"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. Such narratives are as likely to be framed in the contexts of transnational, transcultural metropolises as they are within the "land" or the "nation." Kureishi's characters, and Kureishi himself, often make the point of being from London, not Britain. Gupta, born in India but having grown up in India, Africa, Britain, and the US, says about living in London that:

    Well I was quite keen to live here, again because I considered London to be an international city. I didn't think of London as being part of England. . .I don't feel like I live in England, which is why sometimes it's difficult for me to answer questions like, "What do you think of the situation here? And what's like being an Indian in England?" The truth is I don't live in England, in a way. That's just how it is. That's what I've chosen to do is create a space that is somewhat outside of being anywhere (Interview).

  2. In a similar manner, the characters in Gupta's novel, The Glassblower's Breath, live in transnational spaces that are "somewhat outside of being anywhere." Though the novel's settings move among London, Calcutta, Paris, and New York, none of these cities could be considered the true "home" of any of the characters. The characters themselves, though born in New York or London or Calcutta or somewhere else, wander through these urban settings, living in each one at the same time as they are always detached from each one. Their communities are constructed among their fellow cosmopolitan wanderers whose common ground is only that they live in these transnational, transcultural urban "switching points" (Appadurai 328). They no sooner arrive than they are thinking of leaving. As the narrator says at one point about London, "it is a city I would say I both hate and love, if the large part of our relationship were not indifference" (107). When her acquaintance replies that he hates London, her response is simply, "When I get tired of London, I go to Paris" (107).

  3. These urban spaces, then, are constituted not by the traditional narratives of the modern nation/state, as by a "temporality and cartography that transcend empire and nation and their founding mythologies of origins, of home, of unique subjectivities" (Gikandi 195). In this way the positioning of Black British writers in these transnational spaces is actually working to create the possibilities of new paradigms through which to consider postimperial identities. [3]

  4. In The Black Album Kureishi addresses the competing, discontinuous, and fragmented stories of all those people in the London of the late Eighties who would call themselves British, but not English. Around the principal character, Shahid--a reader of Malcom X and Rushdie and a fan of Prince--swirl his friends, family, and acquaintances, all in different, and often conflicting, positions within the cultural moment. His father, having worked his way up to ownership of a travel agency in Kent, spent Shahid's childhood trying to rear him as an Englishman--complete with trips to Burtons the Tailors for properly fitted, properly English clothes--and years worrying over the situation at home in Pakistan. His brother, Chili, is a London yuppie, a devoted follower of Margaret Thatcher and a voracious consumer of cocaine, and a connoisseur of American gangster movies, his favorites being The Godfather films. Chili's greatest resentment is that his father did not emigrate to the U.S. where true capitalist opportunities lie.

  5. Riaz Al-Hussain, who lives next door to Shahid at an unnamed London university is a militant Islamic fundamentalist whose identity is voiced through its differences to the dominant, decadent, Western culture. He is on a campaign to burn The Satanic Verses at the university. Deedee Osgood, Shahid's mentor and then lover is an academic from a working-class English household, a feminist post-modern theorist who finds herself reaching the limits of her multi-cultural tolerance in her encounters with Riaz. She is married to Andrew Brownlow, the Marxist professor who wants to show his solidarity with the people. Then there is Chad, a follower of Riaz, of Pakistani origin who had been adopted as a child and renamed Trevor Buss. After being rejected by both the Pakstani community in London and by the White culture of his adoptive parents he turns to Riaz and the certainty of his interpretation of Islam as a place to find a stable cultural voice. Shahid longs for a stable cultural identity, for features of his own that he can brandish with certainty and stability. Thus he is drawn to and torn among all of the people who touch his life.

  6. Yet Shahid discovers through the course of events that he is always-already all of these people and none of them. He cannot place himself with certainty--and more important without questioning--within any of the narratives that the other characters inhabit. He cannot give himself to either the pure faith required by Riaz or the pure skepticism required by Deedee. "The problem was, when he was with his friends their story compelled him. But when he walked out, like someone leaving a cinema, he found the world to be more subtle and inexplicable" (110). When he accompanies Deedee to fashionable coffee houses, he can't help realizing that he is the only dark face. When he goes to Tower Hamlets with Chad to try to help Pakistani and Indian families under threat of violence, he is rejected both by those residents and by the White working class English families with whom he tries to reason. Near the novel's end, Shahid tries to find the agency of faith in a postmodern moment. "There was no fixed self; surely our several selves melted and mutated daily? There had to be innumerable ways of being in the world. he would spread himself out, in his work and in love, following his curiosity" (228).
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