Joanna, Adaina, Adrienne
11 November 2018
In literature, “ghosts” carry with them multiple, often consonant meanings. They are used to show shared history or pain, or as a physical embodiment of a soul or spector. Stemming from the West Germanic word “gást,” the term “ghost” was created by combining the Old English words of “ghoizdo,” which carries with it a connotation of anger and revenge in respect to the past, and “usgaisjan,” which, in one of its iterations, pertains to one’s soul, or life essence (OED). The combination of these two concepts led to a word that carries multiple connotations, and it is this fluidity that makes the idea of “ghosts” such an evocative rhetorical device, as it marries the ideas of unresolved history and an unhappy past with that of the supernatural. Texts such as The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts by Maxine Hong Kingston, Mean by Myriam Gurba, and Zong! by M. NourbeSe Philip all use this device to their advantage, although in slightly different scenarios. Even with the distinct ways that the authors wield this device, these texts all still exemplify how “ghosts” can be both a metaphorical and physical construct, acting as a representation of the shame, guilt, or pain that haunts their narrators.
Maxine Hong Kingston uses the concept of “ghosts” in The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts to help readers understand the narrator’s past and the trouble she had trying to blend her Western and Chinese cultures. Ghosts linger and torment the narrator as she tries to find her place in America, while still staying true to her Chinese roots that her parents do not let her forget. Kingston says, “Once upon a time the world was so thick with ghosts, I could hardly breathe; I could hardly walk, limping my way around the White Ghosts and their cars” (104). Day to day living was extremely difficult for the young girl; she could not go anywhere or do anything without these ghosts of her own confusion, pain, and guilt following her. The idea that she felt ghosts so heavily in her American town shows the level of discomfort and pressure Kingston felt from those around her. The concept of ghosts also takes on the supernatural aspect that the word is typically associated with. Kingston states, “We hid directly under the windows, pressed against the baseboard until the ghost, calling us in the ghost language so that we’d almost answer to stop its voice, gave up” (98). The fear here is quite visible, seeing as how the narrator is hiding from the ghost, so that the spirit could not come close to her. The world was a frightening place for the narrator, and the ghosts not only represent what is unfamiliar, but the intimidation that is felt when trying to figure out how to combine two cultures together peacefully.
Myriam Gurba’s Mean is about her process of growing up as a Mexican-American woman, and how she dealt with and overcame the trauma of sexual assault. She uses “ghost” in several different contexts throughout her story to enhance her thoughts and feelings about growing up, and intensify the lasting emotional and mental trauma from her assault. One way she uses “ghost” is to express how she feels about being alive. Gurba says “guilt is a ghost” (192) several times throughout the book. “Ghost” in this phrase seems to be a regret or burden that constantly follows her. Ghosts are always haunting something. Haunted mean to be, “preoccupied with an emotion or memory” (Dictionary). So when she says “guilt is a ghost” it more like she’s saying guilt is haunting her. The memory of the woman that was raped and killed by her rapist is constantly following her. Another way she uses “ghost” is when she’s describing the state of her sister. She says, “when Ofelia went to live at the hospital, she became even more of a ghost. You could see her in Dad’s scowl and in Mom’s pallor. You could feel her around Herman, as if her skeletal spirit stood behind him, peeking at you from behind his martial arts uniform. Her absence was haunting the house, and I didn’t want to be there. I ran away from her ghost” (Gurba 98). She’s comparing her sister as an actual ghost even though her sister is alive. Ofelia looks as if she’s fading away into a ghost and her ghost presence is following her family around. Her anorexia has to do with the expectations of women to be thin and have a “model” body. These expectations are Lastly, Gurba uses the word “ghost” as a way to tell readers that her sexual assault and rapist still haunts her, like she’s reliving it over again. She says, “His face tried to cuddle between my legs. His chin tapped my bladder, digging. I peed to get rid of him, but he drank these repellent/resplendent showers. His ghost, his memory, was thirsty” (Gurba 235). The use of “ghost” in this quote refers to an imprint. Her rapist left an imprint on her, which she can’t get away from. His “ghost” is following her around like a hallucination or a figment and he continues to do so because he wants more from her. She feels like his “ghost” is eager for more than what he took from her that day when he sexually assaulted her.
For Phillip, the “ghosts” that Zong! evokes are the imagined embodiment of the enslaved people killed during the Zong massacre. In this mass slaughter over 140 enslaved people were thrown off of the British slave ship Zong and left to drown at sea in 1781, the captain of the ship looking to collect on the loss of their insurance (The Black Past). This event “haunts” her; the lives lost at sea over 200 years ago suddenly resurrected by her writing, and given the means to make their lost “voices” heard. In “Notanda,” Phillip writes, “I come – albeit slowly – to the understanding that Zong! is hauntological; it is a work of haunting, a wake of sorts, where the specters of the dead make themselves present,” (Phillips 201). “Hauntological,” as Phillips deems her poetry, refers to the philosophical ideal of Hauntology, created by Jacques Derrida, that describes an object, deemed a “ghost,” that is neither present nor absent, that is neither dead nor alive (Hauntology). By labeling her work as such, Phillips captures the dichotomy of the word “ghost.”. For her, the voices that she channels throughout this text are neither present, as their owners have been lost for centuries, nor absent, as they are still with us today, bearing influence and meaning upon present day society. These voices are neither alive, as they drowned at sea, nor are they dead, as they still stand with Phillips, influencing and shaping the way she creates her narrative. Phillip goes on to write, “ … [it’s] a concept that haunts me. As do the ‘generations of skulls and spirits.’ The spirits in the text and of the text are working. Working against meaning, working for meaning, working in and out of meaning,” (204). It’s clear that these “ghosts” that badger at her periphery, whether they be the actual embodiments of those lost aboard the Zong, or simply the manifestation of the guilt and sorrow she feels over this tragic event, influence her work greatly. They are not just spirits who exist only within their own memory, but are rather, “in the text and of the text,” haunting both Phillips and the words she writes, a constant reminder of the tragedy that happened over two centuries in the past.
All three of these pieces of literature elicit thoughts about how much the past can influence the present. In understanding the ways ghosts are used to show the complicated emotions that encompass traumatic experiences, the reader gains a greater interpretation, appreciation, and comprehension for the text presented to them.
Boley, Oklahoma (1903- ) | The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed, blackpast.org/gah/zong-massacre-1781.
“Discover the Story of EnglishMore than 600,000 Words, over a Thousand Years.” Ether, n. : Oxford English Dictionary, www.oed.com/view/Entry/78064?rskey=w0EEdO&result=1#eid.
Gallix, Andrew. “Hauntology: A Not-so-New Critical Manifestation.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 17 June 2011, www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2011/jun/17/hauntology-critical.
Gurba, Myriam. Mean. Coffee House Press, 2017.
Gurba, Myriam. Mean. Coffee House Press, 2017.
“Haunted.” Dictionary.com, Dictionary.com, www.dictionary.com/browse/haunted.
Kingston, Maxine Hong. The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts. Vintage Books, 1989.
Philip, Marlene Nourbese. Zong! as Told to the Author by Setaey Adamu Boateng. Wesleyan Univ. Press, 2008.
Special thanks to Tao Yaun from unsplash