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Chapter 4: Literary Issues, Especially the Role of the

4. Migrant Themes (General)

are included in the national, according to the cultural capital of both nation and ideas of majority and minority. I would suggest, though, that even when this social

production makes an author ‘national’, there can be a great number of signs in the text that assert ‘migrant’ subjectivity and experience. Not taking this into account erases and pigeonholes certain types of migrant writing and their producers, while at the same time obscuring (or, in other cases,) highlighting difference. In any case, because of this practice, it becomes even more important to pay renewed attention to the figure of the author and her biographical experience, as relayed through her texts. Only when this is done, is it possible to see how some works might be re-read, despite a concerted effort of society to produce a narrower model of migrant writing (or ignore it all together). Literary criticism has a particular responsibility in how it views both texts and authors, because it takes the lead in presenting a writer and her work to the reading audience in a certain way.

modernity, no matter who is thinking or writing about it. In this age, we have come to realise that identity can be

regarded as a fiction, intended to put an orderly pattern and narrative on the actual complexity and multitudinous nature of both psychological and social worlds. The question of identity centres on the assertion of principles of unity, as opposed to pluralism and diversity, and of continuity, as opposed to change and transformation (Robins 2005 in Bennett et al 1998, p 172).

Robins argues that identity is very much associated with concepts like community and belonging, with having “a culture in common”, which “has been regarded as the fundamental condition for self-expression and self-fulfilment”. This type of identity, says Robins, quoting David Miller (1995: 175), “‘helps to locate us in the world’”,

“‘telling us who we are, where we have come from, what we have done”’ (2005, p 173). Robins calls most of the “old” discourses on identity “essentialist”, because

“they make the assumption that the identity and distinctiveness of a person or a group is the expression of some inner essence or property”, “a ‘natural’ and ‘eternal’

quality” (ibid). More recently, he states, what has been foregrounded in the debates on identity, is the realisation that identities are “socially constructed”, “instituted in particular social and historical contexts”, and are more often than not “strategic fictions”, “subject to continuous change and reconfiguration”. It is also important to note, Robins argues, that identities are not “self-sufficient: they are in fact instituted through the play of differences, constituted in and through their multiple relations to other identities. An identity […] derives its distinction from what it is not, from what it excludes, from its position in a field of differences” (ibid).

However, it is one thing rationally to grasp this concept of identity as a floating signifier (and enter into academic discussions about essentialism), but quite another to incorporate that into the changing view of the self the migrant carries with him or her. Psychologically speaking, I would argue that, as Iain Chambers maintains,

“we imagine ourselves to be whole, to be complete, to have a full identity and certainly not to be open or fragmented; we imagine ourselves to be the author, rather than the object, of the narratives that constitute our lives” (Chambers 1994, p 25). For a non-migrant, the issue of identity can come up as the consequence of a

self-examining disposition. For a migrant, though, it is usually the automatic result of the move. As Salman Rushdie claims: “Our identity is at once plural and partial.

Sometimes we feel that we straddle two cultures; at other times, that we fall between

two stools” (Rushdie 1992, p 15). Rushdie calls this experience “ambiguous”, and talks about a “shifting” “ground” (ibid), eloquently describing the “profound

uncertainties” (1992, p 10) that can be the consequence of this. There is a complicated doubleness in the experience of the migrant. Leaving changes the self, and turns identity into a fragmented, interrupted and heterogeneous concept. The more or less continuous timeline has disappeared, to be replaced by a caesura between before and after. The confrontation with the new country, and the way the migrant’s identity is viewed and positioned there, changes that identity as well. The self now becomes partially defined by the relation the migrant has, or is seen to have, with a national identity (or core culture). Individual coherence can become difficult, especially when confronted with ideas of insiders and outsiders in both the new and the old country (and the position the migrant is seen to inhabit within those ideas). Migrants are forced to realise that they are “simultaneously ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ the situation at hand, experiencing a constantly challenged identity, and realise that identity is, in itself, like history and home, a cultural construct” (Chambers 1994, p 6). The migrant does not have the choice of thinking about identity, because it is always there. This is why it is not surprising that so many migrant writers have this issue at the heart of their work.

Connected to the issue of identity is the question of home, which in itself is a codeword for notions like belonging, place, displacement, dislocation, in-between-ness, location, traditions, and landscape. If there can be no ‘true self’, or unified identity, anymore, then the idea of an ‘authentic’ home comes under attack as well.

By leaving, everything has become foreign and has to be re-defined and re-created.

Again, there is the anti-essentialist realisation that in this age of migration, home is

“no longer a dwelling, but the untold story of a life being lived” (Berger 1984, p 64).

Rapport and Dawson even suggest the “working definition” of home as the place

“where one best knows oneself – where ‘best’ means ‘most’, even if not always

‘happiest’. Here, in sum, is an ambiguous and fluid, but yet ubiquitous notion,

apposite for a charting of the ambiguities and fluidities, the migrancies and paradoxes, of identity in the world today” (Rapport and Dawson 1998, p 9). It is Iain Chambers who, once more, asks questions about the psychological reality of these

rationalisations: “Despite the optimistic theorising of nomadism and rhizomatic becoming, the mystery of that sense of belonging – deposited in the desire, the need, to be part of a historical, social and cultural unit that is called ‘home’, ‘homeland’ –

refuses to fade away” (Chambers 1998, p 33). Some migrant writers, like Brian Castro, distrust this desire and need, and even assert that it is “just a failure of nerve”

(Castro 2004-5, p 39). Castro insists it is necessary to “question one’s attachment to place”, and “look relentlessly for false feelings. Place”, he argues, “can be a cloying illness – nostalgia, a pathology” (ibid). Rushdie goes even further and calls migration, despite, or maybe because of its difficulties, “a form of rebirth”. He recognises “the sense of a writer feeling obliged to bring his new world into being by an act of pure will, the sense that if the world is not described into existence in the most minute detail, then it won’t be there. The immigrant must invent the earth beneath his feet”

(Rushdie 1992, p 149). There is, for Rushdie, the realisation that “the migrant intellect roots itself in itself, in its own capacity for imagining and reimagining the world”

(1992, p 280). Where Rushdie views this as a strength, and even something of an added extra that the migrant has been granted because of his uncertain position, Papastergiadis maintains that part of

the migrant sensibility is the chilling fear of having lost a certain sense of time and place. There is the impending awareness that, having left home, there is no possibility of a seamless return. Parallel to this loss is the anxious realization that having gained entrance to another space does not amount to a feeling of full acceptance. For many migrants the modernist promise of progress is often seen as a hollow victory (Papastergiadis 2000, p 74).

It is this fear and loss that gives the migrant writing addressed in this thesis its sense of urgency and often even anxiety; literary investigation here is not an abstraction or even just the production of art, but an exploration into personal survival. From looking at these three white, English-speaking migrant writers, it also becomes clear that these preoccupations are not confined to ‘ethnic’ migrant writers, or writers whose first language is not English. They are a universal migrant concern.

Coming back to the issue of loss or gain in a moment, the third migrant

preoccupation is, I would argue, with history. According to Berger, “the mortar which holds the improvised ‘home’ together is memory. Within it, visible, tangible

mementoes are arranged – photos, trophies, souvenirs – but the roof and four walls which safeguard the lives within, these are invisible, intangible, and biographical”

(Berger 1984, p 64). For migrants especially, (their) history is an assemblage of unreliable memories, stories told and re-told, re-interpretations of a (not always

‘correctly’) remembered past. There is always the risk of nostalgia, the safe place

away from “extraterritoriality”, as Alex Miller calls it (Miller 1992, p 94), a situation where the individual (migrant) has fallen out of history, place and circumstance.

Again it is Salman Rushdie who details the difficulties of memory and history after migration. Visiting Bombay, his “lost city”, after a long absence, Rushdie is

confronted with the forgotten colours of his birthplace: “The colours of my history had seeped out of my mind’s eye”, he writes (Rushdie 1992, p 9), and he realises that in writing about it, he has not been “capable of reclaiming precisely the thing that was lost” (1992, p 10). He, and migrant writers like him, create, he stresses, “fictions, not actual cities or villages, but invisible ones, imaginary homelands, Indias of the mind”

(Ibid). There are “the mistakes of a fallible memory”, like “broken mirrors, some of whose fragments have been irretrievably lost” (1992, p 10-11). For Rushdie, this is one of the advantages of migrancy: “It was precisely the partial nature of these memories, their fragmentation, that made them so evocative for me. The shards of memory acquired greater status, greater resonance, because they were remains”

(1992, p 12). Loss generates a need, and with that a possibility, that is not, or not as readily, available to non-migrants:

It may be argued that the past is a country from which we have all emigrated, that its loss is part of our common humanity. Which seems to me

self-evidently true; but I suggest that the writer who is out-of-country and even out-of-language may experience this loss in an intensified form. It is made more concrete for him by the physical fact of discontinuity, of his present being in a different place from his past, of his being ‘elsewhere’. This may enable him to speak properly and concretely on a subject of universal significance and appeal (ibid).

So, the question then becomes how to write about these issues, and whether they can be seen as loss or gain. Under what conditions is it possible, as Docker and Fisher maintain, to view migration as an “adventure”, “a voluntaristic or an

involuntary departure towards new identity” (Docker and Fisher 2000, p 16)? “The exile as outsider”, they contend, “can make intellectual and aesthetic journeys that are wayward, unusual, challenging, eccentric, irritating, unsettling”. Migrants “can release the repressed, can ‘perform’ a ventriloquism of new identities, can construct new biographies and genealogies of and for themselves” (ibid). “Great art”, Terry Eagleton emphasises in a study on migrant writers in Britain, “is produced […] from the subtle and involuted tensions between the remembered and the real, the potential

and the actual, integration and dispossession, exile and involvement” (Eagleton 1970, p 18). If that is true, migrant writers are ideally situated to create such literature, because for them there is always this multiplicity that informs their thinking and their experiences. Everything is uncertain, up in the air, and with this comes what Rushdie calls a “burdensome freedom” (Rushdie 1992, p 124). Loss and gain are to Rushdie like the two heads of a Janus face: “Migrants may well become mutants, but it is out of such hybridisation that newness can emerge” (1992, p 210). For Brian Castro, this is not just a possibility, but stronger than that: it is an axiom, a calling, even.

Real thought is always in between, inseparable from a complexity of feeling. It always suffers from contradiction, since contradiction is the experience of truth. In order to allow such vagabond ideas full dialogue and debate – for this is the agony and achievement of any civilisation – we have to sever the

umbilical; head out for the territory beyond’ (Castro 2004/2005, p 40).

Castro acknowledges that “everyone must belong”, and that without belonging “one is a non-person” (2004-2005, p 46), but nevertheless advocates a productive

displacement. His is almost a call to arms: “For the exile, only dislocation can enable a newness that simultaneously ruptures the idea of progress. To be able to speak at all is to be aware of not playing the game, by refusing celebration, the desire to be adopted, the rites of inclusion. Language overthrows everything” (2004-2005, p 47).

Of course, this requires a strong stomach and a brave heart, for both the migrant and the new country. For the migrant there is, apart from his own individual dualism, the problem that “hegemony is everywhere at work; so to acquire national culture – its language, history, customs and rites – is always somehow less than to be born with them” (Hage 1996, p 467). For the new country, the migrant, as Other, stranger, outsider, threatens to “disrupt the stability of the domestic scene” (Chambers 1998, p 35). His presence “reconfirms the non-positionality, the liberal movement, of those who inhabit the national centre, the political mainstream”. Because the new country automatically imposes “limits” and erects “barriers”, this affects “not only the outsider; they equally construe and limit the very nature of the ‘inside’” (Chambers 1998, p 38). Writing, therefore, becomes, for the migrant writer, a perilous and precarious adventure, a balancing act of loss and gain. And this, I would suggest, is true for all migrant writers, including white, English-speaking ones.

5. Migrant themes in literature by white, English-speaking, migrant