Summary: Chapter 7: Marriage on Ice

The police cannot find Zizmo’s body, but the family receives special permission from the Greek Orthodox Bishop of Chicago to hold an Orthodox funeral. At the funeral, Sourmelina grieves deeply, showing more attention to her husband than she did during his life. When the forty-day mourning period ends, she puts on an orange dress instead of wearing black for the rest of her life.

Desdemona asks Sourmelina how to avoid getting pregnant. Celibacy is the only way Sourmelina knows, so Desdemona refuses to have sex with Lefty. This angers and hurts him, so he reinstitutes sex segregation in the household.

Lefty tries to find a job but lacks credentials. Eventually, he opens a speakeasy called The Zebra Room in the basement. He becomes an excellent barkeep, and the speakeasy is popular. It’s not the casino he once dreamed of opening, but he works hard and enjoys it.

Desdemona continues to eschew sex but sometimes gives in, as much from her own need as Lefty’s. She gets pregnant and gives birth to a daughter, Zoë, who had no birth defects. The house begins to feel crowded, so Sourmelina and Theodora move into the boarding house next door.

The Great Depression hits, and Lefty loses customers rapidly. One night, he stares at Desdemona, asleep in bed with the children, and feels alienated from his family. He demands she find a job.Desdemona sees an ad for a silk worker in the classifieds. She takes the trolley to the address and finds herself in the Black neighborhood of Detroit. There she meets Sister Wanda, who placed the advertisement, at a temple. Sister Wanda tells Desdemona that she can’t hire a white person because the head of the temple, Minister Fard, preaches self-reliance. However, when Desdemona explains she was born in Turkey, Sister Wanda coyly suggests that might mean she’s mixed race. Desdemona agrees and gets the job.

This temple is the headquarters of The Nation of Islam, a Black religious and cultural liberation movement founded by Minister Fard, though he goes by many names and has a mysterious past.

Sister Wanda explains that Desdemona must stay in the women’s quarters and never go into the main temple. The women sell silk clothing, but they’ve run out of silk. Fard suggested they grow their own, but their silkworms keep dying. Brought before the Muslim Girls Training and Civilization Class, Desdemona begins her lessons to them with her mother’s maxim: To raise silk, one must be pure.

Summary: Chapter 8: Tricknology

Desdemona finds working at the temple familiar because she grew up in a country occupied by the Muslim Turks. She enjoys working with the women and girls and is calmed by the familiarity of raising silkworms. For her Black coworkers, the temple reverses American society: welcoming Black people and keeping whites out. Desdemona never sees Fard’s face, but he is a constant source of discussion for the women.

Desdemona oversees the conversion of the outhouse to a cocoonery and teaches the girls to weave feeding trays. She spends most of her time in the silk room amongst the bolts of fabric.

One day, she overhears Fard’s sermon through a heating grate, and she is fascinated. This is the first of several she listens to, including his sermon on tricknology. Fard claims that thousands of years ago, a scientist named Yacub decided to create a race genetically different from the original people, who were the Black nation. Through experiments, Yacub created all the other races and then finally white people, a race created through evil and murder. Desdemona is upset at hearing white people called devils. She decides Fard is a charlatan.

However, as she hears more of Fard’s lectures, she can’t tear herself away. The guilt she feels about committing incest swells. She continually asks Lefty whether he ever worries the children might have birth defects. She laments that they’re terrible people and wishes she had died in Smyrna. Fard’s lectures explain further that through tricknology, the white race brought Black people to America and cut them off from their noble heritage. Desdemona, now sensitive to racism, believes that Fard may be right about blue-eyed devils. Despite her brown eyes, she worries she’s a devil too.

Meanwhile, Lefty has diversified his business model by procuring models for a photographer. The photographer shoots the women in suggestive poses with cars. Cal has seen some of these photos and wondered why his grandfather started looking for girls different from his wife.

News breaks that a Detroit man has committed murder and claims the Nation of Islam encouraged him. The police arrest Fard. They drop the charges as long as he promises to leave Detroit.The temple is coming under new leadership and will be disbanding the silk program. As Desdemona leaves the building for the last time, she decides to go through the front door. To her surprise, the inner sanctum looks like a normal auditorium, not a temple. Fard greets her by name and asks questions about her personal life. She panics, especially when he asks after Lefty. She finally recognizes him as Jimmy Zizmo. Zizmo explains that since his “death,” he’s realized that more evil lives in this city than he realized, particularly at Desdemona’s house. He shouts that they never knew him or where he was from and leaves.

Desdemona gets surgery to have her tubes tied.

Analysis: Chapters 7 & 8

These chapters grapple with the toll deception takes on those who deceive. Previously, characters have behaved deceitfully as a survival mechanism, or to cope with unfair rules or regulations. We see this form of benign deception again in Sister Wanda encouraging Desdemona to fudge her racial makeup so that they both can benefit from Desdemona working for the Nation of Islam. However, Lefty, Desdemona, and Zizmo’s other deceptions actually hurt themselves and their relationships. Desdemona’s inability to continue convincing herself that incest is harmless reveals a hollowness in her relationship with Lefty. With Lefty determined to continue pretending they’re not related and Desdemona refusing, they have nothing mutual to cling to. Desdemona is left to grapple with her paranoia, and Lefty feels abandoned by his wife and confidante. Chapter 8 reveals Zizmo’s crafted identity to be hollow; his deceitful nature is symbolized by the elaborate temple encasing a plain and unremarkable auditorium. Zizmo’s name, race, and beliefs change according to what benefits him in the moment, and that has left him as an unknowable, isolated person. Although he shouts at Desdemona that the family never truly knew him, his estrangement from them occurred because he never told them of his true self. Though Zizmo condemns Desdemona for hiding her relationship to Left and Sourmelina for her “unnatural” sexual appetite, he too has hidden his essential nature. In this sense, Zizmo acts as a warning of the danger of too much reinvention and deception: a destructive emptiness.

As foreshadowed, the patterns in Desdemona and Lefty’s relationship that existed in the village still exist in their American life but now damage their relationship. Because Desdemona believes her own goodness affects everything she does, as with silk, she cannot stop worrying about the effect her incest could have on her children. Meanwhile, just as Lefty once pulled away from Desdemona in the village by wearing suits and listening to American jazz music, he now pulls away by seeking out women who don’t look like her, seeking out the “not Greek.” Interestingly, whereas Lefty once sought prostitutes who resembled his sister, he now seeks models who are her physical opposite. This showcases how drastically Lefty and Desdemona’s relationship has changed; the love that brought them together now divides them.

Lefty’s love of gambling also causes damage. Genetics work in capricious ways, such as in Tessie’s skin color favoring Sourmelina, which suggests that genetics themselves are a kind of gamble. Therefore, Lefty’s gambler’s attitude makes him also willing to gamble with his children’s genetic makeup. Desdemona’s more cautious and conservative outlook won’t allow her to be so cavalier. She has sterilizing surgery as a sign that she will no longer leave anything to chance. Some of Lefty’s anger also stems from Desdemona breaking the old pattern of mothering Lefty, as their parents asked of her. Desdemona now devotes motherly care to her children, literally replacing Lefty in bed with her children.

These chapters introduce another set of binaries—black and white—into the novel and then, as before, complicates them. As the Ford English School demonstrates, even within whiteness, people must manifest a certain kind of whiteness, Protestant and Americanized, to access the full benefits of white privilege. This scale of whiteness puts Greek immigrants, particularly those from Asia Minor like the Stephanides family, as not fitting entirely within the category of white. In a similar way to how Lefty’s inability to assimilate quickly enough forced him to take up illegal work, the refusal of white landlords and city officials to care for Black neighborhoods creates a self-fulfilling prophecy of squalor and poverty. In addition, Desdemona can pretend to be mixed race and work for the Nation of Islam while still maintaining the privileges of living in a white neighborhood. Though, ultimately, Desdemona is not “white” enough for American society nor “Black” enough for the Nation of Islam. The novel also portrays anxiety around racial ambiguity, similar to Cal’s anxiety around his gender ambiguity, through Zizmo/Fard, who disguises his racial identity to manipulate the righteous anger of Black citizens and profit from them. Cal’s anxiety around his gender ambiguity is reflective of hybrid figures like Zizmo, who hurt others through identity deception.

Cal includes Fard’s tricknology theory instead of other lessons his grandmother might have heard, possibly because he sees himself in the story. Like the minotaur, who physically manifested his mother’s unnatural lust, the white race in the tricknology theory becomes the embodiment of their creator, Yacub’s, sins. Furthermore, the story hints at a potential for incestuous relationships as Yacub continues to breed more people, relating to Cal’s genetic condition. Desdemona takes these lectures so personally because they focus on the idea that a child created from a sinful act will inherently be sinful, meaning she has doomed her own children through her incestuous relationship with Lefty. Just as Desdemona can’t help hearing a condemnation of herself within the lecture, Cal, too, appears to fear becoming as monstrous as he feels, which is why he adds this lecture to the story of his creation. However, as with other instances where Cal ties himself to monstrosity, this story has another side to it. Yacub’s unethical experiments evoke unethical medicine in general, of the sort that dehumanizes Cal through no fault of his own. These experiments that treat human beings like cattle are the actual source of perversion in the story, not the innocents who undergo them.