The Concept of Ethnicity and Jan Morris' Last Letters from Hav

Randall Bass, PhD '91, English

One of the issues that structures Jan Morris' Last Letters from Hav is the concept of ethnicity. If ethnicity is, at least very generally, the state of being culturally differentiated from the dominant of normative culture in a particular location, then in Hav, everyone is "an ethnic." (Of course, there are hierarchies -- the "hill-people," for example are more ethnic than others.) There are many theorists of culture and representation who maintain that ethnicity is necessarily a relational concept. That is, there is no such thing as an "essential" ethnicity, only a culture group who is in a position of difference. That position, then, is only deteminable by a particular social and political situation--that as much changes across cultural spaces as it does across time.

In Morris' travel novel it is interesting to consider what might not be "ethnic"? While the city is defined by its cosmopolitanism and poly-culturalism, it implies but never defines what could be construed as either a native or a dominant culture. In some ways, then, Last Letters from Hav would seem to be very much about the paradoxes of ethnic representation. To write a travel narrative is, traditionally, one of the more mimetic (that is, realistic) acts of representation: you travel to a place and you tell about it. That place is fixed, it is supposedly verifiable by anyone who travels there. Naturally there will be sujective differences in perception, but in general places exist "objectively." In writing a travel book about a place that does not exist, Morris opens the door to all kinds of important questions and meaningful dilemmas.

One of these conceptual problems, then, resides with the concept of ethnicity, and the representational situation where "ethnic" signs are everywhere (cultural differentiation), but the position from which such ethnicity can be judged in its political/cultural (that is power related) context is continually kept hidden and obscure from the reader. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein's insult about Oakland, California: the more we learn about Hav and its ethnic/cultural makeup, the less there is "a there, there."

One of the ways to read Morris' book, then, is as revealing what might be called the "semiotics of ethnicity and place." As William Boelhower says, in his book Through a Glass Darkly ,

A sign is only ethnic if it is produced or interpreted as such by an intending subject. Beginning with it, one can catch a plimpse of an entire ethnic world, for ethnic semiosis, as Umberto Eco helps to explain, carries with it a set of instructions for an interpretive program. In other words the semiotic process involves not so much a particular group of things as it does their being grouped in a certain way. It is, in short, a position of reading (39).

How, then, is Last Letters from Hav "a position of reading," especially in regard to cultural space and ethnicity? How is travel writing (like map making) a way of attempting to control and understand a space that is not "ours"? Are there differences between multi-culturalism and multi-ethnicity? Does the latter imply a sense of marginalization or alienation, whereas the former might not? Does Last Letters from Hav make distinctions between the two, either self-consciously or not?

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