Embassytown and Derrida’s Of Hospitality

It is useful to think of language and power as being deeply and complicatedly intertwined in China Mielville’s Embassytown. In the text, language is central to the characters’ identities, as well as the power that comes alongside it. Hosts, while at first appear as the more dominant and/or powerful social class in the text, are also left tremendously vulnerable, as they can only speak “Language” and are highly dependent on the Ambassadors to translate Language into language, so that if need be they can communicate with, and perhaps more importantly control, Terre, or the humans. The Language or language one speaks in the text comes to be a defining factor for the characters both personally and collectively. For example, Avice’s affiliation with being a simile, which is at first almost entirely apathetic or nonexistent, comes to gradually identify with a “simile” or perhaps more widely a “figure of speech” collective. More broadly, as the plot unfolds, we see that the stability of Embassytown as we once knew it breaks down entirely once the Hosts begin to access language and one could argue take it hostage as they appropriate it for lying. Thus, one could argue that the entire social hierarchy and stability of Mielville’s fictional world relies almost exclusively on maintaining this balance of access to language and therefore power.

As I tried to briefly introduce last class, I think it would be a useful exercise to try and map the idea of language and power within the context of Jacques Derrida’s Of Hospitality. Derrida situates the idea of language and foreignness within the paradigm of hospitality. More specifically, he deconstructs the idea of hospitality into the absolute Law of hospitality and the laws of hospitality. To summarize briefly, the Law of hospitality is the absolute ideal form of hospitality, one that makes the Host unconditionally hospitable to the guest. In this ideal state of hospitality there are no laws to which the host/guest relationship is bound. The paradox, however, lies in the fact that in order to achieve the Law of Hospitality one must follow the laws, or rules, of hospitality that inevitably govern it, thus rendering the Law of Hospitality ultimately unattainable.

In order to think of the Law of Hospitality in the context of Embassytown, we would be forced to identify the hosts (with a lowercase h) and the guests in the social hierarchy that defines the space. I would argue, and I hope Derrida would agree, that while at first the Hosts would appear to be the hosts (as the colonizers and characters in the positions of power), it is ironically the Terre who possess the power in language and are hosting the Hosts. Derrida states, “The foreigner who, inept at speaking the language, always risks being without defense before the law of the country that welcomes or expels him…He has to ask for hospitality in a language which by definition is not his own, the one imposed on him by the master of the house, the host…This personage imposes on him translation into their own language, and that’s the first act of violence. That is where the question of hospitality begins: must we ask the foreigner to understand us, to speak our language, in all the senses of this term…?” (Derrida, 13). In the context of Embassytown, we should ask ourselves who is really “imposing language” and therefore inhabiting the role of the host? In the text Scile posits to Avice, “We’ve always known the Hosts need you, right? You and the rest of you” (Pg. 141). It would be interesting to try and work out how this power dynamic plays out against the backdrop of Derrida’s Law/laws of hospitality. Could the Law of hospitality ever be achieved in Embassytown and how? Perhaps the breakdown of Embassytown’s social structure can be attributed to a breach in the laws of hospitality on the part of the Hosts? On the part of the humans? Furthermore, we could think of Embassytown as being a space inhabited by locals and foreigners. How does language define who is a local and who is a foreigner? And how does possessiveness (either necessarily or unnecessarily) over these titles prevent the possibility for absolute Hospitality?

Success Stories and Characterizations of Immigrants

Throughout parts one and two of the novel, there is a major shift in the characterization of Feliciano, which takes place within the short time frame of his brother-in-law Gurmersindo’s death. At first, one could argue that Feliciano is depicted as Gumersindo’s “fringe” or “extremist” counterpart. In response to Gumerdinso’s decision to name his newborn son after a “great Gringo” Feliciano states, “They are all great…Great thieves, great liars, great sons-of-bitches. Show me a man of them who isn’t money-mad and one of their women who is not a harlot” (Pg. 16). This fanatical and intolerant characterization is situated in contrast to Gumersindo’s, which is one of absolute tolerance and acceptance. However these character portrayals are ephemeral, and a major shift in Feliciano’s character takes place after Gumersindo is murdered and obliges Feliciano to never tell his son why he was murdered, out of fear it would inspire hate in him. Shortly after, it seems that Feliciano inhabits many of his brother-in-law’s qualities.

What is constant throughout this shift is the employment of sympathetic character portrayals to the characters who inhabit first Gumersindo’s characteristics, and then eventually Feliciano’s. Paredes seems to be indicating that these are favorable qualities for an immigrant to occupy. That being said (according to a reading of the text that is incomplete), neither of these characters has truly achieved success. While more overtly Gurmersindo suffers a tragic death almost immediately after choosing to give the Rangers and/or Gringos the benefit of the doubt and remain put, Feliciano who becomes financially successful has not yet succeeded in what is presented as the ultimate immigrant accomplishment, for Gualinto “…to be a learned man and help his people” (Pg. 49) (which Feliciano admits to lacking a clear vision of what that would entail). Thus, there seems to be multiple and perhaps contradictory forces taking place within the text. While Paredes seems to elevate the immigrant characters in the novel that are sympathetic, he does not necessarily seem to be making the argument that these are the characters who will ultimately succeed. I am curious to see how the narrative ensues and to see whether Gualinto is eventually able to “help his people” and therefore attain greatness.

My Antonia: Whose immigrant narrative?

One might suspect that in an immigrant novel, it is clear who the immigrant is and which immigrant experience is being narrated. In My Antonia, these lines are blurred as multiple experiences of relocation are conveyed and ideas of what constitutes an immigrant, and by extension an immigrant novel, are explored. Jimmy states, “She often reminded me, when she was preparing for the return of the hungry men, that this country was not like Virginia,” (pg. 85) effectively referring to Nebraska as a different country than Virginia, and entering into conventions of what is typically considered immigration. Furthermore he says, “I read ‘The Swiss Family Robinson’ aloud…and I felt that the Swiss family had no advantages over us in the way of an adventurous life. I was convinced that man’s strongest antagonist is the cold” (pg. 85). In this passage, the author is pulling from common themes of struggle and hardship that immigrants encounter when settling in a new land. On the other hand, the narrator acknowledges that in addition to the aforementioned hardship that Jimmy and the Shimerdas alike are exposed to, they must also cope with other challenges of cultural and linguistic assimilation. Jimmy states, “We were willing to believe that Mrs. Shimerda was a good housewife in her own country, but she managed poorly under new conditions” (pg. 66).

Based on this seemingly double-layered immigrant narrative, to what extent can My Antonia be considered a first person immigrant novel and to what extent does it qualify as a third person immigrant novel? Although Jimmy considers himself an arrival to a “new country,” he also refers to many of the other characters, including the Shimerdas and the Russians, as foreigners. Can Jimmy refer to others as foreigners (in contrast to himself) while also making genuine claims of being an immigrant?