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The Notion of American Dream: Interrogating Manjushree Thapa’s “Tilled Earth” from Diasporic Perspectives


The Notion of American Dream: Interrogating Manjushree Thapa’s “Tilled Earth” from Diasporic Perspectives

Arpita Roy

Assistant Professor of English

Indian Institute of Legal Studies

Cooch Behar, West Bengal, India


Ph. D. Research Scholar

Department of English

School of Languages and Literature

Sikkim University

Gangtok, Sikkim, India


This research paper attempts to analyse the problems faced by a diasporic soul in a land and society full of promises and dreams, proclaiming to be a nation liberated from deeply rooted stereotypical and old ages articulations, providing space and opportunities to the people inspired with life; search for newer possibilities associated with human life. Therefore this paper tries to recapitulate the idea of migration from global and existential  critical  perspectives  focussing  to  reconstitute  a  spatial  location  to  reinvent  ones cultural identity where one is found to struggle with the way of life. The paper in its endeavour tries to examine Manjushree Thapa’s short story “Tilled Earth” in situational contexts of progressive projection, a dream never ending, and existing reality in the reference of globalized world.                                                        

Keywords:  Diaspora, Hybridity, Mimicry, Indigenous identity, Self-consciousness, Trauma

Manjushree Thapa is one of the prominent contemporary writers and translators writing from South Asian region. Her writings fundamentally depict the situational dilemma and crisis of diasporic people, that particularly emanated after 9/11 event and developing geopolitics of post global era. The post 9/11 was not only instrumental to transform the global politics but it also created new ideas concerning with the issues of minorities, ethnicity and migration. These changes not only affected the global politics at the international level but it also attempted to eradicate the very foundation of human bonds, leading to intrinsic social and ethical changes. This new situation for the people in society or at large became obscure for their survival. This also inspired a large number of populations to migrate from their ancestral place to new locations for security, livelihood and dreams. These dislocated positions were generally based on the rubrics of fragmentations aligning with socio-cultural roots.

“Tilled Earth” is a short story penned by Thapa that belongs to her collection of short stories Tilled Earth, published in 2007.The preeminent character of the story is migrated to America from Nepal and she discovers herself in an in between space where neither she belongs to Nepal nor to America rather she becomes an “Illegal alien” there. The story beautifully depicts this girl’s physical journey by crossing the boundaries of her homeland as well as another journey towards her inner self-consciousness, which results in a kind of rebirth for her. Here the idea of American dream has been reprehended through the story of this girl who has moved to America and where she finds it difficult to fit in. Thapa seems to encapsulate the problematic aspects of American dream dwindling between root and uprooted social and cultural situation. This story describes how the process of physical and geographical dislocation from socio-cultural as well as political aspects starts to affect the inner self-consciousness of the girl.

The very idea of migrating from the developing countries to the developed one stimulates a sight of dream, hope and expectation for new beginning; it gives a chance to reinvent ones cultural identity where one is expected to reinvent the possibilities of life. Migration in a sense is extension of human possibilities in a new social and cultural soil, which Diasporic people seem to think, is ideal to grow in the developed countries. This is not merely a change in physical domain affecting the established or conditioned foundations in one’s life but it is entirely recalibration for an invention, which has to fit in new social and psychological space.  In this situation, unknowingly the dislocated people find themselves committed to the diasporic group for the reconstruction of indigenous land, culture and identity by going beyond their own boundaries. This tendency of reconstructing home, leads them to the process of liquidification of identity that gives birth to a new identity, or culture that according to Homi K. Bhabha is ‘hybrid in nature’. Bhabha mentioned in his book The Location of Culture (1994) that in diasporic condition “home is no longer just one place. It is locations” (75).That signifies that for them home does not mean a particular place; it changes according to their migration to the different locations. This concept of hybrid identity and culture for the dislocated people is positive in the sense that it gives them the opportunity to exceed the limit of nation state and it helps to exclude the binary between developing and developed countries. As Robin Cohen said in one of his work called “The Politics of International Migration Flows in the Post-War World” (1989), that diaspora gives birth to “a group...that can be seen as transcending the limits of the nation-state” (162).

On the other hand, the process of hybridization has negative facet too. This process is an unremitting process of becoming someone else or attaining a higher state of being which includes the act of mimicry from the part of dislocated people. Somehow, one can say that for the diasporic people the process of hybridization and the act of mimicry both are the continuation of colonization (not physically but psychologically) in another form or the lingering effect of colonization even after the colonial era. In the process of formulating new identity, diasporic people find themselves in a state of bafflement and somewhere they move away from their own indigenous culture, identity and self. Although identity is something that we perform but our indigenous identity comes to us with a natural flow through the indigenous cultures, religion, food habit, clothing, education system, language and most importantly the way of living in that particular place where we can relate us or associate ourselves with the reality. In the case of migration or in diasporic condition the idea of performing the new identity is so much dominant that the diasporic people start to move away from the reality, root and their true individual self. The more they focus on performing new identity, they start to find themselves in duality and in between space where neither they can achieve the identity in complete sense that they dreams for nor they can go back to their own indigenous root. In this continuous process after certain point of time, these diasporic people start to feel themselves culturally and socially alienated, isolated, excluded, discriminated, lost and exiled which is traumatic. Avatar Brah in her book called Cartographies of Diaspora: Contesting Identities (1996) described diaspora as “traumas of alienation, disjuncture and displacement” (193). At this point they try to come out from the illusions regarding the idealistic views on the developed nations and faces the crucial reality of it; therefore an urge for finding their roots, indigenous identity, culture and most importantly their urge for regaining their eliminated sense of true self start to take place in their soul.

The narrative structure of the story is not simple and smooth; it seems to assert in the beginning that this is not a linear account of description. At the beginning of the story “Tilled Earth” Thapa uses the word ‘Antipodes’ by which she actually wants to set the two countries America and Nepal in opposition to each other. She mentions about “America’s myths” (172) and states that the girl does not believe in this myth. Historian James Truslow Adams in 1931, has mentioned about ‘American Dreams’ in his book Epic of America, and he says: “The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.” What have had been exhibited by various narratives and accounts, to know about America in general, is that life seems to be better in America in terms of every facilities but it has been projected in such a way that attracts the people who are living in the developing countries. Thapa’s story is the result of her keen observation on the idea of “American Dream” and through her story; she has beautifully demonstrated the effects of this attraction towards “American Dreams” and has tried to show the reality by evaluating and commenting on it.

The story describes how the concept of home manifests through the memory of the diasporic people. Something, which is not important such as ‘dust’, that is dear to the girl and that reminds her of ‘home’. Thapa here portrays the relationship of reality by associating it with elements of culture, geography, and demography. The unnamed protagonist, the girl feels isolated in her diasporic condition, according to her the way people speak in America is animated and it makes her feel difficult to adjust in this place. The naming is understood as a method of assigning identity with a culture but here it donates a distance and unoccupied mind having capacities to pass a fair judgement. This also indicates her own uncertain and rootless position. Although, she knows that, she must have to adjust with her friends but she does not know how to formulate her expressions through language. Where her friends talk about cartoons, she thinks about “the plump flesh of aubergine of burned fenugreek and spinach. Bitter ground is her favourite dish, deep fried with slices of okra” (173). ‘Home’ is present in her auditory, visual, tactile experiences.

Language seem to ‘mock’ her when she tries to say things to her friends about her life in Nepal. The girl’s housemate Mariana who is migrated from Russia to America feels irritated to listen her. Moreover, she feels that it is because she belongs to Nepal that is why they do not listen her; they would have listened her if she would belong to India. Making a normal conversation is a kind of big task for her. Her constant attempt to explain herself to Jenny and Mariana can be interpreted as a journey of self-exploration and investigation for assertion, at the same time disconnection. The notion of ‘self’ in a particular way is connected to the discourse of ‘home, linking with the root of soil and birth. Through retelling, personal tale, she is trying to remake or reconstruct herself and home in a new socio-cultural milieu. The act of retelling is the process of assimilating self from the rubrics of past wastes which may be a history, culture etc. The natives always look at themselves as inferior, illiterate, ignorant, in order to recreate or reconstruct them, in comparison to the West, which suppresses their cultural identity and leaves them in a state of confusions. Cultural assimilation in diasporic condition sometimes includes self-negation, rejection of indigenous self and acceptance of progressive one, is not easy task. She herself says that “the American education system is better” (175) and she did not like to study in Nepal. When she calls her cousin, one can mark that her cousin knows about the American world. In this conversation, the desperation for American citizenship can be noticed as her cousin suggests her “Don’t say you’re not American” (176) for getting job in America.

‘Home’ becomes very much graphic for her and shows a deep rooted relation with subtle nuances. She envisages a vision/ version of homeland and bewilders to know why a kind of longingness is intrinsically active inside of her. The physical displacement is never a complete project. It is an impossible task to denounce root completely even if self gets highly sublimated and placed in high class or a better dream. The home is related with consciousness and is beyond any definition.  Although home has been a place of danger for her but these visions of homeland make her nostalgic and emotional. She does not fall into the limits of respectability therefore; her exile becomes more painful. She is not in search of economy but for emotional, moral, and social support. Even after several months she is not able to speak to her friends; language is not serving being utilitarian to her. Ketu Katrak in her work Politics of Female Body: Postcolonial Women Writers of the Third World (2006) says that in third world countries traditions are mostly relates to the women. In this story when the girl tries to tell Jenny about her relationship, she mentions that her lover “is fourteen years older, with the cut features of a Gurung man” and “He was from another whole tribe” (177) because of which her parents in Nepal would not support them for marriage. Obedience becomes the manifestation of love in the case of women from third world countries. Home is miscoded here as obedience where tradition plays an important role. However, the narrator says that in America if a person follows this kind of tradition he/she will be called “indecisive, unsure, or weak”. The girl mentions about the Baptist preachers who invite her for prayer but they “make her feel like a foreigner”. Therefore, she does not like to meet them rather she focuses on her own works. She gets letter from her parents, which again reminds her of the winter fogs of Kathmandu and she waits for her lover’s letter.

When she tells her cousin about her fear for job at Jack in the Box, he says “Try McDonald’s. Try Burger King. Don’t be afraid, that’s the most important thing. Pretend you’re American” (178). Identity as performance has been critiqued in the story. Performance itself is societal construction where an individual is always performing his/ her identity. This new construction of identity somehow includes the act of mimicry where an individual pretends to be something else or someone else. While performing their new identity they are displaced from the reality. The use of the words and phrases in the story such as ‘jurisdiction’, ‘prerogative dominion’, ‘district’, ‘territory compass’ are talking about space. The narrative shows how despite of borders heterogeneity is difficult to maintain, how borderlines become the places of differences as well as similarities and they overlap on each other. When she receives handwritten letter from her lover she finds the sound of his words ‘unnatural’ and the narrator says that she has started to accept the American way of using words, which makes the Nepali way of using words unnatural to her; therefore she “puts the letter off”. In response to the letter, she just sends an email to her lover that is very formal kind of correspondence as there is no intimacy and it shows a kind of ritualised relation. The narrator also mentions the phrases such as “Do your own thing”, “You’ll have to decide that for yourself”, “If you don’t look out for yourself, no one else will”(179) that show that individualism is more celebrated as American term. The dominant concept of individualism in America makes the people more self-cantered which is completely opposite to the traditions in third world countries.

The people from third world countries bear the thought that it is easy to get a job in America with high salary, which is a misconception. The narrative shows this reality explicitly that how it is difficult to find a job in America as the girl visits various places asking for a job. The narrative also questions the natural human relationships in the story when the girl thinks that she has not said many things to Jenny who is her friend as the narrative describes “she wonders what kind of friendship are formed here” (180). When the narrative describes about her experience in job, we find that she becomes a mother figure for her co-workers Matt and Denise; it happened because she was from a conventional background. “The air is moist in this yearlong monsoon of her life” this line suggests that there is no sunshine in her life and it is always moist. Flowers like Holly, Magnolia, and Rhododendron make her to think about home but she also accepts that fact that she never had seen Rhododendron the national flower of Nepal closely in Nepal bur she sees them in America. The narrator says that the girl starts to run in shorts one day; she develops a kind of conversation with her body and starts to listen her body. Which she never thought of to do in Nepal she starts to do it in America without any hesitation. Her body itself becomes a new host land in the process of remaking herself.

Her lover’s calls do not create any kind of excitement inside of her anymore. She somewhere starts to accept the American way of living, which she could not accept in the beginning. She also accepts the invitation of the Baptist preachers; the landscape is not outside of her as if she is married to the place and it is shaping her consciousness. She is looking for the representation of herself and her new life that is more adventurous. The story also refers the radical shifting of her thought process through her actions. Now she starts to vocalise her confusions and she tells her lover that she is not sure about their marriage anymore that they planned before, which is really a big decision for her. Here for the first time the narrator describes the life story of the girl where the girl tells a story to herself. This story is very personal as well as political. Although it is her personal story but here, she represents every woman who belongs to the developing countries where traditions seem to be cruel to women. May be this is the reason for what the narrator has not mentioned the girl’s name throughout the story. This girl mentions in her story: “She grew up in a very traditional society, where women were considered the property of men- either their father or husband”. Her own home seems to be a prison house for her; “She didn’t love her lover any more, and she didn’t love her parents. She just wanted to escape” and she falls “in love with a larger dream of freedom” when parents send her to America (183). The narrator uses words like “ulterior”, “vacillate”, “walled”, “xenophobia” that unveil the feelings of the girl regarding her relationship which she detects as an impediment in her way to achieve freedom.

The girl does not tell her friends that she is not going to stay anymore in America and she does want to share her plans with them. She learns to deal with the customers at her working place and she can be found here to join the conversation with her co-workers Denise and Matt, which seemed to be difficult for her in the past days. When she meets Jenny and her husband for dinner, Jenny’s question “Do you eat salad in Nepal?” appears to her “remote”. Although Jenny never visited Nepal, she asked this wired question out of her previous experience in Kashmir, which is not the part of Nepal, by Saying that “When I was trekking in Kashmir we didn’t eat anything that hadn’t been cooked thoroughly”(185). This kind of question and statement shows that how the people in developed countries bear the idea that all the developing countries have same kind of food habits and other things even if they do not have idea about the different locations. She feels that all these people whom she met in America “She won’t remember their faces a year from now”. During the last days before leaving America, she barely goes out of her room and she informs Mariana that she is “going to Indiana” (185).  Although she tried hard to accept the American way of living in every aspect, but when her lover for the last time says, “I love you” in English she finds it artificial. Here one can find this girl with strange kind of emotions regarding her experiences (her idea of American dream and breakdown of that idea in reality, the challenges she faces in assimilating herself into that condition, her attachment towards freedom, disconnection with her loved ones in her homeland and her journey towards her inner self consciousness) that she gained during the period she lived in America as being “illegal alien”.

Before she moves to Indiana from America, she informs her parents by calling them. Here the mentioned numbers of consonants and vowels from Nepali language, as the narrator describes, “she speaks the thirty-six consonants and twelve vowels of Nepali a little less quickly than she used to” show that how the girl is using her own language in a limited way even if she talking to her parents. She tells them that she will be living with her cousin in Indiana and she repeats this thing three times. This kind of conversation shows a kind of disconnection with her mother tongue and breakdown of her relationship with her parent. However, she neither informs them about her diasporic condition of living with the identity of “illegal alien” nor she tells them about her plan for not returning to her homeland; because “these are the messages the Nepali language does not relay”. Being a girl from the conventional background of Nepali culture she is not allowed to take such kind of decisions about her future, that is why she informed her parent in limited words without giving any details about her plans. The narrator further describes, “That’s neither here nor there. In Nepali, the expression goes: “Neither from here nor from there.” (186).

Thapa uses the definition of “Zero-sum” to show the real condition of this girl at this point of her life. She came to America from Nepal with the hope that she would get better education; job moreover a secured better life there. At first, she faced different kind of challenges in the processes of accepting the new location, a different environment, different way of living, food habits, foreign language etc. At some point, she started to accept all these things by recovering all her limitations, which helped her to become a new person who can make her own choices and decisions about herself but still she remained “illegal alien” there. However, this process of becoming someone else made her to go away from her homeland and even made her to do away with the memories of homeland; it pushed her to that extent where she was not able to speak comfortably in her own mother tongue with her parent and she denied to go back to her own place. She is completely lost in it, neither has she become an American in complete sense nor she remains a Nepali girl who used to like the dust around her homeland, “the plump flesh of aubergine of burned fenugreek and spinach. Bitter ground....” (173). She thinks that the story she narrated to herself, she did it “in a language that is completely foreign” (186).  Finally, she says good-bye to her friends and they wish her good luck. The narrator suddenly says: “There was a woman. There was a woman who” and this sentence remains incomplete. The reason behind the use of this incomplete sentence is that the story of this girl is not yet finished, her journey as “illegal alien” still is in process because she is going to Indiana where again she have to face new challenges as she faced earlier so the girl’s story does not have an end. The narrator says at last that the girl is “longing for what she can’t return to” when she was about to leave from her place at America. Even if she misses “The warm vapours of tilled earth, her lover’s breath”, she can’t return to her place. Home is present only in her memory, in the memory of “tilled earth” (187).

Thapa intentionally writes her tale to unravel existing reality, which lies in global projection of possibilities engaging people to dream high or to search beyond definite possibilities of human being. Her attempt to dismantle the concept of “American Dream” is based to critique fundamental diasporic imagination and at the same time to foreground new meaning to diasporic conceptualisation leading to insightfulness to the discourse. Thapa seems to add new resonance and meaning while imagining American Dream. Thapa has tried to expose the unexplainable situation encountered by a diasporic soul in a land of dream and society full of promises and dreams, juxtaposing to the deep rooted stereotypical and old ages articulations, and providing space for the proliferation of human possibilities. Through the narrative “Tilled Earth” Thapa examined the situational contexts of progressive projection, a dream never ending, and existing reality in the reference of globalized world. She also seems to suggest that there is no accomplishment of a desire or dream and life keeps on moving and inventing newness and possibilities at each moment.


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