The Societal Regulation of Identity: A Comparison of Lahiri and Soto

Jhumpa Lahiri and Christopher Soto, in their respective pieces “Hell-Heaven” and “Winter Sundays”, discuss the restrictions on cultural expression for minority groups. The claim of both authors is that there is a unique cultural identity for each person, and that society has always tried to illegitimately regulate it. Lahiri and Soto both use the disparity of cultural toleration between generations in order to explore the suppression through forced conformity of individual identity by traditional figures of authority. Both authors’ respective characters embrace open sexuality, in terms of orientation as well as promiscuity, triggering violent backlash and exposing society’s rejection of anything outside the cultural norms.

In the story “Hell-Heaven,” the mother, Boudi, refuses to accept change. For instance, when the family moves to Natick, they continue to live in the house as if they were tenants, closing the blinds in the afternoon and never repainting the walls. Thus, she is symbolically rejecting American culture as radically different from her Bengali upbringing by refusing to let the sun into her house. And since she is a housewife, who controls and stays within the domestic sphere, she is rejecting all things American from her family and her life. When the narrator, Usha, enters her teenage years and is exposed to the relatively uninhibited American culture of sexuality, Boudi tries to impose her beliefs on her. Usha recalls, “My mother must have picked up on something, for she forbade me to attend the dances that were held the last Friday of every month in the cafeteria, and it was an unspoken law that I was not allowed to date. “Don’t think you’ll get away with marrying an American, the way Pranab Kaku did,” she would say . . . and I felt her grip on me tighten.” Boudi describes marrying an American as “get[ting] away” with something, as if it were a terrible sin. To prevent this, she establishes a “grip” on Usha, seeking absolute control over her activities. Different societies reject different forms of sexual expression.

The hormonal tensions of mixed gender activities during middle and high school are anathema to the restrictive Bengali culture, while any form of homosexual activity is vilified by American culture, as seen in Soto’s poem “Winter Sundays.” The speaker in this poem is gay as well as a crossdresser, and his father is resistant to the rising cultural movement for their acceptance. The speaker describes, “My father hated faggots. The way my cock looked beneath a dress. The mismatch of his chafed knuckles and my cut cuticles. A scrambling of hands. I was always running. Mascara. Massacre. My momma would wash the red paint off my nails and face. She’d hold me like the frame of a house. No, the bars of a prison cell.” The comparison of the house to a prison cell reveals that the speaker, and the greater homosexual community, are trapped within their own homes by their own families, unable to openly express themselves. The mother holds the bars of the prison cell symbolically, unable to get in and truly understand her son. In order to smoke, the speaker is forced to make a pipe out of plastic bottles and tinfoil in the park in the middle of the night, just as the gay community is forced to hide their identity and suppress their sexual urges. Homosexuals in this poem are delegitimized by their depiction as societal anomalies. Men supposedly do not have “nails . . . [to] paint”, so when the speaker describes his red nail polish, they seemingly appear out of thin air, categorizing gays as abnormalities that necessitate elimination. The author is criticizing this sentiment, instead arguing that there is a deep discontent and genetic foundation for these openly homosexual people, and that they are justified in their sexual identification. The line “Mascara. Massacre.” is reminiscent of the 1969 Stonewall Riots, an embodiment of the widespread anti-gay violence of the era. Similarly, the speaker’s father is trying to physically beat the homosexuality out of him.

Lahiri’s and Soto’s bildungsroman narratives reveal that the characters in both works are pigeonholed from birth into a certain cultural identity and societal role by the preceding generations, whether it be national identification, religious affiliation, or familial relationships. In “Winter Sundays,” the speaker reflects on his friend Rory’s death, “But that can’t be the Truth . . . I’ll be the packing mule, carry all the burden. & you, you can be a child again; fold your church hands like dirty laundry [crease them tight]. Nobody has to know about us, not my father nor yours—No, not even God.” The etymology of the word “truth” means a pledge or covenant. The speaker feels that as a gay man, and thus part of an ostracized and oppressed group, his covenant of acceptance with God, covenant of love with his father, and his covenant of protection with society have been broken. The clasped “church hands” are enclosing the “dirty” truth of homosexuality existing in society’s midst. The use of a dash in the last line equates the speaker’s father with God, the spiritual father of all, thus extending the message of exclusion and persecution to the entire gay community. The speaker compares his new role to a “mule”; just as a mule is a courier for illegal drugs, he is assuming the responsibility after Rory’s death for carrying the illicit message of open homosexuality. The etymology of the slur “faggot” means a bundle of sticks, or something awkward that must be carried. The speaker is pledging to be the beast of burden, bearing the responsibility for absorbing the insults and harassment. The use of ampersands in this poem implies a closer relationship between the adjoining phrases than the word “and”. In the third stanza, as seen through the hammer and nail analogy, the ampersand reveals that the father’s violence towards his son is an attempt to stamp out his homosexuality, just like the Japanese proverb. The author seeks to legitimize the claim that there is a distinct and equally acceptable cultural identity for each person.

Similarly, in “Hell-Heaven,” the narrator describes the conflict between her Bengali roots and American upbringing, “Mother and I had furthermore made peace; she had acknowledged the detail that I was not only her female child, but a progeny of America as well.” The story recounts Usha’s crisis of identity as she matures, rebelling against the idealized version of what her parents want her to be. Just as “Hell-Heaven” are two opposites separated by a hyphen, so is the concept of a Bengali-American, according to Boudi. The hyphen is a symbol of the divide between the immigrants and their children, as well as from mainstream American culture. The title of the story derives from Pranab Kaku’s sudden transformation from a helpless Bengali immigrant to an Americanized, married man, as drastic as the contrast between heaven and hell. In Boudi’s eyes, America corrupts people like Pranab Kaku, letting them deviate from their Bengali identity. Later, Usha develops a crush on an American college student, Matty, much to her mother’s consternation. His green eyes symbolize the idea of the American identity; green is the color of money, which enables the American Dream, as well as the green card that many immigrants aspire to, which can be obtained through intermarriage with an American citizen. In the third stanza of “Winter Sundays,” the speaker remembers how when his father came home, “he’d grab me”. In most families, this would be a handshake or a hug. Yet the use of the ampersand shows it to be domestic abuse, revealing this violence to constitute a twisted form of love.

“Winter Sundays” is written is dialogue with the classic Robert Hayden poem “Those Winter Sundays,” which discusses the remoteness of paternal love. The cold temperature outside represents the emotionally cold relationship between father and son in both poems. “Those Winter Sundays” ends with the lines, “What did I know, what did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices?” An office can refer to a position or post, and thus an obligation, showing love to be more than hugs and kisses, but duty and responsibility as well. And just as it is only realized that the poem is a quasi-sonnet at the very end, with every other line in iambic pentameter, it is only as the son becomes more like the father as he matures that the son can recognize those actions as love. Thus, by only accepting sons that are similar to themselves, the fathers in both poems are suppressing their growth of individual identity.