February 2015

Sessily Watt

Facing the Raven's Eye

Resistance to Change in Redemption in Indigo

Since finishing Redemption in Indigo, Karen Lord's 2010 novel, I've been thinking about the morality of change, of redemptions and downfalls. Change in general is morally ambiguous, shaded by our dreams for ourselves and the world. When trapped, we are reassured by change, but when comfortable, we fear it. And since most of us are neither fully trapped nor fully comfortable, we are ambivalent about change, desiring and fearing it at once. These already ambivalent feelings become even more complex when it comes to changes occurring within a person, in their inner core, their soul, their personality, or whatever term you might use for the invisible patterns and ideas that form an individual. In the United States, we seem to not fully believe that people can change. We dredge up mud on our politicians, certain that what they did at twenty or thirty tells us who they are at forty or fifty. We are reluctant to hire former convicts. We gossip about the past evidence of out-of-control alcoholism, drug abuse, mental illness, and eating disorders. We remember celebrities as much by their past mistakes as for their current work. We celebrate stories of redemption while not quite believing in their reality.

Though its setting is not the United States, Redemption in Indigo seems similarly uncertain about the likelihood of change within a person -- and whether change is entirely desirable. The story centers on Paama, a skilled cook and unhappy wife, who has left her husband, Ansige. Her travails with him bring her to the attention of a pair of mysterious figures, who give her the Chaos Stick, which contains the power to pick from among the many possibilities of any situation. Unfortunately for Paama, those powers previously belonged to a being known as the Indigo Lord and the two eventually find themselves locked in a moral battle over who should have the stick and what rightfully can be done with its great powers. The story is told with the rhythms of a narrator engaged in conversation with the reader and it is mostly through this narrator's commentary on the four primary characters (including a recurring figure, the Trickster) that the novel offers a philosophy of change.

Of these four, Ansige's fate is the worst. He is a man of vice and gluttony, driven by "a strange conviction that always, somehow, there was some undeserving person who had more food than he did." Though he is given food in massive quantities, including a whole basket of roasted corn and a pile of dumplings, he is always convinced that he has been slighted and should claim even more for himself. He gathers a massive amount of extra corn and then, overbalanced, falls into a well. He attempts to lick up every scrap of ground meal and gets his head stuck inside the mortar. Worse, like most people who feel they are being denied what is rightfully theirs, he cannot recognize the consequences of his own actions. He blames the village, Paama's family, and Paama, and so falls again and again into disaster, making the same choices and the same mistakes. His tragedy is his inability to change.

But it is not only a refusal to change that ruins him, as becomes apparent when comparing him with Paama. Late in the novel, two god-like spirits, known as djombi, have a conversation in which one observes, "Nothing stopped [Paama] from trying to do what she felt to be right, not even despair. She was willing to learn, and when she felt the lesson was beyond her capacity, she was willing simply to obey." This observation points to two of Paama's key characteristics. First, unlike Ansige, she is able to learn from new experiences and new observations. She can recognize the consequences of her actions and choose to act differently in the future. Her second characteristic, though, is an unchanging devotion to doing what is right. The djombi admiringly refer to this devotion as her duty. This, again, is unlike Ansige, in that he is not devoted to doing right. But Paama's duty complicates Ansige's tragedy, since his devotion to his hunger is as bullheaded as his devotion to doing right. One could even argue that his hunger, in the end, becomes a kind of duty.

In short, the differing fates of Paama and Ansige seem to be caused by an essential, unchanging part of themselves. Ansige is committed to his hunger until the end, while Paama is committed to doing what she feels to be right. One meets a tragic end, while the other is admired, but it is unclear whether either could truly change themselves or their fates.

The two other primary characters, the Indigo Lord and the Trickster, provide another view of duty. Both of these characters are djombi, who are also referred to at times as the undying. There are two kinds of djombi: the benevolent djombi, helping people to do better in their lives, and the trickster djombi, who can act out of mischief or even malevolence. Though never explicitly stated as such, the dilemmas of the Indigo Lord and the Trickster imply that djombi cannot easily switch between being benevolent and being tricksters. They are one or the other, with duties to which they are as devoted as Paama is to doing right and Ansige is to his hunger. The problem for both the Indigo Lord and the Trickster is that they no longer wish to follow their duties. They want to change the most essential part of themselves.

At the beginning of the novel, the Indigo Lord has already changed. After eons of assisting people as a benevolent djombi, "he found himself dismayed and disillusioned by humans and their flaws... First he grew proud, then contemptuous, and finally uncaring." Though he retains his powers, he stops using them and isolates himself from humans and djombi alike. Everything in the plot that has to do with the Chaos Stick stems from his rejection of his duty and the anger and disappointment that rejection brings down on his head.

The Trickster's change is in the other direction. The narrator tells us:

[H]e had unwittingly become fond of the creatures he was so accustomed to torturing... He had gradually changed his modus operandi, taking up the greater challenge of turning people to situations of mutual benefit rather than merely gratifying his own sense of the ridiculous.

In short, he has become benevolent, assisting people rather than causing mischief in their lives. But he is afraid to reveal himself and hides his benevolent actions behind mischief-causing exteriors, so as not to be found out. He fears that the rejection of his duty will also not be welcomed, even if it is a change for the good. He explains (in conversation with a benevolent djombi), "Ruin has even less of a future for my kind than it does for yours. People are quick to believe in a fall, but how often do they acknowledge redemption?"

The novel's solution is for redemption to come through a stripping away of power and identity; an obedience, like Paama's, to what cannot be understood; and a rebirth, effectively becoming someone else entirely. I enjoyed the way this played out as a narrative strategy, but I was less comfortable with how the ideas of redemption added up. I would like to believe that redemption is possible -- that change is possible -- and that it does not require becoming an entirely new individual in the eyes of the world. I would like to believe that we are not born into our fates, having made some initial, long-forgotten decision to devote ourselves to doing good or to feeding our own selfish hunger. I think this is why the Trickster is my favorite of Lord's brilliantly drawn characters. He is the only one to strive for redemption, rather than to fail, to be already good, or to be thrust toward it. And in every shape he takes, even in rebirth, his eyes remain the same, like an essential core even deeper than duty. A personality, perhaps. Or a soul.