The blog category ‘Student Essays’ collects a selection of excellent student contributions which emerged from classes taught by our Potsdam Postcolonial Chairs. This essay was written in Prof. Sarah Casteel’s class Memory and Migration (summer semester 2021), which explored the relationship between memory, migration, and aesthetic representation, taking into consideration the role of literature and art in recording, shaping, producing, and circulating transnational and diasporic memories.
In Open City, Teju Cole skillfully uses the image of bees as a symbol for ruminations on themes of history making, power relations, and death. The bees first appear in a swarm in Chapter Four, reminding Julius of “certain Yoruba epithets for Olodumare, the supreme deity: he who turns blood into children, who sits in the sky like a cloud of bees” (42). Interestingly, Olodumare is the god of virtue and mortality; the Yoruba call on Olodumare when other deities (orishas) seem unwilling or incapable to help. Later in the novel, Farouq, a Moroccan internet and telephone shop owner, relates to Julius King Solomon’s tale of the snake and the bee: “The snake, King Solomon said, defends itself by killing. But the bee defends itself by dying. You know how a bee dies after a sting? Like that. It dies to defend. So, each creature has a method that is suitable to its strength” (121). Finally, towards the end of the novel, Julius and his friends discuss the widespread death of bees (‘colony collapse disorder’) and the film El Espíritu de la Colmena (‘The Spirit of the Beehive’) is brought up, where bees are represented as “a different way of thinking” in an otherwise “violent and sad time in Spanish history” (199). Thus from the Yoruba who were violently colonized by the British, to the Spanish population under General Franco, to being a Muslim immigrant in the Global North, bees become a symbol of alternate histories; histories that get lost when the victors write them.
Alternate views and assessments of history are most powerfully presented in the novel through Farouq’s conversations with Julius in Brussels. During their first interaction, Julius notices that Farouq is reading a commentary on Walter Benjamin’s On the Concept of History. Farouq believes in difference, and he prefers Malcolm X over Martin Luther King because the former recognized “that difference contains its own value, and that the struggle must be to advance that value” (105); what he can’t accept is the routinized expectation “that the victimized Other is the one that covers the distance, that has the noble ideas” (105). In discussing politics, he talks about Jews and the Palestinian question, rejecting the idea that six million Jewish deaths is “a unique suffering” (122):
I’ll tell you why the six million matter so much: it is because Jews are the chosen people. Forget the Cambodians, forget the American blacks, this is unique suffering. But I reject this idea. It is not a unique suffering. What about the twenty million under Stalin? It isn’t better if you are killed for ideological reasons. Death is death, so, I’m sorry, the six million are not special. The Jews use it to silence the world. I really don’t give a damn about the exact figure. All death is suffering. Others have suffered, too, and that is history: suffering. (122-23)
While Julius cannot bring himself to fully agree, getting caught up in the “subtle shades of meaning evoked in an American ear by saying ‘Jews’ instead of ‘Jewish people’”, he recognizes that this fear of anti-Semitism “had through long practice become prerational” and that cautioning Farouq against a strong criticism of Israel would be less an argument and more “a request that he adopt my reflexes, or the pieties of a society different from the one in which he grew up, or the one in which he now functioned” (124).
Later in the book, Julius reassesses this “prerational reflex” when he responds to the dying of bees and the description of El Espíritu de la Colmena as “the lack of familiarity with mass death” (200). He describes “the long nineteenth century, which, in all parts of the world, was one interminable bloodbath, an orgy of continuous killing, whether in Prussia or in the United States, or in the Andes or in West Africa. Butchery was the norm, and nations went to war on the slightest pretexts” (200). It is impossible for him to fathom this possibility of imminent death all around, even though this continues to be a reality for many even today: “What could it mean to live with such a possibility, with people of all ages dropping dead around you all the time? The thing is that we have no idea. In fact, when I read it, it was as a footnote in an article talking about something else, an article about painting or furniture” (201).
Thus bees, like “canaries in a coalmine” (200), or the birds described at the end of the novel that crashed into the Statue of Liberty and died, speak to the histories of the voices that are otherwise left out, that die to defend themselves and protect difference; to be more than just a footnote in history.
Koyna Sinha Poduval
Cole, Teju. Open City. Random House, 2012.