Belonging & Identity Through Literature

The writer’s struggle

By Sana Hussain

whisper inside - etching on somerset sheet - 23.5X32.5 cm - edition of 8In the modern age the existential conundrum of belonging and identity has plagued many in the literary world. Both are complex issues that have multifarious interpretations of race, ethnicity, religion and politics. Writers who are better attuned to the intricacies of such issues simultaneously create and interpret an impression of belonging and identity.

While writers themselves are usually not tied down to one, linear interpretation of these factors, they do have a major role in constructing a narrative that can influence the general perception of what these words mean and how they were significant in the context that they were meant. Although sometimes writers may deal with their personal crisis of identities and feelings of alienation, at other points they appear to have a higher calling, becoming the mouthpieces for the confusion and aimlessness of a nation or an entire generation. Writers like Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot fall into the category of writers who defined the mores of their age. Their experiences of living abroad at the time of war, disillusionment and existential struggle colored their literature and also captured the general sentiment of that age.

Agents like war and colonial invasions bring with them not just physical destruction and monetary damage, they are also responsible for the disintegration of beliefs and value systems. Ideological chaos and a feeling of meaninglessness is usually a result of these agencies. However writers channel this confusion into their work leaving behind a documentation that not only gives an account of the facts, but presents an accurate portrayal of the emotional and mental anguish felt by the collective population of the period.

World War I was a war whose destruction had perhaps the most far reaching effects in history, leading to an existential crisis among people and causing them to denounce existing value systems and embrace nihilism. Gertrude Stein’s “Lost Generation” comprised of writers who came of age as World War I raged outside their windows. The phrase Ms. Stein used to describe these writers is a classic embodiment of the identity crisis a catastrophic event like war leaves in its wake. Sarah Cole in Modernism, Male Friendship and the First World War, (Cambridge University Press, 2003) says that in talking about the Lost Generation both parts of the conjunction should be considered, the word “lost” implying “alienation, solipsism, brokenness” and “generation” referring to “community, shared identity and intimacy”. For a more articulate understanding of this phenomenon she describes the experience of R. G. Dixon who speaks of this generation formed by war saying, “I have been painfully aware of how I am different from many of my compatriots. It has always been difficult for me to be wholly at home with those men who have not been through the experience of war”.

Transitioning from the ascetic Victorian and Edwardian eras into a period where the values and moral structures crucial in forming a relatable social unit had withered away, these writers had an acute sense of alienation and detachment from the regions to which they had once belonged. They sought familiarity and association in order to come to terms with the loss of their inherited values, but it was the sense of isolation and lack of a concrete identity that ultimately shaped the generation. By capturing the social mores of the rapidly changing post war world, the members of the Lost Generation were successful in constructing a coherent literary character amidst the chaos of ambiguous identities. Eliot’s Wasteland perhaps captures the essence of the aimless, unsatisfying life of this generation most accurately. He writes of the detachment an artist feels from his homeland and the shattering of his sense of belonging to the world he perceives as a wasteland. The work of these writers reflected their struggle to look for meaning and purpose in a world rocked by destruction, while revealing the changing identity structures in society including evolving gender roles and the new notions of masculinity. Hemingway’s Jack Barnes and Frederick Henry along with Lady Brett Ashley and Catherine Barkley, are all characters that symbolize the need for belonging, the meaninglessness of life and the changing gender roles of that time. The flappers of the early twentieth century, the libertines, and the excesses of alcohol, drugs and decadent parties became defining features of the early twentieth century. Writers like Fitzgerald and Hemingway, despite suffering the same alienation and isolation of the Lost Generation, gave this age such an iconic status through their literature that their identity is synonymous to the age itself. 

By capturing the social mores of the rapidly changing post war world, the members of the Lost Generation were successful in constructing a coherent literary character amidst the chaos of ambiguous identities.

War symbolizes a clash of civilizations, a trait it shares with its natural counterpart – colonization which, like war, can greatly alter a nation’s understanding of both its place in the larger narrative and its collective identity. The rule of a foreign country which comes with the influx of new cultures, language, religions and value systems, can interfere with the existing constructs of identity and belonging. Writers with their heightened sensibilities often translate this invasion of identities and confusion in affiliations into their work leaving behind cannon that has a strong sense of affinity and an individual distinctiveness, collectively boxed into “post-colonial literature”.

Post-colonial literature offers a strong polemic against the oppression and exploitation of the invading country, concentrating its focus on the fallout of colonization. Due to the usurpation of an indigenous identity by the foreign presence, questions about belonging and identity often surface culminating in existential concerns (what is our new cultural identity? Where do I fit into that identity, if at all? Who pulls the strings now that X Colonizers have departed?). Of course, there are no easy answers.

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.