"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.

I've always been quite envious of people who have talked about "going home". Even now people don't know quite what to say to me. . .If I were to arrive in England, people always say to me "Good to be back home, isn't it?" I'm never sure when I see them looking at me, if they are thinking, "Well, is this his home?" And when I arrive in the Caribbean, people say to me, "Ah, good to have you home, man." Personally, I don't feel that on a professional level, on an aesthetic level, I don't feel any culture shock between the United States, Britain, and the Caribbean. I've been traveling in that triangle for so long. On a personal level, yes, it would be nice to feel a sense of belonging somewhere.--Caryl Phillips (Interview).

I would say that I was a British writer. . .For people like me and Caz (Caryl Phillips), we are British writers. There is nothing else we could be. It is quite difficult, though, because what that entails is another view of Britain. Of Britain as being a genuinely plural, multi-cultural place, where, somehow, everything gets different. I think that is quite difficult for people, English literature having been English, as it were, in the strict sense for so long. --Hanif Kureishi (Interview)

I think one has to be comfortable with the notion that one has one's own cultural identity and that one doesn't necessarily have to be at "home", so to speak. But having had that cultural identity, or whatever else it is that is established for you, wherever you are rooted, whatever you are rooted in. . .I think we have to accept that we are going to be perpetually wandering. We are bound to, I think. That's the kind of crisis that we're in now, that we're forced to be in a state of perpetual wandering. I mean we can't be at home. Even if we sit at home, we are forced to travel, just because of what is going on around us.--Sunetra Gupta (Interview).

  1. For a generation of writers such as Caryl Phillips and Hanif Kureishi and Sunetra Gupta, cultural identification is a slippery and problematic concept. Unlike writers of the first generation of postcolonial immigrants to Britain, such as Roy Heath, who after forty years of residency in London still identifies himself as Guyanese and still writes only of Guyana, this younger generation finds itself troubled and conflicted as it attempts to create identities that defy the borders of the modern construct of the Western nation/state. Their novels and screenplays move from one nation to another, from one culture to another, with no clear sense of "home" and "abroad." And, though Kureishi and Phillips may maintain that being identified as "British" is an important public and overtly political act, in fact their work continues to emphasize the catechristic nature of the term, how it lacks a true referent in a transnational, diasporic world. Perhaps, then, it is time to examine the work of these "Black British" writers and to consider whether the nation/state as a paradigm for the consideration of art has been supplanted by new, more fluid, transnational and transcultural forces.

  2. This rush toward finding a politically all-encompassing designation for these writers raises questions about the nature and utility of such labels. Does such a label simply become another way of marginalizing those not recognized as part of the dominant culture's discourse, particularly in terms of liberal multi-culturalism? Is "Black British" a facile Manichean opposition to the dominant culture that essentializes a generation who have cultural origins as varied as, for example, Pakistan, China, Guyana, Jamaica, and Nigeria? How do we consider the claim of a "British" cultural identity of any kind when such a label historically has been a matter of political administration rather than descriptive of any recognizable set of cultural practices? (Cohen, 35).

  3. Though these are important questions, they overlook the influence of such forces as decolonization, transnational capitalism, transcultural mass communication, and migration and movement on these children of the post-colonial diaspora. For what writers such as Kureishi, Phillips, and Gupta are attempting is not to essentialize the Black British subject or experience, but rather to unpack how both "Black-ness" and "British-ness" are culturally constructed for themselves and for the dominant culture. In doing so they are, in fact, doing more than simply re-staging the narratives of English culture that the British state has used to define itself. It is a project intended not simply to, as Homi Bhabha writes, "invert the axis of political discrimination by installing the excluded term at the centre" Instead, he writes, "the analytic of cultural difference intervenes to transform the scenario of articulation--not simply to disturb the rationale of discrimination" ("DissemiNation" 312). In other words, it is not an attempt to create a separate-but-equal narrative to run alongside the dominant cultural narrative of the nation, nor is it an attempt to assimilate the story of the Other into the dominant narrative. Rather, it is an attempt to disrupt the narratives forged to define the dominant culture, to hybridize the discourse, to reconfigure the concept of all cultural identities as fluid and heterogeneous. Instead of seeking recognition from the dominant culture or overcoming specific instances of political injustice, the work of these writers endeavors to reconfigure these relations of dominance and resistance, to reposition both the dominant and the marginalized on the stage of cultural discourse, and to challenge the static borders of national and cultural identity.

  4. In an age of mass migration and mass media dissemination such forces have ruptured and blurred the borders of the post-Enlightenment, modern nation/state. These writers and artists are working in transnational, transcultural spaces that are defined by what Arjun Appadurai calls "imagined worlds" (329) where alliances and allegiances coalesce, dissolve, and coalesce again along the lines of ideas and images and are continually re-staged across, rather than within, stable nationalist cultural narratives. In order to understand this phenomenon, however, it is useful first to see how post-colonial diaspora in Britain has intensified and accelerated the undermining and reconfiguring of the dominant cultural narrative.

  5. Bhabha contends that the construction of the dominant and central narrative of the "nation" consists of both the appropriation of repeated arbitrary cultural practices that distinguish one community from its neighbors along with the strategic "forgetting" of the violence that was necessary for the dominant culture to "found" and reproduce itself. In this double act of forgetting the violence and inscribing with meaning the accidents of territory and daily life, the dominant culture creates a narrative that defines both the origins and the present nature of its "imagined community."

  6. Even as this narrative is constructed in the discourse of the dominant culture, however, the daily practices of the marginalized members of the state begin to disrupt the conception of the nation. The nation attempts to represent itself as both its history and its inhabitants; yet as the history is written as a coherent narrative to explain the emergence of the dominant culture, the daily cultural practices of those on the margins of the state give lie to the narrative of a homogenous society of a unified people. The consequence of this is that "The nation reveals, in its ambivalent and vacillating representation, the ethnography of its own historicity and opens up the possibility of other narratives of people and their difference" (300). From such a space, according to Bhabha, the voices from the margin can begin to be heard both inside and outside of the dominant discourse. This "destroys the constant principles of the national culture that attempt to hark back to a 'true' national past, which is often represented in the reified forms of realism and stereotype" (303).

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