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Hybridity and National Identity in Postcolonial Literature

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Hybridity and National Identity in Postcolonial Literature  
   

 Every human being, in addition to having their own personal identity, has a sense of who they are in relation to the larger community--the nation. Postcolonial studies is the attempt to strip away conventional perspective and examine what that national identity might be for a postcolonial subject. To read literature from the perspective of postcolonial studies is to seek out--to listen for, that indigenous, representative voice which can inform the world of the essence of existence as a colonial subject, or as a postcolonial citizen. Postcolonial authors use their literature and poetry to solidify, through criticism and celebration, an emerging national identity, which they have taken on the responsibility of representing. Surely, the reevaluation of national identity is an eventual and essential result of a country gaining independence from a colonial power, or a country emerging from a fledgling settler colony. However, to claim to be representative of that entire identity is a huge undertaking for an author trying to convey a postcolonial message. Each nation, province, island, state, neighborhood and individual is its own unique amalgamation of history, culture, language and tradition. Only by understanding and embracing the idea of cultural hybridity when attempting to explore the concept of national identity can any one individual, or nation, truly hope to understand or communicate the lasting effects of the colonial process.

Postcolonialism is the continual shedding of the old skin of Western thought and discourse and the emergence of new self-awareness, critique, and celebration. With this self-awareness comes self-expression. But how should the inhabitants of a colonial territory, or formerly colonized country or province see themselves, once they have achieved their independence? With whom will they identify? In a country like India, prior to 1947, most people identified themselves as Indians, against the identity of their British oppressors. Theirs was a strong feeling of communal, national identity, fostered by a shared resentment of the British colonial powers. However, after 1947, after being granted autonomy, India's populace slowly disintegrated into more and more divided factions, as the "national" identity shrunk, and people found other, closer groups to identify with. The ambiguous and shifting nature of national identity is thus integral to a discussion of postcolonial theory, as identification with one group inevitably leads to differentiation with others.

In his definitive book about the concept of "nation" and "nationalism," Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson says, "In an anthropological spirit, then, I propose the following definition of the nation: it is an imagined political community--and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign" (Anderson 5). His work refers to anthropological data, as he maintains that the concept of "nation" is truly a cultural construct, a man-made artifice. Thus, for Anderson, it is "imagined." Nation, and identity, begins with one's family and closest friends, and slowly moves out from this center. In our contemporary example, two residents of the same country may live in completely different geographical climates, having very little in common with each other. In such a case, one may have a personal identity, and identify with a more local "nation," yet be part of a political nation as defined by demarcated boundary lines, drawn on a map. As Anderson says, "All communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact (and perhaps even these) are imagined" (Anderson 6).

Children are raised to associate with a nation as representing unity and government. The long-running Western colonialist perspective of nation seems to be: that simply by drawing lines on a piece of paper and forming a government within those lines, a cohesive political entity can be created. A perfect example of this lies in the formation of modern India. Prior to British colonization of India, there existed, in relative harmony, one of the most diverse and heterogeneous populations on the planet. Communities and culture gave people their identity. By the time India achieved its independence, however, the British had created a bureaucracy, boundaries and centralized government, in the likeness of the prototypical Western nation-state.

For the inhabitants of India during the colonial years and the time leading to their independence, embracing a national identity was not a difficult task, for several reasons. The first is that it is easiest for someone to identify themselves in terms of contrast with another, outside identity. People living in India prior to 1947 were striving for independence from shared oppression by the British. Thus, no matter what their cultural background may have been, or their geographical location within the emerging nation of India, anyone who was not a member of the colonial institution could view themselves as being victimized by flat institution, and could identify with every other "Indian" in that victimization. Another example could be a participant in the Negritude movement in Africa, who could celebrate being black only by contrasting black with white. And yet another example lies with any country, any nation, which is at war with another. Nationalist sentiment reaches a crescendo during war by differentiating one's own country from that of the enemy.

The second reason that it is relatively easy for colonized subjects to adopt and live a national identity lies in the fact that the very identity adopted by the oppressed has been most likely encouraged by the oppressor. This touches on the idea of "hegemony," as postulated by Antonio Gramsci. Grarnsci was interested in the subject of subordination as it existed within a colony or nation. He maintained that colonial powers would not have been able to maintain their rule over colonized people without the implicit, if unconscious permission of the colonized subjects. He believed that subordination over long periods entailed the participation of those subordinated. As Ania Loomba points out in Colonialism/Postcolonialism, "Gramsci argued that the ruling classes achieve domination not by force or coercion alone, but also by creating subjects who 'willingly' submit to being ruled" (qtd. in Loomba, 29).

Colonial authority wanted a subject to feel a sense of national spirit. The British wanted the inhabitants of their newly-constructed India to embrace the idea of their being "Indian," albeit in a form laid out by the British. Before the British consolidated their influence into a territory they called India, it was an immensely varied, heterogeneous mass of different religions, political and cultural beliefs. Having drawn lines in the sand which defined India, and having instituted a central government, the British expected Parsi, Kashmiri, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, upper and lower-class/caste to think of themselves as Indian and to respect the British-established government. The British gave the Indian people a model of "Indian," of being a British subject, and expected the population to embrace it, which, in most cases, they did. This is what Anderson refers to as "mental miscegenation."

Once a country like India achieved its independence from the British colonial machine, how then were these people supposed to identify themselves? They were a vast nation of a tremendously varied cultural history, labeled "Indian' by the very powers they had striven to evict from their country. Only by exploring the idea of "cultural nationalism" can this phenomenon be at all understood. This line of thinking attributes national identity not so much to boundaries and political machinations, but, rather, to more elemental cultural and community-oriented aspects of one's persona.

Remember that Anderson has defined "nation" as an "imagined political community." We have discussed why it is "imagined," but why does he consider the nation a "community?" He says, "Finally, it [the nation] is imagined as a community because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship" (Anderson 7). But, as an American, does one feel "a deep, horizontal comradeship" for a fellow citizen living in Alaska? Or is there more fraternity to be found with someone of similar religious belief or ethnic background? This is where the ambiguity surrounding the concept of "national identity" emerges. As Loomba states, "Perhaps the connection between postcolonial writing and the nation can be better comprehended by understanding that the 'nation' itself is a ground of dispute and debate, a site for the competing imaginings of different ideological and political interests" (Loomba 207). I believe that this "dispute and debate" can be successfully joined and undertaken only with a knowledge of the work of Homi K. Bhabha, as it relates to the concept of "cultural hybridity."

Bhabha put forth his idea of hybridity to explain the very unique sense of identity shared and experienced individually by members of a former colonized people. He maintains that members of a postcolonial society have an identity which has been shaped jointly by their own unique cultural and community history, intertwined with that of the colonial power. Thus, for example, a Parsi in Bombay will have incorporated into his or her personal and national identity the traditions inherent in being Parsi, being Muslim, and being an "Indian"--a member of a formerly oppressed society. Bhabha writes, "These hyphenated, hybridized cultural conditions are also forms of a vernacular cosmopolitanism that emerges in multicultural societies and explicitly exceeds a particular national location" ("The White Stuff," 23).

Thus, having illustrated the difficulties inherent in the postcolonial subject's attempt to formulate a new personal and national identity, we return to the initial, basic point of this discussion: How does a postcolonial author, playwright or poet provide a reader with a true representation of a particular postcolonial condition? Who does the author claim to represent? If an author is Indian in origin, does his writing represent the state of affairs for all Indians living in postcolonial India? The answer to this last question is transparently "no." The quality of life and historical circumstances vary too widely from town to town, neighborhood to neighborhood, family to family, and, ultimately, from individual to individual. The question remains then: is there a way for postcolonial authors to convey their respective messages about the colonial condition without assuming a definitive "voice," without presuming that they speak for all members of their respective "nation?" I maintain that there are at least three authors who have incorporated Bhabha's theory of cultural hybridity into their works, and thus are able to communicate the postcolonial condition to the rest of the world. These authors are Salman Rushdie, Bapsi Sidhwa and David Malouf.

Rushdie's novel, Midnight's Children should be considered the quintessential fictional novel for illustrating the near insurmountable difficulties inherent in creating a national identity amongst a hugely heterogeneous postcolonial society. Masterfully employing magical realism and weaving metaphors in and out of each other on every page, Rushdie very effectively describes postcolonial India's troubled attempt at forging a national consciousness immediately after achieving their independence from Great Britain. He describes the shared excitement and nationalist sentiments felt by the population of India as the day of their independence grew near:

There was an extra festival on the calendar, a new myth to celebrate, because a nation which had never previously existed was about to win its freedom, catapulting us into a world which, although it had five thousand years of history, although it had invented the game of chess and traded with Middle Kingdom Egypt, was nevertheless quite imaginary; into a mythical land, a country which would never exist except by the efforts of a phenomenal collective will--except in a dream we all agreed to dream; it was a mass fantasy shared in varying degrees by Bengali and Punjabi, Madrasi and Jat, and would periodically need the sanctification and renewal which can only be provided by rituals of blood (Rushdie, 130).

As the novel progresses, and the populace of India examine their new respective identities, people begin to narrow those identities, limiting more and more their respective concepts of "nation." Identification as "Indian" gives way to identification with religious beliefs, ethnic backgrounds and political convictions. And with each new phase of emerging identity, a new differentiation occurs between one member of Indian society and another. As these differentiations are further recognized and legitimized, a pattern of hegemony and violence ensues which threatens to tear the new nation of India apart.

Bapsi Sidhwa articulates this same theme in her novel, Cracking India. She approaches this same idea of Indian society pulling itself apart in its quest for a shared, postcolonial, national identity by focusing on one small neighborhood in the Punjab district. The inhabitants of this small, relatively insular community hardly notice the differences between one another until India achieves its independence, and is partitioned into Pakistan and India. As the novel progresses, this happy community is slowly tom apart by violent instances of racism and religious fanaticism. This is foreshadowed early in the book, during a conversation between various members of the neighborhood and the outgoing British Inspector General of the Police. The Inspector General is arguing with Mr. Singh, a Sikh, about what will happen in India once the British have left:

"Rivers of blood will flow all right!" he shouts, almost as loudly as Mr. Singh. "Nehru and the Congress will not have everything their way! They will have to reckon with the Muslim League and Jinnah. If we quit India today, old chap, you'll bloody fall at each other's throats!" (Sidhwa 71).

Mr. Singh replies, "Hindu, Muslim, Sikh: we all want the same thing! We want independence!" Essentially, the message being communicated by both this novel and Rushdie's is that in forging an identity, either on an individual basis, or as a nation, the stronger one feels about belonging to one group, the more separated they become from another. This is embracing the exact antithesis of cultural hybridity as espoused by Bhabha.

Another unique approach to the use of cultural hybridity in a postcolonial text has been utilized by David Malouf, in his novel Remembering Babylon. Malouf writes of the formative years of an Australian settler colony, and he uses a very unique character, that of Gemmy, to illustrate the vast differences between the settlers and the aboriginals, and, eventually, between the settlers themselves. Gemmy is a white man who has grown up amongst the aboriginals. He has been away from Western society for so long that he is unable to communicate competently, or effect legitimate social discourse with the other whites. He comes to live with a young settler colony, and Malouf uses him to illustrate differences between all members of this colony. As each member of the colony tries to analyze the differences between themselves and Gemmy, they come to realize fundamental differences amongst them all. As Mr. Frazer writes in his logbook, "We must rub our eyes and look again, clear our minds of what we are looking for to see what is there" (Malouf 130).

Surely, each member of a postcolonial society would love to encounter one specific voice which could articulate their particular suffering and oppression under the colonial institution--one voice which would articulate their own sense of national identity. But exploration of these societies, and the literature produced by postcolonial authors and poets illustrates that there is a veritable infinite number of differing circumstances inherent in each postcolonial society, and, consequently, in each piece of literature produced by postcolonial writers. If one is to read this literature in a way which will shed some light on the postcolonial condition, one must understand and adopt the theory that we are all walking amalgamations of our own unique cultures and traditions. We are all always struggling with our own identities, personal and national. We must understand that there is no "one true voice" representing an easily identifiable postcolonial condition, but, instead, each author is his or her own voice and must be read as such.

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