Home(s) Abroad: Diasporic Identities in Third Spaces

Sura P. Rath, Louisiana State University -- Shreveport

Copyright © 2000 by Sura P. Rath, all rights reserved. This article is reproduced with the kind permission of the editors of JOUVERT: Journal of Postcolonial Studies.

  1. Against this context I submit the following positionings of diasporic identities from three points of view:

    • Home as Place: Home is where I began, and where I shall return. In "The Narrative Production of 'Home,' Community, and Political Identity in Asian American Theater," Dorinne Kondo paraphrases Gayatri Spivak in defining home for people on the margins as ‘that which we cannot not want.’ "It stands for a safe place, where there is no need to explain oneself to outsiders; it stands for community" (97).

      The logic underlying institutional policies of nativism is complex. Derived from the Latin nasci (to be born), the word nation provides a starting point as it encompasses the domicile family condition of belonging, the ‘natio’ signifying the local community, and a political nation-state. But as Biddy Martin and Chandra Talpade Mohanty suggest, ‘community’ as the product of work, of struggle "is inherently unstable, contextual; it has to be constantly reevaluated in relation to critical political priorities; and it is the product of interpretation, interpretation based on an attention to history." Similarly, Raymond Williams has noted that although "'Nation' as a term is radically connected with 'native,' we are born into relationships which are typically settled in place," and the jump from that primary and ‘placeable’ bonding to anything like the modern nation-state is entirely artificial. Yet, place as a reservoir of collective memories provides instruments of nativism and sameness (identity). These memories are collected in the books, newspapers, and other printed texts, which contribute to the formation of the ‘imaginary community’ that Benedict Anderson outlines.

      In Tenement Lover Jessica Hagedorn, a Philipina American musician, performer, and writer, says: "When I think of home now I mean three places. San Francisco Bay area really colored my work. New York is where I live. But Manila will always have a hold on me. I really don’t think of myself as a citizen of one country but as a citizen of the world" (100). Similarly Naim Araidi says in an interview with Smadar Lavie, "I don’t feel grounded anywhere. I have come back to the village, but it feels like a hotel, not home" (55). Similarly, I ask "Where then is my home?" I struggle daily in the town called Shreveport in the bible-belt south of the United States: I teach there; I live there; I write about people who live there. It is my present. But my mind has been shaped by four other places -- Cuttack, Bhubaneswar, New Orleans, and College Station -- each of which can lay its claim as the home base of my psyche, hence my home. Above all, however, it is Balugaon, that clammy, dingy, fish-smelling sultry town on Chilika Lake where I sometimes return when I sing or dream of home. Does my naturalized American citizenship dissolve the past and make me a tabula rasa? Can one be reborn out of nothing, out of a void?

    • Home as Time: As a function of history, home is the reservoir of public myths and private memories. Mike Featherstone has noted two key features of postmodernism: first, "it entails a loss of confidence in the master narratives of progress and enlightenment," a Western paradigm, and a subsequent recognition of contingency, incoherence, and ambivalence; and second, "a democratization and popularization of forms of knowledge and cultural production and dissemination" (50) which were previously the monopoly of established groups. These, he deduces, are forces that have led to a dehistorized history and replaced it with histories.

      To review my postcolonial self, then I must return to the past or to a crossroads of history. Born sometime around the mid-twentieth-century after the Indian national independence, after the declaration of the republic status of the country, I can embrace my postcolonial identity as an Indian. In addition, my early education and training in the indigenous cultural texts, such as the Bhagabata, the Puranas, the Gita -- much of it recited to me at four in the dew-damp mornings in the harvest seasons supposedly to please the gods but more practically, perhaps, to ward off early morning theft from the barn next door -- all make my experience authentic and real. There was little or nothing imagined about my ‘imaginary community’ ; the soil, the sand, the cow dung all were real. The text was as much in the book as it was on the stone steps of the village pond, where a vermilion covered rectangular stone claimed its divine status as a goddess and received morning and evening worshippers. The text was there on the mud walls where the most complex mythic images were meticulously drawn in circles and triangles with jhoti (pureed rice), where gods smiled in their cosmic glee.

      But these early essences were coated soon with English poems such as "The boy stood on the burning deck whence all but he had fled" ("Casabianca"), or "There dwelt a miller hale and bold beside the river Dee;/ He worked and sang from morn to night, no lark was blither than he"("Miller of the Dee"); or "Breathes there the man with soul so dead, who to himself hath never said, this is my own, my native land? If such there breathes, go mark him well,/ For him no minstrel song shall swell"; or "Inchcape Rock" or "Ballad of Father Gilligan" or "Abu Ben Adhem." These were poems alien to my experience; they did not speak to my history, nor to my dreams, my future. They were my colonial inheritance, the cocoon that covered up my postcolonial self. They scarred my consciousness indelibly to the point that I still remember those lines. True, these readings were later punctuated with unforgettable lines from Gangadhar Meher and Radhanath Ray, Upendra Bhanja and Kabisurya Baladev, or Godavarish Mishra and Godavarish Mahapatra, and passages from Gopinath Mohanty and Kanhu Charan Mohanty and Fakir Mohan Senapati and Rabindranath Tagore, but the colonial virus turned active later and showed up in my critical veneration for Eliot and his ‘objective correlative.’ I read more Milton than Sarala Das, and dissected with the Derridean and de Manian deconstructive scalpel Oriya poetry by Sitakant Mahapatra, Ramakant Rath, Soubhagya Misra and Jayanta Mohapatra.

    • Virtual Home/ Virtual History: I began this presentation with a reference to Trishanku, a king in the Hindu epic The Ramayana. In his obsession with going to the heaven with his own body, Trishanku represents the consequences of narcissism; his story includes an encounter between the divine and the human, and the creation of an intermediate virtual space between earth and heaven, but above all it highlights the dichotomy between the body and the spirit. The sage Viswamitra enables King Trishanku to ascend to heaven in/with his own body, but Indra, the king of gods, returns him back to earth to protect the integrity of the gods’ land. As the king falls headlong down through the ethereal space, Viswamitra freezes him and builds a virtual heaven with its own pantheon of gods and angels. The sage is later pacified by a repentant Indra, but Trishanku remains in his third space. Indeed, he is that third space.

  2. And I too am a third space. As I define my diaspora as a transplanted Indian in the United States, I see myself as a colonizer as well as a colonized. In formulating that part of my self that draws on my Indian heritage, I am keenly conscious of the postcolonial blood I share with the millions of Indians. If from half a world away I have the privilege and the luxury to ‘ objectify’ India and my own past, I am not alone. In a public opinion poll published in the 18 August 1997 issue of India Today, a question on whether the ‘present law and order situation in the country was better than under the British rule’ drew the following response: 36% of the respondents said it was worse; 11% said it was the same, and 36% said it was better. For the 60+ year-olds, those who actually lived under the British Raj, the past was certainly more peaceful and less turbulent than the present. In assimilating my present role as a university teacher and higher education administrator, I not only channel the thinking process of thousands of my students but also evaluate and sometimes redirect the professional activities of my colleagues and friends. Perhaps in me, as in thousands of other immigrants of diaspora who inhabit the third space, live the third culture, and shape the third history, postcolonialism has come full circle, and the trauma of postmodernism has a final relief.


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Last Modified: 7 March 2002