"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 text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

    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).

  7. In Britain it is the reality of the diaspora of empire within the nation that most fundamentally disrupts this dominant narrative of a unified, homogenous nation. More than simply introducing other cultural and ethnic voices into the nation, the diaspora in Britain is also what Kobena Mercer calls "a reminder and a remainder of its historical past" (7), a physical presence that underlines the paradox of immigration into Britain from its colonies even as those colonies, and the prestige and power they embodied and exemplified, were "lost" to independence. The postcolonial diaspora is not simply immigration into Britain from other places, as for example immigration into the United States or even Turkish "guest workers" in Germany," but is instead a continual reminder that "we are here because you were there" (7). Of course, there are many reasons for the timing of this movement of diaspora into the seat of empire; yet there is an unspoken sense within the dominant culture that it is the impotence of the nation/state, stripped of its empire, that is no longer able to keep the Other comfortably across the sea. The idea of immigration itself, then, violates Britain's sense of its secure national borders. This perceived threat to national cohesion, in turn, challenges the cultural identity of the White Englishman as being homogenous and unitary. The response of the dominant culture to post-colonial immigration has been what Stuart Hall calls a "defensive exclusivism. . .an embattled defensiveness of a narrow, national definition of Englishness, of cultural identity" ("The Local" 177). From the National Front to Norman Tebbit's "cricket test" an enormous amount of ideological energy has gone into defining and safeguarding what the dominant culture sees as the end product of its national narrative: true Englishness--and Englishness, by extension is the default culture of the British state. [1]

  8. The voice of diaspora in Britain is a particular threat to the dominant culture because it is not simply colonization in reverse, not only the voice of the Other, it is also the voice of hybridity. In its repetition and response to the authoritative utterances in the dominant culture it disrupts the nature of the dominant discourse and opens "up a space of negotiation where power is unequal but its articulation may be equivocal. Such negotiation is neither assimilation nor collaboration (Bhabha, "Culture's" 58). And from this space of hybrid discourse also then comes the possibility of the movement of meaning within the dominant culture.

  9. As a way of describing this space, "Black" was initially used in the Seventies and Eighties to encompass the common experience of racism and maginalization (Hall, "New Ethnicities" 163). It allowed groups who were heterogeneous to respond in a collective and overtly political way to their exclusion by the dominant culture and to their representation as Other. Such a term, however, quickly raised its own problematic uses. Okwui Enwezor notes that the "employment of a possibly homogenizing signifier like Black British for so many ethnically and culturally diverse communities and geographies invites, on the surface, the possible disavowal of the plurality of identities within this body" (87). The differences and heterogeneity--including with ethnicity factors of class, gender, and sexuality--that such a term obscures became notably obvious in the furor over the publication of The Satanic Verses when the vast differences in non-white English cultural values were uncovered in the glare of the dominant culture's media. Much to the consternation of some members of both the White British and Black British elite, there was no longer the possibility of considering an elusive, homogenous Other or of reaching consensus among the Black British population.

  10. More to the point, what events surrounding The Satanic Verses illustrated was that diaspora and globalization produce not simply corporate homogeneity, but cultural heterogeneity. They create not simply polyglossia--a happy multicultural carnival of voices--but heteroglossia in which the works produced in a contact zone are often not fully comprehensible to those on either end of the continuum.[2]

  11. In the realm of nation/state politics, those constructed as Other by the dominant discourse attempted to challenge the narrative of a fixed and identifiable English culture in a British nation. If the creation of the narrative of nation requires a forgetting of the violence necessary for the nation's construction and the exclusion of the cultural practices of the marginalized, then what is necessary is a re-reading and re-writing of that narrative in an attempt to uncover what has been under erasure. It is the project that Phillips has in mind when he talks about the political importance of describing himself as a "British writer" rather than a Black or Caribbean writer because to do otherwise "let's people off the hook, because they don't want to then reconsider, to reconfigure, Britain in their minds" (interview).

  12. Such a position is both a recognition that one cannot stand outside the stage on which one is performing, and that the scope of the play is not only in the hands of the playwright. Even as the performers give voice to the words--as Bhabha sees the performative nature of the daily accumulation of culture--the nature of the play and its message changes. What Phillips advocates is a more overt re-staging of the play, a re-writing of the script, even as it takes place on the same stage with some of the same performers provided by the dominant discourse. It is an attempt to critique what one inhabits and to open the performance to the polyvocality of the inhabitant. Such a move is not a rejection of narrative, but of a single, foundationalist point of view. Black British criticism, with its emphasis on unpacking the counterhistories of modernity and the immanent critique of knowledge and representation in the development of British imperialism (Baker, et al. 6), would seem to be an ideal framework through which to embark upon such a re-staging of the dominant cultural narrative.

  13. Yet this very emphasis on the phenomenon of diaspora in the home of empire and its subsequent foregrounding of the doubleness of the national subject, raises significant questions as to whether "Black British-ness" displaces the modern concept of nation to the point that it is no longer a meaningful way to consider these writers. To engage questions of diaspora is to focus on the instability of the signs of national identity, the disruption of the idea of the "mother country"--of the nation as well as the empire--as well as the disruption of a "homeland". Rather than being a dangerously essentializing ethnic and nationalist term, "Black British" actually becomes more useful because of the shifting nature of what each word signifies. The ambivalence of the phrase opens up the possibilities of narratives and identities that are, as Hall writes, "constantly producing and reproducing themselves anew, through transformation and difference" (Cultural Identity" 402). To see these possibilities it is useful to consider each word.

  14. "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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. Certainly a novel such as Phillip's Crossing The River, with its separate stories of Blacks in Britain and the United States and Africa, all connected through time and space by the threads of diaspora, offers a space for these narratives to be both told and connected in ways that cannot be contained by national boundaries. For a reader picking up the novel, who did not know that Phillips had been reared in Leeds, it would difficult at first to confidently categorize the book as "American" or "British" or "Caribbean" Literature.

  20. In the first section set in the 1830s, "The Pagan Coast", Nash Williams, a freed slave "sent to Liberia under the auspices of the American Colonization Society, having undergone a rigorous program of Christian education, and being of sound moral character, had disappeared from the known world" (7) Edward Williams, his former master, follows him to Liberia only to find to his dismay that Nash has found a new home among the people he was sent to convert and educate and has rejected the values of his former master and married and adapted to the indigenous religions and customs. Yet this is no simple act of liberation and reversal and Nash finds he cannot be truly at "home" in Liberia any more than he could in Virginia. In the end, Nash dies of the same disease that killed his son and that "remains a mystery even to those closest to him" (61).

  21. Similarly, in the fourth and final section, "Somewhere in England" Travis, a Black American soldier sent to England during the Second World War, meets and falls in love with Joyce, a working-class, White English woman. Though they plan to be married, they face both the resistance of the local village people and of the Americans. Travis tells Joyce that he has his commanding officer's permission to marry "as long as he didn't try to take me back to America with him" (227). There is no place for them to be at home. Travis and Joyce conceive a son; then, after Travis is killed in Italy, Joyce gives the child up for adoption. The section ends in 1963, with the arrival at Joyce's house of a young man who she knows is her son. She invites him in and thinks, "I almost said make yourself at home, but I didn't. At least I avoided that" (232). The child is both Black and White, both American and British; yet he cannot be at home in Northern England, nor likely be at home in Travis' home state of Georgia. Like Nash Williams, he faces a lifetime of dealing with a shifting and unstable identity, both part of and apart from the cultures of two nations--the United States and Britain--neither of which will offer him full access to the dominant cultural narrative.

  22. What ties together the stories of Nash, Travis, and Martha--the second story of a Black woman in the 19th Century American West--is the excerpt from the "journal" of James Hamilton, master of the Duke of York, a ship of the slave trade bound from Liverpool to West Africa in 1752. Through this section Phillips, illustrates both the connection to and distance from the Africa that was once "home" to this Black diaspora. The dispersal of the "children" of the novel is violent and the traces of violence and displacement continue to haunt them through the generations. There is no "homeland" these children of the diaspora can recover, only other lands where their identities as Other will be constructed by the dominant cultures. As the anonymous "father" contemplates his diasporic children in the Epilogue of the novel, he realizes, "There are no paths in water. No signposts. There is no return" (237).

  23. Consequently, though the narrative of the British nation has been displaced by the transnationality of Blackness, so has the narrative of a pure and indigenous home somewhere else over the seas. For the Black British, the idea of homeland is separated both spatially and temporally; it is a construction of a represented past before it can ever be an experienced reality. This foregrounds a difference in experience and position between those born in the former nations of empire and those born or reared in Britain. Though the forces and narratives of diaspora are powerful and influential for the latter, they live in a different relationship to the landscape of the English nation and the political reality of the British state. The space of the nation and the space of the empire are intertwined, but not identical. Though they may not be considered part of the dominant cultural discourse by those who control it--and indeed may even still be labeled as "immigrant" writers in the popular media (Lee 75)--in fact their experiences and concerns cannot necessarily be conflated with those from former colonies. The idea of the "Empire Writes Back", of a generation of writers such as Salman Rushdie, Wilson Harris, Ben Okri, Buchi Emecheta, and others writing from the empire back at the site of imperial power, cannot simply be hammered to fit the reality of the next generation (Lee 72). For the Black British writer the resistance coupled with the wry humor of the "Empire Writes Back" or of "colonization in reverse" misplaces the emphasis of their concern. Their relationship to Britain is first a relationship to a nation/state, not an imperial presence. They are not writing as the postindependence or postcolonial subject displaced in Britain; they are writing as the British subject in a postcolonial world trying to contest and displace the dominant narrative of nation.

  24. This generational split emerges time and again in Kureishi's work. In The Black Album, for example, Shahid's parents and uncles either pay annual visits to Karachi or try to convince the children of the next generation why the concerns of Pakistan and how it was changed by the British Empire should be of importance to them. Shahid considers his father's consternation on his trips back to Pakistan at the state of the country, "The place enraged him: the religion shoved down everyone's throats; the bandits, corruption, censorship, laziness, fatuity of the press; the holes in the roads, the absence of roads, the roads on fire. Nothing was ever right for Papa there. He liked to say, when he was at his most depressed, that the British shouldn't have left" (89). This prompts Shahid's Uncle Asif, who still lives in Pakistan, to ask, "What, are you personally related to the royal family, yaar?" (89).

  25. For Shahid these arguments, though amusing and sometimes puzzling, are about a Pakistan constructed very differently from the Pakistan of his father's memory or his uncle's experience. For the older generation, the narratives of migration are constructed by physical movement and embedded in personal histories. There can be a real argument, however futile in nature, between the older men because they are still the embodiments of the places about which they argue. For Shahid, however, his physical memories are of London and Kent. For him the argument that matters is happening on the streets of London over what form of identity he and his fellow students will construct in a Britain that refuses to recognize them as embodiments of its culture.

  26. Such a shift in perspective is significant when considering criticisms such as Elleke Boehmer's that such writing done in Britain is engaging in "neo-orientalism" (247). By emphasizing the work of writers who have migrated to the metropolis from the former colonies, Boehmer contends that, not only will such work be privileged over the work of indigenous writers who are not working within the dominant discourse, but that "writers and texts from different continents, nations, and cultures are often indiscriminately blended together as being migrant" (246). Certainly though the danger of essentialism--particularly of constructing a discourse that allows the dominant culture to continue to essentialize and marginalize the Other--is always a concern, Boehmer's position accentuates the potential divergence between the concerns of the postcolonial writer and critic and the Black British writer and critic. The discursive and epistemological structures of imperialism and the colonizing gaze shape and constrain both, but there are important differences in position in relation to empire and nation.

  27. Such differences may mean that "Black British" is not as useful as an all-encompassing term of collective political resistance as it is as a position for re-staging narratives that blur and reconfigure ideas of national and cultural identity. This is what Hall means when he talks of a movement in Black British politics from a Gramscian "war of maneuver" to a "war of position" or the contesting of positionalities ("New Ethnicities" 166). The idea of Black British not only helps elude the dominant culture's traditional tactic among marginalized ethnicities of divide and conquer, it also demands a recognition of and constant renegotiation with heterogeneity. Rather than essentializing, then, Black British, by virtue of its shifting nature as a signifier, opens up the space in which multiple and polyvocal narratives can be constructed in positions of resistance to the dominant culture. If you cannot be easily essentialized, you may be freed enough to give voice to new stories, new identities. Such counter-hegemonic narratives must be read through hybrid voices that emerge from the conflicts in the multiple contact zones that are contemporary Britain

  28. It is also worth noting that the term in use is Black British rather than Black English. The significance of using "British" as a term from which to re-stage cultural narratives is the recognition of the always-already fluid nature of British-ness. There is no true referent for the concept of British culture. Even if one discounts the many different ethnic strains that influenced the history of Britain--from Celts to Romans to Saxons to Normans--it remains that Britain is a political idea used to bring the nations of the Celtic fringe, Wales, Scotland, Cornwall, and Ireland, under a united English domination. Consequently, British has always been a shifting signifier in terms of nation, simultaneously a synonym for the dominant English culture and an attempt to pretend at a common bond between the different indigenous ethnicities on the island (Cohen 36). It has also meant, however, that, as a term of cultural identity it has always been negotiated against difference; it always needs to subsume or elide all differences of region or class or gender in order to maintain the illusion of a unitary and homogenous identity (Hall, "The Local" 175).

  29. The effects in the post-war period of immigration from former colonies has only added to the layering of ethnicities that has always been the reality of "British-ness". If the English nation in Britain is no longer recognized as a basis for collective identity, then the narrative that had been created through will of nation and normalized in Englishness is gone. This has allowed the polyvocal British culture that is being constructed through the daily performance of cultural practices that Bhabha describes to begin to be recognized within the discourse of "national" culture. These performative acts are constructing new cultural narratives, but ones that are heterogeneous, transnational, and continually evolving. In this way, the use of "British" appropriates the term of British imperial conquest and administration and uses it to clear the space for the re-staging of cultural narratives.

  30. 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).

  31. 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).

  32. 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]

  33. 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.

  34. 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.

  35. 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).

  36. 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.

  37. 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.

  38. 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.


  1. Stuart Hall writes: "You have to look at the curriculum, at the Englishness of English art, at what is truly English poetry, and you have to rescue that from all the other things that are not English. Everywhere, the question of Englishness is in contention" (178). Back

  2. It was also a reminder that the forces on the margin, in an attempt to define themselves through negation, could be as exclusionary as the forces of the center. Kureishi, notes that second-generation Black British youth who turn to a strict interpretation of Islam do so as:
    . . .a process of differentiation. You know? "Weíre not gay and we donít like gays. Weíre not Jews and we donít like Jews. We donít like this and we donít like freedom. We donít like democracy. We don't like this. We donít like that." So, all the time, sifting through everything, all the notions that we live in all day, as it were, to make up your mind. There was a lot of making up your mind all the time and rejection, "Thatís not me. Thatís not me." Asserting the difference. And, that is quite interesting. After all, there were people who had their difference, as it were, asserted all the time, but society looked right over it. Yet they were continuing to assert their own difference on their own turf which seemed, in perverse sense, to be an act of freedom (interview). Back

  3. In addition, Black British cultural criticism and Black British artists in all media have, by and large, embraced cultural expression of all kinds, from literature to film to visual arts to pop music to dub poetry to street theatre, thereby further disrupting the high-culture/low-culture divide so central to maintenance of the British class system. Back

Works Cited

Appadurai, Arjun. "Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy." Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory. Eds. Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman. New York: Columbia UP, 1994, 324-339.

Baker, Houston, A., Stephen Best, and Ruth H. Lindeborg. "Representing Blackness/Representing Britain: Cultural Studies and the Politics of Knowledge." Black British Cultural Studies. Eds. Houston A. Baker, Manthia Diawara, and Ruth H. Lindeborg. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996, 1-15.

Bhabha, Homi K. "Culture's In-Between." Questions of Cultural Identity. Eds. Stuart Hall and Paul du Gay. London: Sage, 1996, 53-60.

---. "DissemiNation: Time, Narrative, and the Margins of the Modern Nation." The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994, 292-320.

Boehmer, Elleke. Colonial and Postcolonial Literature. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. "Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks for 'Indian' Pasts?" Representations 37 (1992): 1-25

Cohen, Robin. "Fuzzy Frontiers of Identity: The British Case." Social Identities 11 (1995): 35-62

Enwezor, Okwui. "A Question of Place: Revisions, Reassessments, Diaspora." In Transforming the Crown: African, Asian, and Caribbean Artists in Britain, 1966-1996. Eds. Mora Beauchamp-Byrd and M. Franklin Sirmans. New York: Caribbean Cultural Center, 1997, 80-88.

Gikandi, Simon. Maps of Englishness: Writing Identity in the Culture of Colonialism. New York: Columbia UP, 1996.

Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP. 1993.

---. Small Acts: Thoughts on the Politics of Black Cultures. London: Serpent's Tail Press,1993.

Gupta, Sunetra. The Glassblower's Breath. London: Orion,1993.

---. Interview. With Bronwyn Williams, February 1996.

Hall, Stuart. "The Local and the Global: Globalization and Ethnicity." In Dangerous Liaisons: Gender Nation, and Postcolonial Persepctives. Eds. Anne McClintock, Aamir Mufti, and Ella Shohat. Minneapolis. U of Minnesota P, 1997, 173-187.

---. "Minimal Selves." Black British Cultural Studies. Eds. Houston A. Baker, Manthia Diawara, and Ruth H. Lindeborg. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996, 114-119.

---. "New Ethnicities." Black British Cultural Studies. Eds. Houston A. Baker, Manthia Diawara, and Ruth H. Lindeborg. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996, 163-172.

---. "Cultural Identity and Diaspora." Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory. Eds. Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman. New York: Columbia UP, 1994, 392-403.

Kureishi, Hanif. The Black Album. London: Faber and Faber,1995.

---. Interview. With Bronwyn Williams, November 1995.

Lee, A. Robert. "Changing the Script: Sex, Lies, and Videotapes in Hanif Kureishi, David Dabydeen and Mike Phillips." Other Britain, Other British: Contemporary Multicultural Fiction. Ed. A. Robert Lee, Ed. London: Pluto Press, 1995, 69-89.

Mercer, Kobena. Welcome to the Jungle: New Positions in Black Cultural Studies. London: Routledge, 1994.

Phillips, Caryl. Crossing the River. London: Picador. 1993.

---. Interview. With Bronwyn Williams, December 1994.

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