115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

“It Came from Neither and Both”: Making Mestizaje Visible Through Silk’s Transnational Connections in Cisneros’ Caramelo and Eugenides’ Middlesex

Morgane Flahault, Indiana University, Bloomington

Silk plays a central part in Sandra Cisneros’ Caramelo and Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, as a material object and as a metaphor for mestizaje. Paradoxically, it stands both as a symbol of tradition and a practice of resistance, by undermining the idea of a heterogeneous national culture.

Proposal: 

Silk plays a central role in Sandra Cisneros’ Caramelo and Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, both as a material object, and as a metaphor for mestizaje – which manifests as ethnic and cultural syncretism. In Caramelo, Cisneros writes of the origins of the art of making silk rebozos (a traditional Mexican shawl) that no one remembers whether it came from the East or the West: “Perhaps, as is often the case with things Mexican, it came from neither and both” (93). By comparing Cisneros’ and Eugenides’ treatment of silk as a symbol of mestizaje, in Chicana and in Greek American contexts, I track the ways their narrators weave the history of silk as a transnational practice into their family story, and how they associate the concept of mestizaje with the rebozo and the process of silk-making. I use Levander & Levine’s hemispheric approach to analyze silk as a material and as a metaphorical thread that traces back “cross-filiations among peoples, regions, diasporas, and nations” (Levander & Levine 2008). I also use a transcontinental approach, which allows me to expand Caramelo’s usual analysis beyond the Americas, and to reconceptualize Middlesex as more than an essentially Greek-American relation, to integrate their study within East-West rhizomatic routes and to investigate their ties to colonial history.

The art of raising silkworms and weaving silk threads allegedly originated in Eastern Asia, but its production and commerce have created a global network for thousands of years. The Silk Road has fostered political and economic development, and is an extraordinary repository of cultures from across the world, from Eastern Asia to the Americas, through the Mediterranean, Africa and the Byzantine empire. Silk as it appears in Caramelo and Middlesex is always described as a transnational artifact and practice, and yet it also appears as idiosyncratic and a symbol of national or regional pride. Additionally, the rebozo and the art of silk-making are closely linked to a figure of mestizaje in the novels: Candelaria, the Mexican mixed-race illegitimate half-sister of the narrator, whose skin color is the same as the caramelo rebozo; and Fard Muhammad/Jimmy Zizmo, the “mulatto” Greek relative of doubtful origins, who starts a silk factory for the Nation of Islam in Detroit.

For the two immigrant families that compose Caramelo and Middlesex, silk is a reminder of the hybridity of the fabric of the U.S.; a multicultural, multiracial/multiethnic society. It is not the America of the melting pot, but the America of “ethnic difference, heterogeneity, and multiplicity” that Elaine Showalter describes through a textile metaphor (Showalter 1991). The image of silk in both novels creates a paradox, as it simultaneously stands for a symbol of tradition and signals a practice of subversion and resistance, undermining the unicity of a national culture.