A Day at the Migrant Shelter: Reflections on Scholar-Activism

“A borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary.” Gloria AnzaldúaBorderlands/La Frontera

Founder, Enrique Morones, addresses volunteers outside Border Angels San Diego office. Photo by Gabriel Briano.

Having administered finals to my students and submitted a dissertation chapter to my advisor, I hopped in my car and drove off towards Mexico. I didn’t press pause on my diligent grading of Bluebooks just to go blow off steam after a long fall quarter, rather I went to deliver donations to Central American asylum-seekers living in migrant shelters in Tijuana.

This so-called Caravan of Love was organized by the Border Angels, a San Diego-based migrant aid non-profit. Since this trip to the migrant shelter, my brain has raced with a mirage of sights, sounds, questions, and lessons of that day. This post is a result of my churning, restless mind. I want to share some experiences of this day as a way to reflect on my efforts as a scholar-activist (a scholar who uses the privileges of academia to serve marginalized communities). Here, I evaluate my own positionality and privileges in order to grow as I continue my uneven and ongoing endeavor to be a scholar-activist. In a very meta way, I also imagine this post itself as part of the process of scholar-activism in that I write in hopes of empowering undergraduates, fellow grad students, and established scholars to feel emboldened to partake in the challenge of scholar-activism. I’m directly asking Humanities Core students to ponder the potential real-life implications of their training in the humanities.

Furthermore, I hope to shed light on the growing humanitarian crisis along the U.S.-Mexico border by bringing together its historical context with what I witnessed first-hand (albeit from a brief and extraordinarily limited perspective).

My scholar-activism often feels as messy and complicated as my own identity. I am a mixed-race Filipino American woman (Filipino father and white mother) born and raised in Virginia. I attribute the realities of my family’s immigration story and growing up in the south as having led me to the humanities in general and the study of migration history in particular. Indeed, as an undergraduate I turned to the humanities in search of answers to my brewing questions about race, empire, and migration. Now I am a PhD candidate in history at UC Irvine, where I am writing a dissertation on Central American refugee policies in the 1980s (the historical moment in which today’s migration crisis has its roots). As a Filipina American and historian of migration, I have both personal and professional investments in immigration justice.

In response to the increasingly volatile media coverage of the Caravan of Central Americans fleeing violence and hunger, I decided to act. So, in December, my partner Gabriel, a Mexican American photographer (whose photos I have included in this essay), joined me in volunteering with the Border Angels. I had worked with this group on multiple occasions over the last few years, participating in their desert water drops and  day labor outreach. This time we were taking supplies that they had been collecting for over a month and delivering them to Tijuana.

As a historian, I know the history of the U.S. policies towards Central America is long and sordid. I also understand that U.S. violence towards Central American refugees, asylum-seekers, and immigrants is not a new phenomenon. Yet, I’m still astounded by the violent policies toward Central American migration under the Trump administration. The Caravan, child separation, the tear gassing of families at the border, the death of children in U.S. border patrol custody have all become more visible to non-Central American communities. I hoped that maybe by volunteering at the shelter these disturbing events would make more sense.

It didn’t. The trip to Tijuana made nothing make sense. If anything it raised more questions as I, a privileged outsider, looked on at the scenes of the migrant shelter known as El Barretal. In it I saw just a snapshot of something I do not truly understand. El Barretal was a place of potentially dehumanizing conditions that, to my eye, was still bubbling over with humanity (including the little boy who was literally and joyfully blowing bubbles).

On Saturday, December 15th, 2018, we met a group of volunteers at the Border Angels office. We organized donations, we waited, we listened, we waited some more. Then we loaded the boxes and bags of the donations into our cars. Together we were 12 cars caravanning south to three different Tijuana shelter locations in three separate groups. In our group, unsure of both address and directions, the volunteer drivers of four cars scrambled to follow the vehicle of Border Angels veteran, Hugo Castro. I may or may not have boldly ran two red lights to keep up as Hugo led our group to El Barretal, a vacant nightclub-turned migrant shelter.

Upon arriving we parked on the cramped Tijuana street brimming with city life. On top of the already busy Tijuana car and foot traffic was the newly added Mexican military, federal police, and other government officials guarding the area, international volunteers unloading donations, and Central American migrants coming in and out of the shelter grounds.

After the hectic process of unloading the supplies into the storeroom, where they would be processed and distributed, those running the shelter suggested that the Border Angels volunteers visit the main living quarters. We were instructed to sign-in and exchange our identification for visitors’ passes. We then entered through a maze of steel barricades that opened into the half-indoor half-outdoor living space. Immediately, we were greeted by the sights and sounds of men singing, kids playing, and people selling snacks and cigarettes. An official explained to us that the front part (mostly open air) of the once vacant grounds now served as the living area for single men, while the enclosed back side served to house women and families.

Entrance to El Barretal. Photo by Gabriel Briano.

Sign on tent that reads “I am my own employer. American Dream.” Photo by Gabriel Briano.

Asylum-seeker sits atop the roof of the shelter. Photo by Gabriel Briano.

We saw the outdoor showers and portable toilets for the women and children before we entered the main living area for the families. Hundreds of tents populated the large indoor space. It almost looked like a warehouse except for the stage, bar, and dance floor that peeked out from behind the mass of tents, betraying the former nightclub.

Inside the area for women and families. Photo by Gabriel Briano.

With no specific instruction on how to spend our time, the ten members of our group started breaking off on their own. Some of the volunteers interviewed women and children who were sitting among the tents. Gabriel joined two other experienced photographers in trying to capture daily life. Hugo gave an interview to a journalist about the Border Angels’ work. I chose to play with some kids because I found their cheerful energy contagious. We threw a ball, we pushed around a toy firetruck, and we stacked some blocks. Many children were laughing and playing. In a display of resourcefulness, the older kids were even using strollers to zoom their younger siblings around the concrete floor.

Children play at El Barretal. Photo by Gabriel Briano.

Our group stayed for only an hour or so after accomplishing the main task of delivering the donations before heading back to the United States. On the long drive home, which included a 3.5 hour wait at the U.S. border, I had plenty of time to discuss the day’s events with Gabriel and another volunteer. We each expressed our discomfort at what felt — regardless of our intentions — voyeuristic at times. As we neared the parking lot in Irvine, Gabriel lamented that his approach to the photos had to be from the outside looking in. “There were some things I could capture. But others I just couldn’t. Like the insides of the tents.”

Indeed, since this trip, I have done much reflection on what I cannot see or understand as a volunteer, as a historian, or as a scholar-activist. From my limited perspective, I’ll never know what really happened on their journey to Tijuana. I’ll never understand the hopes or anxieties about what might come next. I can’t see what it’s like at night, the dreams, the nightmares. The prayers, tears, jokes inside the tents aren’t for me to hear.

Asylum-seekers sit among the tents. Photo by Gabriel Briano.

View as volunteers left the shelter. Photo by Gabriel Briano.

But what can I contribute as a scholar-activist?

I can tell you what I did see. I saw first-hand that donations are still greatly needed. They are not being wasted. They are used and are precious. If you have the resources, please donate.

I can ask you to volunteer your time with the Border Angels and other organizations, who need volunteers that are privileged enough to move across the U.S.-Mexico border with relative ease — in that they have a U.S. passport, a vehicle, and the time to sit in the return lane for 3-4 hours. I have found that much of this work is waiting, but this is because much of this work is about being there, being a witness. This is even more important now, as conditions at El Barretal and other shelters rapidly deteriorate.

I can remind you that U.S. intervention in Central America and U.S. immigration policy are the most significant historical factors in the creation of the migrant crisis. Read about it. There are lots of books and articles written on this subject, including many by Central American scholars (see Abrego and Menjívar).

Finally, I can share that I witnessed humanity and hope manifesting within what continuously threatens to be dehumanizing conditions. Do not look away from these families.

For me, scholar-activism is a tangled web of personal and professional investments that simultaneously enrich and clash with each other. The efforts both empower me and leave me self-critical. In many ways my experiences at the end of last quarter exemplify my attempt to juggle my commitments to research, teaching, and activism.

I struggled with how to approach this post. I wanted it to be useful to somebody beside myself. I hoped to promote scholar-activism within higher education, while pushing myself and others to think critically of how they use their privilege. I desired to share what I saw in El Barretal. I tried to do all of this, just like I tried to understand the humanitarian crisis at the border. I likely didn’t succeed in all these things. But maybe that’s okay. Maybe what’s most important is that I keep trying to do better.

Works Cited

Abrego, Leisy J. Sacrificing Families: Navigating Laws, Labor, and Love across Borders. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2014.

Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 2012.

BBC News. Trump and the Facts about the Migrant Caravan – BBC News. Accessed January 14, 2019.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ETUqj2Fi9ZA.

“‘Caravan of Love’ Delivers Necessities, Moral Support to Migrants Camped in Tijuana – The San Diego Union-Tribune.” Accessed January 14, 2019.https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/border-baja-california/sd-me-caravan-of-love-20181208-story.html.

Cervantes, Cecilia Menjívar and Andrea Gómez. “El Salvador: Civil War, Natural Disasters, and Gang Violence Drive Migration.” migrationpolicy.org, August 27, 2018.https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/el-salvador-civil-war-natural-disasters-and-gang-violence-drive-migration.

“Border Angels-Home.” Accessed January 14, 2019.https://www.borderangels.org/.

“Life Becomes More Uncertain for Migrant Families Camped in Tijuana | 89.3 KPCC.” Accessed January 14, 2019.https://www.scpr.org/news/2018/12/24/87652/life-becomes-more-uncertain-for-migrant-families-c/.

Menjívar, Cecilia. Immigrant Families. Immigration & Society Series. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2016.

“Mexico: Tijuana Declares Humanitarian Crisis over Migrant Caravan | World News | The Guardian.” Accessed January 14, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/nov/24/mexico-tijuana-declares-humanitarian-crisis-over-migrant-caravan.

“Migrants in Tijuana Know Trump Doesn’t Want Them. They Aren’t Giving Up. – The New York Times.” Accessed January 14, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/05/world/americas/tijuana-mexico-migrant-caravan.html.

“Missing Border Angels Activist Found Alive in Mexico – The San Diego Union-Tribune.” Accessed January 14, 2019. https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/courts/sd-me-castro-found-20170418-story.html.

“San Diego Advocates Seek Clothing, Blankets For Caravan Migrants | KPBS.” Accessed January 14, 2019. https://www.kpbs.org/news/2018/nov/27/san-diego-advocates-seek-clothing-blankets-caravan/.

“The Importance of Being a Scholar-Activist (Opinion).” Accessed January 14, 2019. https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2018/03/30/importance-being-scholar-activist-opinion.

Tseng-Putterman, Mark. “A Century of U.S. Intervention Created the Immigration Crisis.” Medium, June 21, 2018. https://medium.com/s/story/timeline-us-intervention-central-america-a9bea9ebc148.

“UNHCR – Central American Refugees and Migrants Reach Mexico City.” Accessed January 14, 2019. https://www.unhcr.org/news/latest/2018/11/5be2ed814/central-american-refugees-migrants-reach-mexico-city.html.

“What Is Life like in El Barretal, the New Shelter for Caravan Migrants in Tijuana? – The Washington Post.” Accessed January 14, 2019 .https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/social-issues/a-makeshift-shower-in-a-muddy-courtyard-donated-meals-too-far-apart/2018/12/03/43c6e078-f67f-11e8-863a-8972120646e0_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.a39bff2d5788.

“What Is the Caravan That Has Arrived in Tijuana and Why Is It Angering President Trump? – The Washington Post.” Accessed January 14, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/immigration/the-trump-administration-vs-the-caravan-heres-what-you-need-to-know/2018/04/26/921636be-489e-11e8-827e-190efaf1f1ee_story.html?utm_term=.ca33cbbb0f71.

“Where to Donate to Help Migrant Children and Families at the Border.” Accessed January 14, 2019. https://www.cnbc.com/2018/06/20/where-to-donate-to-help-immigrant-children-and-families-at-the-border.html.

Rachael De La Cruz is a Ph.D. Candidate in history at the University of California, Irvine. She specializes in Central American history, migration studies, and gender. Her dissertation, entitled “Surveillance, Settlements, and Sanctuary: Comparative Refugee Policies in Central America during Salvadoran Civil War,” examines the treatment of Salvadoran refugees in other Central American countries during the 1980s. Her article “No Asylum for the Innocent: Gendered Representations of Salvadoran refugees in the 1980” was published in the Gender and Migration special edition of the American Behavioral Scientist.

The Utopia That Never Was

Shahrnush Parsipur. Image via PEN America.

This post was originally published on May 24, 2017.

Women Without Men was written in the immediate aftermath of the 1979 revolution and published in 1989. The author, Shahrnush Parsipur, was arrested and jailed on two separate occasions after its publication for her frank discussion of the question of female chastity and her forthright depictions of women’s struggles with their own sexuality (she was also imprisoned for several months during the Shah’s regime and for four years in the early 80s). The book has since been banned in Iran.

Women Without Men is staged against the backdrop of the 1953 coup, which is never directly cited, but alluded to in three chapters of the novella, two by date, and in the last through references to the commotion in the streets and the subsequent calm. It is with this allusion to the suspension of the rule of law that the novella’s main characters, each escaping the houses that bind them, find their way to a new home in a garden in Karaj, a city situated at the base of the Alborz mountains. The echoed upheaval in the home and homeland is followed by a stabilization of social order that merely reconfigures, re-inscribes, and conserves the laws to which the subjects of the novella are subjected.

It should be noted that these references to the ’53 coup seem rather misplaced in the context of the novella. The story centers on constraints on women’s mobility—an issue which strikes at the heart of the ’79 revolution when despite women’s large-scale participation in the revolution, women in fact lost many of the rights they received under the Pahlavi regime and were faced with more restrictions in terms of both physical and social mobility [1]. It seems clear that the reference in the novella to the coup is a metalepsis for the revolution, one which explicitly connects them and does so with regard to the issue of women’s mobility in particular.

The cover of an English translation of Shahrnush Parisupur’s Women Without Men (Syracuse UP, 1998)

The first part of the novella establishes the ubiquity of the laws that guide female mobility. These laws, while their foundation or justification remains specifically unspoken in the text, weigh universally upon each of the female characters—they are, as women, met with an expectation of passivity, the transgressions thereof is met with the force of law—either in the form of a punishment doled out by a man who is their ‘rightful’ guardian, or through the withdrawal of protection. The space of difference—what remains beyond the law, as it were—is the space of desire which marks each character’s unique relationship to the patriarchal order dictating the limits of her mobility according to sexual and marital status. Ultimately, the novella seems to argue, there is no liberation in politics, but there is something beyond its confines.

Mahdokht, Faizeh, and Munis are all unwed virgins and thus are bound strictly by the social laws that limit their movement in order to preserve the purity of the female body until marriage. They are bound to the familial home, under the protection of a male guardian, only to preserve their chastity until marriage and as such they are temporary lodgers within the domicile. Though they are subject to the legislators of the home, that legislation is itself bound to the overarching social laws mandating feminine purity—they are bound strictly to the private realm and have no place within the public, social order. On the other hand, Farrokhlaqa and Zarrinkolah, no longer virgins, are bound not by the law of preservation, but are the rightful property of the men in their lives and subject entirely to their will and whim, the former to her husband and the latter to her pimp. Though through (social and physical) intercourse, they have a potential proxy-relationship to public order, their public face remains the prerogative of the men to whom they are given as property, and the possibility of escape is limited to a transfer of ownership—to another husband or pimp.

Against the backdrop of the coup, each character’s fate is transformed through a mirroring of the chaos and each finds herself in a revolutionary or tumultuous space. While the common thread among each of the five characters is that they are controlled by limits imposed from without, they diverge with regard to how they mobilize with and against the terms of their particular forms of subjection, and their fates are ultimately tied to ways they negotiate the laws from which they cannot escape.


Shirin Neshat, Tooba Series (2002)

The novella opens in a garden in Karaj. The reader is introduced to Mahdokht who is described as a simple woman who cannot tolerate violence and is saddened even by the conflict between the light green reflection of the willows and the dark green of the pool in the garden. In every way, Mahdokht’s range of movement is limited to reaction and obedience. She lives in fear of the very possibility of transgression and adheres strictly to the letter of the law of the home and homeland, and in her exact obedience thereto she both despises and wills her immobility.

Mahdokht moves to the garden to live with her older brother’s family at his request after she quits her job as a teacher because the principal of the school, Mr. Ehteshami, asks her for a date. In response to the internal conflict she suffers from not knowing how to react to his insolence in thinking her that kind of a women and worried about what the other teachers might have assumed about her relationship with him, she leaves the school as a symbolic act of her incontestable chastity. The reader is told that when she later learns of his marriage to a history teacher at the school, she suffers the pangs of an aching heart, suggesting that she rebuffs his advance not because she lacks interest in him, but because her virginity cannot be reconciled with her desires. Significantly, upon learning about Mr. Ehteshami’s marriage, she thinks to herself: “[t]he problem is that dear father has left a lot of money” (Parsipur 4). This suggests that lacking in financial necessity, she can see nothing else that would enable her, a woman of virtue, to welcome the advances of a man without ipso facto making of her the harlot she wishes never to be.

Mahdokht is defined by her utter passivity. The single moment of mobility that is described with regard to Mahdokht, quitting her job and moving in with her brother’s family, is described in terms of her inaction and obedience: in response to the principal’s advance “Mahdokht didn’t go to school” (3) and she moves because “[s]he had been forced to accept her older brother Hoshang’s invitation to come to the garden and endure the noise of the children” (2). Ironically, even her otherwise active decision to flee the advance is done because it compromises the passivity of her chastity.

In short, Mahdokht does what she is told by the legislators of her life. She moves to a garden in Karaj because she feels compelled by her brother’s invitation. She fantasizes about having a thousand hands with which to knit five-hundred sweaters every week to clothe the orphans of her country, a desire which coheres perfectly to the government’s occasional announcements “on the radio or on television that something must be done about the orphans” (Parsipur 5). When she wants to stop knitting altogether, even her desire to do so is predicated by the fantasy that the government announcement has been obviated—that the government can build a factory to knit sweaters. One day, recalling that “[y]ears ago [her former boss] had said that breathing the humid air of the greenhouse during the day was the best thing you could do, because all the flowers produce oxygen” Mahdokht heads to the greenhouse despite the fact that all the plants had been taken out and placed in the garden (6). In short, Mahdokht follows the strict letter of the law even when its spirit does not obtain.

In the greenhouse Mahdokht witnesses sexual intercourse between an adult gardener and a fifteen-year old girl who lives under the supervision of Mahdokht’s brother. Though it is never explicitly stated whether what she witnesses is a rape or a tryst, much of the language of the section—not to mention the age of the girl—establishes this act as a rape. What is significant is that neither the age of the girl nor violence inflicted on her affects Mahdokht’s reaction to what she witnesses—to Mahdokht, the girl is guilty of an indiscretion. Regardless of the circumstances, in the simple terms of obedience to the law which defines Mahdokht as a character, the girl’s body has been defiled and she has transgressed the bounds of feminine social existence. Interestingly, she seems not the least revolted by the gardener’s participation in the event. For Mahdokht, the law is the ultimate authority.

In these ways, Mahdokht is the literal embodiment of obedience to the laws that define and limit female mobility—she is her virginity. In response to the defilement of the girl, she thinks “[m]y virginity is like a tree….I’m a tree. I must plant myself” (Parsipur 10). Like Ovid’s Daphne [2], she wishes to become a tree which cannot be defiled by the advances of men, to become the tree of Eden (Tooba) from which no fruit can to be touched by Man, against which God warns Adam from approaching lest he run into harm and transgression (Surah 2:35). This desire to plant herself into the garden as a tree in many ways runs counter to other desires she has for mobility, and Mahdokht desires to escape the confines of her home-body-virginity and, paradoxically, does so by willing her immobility—by confining herself exclusively and literally to the private domain. And this act is a rare and ironic moment of agency—her personal revolution is to actively will her immobility by literally planting herself into her brother’s garden.


Pegah Ferydoni as Faezeh in Shirin Neshat’s 2009 film adaptation of Women Without Men, which is only loosely based on Parsipur’s novella

In every way, Faizeh has prepared herself to be perfectly marriageable: she cooks, she throws dinner parties, and she counters her sister-in-law’s accusations of her lack of virtue by wanting to get a certificate of virginity from her doctor. In contraposition to Mahdokht, Faizeh is a character who is transgressively mobile. The reader is introduced to Faizeh as she easily leaves the confines of her house in the midst of the chaos of the coup and enters the disordered streets “to go and defend her rights” (13). The rights to which she refers turn out not to have anything to do with the political upheaval around her—Faizeh heads to the house of her friend, Munis, hoping to run into Munis’ brother, Amir, whom she is hoping will take her in marriage. Twenty-eight years old and still unwed, she reasons it her right to venture out in the midst of chaos in order to secure the dictated role of a wife. Faizeh’s relationship to the law is consequentialist in nature: her contravention of laws is in service of the very laws she transgresses. Taking the naturalness of the law of feminine chastity for granted, she justifies all other means to reach the legislated end of a proper marriage. Her defiance is but a maneuvering to obtain the appropriate outcome for a woman of her age; and her entrée into public space is merely provisional—a means to securing her own domestic domain.

When later in the story Amir kills his sister, Munis, because he thinks she has dishonored the family, it is Faizeh who quickly realizes that her active intervention can potentially seal her desired fate. In order to ensure that she achieves the status of his wife, she draws upon the patriarchal laws to ease him of his guilt, ignoring the fact that he has killed her best friend in the world: “You’re a man! You can’t cry. What are you crying for? You’re a brother, you upheld your family’s honor. You killed her? You did the right thing. Why not? A girl who disappears for a month is as good as dead” (Parsipur 37). This becomes an exercise in irony since not only does Faizeh continuously transgress the bounds of female mobility, but she eventually does so for more than month. Yet, in this moment, she naturalizes and justifies the punishment inflicted on Munis for her transgression of that limit. She also reminds him that the rule of law has not been fully restored and that they can easily bury and hide the body: “Many people disappear and the detectives are busy. No one is going to come to your house to ask about her” (38). Thus, instead of the alluded coup merely mirroring her personal revolution, she seizes on what Jacques Derrida characterizes as the “ungraspable revolutionary instant” (41) to exploit the space created by the lack of public order to secure her entrée into the realm of matrimony. Interestingly, it is again her active attempts to help Amir in his crisis—squatting down to comfort him, taking out a handkerchief from between her breasts, and holding and caressing his hand in the car—that disgust him and convince him of her unsuitability as a wife. Her active attempts to secure a “normal” social existence, her unabashed mobility, is that which prevents her marriage to Amir, for he is a man that desires a woman who knows her place and thinks Faizeh to have the kind of boldness which he equates with a lack of virtue in a woman. Thus we learn that Faizeh’s attempts at reaching the dictated and lawful end through transgressive means are continuously frustrated.

Mrs. Farrokhlaqa Sadraldivan Golchehreh

Arita Shahrzad as Fakhri in Neshat’s film adaptation of Women Without Men

Mrs. Farrokhlaqa Sadraldivan Golchehreh is a fifty-one-year-old woman who has been married unhappily for thirty-two years. She is the only character in the text with a surname, showing that she is the only one to have arrived at her “permanent” identity — the last name of her husband. In the logic of the novella, as a married woman she is no longer constrained by the general laws of virginity, but by the specific laws of her familial bond to her husband and it is through her husband that she has secured a provisional public existence. The nom du père provides her with identity as a subject—it provides her with a public existence—but the range of her movement remains dictated by her husband. Throughout the story, she is rendered immobile under the watchful eye of her jealous and malicious spouse.

And every day his wife waited patiently for him to go so that she could feel energetic and move about freely. Whenever he was in the house, she would lose her ability to move, and she would hide in the corner. She had a thirty-two-year-old habit of not moving. She had gotten used to immobility. She knew only this, and she knew it instinctively, that when Golchehreh went out, mobility and happiness would come to her. (Parsipur 56)

While he keeps her under surveillance in the mirror as he draws out activities such as tying his tie or shaving his beard, criticizes her clothes and friends, or mocks the onset of menopause, she finds movement only through her memories and through fantasies of a life that could have been with another man of her past. This other man, for Farrokhlaqa, is the instantiation of that which could have freed her from her stationary life with her husband. It is significant that her fantasies circulate around social norms, that Farrokhlaqa’s fantasies allow her no other avenue but from the house of one man to the house of another.

Farrokhlaqa’s fate is transformed through an act of violence she perpetuates on her husband: fearing a suspicious and sudden turn to kindness on his part, Farrokhlaqa punches him in the stomach and he falls down the stairs. In this way, she becomes a widow: without having to shed her surname, she becomes free of both the gaze and the will of her husband without having to take on the gaze and the will of another. As a married woman who is no longer bound by the social laws that limit women’s movement in order to preserve the purity of the female body, she gains the freedom to decide her own fate once the master of the house has died and his fortune has become hers. She had entered public space through marriage, but was bound to the home through the law of her husband. Freed from the law through his death, she can now become its agent.


Zarrinkolah is a twenty-six-year-old prostitute who has lived in a brothel since childhood. Like Farrokhlaqa she is bound to the will of the man of the house, in her case, a pimp. Like Farrokhlaqa, the possibility of flight via a marriage was thwarted with the death of the man in question. However, unlike Farrokhlaqa, Zarrinkolah lacks a surname and a proper marriage, and as such her life is necessarily precarious and her freedom will not be won through an inheritance through death. She has entered the public realm through her sexual experience, but because she is a prostitute, her relationship to the law is one of transgression and, as such, she can never become its agent. Zarrinkolah is described as an amiable and much-loved member of the brothel, whose intentions to leave are thwarted by the other prostitutes. The reader is told that these intentions are never quite genuine: “Zarrinkolah never really intended to leave, for if she left the house, she would have to go straight to another house” (72). Though as a prostitute she is the personification of transgression, as a woman she is inescapably bound to a house. Thus, though she has no relationship to the laws of chastity the laws limiting women’s public movement still very much obtain.

What ultimately forces her to leave the confines of the brothel is a personal, but unwilled, transformation—she wakes up one day to find that she sees all of her customers, in fact all men, without heads. Though this is a state that overcomes her, to which she is subject as a character, it nonetheless presents a revolutionary moment—the guardians of the law lose all identity and become nothing but bodies, leaving her to seek out a form of life without the violence of men who have always ruled over hers. Convinced that this is a result of her sinfulness, she escapes the brothel to find absolution. Yet she does not believe herself to have the normal recourse to prayer to undo her fate. She enters a local bath and orders “the bath worker to scrub her three times. The bath worker scrubbed until Zarrinkolah’s skin was raw. But she wasn’t satisfied that she was clean enough to pray” (75). She performs ablutions fifty times to rid her of the sexual pollution, and repeats the name of Ali because she does not know how to pray. She speaks not the name of the law because she is beyond its idiom. When she goes to the shrine of Shah Abdulazim to pray she does not dare enter. Zarrinkolah is a prostitute and thus stands outside of the normal laws that guide social intercourse; as a figure of transgression, she cannot enter the house of the Law.


Shabnam Tolouei as Munis in Neshat’s film adaptation of Women Without Men

“I can’t stay home any longer” Munis declares in the middle of Women Without Men, “but because I am a woman, I must stay home somewhere. I can make a little progress, then get stuck in a house, then go a little further, and get stuck in another house” (99). In many ways, Munis is the heroine of the novella and this statement encapsulates the central crux of the narrative. The status of her body, her internal strife, life, and deaths perfectly mirror the alluded to upheaval of the homeland. In midst of the chaos of the coup, she learns from Faizeh something that subverts the very foundation of the beliefs that had hitherto guided her existence. Hers is revolution in knowledge:

Munis thought about how for thirty-eight years she had been looking out the window at the little garden, assuming that virginity was a curtain. When she was eight years old, they had told her that God would never forgive a girl who lost her virginity. Now it had been three days and two nights since she found out that virginity is a hole, not a curtain. Something inside of her had broken. She was filled with a cold rage. She recalled how, when she was a child, she used to gaze longingly at trees, wishing that just once she could climb one. But she never had, out of fear for her virginity. (29-30) [3]

Frustrated by how much of her life had been spent in fear of endangering a virginity that turns out not to be a curtain, Munis dies by falling off the roof of her house (whether this was an “accident” or a “suicide” is never made clear). She awakes from this first death and this fantastic awakening echoes the end of the ruling political order—she leaves the house to which she has been confined and enters the public realm of men. She spends the next month wondering through the streets alone, looking on at the chaos of the coup and the return to ordinary life. She goes to bookstores around the city, and on the thirteenth day she gathers the courage to purchase a book entitled, The Secret of Sexual Satisfaction or How to Know Our Bodies. She spends three days reading and re-reading the book: “The trees and sunshine and streets all had new meanings for her. She had grown up” (33). Certain that this knowledge of her body—her revolution—has transformed the old order, she returns home only to find that though virginity is not the curtain she had believed it to be, the laws of chastity had not been overturned. Assuming that her prolonged absence is proof of her physical corruption, her brother, Amir, beats her and stabs her in the heart. It is in this way that Munis experiences her second death, from which she wakes, as living-dead, weeks later.

Munis is the only character in the novella that actively questions and resists the foundation of the patriarchal logic that dictates women’s lives. She actively seeks what Derrida describes in his essay as the “mystical foundation of the authority of laws” (12). She questions the logic of mandated feminine chastity, displays no desire for marriage or family, and is not moved by memories of what could have been or the social ambitions of what could be. In contesting the very basis of her subjection, she has no possible role within the society around her. She is neither a wife nor a prostitute, seeks neither path, thus her sojourn into the public realm cannot be tolerated within a world structured explicitly by the laws of chastity. Thus, the logic of the novella ensures that Munis cannot exist in the world in which she lives and her fantastical re-emergence into the world of the living in death is the way this impossibility is negotiated—she is a character that can only venture forward in death. Having entered the social realm without adopting any sanctioned role, she can only remain there as a ghost.

Munis awakens from her second death, the honor killing by Amir, with the power to read minds coupled with a new self-assurance and forthrightness. In death, Munis is no longer bound by the ordinary limits of knowledge nor is she restrained in articulating her views. She even expresses a desire to found an organization that will prevent other honor killings, thus signaling the ways in which death has allowed her to enter the public realm from which she had been forbidden in life. Eventually, Munis and Faizeh head to Karaj to start their new life: “We’re going to Karaj to reap the benefits of our toil and get rid of the men who control us” (78).

The Period of Transition

It is with these words that Parsipur’s characters embark upon their respective journeys to escape the men that control them. On the road to this new life, Munis and Faizeh are brutally raped. In fact, the men that do so attribute the rape to the presence in the public space without male guardians, implictly revealing that what happens to women who are where they don’t belong is ultimately made to be the responsibility of the women themselves and not that of their male aggressors. Munis explains that the escape from the prison of family life, the transgression of the laws that limit female mobility, is not without risk:

…I was thinking of going to India and China to see the world. I want to comprehend everything, and not just sit around and let other people tell me what’s what and make an ass of me for the rest of my life. They say that ignorance is bliss. But I’ve decided to take a risk and seek knowledge. Of course it’s dangerous to walk along the road. Either you’re strong enough to face the danger, or you’re not, and you return like a lamb to the flock. Maybe when you go back, they’ll act like you have the mange and shun you. There are only two possibilities: either you endure the shunning or you don’t, and you kill yourself. (96)

She recognizes that to forge a new path to greater freedom, a woman faces the dangers and brutality of the world—that, indeed, a woman cannot hope to travel beyond her allotted place without being rendered vulnerable to the brutality of the patriarchal order and its regimes of discipline. Munis in death-life has the sight: She sees that though the laws that guide female mobility may be without foundation, their transgression is always bound with a price. In the novella, the brutal rape of Munis and Faizeh is the violence which results when the security of the male guardian is withdrawn, a reminder of the precariousness of female life in the patriarchal order. Transgression of the dictated norms is met with the force of law, even as in this case in the withdrawal of its protections. More broadly, the rape marks the violence that can result from the vulnerability that comes from any act of resistance. Munis notes that “with this rape, I have taken the first step toward discovering some logical order. This is the first bitter experience of traveling. On the way I thought about how millions of people drowned so that the first person could learn to swim. The amazing thing is that people still drown” (97). Munis thus argues that the path of resistance is always fraught and dangerous—that while resistance is inevitably violent, dangerous, difficult, and exceptionally slow, it is the very condition of possibility of a mobility denied by the law of subjection.

 The Utopia That Never Was

Pegah Ferydoni as Faezeh and Orsolya Tóth as Zarrin meet in the garden Neshat’s 2009 film adaptation of Women Without Men

After the rape, Munis and Faizeh converge with the rest of the characters at the garden in Karaj in which Mahdokht has planted herself and which is purchased by Farrokhlaqa after her husband’s death. Farrokhlaqa allows the women to move in with her, build a house in the garden, and to help run it. There is but one man in all the garden, who refers to himself only as the good gardener, who is the only one who knows how to do construction work.[4] Farrokhlaqa does not work but merely gives orders while the others perform the labor. She is the legislator of the garden. Immediately we see that the new society is very much ordered along the lines of the old. Though the figure may have changed, the women are nonetheless entirely beholden to a guardian. The guardian is now Farrokhlaqa, the property owner as proxy-male authority.

As the sole legislator of the garden, it is Farrokhlaqa’s vision of what the garden is to become that ultimately counts. Her desire for the garden is to use it to form a literary salon and upon finding the marvel of a woman planted in the ground, she decides she could use the publicity of this strange event to achieve that aim, and ultimately, to become a government official or a representative. According to the text, “[s]he waited impatiently for the work to get finished so that she could invite important men to the house” (103). Farrokhlaqa’s public ambitions still depend on those that hold the key to public life—and thus she is not only drawing upon the logic of the world beyond the society they have created, but her ambition for the garden is but a stepping stone in a project of securing power and prestige.

Farrokhlaqa decides to publish poetry so she can become famous enough to begin her new public role, but finds herself unable to write a proper poem, instead producing childish poetic drivel which is mocked by all who read it. In attempting to strictly obey the laws of meter and rhyme, she constructs a poem that is otherwise nonsensical. Her poetry, like the society which she oversees, is still tethered to a logic beyond itself. Indeed, it is only a simulacrum of the order which the garden was intended to purify. While within it, Farrokhlaqa rules and is ruled by the emulation of the logic of order outside of the garden and her express desires remain beyond it. She seeks social mobility well beyond what is afforded by the garden and having failed at poetry, she decides to pursue fame by becoming a model for a painter. As a woman she can only secure public fame—enter the symbolic and social order of the world beyond the garden—by becoming a subject (of a man’s painting; of society’s laws).

The text reveals the full irony of the mythic project of purification by showing that though Farrokhlaqa may be the owner of the estate and the overall legislator, she is very much dependent on the gardener: “[s]he needed the gardener so much that she had to do everything he said” (105). The gardener may be no legislator, but he is the one with the know-how to bring this experimental society of women into fruition. Thus we see that at its basis, the garden both draws upon and replicates the structure of the society from which the women are fleeing and relies on a masculinist logic that cannot be undone simply by virtue of the gender homogeneity of its residents. The sanctuary, it is subtly revealed to us, is always both sanctuary and a space of confinement, a promise but never a guarantee, a temporary reprieve or exemption from the law, but never a challenge to it.

Significantly, it is not only Farrokhlaqa who has desires which exceed the possibilities of the purified utopia. The reader learns that the garden does not meet the needs of all the women because they have desires beyond the one the garden attempts to meet. Their desire to escape the laws that limit female mobility is but one aspect of who they are, and no garden can meet all of their respective needs. The garden which was to become a new society purged of all the influences from without shows itself to be a myth—the women bring with them their histories and struggles, carry with them the traces of the order they try to escape. Structural change, the novella seems to argue, is always haunted by the specters of history, culture, tradition, and an indelible multiplicity of desires which make of the utopian project always a false promise. There is no promise, no synthesized justice, to be found purified of the violence which is its enabling condition. The utopia is but a mirror image of the violence through which it is envisaged—and the promise of justice remains an always “to come,” a perpetual longing, the project of resistance, but never a reality that has arrived. In this way, Parsipur seems to blend the classical Persian literary image of the garden as paradise and as beauty [5] and cultivation, and create of the garden a symbol of a paradise left to wither from a lack of cultivation. The garden, thus, becomes re-imagined as the process and not the site.

Interestingly, the garden holds eudemonic possibilities for only those women who are no longer subject to the law—a fact that is allowed for through the magical realism in the novella, but which is nonetheless tied to the characters that entirely eschew the possibility of redemption in the public realm [6]. Zarrinkolah’s desire is to cleanse herself, while initially a kind of purification through self-mutilation, in the garden becomes a regime of self care and cultivation through love, and this purely private journey of self discovery is something that the garden allows her the space to undertake. She marries the gardener with no name, and despite Faizeh’s protestations, the gardener refuses the presence of a mullah to conduct the ceremony and declares that he will do it himself. In this way, Zarrinkolah, the figure of transgression, becomes a partner without the witness of the representative of the law, without becoming subject to the law. Zarrinkolah is blissful in her new life, and her bliss is entirely private. She has overturned no social order nor forged a path for those that follow, but has found, through a purely private practice and care, reprieve from the ubiquity of the laws guiding female life. Hers is a path that escapes the law by becoming fantastically immune to it, but it is a path that is entirely singular.

Under the care of Munis and the gardener, the Mahdokht-tree thrives. In the spring, fed by the dew of the morning and dusk, it sings songs and fills the garden with music, and in the mid-winter when she is nourished with human milk, she finally experiences the rapture of ecstasy: “She had an explosive feeling. Spring hadn’t come, but the ice on her body was breaking. She was in pain. She was filled with an explosive feeling” (121). The Mahdokht-tree bursts open slowly and eventually turns into seeds that are blown by the wind into the water and through the water to the rest of the world. Mahdokht finds deliverance by escaping the law in becoming a tree. By manifesting the logical deductions of the law that guides female mobility, her body manifests—and indeed, tears asunder—the impossible and absurd command of the law. A kind of dialectical inversion exposes this absurdity: in her absolute chastity, the Mahdokht-tree experiences the ecstasy of orgasm; by willing her immobility, she becomes mobility incarnate; in in becoming the very logic of “femininity” forced upon her, she comes becomes the masculine figuration of the seed.

For the other women, the garden is merely another site, one which facilitates the realization that a purified refuge cannot fulfill the totality of their desires. Having gained some fame through exhibitions of the paintings done of her, Farrokhlaqa sets up a winter home in Tehran. She eventually meets a man who offers to help her establish a name for herself in the public realm. They marry and he becomes a public official while she becomes the trustee of an orphanage. Ironically, she becomes a trustee by gaining a trustee. Faizeh still aspires to become Amir’s wife and works diligently to make this a reality by exploiting the fact that she has gotten to know his boss from gatherings in the garden. Ultimately, she secures herself the role of his second wife beyond the realm of the garden.

Munis does not seek merely private bliss; she merely desires to live in the world at large as an ordinary person. “The problem was that she knew everything on an intellectual level, so that she had repressed real experience out of fear of disgrace” (118). She expresses to the unnamed gardener that she wishes to become light, but he tells her that to understand light one must understand darkness. He tells her to “[s]eek darkness, seek in the darkness, in the beginning, in the depths, in the depths of the depths where you will find light at the zenith, in yourself, by yourself. That is becoming human, go and become human” (128). Throughout the story, Munis has effectively shunned, ignored, and transgressed the laws that dictate women’s lives, but her engagement with them has been entirely intellectual. She learns from Faizeh the true nature of virginity, she reads a book about sexuality, she takes in eidetic images from the thoughts of others. In the context of the novel, she has only managed to live in death. She has haunted the story, but has not injected it with her own subjectivity. In order to become human, she has to suffer the ambiguities of a mundane world filled with justice and injustice—face the force of law in subverting it, and grapple with justice as a process that never ends. Thus for Munis who resists the foundation of the law and is committed to the transformation of its inherent injustice, the garden provides not deliverance, but the hint of a possibility of living within the world while working to transform it.

The garden’s gender homogeneity cannot undo the irretrievable heterogeneity of desires of the women within it. The violence inflicted on the women in the path to the garden cannot be undone, the loss each suffers in being denied the mobility easily given to the men around them is not easily replaced, and the individual yearning and aspirations of the different subjects remain beyond the generality of the address of the law. Even the most well-intentioned structural change is haunted by the radical impossibility of that generality. Justice cannot prevail in the present because there is no law that preserves the singularity of the address.

While the novella’s emphasis on the injustices suffered by each of the main female characters clearly serves as a critique of the laws that dictate female mobility, the narrative also portrays that though the process of resistance is inevitably violent, dangerous, difficult, and exceptionally slow, it is both absolutely necessary and unavoidably encumbered with the inescapable light and dark of ordinary experience—that, indeed, there is no singular intellectualized project of resistance that omits the becoming of experience. And a becoming of experience is, by definition, indeterminate. Resistance, as such, is not law but is lawmaking, and is never in and of itself just, but is meaningful insofar as it strives to a justice which is absent in the present. Resistance is a deconstructive interrogation that addresses the problem of justice.

Thus, Parsipur’s knife cuts both ways—it remains a critique and deconstruction of the laws, the political and social structures that subjugate, and a cautionary tale against the naïve intellectualizations and false promises of a utopia, of a given horizon of expectation as a finite endpoint. Through a complex and insightful allegory, Parsipur explores the violence and the injustice of the law as experienced and perpetuated by each of the main female characters, delves into the painful and necessary process of resistance, grapples with the incommensurability of justice which betrays itself at the moment it has arrived. Thus, while Parsipur’s knife is directed at the face of the male that oppresses and, indeed, the entire logic of patriarchy that binds, we can say that it is more broadly directed at that justice that “has arrived”: that utopian promise, the other face of which is the dystopia of the law of subjection.


[1] Within weeks of securing political power, Khomeini issued a series of fatwas that left an indelible mark on the rights of women in Iran and reversed many of the gains they had made in the preceding years. He overturned the Family Protection Law of 1967, which limited men’s authority over their wives by, among other things, requiring the first wife’s written approval prior to his securing of other marriages, allowing women to work outside the home without their husband’s permission, gave women the right to petition for divorce, and raised the age of marriage for girls from 15 to 18. The Passport Act of 1972, which allowed women to leave the country without requiring their husband’s or a male guardian’s written consent, was also overturned. Khomeini banned women from being judges and demoted those who had already secured this position to clerks, and he issued an infamous decree imposing an Islamic dress code for all women in the workplace, which was quickly expanded to women’s dress everywhere.

[2] I borrow the reference from Talattof (“Breaking” 44).

[3] In her analysis of the novel, Humanities Core Faculty Lecturer Nasrin Rahimieh clarifies that the cited debate operates around the meaning of the word pardeh-e bekarat—which refers to the hymen, but literally translates into “curtain of virginity.” According to Rahimieh’s astute analysis: “[i]n the exchange between Munis and Faizeh, the concept is reduced to its literal meaning and is defamiliarized” (157).

[4] The gardener is an interesting figure in the novella. He has no proper name—a significant omission in that this seems to preclude him from having a presence in the social and symbolic order. During his tenure in the garden, the novella treats him as an irfan figure, a knower, and his interventions become key in the women’s personal development. Yet, though he does not participate, he is present when Munis and Faizeh are raped, though it is not clear whether he witnesses it or if he is the one who avenges it.

[5] I borrow the reference to the garden as cultivation and beauty in the classical period from Talattof (The Politics 58).

[6] Rahimieh makes a similar point in her reading: “the only types of release from social and cultural conventions represented in Women Without Men happens in the form of magical events” (157).

Works Cited

Derrida, Jacques. “Force of Law: The ‘Mystical Foundation of Authority’.” In Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice. Ed., Drucilla Cornell, Michel Rosenfeld, and David Gray Carlson. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Parsipur, Nasrin. Women Without Men. Trans. Kamran Talattof and Jocelyn Sharlet. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1998.

Rahimieh, Nasrin. “Overcoming the Orientalist Legacy of Iranian Modernity.” Thamyris/ Intersecting No. 10, 2003. 147-63.

Talattof, Kamran. “Breaking Taboos in Iranian Women’s Literature.” World Literature Today, September-December 2004. 43-46.

———— The Politics of Writing in Iran: A History of Modern Persian Literature. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 2000.

Dr. Sharareh Frouzesh is a seminar leader in the Humanities Core Program at UC Irvine, where she received her PhD in Comparative Literature. Her research focuses on identity formation and the privileging of particular identities through an exploration of the concept of guilt. Her interdisciplinary work engages with 20th and 21st century Iranian and Iranian-American Literature, postcolonial Anglophone and World Literatures, as well as literary theory, political philosophy, and postcolonial, critical, psychoanalytic, and feminist theories. 

Caliban and Gandhi: A Story in Three Acts

Baron Thomas Babington Macaulay, Albumen print by Maull & Polyblank (April 1856). Image from National Portrait Gallery, London.

Cast of characters (in alphabetical order):

Mulk Raj Anand (1905 – 2004): Indian writer who wrote in English

Robert Clive aka Clive of India (1725-1774): British officer with the British East India Company credited with “establishing” British supremacy in Bengal (i.e. laying the foundations of the British empire in India)

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869 – 1948): Lawyer and Indian leader (Professor Chaturvedi will tell us more)

Mohammed Ali Jinnah (1876-1948): Lawyer, leader of the Pakistan movement who fought to establish Pakistan.

Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859): British statesman

Act 1: How Shakespeare came to India

Shakespeare came, or rather was first brought to India by the British East India Company in the eighteenth century. The first performance at the Calcutta Theatre, sometime between 1775 and 1808 (Majumdar 261), was presumably for company-men and their wives. From 1817 onwards Shakespeare became a fixture in the “systematic study” of English literature in schools and colleges across the subcontinent (Trivedi 15). In fact, in 1822 Hindu College in Calcutta became the first place in the world where his plays were included as a part of the university curriculum.  This educational system was guided by the work of Thomas Babington Macaulay. He is often thought of as the architect of English education in India, and subsequently in other British colonies. In his famous Minute of February 2nd, 1835, which is more popularly known as the Minute on Education in India, Macaulay makes an argument about “the intrinsic superiority of Western Literature” and goes on to make the bold claim, without knowing either Sanskrit or Arabic, that “a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia” (Macaulay 349).  Given that by this point Shakespeare was not just a popular dramatist, but was seen as a god, and the pinnacle of English literature (Holderness 126), Macaulay was most likely envisioning Shakespeare in that “single shelf”, perhaps even a whole shelf of Shakespeare.

Despite this belief, what is most important is that Macaulay’s goal was not to educate all Indians. Rather, it was, as he remarks in these oft-quoted lines:

To form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect. To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population. (Macaulay 359)

The phrase “Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste” highlights the fact that part of the literacy project was to create a hierarchy among Indians, a hierarchy whose basis was “taste”, “morals”, and “intellect.” One way to prove this, to prove one’s “Englishness” could therefore be a love of Shakespeare. Furthermore, scholars like Gauri Viswanathan have shown how the work of writers like Shakespeare and Milton were “standard fare” in government schools in India by the mid-nineteenth century and were used to spread religious values that could help the British consolidate power in India (Viswanathan 54, 169). Thus, not only do Shakespeare’s plays, especially The Tempest (discussed in Professor Lewis’ lectures), engage with the concept of empire, but they were also a key tool of empire.

Mulk Raj Anand. Half-plate film negative by Howard Coster (1930s). Image from the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Act 2: Caliban and Gandhi

In our readings of The Tempest this quarter we have often seen Prospero as a stand in for the colonizer and Caliban for the colonized. This configuration is also reproduced in a letter written by the famous Indian writer Mulk Raj Anand addressed to ‘Bapu’ – M. K Gandhi. This letter dated June 20 – presumably 1920, because that is the year on some of the other letters in the collection – is titled “Caliban and Gandhi.”

The premise of the comparison between the man who is called ‘Bapu’ – the father of the nation, Gandhi – and Caliban is an intriguing anecdote involving Mohamed Ali Jinnah. Jinnah was a leader of the All India Muslim League, who later became a staunch advocate for the creation of Pakistan. Among the various epithets he was known by in Pakistan was baba-e-qaum (father of the nation). Anand writes, “I was amused when Mister M.A Jinnah dismissed you by a contemptuous comparison: ‘Oh Gandhi! That Caliban!’ The scurrilous dismissal of both you and Caliban shows that he has perhaps never read Shakespeare’s fantasy play Tempest” (Anand 87). Anand, here, is reprimanding Jinnah not so much for the comparison between Gandhi and Caliban, but for Jinnah’s interpretation of the play, in which Jinnah saw both Caliban and Gandhi as “low creatures” (Anand 88).

Anand then goes on to analyze the role of Caliban in The Tempest, and gives a persuasive reading that paints Robert Clive, the first commander in chief of British India, and popularly known as Clive of India, as a Prospero-like figure, who

Robert Clive, portrait from the studio of Nathaniel Dance, oil on canvas (c. 1773). Image from National Portrait Gallery, London.

was a magician figure of the 18thcentury by virtue of superior strategy which he brought to bear to defeat the Indian feudalists. He followed the pattern set by Prospero, of using the local Chiefs everywhere, by giving them gifts. Clive’s successors continued the dual policy of bribing the local princes and Bania agents while making them the servants of their will to prevail. Every clerk of the John Company regarded the Indians, who served them as inferior ‘Banias’ ‘Babus’ and ‘Baboons’! (Anand 91)

Much like Prospero dehumanizes Caliban, by using the word ‘Baboons’ Anand suggests that the British dehumanized Indians. This passage suggests that all company officials were Prosperos and all colonized Indians were Calibanesque figures. And yet, Anand remarks later in the letter,  “If he [Jinnah] had read Shakespeare’s Tempest he might have seen you as arch rebel of the 20th century, as Caliban was of the 15th century” (Anand 93).

So, who is Caliban? Are all Indians, by virtue of being colonized by Prospero like figures, Calibans? Are only those Indians, who have been educated through the English system of education, Calibans – Prospero did teach Caliban English? Or is only Gandhi, Caliban? For Anand, Gandhi is Caliban, Caliban is Gandhi. Gandhi, an upper caste Hindu leader, a beneficiary of the Macaulayan system of education, is being exceptionalized through the comparison with Caliban. After all, Gandhi went to England to study the law, and practiced as a lawyer in South Africa, before he returned to India. Configuring Gandhi as the “arch rebel” of the twentieth century also erases his racism/casteism/sexism.

Along with elevating Gandhi, Anand also uses this letter to dismiss Jinnah. Anand contemptuously calls Jinnah “an imitation Brown Sahab, who wore suits tailored in Bond Street, London, wore Sulka neckties on a butterfly collar, a monocle on his right eye” (Anand 91). Is the “imitation” calling into question his brownness – owing to his disloyalty to Gandhi and the Indian national congress, or his sahabness, his Macaulay-man persona owing to his lack of knowledge of Shakespeare, seeing as Mulk Raj Anand could be regarded as a Macaulay-man himself? The latter is emphasized when Anand says, rather glibly, “I doubt though if this clever lawyer ever had the time or inclination to read Shakespeare at all” (Anand 93). An important sentence follows: “The bard of Avon was a unique genius of all time” (Anand 93). Love for Shakespeare is being taken as a sign of authenticity. An authenticity that Jinnah does not live up to, but perhaps Gandhi does? The irony is that in doing so Anand elevates Shakespeare just as Macaulay and the British system did.

Act 3: An Uninhabitable Island

By comparing Caliban to Gandhi, Prospero to Clive, Anand also sets up a comparison between the Island and India. Adrian, one of the Italian noblemen, describes the island as a “desert,” “uninhabitable and almost inaccessible” (II.i.37, 40). Similarly, while telling Miranda their story, Prospero remarks,

Then was this island
(Save for the son that she did litter here,
A freckled whelp, hag-born) not honored with
A human shape (I.ii.334-337)

When Clive came to India, he did not encounter a desert, an uninhabitable land, an island without hierarchy as Gonzalo would like. Rather, caste-based hierarchies already existed. Within these hierarchies, Brahmins (traditionally taking on professions of teaching and learning) were at the top. While Macaulay, a nineteenth century Prospero figure did recognize the “body of the people,” the “great mass of people,” let us remember he wanted to educate only one class of people, and the caste system  was often exploited by the British so that it was upper caste people who had access to English education. Upper caste people now had yet another way to exert their power over lower castes.

A question that arises: were “the people,” the “natives,” these uneducated masses considered human? Throughout the play Caliban is considered to have human qualities (through the musicality and literariness of his verse for example), to show humanity, but not be human. In an Indian context, this begs the question: if Macaulay men, like Gandhi, are the “hag born” where does that leave those who are lower down in the hierarchy, particularly the caste hierarchy? Asking these questions while reading Mulk Raj Anand’s comparison forces us to imagine the perspectives and stories of those who are elided when colonialism and anti-colonial resistance is imagined as a dichotomy between Prospero and Caliban – a binary which has meant that Caliban is taken up as a hero in postcolonial adaptations.

Works Cited

Anand, Mulk Raj. Caliban and Gandhi: letters to “Bapu” from Bombay. New Delhi: Arnold Publishers, 1991. Print.

Harris, Jonathan Gil. Masala Shakespeare: How a Firangi Writer Became Indian. New Delhi: Aleph, 2018.

Holderness, Graham. Cultural Shakespeare: essays in the Shakespeare myth. Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press, 2001.

Macaulay, Thomas Babington. “Minute of the 2nd of February, 1835.” Macaulay, Thomas Babington. Speeches by Lord Macaulay with his Minute on Indian Education. London: Oxford University Press, 1952 [1835]. 345-361. Print.

Majumdar, Sarottama. “That Sublime “Old Gentleman”: Shakespeare’s Plays in Calcutta, 1775-1930.” India’s Shakespeare. Ed. Poonam Trivedi and Dennis Bartholomeusz. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2005. 260-268.

Trivedi, Poonam. “Introduction.” India’s Shakespeare: Translation, Interpretation, Performance. Ed. Poonam Trivedi and Dennis Bartholomeusz. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2005. 13-43.

Viswanathan, Gauri. Masks of Conquest. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.

Anandi Rao is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at UC Irvine and a seminar leader in Humanities Core. Her research interests are in translation studies, gender and sexuality studies, postcolonial studies and Indian translations of Shakespeare’s plays.

Where Does Caliban’s Name Come From?

John Hamilton Mortimer, Etching of Caliban from Twelve Characters from Shakespeare (1775). From the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

This post was originally published on February 5, 2018.

Listening to Dr. Lewis’s lecture today about who the island belongs to, I was reminded of when I first read Shakespeare’s The Tempest in high school. I couldn’t figure out who or what Caliban was. On a first reading, it seems a little ambiguous whether he is a supernatural creature, a monster, or just as human as Prospero and Miranda. In the cast of characters at the beginning of the book, he is called “a savage and deformed slave,” with no other mention of his inhumanity (2). Yet, in the early illustrations of the play, he is almost always depicted as a fishy monster, probably in response to Trinculo’s description of Caliban as “A strange fish” (II.ii.28). If we continue listening, however, Trinculo goes on to say that “this is no fish, but an islander that hath lately suffered by a thunderbolt” (II.ii.36-38). Even more curiously, in one of those delightful moments of breaking the fourth wall of the stage, Trinculo critiques the audience listening to him, saying that English people wouldn’t give a penny to a poor beggar, but they’ll “lay out ten to see a dead Indian” (II.ii.34). Although most signs point to a small Mediterranean island as the setting of The Tempest, is it possible that we are also meant to read Caliban as an “Indian,” that is, someone from the New World?

We can begin exploring the answers to this question by looking at Shakespeare’s sources. One of the things I’d like to do in this blogpost is introduce you to the enormous wealth of digitized books available on the internet, particularly through a service called Early English Books Online (EEBO), which includes virtually every piece of material published in English between 1473 and 1700. Although the story of The Tempest seems to be original to Shakespeare (unlike most of his other plays), he was inspired by a number of other texts. One source that has begun gaining more attention recently is Peter Martyr d’Anghiera’s early compilation of New World accounts from the early days of colonization. Although this Italian historian wrote in Latin for the Spanish crown, his De Orbe Novo was translated into English in 1555 as Decades of the New World by Richard Eden. It compiles the accounts given by Gonzalo Ferdinando de Oviedo of his time colonizing the Caribbean, the rivalry between King Ferdinand II of Spain and Naples and Alonso King of Portugal (Afonso V), Ferdinand Magellan and his pilot Antonio Pigafetta’s circumnavigation of the globe, the voyages of Sebastian Cabot, and even mentions a “greate devyll Setebos” worshiped in Brazil (219; discussed in Stritmatter & Kositsky 25-34, passim). Do any of these names sound familiar? Although there is no mention of a Prospero or a Miranda, there is a great deal of discussion surrounding cannibals in the “West Indies” and South America, a subject we will return to momentarily.

First page of Sylvester Jourdain’s “A Discovery of the Barmudas” (1610). Full text available on Early English Books Online.

In 1611, when Shakespeare wrote The Tempest, the British did not yet have any colonies in the Caribbean. They had, however, just discovered an island in the Atlantic under wondrous circumstances involving a shipwreck. As Dr. Lewis noted in her lecture today, The Sea Venture was blown off-course en route to the Virginia colony, and then wrecked off of coast of the Bermudas, where they spent the next nine months (rough life!). They later built two boats and sailed to the Jamestown colony, and the news of their survival was published in 1610 by one of the sailors, Sylvester Jourdain, in A Discovery of the Barmudas. Jourdain claims that “the Ilands of the Barmudas, as every man knoweth that hath heard or read of them, were never inhabited by any Chiftian or heathen people, but ever esteemed, and reputed, a most prodigious and inchanted place, affording nothing but gusts, stormes, and foule weather,” and thus they have been shunned by European explorers and settlers of the New World (8). However, as Sommers and his crew discovered, it was “the richest, healthfullest, and pleasing land… and merely natural, as ever man set foote upon” (10). As far as I have been able to research, the Bermudas were not inhabited by other people when the English settlers were shipwrecked there. Yet there were both pigs and tobacco on the island when these castaways arrived, neither of which are native to those islands, which suggests that they were brought from somewhere else. In the official True Declaration of the Estate of the Colonie in Virginia, also published in 1610, this was chalked up to God’s providence in providing for the English mission of the new world, for it “increaseth wonder, how our people in the Bermudos found such abundance of Hogs…” (23). Another source often held up as an inspiration for Shakespeare’s play is William Strachey’s account of the Sea Venture Shipwreck, “A True Repertory of the Wreck and Redemption of Sir Thomas Gates, Knight,” in which he surmises that the pigs came as the result of having “escaped out of some wracks” previous to the tempest that drove Sommers and his crew there. Although this report was not published until 1625 as part of Samuel Purchas’ Hakluytus Posthumus, or Purchas His Pilgrimes, it is possible that Shakespeare had seen a draft of this report prior to writing The Tempest since he was an investor in the Virginia Colony (Vaughan & Vaughan 11-12). (Nerd alert: The digitized copy of Purchas available through archive.org was originally owned by John Adams, second president of the United States, and you can see his signature in the top right corner of the title page.) Dr. Lewis made the case that these convergences of shipwrecks, and a stormy island reputed by most to be inhabited by devils or spirits, (and I would add the apparently providential supply of pigs) might lead us to believe that these accounts of Bermuda shaped the “qualities” of Caliban’s island (I.ii:337).

What of Caliban himself? As Jourdain says, Bermuda was “never inhabited by any Chiftian or heathen people,” so how did this character come to be there? Shakespeare tells us that his mother Sycorax, a witch from “Argier” (Algiers), gave birth to him on the island after she had been exiled there (I.ii. 263-284). Since Alonso and his company have recently come from a wedding in Tunis, these locations in North Africa should bring our attention back to the Mediterranean (II.i.72-74). In the 19th century there was a theory that Caliban’s name came from an Arabic insult, يا كلب [ya kalib], meaning “you dog” (Vaughan & Vaughan 33). Just like today, Arabic was the common language of North Africa, so it is possible that Shakespeare had somehow heard this expression and decided to use it in his play. Whether or not this is true, it is important that Caliban’s name was given by his mother, not by Prospero. Just like the names Sycorax, Setebos, and Ariel, Caliban does not have a clear European origin.

Sebastiano del Piombo, Portrait of a Man, Said to be Christopher Columbus (1519). From the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Another etymology, one I find more convincing, is that Caliban’s name is related to the word “cannibal.” Shakespearean scholars since the late 18th century have noticed that Caliban’s name is an anagram of the Spanish spelling of this word: canibal (Vaughan & Vaughan 26). We can date with precision the day that this word first came into contact with European languages, since it is a loan word from the Caribbean and is first recorded in Christopher Columbus’s journal of his first voyage to the New World. On Friday, November 23, 1492, a little more than a month after first landing in the Bahamas, Columbus was off the coast of Haiti. Some natives of the Greater Antilles who were on board warned him about the men who lived there:

The wind was East-Northeast, and they could shape a southerly course, but there was little of it. Beyond this cape there stretched out another land or cape, also trending east, which the Indians on board called Bohio [Haiti]. They said that it was very large, and that there were people in it who had one eye in their foreheads, and others whom they called canibales, of whom they were much afraid. (English translation by Clements R. Markham, slightly revised)

When Columbus introduced this word to Europe upon his return, it did not yet mean what we usually think of. Instead, it referred to a specific people who lived in the Eastern Caribbean. The men on board who warned Columbus were Taino or Lucayans, groups that spoke closely related Arawakan languages in the Western Caribbean. The neighbors they feared were a different group of people who lived in the Eastern Caribbean islands and on the northern coasts of South America. These people are the Kalinago, called Caribs in English, and in fact, the words ‘Carib,’ ‘cannibal,’ and ‘Caribbean’ all come from their name.

Taino and Island Carib Territories map from The Decolonial Atlas

How did this come to be? It is difficult to say much with certainty about the languages of the native inhabitants of the Caribbean in 1492. But using historical linguistics we can make educated guesses about the word Columbus may have heard and why he wrote it down the way he did. In the Kari`nja [or Kali`nja] language spoken by the Kalinago today, the word kari`na means “human being,” and Karinago means “the people.” However, the /r/ used to spell this language does not correspond to the same [r] sound we have. Instead, it refers to [ɽ] a sound made by flicking the tongue very quickly against the alveolar ridge behind your teeth. To someone who doesn’t speak Kari`nja [kaɽiɁnʲa], this might sound like an [r] or an [l], which is why their name is variously transcribed as ‘Carib,’ ‘Kali`na,’ ‘Kari`nja,’ ‘Kalinya,’ ‘Cariña,’ ‘Carib,’ or even ‘Galibi.’ Behrend Hoff, a linguist who specializes in Cariban languages, suggests that this word was originally *kari:pona in prehistory (“Language Contact” 35). After the speakers of this prehistoric language spread apart to different parts of the Caribbean, the word came to be pronounced differently in various dialects, and it was also borrowed into other languages like Taino. This could account for how the word took so many written forms. Thus, in modern Arawak (spoken by the Lokono people in Suriname and neighboring Guyana), the word has become karipna; the Garifuna, descendants of Island Caribs and Africans who live on the eastern coasts of Central America, took the word as their name; in the jungles of southern Venezuela, another Cariban group call themselves the Carihona (Aikhenvald 41-43). The dispersion of Carib groups across present-day Venezuela, Suriname, and Guyana led this region to be labeled Caribana on many early maps of South America (Vaughan 28-29). On Columbus’s ship in November of 1492, the word *karibna may have been pronounced *kanibna because the western dialects of Taino did not have an [r] sound and often replaced it in loanwords with [n]. Thus Columbus wrote “caniba,” “canima,” and “canibal” over the course of his journal. But it is possible that eastern Taino speakers would have said *kalibna, that is, Caliban.

It is often claimed that the word cannibal came to have its more familiar meaning because the Caribs that Europeans encountered in the New World really did eat human flesh. However, there is very little direct evidence that this is true. The first time the charge of man-eating is leveled against the Caniba it is second-hand. On December 17, 1492, Columbus’s records his disbelief when his Taino guides accuse the “canibales” of eating their enemies:

The sailors were sent away to fish with nets. They had much intercourse with the natives, who brought them certain arrows of the Caniba or Canibales. They are made of reeds, pointed with sharp bits of wood hardened by fire, and are very long. They pointed out two men who lacked certain body parts, giving to understand that the Canibales had taken bites out of them. The Admiral [Columbus] did not believe it. (English translation by Clements R. Markham)

Although Columbus never saw Caribs eating other people, this accusation is repeated several times in his journal, and is picked up in the accounts of other early European explorers. What Columbus did not know in 1492, but historians now suspect, is that the Taino felt that they were in competition with Caribs over territory. One reason to suspect this is that the inhabitants of the Lesser Antilles in the late 15th century called themselves Carib, but spoke an Arawakan language called Iñeri. To distinguish them from the Caribs who lived on the mainland of South America, Europeans came to call these people Island Caribs, and they later discovered that the Island Carib men spoke Iñeri in public and to their families, but spoke a reduced version of a Cariban language among themselves. The traditional explanation of this anomaly is that Caribs from the mainland invaded these islands by force, killed and ate all of the men, and then took the women as wives a few generations before Columbus’s arrival, thus creating a gender distinction in language. These same Island Caribs were then encroaching on the islands of the Greater Antilles, such as modern-day Puerto Rico and Haiti.

Roberto Fernández Retamar, Cuban poet and essayist

Whatever the truth might be (and we will return to this later), some strife between themselves and the Carib led the Taino to spread anti-Carib propaganda to their new Spanish “allies.” Although there is no good evidence for the practice of cannibalism among Island Caribs, there is direct evidence from Columbus’s journal and from later adventurers that Island Caribs violently resisted European colonization. And as Philip Bouchard has written, the Spanish found these “grossly distorted charges of man-eating” quite useful in justifying the enslavement and depopulation of Carib people. “Whatever the reality of Island Carib practices, Europeans created the myth of Caribs as ferocious, insatiable cannibals. As with some other peoples who resisted European incursions, Caribs found themselves saddled with this indictment” (7). We might recall here Matthew Restall’s claim that Europeans saw the native inhabitants of the Americas as “cultureless, innocent, or nefarious” (105) and note that these characterizations seem to develop immediately upon contact between Columbus and the people of the New World. Roberto Retamar, a Cuban intellectual, makes this division of nefarious and innocent specific to the Taino and the Caribs in the way they received Spanish colonization.

The Taino will be transformed into the paradisical inhabitant of a utopic world; by 1516 Thomas More will publish his Utopia, the similarities of which to the island of Cuba have been indicated, almost to the point of rapture, by Ezequiel Martínez Estrada. The Carib, on the other hand, will become a caníbal – an anthropophagus, a bestial man situated on the margins of civilization, who must be opposed to the very death. (Retamar 6-7)

In the Fall Quarter we saw how Jean-Jacques Rousseau used the Khoisan (i.e. “Hottentot”) people to frame his rejection of “progress,” but we should also recall that the people he refers to as “the people that until now has wandered least from the state of nature” are Caribs (65). Rousseau might be thinking here of Montaigne‘s “On the Cannibals,” which we read for class today and which depicts the Tupinamba people of the Amazon and their rituals of eating human flesh. Yet it also paradoxically praises the nobility of these cannibals:

It is a nation… that hath no kind of traffic, no knowledge of letters, no intelligence of numbers, no name of magistrate, nor of politic superiority; no use of service, of riches, or of property; no contracts, no successions, no partitions, no occupation but idle; no respect of kindred but common, no apparel but natural, no manuring of lands, no use of wine, corn, or metal. The very words that import lying, falsehood, treason, dissimulations, covetousness, envy, detraction, and pardon, were never heard of amongst them. (qtd. in Shakespeare 103)

If that English translation rings a bell, it is because Shakespeare borrows liberally from it in Gonzalo’s speech about what he would do with Prospero’s island if he were given control of it (II.i.152-61, 164-69). Montaigne’s Essais were translated into English in 1603 by John Florio, one of Shakespeare’s close friends. So we know that Shakespeare was reading Montaigne, and probably also reading Peter Martyr’s account of New World exploration. So when he named Caliban, did he have in mind the noble savage crushed by European colonization, or was he instead thinking of a nefarious man-eater who would kill his neighbors given the chance?

The word “cannibal” does not appear in The Tempest, but Shakespeare does make use of it in some of his earlier plays, each time in reference to a bloody, violent people. In Othello, he makes it explicit, calling them “the Cannibals, that eat each other” (I.iii.473). This is the same way that both Purchas and the English translation of Peter Martyr unambiguously use the term. In the earlier text, there is still an etymological connection observed between the word cannibal and Carib: “The wylde and myschevous people called Canibales, or Caribes, whiche were accustomed to eate mannes flesshe…” (27). Sixty years later when Purchas was writing, this link had been severed, and he could state that Caribs “are certain Canibals, which used inhumane huntings for human game, to take men for to eate them…” (730). This has lead many to see Caliban’s name as an indictment of his character, a not-so-subtle hint that Prospero’s slave, like other cannibals, is “inhumane.”

Joos van Winghe (designer) and Theodor de Bry (engraver), Depiction of Spanish atrocities committed in the conquest of Cuba in Las Casas’s “Brevisima relación de la destrucción de las Indias” (1663). Image from Wikipedia.

But other interpretations are possible. Between 1585 and 1604, England and Spain were in a state of constant but undeclared war, and there was a great deal of Anti-Spanish propaganda circulating in London when Shakespeare was writing his plays. One piece in particular, published in 1583, was entitled The Spanish Colonie, or Briefe chronicle of the acts and gestes of the Spaniardes in the West Indies, an English translation of Bartolomé de las Casas’s Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias. This book lays out a devastating eyewitness account of the genocide and cruelty perpetrated by the Spanish in the Caribbean. De las Casas was a Dominican missionary sent by the Spanish crown to convert the Taino, and he lamented that although their souls could be saved, most of them were dead by the time he arrived:

Upon these lambes so mecke, so qualified & endewed of their maker and creator, as hath bin said, entred the Spanish incontinent as they knew them, as wolves, as lions, & as tigres most cruel of long time famished: and have not done in those quarters these 40 yeres be past, neither yet doe at this present, ought els save teare them in peaces, kill them, martyre them, afflict them, torment them, & destroy them by straunge sortes of cruelties never neither seene, nor reade, nor hearde of the like (of the which some shall bee set downe hereafter) … We are able to yield a good and certaine accompt, that there is within the space of the said 40 years, by those said tyrannies & devilish doings of Spaniards …into death unjustly and tyrannously more than twelve Millions of soules, men, women, and children. And verily do believe, and think not to mistake therein, that there are dead more that fifteen Millions of soules. (De las Casas 10-11)

Historians dispute the accuracy of these numbers, and this text is very much a part of the Black Legend that we heard about from Restall (118-119). It is undeniable, however, that Spanish diseases, enslavement, and outright slaughter killed the majority of the native peoples of the Caribbean. This is one of the reasons that we will never know if it were Tainos or Lucayans who introduced the word kanibna to Columbus. His first landfall was in the Bahamas, the homeland of the Lucayans, a few of whom he kidnapped and tortured for information about where to find gold. When Columbus returned as the “Governor of the Indies,” he imposed a tax on every Taino man to produce either one pound of gold or twenty pounds of cotton every year. When people refused, he cut off their hands. Further expeditions from Spain to the Caribbean lead to the outright enslavement and deportation of most of the native inhabitants of the Bahamas to be slave laborers on Hispaniola. By the time de las Casas left Hispaniola, the Lucayans had been completely annihilated, and the Taino population was cut in half. De las Casas says that 500,000 people lived in the Bahamas before Columbus’s arrival; after the last eleven people were deported in 1520, the islands were considered “uninhabited” until 1648, when it was recolonized by the British, just like Bermuda. Indeed, another theory for why Island Caribs spoke both Iñeri and Carib is, according to Boucher, that “in historical times Island Caribs received constant infusions of Arawakan-speakers. Some of these were prisoners of war from the Greater Antilles; others, especially those from Puerto Rico, were refugees from Spanish persecution. Island Caribs, their numbers thinned by Old World diseases and by Spanish slave traders, no doubt integrated, especially the Arawakan women.” This is not to suggest that the Spanish were uniquely cruel. After all it was the British who, after taking the independent island of St. Vincent by force in 1796, slaughtered most of the Garifuna and deported the survivors almost two thousand miles away to the coast of Honduras, a journey upon which half of the prisoners died.

The descendants of these people still live today along the coast of Central America. Their music and culture are world renowned, as you can see in this 2013 music video for “Móungulu” by The Garifuna Collective, a group based in Belize who sing in Garifuna.

English brutality towards the residents of St. Vincent began more than a century and a half after Shakespeare died. Perhaps, like Shylock in the Merchant of Venice, Caliban represents a problematic, misunderstood, but very human character. In the context of the Anglo-Spanish wars and the Black Legend, it is possible that we are meant to sympathize with poor Caliban suffering under Prospero’s heel (as Dr. Lewis mentioned, Milan in Shakespeare’s day was ruled by the Spanish Habsburgs). Although it is unlikely that Shakespeare knew this, it seems like more than mere coincidence that Caliban’s name means “human being” in the Cariban languages, and that his last words in the play highlight his intention to “seek for grace,” whatever that might entail (V.i.296). For Roberto Retamar, Caliban is the symbol of the Caribbean people and their struggles against European colonialism.

This is something that we, the mestizo inhabitants of these same islands where Caliban lived, see with particular clarity: Prospero invaded the islands, killed our ancestors, enslaved Caliban, and taught him his language to make himself understood… I know of no other metaphor more expressive of our cultural situation, our reality. (Retamar14)

It is not impossible that Shakespeare might have agreed.

Works Cited

Aikhenvald, Alexandra Y. The Languages of the Amazon. Oxford, UK: Oxford UP, 2012. Print.

Boucher, Philip P. Cannibal Encounters: Europeans and Island Caribs, 1492-1763. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1992. Print.

Hoff, Berend. J. “Language Contact, War, and Amerindian Historical Tradition: The Special Case of the Island Carib,” Wolves from the Sea: Readings in the Anthropology of the Native Caribbean. Edited by Neil Whitehead. Leiden: KITLV Press, 1995. 37-60. Print.

Restall, Matthew. Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest. Oxford, UK: Oxford UP, 2003. Print.

Retamar, Roberto Fernández. Caliban and Other Essays. Translated by Edward Baker. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002. Print.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Basic Political Writings. Translated and Edited by Donald A. Cress. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2011. Print.

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. Edited by Robert Langbaum. Newly Revised Edition. New York, Signet Classics, 1998. Print.

Stritmatter, Roger A. and Lynne Kositsky. On the Date, Sources and Design of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2013. Print.

Vaughan, Alden T. and Virginia Mason Vaughan. Shakespeare’s Caliban: A Cultural History. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1991. Print.

Ben Garceau is a scholar of early medieval and late antique literature with particular interests in early Britain, translation studies, and critical theory. He received a dual Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and English from Indiana University in 2015. His work has appeared in PMLATranslation Studies, and the Yearbook of Comparative Literature. He has also contributed to the HC Research Blog on the topic of textual criticism and the Aeneid. When he isn’t leading seminars in Humanities Core, he likes hiking, working on his science fiction novel, and digging through record shops.