Salvador Plascencia suggests the intimate and sensual nature of what flowers represent: a tight community in which each stem aids and receives support from its neighbors.
To watch the flower stalks burst through the soil, interweaving their roots with the neighboring plant, tangling their wires under the privacy of soil, tightly gripping, gradually pulling themselves to each other to feel the brush of leaves against their stems. (92)
It is EMF, i.e. the rebels, who are responsible for bringing chaos to the productivity and collaboration that the fields of flowers embody.
… And then a sudden flash of steel collapses the stalk, which is then tossed into a basket. Four weeks later the harvest is done and the dirt is upturned by a tractor plow, exposing tightly braided roots still clutching each other. (92)
Saturn connects the destruction caused by the rebellion against him with the death of flowers. It is suggested here that flowers are symbolic of the connectedness and wellbeing he wished to observe among his characters.
And because there were no more flowerbeds in El Monte, Froggy had to tell all the new members of EMF how their gang name came to be. He instilled a pride in them, citing their hometown as the battlefield where one of the greatest wars against tyranny had been fought years before….a war waged against Saturn, against the invasion that infiltrated their thoughts and overheard even their softest whispers, murmurs meant to touch only one ear, and to be retrieved only by memory or swabs of cotton. (46)
EMF is not presented as a caretaker of the perceived gentleness of flowers but, instead, its destroyer. We can associate flowers with Saturn’s mission: to quench the rebellion of his characters.
It was the first street gang born of carnations. But for them there was no softness in petals and no aroma in flowers. They felt only the splinters and calluses from tilling the land and smelled only the stench of fertilizer….and always a cutting knife was in hand. It was from these blades and hands that bouquets and potpourri came. (34)
The goal of EMF – to fight against their creator – is here described as having no merit. Saturn can be thought of as a father figure whose authority cannot be usurped. The cutting of flowers is really an outright attack on the nature of Saturn.
They had discovered this after firing their guns into the sky and launching a barrage of slingshot rocks, watching their projectiles ascend and then crest before they ducked for cover, sheltering themselves from their own fire. EMF never pierced the sky, always far from reaching Saturn’s orbit. (46)
Like lilies and daisies spread across a field, flowers grace many of the pages in The People of Paper. The flower here represents a symbiosis between creation and destruction, and as such, the intent of the author in writing his characters and their flawed rebellion against him. In other words, Plascencia uses flowers to illuminate the growth and collaboration he wishes to see from the characters he creates. At the same time, the flowers’ cutting by the gang of El Monte Flores can be thought of as the self-destruction of the unity and strength that glues the members of the gang.
To begin to understand the tension between author and character that the flowers represent, we must address Plascencia’s metaphysical interpretation of nature. Although he, as Saturn, expresses disinterest in the mundane affairs of the natural world, he acknowledges his interest in watching “flower stalks burst through the soil, interweaving their roots with the neighboring plant, tangling their wires under the privacy of soil, tightly gripping, gradually pulling themselves to each other to feel the brush of leaves against their stems.” The sensuality here described, as well as the community building referenced by the flowers’ close attachment, can be read as Saturn’s vision for his characters to work and collaborate together closely with one another. The traditions and goals of his characters are one: their roots unite with one another. And, as Saturn discloses, his interest is not to meddle in their individual stories but to watch their growth from a distance with pleasure.
This soon turns into frustration and disappointment when his characters revolt against him. As Saturn describes: “but for them there was no softness in petals and no aroma in flowers. They felt only the splinters and calluses from tilling the land and smelled only the stench of fertilizer….and always a cutting knife was in hand.” To further this, and to some extent cross into the religious space, Saturn here contrasts the beauty and goodness of the flowers to the aggression and ingratitude of his children. With a weapon always in hand, his characters destroy the physical flower and the gifts the plant renders. Plascencia may be commenting here on the dark side of our human nature: a rebellion not instigated by Saturn but a reflection of EMF’s unruly ambitions. I think it is fair to claim that, like a father, Saturn would have liked to see his children happy and in good company.
To follow the lines the flower’s roots trace, we must wonder about the omnipresent essence of Saturn. While his characters’ rebellion may have been justified – the discomfort they felt in their privacy being violated – the futility of their cause easily surfaces from the inability to reach Saturn. The members of the gang “never pierced the sky” and instead of inflicting wounds on their creator, they kindled the flames of their destruction; the shots they fired toward Saturn returned to land requiring the gang members to shelter “themselves from their own fire.” The peace and collaboration that Saturn wished to create are destroyed by his own creation. The flowers used here to reveal this loss is telling. He writes of the flower harvest season as a mass field of death. When the members of the gang cut the stems of the flowers, they left exposed “tightly braided roots still clutching each other.” This suggests that the flowers’ foundation and the community they formed with each other were strong and (literally) cut short by an unnecessary cause.
While Plascencia offers readers the freedom to side with either Saturn or EMF, I trust that the meaning and purpose behind his words – a Latino author clearly concerned with heritage and close ties between people – is to reveal the pain and damage that we, as humans, cause ourselves by our “pride.” This is emphasized with a language of religious rebellion against a benevolent and caring creator. The freedom that Federico de la Fe inspired on fellow flower pickers is of course not absent of all merit. But the lesson here is that greed and over-indulgence – a desire for freedom from observation – can at times uproot the structure that safeguards life and wellbeing. Just as sharp blades cut the growth, beauty, and aroma that flowers provide. Plascencia drew a close-knit community but realized that his creation took a life of its own: a program for self-destruction.
1) In Citizen, the stories written by Rankine are supplemented with images that indirectly reference the stories. In thinking about such experimental books that convey their message via the written word and images, which medium is more powerful: the written word or the image? Do images in books carry more weight than the written word and are the meanings that images embody more/less/as reliable than those expressed through language?
2) Reflecting on the structure of experimental books like The People of Paper, we are often overwhelmed with competing perspectives expressed through expanding and decreasing columns. Does the structure on each page take away from the content/message that the author conveys? Which is more important?
3) As cited in class, the root of authority is author. Why are so many experimental books, like Citizen and The People of Paper, concerned with questioning the authenticity/legitimacy of authority? To address current social-political issues, do we need the medium of experimental books? Do experimental books grant the writer freedom and immunity from consequence in engaging with sensitive topics like authority?