Among those passages of life that giveThe above quote by William Wordsworth expresses the belief that although it is the physical eye that sees, it is the mind that perceives. Wordsworth goes on to explain that this “profound knowledge” only results from an integrated mind or a mind that grasps more than one body of knowledge or set of beliefs. This expansion of the mind will only occur when individuals endeavor to understand the perceptions and life experiences of others. In Continental Drift by Russell Banks and Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid, the authors seek to shift their readers' perspectives. Both works suggest the ways that individual perception is shaped and conditioned by cultural and historical experiences, and that there is a very distinct human tendency to rely upon that individual perspective to interpret events and make value judgements. Both novels demonstrate how these influences shape our perceptions and our view of the world. In so doing, Banks and Kincaid do not simply describe the everyday lives of their characters, but allow readers to perceive and interpret these events through their characters' unique perspectives.
Kincaid’s novel Lucy is written in a simple, story-telling mode that is easy and pleasurable to read, yet the story is also complex and captivating; it is a journey of discovery into the life of Lucy, a young woman from Antigua struggling to make it on her own in America. Lucy is an angry and bitter person for reasons that no one in her new environment seems to understand. She is struggling to break free from her past relationship with her homeland, her mother, and even herself. She is also trying to shed the burden of her history as a Black Antiguan woman--a history shaped by colonialism, slavery, and patriarchy. One important incident that highlights this conflict by illustrating the many differences in social and cultural perspectives occurs when Mariah shows Lucy a field of daffodils. Neither woman truly understands the significance or feelings that the scene evokes for the other: “But nothing could change the fact that where she saw beautiful flowers I saw sorrow and bitterness. The same thing could cause us to shed tears, but those tears would not taste the same” (30). Here Kincaid presents just one example of the ways in which perceptions, directly shaped by past experiences, can cause conflict or misunderstanding.
In her article, “The Broken Clock: Time Identity, and Autobiography in Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy,” Nancy Chick further examines this scene in the novel. She argues that “[s]ince Lucy has embarked on a conscious struggle to create a self independent from her past, she fails to appreciate Mariah’s acceptance of her own past” (91). As a result, Chick notes, the two women have no real understanding for each other. Mariah does not know that Lucy's British colonial education had forced her to memorize Wordworth's poem, "Daffodils," a work that held no meaning for her in her home of Antigua. Nor can Lucy, who has yet to overcome the anguish of her colonial history, possibly understand the beauty and comfort that Mariah finds in those flowers. Both women are looking at the daffodils through their own cultural lens, and because completely different events and experiences have shaped their perceptions, they cannot share the simple beauty of the scene.
The conflicts between Mariah and Lucy result directly from this lack of understanding for each other or, more specifically, the inability to delve into the life of another individual and to find a common ground that extends beyond their preconceived notions. Perhaps Mariah should have attempted to reach out and truly comprehend Lucy’s view or perspective; yet even then a significant change would not have taken place because an equally important step needed to occur within Lucy. This movement toward changing perspectives cannot be a one way street--if mutual understanding is to be achieved, both need to cross perceptual boundaries. In her essay “Dreaming of Daffodils: Cultural Resistance in the Narratives of Theory,” critic Alison Donnell states:
Lucy’s thoughts and dreams testify to the ways in which certain intellectual spaces remain colonized within Western thought. It is Mariah who is trapped within the monologic narrative unable to negotiate the differences between language and living and self and other, not Lucy. (49)Certainly there is some truth in this passage, yet there is also evidence to suggest that Lucy’s need to overcome the past and to break free from her colonized and oppressed thinking is just as important as Mariah’s need to change. Both have views that are significantly inhibiting their ability to traverse the boundaries that are keeping them from truly relating to one another. On the other hand, Donnell does point out that Mariah is withholding her other self or at the very least is impeding her ability to see the other by locking it away within a perceived difference, and it is this type of thinking that Kincaid is battling against when writing this novel; her goal is to change not only the views and perceptions of the colonized individuals such as Lucy, but to change the Western view of culture that tends to validate only one body of knowledge. Instead, Kincaid tries to illustrate how other individuals or societies may have very different ideals, beliefs and experiences. That which constitutes truth and reality for Mariah may be quite different for Lucy.
This disparity is evident in one simple statement that Lucy makes at the beginning of the novel: “But I did not know that the sun could shine and the air remain cold; no one had ever told me” (5). The fact that when the sun shines the air is warm is quite simply, for Lucy, a universal truth within her body of knowledge and her perceptions of the world. Because she had never known anything different, it is only logical that she maintains this notion or perception of reality until being presented with an alternative experience. This example demonstrates how perceptions are formed and how they can be shifted. Kincaid, who is specifically striving to shift her readers' conditioned perceptions in order to further or enrich cultural relationships and experiences, hopes her novel will act as an “alternate experience” that succeeds in challenging the assumptions by which we live in much in the same way that Lucy is challenged by her experiences in the United States.
Russell Banks also explores these differences in cultural perceptions, yet he illustrates the shifting perspective by using two narrators, Bob Dubois and Vanise, who are from extremely different backgrounds. Bob is an ordinary American man approaching middle age who is beginning to question the meaning and direction of his life. He is not happy with what he has, and so he sets out in search of more. Vanise, however, is a young Haitian woman trying to get to America with her infant son and her nephew Claude. She too hopes to better her life, but in a much different way, because unlike Bob, she is trying to overcome the extreme poverty and the abuse that she suffers in Haiti and later in the Bahamas. Banks specifically uses these two very different characters to illustrate not only different cultural perspectives but to demonstrate, in much the same way as Kincaid, that there is more than one type of knowledge and neither should be overlooked or excluded. He illustrates this several times throughout the novel, but it is most evident in the very beginning when he says:
It’s not memory you need, it’s clear-eyed pity and hot, old-time anger and a Northern man’s love of the sun, it’s a white Christian man’s entwined obsession with race and sex and a proper middle-class American’s shame for his nation’s history. This is an American story of the late twentieth century, and you don’t need a muse to tell it, you need something more like a Loa, or a mouth-man, a voice that makes speech stand in front of you and not behind . . . (1)In these few sentences, Banks has masterfully subverted and distorted perception by juxtaposing several different bodies of knowledge and beliefs. The “Loa” would not be something “a white Christian man” would conjure up to understand a story, so by asking the reader to consider these two perspectives together, Banks, like Kincaid, has already begun the journey toward changing those conditioned perceptions, beliefs, and expectations that are typical of Western or American society. In his essay, “Russell Banks and the Great American Reader,” Charles Vandersee remarks, “I hazard the assertion that too few novelists of Bank’s era are as ambitious as he is, and as convinced of the importance of multiple histories, and as adept at bringing them into fiction” (14). This assessment of Banks’ writings is important because it suggests the idea that there is more than one story to any “history.” History should not be merely “HIS-story,” but should include multiple versions of a particular event.
For this reason, Banks presents two individuals with separate lives that become entwined in ways that point out the completely diverse views or perceptions that individuals tend to rely upon. Both Vanise and Bob are completely trapped within their own reality or concept of reality and neither is able to break free from that view long enough to see alternate views. Through them, Banks illustrates the importance of recognizing other forms of knowledge and religion without skepticism. For example, when Vanise realizes that she is the only one to survive the swim to shore after they were forced off the boat, she credits her survival to a particular Loa. This concept to many Americans would be absurd or ridiculous, except when reading this novel, because Banks, as Vandersee notes, “emboldened by Legba, stands well back from the characters and performs feats that in his own unaided American voice would be–well, a little strange” (10). This is evident when Banks says:
People who have no power, or believe they have none, also believe that everything is caused by a particular, powerful agent; people who have power, people who can rest easily saying this or that event happened “somehow,” call the others superstitious, irrational and ignorant, even stupid. The truly powerless are none of these, however, for they and perhaps they alone know that luck, bad luck as much as good, is a luxurious explanation for events. When you have partial control over your destiny, you're inclined to deny that you do, because you’re afraid that control will go away. That’s superstition. But when, like Vanise, you have no control over your destiny, it’s reasonable to assume that someone or something else does, which is why it’s reasonable, not irrational, for Vanise to believe that the bizarre fact of her survival, her destiny now, is due to a Loa's intervention . . . (321)In this passage Banks does perform a truly amazing feat; he logically and rationally explains the justification or rationale behind Vanise’s supposedly illogical superstitions and irrational beliefs, and thus proves that context, position, and circumstances certainly do alter our explanations and our validation of those explanations. Like Kincaid, Banks challenges the perceptions or simple truths on which his readers rely; instead he has forced us to stop and re-evaluate what is truth and what is not. It is exactly that type of introspection that he hopes will cause this shift in perceptions which will ultimately help eliminate cultural prejudices and create, instead, an understanding of those individuals who may seem strange or different.
Another example of shifting perceptions occurs when Elaine and Bob make their move to Florida. Banks illustrates quite well the idea put forth by Wordsworth that the mind interprets what the eye actually sees:
Bob drives, and Elaine, seated beside him, holds the road map in her lap, and the two of them keep their eyes away from the horizons and close to the road ahead and the buildings and land abutting the road. . . . They do not even notice, the absence of what Bob would call “real trees.” . . . But now, suddenly, as they near Oleander Park, Florida, their new home, after having sold their house in New Hampshire, after Bob’s having quit his job, after having sold everything . . . they come up against and are forced to see many people of color, more of them, or so it seems, than there are white people. (53, 55)Elaine and Bob certainly have seen people of color before but it was in a different location and context; it isn’t until they move to Florida and are removed from familiar surroundings that they are forced to recognize other individuals. Bob’s perceptions, particularly those about other individuals, are at that moment contradicted or challenged. It is here that the similarities between Banks and Kincaid are most evident; just as Lucy’s perceptions were challenged after moving to the United States, so were Bob’s perceptions challenged when he moved to Florida. They in effect have had their blinders removed if only for a moment and are presented instead with an alternate view.
For both Lucy and Bob, a sort of cultural
shock or, at the very least, a sharp contrast in environment serves as
the catalyst for this “profound” shift in thinking. Fortunately,
for the reader this is not necessary. Through the narrative shifts
presented by these two novels, Banks and Kincaid succeed in expressing
various perspectives and thus expanding their readers' perceptions.
They compel us to remove our cultural “blinders” and see, not just through
our eyes, but with the “integral mind” that Wordsworth describes.
In doing so, individuals begin to move toward true understanding and empathy.
Perhaps, if each of us would see beyond our perceived differences long
enough to allow another's perspective to inform and enhance our knowledge,
the world could truly be a better place.
Chick, Nancy. “The Broken Clock: Time, Identity, and Autobiography in Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy.” College Language Association Journal 40.1 (1996): 90-103.
Donnell, Alison. “Dreaming of Daffodils: Cultural Resistance in the Narratives of Theory.” Kunapipi 14.2 (1992): 45-52.
Vandersee, Charles. “Russell Banks and the Great American Reader.” Cresset 53.2 (1989): 13-17.