Imitation and Authenticity in National and Gender Identities in Postcolonial Literature

Elora Lee Raymond '99 English 27

In Custody, Meatless Days, Sour Sweet, The Remains of the Day, and Once Were Warriors all deal with issues of authentic culture. All four deal with ways of defining national and gender identities in changing times and conflicting cultures. Each author defines traditional culture differently, and each has different relations to it.Sour Sweet documents the ameba-like shifting of cultural, individual, and familial identity in an immigrant family. The Chen family in Mo's novel is willing to adapt and change their traditions and customs, but at the same time pragmatism and compromise seem to be traditional values for them. Ishiguro, who criticizes Steven's inability to change with the times, and shows the racist and fascist implications of Steven's ideas what it meant to be a butler. Once were Warriors constructs a specific idea of what it means to be Maori and then shows the Pine Block Maoris' corruption of traditional Maori values. In Custody offers a critique of the stifling, old fashioned restrictions of the Urdu poetic canon by revealing Deven's ideas about Urdu poetry as sexist as well as impracticable. Meatless Days, which questions the validity of categories such as an "native," or "third world woman" and as well as maintaining a need for them, expresses a sense of loss as some old traditions give way to modern technology; for example the replacement of curry with Cook Me Quick curry powder.

In these works problems with gender relations appear reflected in problems with national identity. Because national identity intersects with conceptions of gender, changes in definitions of culture require changes in gender roles. The changes that assail national identities and customs promise to change boundaries, for better or for worse, demanding a strategy for success, also assail gender boundaries and the way gender is constructed with respect to national boundaries. Once Were Warriors and The Remains of the Day, use problems in the realm of gender and sexuality as metaphors for societal problems. In Custody, for example, predicates Urdu's survival as a cultural force on Deven's ability to throw away gendered conceptions of poetry. In Sour Sweet, dramatic shifts in custom and tradition appear in the context of gendered traditions such as foods and boxing. In Meatless Days Suleri examines gaps in her identity as a "third world woman," as well as expresses the need for some sort of tradition.

The different strategies bear comparison. How can Suleri's approach to her identity as a "third world woman" compare to Beth's approach in Once Were Warriors? Suleri's reaction to learning that she does not really know the ingredients to kapura seems quite different from Beth's realization that she knows nothing about Maori custom. Similarly, Steven's inability to see or adapt to changes in English culture differ from the Chen family's slow evolution of tradition and custom to fit western circumstances. How much are these strategies adopted according to the political situations they address? Would Duff advocate the same medicine for Stevens in The Remains of the Day, or is his solution specific to the Maori and the cultural crisis they face? In what situations is it useful to have a precise definition of native culture, and when is it more useful to look at why it is impossible to make such distinctions and definitions? What are the problems with using a precise definition of authentic culture, and what are the problems with maintaining that authenticity and nativity are impossible? Finally, how does postcolonialism cast new light on what it means to be native?


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Last Modified: 15 March, 2002