Body Modification as the Narrative Form

Heat and ink have been used to modify the body’s appearance since prehistoric times to account for many different meanings in part of the human experience. Despite anyone’s personal opinion of tattoos or branding, both of these practices have spanned positive and negative connotations when it comes to their purpose or meaning. At the same time that one part of the world might be branding shame upon their societal outcasts, another part might be zealously tattooing their religious devotion. It would be a hopeless undertaking to attempt a worldwide interpretation for every tattoo or brand, because this practice transcends even the understanding that comes from a common language or culture—and while we may never come to an agreement or understanding, we certainly try. Regardless of our personal experiences with tattoos or brands, we are constantly asking others for their explanations of theirs in order to learn about each other. In this act of literally writing upon the skin, we self-narrate, and write our own stories for other people to interpret.

With that said—there are distinct parallels to this practice of narration in People of Paper. Encountered first is Federico de la Fe’s form on branding, when he burns his skin to cure his sorrow. At first, this is a practice he does alone—using the fire to both cleanse and scar as it temporarily relieves his sorrow from his wife’s abandonment, but creates burns. Federico also hides the burns from his daughter, but shows the Glue Sniffers how to do it—offering them his secret cure (29). This speaks to a few purposes for branding in reality, where the practice is used in situations of male bonding, or as a rite of initiation because it is painful—both cases accomplishing a goal, yet leaving the brand. In this sense, a cyclical relationship is formed between the pain, the cure, and the scar in People of Paper—and whether or not the scar, signifying pain, is displayed (the brand) or is kept private (the sorrow). It also determines a status of communication, because the bearer of the brand may control who sees it, but may now share a common, permanent bond if there were other participators. Federico de la Fe and The Glue Sniffers have this bond, and the reader and Saturn are aware of it.

A similar relationship is determined by the EMF gang’s tattooing practices, which are accurate depictions of gang culture. Prominent gang members will typically get their tattoos on places on the body that are visible in public, because they want other people to know about their affiliation. This action is meant to intimidate people, or comes with the risk of harm by a rival gang. As with brands, the act of getting the tattoo can often have as much significance as the tattoo itself—or the means by which someone is writing or narrating are as significant as who is interpreting them—both in and beyond the pages of People of Paper due to its narrative form. The narrative then reaches a new moment of metafiction when Smiley’s EMF tattoo is “blotted into black blocks,” as if Baby Nostradamus’ narration was lifted from Plascencia’s page and reprinted upon Smiley’s neck (163). This moment is at once a signifier of one’s alienation from a common bond, a chance for rehabilitation and a new identity, and a foreshadowed ending to The People of Paper (166).

Amelia Wagner


~ by ameliabwagner on April 5, 2010.

%d bloggers like this: