Just Read- Remembering Babylon

This semester I am taking this really intense Post colonialism literature class. This class puts me out of my comfort zone because, it’s an upper level course and there are a whole bunch of upper class men that are all English or Literature majors that know what they’re doing and ugh. I was so intimidated. After a couple classes though, I started to give myself a little more credit. I read intensely and my mind is always moving in that class. I feel like I am working 10x harder in this Lit class than I have in my life, but it’s very rewarding. The discussions we have as a class and the books we are reading are very much worthwhile. 

Our first novel that we read was Remembering Babylon by David Malouf. When I first started the novel, I had a hard time grasping the plot and just overall getting into the novel. I have this horrid tendency where, if I don’t understand something, I get frustrated and i just don’t do it. It’s a bad habit but I’m starting to get over that. Anyway. There was a specific part in the novel, where I just became hooked. It’s the part where the reader gets a feel for Gemmy’s relationship with language. He has no bridge or any kind of link that connects the things he remembers to the words that are associated with them. Occasionally some object out of his old life would come floating back and bump against him…but no word was connected to them, and when his mind reached for it, the object too went thin on him. He felt a kind of sadness that was like hunger, but of the heart… Language is something that we need to connect with not only others but with ourselves, and Malouf takes that ability away from his main character. After this paragraph, I was hooked, his writing style and diction were genius. And the rest, I guess is history. 

The novel follows settlers in Queensland, Australia. Some quick background, Around the 19th Century, Britain colonized Australia to be a penal colony, but then it became just a place for people to settle.  Gemmy, who is the main character, is lost shipwrecked when he is a child, and lives among the Aborigines as a kind of outsider. 16 years later, he is discovered by children in the white settlement and the family takes him in. He lacks language and “proper” mannerisms which cause him to be an outsider in this community. When discovered by the children, he states that he is a “British object” because the children initially think that he is black. His living among the Aborigines for so long has caused a deterioration in this man’s “whiteness.” What it means to be white or black has a blurred lines in this novel, even with the settlers. The novel switches narrations a lot, allowing different focalizations to be seen at different points of the novel, and this is interesting because, non of the point-of-views are blindly Eurocentric, which is common in other Postcolonial writings. 

I’m trying not to give the whole novel away…and this is very hard to do. I’ll just talk about Gemmy.

Gemmy is a character who’s lack of language proves to be his disability and what separates him from the rest of the settlers. The settlers label him as unintelligent, dangerous, and secretive, which fuels their fear of him. Malouf creates this ambiguous character which leaves the reader wondering about his specific role in society or his motives, but to me,  I feel that was the whole point that Malouf was trying to make. Gemmy is supposed to remain ambiguous. He is open for interpretation.  The text doesn’t allow the reader to know Gemmy’s full story and back story, which leaves the reader still holding prejudices about people who are different from them. Gemmy is not a character that completely changes the mindset of their reader, which is weird, I feel like that’s what these types of characters are supposed to do. Gemmy’s character had me had me frustrated with his lack of intelligence and for his passive nature when it involves confronting conflict. Even though prejudices aren’t changed immediately, I feel that this allowed me to look into myself and examine how I ethically treat people who are different. For me anyway, Gemmy’s character was more effective because I consciously took a closer look at myself and how I treat other people.  I like to think I am open minded about other people but am I really? Are we really accepting of all different types of people yet? Prejudices still exist so the easy answer is probably no.

If you’re looking for an intense read that really does make you examine your own personal views on other people and how you view the term “white” and “whiteness” this is a pretty great read. David Malouf’s writing is very poetic, easy to understand, and beautiful.  Writing that makes you dive into yourself and carve back these layers of humanity and examine ethical nuances is why literature is so incredibly important and necessary.  Remembering Babylon really did resonate with me. I’m glad this was our first novel of the semester. It just makes me more excited for the other works we will be reading later on in the semester.

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