Differing Morals and World Views in ‘Paradise of the Blind’ and ‘Tiny Sunbirds Far Away’
Duong Thy Huong’s Paradise of the Blind (1988) and Christie Watson’s Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away (2014) explore the difference in morals between tradition and modernity to demonstrate that this constant conflict is critical for change in society. Paradise of the Blind is a bildungsroman text, which analyses the difference in morals between Vietnamese protagonist Hang, her family and her 1980’s post Vietnam war socio-political landscape. Tiny Sunbirds Far Away explores female heroine Blessing’s battle to comprehend the complexities of tradition, politics and race as she is thrust into the rural, oil-producing Niger Delta. Both texts critique key cultural issues, and how their protagonists aim to change traditional, outdated ways of thinking by their society by consistently striving in times of adversity.
In Paradise of the Blind, Hang is able to understand how her morals conflict with the status quo as she examines her own family and their surrounding society. The novel, a political allegory shows the direct parallelism of the relationship between Hang’s mother, Que and her uncle, Chinh, and the mistreatment of the working class in Vietnam by the Communist party. Huong constructs the character of Que to criticize the male-dominated culture. Que shows her devotion to Chinh, the only living male in her family by her readiness to starve herself and Hang in order to provide gifts of food for Chinh and his family. “I brought you some goodies.” (pg. 119), Que says to Chinh. In Vietnamese culture, food is a symbol of acceptance, benevolence and love, and the symbol of food in the novel showcases her emotional attachment to her brother, despite his inconsiderate actions. Chinh berates Que, shouting, “The merchants, the pretty tradespeople, they’re only exploiters. You cannot remain with these para-sites.” (pg. 50). As a radical activist of the principles of Marxism, he demands her to leave the merchants and begin a factory job, despite knowing that the income will be nowhere near sufficient for Que to support herself, and Hang. Growing up, Chinh remains a constant in Hang’s life, despite the fact that he is deaf to her personal needs and values. Hang questions herself, “What was I doing here with Uncle Chinh? Perhaps I would never be free of him.” (pg. 202) Her broken relationship with him leads to her breaking free from her traditional male-dominated culture, relying solely on herself and growing up into an independent young woman. Ultimately, the lack of importance of a patriarchal society to Hang compared to the older generation allows her to create a difference between the life she chooses for herself and the life her mother chose to lead.
In Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away, Blessing criticizes the unshakable, yet the dangerous tradition of female genital mutilation in the Niger Delta as she works as a midwife with her grandmother. The beginning of the novel represents her as an unsure, young girl trapped by circumstance. However, the audience follows her as her maturity and confidence grow when she battles to assert her own morals on this topic. Her grandmother states, “Birth is a problem always … Many girls die. One from every ten.” (pg. 157), yet still chooses to continue this practice. Being educated, Blessing struggles to comprehend how people allow genital mutilation to take action in the modern world as she witnesses it’s devastating impact on women. She further questions her grandmother, who simply replies, “The main reason is tradition, and holding onto culture.” (pg.157). People believe that the genitals of a female are harmful to babies and men. To Blessing, no tradition is important enough to risk a human life. Her grandmother advises her, “You will have to make decisions of your own, for your own reasons. This is the job.” (pg.339), From this point, Blessing has determined her own morals, and vows, “I will never cut a girl.” (pg. 340). Her morals are what further drives her passion as a birth attendant, as she wishes to educate the people of the Niger Delta about the dangers of female genital mutilation. Experiencing this, Blessing is able to identify the ‘flaws’ of the traditional way of thinking and strives to create a safer future for the girls in the Niger Delta.
As Paradise of the Blind moves along, Huong proves how the strength of an individual’s morality will consistently withstand in times of adversity through the actions of Hang. Hang constantly unties herself from traditional values in various scenes, whilst staying true to her personal morals. Huong plays with the emotional mother-daughter relationship between Hang and Que to demonstrate to the audience how important Hang’s sense of morality is to her, in a scene where she lashes out at her mother for not following her personal values. When Aunt Tam calls Que out for starving Hang to feed her nephews, and Que reacts by lying to Tam about where her money goes. In response, Hang explodes, “You lied to her… You told me never to lie, and since then I never have.” (pg. 187) Her mother becomes so furious that she proceeds to kick Hang out of the house, yet it is Hang’s value for the woman who raised her, coupled with Que’s sense of family devotion that brings them back together. However, in the way that Hang rejects society’s traditional ideologies, she stays true to her morals and forks a path of self-independence. “The traditional subservient role allocated to women in Vietnamese culture” (pg. 195), played by Que is not something that Hang wants for herself. Instead, under her Aunt Tam’s guidance, she makes plans to further her education by returning to university. Hence, the constant appearance of Hang’s moral conscience in times of hardship fork out a consistent path for change in society.
Watson’s novel displays how the unwavering appearance of one’s morals can have an impact on others through Blessing’s way of dealing with conflict. After Blessing’s white stepfather, Dan is kidnapped by local delinquents calling themselves ‘The Sibeye Boys’, a group of local women rally together in a peaceful protest against the government about the ongoing issues of violence, pollution and injustice in the Niger Delta. After the rally, she states, “We danced those guns to silence.” (pg. 431). In Nigerian culture, dance is a symbol of peace and Watson’s symbolisation of dance showcases that in a time of struggle, Blessing stays true to her values of peace. By not reciprocating the violence, she sends out a message to everyone that there is a way to handle political situations without guns. Blessing also shows her devotion to the Niger Delta, and the value of it’s culture to her by her choice to stay when her mother moves to the UK to be with Dan. “I belong here. I am home.” (pg. 457), she says to her grandmother. By staying in Nigeria, she goes on to spread peace in her community, and educate the people about childbirth. Thus, by imposing her positive values on her society, Blessing is the start of a brighter future.
Paradise of the Blind and Tiny Sunbirds Far Away both follow their respective protagonists, Hang and Blessing, through the development of their personal morals that differ from the social norm. Through the conflict between the younger and older generations, the audience is able to understand how cultural influence and external factors help mould an individual’s morality. Therefore, an understanding is gained on the way one develops and uses their morals to create a change in society.
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