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Isabella Colberg, 2021 1st Place Critical Analysis

Submissions for the Critical Analysis category should critically evaluate or analyze a piece of literature, a theatrical performance, a work of visual art, a historical moment, a philosophical argument, a social movement, etc. Submissions should not exceed 20 pages. Isabella (Bella) Colberg wrote the 1st place submission in the Critical Analysis Category for the 2021 President’s Writing Awards.

About Bella

Bella Colberg

Hi, my name is Bella Colberg. I am a third year undergraduate pursuing a major in English Teaching with a minor in Linguistics. I am originally from Longview, Washington and lived in Cypress, Texas before coming to Boise, Idaho. After graduating, I plan to go into teaching. I believe writing is incredibly powerful both as a creative outlet and critical instrument. I see literature as a tool to help people use their own voices, which is why I am passionate about becoming an educator in this field. I hope to foster a love for writing and literature in students that I was grateful to find in my own schooling experience. In my free time, I enjoy reading, hanging out with friends, and seeing live music. Lately, you can also find me doing punch needle, getting into film photography, or making playlists.

Postcolonial Trauma in “Gods Go Begging”

Gods Go Begging by Alfredo Véa presents a deeply personal narrative through the lens of defense attorney, Jesse Pasadoble, offering an intimate exploration of various identities and their systematic marginalization in post-Vietnam-War era San Francisco. By investigating these social roles and their labels, Véa represents the complexity of trauma and the dynamic of oppressed versus oppressor that is present within the communities of a perpetually broken society. When people, their homes, their cultures, and their traditions are forced to find a limited solace within identities pre-determined by a system that actively suppresses their presence, it perpetuates historical traumas of colonization, continuing to defer power away from the oppressed and towards the oppressor.

Gods Go Begging fights the social construct of labels and binaries, proclaiming a sense of agency for marginalized people, amidst their trauma. Trauma in America at its fullest is “a recalibration of feeling so violent and radical that it resists and compels memory, generating stories that cannot, yet must, be told” (Gray, 2009 pp. 129). In its very nature, trauma is chaos. As such, the stories of trauma and the many narratives woven into Véa’s writing are inherently difficult to follow at times, yet still profound. The relationship between aesthetics and politics is one that must be shattered in the same way that Véa defies societal roles. While full of rhetoric and skillful language, the gritty details of poverty, violence, sex and immorality are equally significant in addressing the topic of trauma, especially in a fervently divided America following the Vietnam War. Véa uses the reality of these injustices to connect and contextualize the war fought in Da Nang and the war fought in the streets. Through this he exposes the innately human capacity to be ground down by constant violence into “attitudes of hopeless indifference and turned into nihilistic, amoral warriors, bent only on survival and revenge” regardless of demographic status (Lough). Simultaneously, Véa tempers the discussion of trauma, breaking a binaried idea that there are clear distinctions between enemy versus ally or right versus wrong.

The writer is empowered to “represent the reality of their culture as multiple, complex, and internally antagonistic” with the hope of conveying the cultural complexity inherent to American literature (Gray, 2009 pp. 147). Being a Mexican-Filipino-Yaqui-American author and lawyer, Véa contributes an intimate knowledge and deep sympathy for San Francisco’s diverse subculture, while sharing a more complete sense of truth from the intertext as a whole. As a result of this, his narration favors authenticity over relayed speech, therefore reinstating power for the voices of the marginalized (Holland, 2003 pp. 168). However, his ambitions in writing also lead to a seemingly endless web of side characters and subplots, which although confusing at times, proves necessary in order to capture the complex narrative of postcolonial trauma in its entirety. As a novel, built upon Véa’s vulnerable reflection of his own traumas, Gods Go Begging demonstrates the honest structure of communities, the ways in which they are dismantled, and subsequently reborn.

As current institutions define right from wrong, enemy from ally, and privileged from marginalized, imperialism remains a chief societal enforcer of trauma. Véa rhetorically challenges the predetermined roles and binaries of a postcolonial world through themes extending from queer relationships, the crosscultural use of jade, the established ghetto of the Potrero Hill, and the mere act of supposing a world free from colonial scars. Through this, Gods Go Begging addresses the everchanging trauma of imperialism, as even “imagination has now been colonized” as a result of suppressive societal constructs (Gray, 2009 pp. 128). Véa rejects the presence of these labels, and further addresses the harm they have created by convincing marginalized characters to accept their belittled place in life, despite having no role in its definition. The binary proves inescapable, as even in civic triumphs, a new form of otherness will always arise, and yet the only answer to trauma seems to be the hope of escape. Perhaps at its core, Véa’s narrative serves as an example of how modernization brings attention to trauma studies as both intertwined with postcolonialism and distinguished as a unique practice. This complexity responds to the constantly evolving state of imperialism, in which the same marginalized communities are still devastated by the invalidation and perpetuation of generations of severe trauma.

Véa utilizes his literature as a form of politics, and Gods Go Begging serves this same underlying purpose. However, in literature the aesthetics of a piece are always subject to critique, and if the relationship between the aesthetics and the politics is disjointed, the author’s intentions can crumble. Gods Go Begging is one such piece where the aesthetics have been critiqued, undermining Véa’s deeper conversation about the complex portrayal of identity after trauma. While his writing may come across crazed and at times difficult to follow through so many detailed subplots, this should not be a point of failure, but an essential tool to mirror the complicated politics of postcolonial trauma. By following multiple narratives – Jesse, Biscuit Boy, Little Reggie, Padre Carvajal, Persephone and Mai – Véa uses his own identity in conjunction with authentic portrayal of each character in order to reinstate power for the voices of the marginalized. Gods Go Begging does not shy away from confusion, but instead follows the anti-linearity and self-reflexivity of modern postcolonial-trauma literature (Craps, 2008). In fact, it entirely rejects the idea that those in a point of privilege are entitled to wholly understand postcolonial trauma. Véa effectively shatters the need for politics to be aesthetically pleasing, in order to respectively shatter these predetermined societal roles and labels expected of the communities he represents.

Véa utilizes the setting of Gods Go Begging to further propel conversations of how societal labels influence experiences of trauma. Primarily, the naming of the Potrero Hill creates an ironic metaphor, as it provides a positive connotation of elevation when in reality it is subpar land that historically offers little sustenance and opportunity to its residents. This then reflects the way societal infrastructure has failed to provide adequate opportunity for growth or support to these systematically marginalized residents. The Potrero Hill offers itself as a home for trauma, almost magnetizing an array of disrupted individuals together into one cohesive community while also creating a steadfast, cynical, and deeply traumatized community of survivors. As the hill multiplies with members of the struggling lower classes, often subject to trauma through experiences in street life, war, and oppressive infrastructure, its designated name begins to develop a squalid connotation in San Francisco. Connecting marginalized individuals ranging from Vietnam War veterans to boys raised on the streets, their lives are lumped into one collectively perceived slum, negating not only their intersectionality, but their ownership of personal experience and agency of their own identity. This perpetuates a positive feedback loop where the disenfranchised only continue to be more disenfranchised, more overlooked, more rejected by their surrounding society as they fall victim to the stereotypes and labeling beyond their control.

            Véa works to disrupt the continued system of postcolonial trauma by breaking the binaried idea that there are clear and identifiable distinctions between enemy versus ally or right versus wrong. Typical American culture begs that these are rigid definitions, and yet Véa’s exploration of binaries through Jesse’s narrative reveals them to be inarguably arbitrary. In exploring the legalities of Calvin “Biscuit Boy” and Little Reggie, Véa opens a conversation into the stereotypes as well as the inevitabilities of street life for adolescent boys. He exposes their degrees of innocence and how the system has doomed them to this lifestyle, and yet he still acknowledges the extent of immorality in their actions. By introducing the importance of subjectivity to challenge the toxicity of the societal imposition of personal label makers, Véa simultaneously humanizes and brutalizes the discussion of trauma in its full complexity. While simultaneously telling the narratives of boys raised by the streets, and boys raised by the war, he connects the mutual brutality of both environments. These parallels expose how young men, when exposed to this degree of violence and trauma, are stripped of their right to succeed. It becomes almost ritual, as their human nature is ground down into “hopeless indifference” and they themselves are turned into permanent soldiers, “amoral… bent only on survival and revenge” (Lough). Padre Carvajal, soldiers like Jesse, and boys like Calvin and Little Reggie can all be broken with the same ease. There is no binary, nor societal context to deem right or wrong between these different types of soldiers. They are suffering the same trauma and fighting the same war for their own right to survive against a society that has tried to blur their identity by lumping them into one solid group of “veterans” or “thugs”.  The experiences of war become a subjective means to describe an array of traumas and battles, forced onto young men by a society that they had no chance to design. Véa’s retelling of these experiences equalizes his characters and levels the societal playing field.

Gods Go Begging points to destruction caused by careless imposition of society’s labels, but also provides a way to alleviate some of this pressure, encouraging healing through reclaimed agency in spite of perpetual historical trauma. Specifically, this can be seen in the relationship between Persephone and Mai. While local gossip labels them as “lesbians” that is not how they choose to name their own relationship. The society around them, including their own neighbors, uses this label as another way to simplify them, dismiss them, and invalidate their trauma, ultimately making them more vulnerable to oppressive violence. This seemingly simple act then acts as a recurrent stressor simultaneously building new trauma while triggering what is pre-existing (Visser, 2011). On the contrary, Persephone and Mai choose to explore the intimacy of their relationship in a non-sexual light, entirely disrupting what society expects of partners. Their connection through their relationship is based within the shared trauma of losing their husbands in war. The intimacy of their collective heartbreak is more powerful than the expectations society would impose on a typical relationship. Even in death, they find themselves wrapped in each other’s embrace just as their husbands died together in Da Nang. Despite fighting for opposing sides in war, their husbands’ final moments expressed the same comfort that Mai and Persephone were able to find in each other when they rejected the unjust limits of societal binaries. While their intimacy encompasses sexuality as well as emotion, it serves as an innocent tool for healing, and yet this is made inaccessible by the forceful imposition of relationship classifiers furthering their trauma.

Another way that Véa disrupts the standards imposed by society in a way that honors intersectionality within trauma and challenges postcolonial expectations, is through Jesse’s use of jade. Jesse is a Chicano man and yet his ability to honor the same culture that he fought against in war, while accepting the importance of his own femininity allows the stone to serve a spiritual purpose in his own life and highlights the triviality of these societal binaries. At this point, after serving in the war and witnessing division and destruction in Vietnam, then returning home to see this same oppressive disparity in the streets of San Francisco, nothing felt real for Jesse anymore. Now that his eyes had been opened to the extremity of trauma’s reach on marginalized communities, not even his relationship with Carolina mattered to him. Desperately needing something in his life to matter, he clung to his career as a defense attorney where he was able to explore the importance of cultural differences, cultural influence, and his role in these systems. Unintentionally, both the jade and the dog tags become his source of immediate comfort, grounding him to reality and supporting his recovery from trauma as he works to support his community. The jade became an extension of himself as much as the dog tags, becoming so closely connected to his identity that in times of stress he found himself sucking on the stone without even realizing it. In relying on these two objects equally, the strong line drawn in post-Vietnam society between enemy and ally is quickly blurred. By pursuing his own answers and identity in comfort and breaking his personal cycle of trauma, Jesse simultaneously began to break down the rigid categories upheld by a postcolonial society built upon ideals of oppression. The labels he broke, and the labels he chose to claim for himself then therefore became an equal source of comfort as they reclaim power for the oppressed.

The daydreamy practice of supposing is another persistent means to tackle the theme of postcolonial trauma in Gods Go Begging. Trailing hypotheticals about Mexicans in space, or the influence of jazz offered marginalized communities a necessary hope through the possibility of alternate realities. Supposing allows for not only a reclamation of agency over one’s own identity but it offers grounds of optimism in imagining a world where the privileged perspective is no longer dominant. It flips the system of postcolonial trauma on its head, and reinstates power for the oppressed, again pointing out the coincidence and triviality of hierarchies. Rewriting the potential limits of history itself is a reminder of the significance and necessity of minority experiences. No matter how disparaged these characters may be, they have this as a reminder of just how massive their impact is: at the end of it all, everything turns on jazz. They are needed, their influence is needed, and they are empowered to own their identity, their narrative, and their own labels. They are more than what society has told them to be. Supposing becomes the ultimate reclamation of agency in their own lives, even if it cannot be materialized beyond daydreams in a modern oppressive society. No one can steal, displace or colonize their power to suppose a different world.

Ultimately, Véa’s webbed narrative draws attention to trauma studies as a unique practice without undermining its intersection with postcolonialism. This modernized expression accurately responds to the turbulent and perpetual state of imperialism, as the same communities continue to find themselves in states of marginalization, oppression, violence, and injustice. Véa’s portrait of post-Vietnam San Francisco through the lives of Jesse and the diverse residents of Potrero Hill, tells the ongoing narrative of trauma as it devastates and invalidates generation after generation. Each character’s story complicates expectations of political aesthetics in literature and rewrites the possibilities for authentic explorations of identity. Gods Go Begging is not a novel of happy endings, but instead, as Padre Carvajal is carried away by the sea there is a moment of release. Offering one final act of supposing how “everything turns on jazz”, displays an ultimate surrender into one’s hope for validity, identity, difference, and ownership of their own narrative.

Works Cited

Craps, Stef, and Gert Buelens. “Introduction: Postcolonial Trauma Novels.” Studies in the Novel, vol. 40, no. 1-2, 2008. Gale Literature Resource Center.

Gray, Richard. “Open Doors, Closed Minds: American Prose Writing at a Time of Crisis.” American Literary History, vol. 21, no. 1, 2009, pp. 128-151. JSTOR.

Holland, Eugene W. “Review: Representation and Misrepresentation in Postcolonial Literature and Theory.” Research in African Literatures, vol. 34, no.1, 2003, pp. 153-173. JSTOR.

Lough, James. “Plot, Point of View Take Back Seat in Ambitious ‘Gods’.” Review of Gods Go Begging, by Alfredo Véa. The Denver Post Book Review, 31 Oct.

Véa, Alfredo. Gods Go Begging. Penguin Group, 2000.

Visser, Irene. “Trauma Theory and Postcolonial Literary Studies.” Journal of Postcolonial Writing, vol. 47, no. 3, 2011, pp. 270-282. Taylor & Francis Online.