"A State of Perpetual Wandering": Diaspora and Black British Writers

Bronwyn T. Williams, University of New Hampshire

Copyright © 1999 by Bronwyn T. Williams, all rights reserved. This article is reproduced with the kind permission of the editors of JOUVERT: Journal of Postcolonial Studies.

  1. Consequently, though the narrative of the British nation has been displaced by the transnationality of Blackness, so has the narrative of a pure and indigenous home somewhere else over the seas. For the Black British, the idea of homeland is separated both spatially and temporally; it is a construction of a represented past before it can ever be an experienced reality. This foregrounds a difference in experience and position between those born in the former nations of empire and those born or reared in Britain. Though the forces and narratives of diaspora are powerful and influential for the latter, they live in a different relationship to the landscape of the English nation and the political reality of the British state. The space of the nation and the space of the empire are intertwined, but not identical. Though they may not be considered part of the dominant cultural discourse by those who control it--and indeed may even still be labeled as "immigrant" writers in the popular media (Lee 75)--in fact their experiences and concerns cannot necessarily be conflated with those from former colonies. The idea of the "Empire Writes Back", of a generation of writers such as Salman Rushdie, Wilson Harris, Ben Okri, Buchi Emecheta, and others writing from the empire back at the site of imperial power, cannot simply be hammered to fit the reality of the next generation (Lee 72). For the Black British writer the resistance coupled with the wry humor of the "Empire Writes Back" or of "colonization in reverse" misplaces the emphasis of their concern. Their relationship to Britain is first a relationship to a nation/state, not an imperial presence. They are not writing as the postindependence or postcolonial subject displaced in Britain; they are writing as the British subject in a postcolonial world trying to contest and displace the dominant narrative of nation.

  2. This generational split emerges time and again in Kureishi's work. In The Black Album, for example, Shahid's parents and uncles either pay annual visits to Karachi or try to convince the children of the next generation why the concerns of Pakistan and how it was changed by the British Empire should be of importance to them. Shahid considers his father's consternation on his trips back to Pakistan at the state of the country, "The place enraged him: the religion shoved down everyone's throats; the bandits, corruption, censorship, laziness, fatuity of the press; the holes in the roads, the absence of roads, the roads on fire. Nothing was ever right for Papa there. He liked to say, when he was at his most depressed, that the British shouldn't have left" (89). This prompts Shahid's Uncle Asif, who still lives in Pakistan, to ask, "What, are you personally related to the royal family, yaar?" (89).

  3. For Shahid these arguments, though amusing and sometimes puzzling, are about a Pakistan constructed very differently from the Pakistan of his father's memory or his uncle's experience. For the older generation, the narratives of migration are constructed by physical movement and embedded in personal histories. There can be a real argument, however futile in nature, between the older men because they are still the embodiments of the places about which they argue. For Shahid, however, his physical memories are of London and Kent. For him the argument that matters is happening on the streets of London over what form of identity he and his fellow students will construct in a Britain that refuses to recognize them as embodiments of its culture.

  4. Such a shift in perspective is significant when considering criticisms such as Elleke Boehmer's that such writing done in Britain is engaging in "neo-orientalism" (247). By emphasizing the work of writers who have migrated to the metropolis from the former colonies, Boehmer contends that, not only will such work be privileged over the work of indigenous writers who are not working within the dominant discourse, but that "writers and texts from different continents, nations, and cultures are often indiscriminately blended together as being migrant" (246). Certainly though the danger of essentialism--particularly of constructing a discourse that allows the dominant culture to continue to essentialize and marginalize the Other--is always a concern, Boehmer's position accentuates the potential divergence between the concerns of the postcolonial writer and critic and the Black British writer and critic. The discursive and epistemological structures of imperialism and the colonizing gaze shape and constrain both, but there are important differences in position in relation to empire and nation.

  5. Such differences may mean that "Black British" is not as useful as an all-encompassing term of collective political resistance as it is as a position for re-staging narratives that blur and reconfigure ideas of national and cultural identity. This is what Hall means when he talks of a movement in Black British politics from a Gramscian "war of maneuver" to a "war of position" or the contesting of positionalities ("New Ethnicities" 166). The idea of Black British not only helps elude the dominant culture's traditional tactic among marginalized ethnicities of divide and conquer, it also demands a recognition of and constant renegotiation with heterogeneity. Rather than essentializing, then, Black British, by virtue of its shifting nature as a signifier, opens up the space in which multiple and polyvocal narratives can be constructed in positions of resistance to the dominant culture. If you cannot be easily essentialized, you may be freed enough to give voice to new stories, new identities. Such counter-hegemonic narratives must be read through hybrid voices that emerge from the conflicts in the multiple contact zones that are contemporary Britain

  6. It is also worth noting that the term in use is Black British rather than Black English. The significance of using "British" as a term from which to re-stage cultural narratives is the recognition of the always-already fluid nature of British-ness. There is no true referent for the concept of British culture. Even if one discounts the many different ethnic strains that influenced the history of Britain--from Celts to Romans to Saxons to Normans--it remains that Britain is a political idea used to bring the nations of the Celtic fringe, Wales, Scotland, Cornwall, and Ireland, under a united English domination. Consequently, British has always been a shifting signifier in terms of nation, simultaneously a synonym for the dominant English culture and an attempt to pretend at a common bond between the different indigenous ethnicities on the island (Cohen 36). It has also meant, however, that, as a term of cultural identity it has always been negotiated against difference; it always needs to subsume or elide all differences of region or class or gender in order to maintain the illusion of a unitary and homogenous identity (Hall, "The Local" 175).

  7. The effects in the post-war period of immigration from former colonies has only added to the layering of ethnicities that has always been the reality of "British-ness". If the English nation in Britain is no longer recognized as a basis for collective identity, then the narrative that had been created through will of nation and normalized in Englishness is gone. This has allowed the polyvocal British culture that is being constructed through the daily performance of cultural practices that Bhabha describes to begin to be recognized within the discourse of "national" culture. These performative acts are constructing new cultural narratives, but ones that are heterogeneous, transnational, and continually evolving. In this way, the use of "British" appropriates the term of British imperial conquest and administration and uses it to clear the space for the re-staging of cultural narratives.
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