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No Longer a Side Dish

changing9's picture

Nayanthi Peiris

Paper #8




No Longer a Side Dish



In Kochinennako in Academe: Three Approaches to Interpreting a Keres Indian Tale, Paula Gunn Allen displays the effect that preconceived notions and opinions have on the way in which a certain text is read and comprehended. She argues that “Culture is fundamentally a shaper of perception, after all, and perception is shaped by culture in many subtle ways. In short, it's hard to see the forest when you're a tree.” (Allen 4) This is true for readers of Ruth Ozeki’s All Over Creation, too. If one starts the novel with the expectation that, as most Western novels do, there will be a protagonist, an antagonist and several supporting characters that enrich the character and storyline of the protagonist, the reader will quite easily be able to see this. It’s easy to assume that Yumi is the protagonist because it’s only her character that is voiced through a first person narrative, while Elliott Rhodes would be the villain, and all other characters including Cass, Lloyd, Momoko and the Seeds of Resistance are the supporting characters.

 On the other hand, if one were to take a different approach to this novel and start reading it without any such expectations, the reader would be in awe of Ozeki’s ability to create so many characters with so much detail and depth that it instantly becomes difficult to distinguish between the protagonist and supporting characters.


Going ahead with the tribal view that Allen recommends, I would like to bring to the foreground a character who has been placed in the background in the minds of the readers as well as in the character’s own life. Cass Quinn née Unger spent most of her childhood being overshadowed by her friend Yumi’s exotic appearance and exuberant personality. She was literally and figuratively a potato, having been cast as the potato side dish year after year in the Thanksgiving play organized in the school. However, she turns out to have one of the most dynamic identities, as can be witnessed as the novel progresses.

However, despite the evolution of her character, the effects of being a potato for most of her life can be seen in her actions and thoughts in her adulthood.  Following an interaction with her husband Will Cass thinks to herself “But if this was comfort, it quickly passed. Because it wasn’t just about sweet, although some sweetness did enter into it. Curiosity? Pity? Cass pulled away and went back to her packing. Resignation. Too many years spent as a potato.” (Ozeki 9)


Having endured an abusive childhood, with an abusive father who assaulted her countless times, Cass had more than enough motivation to run away from home, especially when her one and only friend Yumi abandoned her home- and Cass- and ran away. However, displaying the immense strength in her character, Cass stayed in Liberty Falls and went on to care for her parents in their old age and subsequently Yumi’s parents, too. I think this highlights tremendous courage, commitment and bravery in a non-traditional sense of the word, on her part.


On the other hand Yumi who enjoyed a healthy relationship with her parents up until she entered into a sexual relationship with her teacher at the age of fourteen which led to a pregnancy and abortion, decided to run away from home as soon as things started to take a bad turn. When she returned to Liberty Falls some fifteen years later, her personality does not seem to have changed much, and this somewhat static nature of her identity is what, in my opinion, truly enhances the dynamic nature of Cass’s identity.


Cass seems to have adjusted to life without Yumi quite well, and seems to have reached her potential in terms of character development. However, upon Yumi’s return to Liberty Falls, Cass’s old insecurities begin to surface. She gets incredibly jealous of Yumi’s three kids because Cass herself has not been able to conceive yet, and it reaches a point where Cass attempts to kidnap Yumi’s baby Poo and run away with him. However, she does not follow through, and is extremely embarrassed of this moment of weakness and does not share it with anyone. This incident shows the human nature of Cass, and Ozeki shows once again, that no one is wholly good or wholly bad.


It’s interesting to note that the only indicator of Yumi being the protagonist is the fact that her character is narrated through the first person. Even though Cass’s character is portrayed through a third person narrative, her story and character is given enough depth and detail to qualify as the main character. Even though the first chapter in the book is about Yumi, the very next chapter is about Cass and stretches to eleven pages as opposed to the three pages that composed the first chapter. Moreover, in the entire first section the number of pages that are from Cass’s perspective is just one less than the number of pages that Yumi narrates.  This goes to show that it is our perspectives that determine the quality and effectiveness of a piece of literature, as the entire plot could change drastically when viewed from the point of view of another character instead of the assumed protagonist.


The act of attempting to run away with Yumi’s baby Poo, as terrible as it was, is a testament to her changed identity. Cass is no longer a side dish; she is no longer a supporting character to Yumi’s main role; she is no longer a potato. And she is slowly but steadily starting to believe that this subconsciously as well when she responds to Yumi’s question of “Do people change?’ “ ‘No,’ Cass said. ‘No they don’t.’ Even though she didn’t quite believe it anymore.” (Ozeki 218)



Works Cited


Allen, Paula Gunn. "Kochinnenako in Academe: Three Approaches to Interpreting a Keres Indian Tale." The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986. 222-244.


Ozeki, Ruth L. All over Creation. New York: Viking, 2003. Print.





Anne Dalke's picture

I think that framing your discussion with Paula Gunn Allen’s methodology—one that foregrounds ‘“no single element,” that identifies “no heroes, no villains, no chorus, no ‘setting,’ no minor characters”—really gives a point and purpose to your discussion of Cass’s character. Actually counting the number of pages devoted to Cass really brings home your (and Gunn Allen’s) point that our reading (that is, the reading we gave to the novel, in your postings and on the first day of our discussion) was very much shaped by our cultural expectations. In re-reading the novel in order to highlight the complexity of Cass’s character, you challenge and stretch those expectations in some very fruitful ways. I wonder if you could go on extending this method? Would you be able to expand it to include, for example, Elliot (as gmchung did?)