Categorizing and Cannibalizing

Nikita’s previous post on naming draws attention to an important point in our study of Butler’s work: naming and categorizing objects, people, art forms, etc. and how nomenclature inherently changes the way something is defined – and therefore alters the way an audience perceives and thinks about the presence of the object or person. Nikita asserts that people who believe Bloodchild is about slavery limit their understanding of the story because of the way they categorize it; thus, in Nikita’s words, Butler’s art form becomes one that “that define[s] her as only able to confront issues of slavery or the African-American/ African-Diasporic experience(s).” If I am operating under a correct interpretation of Nikita’s post, he inexplicitly suggests that by re-naming or re-categorizing an object, it will take on new definitions and interpretations. Often in Fledgling, a character’s identity, and the way a reader perceives a character, is symptomatized by the many ways that the character is categorized. With each new reasonable categorization of a character, the novel becomes more complicated and tackles more and more subject matter. Although Butler openly states her annoyance for the categorization of her work, the importance of her text relies so heavily on the way her characters are analyzed and characterized; Theri Pickens, in her essay “Theorizing Race, Gender, and Disability in Octavia Butler’s Fledgling,” argues that an improper interpretation of disability in Fledgling will cause readers to subordinate disability to “presumably, more important identity categories,” when disability in Fledgling should in fact be taken very seriously. To put it another way, the identity categories we place characters into are massively important—after all, how would our interpretation of Fledgling change if we didn’t identify and categorize Shori as a black Ina woman and Theodora as a white human woman? I think most of us in the class could agree on several basic—yet important—identity categories for the characters in Fledgling; of these, a few might include Wright as a human, symbiont, white, straight, and male. Likewise, most of us could agree that Shori is an Ina, black, queer, and female. I’d like to explore a more a less conventional identity category in Fledgling—the idea of Shori as a cannibal.

The word “cannibal,” originates from 16th century Spain, and was used to refer to a person who ate human flesh, and who committed other acts considered barbarous by egocentric Westerners. The word cannibal originally specified a person of Caribbean descent, but came to apply to a dark-skinned person. Westerners believed that their culture was superior to the evil traditions of these dark-skinned people, and enslaved many of these “savages,” forcing them to forget their own traditions and adopt Western ones. Adopting Western cultures was a life or death decision, if one couldn’t get the “savage” out, one was not considered fit to survive in the Western world. If we think about this assimilation of cannibals into Western society, it is not too different from Shori’s position: her amnesia caused her to forget all of her beliefs and Ina traditions, and she is forced to relearn them from biased Ina elders. Because of this “cultural amnesia,” Shori lost her ability to think critically about her culture and traditions; her survival necessitates that she learns and accepts as much information about the Ina people as possible.

For example, her father tells her that she will need five or more symbionts, so she immediately sets off to find more humans to feed on, and even though she is beginning to understand the addictive nature of her venom, she doesn’t consider that she may be able to sustain herself by hunting. The novel states that Ina need a physical relationship with their symbionts, and that human blood is best for normal sustenance, but in more dire need Ina can feed on meat. Another Ina says that he has trouble digesting meat, but Shori doesn’t have any problems with this; theoretically, Shori should be able to feed off of animals instead of taking six more humans and forcing them to bend at her will. Thus, her amnesia takes away her ability to live in ways—considered unconventional in the Ina tradition—that are less harmful to humans. To clarify, Shori’s amnesia causes her to forget about her culture and traditions—which she must then be rapidly assimilated into in order to survive murder attempts by the Silks. Shori’s amnesia puts her in an interesting situation in which she would have had the ability to view the rights and wrongs of her culture objectively—if she was not in a life or death situation which took away this ability. In other words, Shori, because of her memory loss, has the ability to think at the level of an adult before she is indoctrinated into a society, and therefore theoretically could have had the ability to see her culture in a light that Ina who were already indoctrinated into society could not have seen.

What this boils down to, is that Shori almost had her own free will to decide what was right and what was wrong with Ina society. Categorizing Shori as a cannibal—who involuntarily had their culture stolen from her, and out of necessity to survive was forced to adopt a foreign culture, and therefore not given the ability to objectively analyze the culture—raises the question: Do we, as human beings in our particular society, ever have the ability to look objectively upon our cultural norms, or is our vision inherently altered by our indoctrination into society, and are therefore we bound to live retrospectively with only small changes to our way of life? Furthermore, if the possibility exists that we can look objectively upon society, how do we change it?

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