- Patricia Powell, The Pagoda
INTRODUCTION & PROBLEMATIC
This week's reading is Patricia Powell's The Pagoda. Set in the 1890s in Jamaica, the novel is centered around Lowe, a Chinese migrant who owns a shop in Manchester county. We are introduced to Lowe through his struggling relationship with his daughter and his deep desire to reveal his truth to her. However, this contemplation is interrupted by a violent scene - the burning down of his shop and the subsequent death of Cecil, a white Jamaican and Lowe's captor on the ship that brought him to Jamaica. The end of Lowe's relationship to both of these entities marks the beginning of a major transition and negotiation within Lowe, one in which he can confront his gender and sexual identity, the trauma he experienced as a stowaway on Cecil's ship, and the loss of his Chinese heritage and lineage, to name a few things. As part of this change, Lowe, desperate for his own space and dreams to be fulfilled, decides to build a pagoda in place of the shop, a place in which he and other Chinese and Indian migrants can have a place to gather, and most importantly, where future generations can learn the heritage and language he lost over his thirty years in Jamaica. Not only this, but Lowe hopes that pagoda could be a site of recovery and recuperation for his estranged relationship with his daughter, Liz. Following this, Lowe begins to uncover the truth about others around him and how they are related to one another through Cecil, which encourages his own uncovering of his past traumas and reflections on his current self as a woman who has dressed as a man for over thirty years.
Through The Pagoda, Powell disrupts racial, gender and family structures that colonial rule hopes to create as given and natural. She brings into light the complicated relationships that indentureship creates and in doing so, calls into question notions of performance, assimilation, community and kinship. Additionally, she asks us to think more critically about futurity and how it manifests itself in the Caribbean landscape. In his critique of the novel, Frydman prompts thought about how Lowe represents a larger experience of colonial subjects reckoning "with the economic, psychological, and sexual aftereffects of colonial domination" (102). Ultimately, Powell and Frydman taken together allow us to imagine and understand structures of sex, power, politics, and race at play in the process of colonial migration.
- Our readings have focused on the Caribbean as a unique site for understanding the ways racial categories are formed relationally. How does The Pagoda extend or complicate our understanding of interactions between Black people, East Asian people, and South Asian people (and to a lesser extent, white people) in the region? Some quotes to help you think:
- "There were opportunities to be had if they persevered, but only at the expense of other people. They had been brought there only to supply cheap labor and keep down wages. They been brought there only to keep the Negro population in check" (45).
- "They had worse than him. He at least used to feed them, the coolies. Is that they call us. The same slur that they throw at the East Indians, but we one and the same. One and the same" (68).
- The Pagoda is the first work of fiction we have read this semester. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the genre in developing our understanding of the historical moment, especially with regards to race? Can fiction be misleading, reductive, or dramatic in a way that invisibilizes historical realities? In The Pagoda, what is the effect of the first-person narrative from the point of view of a Chinese Jamaican? How can we assess Patricia Powell's position as author?
- On page 186, Mr. Lowe wonders, "For if language was the carrier of culture, then he'd erased his culture too, and so now what was a person without language and without culture? What was he there on that island, what had he become?" How does this book seek to answer these questions? How can approaching the portrayal of culture in this book through a relational framework allow us to see both strengths and weaknesses of this portrayal?
- "Then there was his daughter, a grown woman, who didn't speak one word in Hakka... What difference would it have made, when it was just the two of them alone there in the village... there among the Negro villagers" (52).
- As much as our theories of relationality have emphasized that race is a mutually constituted construct, they've also emphasized how this racialization (the food groups) is a tool of white supremacy. How are the various characters in Powell's book representative of this phenomena? What do we make of Cecil's character as a symbol for the ever-presence of white supremacy? The following quotes should help with conversation.
- "Cecil complained. He wanted to know where the profit was from the capital he'd given Lowe... If, like a damn fool, he was allowing those nigger people to eat him out and what kind of blasted Chinaman was he, anyway. What kind of blasted China businessman. This he said with laughter clacking through his false teeth" (97).
- "He would have wanted to thank Omar, for in a funny sort of way, the destroyed shop had freed him. In a funny sort of way, Cecil's death had freed him, had freed all of them" (202).
- What is the role of gender and sexuality in this novel, particularly in relation to love? How does the portrayal of gender and sexuality serve the broader themes of this book?
- In regard to Whitley's and Miss Sylvie's relationship: "He knew that what was displayed here was in front of him was some hot deep dark searing thing... He shuddered just from thinking of it" (93).
- "'And how you to love some other person when the body you inhabit not even yours? When the body you inhabit has more to do with somebody else's fantasy. The fantasy of somebody you love" (221).
- Professor Goffe's "Albums of Inclusion" prompted us to think more critically about identity as an extrinsic conception, and in turn, what the project of "representation" fully entails. In what ways does The Pagoda similarly prompt us to think about identity as an extrinsic conception? For example, the book spends a lot of time discussing Lowe's psyche, and so much of that discussion consists of Lowe's obsession over how others see him/ what they would think of him. How does this expand how we approach identity formation?
- Patricia Powell, in an interview about The Pagoda, discusses ways that queerness manifests as a "constant fear, or internalized hate, the terror that's gnawing in the back of the subconscious" (Smith). How does Powell write this constant fear and internalized hatred on both queer and racial terms in The Pagoda? Which of Mr. Lowe's contemplations, experiences, or relationships might demonstrate this?
- A 2018 news article explains that the Chinese government has planned to open a "health and culture" center in Jamaica, to "introduce Traditional Chinese Medicine" and "highlight the classic elements of Chinese culture." How might this be the titular Pagoda for which Mr. Lowe dreams, but also why might it not be what Mr. Lowe wanted to create?
We examined The Pagoda as a work of critical fabulation, discussing the intersection of fiction and archive and the intersection of fiction and theory.
We discussed critical fabulation as a that tool Saidiya Hartman uses in her scholarly practice to make productive sense of the gaps and silences in the archive of trans-Atlantic slavery that absent the voices of enslaved women. This is seen as an "impossible writing," as it requires imagination in addition to scholarly research. We put this in conversation with Goffe's excavation of silence in the archive through her exploration of visual art, guano, and objects—in regards to The Pagoda, literature can serve as a proxy for history in an act of troubling the gaps in the archive. So is the novel a work of critical fabulation? We decided that maybe it isn't - Powell creates unresolved narratives, fractured temporalities and unreliable frameworks of race, gender and sexuality, and seems to intentionally leave them as such without "tying up loose ends" or making a neat, uncomplicated intervention into the archive.
We also discussed how we might map Claire Jean Kim's theoretical framework of racial triangulation onto The Pagoda. Racial triangulation describes how Asian populations are placed in opposition to black populations, and in The Pagoda, Chinese migrants appear to have the motivation of "keeping black folk in check." However, as we noted from Frydman's piece, it is difficult to see Lowe's character as operating under a US assimilation framework when in Caribbean, the poles are actually creolization (multidirectional cultural traffic vs. unidirectionality of assimilation) and pluralism. Our discussion moved to one of portability of theory—is racial triangulation, a framework grounded in US politics and realities, portable to the Caribbean? Are theories about the middle passage and slavery portable to cooltiude? Are these theories applicable to fictive works at all?
Lastly, our conversation moved to the implications of the act of theorizing and applying frameworks to the fictive characters and narratives at all. Can theorizing about this story and about Lowe in particular as a character actually serve to erode his personhood?