24 February 2015
They Who Do Not Grieve
In Sia Figiel’s novel They Who Do Not Grieve, the reader is given multiple accounts of women who originate from islands in Southeast Asia. The character Malu is given many different types of role models, from her grandmother to her aunts to her mother who committed suicide. Her grandmother raised her children without a man beside her, but in many ways is still very traditional. Her Aunt Ela, on the other hand, leaves the island to go to dentist school in America. Throughout Malu’s story, and in other stories in the book as well, there is a lot of comparison between these less developed island nations and more advanced countries such as America and New Zealand. It is interesting to note that both these nations have idealized versions in their heads of what the other is like. In this way, perhaps, the imagination could be considered not to be completely trustworthy in aiding a person in travel. A person’s traditions and way of life can cloud their judgment and perception of others and the way they lead their own lives.
This point seems to be exemplified in Malu’s Aunt Ela. She goes to America hoping to make something of herself, to chase the American dream and go back to her home a more respectable woman. However, she finds that the reality of America does not necessarily match up to the perception she had of it in her head. At one point she says to Martin, “Forget about the books and the movies, Martin. I’ve read a bit. Seen a bit. And I can only say I wish I grew up on those islands where everyone is problem free and where the Sun always rises to a picnic. It’s like me coming to this country thinking everyone was either a cowboy, a murderer or a millionaire…It’s all about dreams, isn’t it?” (Figiel 125). For Ela, and for Martin as well, they could not travel to each other’s home countries in their minds because they did not have the full picture of the place. Martin only knew of the happiness of living in a tropical place, but not the poverty or the lack of education for women, or lack of opportunity. This is very much like Marco Polo describing the cities of the empire in Calvino’s Invisible Cities. He needed to include both the positive and negative aspects of the empire in order to transport the Khan there imaginatively, and allow his mind to grow.
Many people have this experience when thinking about places outside of their home, outside of what is familiar to them. Before I left for Newcastle, all I could imagine about living in a British city was what I had seen in movies and heard from a friend who grew up in London. I had a picture in my head of Newcastle, but it was an ideal version. It was really a picture of London, because that’s all I knew about England. The reality of Newcastle was a little less fabulous than London; the culture there was pretty much centered on partying, the city itself was a lot smaller than London, and the people there were a lot more rough and rugged than I expected. At first, this made it a lot harder to adjust to living there. For a little while, I clung to the idea I had in my head of what England would be like before I arrived. It was only after I let go of that idealized version and started appreciating the city for what it was that I truly started getting anything out of my experience. It was more important to embrace the positive and negative aspects of the place, so that I might let my mind grow and learn. Even though I was there physically, I was closing myself to any inward travel and growth by clinging to an image of a place that did not really exist. Every town, city, and country in the world has an ugly side that we may not always consider. However, it is both the positive and negatives that shapes the people and the place, and it is incredibly important to learn from both. A place may not always be all that you hoped it would be, but it will surprise you in different ways. The imagination can only be trusted to allow a person to travel if they can open their minds to possibility that this place that they do not come from has just as many issues as the place they call home. The good and the bad come together to create the heart and soul of a place.