Within chapters 1 through 10 of Chris Abani’s Graceland, there are various circumstances in which the characters question the gender norms to which they are assigned. Now this is a topic that someone could probably write at least 20 pages on, so I feel it necessary to preface my blog post with the warning that it will inherently be a very perfunctory analysis since it is, after all, a blog post. Specifically, I will be focusing on Beatrice and her attitude towards gender norms, as expressed on page 37, and how it relates to Elvis.
While discussing Beatrice’s approaching death Oye reassures that she will return to the lineage in due time through another life, to which Beatrice responds that she would like to be reborn a boy. Confused, Oye questions, “Why? They are such limited creatures.” “But wanted,” Beatrice replies. She then laments the fact that women are only valued for their “flexibility and willingness to work hard,” whereas the men are simply born into their role as head of the house. I found this to be an especially eloquent depiction of how assigned gender roles can be limiting to a woman. However, it lacks a comprehensive understanding of gender norms. Abani, fortunately, provides more substance to this topic of gender norms through the story of Elvis. Although Elvis has not (yet?) associated with any sexual identity other than heterosexuality, as demonstrated with his river encounter with Efua, he demonstrates the difficulty of expressing himself in a way that satisfies gender norms and his internal desires. The careful pains he takes to dress up as Elvis Presley, with make-up to match his idol’s skin tone, can disappointingly only be appreciated by his mirror. Anywhere outside of his home, Elvis would be subject to torment and physical abuse since the visage would parallel that of a transvestite. Elvis expresses his exasperation that “he couldn’t appear in public looking as much like the real Elvis Presley as possible” (77).
Through both these characters, Abani includes a critique of gender norms and how it affects both male and female characters. He highlights the limitations that both characters feel due to their assigned gender norms and their desire to step outside of this prescribed delineation. However, this still excludes individuals of other gender identities and I am not sure if I can hope to see more criticisms of this nature in the rest of the novel. Fingers crossed!