2. Life in the Diaspora
3. Striving for the Centre
4. Fragmentation of Identities
6. Works Cited
“My name is Karim Amir, and I am an Englishman born and bred, almost.” (Kureishi 3). With this opening sentence Hanif Kureishi adequately sums up the identity struggle that dominates the plot of his novel The Buddha of Suburbia: The protagonist Karim takes us on a journey through London, from the Suburbs, the home of his biracial family, to the centre of power, inner London, while he seems to be chasing his ‘true’ identity. Although the book was first published in 1990, it takes place in the 1970s, just a few years after the large post-World War II influx of immigrants from the former British colonies and increasing hostility towards these immigrants prompted the British government to issue the Commonwealth Immigrants Acts of 1962 and 1968, thus restricting “the entry of Commonwealth citizens for the first time” (Mason 27). Though even after those acts had been put into place, racism remained an important issue as illustrated by Enoch Powell’s controversial ‘Rivers of Blood Speech’ from 1968 which gained a lot of “instant popular support” (Mc Leod 129) and led to increased hostility towards London’s black population. Considering this historical background, I want to show how the spatial relations in the book, that resemble a centre-periphery-dynamic just like the colonial British-Indian relations, correspond with the development of the protagonist’s cultural identity.
In the novel, the suburbs represent the diaspora, the marginalized regions and populations and inner London represents the centre of power, wealth and social and cultural achievements. Karim's movement between the centre and diaspora reflects on his development of a culturally hybrid identity that goes beyond the simple British - Indian dichotomy and moves on from a binary view of belonging either to the one or the other to a more differentiated understanding of the fluid, fragmentary and hybrid nature of the protagonist’s postcolonial identity.
According to Stuart Hall, cultural studies rejects the notion of distinctive, complete and coherent identities. Instead, identity is always seen as fluid, a work in progress, marked by it’s fragmentations and defined by it’s differences from other identities. (Grossberg 90f.) Those differences are constituted by the characteristic binaries of dominant and subordinate identities. Though especially in postcolonial discourses the concept of binary representations of identity needs to be complemented by the concept of hybridity because, being in a liminal “third space”, “the subaltern is neither one nor the other but is defined by its location in a unique spatial condition which constitutes it as different from either alternative. Neither colonizer nor precolonial subject, the post-colonial subject exists as a unique hybrid which may, by definition, constitute the other two as well.“ (Grossberg 91)
This notion is also found in Joanne P. Sharp’s Geographies of Postcolonialism where she stresses that identity building is not about uniting people who have something in common but rather about excluding people who are different. Through these acts of exclusion we indirectly define our own identity. (Sharp 16) This also means, that one identity cannot exist by itself but only through the establishment of a border between oneself (or one group) and ‘the other’.
In the next chapter of this paper I want to show how Karim’s identity is represented through oversimplified, stereotypical and binary patterns by various characters in the first part of the book. In the following chapter I will explain how these narratives that get pushed on Karim influence his own perception of his identity before I show how the representation of his identity changes to a more complex and multilayered display of identity fragments in the last part of the novel during and after his stay in New York.
2. Life in the Diaspora
According to Edward Said’s Orientalism, people in ‘the West’ create and stabilize their identity by distancing themselves from the people in ‘the Orient’, defining ‘the Orient’ as less developed or even childlike and/or static and decaying. This severely oversimplified imaginative geography was constitutive to the ‘Western identity’ because, as binary depictions of each other, neither ‘the West’ nor ‘the Orient’ could exist without the different other. When ‘Western’ powers came to dominate ‘the Orient’, they could impose the knowledge about these imaginative geographies on the marginalized societies which, in turn gave them even more power as this knowledge legitimated their position and their privilege to interpret and create knowledge (Sharp 16-21). In the novel, there are many incidents not only where white British character’s actions but also Karim’s and his father’s comments are clearly influenced by Orientalism: Instead of acknowledging that there is a “diversity of peoples, cultures and environments” (Sharp 16) in South-east Asia, we find a projection of a set of stereotypical characteristics on the Asian migrants and their offspring, that is contrary (yet subordinate) to the characteristics typically used to describe well accepted members of the white British society. Karim’s father, Haroon, who originally tried to adapt to the white working class population of London by reducing his Indian accent and choosing inconspicuous clothing recognizes that systematic racism leaves him very little options for social advancement. When his friend Anwaar suggests that Haroon should put some effort into improving his family’s financial and social situation, he answers “The whites will never promote us. [...] Not an Indian while there is a white man left on the earth. You don‘ t have to deal with them- they still think they have an empire when they don‘ t have two pennies to rub together.” (Kureishi 27). As the British dominance over India has given them the power to create a strong narrative about the characteristics of India and her people, it was very difficult for the Indian immigrants to challenge this narrative. In the novel various non-Indian people see themselves in the position to create knowledge about India because they have been their, albeit only for a very brief period. Karim, who has never been to India despite his heritage, gets upset when people want to impose their interpretations of India and Indian immigrants on him because “”There are two sorts of people in the world - those who have been to India and those who haven’t” (Kureishi 30) or “You’ve never had that dust in your nostrils? [.] take a rucksack and see India, if it’s the last thing you do in your life” (Kureishi 141). For Karim, this kind of advice must seem doubly ignorant, first, because in this position in society, he not easily acquire the leisure time and financial resources to go on such a long, expensive journey and secondly, he was alienated from his father’s past in two ways: Once, because he did not know much about either the language or the culture of his father’s homeland and twice because after the partition of India in 1947, three wars, many violent conflicts between the Muslim and the Hindu population and many other changes in India’s postwar society, many Muslim Indians moved to Pakistan, so it is very likely that the home his father has such fond memories off and the community he lived in does not even exist any more(Panigrahi 6f. and Abbas 8f.). Haroon decides to accept the “singular and rather stereotyped view of ‘Hinduism’ and ‘Hindus’” (Vertovec 104) that is projected on all Indians and generate a new reputation by becoming the excitingly exotic, Hindu Indian the British expect him to be, wearing a “crimson waistcoat with gold and silver patterns” (Kureishi 29), looking “like a magician” (Kureishi 31), radiating “peace and calm and confidence” (Kureishi 36) while teaching “yoga and some meditation” (Kureishi 37).
Just like his father Karim got confronted with the fact, that the key to his social advancement seemed to lie in adapting to the British assumptions about what Indians should be and look like: Shadwell, the theatre director who offered Karim his first acting gig as mowgli for his production of the Jungle Book told him “You have been cast for authenticity and not for experience” (Kureishi 147) which meant that he expected him to know India and act and look like a Bengali which included having “an authentic accent” and wearing nothing but a “loin-cloth and boot polish”. Although Karim eventually accepted that he could not ignore Shadwell’s expectations if he wanted to keep the job, he kept consciously emphasizing his part-Englishness, for example by “suddenly relapsing into cockney at odd times” (Kureishi 158) on stage. Even though Karim identifies as “an Englishman born and bred. Almost.” (Kureishi 3) and rejects these British ideas of how a ‘proper’ Indian should behave and look like, the orientalist views of the people surrounding him severely impact his progress in life and lead him to believe that he must somehow overcome the flaw of his seemingly inferior origin in order to make his dreams come true.
3. Striving for the Centre
In contrast to his father, Karim keeps fighting the British interpretation of an Indian but he is still influenced by the images imposed on him by the British society as he also disregards his heritage and tries very hard to adapt to the more dominant and prestigious British culture because he hopes that this way he could lead a successful life with less discrimination. This becomes clear right in the beginning when Karim and his father visit Eva for his first gig as a meditation and yoga teacher in the first chapter. After his father started the meditation session, Karim goes upstairs to meet Charlie, Eva’s son. Charlie not only tells Karim that his taste of music is inferior but he also lectures him on his choice of colourful clothing inspired by Asian styles because in it, he “tend[s] to look a bit like a pearly queen.” (Kureishi 16) Karim takes this comment very seriously, tosses away his headband and plans to “never go out in anything else” than what Charlie suggested he should be wearing while he “contemplated [him]self and [his] wardrobe with loathing and would willingly have urinated over every garment” (Kureishi 17).
Though he does not only value Charlie’s opinion but also that of Eva Kay, whom he admired in many respects: “I wanted her opinion. [...] if I saw something, or heard a piece of music, or visited a place, I wouldn’t be content until Eva had made me see it in a certain way.” (Kureishi 93) He implies that her way of seeing, interpreting and understanding things is somehow superior of to his own or his family’s way of knowing. However, it is not really clear whether he strives to adapt to Charlie’s and Eva’s way of life because they are successful white people or because they are successful upper- middle class people, living in Chislehurst, an area that looks very different from Karim’s home: The Kay’s house was bigger “with a little drive and garage and car”, featuring “bay windows, an attic, a greenhouse, three bedrooms and central heating”, standing “on its own in a tree-lined road just off Beckenham High street”. (Kureishi 8) So Karim might as well feel drawn towards the wealth of these people. Especially regarding the fact that his mother’s (British) family seems to have little influence on him and is presented as rather pathetic, a helpless “timid and compliant person” (Kureishi 4), I cannot prove that his perception of Eva’s family is exclusively dominated by his aspirations to become more like an “Englishman”. Still, Karim states his wish to be recognized as English several times throughout the book, for example when Jamila told him about “subversive ideas” she learned about from a librarian, he concluded: “The thing was, we were supposed to be English, but to the English we were always wogs and nigs and Pakis and the rest of it” (Kureishi 53). This statement seems to agree with modern criticism of the public notion of ‘Britishness’ which was and often still is attached to the “notion of ‘Whiteness’” (Kabir 79) instead of integration or loyalty to the country. Moreover, in the novel, the categories class and race seem to be tightly intertwined because without the help of more influential people, even his father and Anwaar, originally upper class Indians, cannot manage to rise further than working class migrants in Britain, so while working class people could either be white or non-white, upper-middle class people are white to a disproportionally high extend.
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- Marita Mehnert (Autor), 2019, Space and Cultural Identity in Hanif Kureishi's "The Buddha of Suburbia", München, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/1000153