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About this book

The figure of the disaporic or migrant writer has recently come to be seen as the 'Everyman' of the late modern period, a symbol of the global and the local, a cultural traveller who can traverse the national, political and ethnic boundaries of the new millennium. Home Truths: Fictions of the South Asian Diaspora in Britain seeks not only to place the individual works of now world famous writers such as VS Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, Sam Selvon or Hanif Kureishi within a diverse tradition of im/migrant writing that has evolved in Britain since the Second World War, but also locates their work, as well as many lesser known writers such as Attia Hosain, GV Desani, Aubrey Menen, Ravinder Randhawa and Romesh Gunesekera within a historical, cultural and aesthetic framework which has its roots prior to postwar migrations and derives from long established indigenous traditions as well as colonial and post-colonial visions of 'home' and 'abroad'. Close critical readings combine with a historical and theoretical overview in this first book to chart the crucial role played by writers of South Asian origin in the belated acceptance of a literary poetics of black and Asian writing in Britain today.

Table of Contents

Prologue: Some Home Truths?

Prologue: Some Home Truths?

Home, it has been said, is not necessarily where one belongs but the place where one starts from. As a way therefore of opening this book on the fictions of the South Asian diaspora in Britain, I should outline some questions which have provided the background to its inception. A great deal of critical attention has recently been given to the theoretical remapping of literature and the consequent questioning of the traditional English canon. Cultural and literary theorists have frequently raised the question of how cultures and literary representations of those cultures are to be located in an inherently fluid and transnational global world. Moreover, in the now established field of postcolonial literary studies, the question of ‘home’ has increasingly come to be a vexed terrain. This is not surprising. For the notion of ‘home’, with all the political, ideological and symbolic baggage that it still implies, was one which formed an integral part of the naturalized rhetoric of Britain as Empire and has lingered on in the nationalistic grammar of Britain as post-imperial nation.
Susheila Nasta

Passages to England

Frontmatter

1. Points of Departure: Early Visions of ‘Home’ and ‘Abroad’

The narrative of ‘modernity’ has never been a straightforward one; nor have its multiple origins ever been contained solely within the European body. In seeking to uncover some points of departure for this study of the fictions of the South Asian diaspora in Britain, it is important to recognize from the outset that diasporic histories are often by their very nature discontinuous and frequently involve a doubling of vision, a ‘form of accountability to more than one location’, more than one tradition.5 Furthermore, the spaces opened up by the dominant narrative of a Western modernity have always derived from a process of filtration built on a series of cross-cultural encounters and interconnections, whether staged at ‘home’ or ‘abroad’. For whilst the historic experience of Empire was clearly significant in creating a climate for cultural reconfigurations, the encounter with European philosophical and epistemological systems was only one of many other parallel and indigenous processes influencing the translation and genesis of new literary forms and genres. In the case of the Asian subcontinent, as Nayantara Sahgal implies in the epigraph above, it is difficult to define where ‘one culture begin[s] and another end[s] when they are housed in the same body’. For, if we view the ‘colonial’ as the ‘new Anno Domini from which events are to be everlastingly measured’, we will unfortunately, she says, limit the range of our vision and only ever see one side of the picture. As she goes on to say:
My own awareness as a writer reaches back to x-thousand B.C., at the very end of which measureless time the British came, and stayed, and left. And now they’re gone … their residue is simply one more layer added to the layer upon layer of Indian consciousness. Just one more.6
Susheila Nasta

2. Crossing Over and Shifting the Shapes: Sam Selvon’s Londoners

Although a sense of the need to migrate clearly affected early writers born in the Caribbean such as the Jamaican Claude McKay, who left in 1912 for the United States, and the Trinidadian C. L. R. James, who arrived in Britain during the 1930s, the period immediately following the Second World War was particularly important for the arrival in London of a number of talented young West Indian artists. As Henry Swanzy, the producer of the influential BBC Radio programme Caribbean Voices observed, London had become a ‘literary headquarters’, a place where writers from the various islands were meeting for the first time and attempted, paradoxically perhaps, to establish a firm West Indian cultural identity. Yet, as he also notes, the imaginations of these writers were not formed within the ‘grey world city’; their ‘mental furniture was strangely different’.5 The status of London as such has always been a point of controversy in the criticism of postwar Caribbean literature.
Susheila Nasta

Imaginary Homelands

Frontmatter

3. If the ‘House’ Falls Down: The Enigma of Writing Survival in V. S. Naipaul

V. S. Naipaul’s writing career can be seen in terms of a journey, an ‘infinite rehearsal’5 and meditation on his diasporic experience as an East Indian West Indian and a continual revaluation of the situation of his double exile. A journey as an im/migrant writer in Britain and the location of that self in a world that is now not only post-imperial but also postcolonial — a country ‘whose recent history of immigration ensures that the conflicts of postcolonial identity are now enacted on the site of the imperial power itself’.6 This journey and the enigma of its many arrivals have been expressed over a period of nearly 40 years and through a variety of narrative forms ranging from fiction to travelogue, to autobiography and history.7 Naipaul’s fiction and non-fictional writings trace a symptomatic response to the need to discover an appropriate literary form for the representation of a psychic and symbolic sense of ‘homelessness’. A need, as Bharati Mukherjee has suggested, to write constantly about ‘unhousing’ whilst still remaining ‘unhoused’,8 to discover a new architecture for the imagination which would move beyond a sense of recurrent ‘shipwreck’, and give expression to the ‘restlessness’ and ‘disorder’ brought about by the psychic and physical upheavals resulting from a history of Empire. Importantly, we are told through the words of Ralph Singh, narrator of The Mimic Men (1967),9 that ‘the empires of our time’ have been ‘short-lived’ but ‘they have altered the world for ever: their passing away is their least significant feature’ (p. 32).
Susheila Nasta

4. Writing Home: ‘Unfinished Business’ in Salman Rushdie and The Satanic Verses (1989)

‘Do you hear?’ exclaims the narrator of Rushdie’s short story ‘The Courter’, ‘I refuse to choose’. Unlike the 70-year-old Ayah, nicknamed Certainly-Mary, whose desire to return ‘home’ in the end outweighs her newly found passion for the Eastern European porter (turned ‘courter’) of the London block of flats where she now lives, Rushdie’s young narrator remains adamant about keeping the lines of communication open between East and West despite the potential silencing implied by the choice. The title of Rushdie’s collection of short stories, East, West (1994), echoes, ironically of course, the proverbial rhetoric of Empire ‘East, West, Home’s Best’,5 a discourse built on the myths of Empire and the notion of England forever as ‘home’ wherever in the world you may be. It also evokes the possibility of a late twentieth-century postcolonial and diasporic reading where not only is the notion of ‘home’ increasingly mobile, enacting a deterritorialization that, as Bryan Cheyette suggests in the epigraph above, can be both ‘a blessing and a curse’, but is also perhaps an illusory and fictional place constructed through the myths and fragments of the migrant imagination. The shifting and ambivalent boundaries of ‘home’ and ‘abroad’ have been the preoccupation of Rushdie’s work from the creation of his utopian fantasy in Grimus (1975) — set mainly on an island in the Mediterranean caught between East and West — to his ‘imaginary homelands’6 in Midnight’s Children (1981) and Shame (1983), as well as the more focused and explicit exploration of the ‘stresses’ and transformations of the ‘migrant’ experience in London in Satanic Verses (1988).7 Even in one of his most recent novels, The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999), one of the central preoccupations is the theme of migration and the myth of transformation.
Susheila Nasta

Homes Without Walls

Frontmatter

5. ‘Homing In’: Opening Up ‘Asian’ Britain in Hanif Kureishi and Ravinder Randhawa

In a suggestive essay named after the northern town of Bradford, Hanif Kureishi has explored the uncomfortable terrain of a hybridity which is ‘Englishness’ for a new generation of Asians born and raised in Britain. Kureishi’s portrait of Bradford as a ‘microcosm’ for what he calls the potential of a ‘larger’ Britain, a Britain that might acknowledge its cultural and racial diversity as being inside rather than outside its borders, points to some of the major preoccupations of his art, as well as those of a number of other contemporary Asian British writers. The discordant polarities of the world Kureishi exposes in Bradford are both exhilarating and threatening; it is the home of competing racist groups — whether white, black or Asian — the birthplace of the Yorkshire Ripper, the site of British workingmen’s clubs, deprived white housing estates, boarded up ‘Asian’ houses, Pakistani taxi drivers with Yorkshire accents, single sex Muslim schools.
Susheila Nasta

6. Birds of Passage: The ‘Rooms of Memory’ in Romesh Gunesekera, Sunetra Gupta and Aamer Hussein

How does one write ‘home’ from a house full of mirrors? In this chapter the focus will be on the narrative poetics of making memory ‘home’ in the fictions of three distinctive and post-Rushdie voices of the 1990s. In our readings of these writers, it is important not only to examine the nature of what is remembered and what is forgotten, but also to consider the means by which the questions raised en route open up new cycles of resistance, alternative ways of writing, reading and living the world. For it is through a journey into the incommensurable spaces within memory itself that these writers enact individual passages, which can no longer be sustained by the recognition of any easily identifiable or firm boundary lines whether of tradition, language, place or time. In so doing, the sounds of their voices echo like those of migrant birds, whose perennial flights into other skies mark and name the permeable boundary lines of those im/migrant histories which have always existed, to evoke the title of Paul Gilroy’s most recent study of ‘homelessness’ and diaspora, ‘between camps’.5
Susheila Nasta

Epilogue: Some Notes Towards a Conclusion

It has recently been suggested that the contemporary experience of the South Asian literary diaspora is an ‘epic without a text’, an ‘ancient odyssey’ replaying itself in ‘modern historical guise’, lived primarily within the imagination.1 Unlike many other diasporas, it is not necessarily linked to the ‘homeland’ by the transportation of familiar cultural, economic, or religious institutions, but primarily by a sensibility rooted in ‘systematic diversity’, an imaginative facility imbibed, as Amitav Ghosh has argued, from an ancient ‘subcontinental tradition’ of living alongside ‘complementary difference’. It is a tradition which has thrived, in spite of contemporary and ancient ethno-religious schisms, on a multicultural and multilingual heritage. Thus it is adept not only in daily transitions (between and across languages and cultures), but in the broader translations of a ‘linguistic process’ that has historically inscribed such heteroglossic transformations. Writers of the Asian diaspora thus carry an innate ability not only to adapt, to assimilate and appropriate, but also to hybridize, reshape and sometimes deliberately misappropriate. And if, as Ghosh suggests, the subcontinent has become an ‘infinitely reproducible space’, an ‘empty space, mapped purely by words’, its literary representations will inevitably take on a number of highly individualized and differently constructed aesthetic forms.2
Susheila Nasta
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