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Salama 1
Ahmed Bassam Salama
Professor Alexander Mathew Licker
English 603-102-MQ sect. 00041
18 May 2023
A Volatile Contemporary: Constant Change in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Birdsong,” Ling
Ma’s “Peking Duck,” and Téa Obreht’s “Blue Water Djinn”
Never in history has change materialized constantly over such a short period – the
contemporary period. This theme of change – one of the defining characteristics of the
contemporary moment – is evident in today’s various literary works. Examples of these works
include Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Birdsong,” Ling Ma’s “Peking Duck,” and Téa Obreht’s
“Blue Water Djinn.” In this essay, I will demonstrate how all three stories relate to the
contemporary moment by advancing the literary theme of constant change thanks to the use of
ever-changing moods in “Birdsong,” the focus on characterization by the frequent – and at times
excessive – description of characters’ language in “Peking Duck,” as well as the employment of
symbolism, such as the final passage’s turtle, in “Blue Water Djinn.”
To begin, in Adichie’s “Birdsong,” both the fact that the story is narrated “back-and-
forth” between an uneasy “stare-down” with an incognita woman in the Lagos traffic and the
narrator’s own recounted ever-changing love experience – an experience that evolves from love
to hate – with the married lover show a plethora of shifting moods in the story, hence
demonstrating the contemporary moment’s theme of relentless change. Indeed, constant change
is enhanced via the differing moods given that the narrator’s love story is continuously
intertwined with a “creepy” encounter in the impasse of the Lagos traffic, where a stare-down
Salama 2
occurs between the narrator and a mysterious woman – who is probably the knowing wife of the
narrator’s lover: “She was the kind of woman I imagined my lover’s wife was” (Adichie 3).
Undoubtedly, this unsettling traffic encounter, “sprinkled around” between episodes of the
narrator’s evolving love story, illustrates the theme of change as it serves as a continuous “mood-
changer.” In addition, blended in between this encounter is the narrator’s own changing love
story – a “mixed-bag” story full of varying moods – which furthers the theme of change. Truly,
while the beginning of the relationship describes a mood of love, the narrator’s never-ending lust
for control over her lover renders the remainder of the relationship – and, as such, the story’s
mood – troublesome and even hateful. For example, at the start, the narrator feels like her lover’s
house is her home, where she says: “Each time I turned […] into that compound full of birdsong
I felt as though I were home” (Adichie 8). However, midway and until the end of the story, the
mood turns quarrelsome and sour, where both characters exchange insults to the point where the
narrator is kicked out of the married man’s house: “Leave this house right now” (Adichie 13).
This symbolically not only signals the end of the initial lovely mood by exiting the “house of
love,” but also the story’s transformation into a bickering atmosphere, where the narrator even
leaves her lover at the end of the story: “He did not understand why I’d left” (Adichie 19), once
more showing the theme of unceasing change. In short, via the repeated unnerving mood
interruptions in the Lagos traffic that perpetually dissect the narrator’s recounted love story –
which itself has fluctuating moods ranging from birdy love to bickering revulsion – the orchestra
of changing moods in “Birdsong” is brilliantly employed to advance the contemporary moment’s
theme of ceaseless change.
Additionally, in Ma’s “Peking Duck,” characterization – by the relentless description of
the characters, such as the description of their language – is utilized to show the theme of
Salama 3
constant change in the contemporary moment by way of intergenerational changes. In fact, the
narrator – a certain immigrant Chinese girl – describes mainly her immigrant mother, herself,
and other younger Chinese-American generations through varying degrees of language
proficiency. For example, the author narrates her dinner with her mother, where she says:
“Though we start off speaking English, all conversations with my mother eventually move
towards Mandarin, the language in which she is most agile” (Ma 65) and “Though I am no
longer fluent in Mandarin, I try to accommodate” (Ma 66). As such, it is incontestable that
characterization – through describing the respective proficiency in languages between both
characters – conveys the theme of intergenerational change, given that the narrator, an ethnic
Chinese English author, struggles to converse in her native language, showing torn roots and
cultural changes. The daughter’s situation is similar to the “teenage [Chinese] waiter” (Ma 66)
that “smiles in embarrassment” (Ma 66) as he is unable to respond when spoken to in Chinese.
This opposes the mother, who is fluent in Mandarin, but has an English that is “awkward and
mangled” (Ma 66). Consequently, the theme of change is starkly exposed in “Peking Duck”
thanks to, among other descriptions, the language of the respective characters – all of whom are
Chinese Americans of contrasting generations. In brief, Ling Ma uses characterization through
language proficiency to promote the contemporary moment’s theme of continuous change.
Finally, in Obreht’s “Blue Water Djinn,” symbolism is used by the escape attempt of the
turtle in the final passage to show the theme boundless change in the contemporary moment, as
this escape symbolizes the main character’s escape – and hence change – from his own
ignorance to a wiser state of maturity. Certainly, the only reason Jack believes that this specific
turtle is “more graceful than any he has ever seen” (Obreht 304) is because he finally explored
the ship – representing the “made-forbidden” edge of the abyss by Fawad – which was always on
Salama 4
the back of his mind. The narrator even affirms this by previously saying that Jack “watched
them [turtles] come and go” (Obreht 286). It becomes clear, therefore, that the significance of
the final turtle is that it acts as a direct reference to Jack himself, who, through his adventurous
nature, finally manages to defy his mother’s orders and Fawad’s legends, thus changing by
developing an independent personality and escaping the shell that surrounds him, much like this
final “graceful” turtle! In short, the theme of constant change is expressed via the utilization of
symbolism in the story, therefore relating to the contemporary moment.
In conclusion, all three authors use different literary devices to advance the theme of
unending change – a characteristic theme of the contemporary moment. Indeed, in Adichie’s
story “Birdsong,” the author highlights the theme of change via incessant changes in the story’s
mood. However, in the story “Peking Duck,” Ling Ma employs a different technique –
characterization through language description – to achieve the same goal. Yet, in “Blue Water
Djinn,” Téa Obreht uses symbolism via the final graceful turtle to establish the theme of never-
ending change. Lastly, this essay thus raises the question: Can the theme of stagnation also be
considered contemporary in today’s ever-changing world?
[1086 words]

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Final Essay - The contemporary - English - Ahmed Bassam Salama.docx

  • 1. Salama 1 Ahmed Bassam Salama Professor Alexander Mathew Licker English 603-102-MQ sect. 00041 18 May 2023 A Volatile Contemporary: Constant Change in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Birdsong,” Ling Ma’s “Peking Duck,” and Téa Obreht’s “Blue Water Djinn” Never in history has change materialized constantly over such a short period – the contemporary period. This theme of change – one of the defining characteristics of the contemporary moment – is evident in today’s various literary works. Examples of these works include Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Birdsong,” Ling Ma’s “Peking Duck,” and Téa Obreht’s “Blue Water Djinn.” In this essay, I will demonstrate how all three stories relate to the contemporary moment by advancing the literary theme of constant change thanks to the use of ever-changing moods in “Birdsong,” the focus on characterization by the frequent – and at times excessive – description of characters’ language in “Peking Duck,” as well as the employment of symbolism, such as the final passage’s turtle, in “Blue Water Djinn.” To begin, in Adichie’s “Birdsong,” both the fact that the story is narrated “back-and- forth” between an uneasy “stare-down” with an incognita woman in the Lagos traffic and the narrator’s own recounted ever-changing love experience – an experience that evolves from love to hate – with the married lover show a plethora of shifting moods in the story, hence demonstrating the contemporary moment’s theme of relentless change. Indeed, constant change is enhanced via the differing moods given that the narrator’s love story is continuously intertwined with a “creepy” encounter in the impasse of the Lagos traffic, where a stare-down
  • 2. Salama 2 occurs between the narrator and a mysterious woman – who is probably the knowing wife of the narrator’s lover: “She was the kind of woman I imagined my lover’s wife was” (Adichie 3). Undoubtedly, this unsettling traffic encounter, “sprinkled around” between episodes of the narrator’s evolving love story, illustrates the theme of change as it serves as a continuous “mood- changer.” In addition, blended in between this encounter is the narrator’s own changing love story – a “mixed-bag” story full of varying moods – which furthers the theme of change. Truly, while the beginning of the relationship describes a mood of love, the narrator’s never-ending lust for control over her lover renders the remainder of the relationship – and, as such, the story’s mood – troublesome and even hateful. For example, at the start, the narrator feels like her lover’s house is her home, where she says: “Each time I turned […] into that compound full of birdsong I felt as though I were home” (Adichie 8). However, midway and until the end of the story, the mood turns quarrelsome and sour, where both characters exchange insults to the point where the narrator is kicked out of the married man’s house: “Leave this house right now” (Adichie 13). This symbolically not only signals the end of the initial lovely mood by exiting the “house of love,” but also the story’s transformation into a bickering atmosphere, where the narrator even leaves her lover at the end of the story: “He did not understand why I’d left” (Adichie 19), once more showing the theme of unceasing change. In short, via the repeated unnerving mood interruptions in the Lagos traffic that perpetually dissect the narrator’s recounted love story – which itself has fluctuating moods ranging from birdy love to bickering revulsion – the orchestra of changing moods in “Birdsong” is brilliantly employed to advance the contemporary moment’s theme of ceaseless change. Additionally, in Ma’s “Peking Duck,” characterization – by the relentless description of the characters, such as the description of their language – is utilized to show the theme of
  • 3. Salama 3 constant change in the contemporary moment by way of intergenerational changes. In fact, the narrator – a certain immigrant Chinese girl – describes mainly her immigrant mother, herself, and other younger Chinese-American generations through varying degrees of language proficiency. For example, the author narrates her dinner with her mother, where she says: “Though we start off speaking English, all conversations with my mother eventually move towards Mandarin, the language in which she is most agile” (Ma 65) and “Though I am no longer fluent in Mandarin, I try to accommodate” (Ma 66). As such, it is incontestable that characterization – through describing the respective proficiency in languages between both characters – conveys the theme of intergenerational change, given that the narrator, an ethnic Chinese English author, struggles to converse in her native language, showing torn roots and cultural changes. The daughter’s situation is similar to the “teenage [Chinese] waiter” (Ma 66) that “smiles in embarrassment” (Ma 66) as he is unable to respond when spoken to in Chinese. This opposes the mother, who is fluent in Mandarin, but has an English that is “awkward and mangled” (Ma 66). Consequently, the theme of change is starkly exposed in “Peking Duck” thanks to, among other descriptions, the language of the respective characters – all of whom are Chinese Americans of contrasting generations. In brief, Ling Ma uses characterization through language proficiency to promote the contemporary moment’s theme of continuous change. Finally, in Obreht’s “Blue Water Djinn,” symbolism is used by the escape attempt of the turtle in the final passage to show the theme boundless change in the contemporary moment, as this escape symbolizes the main character’s escape – and hence change – from his own ignorance to a wiser state of maturity. Certainly, the only reason Jack believes that this specific turtle is “more graceful than any he has ever seen” (Obreht 304) is because he finally explored the ship – representing the “made-forbidden” edge of the abyss by Fawad – which was always on
  • 4. Salama 4 the back of his mind. The narrator even affirms this by previously saying that Jack “watched them [turtles] come and go” (Obreht 286). It becomes clear, therefore, that the significance of the final turtle is that it acts as a direct reference to Jack himself, who, through his adventurous nature, finally manages to defy his mother’s orders and Fawad’s legends, thus changing by developing an independent personality and escaping the shell that surrounds him, much like this final “graceful” turtle! In short, the theme of constant change is expressed via the utilization of symbolism in the story, therefore relating to the contemporary moment. In conclusion, all three authors use different literary devices to advance the theme of unending change – a characteristic theme of the contemporary moment. Indeed, in Adichie’s story “Birdsong,” the author highlights the theme of change via incessant changes in the story’s mood. However, in the story “Peking Duck,” Ling Ma employs a different technique – characterization through language description – to achieve the same goal. Yet, in “Blue Water Djinn,” Téa Obreht uses symbolism via the final graceful turtle to establish the theme of never- ending change. Lastly, this essay thus raises the question: Can the theme of stagnation also be considered contemporary in today’s ever-changing world? [1086 words]