Trafficking in culture between nations, as a metaphor for exchange, use value, status, desire, political motivation, international relations, and so forth, became evident when a broad picture of the flow of literature, criticism, and theory emerged from the work of so-called Third World writers. Because the flow is complex, multi-directional, and always changing, no model on its own can adequately open up the debate on postcolonial literature.
In this paper I will look at what happens when a writer reproduces a world which is at odds with empiricist visions of a commonwealth of culture. I will also look at how English can be used as a currency for exchange, rather than exploitation and profit.
In thinking about ways of writing to or from metropolitan centres, multiculturalism and postcolonialism, Timothy Brennan in Salman Rushdie and The Third World (1989), contextualizes well-known writers like Mario Vargas Llosa, Derek Walcott, Salman Rushdie, Isabel Allende, Gabriel Garcia Marques and Bharati Mukherjee, as 'Third-World Cosmopolitans'. The common thread is that they deal with change and continuity, strangeness and familiarity, in a complex, multicultural world. Their literature consciously alludes to the effects of decolonization and the role of the 'West', and that cosmopolitan centres are receptacles of 'democracy', not just attractions of high capitalist city culture (Brennan, p 52).
The way Brennan himself uses the term reflects the ambivalence of 'Third-World' as a term used by many literary critics. 'Third World', like 'multicultural', is a term which is both enabling and, at times, disabling 1. It is disabling in that it forms a categorical ghetto into which writers who do not conform to the old established canon of English Literature can be slotted. These writers are often mentioned and then ignored. At best, these 'new' writers have suddenly been 'discovered', and the (Third) world they represent and inhabit has become the darling of other (Western) disciplines.
The introduction of 'Third World' is not meant to merely expand existing canons but to effect the methodology of criticism. 'Third World' and 'multicultural' are becoming enabling categories by claiming their own centrality.2 Third World and multicultural writers are describing, reproducing and addressing a heterogeneous and international (and this is often what passes for 'postcolonial') readership. 'Third World' is a useful term which makes it possible to talk about this body of writers who deal with issues which are both specific and international. The way Brennan links 'Third World' and 'cosmopolitan' indicates that these writers speak from, rather than simply to, a complex cosmopolitan centre.
Trinh (1989,p 98) explains this apparent ambiguity as a development from repression towards empowerment. She says that 'Third World' is a semantic construction of the bourgeois mentality of the West which replaces the pre-Independence 'savages'. Nevertheless, this lumping together of 'poor' non-aligned nations, which denies their individualities, has been turned around to become an empowering tool, one which has grown to include even parts of the First World (as in the case of Afro-American, or Indo-Anglian). So now "what is at stake is not only the hegemony of Western cultures, but also their identities as unified cultures". Rushdie explains how he is constantly asked whether he is British or Indian, and, where his work deals with Pakistan, is he "'British-resident Indo-Pakistani writer'? You see the folly of trying to contain writers inside passports" (Rushdie, 1991, 67).
There is no unified discourse between English (language and canon) and non-English, other languages and other uses of English, which can be easily reduced to something called the 'postcolonial'. If it is, then we see the maintenance of the colonizer/colonized relationship clearly at work.
Rushdie describes a world which is repressively colonized (whether it is India, Pakistan, and/or Britain) and also he engages with and celebrates a complex inner world. In other words, he produces an English language world which is not Anglo-centric. He explains how "those peoples who were once colonized by the language are now rapidly remaking it, domesticating it, becoming more and more relaxed about the way they use it - assisted by the English language's enormous flexibility and size, they are carving out large territories for themselves within its frontiers" (1991, p 64). Throughout the essays in Imaginary Homelands Rushdie keeps in mind the idea of 'English literature' as practice. He maintains that this practice involves two sometimes contentious acts, or processes. That is, that as a colonized person, when he uses English, he is using his master's language, and yet, how else can one express oneself in a largely Anglophone world. He says that "to conquer English may be to complete the process of making ourselves free". Colonization is not only political but also cultural, as epitomized in institutionalized linguistic practices.
Rushdie's experience of bad times is not just that of an observer. Despite his relative privilege (being educated, middle class, anglified, fair skinned, and male) his reading of bad times is filtered through being part of a minority all his life. He was a member of an Indian Muslim family in Bombay, then of a migrant family in Pakistan, and now as a British Asian. Let's not forget that now, for over three years he has been in exile in Britain, for fear of his life. The supreme irony is of course that his crime was to dare to "open the universe a little more" (1991, p 21). He is now in this predicament precisely for having articulated the impossibility of hanging on to one (any) dogma while exploring the world's complexities.
Rushdie's objection to the 'Commonwealth Literature' category is that "the term is not used simply to describe, or even misdescribe, but also to divide" (1991, p 66). Although the Commonwealth still divides and rules, the English language, its common currency, is what Ashcroft et al would call English3.
The non-white market for English is booming. But buying English does not mean abandoning other currencies. Nevertheless, those participating in this language/literature exchange clearly belong to the middle classes. The poor have what Memmi (1965, p 107) calls 'native languages' and the middle classes, who largely have taken up the colonizers discourse and govern and administer for the colonizer by remote, have 'cultural languages'. Pure bilingualism does not exist. Languages are organized in a hierarchy so that English is the most valuable. One could re-order Memmi's classifications to call the 'native languages' the new 'cultural languages' and to call the 'cultural languages' English. This is what Ashcroft et al (1989) refer to as english and English, with english being the postcolonial, localized use of a widely recognizable currency.
In pointing out that "the act of writing texts of any kind in post-colonial areas is subject to the political, imaginative, and social control involved in the relationship between colonizer and colonized" (p 29), Ashcroft et al alert us that however new, liberal, challenging or even subversive postcolonial writing is, the colonizer/colonized relationships remain. In other words, as long as texts are classified along purely nationalistic boundaries, then the imperial dialected exchange between colonizer and colonized continues.
Said's work in Orientalism (1978), as an archaeology which uses Foucauldian ideas of the knowledge/power nexus, is an indispensable analysis in that it exposes the textual production of the East in the British Empire. It is this period of Empire which, in Rushdie's words, "provided justification for the supremacist ideology of imperialism" (1991, p 166). The essay "On Palestinian Identity: a Conversation with Edward Said" (pp 166-184) is an exchange between two writers who have shaken the world into rethinking old, but persistent, categories, especially those of East/West, First World/Third World, and so forth. Said did his bit of disruption by reading "the world as closely as he reads books" (p 166), challenging (ideas of) knowledge with an analysis of events and the reportage and reproduction of the world. Rushdie did his share (some would argue more than) of disruption through writing fiction (or meta-fiction). The Conversation opens with a lengthy description by Rushdie of Said's work, especially his (then) most recent book, After the Last Sky (1986). It is described as being about displacement, exile, and Palestinian identity. Whereas Said's other texts are largely about the Palestinian diaspora from Palestine, After the Last Sky captures in photos (by Jean Mohr) the experience of diaspora inside Palestine. Said writes about the photos and concatenates them thematically.
'Third World' is (re)constituted as a cultural Other, in the same way that Said (1978, Orientalism) describes the way that the West 'discovered', wrote about and so circulated the East. It is no coincidence that the Third World becomes 'interesting' at the same time that the First and Second Worlds develop what Memmi calls "a neo-Eastern style" (1965, p 104). The orientalist approach to the world in general and literature in particular is a prerequisite for one which speaks of 'Commonwealth Literature', and, as Brennan elaborates, 'Third World' literature. There appears to be an open market for literature/culture, but it's pretty clear who is making the profit.
In his essay "'Commonwealth Literature' Does Not Exist" (1992, pp 61-70), Rushdie describes the category 'Commonwealth Literature' as a ghetto, created by those who practice English literature 'proper'. "Every ghetto has its own rules" and "one of the rules, one of the ideas on which the edifice rests, is that literature is an expression of nationality" (p 66), and that culture springs from tradition. He says that "what we are facing here is the bogy of Authenticity ... (which) is the respectable child of old-fashioned exoticism. It demands that sources, forms, style, language and symbol all derive from a supposedly homogeneous and unbroken tradition" (p 67). An exoticized culture must always show its credentials in order to prove itself worthy of 'special' attention.4 While Western cultures are seen as dynamic, progressive, and developed it is demanded of exoticized cultures to be original, pure, simple and preferably religious. At its worst, the term postcolonial implies a kind of pre-colonial (primitive) purity which has become corrupted because it could not resist the colonizers (modern) domination. It does not take into account that the process of colonization changes both the colonizer and the colonized and that cultural exchange is heterogeneous and not singular. Racial, cultural, linguistic singularity, or purity, is not only unlikely but also a pathological pursuit.
Having suggested this disabling aspect of the postcolonial, it still appears to be a useful term of reference in relation to a large inter(or post)national body of texts.
There is a growing body of literature which is refusing to occupy the margins, a place reserved for the Others because their 'cultural' identity does not conform with the old Eurocentric, nationalistic identities. Brennan describes how writers like Rushdie at least stopped and sometimes reversed this ongoing imperial process. They tamed and reinterpreted the exhausted idea of Empire, which had become known as the 'nation', into questions and ideas about decolonization, new writings and "that the world is one (not three) and that it is unequal" (Brennan, p x).
Brennan describes how postcolonial fiction has mapped postcolonial territory largely through 'magical realism'. And this territory in the imagination is postnationalistic and polycultural. It simultaneously expresses its own partiality and plurality while resisting hegemonic cultural repression.
Cultural theories of decolonization look at centre/periphery conflicts, cultural valorization and suppression, together with questions of gender, class, and ethnicity. Paradoxically they run the risk of repeating the dominating process, in creating a national culture. One way of avoiding this repetition is to be conscious of the idea of culture as exchange and cultural identity as a strategy, not a given.
Culture does not develop along purely ethnic lines but in complex patterns of what Paul Gilroy, in Brennan, describes as 'syncretism'5. The Third World cosmopolitan writers flee from a fixed national and ideological identity. One of the consequences of being colonized, migrating, and being identified with 'minorities' wherever they go, these writers are, as a by-product of their popularity, changing the face of Literature, from English Literature, the monolithic canon which reproduces ideologies of Empire, Commonwealth and nation, to writing-in-English, which disperses the repressive apparatus of language currency.
Black urban London is used by Gilroy (in Brennan) to look at the reggae scene, and by Rushdie and Hanif Kureishi (in his film scripts and novel), to look at questions surrounding colour and class in Thatcherite England, illustrating the possibility of using English to describe multiple visions of life in London.
Imaginary Homelands (Rushdie, 1991) is a collection of essays, reviews, and interviews which were made from 1981 to 1991. Rushdie's writing deals with the political, cultural, and imaginative (ex)changes which took place in the East and the West. Rushdie shows how although past geo-political colonialism largely continues as a cultural process in the present, things are nevertheless unavoidably changing. Things always have changed, but the difference is that now subaltern groups are writing their/our own stories.
In Imaginary Homelands Rushdie admits to the fictional polishing up of history/memory so as to be able to represent it as either history or fiction. (The result is meta-fiction, which is discussed below.) It is this inquiry into reality and memory, and how one is effected by historic and cultural movement, translation, migration, that underscores much of Rushdie's writing. He establishes his political context in the first two chapters, and then, the paper "Commonwealth Literature Does Not Exist" acts as a kind of preface to the literature he reviews.
During this period of 1981 to 1991, Pakistan was in a state of political transition, Britain was under the iron rule of Thatcher, and the US was under Regan's conservative rule. It is as though political rupture and not just a changing World Order, but perhaps a World Order of change, provided the kind of environment which was receptive to Rushdie's writing. He says that it was during this period that he finally was able to make a living from his writing. "Bad times, after all, traditionally produce good books" (1991, p 3).
Rushdie's exposition of the brutal actuality of British colonial imperialism is juxtaposed with some passages about what life's really like in parts of England.
This is England. Look at the bright illuminations and fireworks during the Hindu Festival of Lights, Divali. Listen to the Muslim call to prayer, 'Allahu Akbar', wafting down from the minaret of a Birmingham mosque. Visit the Ethiopian World Federation, which helps Handsworth Rastas 'return' to the land of Ras Tafari. These are English scenes now, English Songs (p 117).
This passage describes contemporary England, a place where 'being English' is represented as being very diverse. It is no longer seen as being culturally homogenous. This passage is reminiscent of a part of the movie "Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987)"6. There is a particular scene in the movie where Sammy describes London to his Indian father. For Sammy, London is home and it occupies an internal space. He is a Londoner at heart. This discussion of ideas and differing imaginary realities is very common in postcolonial works.
Imaginary Homelands presents itself as a kind of matrix of interdependent issues. These include lived reality, democracy, migration, memory, politics, the relationships between literature/writing/reading, art, imagination, and love.
One can look at Rushdie's Imaginary Homelands to see how different narratives, from the macro narratives of nationalism to the micro narratives of novels, all work to create different, often competing, realities. It is this creation of a textual reality, through the practices of memory, history and fiction, that is central to much of Rushdie's writing. Rushdie says that "we remake the past to suit our present purposes, using memory as our tool" (p 24). In other words, we remember and write in order to know and have some control over the production of our present.
Keeping this in mind then one can easily see how, as Rushdie says, there are different versions of reality. An artist's version of reality may differ from a politician's, and "if writers leave the business of making pictures of the world to politicians, it will be one of histories great and most abject abdications". Politically conscious fiction is made up of "books that draw new and better maps of reality".
The essays in Imaginary Homelands are varied. Chapters 1 and 2 (9 papers dated from 1982 to 1988) are political accounts of India and Pakistan from 1947. These accounts are interwoven with, and explanations of, Rushdie's own novelistic writing, especially Midnight's Children. Chapters 8 to 11 (36 papers dated from 1987 to 1989) are mostly made up of reviews of some of the most prominent writing in English. There are also accounts of Rushdie's travels and the writers he met. Chapter 12 (5 papers dated 1981 to 1991) opens with a review of Naipaul's "Among the Believers" which is critical of the way in which Naipaul presents an almost entirely negative picture of Islam. This essay is strategically placed to show that, despite his high esteem for Naipaul, Rushdie seeks the truth at all costs, for the rest of the papers are self-defensive pieces. In these, Rushdie discusses ideas like God, religion, post-modernism, authority, Islam, fiction, and freedom of expression. Rushdie's critical work is about the grand narrative and who should have power over it, "because those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives, power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change, truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts" (p 432).
The first essay, "Imaginary Homelands", is about Midnight's Children. It is largely about the provisional nature of truth. "Meaning is a shaky edifice we build out of scraps, dogmas, childhood injuries, newspaper articles, chance remarks, old films, small victories, people hated, people loved" (p 12). Saleem says that "illusion is itself reality" (p 13). And this surfacing, or making visible, of the reality of an inner life of competing voices, recurs in Rushdie's work. As Rushdie wrote Midnight's Children he used his own remembered version of truth. "It is memory's truth ... and only a madman would prefer someone else's version to his own" (p 25). Midnight's Children is not the history of India. Because "history is always ambiguous" (p 25), one can engage with the reality of a novel as a work of art, which is not to diminish its honesty.
In Midnight's Children the 'Riddle of Midnight' is: does India exist? At midnight of 15 August 1947 Rushdie was one of at least 1,000 babies born in India. That generation, which was too young to remember the Empire or the ongoing liberation struggle, became 'Midnight's Children'. This is similar to a question he poses in another essay, "The Location of Brazil" (pp 118-125) ("Brazil" is Terry Gilliam futuristic movie), where he asks these vast, impossible questions and then goes on to answer them in terms of lived realities. India exists because, as Robi Chatterjee (an interviewee) explains, Indians are born here and continue to live here. It has nothing to do with nationalism. Likewise Brazil exists in the cinema itself, "because in the cinema the dream is the norm" (p 125). And this reference to dream (and flying) relates to Rushdie's ongoing discussion on migration. He makes the connection between the world of the imagination and the physical world as evident in 'real' frontiers, as they are neither political nor linguistic but imaginative.
Rushdie speculates on the past/future location of Brazil (this place of dream). He says that these days, as we contemplate the end of time, there is a tendency to fall into nostalgia. He uses the same sort of language when he talks about migration, saying that the imaginative present is made up of fragmented remains of the past. He says, in "Imaginary Homelands", that "it may be argued that the past is a country from which we have all emigrated ... but ... the writer who is out-of-country and even out-of-language may experience this loss in an intensified form ... of his being 'elsewhere'" (p 12). And in "The Location of Brazil" he says that "to be a migrant is perhaps to be the only species of human being free of the shackles of nationalism (to say nothing of its ugly sister, patriotism). It is a burdensome freedom" (p 124). This chapter deals largely with how cultural displacement reveals the provisional nature of truth, and how the imaginary (not to mean untrue) positions we occupy actually create or colour our world.
We write, or textualize our world. He says that "redescribing a world is the necessary first step towards changing it" (p 14). And this is done by pushing the limits, challenging and changing not only the boundaries but also the imagined centre. As "we read the world" (p 25), we are the texts we produce. Spivak uses the expression of 'worlding' to mean that our description of the world is not mere reportage, but that textual practice actually contributes towards making it what it is. "Our role (as custodians of culture) is to produce and be produced by the official explanations in terms of the powers that police the entire society ... . Our circumscribed productivity cannot be dismissed as a mere keeping of records. We are part of the records we keep" (Spivak, 1988).
Another aspect of Rushdie's work which is relevant to the question of postcoloniality is concerned with questions of identity. He is not obsessed with finding some kind of proper personal identity as property, as it would (using Spivak's words, 1990) reflect both the self-duping and the oppressive power of humanism. He says that "identity is at once plural and partial. Sometimes we feel that we straddle two cultures; at other times, that we fall between two stools". And it is this sense of difference which is a source of writing. In his Herbert Read Memorial lecture of 1990 (delivered by Harold Pinter) he says that writing forges "a different kind of identity, as the reader and writer merge, through the medium of the text, to become a collective being that both writes as it reads and reads as it writes. This 'secret identity' of writer and reader is the novel form's greatest and most subversive gift".
As a writer, born in India, living in Britain, and a renegade Moslem, Rushdie is sensitive, to say the least, about his particular situation. Yet he frames it so that its particularities are relevant to the world. Indo-Anglians in Britain "are not willing to be excluded from any part of our heritage; which heritage includes both a Bradford-born Indian kid's right to be treated as a full member of British society, and also the right of any member of this post-diaspora community to draw on its roots for its art, just as all the world's community of displaced writers has always done". Indians and Pakistanis living in Britain are in the unenviable position of first having been colonized by the British in the eighteenth century to 1947 with India becoming free, then migrating to Britain to escape the poverty (which became more conspicuous with the increased industrialization Britain brought), and then being treated as foreigners in Britain.
Rushdie explains how Commonwealth Literature is created and sustained by critics and academics, not novelists. He says that the term Commonwealth Literature "permits academic institutions, publishers, critics, and even readers to dump a large segment of English Literature into a box and then more or less ignore it" (p 66). It reconfirms English Literature at the centre. And this is a fiction. Although certain countries don't belong to the Commonwealth, their authors apparently belong to its literature. England is not included. There are so many differences amongst these writers that it is difficult to see what they have in common. It is easier to see what they don't have in common. They are not Britons, Irish, U.S. whites, and they have experiences other than English (the kind of English which is not the english which Ashcroft et. al. refer to). Rushdie calls this an exclusive ghetto.
By naming and positioning such politically conscious writing in relation to English Literature (the sort which Rushdie reviews in this text), the intelligentsia which produces this fictive Commonwealth Literature appears to be committing a similar (neocolonial) act as what Said describes in Orientalism. That is, there is a textual production of the Other going on.
These essays of Rushdie's which have been written over a period of 10 years, make it painfully clear that his movement from one form of repression to another, and his analysis and articulation of the complexities of a changing world, have culminated in this present state of affairs, where he lives under constant threat of death.
1 Derrida's discussion on 'pharmakon' is about writing as both poison and cure, as a threat to spoken language, and as an indispensible way to record and transmit language (Norris, 1987, Derrida).
2 Spivak develops this idea in In Other Worlds (1988) in the essay "Explanation and Culture: Marginalia" (pp 103-117) by refering to Derrida's deconstruction of centre/margin. She says that "The only way I can hope to suggest how the center itself is marginal is by not remaining outside in the margin and pointing my accusing finger at the center. I might do it rather by implicating myself in that center and sensing what politics make it marginal" (p. 107).
3 This is similar to Trinh's distinction between I/i, wherein I is the unified, all-knowing subject and i is the plural, non-unitary subject (1989).
4 Trinh elaborates this in her discussion of the 'underdeveloped', 'needy', and 'special' Other (1989).
5 Brennan, 1989, pp 50-51. Postcolonial cultures are fluid unities. Ethnicity is not absolute but complex, and it expresses itself in cultures as part of that culture only insofar as it modifies it and modifies the very idea of culture.
6 Script written by Hanif Kureishi, who also wrote The Buddha of Suburbia (1990) and the script for the film "My Beautiful Laundrette", which is also set in Thatcherite England and deals with race, class and sexuality.
New: 16 April, 1996 | Now: 12 April, 2015