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‘Maternity’, written by Lilika Nakos and ‘The Lemon Orchard’, by Alex La Guma both present an insight into the strengths and weaknesses of human nature. The teenage boy, Mikali, in ‘Maternity’ stands for courage and determination, who tries at any cost to save his infant brother. Similarly, in ‘The Lemon Orchard’ the protagonist is a man of great self-respect who retains his pride against great odds.
The story is mainly about a black man who is to be beaten up by a mob of white men solely because he has dared to ask for justice. The ominous atmosphere established in this short story is primarily evoked through the use of symbolism. Despite the striking similarity, ‘Maternity’ concludes on an uplifting tone, conveying that although racism leads to conflict it can also be an opportunity for a rewarding and enriching experience.
There is always hope, and it takes unique situations to overcome racism, as well as compassion from people who know no barrier of creed, caste and colour. In contrast with the serious approach to racism is ‘The All-American Slurp’, written by Lensey Namioka. This is a humorous approach to a young girl’s encounter with a foreign culture. This short story playfully mocks culture groups who want to ‘fit in’, by watering down their own culture to adapt and feel accepted. All of these short stories equally attack the presumed values of society.
‘Maternity’ initially opens by describing the living conditions of the Armenian refugees’ camp, with Nakos focusing on visual imagery to vividly portray the negative aspects of Mikali’s existence. The conditions are miserable and unhygienic. Nakos uses the adjectives ‘small’ and ‘ruined’ to enhance the destitute atmosphere, whilst the rich live under tents, the rest of them sought shelter ‘under carpets held up at four corners by sticks’. The refugee camp, ironically still maintains the classes that exist in society. They are separated by, their economic and racial backgrounds.
Lilika Nakos then portrays the suffering of the protagonist, Mikali in his search for food. When he eats the bread that is given to him, it ‘weighed’ on him because he did not want to live on the charity from others, as he feels a sense of guilt. He wants to work and earn his living but is unable to work as he is burdened with the responsibility of his motherless infant brother. Thus, he is left to the mercy of his countrymen, though the wailing of the starved infant sickens them.
“Everybody listened to it with irritation – they had so many troubles of their own – and they all pitifully wished it would die.”
The infant is no longer considered a baby, but a burden; and no longer a boy, but an ‘it’. The paradox ‘pitifully wished’ reinforces the selfishness of the Armenians. Their famine and misery forced them to be selfish and bring out the worst in them. They are portrayed as brutish and oblivious to the negative consequences of their actions for their own people. As another alternative, Mikali decides to go to the Anatolian’s camp to seek help, evoking a reassuring hope that the torture will soon end.
“Their camp was like his – the same misery.”
The hyphen metaphorically breaks the hope he once had and further accentuates the relationship between the two sentences. Yet the superficial and shallow mentality of the women in the Anatolian refugee camp quickly shatters his illusion. Instead of helping and giving sanctity, they reject the malnourished infant because of his looks.
“Holy Mother! said one of the old women, but it’s a vampire; a real vampire, that child. Even if I had the milk I still wouldn’t have the courage to feed it.”
The irony is the fact that the women are actually discriminating themselves. ‘Maternity’ means state of being a mother, motherhood with the whole story revolving around maternal affection depicting that being a mother alone is not sufficient but what is important is to have the nobleness of a mother. It is ironic, women are normally exhibited as mothers, and mothers are stereotypically meant to be affectionate and genuinely kind, however there is a reverse in roles:
“The Chinaman came to him and taking the baby in his arms, tenderly pressed it to him”
This wonderful contrast to the others; it highlights the love, warmth and forgiveness evoked by this particular man. The Chinaman retains his sense of humanity, whilst selfishness prevails amongst the women. The Chinaman’s wife is portrayed as the ‘ideal mother’, evokes culture warmth and etiquette as she accepts the child as it is.
One parallel between ‘Maternity’ and ‘The Lemon Orchard’ is their use of tactile imagery and symbolism, which is so delicate, the reader, may not consciously recognize it, yet it helps immensely in creating the menacing atmosphere desired. Alex la Guma also wants to show the conflict between man and nature. So uses detailed description and pathetic fallacy to make the reader feel apprehensive and make the weather, scene and story fit together:
“… there was a chill in the air; and the moon was hidden behind long, high parallels of cloud, which hung like suspended streamers of dirty cotton wool in the sky.
In ‘The Lemon Orchard’ the notion of ‘chill’ and ‘winter’ keeps circulating; it has a strong metaphorical significance, representing the indifference and coldness of the white man. On a very basic level, one can already note the significance for the use of night and dark imagery – to portray a sense of secrecy and fear of the white men. On a further level, Alex la Guma’s use of night imagery indicates the white men’s blindness towards racism. It is almost like the moon senses something is not right and implies the emotion of fear, which both the characters are feeling. Ironically also a dog is intimidated by the white men’s presence and stops barking, as they got closer. It is evident the white men are not welcome in the environment.
Additionally, Alex la Guma’s depth of nature gives the scene an air of imprisonment and claustrophobia as the ‘men came down two long, regular rows of trees’. The alliteration and the elongated vowel sound in ‘regular rows of trees’ further reinforce the determination of the white men creating the rhythm of marching. The clouds are forming the same shape as the trees, hinting the sky is the mirror image of what is happening on the land. The whole environment is foreshadowing something negative that is about to occur.
“The men were walking through an Orchard of lemons and the sharp, bitter-sweet smell hung gently on the night air.”
The oxymoron stresses the brutality of man and tranquility of nature as Alex la Guma’s use of the adverb ‘gently’ further emphasizes the harmony in nature. The onomatopoeic harsh sounds in the torment of the black man reinforce the Negro’s willpower and pride to not give in to the white men.
” He shivered now with chill, clenching his teeth to prevent them from chattering…’Are you cold, hotnot?’ the man with the light jeered. The colored man did not reply. ”
He never answers any of the questions; ironically his silence is more powerful than the white men’s guns. Paradoxically, the Negro is powerless, but in fact he is in control of the whole situation – the white men are unable to force him to do anything. The short sentence, ‘the colour man did not reply’ further emphasizes his power with its bluntness and brevity. What is even more ironic is, they are beating him because he talked back to the minister of the church and now the white men are demanding him to answer their question.
The fact that the story ends and starts with nature gives a circular structure. Demonstrating that there will always be the presence of racism, prejudice and instant judgments occurring in society today – creating the idea that racism is an endless struggle.
‘Maternity’ and ‘The Lemon Orchard’ both focus on racism through one individual and are written from an omniscient viewpoint. In ‘The Lemon Orchard’ the individual is continuously referred to as ‘the man’, making him anonymous and universal – it could be anybody as racism occurs on a regular basis. Both the protagonists, Mikali in ‘Maternity’ and the Negro in ‘The Lemon Orchard’ equally show a sense of stoicism and the pieces have the same underlying silent themes running through; segregation, social classes and humanity. The message that seems to surface in both these short stories is that racism destroys one’s ability to be human.
Distinctly different is ‘The All-American Slurp’, written by Lensey Namioka who writes the story with the diction, level of understanding and perspective of a Chinese child. This technique portrays the realism whilst also helping immensely in bringing out the irony. The young Chinese girl thinks that because she comes from a different ethnic background she that the American family will be less receptive and assume that they are ‘weird’. It is her hypersensitivity that makes it so difficult for her to ‘fit in’ the American way of living as she does not want to disgrace herself.
“Mother picked up one of the green stalks, and father followed suit. Then I picked up a stalk, and my brother did to”
The mother is able to adapt, whilst the patriotic father is set in his own ways. The mother inverts the stereotype as she seems to be in control and her family looks up to her. Amusingly the Chinese family thinks the American family is primitive and backward and they are more advanced, however by the end the story highlights the endless similarities that often mark as differences.
All of these short stories give the reader an insight in the flaws of human nature. Yet also helps the reader understand the concept that everyone is equal and entitled to the same amount of respect. These stories are voices to make people aware of what is happening to society and convey in a world of slander, ignorance and discrimination that there is always hope.