"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. Even as Shahid grapples with positioning himself in a postmodern and postcolonial Britain, so the Britain he inhabits is a shifting stage itself. There is no stable culture for him to see. The rewriting of the metropolis and the creation of new narratives continues from day to day as he sees when he visits a mosque in London:

    Here race and class barriers had been suspended. There were businessmen in expensive suits, others in London Underground and Post Office uniforms; bowed old men in salwar kamiz fiddled with beads. Chic lads with ponytails, working in computers, exchanged business cards with young men in suits. Forty Ethiopians sat to the side of one room, addressed by one of their number in robes (109).

    Not only have class and race barriers been suspended within the mosque, but so have cultural and national identities. The Islam that is represented by the men in the mosque is as shifting a sign as the emblems of the state in the uniforms of Underground and Post Office workers. There is not a simple definable culture that can be identified within this mix. There are only the multiple narratives of the multiple voices that re-position the subjects in ways that not only disrupt the homogenous mythology of the dominant culture, but necessitate a way of considering the narratives that, as Chakrabarty urges, go beyond the limits of the nation/state to allow us to begin to comprehend what is being said.

  2. What is needed are new metaphors through which we can understand such movements. It is this that Appadurai is after when he notes that "our very models of cultural shape will have to alter, as configurations of people, place and heritage lose all semblance of isomorphism" (336). He proposes using the idea of overlapping, mathematical fractals as a way of representing the shifting and continually open-ended interplay of cultures in an age of mass migration and mass mediation. Without such a fluid model, we will "remain enmired in comparative work which relies on the clear separation of the entities to be compared, before serious comparisons can begin" (337). Such a conception also provides the possibility of escaping from a flattening liberal multicultural vision of society within the Western nation/state in which, as the novelist Sunetra Gupta says, "you wear a Tibetan waistcoat and eat a Thai meal and read a bit of this and that and you feel that you are somehow integrated, or that you have created a space where people can live" (interview). Instead, Appadurai offers a metaphor in which difference cannot be so simply and completely appropriated because of the way it slips beyond the dominant culture's ability to define and control it. Though power and dominance are still at work in this model, heterogeneity is a constant that "flows" and redefines itself even as it is appropriated and commodified by the dominant capitalist culture.

  3. If, as Stuart Hall says, "identities are the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within, the narratives of the past" ("Cultural Identity" 394) then the re-reading and re-writing of those narratives and of the positions of people in relation to those narratives is central to the project of examining contemporary conflicts of cultural construction and identity. What an examination of Black British writers can provide for us is a space in which to begin examining how those narratives that fall outside of the dominant culture's construction of itself within the nation/state may actually provide us with more supple and generous paradigms through which to consider the conflict and creativity emerging from the transnational contact zones of our contemporary world.
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