Through the following comparative essay, I will attempt to address examples of intersectionality in Cereus Blooms at Night, a novel by Shani Mootoo, and Orange is the New Black, a Netflix original series based on a memoir by Piper Kerman. These texts are appropriate for an application of queer theory due to consistently queered characters. The reader struggles to define and identify the characters, which leads to the discourse of intersectionality. According to the University of California Center for New Racial Studies, “Intersectionality is the name that is now given to the complex of reciprocal attachments and sometimes polarizing conflicts that confront both individuals and movements as they seek to ‘navigate’ among the raced, gendered, and class-based dimensions of social and political life” (University of California). I enjoy this particular definition because of the simultaneous sense of isolation and fluidity it creates. With this in mind, I will begin to investigate the condition of Chandin Ramchandin in Mootoo’s Cereus Blooms at Night.
Although Cereus is set in the fictional country of Lantanacamara, Mootoo based much of the book’s construction on her experience living in Trinidad. Lantanacamara mirrors Trinidad geographically and socially, with a racial composition of white, indian and black peoples. Racism runs rampant in even this fictional country, leaving many indians to struggle as servant laborers. When Chandin Ramchandin arrives in Lantancamara, his father takes precautions against subjecting his son to the system.The boy enrolls in a school founded by a white Reverend, who eventually adopts him. In associating with the Reverend’s education system, Chandin and his family are forced to convert to Christianity. While Chandin is in favor of this change, his parents are not and continue to practice Hindu traditions. Displeased, Chandin all but disowns his own family in favor of the “smarter-acting Reverend’s religion.”
This small excerpt of Chandin’s early life presents the “complex attachments” of intersectionality. Because he is indian, Chandin’s options for a career are limited. He comes from a servant laborer’s family who has worked very hard to improve his status, but the best option is also limiting. Chandin receives education at the expense of his family and family’s customs, which is a tough decision to follow through with. Among the gossip of the Ramchandin’s story is heard “If it is the only way for your child to get an education and not have to work like a horse sweating and breaking back in the hot sun for hardly nothing, you wouldn’t convert?” (28). While he is taken away from his family in the name of education, he is also being exploited by the Reverend to help convert more of “his kind” to Christianity. These particular comments strike a chord. I wonder how much an individual should expect to give up of themselves to reach the smallest of opportunities?
Chandin’s situation is complex because even though his religion and race are compromised in the opportunity for education, at least he is granted at least one opportunity to break out of the “caste.” Chandin is an intelligent young man, which puts him at more of an advantage than if he were a young woman instead. There are only two girls in the school enrolled in Chandin’s class, and one of them is the Reverend’s daughter, Lavinia. Chandin’s gender is not very helpful beyond granting him admission to the school. He is usually uncomfortable with his “new family,” constantly deliberating his role among them;
Chandin’s favorite time of day was after the evening meal when the family gathered in the living room for an hour of relaxation. At other times, he was unsure of his place in this new household. He often felt conspicuously lost. But evenings, sitting quietly in the living room with his new family, he had a very definite place…Chandin found that a straight-back upholstered chair had come to be marked as his. Although it was only a physical place, the chair became an antidote to the chaos of his uprootedness.
This moment describes Chandin’s otherness quite well, in that he has a very specific function in the family that is only appropriate or helpful at very specific times (i.e. religious conversion and education). His race is detrimental to him yet again when he shows interest in his non biological sister, Lavinia. The Reverend scolds for his desires, insisting they are “surely against God’s will…Otherwise…” The break in the Reverend’s speech suggests racist undertones, of which he fears announce outright. This is proven by Lavinia’s engagement to a white man, who is indeed distantly related to her. Chandin’s lack of control over his own life and emotions undoubtedly becomes a factor in the treatment of his daughters later in life. Because of the complete exposure to Chandin’s exposure, the reader struggles to form a consistent judgement of his character. His “navigation” through identities is troubled and limiting.
Sophia Burest of Orange is the New Black is another character who suffers from the implications of intersectionality. She is a black transgendered woman who is serving time because she organized credit card scams in order to pay for gender reassignment surgery. Before transitioning, Sophia was a firefighter. The hyper-masculine job allowed her opportunity for social acceptance, but as I questioned earlier with Chandin’s case how much should a person really be expected to give up of his or her identity in order to live safely? As a man, Sophia was safe but as a woman is “free” (until convicted of a real crime).
Although she was fortunate enough to be admitted to a women’s prison rather than men’s, I wonder if the only reason this happened was to admit her quickly without too many questions. As an she is already limited in her options for gender expression (as are all the characters). However, she manages to fashion small additions to her wardrobe and run a makeshift salon for the women through the barter system. Problems come to the surface in two cases. First, Sophia is denied her prescribed hormones due to “budget cuts” in the prison, but there are reasons to believe that she is being discriminated against. Other inmates manage to reason or make deals with each other or the C.O.’s in order to get what they want or need. There are a few white women who acquire street drugs with ease, while Sophia is being weaned off of her medication. It should be noted that when trans women are not able to receive their hormones, the experience is quite painful. This pain is disregarded and the medication is not considered necessary. Sophia’s black trans identity is put in jeopardy and she knows her rights. However, she is silenced until forced to injure herself for an emergency trip to the doctor.
The second case that comes to mind is Sophia’s experience as a father and mother. During her sentence, Sophia’s wife grows consistently different. She is dealing with the distance but also her husband’s transition from male to female. This becomes a real issue for Sophia, because she is replaced by a white man (colonization??). Sophia’s wife claims that their son needs a father as well as a mother. I am not condemning this woman, because her experience is difficult as well. However, the instance of a replacement father is heartbreaking and another example of Sophia being silenced, this time in her own family.
The actress who plays Sophia, Laverne Cox, is quite the advocate for the trans community. She has proclaimed herself a “black, trans, middle class, woman” and is very focused on intersectionality and identity. By examining the characters of Cereus Blooms at Night and Orange is the New Black I have seen how different combinations of identities affect an individual. While carrying multiple identities should open up opportunities, they have proven to be limiting based on stigmas and historical patterns. These texts, Orange especially, should open up this discourse to the public and allow more individuals to see the effects of intersectionality.