Separation of Self in Without a Name

Heather Sofield '01, English 119, Brown University

Yvonne Vera employs some fascinating techniques while telling the story of Masvita -- all of which together allow us to participate in the story in a complete manner. Rather than just reading about what is happening to Masvita, we can feel and experience. One of the most striking of these methods is the manner in which she uses language to show Masvita distancing herself from her own body -- as if it were truly a separate entity that she does not associate with herself. And separate entities are perhaps then subject to different rules and obligations, an idea that is important to consider when we realize that Masvita has strangled her own child.

This attitude of separation from the body is not something inherent in Masvita, something that has been part of her personality for a long time. Instead we are able to trace the transformation as result of actions endured. Before Masvita is raped by the soldier she is walking through the grass, and because of the mist she cannot see her own legs. And she comments,

My arms were heavy as I walked in that early morning to carry water from the river. I only had my arms, because my legs were buried in the mist, but I felt the mist moving upward, towards my face. It was strange to walk separated like that. (page 23)

It is a foreign sensation to feel separated from one's body. Yet as Masvita journeys to the city in search of a safe haven, Vera's choices of words show us how Masvita's body has become something entirely separate from Masvita's self."She sent her head forward through the tunnel and met a darkness tall and consuming, where she could not turn or speak or see" (10). Instead of going through the tunnel herself, Masvita sends out her head in her place. And then only a few pages later we read, "Her eyes withdrew; she heard them fall deep in her head." (page 16).

The actions of her body seem to be happening in a place far away from her. We can imagine the echoes of her eyes as they fall down into the cavern of her head.

And then a few pages later, we encounter a passage that highlights this notion of separation and identifies it as something which Masvita is actually striving for.

"The silence was temporary. She had to move fast before the harrowing intrusion came back, haunting and persistent, haunting and truly her own. In one pleading effort she raised her neck. Her face jutted angrily forward. She expected not mysterious visitations, no changes to her world. She only pulled her neck high in an effort to detach her head from her body, somehow, to walk around with her body completely severed. Her thoughts would be free. It was the constant nearness of her head to the child that made her frenzied and perplexed. There was not enough space between her and the child she bore on her back. If she could remove her head, and store it a distance from the stillness on her back, then she could begin. She would be two people. She would be many. One of her would be free. One of her would protect the other. She wanted one other of her, that is how she conceived of her escape." (page 19)

This style of language is important as it immediately sets up a feeling of distance and separation, mimicking perhaps the actual severance Masvita feels from her own culture and people. We understand Masvita as existing in a duality which allows her to simultaneously embody innocence and culpability. For while we see her as the perpetrator of such a horrific act as the murder of her own child, we are also able to understand how she herself exists somewhere aloof from the physical body which pulls the necktie tight and wonder if it was in fact the opposite? Perhaps the space which grew between Masvita and her body did not afford her safe haven, but a fertile ground in which the seeds of her own undoing had room to germinate. This emotional distance is paralleled by Masvita's geographical and cultural distance from the people and place of her birth and upbringing. Is Vera telling us that only tragedy can be the result of such separation from one's true origins? Or is she merely highlighting one of many simple casualties of war? What lessons are to be learned from Masvita's story, if we are in fact to be instructed from its telling? Would this have happened if she had remained in a smaller interconnected community? Does Masvita's separation from her body allow her to be an "innocent" bystander in the event of her child's death? Or is she, despite her own mental imbalance, still guilty?

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