could speak. Penelope’s circumstance of realising her mistakes so late allowed certain truths to be revealed, truths which she herself (when alive) did not want to accept. She also realizes that her action of resisting the temptation of seduction from other suitors created a stereotype for all women, that they must always be obedient and faithful. Her life’s example was a “stick used to beat other women with”, it became a story for yarn-spinners to spin into a perfect stereotype for women. 

 

The monologue which is in a passive-aggressive tone is essentially a moral lesson for Penelope as she realizes her faults during her lifetime. 

 

On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer (1816) By John Keats

 

Following the conventional form of a sonnet, which is often used to express love, Keats expresses his admiration for Chapman’s version of Homer’s epic “The Odyssey”. Keats uses his poem as an opportunity to express the importance of appreciating poems which touch and deeply move a reader. In the poem, he explains how through the many “goodly states and kingdoms seen” he was able to find something in the literary world which satisfied him and gave him a reason to continue searching for more stories to unravel. More importantly, how he was yet to find more poems which would give him the creative satisfaction he craved. He expresses that of all the different things he has seen, he was never able to “breathe its pure serene” admitting that he was unable to find fulfilment until Chapman’s Homer.  

 

In poetry, he has found the gold that Cortez, and the other conquistadors he had read about in William Robertson’s History of America, which Cortez had searched for so hastily. He also alludes to the fact that Cortez is “stout,” that is, fearless, and that he is alert, “with eagle eyes.” So much so that his men stand about him in silent awe, looking “at each other with a wild surmise.” Keats secures this idea to help express his own feelings of having made a discovery with the world of poetry. 

 

Keats expresses his appreciation of Chapman’s version through the line, “felt I like some watcher of the skies when a new planet swims into his ken;” alluding that he was finally able to find something he was able to hold on to. He was able to find something which brought a new perspective to his life because of the way it was revealed. The word “skies” implying that the version had broadened his perspective and that he was it was like heaven, giving him a realm better than those of gold. Keats is now able to venture and explore with his new discovery and this new world he has discovered for himself, allowing him to treat literature in ways that he hasn’t before.

Fathers and Sons: The Odyssey

The Odyssey

Fathers and Sons 

Ananya Sengupta 

 

The Odyssey has many life learnings. There is an extensive number of themes which are represented through the twenty-four stories. However, a theme that interests me the most is the relationship between father and son. Throughout the epic, it is clear that the father and son relationship is one of the most treasured relationships to the Greek people. Although the story is about Odysseus’ homecoming, there are multiple father and son relationships which are affected due to his absence. 

 

As Odysseus is the protagonist of the story, the most noticeable father and son relationship is between Telemachus and Odysseus. However, the least prominent relationship would be between Poseidon and his Cyclops son, Polyphemus. In this story, fathers and sons stand up for each other and support one another. For some reason, whether they have just met each other for the first time, or have known each other for a long time, fathers and sons feel obligated to protect each other. 

 

This interaction can be seen between Polyphemus and his father Poseidon. Polyphemus was blinded by Odysseus and didn’t want Odysseus to get away with what he has done. However, because he was blind he couldn’t punish Odysseus himself. Hence, he called out Poseidon for help. Although the intensity of their relationship is unexplored, it is assumed that they don’t know each other personally as Polyphemus says, “Listen, Earth-Shaker, Blue-Haired Lord Poseidon: acknowledge me your son, and be my father. Grant that Odysseus, the city-sacker will never go back home…”(9-530). Nevertheless, even though they don’t know each other, Poseidon takes action and helps his son. Poseidon hears Polyphemus’ prayer and almost destroys Odysseus’ ship. Ever since then, Poseidon has held a grudge towards Odysseus and makes sure that the protagonist will suffer before he manages to reach home. The father and son relationship shows that no matter the conditions, they will always stick together. 

 

Another example of father and son relationships is the most prominent bond, Odysseus and his son Telemachus. In the Odyssey, the father and son spend a lot of time apart and it is through their distance, that they develop respect and appreciation for one another. In this case, Odysseus built the distance by being away from home for twenty years. Telemachus decided to go on a journey and look for Odysseus. It is during this journey that Telemachus is able to prove his worth to his father. The unique bond between them strengthens as Telemachus “desired to connect all along” (285) with his father. Telemachus never wanted to believe that his father was dead and when the opportunity offered itself, he risked it all to find him. Through Telemachus’ story, Odysseus saw himself in his son. There are some secrets which may not be sufficiently articulated by the father but are visible to their sons because of their natural bond. 

 

According to Homer, every man should have a son who should avenge for him when he is not present. A son should look at his father as his role model whereas the father should protect his son from any harm. In this case, Odysseus protects Telemachus by killing the suitors while Telemachus does all he can to help out, and make sure that they succeeded.

 

Lastly, I feel that the most important “father-son” relationship is between Telemachus and Eumaeus. Although Eumaeus is a humble swineherd, after Telemachus’ return he exclaims, “Sweet light! You have come back, Telemachus. I thought that I would never see you anymore, after you sailed to Pylos. My dear child, come in, let me enjoy the sight of you now you are back.”(16-25). To which Telemachus responded with “Grandpa, yes” suggesting that as Odysseus was not present in Telemachus’ upbringing, there was an alternate father figure, that being Eumaeus the swineherd. In this scene, Homer portrayed how although his actual father Odysseus was absent, there were other fatherlike figures who were supportive of Telemachus. Thus proving that the relationship between “father and son” will always be present between men and boys regardless of the circumstances.  

 

Telemachus’ journey to adulthood was incomplete and slow, making him the most vulnerable member in his family: as the suitors plot to murder him. Although physically, Telemachus is of age, he seems to lack psychological maturity as he did not have the support of his father. In the course of finding his biological father, Telemachus meets two-alternative father figures, the controlling Nestor and the rich and narcissistic Menelaus. Incidentally, both of these men who echo traits which are present in Odysseus. They teach Telemachus the skill of hospitality which is an essential aspect of “elite masculine adulthood”. However, only his real father Odysseus can help Telemachus achieve what he wants which is a position of greater power in his own household. 

 

In this story, fathers and sons connect over revenge or vengeance. When Odysseus ultimately tells Telemachus who he really is, the two men share an embrace and immediately begin to discuss how to enact their revenge. Odysseus and Telemachus’ bond over vengeance and this is the ultimate connection to their relationship, similar to Poseidon supporting Polyphemus by taking revenge on Odysseus.  

*Odysseus meets his father Laertes after returning home.

The reason why I have included this particular illustration (drawn by me) is because it represents all the elements of the father-son relationship I have mentioned in my essay. For instance, like Odysseus, Laertes too had missed a lot of time with his son. However, he still supported Odysseus after killing the suitors and proceeded to help him fend off the families  of the dead suitors like Poseidon had supported Polyphemus

The Odyssey (favourite lines)

A line that I like because it reveals so much about the world of The Odyssey is, “Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns”. I think that this line reveals a lot about the story as it essentially tells the reader that Odysseus is “the man of twists and turns” because his homecoming is anything but straightforward. However, he is also “the man of twists and turns” as his mind similarly twists and turns, which is what predominantly helps him in the end to escape the dangerous circumstances he is in.

 

A line that I really liked in general was, “he had no choice— unwilling lover alongside lover all too willing”. This is when Calypso forces Odysseus to sleep with her against his will. Although I don’t support Calypso’s action, in this particular scene I find the amount of power Calypso has to be fascinating. It was lovely to see a powerful goddess abuse a powerless Odysseus. Even though it sounds cruel, Odysseus’ later encounter with the Phaecians later reveals that Odysseus too has captured and enslaved women and so calypso cannot be judged too harshly. 

 

Lastly, a line that I found to be incredibly satisfying is, “Ah how shameless – the way these mortals blame the gods. From us alone they say come all their miseries yes but they themselves with their own reckless ways compound their pains beyond their proper share.” I found this line to be satisfying as it is true that men suffer more than necessary because of their own transgressions. Such as the suitors who take space in Odysseus’ home and flirt with Penelope or the Phaecians who help Odysseus. 

 

Conflicts and Themes in The Odyssey

Hospitality 

In Homer’s epics, the theme of hospitality is very common to portray the relationship between guest and host. Hospitality was at the top of the Greek ethical code and represents how travellers at the time had to rely on the hospitality of others for things such as food, shelter and protection. It was also greatly valued as it was thought that other nations may not be able to enter any host territory safely. Thus it was a way to wish luck on strangers passing by through states that were part of one’s nation (even enemies). In the Odyssey, without this hospitality, strangers could be captured or even killed for entering a foreign land. The Greeks believed that the gods wanted people to show hospitality to strangers who showed up at their homes. This was because many believed that turning away lost strangers and not giving them any form of hospitality would result in some form of suffering or punishment from the Gods on the host. An example of this would be in Book IX when Odysseus arrived on Circe’s island and attempts to save his men who have turned into animals by confronting the witch. Although Odysseus was aided by Hermes, Circe was violating the code of conduct between host and guest, and consequently, the Gods punished Circe so that she would become more hospitable. Circe does this by giving Odysseus advice about how to return back home, “So she enticed and won our battle-hardened spirits over.” indicating that he (Odysseus) was supposed to indulge in the goods ie., food and any luxury items (after she was punished by the Gods) and accept her offerings. Here, the book suggests that the luxuries of Circe’s home were providing the comfort that he needed after his experiences in the Trojan War. Just as some of Odysseus’ men forget what they have suffered and indulge into what is offered, Odysseus too temporarily succumbs to the temptation to suspend his own grief.

 

Temptation 

In the Odyssey, the theme of temptation was considered to be an evil act or a sin, but most importantly a negative trait. Odysseus’ character has shown several instances when he has been tempted. These temptations tend to range from the satisfaction of hunger to pride and sensual pleasures. An example would be when Odysseus’ soldiers see the Lotus-eaters and they instantly fall to that temptation. Odysseus too was so tempted by Circe’s beauty but manages to save himself in the nick of time. This is to show that he is different from his crew members as he knows how to restrain himself. The most notable scene is when Odysseus asks his crewmembers to be tied to his ship’s mast so that he can hear the Siren’s songs and find answers to find his way home. They began to sing, “Odysseus! Come here! You are well known…. The music brings them joy, and they go on their way with greater knowledge, since we know everything the Greeks and Trojans suffered in Troy… and we know whatever happens anywhere on Earth.” Odysseus admits that their song was melodious and he wanted to hear more. However, he learns to resist them and supports his men so that they can continue their journey back to Ithaca. Although this was a very heroic action of Odysseus’, he portrays a more honourable action later. As in the end, when Odysseus reaches Ithaca, he resists killing the suitors and waits for the perfect time. Thus, showing his difference from his own men of not falling to temptation and restraining himself. 

 

Revenge 

Revenge is an important underlying theme in The Odyssey because it essentially explains why Odysseus’ homecoming journey was so prolonged and dangerous. An example would be Poseidon taking his revenge on Odysseus, similarly to Odysseus taking revenge on the suitors for trying to marry his wife, Penelope. The first case, where Poseidon was taking revenge on Odysseus was in Book 5. Odysseus had escaped the great cyclops Polyphemus (son of Poseidon) by blinding him with a stake. This action enraged Poseidon. However, Poseidon was unable to kill Odysseus as “the Fates” reminded him that Odysseus will return home. Even though Odysseus will return home, Poseidon ensures that Odysseus will arrive in Ithaca late, alone, broken, without his shipmates and his household in disorder. When he does this he says, “My goal is not to kill you. You must understand. That without the gods, man is nothing”. Another instance where Poseidon takes his revenge when the Phaeacians follow their tradition of providing hospitality to Odysseus. Odysseus too takes his revenge by killing the suitors one by one, after he comes home to see them feasting and dining in his halls. “You fools, how dare you take my things and rape my servant girls…” Odysseus’ avenges the lack of respect from the suitors and the lack of loyalty from the servants for his office, his family and property. Odysseus avenges the suitors’ lack of respect for and the servants’ lack of loyalty to his office, his property, and his family. 

 

The Odyssey Incidents Writing

In the book The Odyssey (translated by Emily Wilson), there are several instances where Odysseus has been portrayed as cunning and manipulative, a trait which is represented to be a valued (positive) quality crucial for victory in certain situations. In the Odyssey, Homer incorporates Odysseus’ characteristic of being manipulative as it reflects the behaviour of the Greek Gods, suggesting that Odysseus is the closest mortal to possessing divine powers. In the story, Odysseus receives help from Athena, who favours him for his “power of cunning” a trait which is reflected in both Athena and Odysseus. Besides physical strength, Athena and Odysseus both have intellectual prowess, a quality needed to achieve successful outcomes. 

 

The first incident where Odysseus displayed God-like qualities was in book 8: The Songs of a Poet when he attends the Phaeacian assembly at Alcinous’s court. “But as for myself grant me a rapid convoy home to my own native land. How far away I’ve been from all my loved ones, how long I have suffered!” Odysseus exclaimed at Alcinous and Arete so that they would assist him on his journey. After being accepted by the Phaeacians, men began to display their athletic abilities and Odysseus enjoys watching them race and wrestle. However, when he is asked to participate, Odysseus initially declines the offer, but Euryalus taunts him. Odysseus then demonstrates his god-like qualities by picking up the heaviest discuss and throwing it beyond the marks of all the other men. Odysseus’s display of strength is extremely impressive, Euryalus apologizes for his remarks before giving Odysseus a gift. In this scene, Odysseus shows that his aim to reach home never wavers. He takes advantage of Arete’s caring persona and manipulates the King and Queen into providing him with protection as well as a route back to Ithaca. Additionally, Odysseus sways the Phaeacians with his strength to prove that he is more dominant than the people around him. In this situation, Athena directs Odysseus to the Phaeacians knowing that they would be instrumental to his route back home. However, Athena also uses this situation as an opportunity to fight back Poseidon with whom she had a prolonged confrontation as Poseidon wanted her land Athens. The Phaecians who were supporters of Poseidon would be seen as traitors if they helped Odysseus, which is what they eventually do because of Athena’s manipulation thus, giving both Athena and Odysseus the upper hand that they have always wanted. 

 

In another instance, Odysseus also displays heroic qualities on the island of Circe. In book ten, Odysseus sends a party to investigate Circe’s home, and the goddess proceeds to turn the men into swine. After Eurylochus informs Odysseus of the shocking events and Circe’s magical powers, Odysseus courageously travels to Circe’s home to save his men. “I strapped my silver-studded sword across my back, took up my bow, and told him, ‘Take me there'” (chp10, 263). With the help of Hermes’ magic potion, Odysseus is able to defeat Circe’s spell and forces her to transform the pigs back into men. Odysseus’s cunning, bold behaviour demonstrates his heroic nature as he successfully rescues his crew from the powerful goddess. This shows that manipulative and cunning qualities, do have positive effects as long as they contribute to the objective. 

 

This image reflects when Eurymachus throws a stool at Odysseus but misses as Odysseus insulted of Eurymachus’ own. He hits a servant instead. Just as a riot is about to break out, Telemachus steps in and diffuses the situation, to the consternation of the suitors.

The Odyssey Polyphemus Comic

Nobody—that’s my name. Nobody—
so my mother and father call me, all my friends.

Cunning is Odysseus’s greatest trait and it serves him well throughout the poem, perhaps nowhere more famously than in his triumph over the Cyclops, Polyphemus. Having introduced himself as “Nobody,” Odysseus subdues the giant with wine and blinds him by piercing his one large eye with a pointed stake. Polyphemus then calls out to his kin for help, saying that “Nobody, friends…Nobody’s killing me now by fraud and not by force!” The other Cyclopes thus assume that he is fine and ignore his pleas for help, allowing Odysseus and his men ultimately to escape.

The Odyssey Athena Comic

(drawn by me)

The theme behind this comic is “Cunning’. In Book 13, Odysseus finally returns home. The Phaeacians convey him to Ithaca in what is the easiest leg of his journey since Athena puts him into a deep sleep. He wakes up in a cave so disoriented that he does not recognize his own country. Athena, in disguise, confronts and questions him. True to his character, he disguises his identity and spins a tale about how he came to the island. Athena appreciates his cunning, recognizing her own craftiness in her favourite mortal.

 

Writer’s Fortnight with Hanna Alkaf

Today we had a Writer’s Fortnight session with the Malay author Hanna Alkaf. Hanna Alkaf graduated with a degree in journalism from Northwestern University and spent over ten years writing everything but fiction before finally giving in. She now writes “unapologetically” Malaysian young adult and middle-grade stories. The Weight of Our Sky is her first novel.

 

Hanna was first explaining to us the importance of knowledge of different mental illnesses. She explained how in Malaysia there was a lack of information about mental illnesses and psychologists refused to provide new adapted information. Through this session, I realized that developing a mental illness was a process and so was coping with it. There were several mental illnesses that we covered today, these being OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), schizophrenia, depression, ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). During the talk, there were many of us who actually did not know the meaning of many of these disorders and were confusing them with other disorders. We learnt about how it was important to value people with “mental problems” and how it was important to help people who don’t know what they are experiencing. 

 

Hanna then moved onto describing her book “The Weight of Our Sky” which is about a music-loving teen with OCD who does everything she can to find her way back to her mother during the historic race riots in 1969 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Melati Ahmad the main character is like your typical movie-going, Beatles-obsessed sixteen-year-old. However, the main character believes that she harbours a “djinn” inside her, one who threatens her with horrific images of her mother’s death unless she adheres to an elaborate ritual of counting and tapping to keep him satisfied. A “djinn” is an intelligent spirit of lower rank than the angels, able to appear in human and animal forms and to possess humans. 

 

[continuation of plot] “A trip to the movies after school turns into a nightmare when the city erupts into violent race riots between the Chinese and the Malay. When gangsters come into the theatre and hold movie-goers hostage, Mel, a Malay, is saved by a Chinese woman but has to leave her best friend behind to die. On their journey through town, Mel sees for herself the devastation caused by the riots. In her village, a neighbour tells her that her mother, a nurse, was called in to help with the many bodies piling up at the hospital. Mel must survive on her own, with the help of a few kind strangers, until she finds her mother. But the djinn in her mind threatens her ability to cope.”

 

From this story, Hanna explains how she suffered from Postpartum Depression (PPD) which is a complex mix of physical, emotional, and behavioural changes that happen in a woman after giving birth. She explained how after giving birth everything became difficult for her and her life wasn’t going on the course she wanted it to. She then connected this to her previous story, Gila: A Journey Through Moods & Madness (Gila means crazy) which she wrote to represent communities in Malaysia who suffered from a mental disorder and were not able to get help, similar to her situation. 

 

In my opinion, I think that it is really promising that authors are now focusing on writing and representing the marginalised communities in Asia through stories especially because differently-abled communities are sometimes a taboo or a less understood subject. There are many people in this region of the world who are unaware of the problems that they face and why. Sometimes they are unaware of how to even deal with their problems which is why books as such are encouraging for certain communities.