Reflections of the Self in “Infidel”

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As I prepared to teach Pornsak Pichetshote, Aaron Campbell, and Jose Villarrubia’s Infidel, a lot of things stuck out. However, when I reread the haunted house story where the monsters that terrorize the characters are the manifestations of racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia, I became intrigued by a few specific scenes where the monsters appear in the reflections of objects such as knives and mirrors. Today, I want to look at those scenes and discuss them within a larger context of ideas that I have been exploring on this blog and in my other writings.

The main scene I want to focus on occurs at the end of the first chapter and the at the beginning of the second chapter. Here, Aisha, a Pakistani-American Muslim woman, sees the monsters and they attack her. During this episode, she grabs a knife and stabs at them. When she comes out of the moment and the monsters disappear, she discovers that she has stabbed at her mother-in-law Leslie, tearing a hole in her nightshirt.

Throughout the first issue, Leslie’s Islamophobia lurks underneath the surface. She tells Aisha that as a thank you for helping her connect with her granddaughter Kris she’ll teach Aisha how to make one of her son Tom’s favorites dishes, a baked ham. Tom overhears this and chastises his mother for forgetting that pork is haram in Islam and that Aisha does not eat pork.

Tom and Aisha go outside and argue on the street. There, Tom tells Aisha to watch out because beneath Leslie’s compassionate veneer lurks her racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia. The next day Aisha’s best friend Medina reminds her of the time that Kris found Aisha’s hijab and Leslie ripped it from her granddaughter’s hands telling her, “They don’t know any better! Women who wear this let people get killed for drawing cartoons. They let men throw rocks at girls like you — !”

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Aisha tells Medina that the incident occurred years ago and people change. To which Medina replies, “Yeah, but racism’s a cancer that doesn’t get cured. The best you get is remission.” Lillian Smith compared racism to a cancer in her speech “The Right Way is Not the Moderate Way” saying, “The tragic fact is, neither cancer nor segregation will go away while we close our eyes. Both are dangerous diseases that have to be handled quickly and skillfully because they spread, they metastasize throughout the organism.” In order to confront one’s own racism, xenophobia, or Islamophobia, one must open their eyes to the hate within in order to work through it.

After Aisha stabs at Leslie she drops the knife and the two stand facing one another. The final page of chapter one contains three panels: two small panels in the upper left and a full page panel that takes up most of the page. In the first panel, we see the knife and Leslie looks down at it. Reflected in the steel, we see the image of one of the monsters. Since Leslie picks up the knife, we assume that Leslie looks at her own reflection, but instead of seeing herself she sees one of the monsters.

The next panel switches perspectives and we see Leslie reaching down for the knife, perplexed at the image staring back at her, and she asks, “What . . . What is . . . ?” Over the image we also see Tom’s comments to Medina. He has already told Medina that he knows that Leslie puts on a front of compassion, and he concludes by telling her that he hopes he is wrong about his mother harboring racist, xenophobic, and Islamophobic thoughts. However, as the speech box in the large panel shows, he falls back and says, “I just know I’m not . . .”

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In the large panel, we look over Leslie’s shoulder towards Aisha who stands facing us, fear in her eyes as a tear streams down her right cheek. Leslie holds the knife up, and we see the reflection contained within. We, along with Leslie, see the monster staring back at us. This moment shows Leslie’s racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia reflected back at her, and it also shows it reflected back onto us, the reader, as well. By having the reader look into the reflective knife blade, Infidel challenges us to think about ourselves, our own inward demons that stem from our cultural upbringing.

At the opening of chapter two, Aisha goes to the doctor to see if her Ativan is causing her to see the monsters and react to them. Her doctor tells her that Ativan causes hallucinations and prescribes her a new medication.This scene occurs over about five panels, beginning with a panel of strawberries and the new medication on the kitchen counter, a panel of Aisha at the pharmacy, a panel of Aisha at the doctor’s office, another of her at the pharmacy, and concluding with a flashback of her stabbing Leslie.

The flashback panel is a zoomed in image of the final panel from chapter one. Again, we look over Leslie’s shoulder, see the monster in the knife, and stare at Aisha in front of Leslie. Aisha thinks to herself, “The alternative [to hallucinating] is that two nights ago I went crazy . . . or worse.” Just as she does in the first panel, Aisha asks, “Leslie?” as they stand facing each other. Leslie looks at the knife and tells her daughter-in-law, “I could have sworn . . . I saw something.”

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Leslie saw herself reflected in the knife, an image of her inner demons, an image of the monsters that stalk through the corners of her mind. Over the course of the second chapter, leading up to her death, it seems that Leslie realizes her racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia and works to change course, to root out the cancer that has infected her psyche. She opens her eyes to herself, to her own issues. In so doing, Infidel calls upon readers to do the same.

After Infidel’s debut, Matthew Kirshenblatt wrote to Pornaski Pichetshote, Aaron Campbell, and Jose Villarruba about the impact that the series had on him as a reader, specifically he notes the potential for the characters to connect across cultures, ethnicities, and religions, but they become hindered in this connection through the baggage they carry, a lot of it unconscious. He continues by stating that the series affects him because he watches “Tom and Leslie trying to overcome prejudice, and kind of feeling a sense of futility in doing so.” When Leslie sees the monster staring back at her in the knife, she recognizes her prejudices and works harder to overcome them.

Kirshenblatt continues by stating that “Leslie has prejudice and that there is a passive aggressive past in that within her.” This comes up, as he points out, when she clutches her purse on the subway as a Black Nation of Islam member walks down the aisle. We get an insight into Leslie’s past as she speaks with Kris in chapter 2. As they look for Kris’ Captain Phasma, Kris pull out one of Aisha’s hijabs, and Leslie, holding the hijab, tells her granddaughter, “I’m sorry for yelling at you about this. That was very wrong of me.”

Leslie’s apology is followed by a flashback of Leslie ripping the hijab off of Kris’ head as she screams at her. Kris’ dialogue in the present lays over the scene. She tells her grandmother, “That’s ok. Aisha said you weren’t mad. She said you were just scared.” What was Leslie scared of? We never get much with Leslie’s past, but when Kris asks her what scared her, we see three panels where Leslie reflects on where that fear may have originated.

The first panel is wordless and shows Leslie in profile as she contemplates her response to Kris. In the next panel, she turns towards the reader, and Kris, as she says, “I guess honey, your grandpa. Before you were born. He . . . well, he was working when one day something bad happened.” Leslie doesn’t specify what happened, and we’re left wondering what exactly occurred. Considering that the narrative takes place in New York, we can assume Leslie’s husband died on 9/11. Leslie continues, turning back into a profile, looking away from Kris and the reader, telling her granddaughter, “And I guess seeing you in this brought up bad memories. But that’s not an excuse. It’s just sometime’s being scared . . .”

Leslie’s words trail over into the next panel which shows Aisha climbing the stairs and hearing the conversation. Leslie asks Kris, “Does Aisha ever talk to you about . . . I don’t know, God or . . . or Allah or . . .” During the latter part of Leslie’s question, we see from Aisha’s point of view as she sees them talking near the window, backs to us. Kris tells her grandmother that Aisha told her to wait till she’s older to pray, to see if she wants to, and then she asks her grandmother if praying is just giving God or Allah thanks for what one has why can’t she just pray now. Here, Aisha stands in the doorway, leaning on the frame, with a sort of smile on her face.

In her conversation with Kris, we see Leslie working through her own prejudices, specifically her Islamophobia. These prejudices stem, in part, from what happened to her husband, but they also became exacerbated through the media’s depiction of the events that happened in the apartment building, the depiction of the explosion being caused by a “lone-wolf Islamic terrorist.” Earlier, Mendia watches a news program where the talking heads discuss the “Rise of Extremism.” As she watches the pundits go on and on talking about the explosion, she sighs, “Oh, look, we’re getting namechecked again.”

This same language appears throughout Infidel, and it a rhetoric that the text works to interrogate. We know that Ahmad Shahazad did not detonate the explosive material. We know that Mitchell Fisher, a white resident of the complex, wanted Ahmad out of the complex because he thought he was a terrorist, and when him and his girlfriend went to Ahmad’s apartment, they tripped over the boxes outside and the explosion occurred. We do not know what, if anything, Ahmad had planned, and it does not necessarily matter. What matters in this discussion is that Mitchell’s actions, his racist actions at trying to get Ahmad and others he did not approve of out of the complex, set off the explosion and he haunts the building. At the end, when Medina sets off an explosion in the basement to rid the building of Mitchell and the other racist, xenophobic, and Islamophobic entities, her sacrifice gets labeled by the media as a terrorist act.

Grace, another of the building’s occupants, works to be politically correct, but she buys into the fear and rhetoric and calls Aisha a killer after, during an encounter with the monsters, she appears to push Kris and Leslie down the stairs, putting Kris in a coma and killing Leslie. As she drinks coffee with Ethan and Reynolds, she talks about not wanting to be racist when interacting with Ahmad and she believes that Aisha purposefully pushed Kris and Leslie down the stairs. She tells Ethan and Reynolds, “So, no, I’m not automatically giving those people the benefit of the doubt just because I might sound closeminded.”

Even though Grace knows Aisha, she still labels her as “those people” alongside Ahmad, refusing to state her name. When Grace and Ethan enter Reynolds’ apartment before they go to coffee, Ethan sees the reflection of a monster in the mirror as Reynolds stares into it Grace, however, does not. Later, when a monster attacks her partner Miguel, he sees it but she doesn’t. Unlike Leslie, Grace does not see or acknowledge the prejudices she has imbibed, so she does not work through them. However, Leslie and Ethan do see themselves reflected in the mirrors, the monsters staring back at them.

When Leslie sees the reflection of the racist, xenophobic, and Islamophobic monster staring back at her in the knife blade in Infidel, we begin to see her own self-reflection of the deep rooted prejudices she holds, specifically during her conversation with her granddaughter Kris. Other characters see the same type of reflection, notably Ethan, or they don’t, notably Grace. In each of these cases, when someone sees the monster reflected back at them, they begin to examine and question themselves.

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As Reynolds gets ready in the mirror, we see him tying his tie and straightening it. One of the monsters appears, reflected back at him, crawling over his shoulder. Reynolds does not see the monster reflected back at him, and in the final panel, the monster approaches Reynolds’ neck, preparing to bite. At this moment, Grace and Ethan walk into his apartment. Ethan stares at Reynolds and asks, “What the fuck?” We then see a panel where Reynolds turns around facing his friends as the monster blurs out of the mirror.

The next panel shows all three standing around, and Ethan tells them, “There-there was this weird blur . . . in the mirror. Grace, you saw it, right?” Grace responds by asking, “Saw what?” Earlier, Grace does not see or feel the monster in the plant when all of the friends meet together in Medina and Ethan’s apartment and talk. Aihsa sees it appear over Grace’s shoulder as she tells the group about her reactions to Ahmad Shahazad. She tells them, “I mean, I didn’t realize he was Arab until he was in the news . . .” Here, the monster appears in the plant behind her shoulder. Aisha jumps, and no one in the room saw the monster except for Aisha and Ethan.

When Ethan and Reynolds go to the basement to look for Arthur Quinn’s belongings, they have a conversation about race, and here, we see that Ethan has been thinking and working through these thoughts for some time while Reynolds hasn’t. This is why Ethan sees the monster in the reflection and Reynolds doesn’t. Ethan points out that Grace thinks Aisha murdered Leslie and injured Kris, and Reynolds responds by saying, “Yeah, she also said, ‘Those people.’ You caught that, right? . . . You know, I’ve read posts from people online spouting racist-sounding shitm but to have someone sitting right in from of me.” For Reynolds, he has not actively engaged with looking at himself or others in regard to the roots of prejudice.

We see this when later in the narrative Ethan tells Medina that they should call Reynolds before going back into the apartment building. Medina tells him, “You said he was in the room with it but didn’t see anything. Like that bitch who accused Aisha of pushing Leslie. How can we trust any of them if they can’t see?” Here, Medina points out that while Reynolds has friends from different races, ethnicites, and religious backgrounds he does not see the manifestations of prejudice that surround him. Unlike Ethan, Aisha, Medina, and more who either confront prejudice every day or who have interrogated their own prejudice, he has remained blind to the cancer spreading within him.

Ethan asks what Medina has against Reynolds, and she replies, “I’m just saying, he’s a trust fund kid who went to a bougie private school, and grew up in a snow-white suburb.” Medina’s comment points out that Reynolds, for all of his worldliness, was isolated racially, culturally, ethnically, and otherwise. This isolation conjoined with the worldliness allowed him to expand his horizons but also keep him insulated within the “snow-white suburb,” thus failing to allow him to truly examine his own whiteness and prejudices.

Ethan, on the other hand, has worked to think about his own position. In the basement, he tells Reynolds, “I’ve actually had long conversations about whether my best friend in high school was racist.” Here, Ethan talks about his friend Rebecca Dean who said she only dates white guys because she has a “type.” Initially, Ethan viewed this as racist, but then he started thinking and tells Reynolds, “I don’t know anymore, man. I’ve talked to people about it, and nobody agrees.”

The next panel shows Ethan and Reynolds looking at a shirt they found, and the panel appears to be from one of the monster’s point of view. It has red shading throughout, as other panels in the narrative do when it feels like characters are being watched. In this panel, Ethan says, “I mean, I only recently met a black girl I was attracted to. Before that, I was never attracted to one. So was I racist? But then again, I could say the same thing about redheads. And if I was gay, am I misogynistic for not being attracted to women?”

Even though we do not get a definitive answer from Ethan about his inquires, the mere fact that he has thought about these issues and has explored them within himself shows that he is on the path to uprooting the prejudices within himself. This moment, and Leslie’s move towards self-examination, reminds me of Lillian Smith’s Killers of the Dream when she discusses an interracial dinner party she hosted on Screamer Mountain. She says that a white woman, who knew that eating with Black women was right, still felt nauseous about the dinner and the nausea did not subside until after the dinner was over.

The woman told Smith that the nausea arose from the “bottom of her personality.” It arose from the deep seated roots and the fast spreading cancer that suffocated her being from the inside. These could be trace to “her childhood training.” Throughout Infidel, this is what characters such as Leslie and Ethan struggle with, and it is what Grace and Reynolds fail to see. It also highlights that even though Leslie and Ethan are working through these issues the pull of the “childhood [and cultural] training” remain strong.

Writing about Smith’s anecdote, philosopher George Yancy states, “This is an incredible example because it demonstrates that having a serene conscience or having an epistomologically correct belief does not ipso facto militate against the impact of one’s white racism.” Even when individuals interrogate themselves and try to uproot all of the “childhood training” that fuels their “white racism,” they have residual debris left within them, floating around like detritus. It remains, dormant and stagnant, waiting for the moment to resurrect. Eradication is the only option. Eradication and the recognition that when it begins to resurrect one squashes it immediately, refusing to let it grow and spread. Unless one can recognize it, it will overtake a person’s psyche, and they will become blind to the monster reflected in the mirror and the monsters that travel with them throughout their day to day lives.

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Here, you will find reflections on African American, American, and Southern Literature, American popular culture and politics, and pedagogy.

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