Belonging & Identity Through Literature

Intent on implementing their own culture and lifestyle in the colonized land, the colonizers bring with them their own language and enforce it as the official language in the country they occupy. 
Monica Fludernik is quoted in The Pain of Unbelonging: Alienation and Identity in Australian Literature (Rodopi, 2007) as saying: “Literature is both the creator and the critical analyst of diasporic consciousness”. This argument is true for colonial literature as it describes as well as analyzes the trappings of a colonial system. Looking at colonized Australia and the literature it produced, Sheila Collingwood comments that for the representatives of the Australian Aboriginal diaspora, writing, albeit confrontational and polemical, was the one means of constructing an Aboriginal identity and culture. Like the Australian Aboriginal diasporic writers, other diasporic writers have an inherent affinity with their homelands. Despite being away from the place of their origin they have a strong sense of belonging with their native land and create a homeland ideal that is fundamental to their diasporic identity. A similar trend can be seen in Pakistani diasporic writers who despite using foreign settings and foreign narratives, have a collective inclination to refer back to their native country in their nostalgia for desi food, music or literature. Even though they live in foreign countries, their identity and sense of belonging remains tethered to their homeland. Many novels like Kamila Shamsie’s Kartography, Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist and H. M. Naqvi’s Homeboy, apart from reminiscing about “home” through culinary and other cultural throwbacks reveal in the protagonists a struggle; whether to return home, where they belong, or stay in a country in which they should belong, yet, don’t quite.

With colonization, often a new and alien language is introduced to the natives by the invaders. Intent on implementing their own culture and lifestyle in the colonized land, the colonizers bring with them their own language and enforce it as the official language in the country they occupy. The penetration of this new language in the major affairs of the country overrides the use of native language, causing a split in identity formed through language. In Africa this split was so pronounced that a writer as prominent as Achebe who wanted to write in English had his allegiance to his country questioned and his identity as an African put in doubt. Writers in Africa were faced with a tough choice – either to write in English and jeopardize the integrity of their literature or to write in their native language and have no one but a select few to communicate their message to. According to Abigail K. Guthrie, African literature is accosted by the same problems of identity that the literature of any country faces after the departure of its colonizers; she asks, “how, in a practical manner, does Africa, in its dissimilated postcolonial state, assemble a national identity and agree on a cohesive literary canon? Is it even possible? How does a nation who suffers the alienation of languages and polities unite under one canon of cultural identity?”[1].

Engelbert Jorriseen writes in Colonialism, Literature and Identity, “The language of the colonizer and the colonized will be in conflict on various levels, as e.g. those of dominance, control, and obedience, or of cultural authority and prestige, and, related to all of them, of linguistic, and connected to this cultural identity.”[2] This conflict in identity based on language also comes across in the literature of a colonized country. The narrative of one language is often very different from the other in its communication of content, emotions and tone. One language can present the same idea while another completely fails, proving how important the use of language and writing is in identity construction. In colonized countries, writers have used literature to spark the desire for belonging, subsequently constructing new identities. By presenting the people with a remodeled identity and giving them a sense of kinship and association through a common cause, they can help achieve something as monumental as independence. Here, of course, we have the example of the Pakistan Movement in which writers and poets played an instrumental role in stirring the emotions of a nation through their words that in turn inspired people to challenge the status quo and come under a common banner in the rallying call for freedom. 

Pakistani writers, based on their own origins and that of their ancestors, often appear to vacillate between India and Pakistan, having an identity that is multicultural and bi-national.

For a very long time, the influences of colonization have held sway over the Pakistani consciousness. The status and use of the English language along with other cultural indicators show how the identity of the nation and also of its writers is still shaped by history. Pakistani writers, based on their own origins and that of their ancestors, often appear to vacillate between India and Pakistan, having an identity that is multicultural and bi-national. Kamila Shamsie’s novels portray this idea of multiple belongings the best. She constantly looks back into the past whether as the complicated heritage of an Indian family or the chaotic family drama that ensues during partition from Bangladesh. Her novels along with those of Bapsi Sidhwa reveal a sense of forgotten belonging, a multiple identity perhaps understood only by the 1947 émigrés to Pakistan.

To say belonging and identity is a complex and complicated issue for writers is an understatement. Writers’ association with society and their social and cultural identity are reflected in the literature that they produce. Through the cannons that they occupy writers get to assert their place in the world centuries after their deaths; they also leave behind an individual account of their time that helps to not just identify the writer and the dominant influences on their personality but also those on their generation. It is through an expression of this identity that they belong and remain relevant in society year after year and decade after decade, free from the fetters of geography and race.

Sana Hussain is Features Editor for The Missing Slate.

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