Fictional Histories and Imaginary Lands in Postcolonial Fiction
“[…] the past is a country from which we have all emigrated […]”.
The migrant that has become a migrant either in his/her own land or in foreign lands is deprived of a signifying segment of his/her identity. It is the place that shapes the identity of a person as the land bears within itself the marks of the history of that place. Myths, beliefs, memories come out of the relation between an individual and his/her place, his/her home, his/her land, his/her country. If there are novels such as Things Fall Apart, in which the land of the forefathers is no longer a homely place, a novel such as A House for Mr. Biswas by VS Naipaul, evokes the tragic life of a man who has always searched and tried to obtain a house, that shelter that could guarantee a good family and group status, and also a social and ethnical status, in a land very far from India, where Indians were more often than not looked down upon. The novel speaks of the community of Indians who emigrated at the turn of the century from India in search for work and a more profitable life and reached the shores of Trinidad. But such a colourful and multinational place as Trinidad, would represent for many Indians and black people a trapping circle, a place one could not escape but which offered no solutions either. Mr. Biswas, a character resembling and evoking Naipaul’s father, is a person who all his life had tried to find a proper house for him and his family and who was always chased and haunted by unfortunate events which ruined his attempts and also by his wife’s family who mocked at him and his unlucky life. Moving from house to house in search of a shelter, getting involved in disastrous business, he feels he belongs to nowhere and his identity is one without a palpable past:
He had lived in many houses. And how easy it was to think of those houses without him! […] In none of these places he was being missed because in none of these places had he ever been more than a visitor, an upsetter of routine. […] Beyond that a void. There was nothing to speak of him.
Mr. Biswas tried all his life to find a house and thus get a social and community status. He finally bought a house that became his property, but it was not the house of his dreams; yet he and the members of his family managed to start having memories related to this house and in this way to have a continuous historical individual and family coherence.
On the other hand, the pickling of history, the cancellation of time that Rushdie evokes in Midnight’s Children can also make reference to another element of the vision the Europeans had regarding the East:
In relation to Europe’s modernity, the East came to represent stasis, timelessness, backwardness. The governing topos of colonialist representation in the Old Empire, therefore, was predominantly one of degeneration, the region had an ancient history, but tended now to entropy. In contrast, the ‘New’ Empire was believed to have been an area entirely without time before the coming of the European. It was a terra nullis lacking all traces of history.
If we approach the characteristics of postcolonial literature, through the chronotopic vision these texts offer, we also approach the problem of history, which implies, besides the issue of time and past also that of space, territory, home, lands. This action also implies limits, frontiers, and here the problem of space reveals two aspects: first of all, we have to take into account the initial approach the colonists made towards the new unknown territories, and the transformations they forced upon the lands in order to make them sound/feel/look familiar to them, and second, the postcolonial counter-approach of territories that resulted in imaginary lands. Edward Said describes this two-fold process as follows:
Imperialism after all is an act of geographical violence through which virtually every space in the world is explored, charted, and finally brought under control. For the native, the history of colonial servitude is inaugurated by loss of the locality to the outsider; its geographical identity must thereafter be searched for and somehow restored. Because of the presence of the colonizing outsider, the land is recoverable at first only through imagination.
Both processes started in this case from the same point i.e. imagination in order to reach the material land itself. First, the colonists, according to Edward Said, conquered the land in three aspects : the first was to change the habitat of the colonised from the aesthetic point of view, that is the architecture, the environment (plants, animals and crops) so that, from the imaginative point of view, the land should look less frightening, less foreign, less unknown. The second stage was to change the land by turning it into a source of profit but at the same time subordinated to the metropolitan centre. And third, the metaphorphosing of the land from the language point of view, the Anglicisation of names to sound more familiar for the English ear: “Naming set up a synchronous time frame for the colonies: though not Europe, they were declared to be contiguous to Europe, and subject and secondary to it.” Perhaps the most well-known example of this process of colonization and subduing both land and man is Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe:
At last he lays his head flat upon the ground, close to my foot, and sets my other foot upon his head, as he had done before, and after this made all the signs to me of subjection, servitude, and submission imaginable, to let me know how he would serve me as long as he lived. […] first, I made him know his name should be Friday, which was the day I saved his life. I called him so for the memory of the time. I likewise taught him to say master, and then let him know that was to be my name. I likewise taught him to say Yes and No, and to know the meaning of them.
This whole passage from Robinson Crusoe is representative for the attitude of the self-confident colonists that conquered lands and peoples. The simple gesture of having his foot on Friday’s head represents a symbolic gesture for the attitude of centuries that the colonists had, that of masters of the earth. The way Robinson conquered the island and made it familiar also shows the three aspects E. Said mentioned: the island was made familiar by embedding it with the tools, the basic structure of the European way of life, then the land was turned profitable under Robison’s mastering and finally, he also subdued Friday and a parrot, and taught them to speak English. The same passage is also significant for what Elleke Boehmer states regarding the attitude of the colonists: “The fascination with difference competed with a reliance on sameness and familiarity.”
From the series of counter-stories that come to dislocate the old version of colonial discourse is Coetzee’s Foe, a novel that re-writes the story of Robinson Crusoe, but from a perspective that brings forth another problem related to the postcolonial studies, i.e. feminism. The story is told by the woman Susan, who meets the tongue-cut Friday and Defoe on an island and they are rescued after a year by ship. The essence of the novel is Susan’s effort to have her memoirs The Female Castaway published with the help of Foe, that is Daniel Defoe. Magda, another feminine character of Coetzee in the novel In the Heart of the Country echoes both Susan’s situation in a colonial world (a colonial world of men) and the situation of double-subalterns women had all along the time of the colonies:
We are the castaways of God as we are the castaways of history. That is the origin of our feeling of solitude. I for one do not wish to be at the centre of the world. I wish only to be at home in the world as the merest beast is at home. Much, much less than all would satisfy me: to begin with, a life unmediated by words: these stones, these bushes, this sky experienced and known without question; and a quiet return to the dust. Surely that is not too much.
In the fight against the colonists, the nationalists actually fought only one battle which excluded the rights of the Third World Woman who had to overcome two obstacles: first, that of the colonised and second of the woman colonised. We speak here of the double colonisation of the woman “to contrast the political immaturity of third-world women with the progressive ethos of Western feminism.”
At the turn of the 20th century the nationalist movements in the colonies stimulated in a way the modernist movements in Europe and vice-versa, because their goals were common:
[…] the preoccupation with displacement and loss of identity shared by the new colonial writers corresponded to the breakdown in universal systems of understanding with which metropolitan modernists were concerned. Exile, deracination , urban disorientation, the fragmentation of absolutes, alienation in a variety of different forms, all these defined existence for twentieth-century writers throughout the world, both those from the emergent nations and those based in the colonial centre.
However, the voice of the postcolonial female writers was to be heard far later on than the voice of the European and American feminists. The case of Jean Ryhs is relevant for giving voice to the outcast Bertha; Gayatri Spivak analysed Jane Eyre in the context of the emergent feminist movement in Europe in 19th century, considering both Jane and Bertha exponents of Europe and the colonies, saying that “Jane gradually claims the entitlements lost by her dark double.” Thus,
Recent critics and historians have argued that the feminist battle for individual rights was considerably more successful in the colonies than ‘at home’. While European civil society remained undecided as to whether women possessed the attributes and capacities of individuals, its colonial counterpart - in places like India – was considerably more amenable to the good offices of the white female subject.
The identity of the colonial and postcolonial women seems thus a lot more othered in the context of their double colonisation. The best situation the third world women could get was being spoken for, but never let speak, being always foreshadowed, described, represented, always reified, especially by their European counterparts. Some of the traditional societies in the colonies had already had the woman as the subaltern of man, as in the case of the African societies, or Oriental societies, and the way of the postcolonial women to assert an identity which would not be a copy of the Western woman was even more difficult.
The female and feminine identities in the novels of writers such as Nadine Gordimer, Tony Morrison, Arundhati Roy or Buchi Emecheta, and the feminist deconstructivist theory of Gayatri Spivak, have yet managed to challenge the marginality of the third-world female writers and the limits of her story that can be another facet of the multiple histories in postcolonialism.
On the other hand, these are feminine identities presented from the perspective of female writers. There are also postcolonial male writers, and here the case of Salman Rushdie is most illustrative, when male fiction has shaken the stereo-typed images of the woman especially in the East as presented in Shame or The Ground Beneath Her Feet. All Rushdie’s fictional world is infused with feminine identities and all male characters are, in a way, shaped and supported by feminine characters, as Rushdie himself confesses, to have come and been raised and surrounded by powerful impressive women:
In my writing, I have repeatedly sought to create female characters as rich and as powerful as those I have known. The men in my books are rarely as flamboyant as the women. This is as it should be: or at least, in my experience, how it has been, more often than not.
Whether we see Feminism in its postcolonial forms as both working together and against Postcolonialism, or working totally separately, the fictional feminine identities coming from the former colonies of Great Britain (and not only), play an important part in the search for identity and affirmation of this identity that the postcolonial movement has been doing. On the other hand, it seems, according to Mary E. John, that there is a gap between the native Indians and the migrant ones, let us say in the USA, regarding the wish or refusal to belong to a place and thus assume the difference, especially in the postcolonial feminist movement:
Questions of location are becoming increasingly elusive today, historically and theoretically. Whether it be the ambivalent meanings embedded in the term "postcolonial" or the contemporary processes of globalization (to which the Indian nation is a latecomer), the present trend seems marked by an unwillingness to recognize nations as places defined by difference and domination. Thus, for instance, the urban middle classes in India today seek to erase their colonial past by claiming to have the same right as anyone else to the images, goods, and lifestyles of "the world." Meanwhile, many of their emigrant sisters and brothers in countries like the United States attempt to compensate for their cultural dislocations by cultivating a variety of fundamentalisms that collude strangely with those of their counterparts at home. […]The time when national identity could be claimed easily seems to have gone, especially for feminists.
What postcolonial British fiction, to use this conventional term until we can appeal to a better one, holds distinct makes it more attractive and consolidates its identity, and also the identity of the postcolonial writers and the community and nations they represent, more powerfully in the age of multiculturalism, but what distinguishes it from many other literatures exactly this dimension that Homi Bhabha calls unhomely, i.e. “the shock of recognition of the world-in-the-home and of the home-in-the-world.” And it may be that, in this age dominated by an infusion of concepts and in which the world cannot be discovered anymore but rather visited, a strange phenomenon is likely to happen, according to Francis Fukuyama:
Modern liberal societies have weak collective identities. Postmodern elites especially in Europe, feel that they have evolved beyond identities defined by religion and nation. But if our societies cannot assert positive liberal values, they may be challenged by migrants who are more sure of who they are.
Quotations and References,:
1. VS Naipaul A House for Mr. Biswas, New York: Random House, 1961, p. 125.
2. Elleke Boehmer, Colonial and Postcolonial Literature. Migrant Metaphors, Second Edition, New York: Oxford University Press, 2005p. 186.
3. Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism, New York: Pantheon, 1978, p. 271.
Ibidem, pp. 271-273.
4. Eleleke Bohemer, Colonial and Postcolonial Literature. Migrant Metaphors, p. 18.
5. Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, http://www.onlineliterature.com/view.php/crusoe/.
6. Elleke Boehmer, Colonial and Postcolonial Literature. Migrant Metaphors, p. 17.
7. Coetzee, In the Heart of the Country quoted in Denis Donoghue, Her Man Friday, http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html
8. Leela Ghandi, Postcolonial Theory, A Critical Introduction, New York: Columbia University, 1998. pp. 84-85.
10. Elleke Boehmer, Colonial and Postcolonial Literature. Migrant Metaphors, p. 118.
11. Leela Ghandi, Postcolonial Theory, p. 91.
12. Ibidem, p. 91.
13. Salman Rushdie, Step Across This Line, New York, Random House, 2003, p. 375.
14. Mary E. John, Discrepant Dislocations. Feminism, Theory, and Postcolonial Histories, Berkeley. Los Angeles. Oxford: University of California Press, 1996, p. 4.
15.Homi Bhabha, The World and the Home, in Modern Criticism and Theory. A Reader, Editors: Frank Lantricchia and Andrew Dubois, London: Duke University Press, 2003.
16. Francis Fukuyama, Identity and Migration in “Prospect”, February, 2007.