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Entering Contact Zones

mpan1's picture

A question that arose after reading Suzan- Lori Park’s “Getting Mother’s Body” was: do readers enter contact zones every time they pick up a book? In "Arts of the Contact Zones", Mary Louise Pratt defines contact zones as “social spaces where cultures meet, clash and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power…”(Pratt 34). Readers react differently as they bring their own experiences as well as cultures and backgrounds when reading a piece of work. In this case I, the reader, am a middle class Asian American reading a story set in the 1960s with lower class, black characters. As a result, the environments along with the way of life these characters live are drastically different from mine. “The idea of the contact zone is intended in part to contrast with ideas of community that underlie much of the thinking about language, communication and culture”(Pratt 37). The ideas of community and culture in the novel definitely are contrasted as I and the characters of the novel possess different ways of living.

This question arose specifically when Homer and Teddy were stopped by the police officer and treated as inferiors. Although I had heard about police officers treating people of color in wrongful ways I have never experience this situation firsthand. Reading this part of the novel led to a feeling of understanding yet I was still shocked how easy it was for people to abuse their power. This part of the novel is told from the prospective of a white police officer, Officer Masterson, which gave me insights of how the police officers committing these acts which so many people protest against are thinking. In this chapter Officer Masterson claims that he “could just let them on their way with a speeding ticket” but later changes his mind because “Sheriff wouldn’t never let me hear the end of it”(Parks 163). Although I find it upsetting how Officer Masterson chose to put Homer and Teddy in jail I understood his reasoning to do so. Society puts a lot of pressure on people to act in certain ways. Although it does not make it okay to conform to these expectations especially when one is treating inappropriately at the same time I understand that sometimes people to do the wrong thing to avoid losing the respect of people they look up to. “Although with rage, incomprehension, and pain, there were exhilarating moments of wonder and revelation, mutual understanding, and new wisdom”(Pratt 39). Officer Masterson’s narration made me angry and disappointed with society especially when he asked whether the car was stolen. It is upsetting to hear people stereotype a certain race in a negative way. This part made me disappointed as well because even after all these years I know that people still continue to stereotype people unfairly. Yet, after reading this chapter I now have more insight as to why people continue to do. 

Contact zones can bring despair as well as new insights. When in the town of Tryler Teddy stops by the location of where his church used to be. When he stumbles across where it used to stand Teddy shockingly finds that it is no longer there. Teddy is devastated as he tells readers, “I close my eyes and open them. My church is still gone” and, “It weren’t just a church. It was my church. I made it myself out of slats of pine wood” (Parks 179). I had never lost anything so meaningful myself but when reading this part of the novel I also felt devastated and dejected. As readers we live through experiences that the characters go through. He later adds, “The worst is coming. I can feel it coming” (Parks 180). A piece of him has died after seeing the nonexistent church. After reading this part I also felt hopeless for Teddy and that there is no resolution for such a loss. I have a better understanding what a devastating loss feels like.

Willa Mae also provides insight as to how to cheat people. I myself do not have any reason to take advantage of people the way Willa Mae has learned to do. Therefore, it was interesting to hear the point of view of the culprit instead of the victim for once. The way she described the hole and the ring trick made it seem as if it really was not a bad thing. What I found funny was how Willa Mae, especially during the ring trick description, explained the steps without even a bit of remorse even though it obviously is the wrong thing to do. It sounded as if she was simply explaining the steps of a recipe. She even says, “Me and Billy used to pull that one together quite a bit. We never got caught once. Well, we got caught once or twice but it was worth it” (Park 202). This contrasts with the officer’s part because even though he decided to throw Homer and Teddy in jail he knew that there was a fairer option of letting them go. It was interesting to see how social status affects morals.

The situations of this novel overall was different from the characters’ way of speaking to their social status. All these factors accumulate to readers gaining new understandings of how life was like for people like for the Beedes in the 1960s. I gained a new understanding from the alternating character’s points of views especially the point of views of the characters people would normally deem as the “bad guys” in today’s society such as white police officers and thieves. Overall these characters’ lifestyle allowed me gain a new awareness of how people think and behave and how their social standing and culture has played a role in that.   


Works Cited

Suzan-Lori Parks, Getting Mother's Body. New York: Random House, 2004. pp. 3 -129.

 Pratt, Mary Louise. "Arts of the Contact Zone." Profession (1991): 33-40


Anne Dalke's picture

This paper takes such a large step beyond your first draft! I’m really glad to see you naming your own positionality here, in order to explore how that affects your particular reading of the novel, of your encounters with characters whose lives are “drastically different” from your own. This exercise in cultural difference reminds me of our so-striking class conversation about Norris Square, when some students described how shocked they were, and made uncomfortable, by the difference between North Philadelphia and the Main Line, while others felt much more @ home in the garden than on campus. We all came from and went to the same space, but each of us experienced it in relationship to the earlier experiences we’d had.

What is very clear here is the account you give of your own emotions while reading: we learn that you are first “disappointed and upset,” then “devastated and dejected.” You are “amused” @ Willa Mae’s describing all the steps involved in the ring trick, “without even a bit of remorse even though it obviously is the wrong thing to do.” But then later you acknowledge that you yourself “do not have any reason to take advantage of people the way Willa Mae has learned to do.” Does this suggest that her taking advantage of others is not quite so “obviously the wrong thing to do”? And then you go even further, to observe “how social status affects morals.” This is really an achievement—reading from your experience in order to appreciate that of others. You do this also in your sympathetic reading of Officer Masterson, as someone who is subject to social pressure, wanting to keep the respect of the people he looks up to, even if that means doing something he knows is wrong.

Because the strength of this paper is your reading from who you are, I’m wanting to nudge you away from passive voice (“a question that arose”) into active (“I have a question”…), wanting you to claim yourself more directly as the author of your ideas (another passage that could get re-written: “reading led to a feeling”….)

If you were re-writing this once more, I’d also nudge you to move beyond this account of all the ways in which this novel “allowed you to gain a new awareness,” to develop an argument that reaches beyond the shift in your own understanding to some larger claim.

But I think your task for this week is actually to draft a new paper about All Over Creation. Where might you go with that? Do you want to go on demonstrating how reading is a contact zone, a social space where “cultures meet, clash and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power….”?

Another possibility would be to dig into the relationship between “identity and environment” in Ozeki’s novel: what effect do the different landscapes of Idaho and Hawaii have, for example, on the interactions among the characters?

Looking forward to finding out!