"A State of Perpetual Wandering": Diaspora and Black British Writers

Bronwyn T. Williams, University of New Hampshire

Copyright © 1999 by Bronwyn T. Williams, all rights reserved. This article is reproduced with the kind permission of the editors of JOUVERT: Journal of Postcolonial Studies.

  1. "Black" means more than any specific homeland, or more than "homeland" at all. It is a word that emphasizes the heterogeneous and unstable nature of diaspora. Not only can it move between generations, and thereby avoid the inflexibility of a word such as "immigrant," it also blurs the boundaries of any stable conception of national essences. This is not engaging in the literary or political nationalism of the former colony in the way envisioned by Frantz Fanon or seen in the early work of writers such as Chinua Achebe. Instead it makes overt the porous nature of Britain's national borders. As Paul Gilroy has pointed out in his conception of the "Black Atlantic", the construction of Black-ness happens in a fluid and elastic space that is neither the United States nor Britain nor the Caribbean.

  2. One obvious example of this transnational space of Black identity is the frequent reference by Black British writers, when recalling their youth, to the significance of African-American writers as formative and liberating voices that contrasted with the educational system's emphasis on canonical white English writers. Phillips, Kureishi, and others such as Abdulrazak Gurnah all talk of the importance of discovering the work of writers such as Richard Wright and James Baldwin. In Kureishi's novel, The Black Album, Shahid describes sitting in the travel agency owned by his Pakistani parents in Sevenoaks and "instead of sending people to Ibiza I sat in the office reading Malcom X and Maya Angelou and the Souls of Black Folk. I read about the Mutiny and Partition and Mountbatten. And one morning I started reading Midnight's Children" (7). For Shahid these are all texts that provide him with an emerging sense of identity that stands in difference from and resistance to the dominant White English culture. That the authors are American or English or Indian or diasporic is unimportant, as is the nationalist framework that contains, for example, Rushdie's book. What is significant is the struggle with being defined as the Other and marginalized by the dominant culture--wherever that culture might happen to be. Shahid can draw from the experiences of Malcom X to frame his reading about the Partition that so shaped the lives of his parents when they fled to Britain. Still, to Shahid, the events and places and cultures he reads about, as influential as they are to him, were always someplace else. That doubleness of connection and detachment, and some possible responses to it, blurs and often transcends nation/state borders.

  3. A transnational space is not always a comfortable one, filled as it is with fragmented cultures and discontinuous histories. If, as Hall says, "Identity is formed at the unstable point where the 'unspeakable' stories of subjectivity meet the narratives of history, of a culture" ("Minimal Selves" 115), the inability of the Black British subject to speak from a cohesive cultural narrative that has not been expropriated by the dominant culture can create in this doubleness a profound sense of alienation. There is no space in the conventional national narrative for the Black British subject. Those spaces that have not been forgotten are in the midst of being forgotten by the dominant culture. Assimilation into the dominant narrative is not an option. At the same time there is no other "homeland" to return to for the person born and reared in Britain; there is only the story of a place of origin before diaspora. Such a homeland is for the Black British youth only a catechristic construction of language. There is no sign to accompany the signifier.

  4. These conflicting constructions of nationality, diaspora, and ethnicity place the Black British in an ambivalent and unstable space between nation and subject. What should be "home", the land of one's childhood, the "mother" country of empire, is unwilling to accept the Black British subject as part of the culture because of the way in which the dominant culture is constructed as the White Englishman. Conversely, the "decolonized nation as the place of ultimate refuge and gratification" (Gikandi, 196) represents only another myth of origins to which the Black British subject can never belong. This creates more than a facile binary of home and exile, so often invoked by the first generation of postcolonial nationalists and immigrants. Instead, as Gikandi says, it leads "to an aporia, as if this figure of evasion and ambiguity is the most appropriate mechanism for responding to the problem of origins and location in the postimperial scene" (199). Consequently, any attempt to stabilize or essentialize a Black British identity crumbles under the weight of its internal contradictions.

  5. On the other hand, the construction of Black-ness, by its very instability does offer a potential space outside of the concept of the nation/state which can be used to write against those ideological forces attempting to create a homogenous, coherent narrative of the nation and its people. From this position there is the possibility of contesting the post-Enlightenment modernist ideology that structures the discourse of national and cultural identity. It allows the possibility, as Dipesh Chakrabarty advocates, "to write over the given and privileged narratives of citizenship other narratives of human connections that draw sustenance from dreamed-up pasts and futures where collectivities are defined neither by the rituals of citizenship nor by the nightmare of 'tradition' that 'modernity' creates" (23). Chakrabarty goes on to question whether the Western notion of a nation/state can accommodate these other "dreams", other narratives. This question can engage with a political moment in Britain in a way that, by the very nature of its transnational and transcultural repositioning of the narrative of Black identity, disrupts the established narrative of the English nation, the British state and the accompanying relationships of domination and resistance.
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