The Muslim quest between integration and provocation in contemporary Canadian writing. A close analysis of Rawi Hage's "Cockroach"

Elaboration, 2017
82 Pages


Table of Contents

1. Contemporary Muslim Writing

2. Contemporary English Literature and the Role of Muslim Writers

3. Postcolonial Writing and the Position of Muslim Writers

4. Canadian Literature: A Short Survey

5. Canadian Muslim Writing

6. Selected Literary Parameters

a. Identity Formation

b. The Quest for a Meaning of Life

c. Hybrid Description and Hybrid Identity

7. The Use of Identity Matters in Cockroach

8. The Autobiography as a Radical Form of Narration in Cockroach

9. Cockroach: Close Analysis
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six

10. Conclusion

11. Bibliography


This critical essay is about Rawi Hage' s novel Cockroach (2008) which at first sight is according to the Daily Telegraph ' A tale of murder, intrigue and sex from the exuberantly talented Hage'. Cockroach yet embodies more than this (negative) one-sighted approach.[1] It is also a novel of migration, exile, diaspora and being unwanted because of being a foreigner of migrant background and Hage -like Rushdie- explores the hinterland between fantasy, trauma and realism.

The unnamed narrator of the novel takes the reader by the hand and exposes this immigrant life in a chilly surrounding. Chilly because people are cold and chilly because the climate is cold, too. The fact that Hage as a Lebanese born person uses a Canadian setting as the place of action already hints at two conditions of contemporary Muslim writing in general. The talk is about the autobiographical basis which many novels have and the use of the city as the background of the narration, two presuppositions of Muslim writing since Rushdie and Kureishi.

Like most other Muslim writers Hage depicts his characters as Muslims in a Western world thus throwing light on the literary decision of many contemporary Muslim novelists who closely link their characters with their habitat.

Disposing of a Muslim background Hage and his works can be ranked into the German category of 'Ethnische Minderheitenliteratur' a genre which is so common in contemporary Canadian literature.

Thus Cockroach can already considered to be a milestone of contemporary Canadian Muslim writing a fairly new genre in this manifold field of Muslim writing mentioned above.

Rawi Hage was born in Beirut in 1964 and grew up in Lebanon and Cyprus. In 1984 he moved to New York and later to Montreal (1991). His first novel De Niro 's Game (2006) marked his literary breakthrough and won him the international Impact Dublin Literary Award , an award for the best English-language book published anywhere in the world. This award was later added by the Hugh MacLennan Prize and the Mc Auslan First Book Prize. Hage himself is trilingual and equally home in Arabic, French and English and his multivocality is present in his fiction along his love for Arabic prose and poetry. The literary categories he moves in belong to immigrant literature, ethnic literature, minority literature, multicultural literature and Muslim writing. His focus on Montreal is obvious in Cockroach and the critic Matthew Fox here noted in 2010 that ' Cockroach depicts a Montreal unfamiliar to most Montrealers and a Canada unfamiliar to most Canadians'.

The narrator Hage uses in Cockroach to explore Montreal presents it as an alien and hostile topography of menial jobs, hidden or open xenophobia, a mix of foreigners, insect behaviours and class hostilities. This narrator, an exotic foreigner himself, despises the (Canadian) world around him and takes the reader through a nightmare of Canadian reality on the basis of his violent childhood, the death of his sister, his exile situation and the helplessness of Canada which fails in the person of a court- mandated psychiatrist. His traumatic past and his inability as a man to protect the female members of his family are also symbols for a failed integration and the personal crisis of the narrator who seeks to find identity and a life at the border of physical and psychological death.

1. Contemporary Muslim Writing

The radical development within the Muslim world during the last 30 years and the demographic, economic and (multi)cultural presence of Islam and Muslims in the West in general and Great Britain in particular were followed by a literary activity of novelists with a Muslim background. The incorporation of Islam and Islamic fundamentalism in contemporary English literature can be seen as an attempt to bring Islam out of existing economic and social enclaves, where disadvantage, exclusion and prejudices have prevailed for four to six decades. While doing this, Muslim writers reached three aims. They paved the way to discuss matters like xenophobia, racism, discrimination and integration policy anew, started an internal Islamic reflexion on topics, such as gender roles or the traditional role of women, and in general brought the Muslim world closer to Western readers.

It is exactly in this context where one major attempt of Muslim writing seems to take place. Muslim writers attempt to describe Muslim life in Great Britain, America or Canada (and in their homelands), where they challenge and contest the framing of Muslims as violent extremists. They stand up against Islamophobic stereotypes that associate Muslims with Sharia law, the practice of the veil or the burka, religious fundamentalism, terrorism or the notion of a global war on the West in the form of the Jihad. They thus show that the negative images of Islam in the West are justifications for Western economic and foreign policies of the past and the present. The majority of Muslim writers also made clear that Muslims who are trying to find a truth in life are potentially misdirected by a radicalising religious fundamentalism that seeks to convince former decadent young Muslims without a firm identity of their own that the solution to all their problems lies in religious extremism and a personal radicalization. Religious fundamentalism is hereby seen as an option that surpasses all barriers and boundaries, theologically, metaphysically, spiritually, morally and culturally. The final aim of this liberation process is then offered (e.g. by the Islamic State) as an individual and group salvation. Since 9/11 and 7/7/2005, the grip on Muslims has increased, and the ‘War on Terror’, unleashed by the American government turned out to be an ideological construction that worsened the negative status quo of Muslims in the West. This development was also taken up and embedded into Muslim writing. This post-2001 climate pushed Muslim writers to integrate Islam more intensely into their works and helped them move into the center of a considerable political, media and academic focus while reflecting the role of Muslims as outsiders in the West.

This side effect opened the doors wide for a literary reflection of migrancy, exclusion, a mode of belonging, multiculturalism, state security, and paved the way for a linkage between Islam and social, cultural, moral and existential questions, such as belonging and identity matters. It is especially the last two aspects that seem to become the very center of actual and perceived problems.

The belonging and the identity of Muslims have become matters of central concern for the children of the second and third generations of immigrants, who are sometimes seen as children of the diaspora. They seem to be the victims of Muslim immigration, although they are permanent and active citizens in liberal democracies who/which fail, because they are torn between two worlds. The option to live in the West is contrasted with the attempt to maintain the strong spiritual, ideological and political ties within the Muslim community (ummah). This group of young Muslims has turned out to be the ideal group for a literary reflection of Muslims because any presentation and analysis throws light on the role of Muslims in the West and helps show the emotional situation they are in, both ideal elements for character development and plot.

Identity-making in general is closely attached to what is understood by culture and cultural background, in which religion (Islam) has taken a central position. Islamic authors try to regain Muslim identity. They do this while telling their version of the story. Their interpretation of Muslim existence is the method to develop their own identity, which results in a counter model to the West. They link religion with social, cultural and existential questions and use Islam to present their national, cultural and religious identity. They thus keep distance from the idea of a social mix and reveal hybridity and multiculturalism as (negative) supporters of existing power constellations. They hereby can be seen as being political in the sense of Eagleton (2004), who coined the phrase that ‘all criticism is in a sense political.’ To write about Muslim culture in general and Islam in particular as a western critic is often done by defining Muslims as other and different. In the past, this otherness was dealt with from the colonial point of view, which considered Muslim culture and Islam as inferior, decadent, backward-oriented, anti-female, aggressive or militant. The notion of a ‘clash of civilizations,’ which still divides Islam and the West, was a logical result of this.

Since 9/11 the idea of Islamic civilization and culture was newly and critically looked at from both sides. In the West, this event was seen as the end of the concept of a multicultural society. Muslim writers, however, embedded this event into their writings and attached it closely to their traditional focus, which can be seen in subject matters dealing with migration, integration, assimilation, racism, diapora life, acceptance or rejection. Their main aim was to throw light on the effects 9/11 had on Muslims and their community (see Cilano (2013); Tolan et al. (2012).[2] It is without doubt that this date proved Muslim life and its description to be different and more difficult than its Western counterpart.

The choice to concentrate all this on a female author tries to present examples of novelistic characters for whom religion or its rediscovery is at the core of their being. Modern Muslim diaspora existence at present is located between the option of a transnational existence, some sort of self-construction or a return to Islam or Islamic fundamentalism. This basic decision shows that Muslim life in the West is torn between immigration and settlement policy, given political systems and the social, economic or cultural developments of the host nation. Muslim writers deploy the issues of Islam and Islamic fundamentalism as means to frame their analysis of the situation of Muslims, whether considered as a transnational global community, as national formations or as religious minorities within particular Western states.

Muslim writing here tries to balance these conditions and to present a description of modern Muslim existence. Its representatives hereby function as mediators between the polarizations of fixed and rigid positions, resulting in a decision between ‘them’ and ‘us.’ It is exactly here that their task is to bring the Muslim world closer to Western readers, without giving up their Muslim heritage and identity. In this context, they seem to use Kipling’s colonially marked concept of ‘The burden of representation’ from a Muslim position. The major aim of this attempt on the Muslim side is to show that Islamic representation in the West has become more difficult since Muslims have been in the focus of public and political attention since 9/11 and 7/7/2005.

In Western societies, Islam, fundamentalism and Muslim culture are often perceived through the lens of race and politics, where they are mostly considered as problems that have to be solved. Literature offers an interesting counterpoint to this common practice and provides an alternative that challenges these stereotyped views. The attempt to change this general approach to Islam is done by two types of novelists, writers with a Western and writers with a Muslim background. One yet has to admit that Muslim novelists are more authentic to the reader, simply because they dispose of a personal background a convincing if not decisive element for writing and reading.

The theme of Muslim writing itself has gained more and more importance in contemporary English writing. In early 2009, the Guardian published an article on Pakistani fiction in English to accompany reports on the political situation in the country. The article itself mentioned a number of writers who embedded Pakistan and Afghanistan in their novels and thus gained widespread attention and political approval in the wake of the political chaos in their country, especially after 9/11 and the ‘War on Terror’ declared by President George W. Bush and the USA. Among the novels mentioned were Mohammed Hanif’s debut novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes (2008), Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows (2009) and Nadeem Aslam’s The Wasted Vigil (2008).

In between the general importance and influence of these and other Muslim writers has generally been acknowledged and has been given a platform on its own in the form of prizes and awards such as the Muslim Writers Awards – the result of a joint venture between Penguin Books, Puffin Books and the Institute of English Studies. The latter was already founded in 2006 and follows the aim to introduce and support promising writers from within the Muslim community. One of the first of these authors was Tahmima Anam, whose novel A Golden Age (2007) was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and the Costa First Novel Award. She was also the winner of the 2008 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for Best First Book. Her novel The Good Muslim (2011) has also been welcomed with expectations by many critics. One of the first Muslim authors to win several awards was Nadeem Aslam. His novel Maps for Lost Lovers (2004) won the Kiriyama Prize and the Encore Award, was shortlisted for the IMPAC International Award and was nominated for the British Book Award.

The Man Booker Prize has shortlisted three Muslim writers since 2000. Among them are the British Asian Monica Ali in 2003, the Libyan Hisham Matar in 2006 and the Pakistani Mohsin Hamid in 2007. In 2011, the non-Muslim Lebanese novelist Amin Maalouf, whose work is engaged with Muslim history, culture and Islam, was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. This shows that Muslim writing has gained great popularity and respect within contemporary British writing.

The situation in the North American context is not that positive, although Muslim writers have also found a platform in associations like the Islamic Writers Alliance, which supports faith-based writing and enables networking as can be seen with Canadian Muslim writers.[3] Here it is again Mohsin Hamid and Khaled Hosseini who must be mentioned as frontrunners of Muslim literature in America, basically because they set their plots in Muslim countries and America alike, which seems to be a new phenomenon for American readers. Novels like The Kite Runner (2004), A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007) and The Mountain Echoed (2013) were all written by Khaled Hosseini and made clear to American society that Islam and the West were and are still in opposition, but they also brought Islam closer to the Americans, simply because Afghanistan, besides America, has been chosen as place of action. In this respect, the role of non-Muslim writers writing on Islam is especially interesting. Their number in England, America and Canada is pretty low, and most of them have chosen the detective novel as genre to work with Islam, Islamic fundamentalism or 9/11, simply because they are perfect tools to push the action. Thus, books like Divided Kingdom (2005) by Rupert Thomson or The Collaborateur of Bethlehem (2008) by Matt Beynon Rees or John Updike’s novel Terrorist (2006) must especially be seen in the light of 9/11 and Huntington’s notion of a ‘Clash of civilizations,’ while including Christianity and Judaism besides to Islam. The fact that a well-known writer like Updike picks up and discusses topics related to Islam shows that even American society is ready to discuss Islam. The situation of Muslim writers in Great Britain is, however, different and must be seen in the general context of postcolonial writing, which is still based on Rushdie’s concept of ‘The Empire writes back with a vengeance’ that disposes of a critical approach in relation to former colonies and Great Britain.[4] Here, however, a new generation of Muslim writers, especially female ones like Zadie Smith, Monica Ali or Tahmima Anan, follow their own direction while concentrating on female characters. Taken together, they help discuss the diversity of political and religious perspectives and lay the foundation for central terms such as migration, Islam, fundamentalism or identity patterns. Migration is the term most writers employ, because they have experienced it as a positive, negative or even traumatic fact. Things are different with the believers, because Islam and fundamentalism are mostly used as identity patterns, and here they range from resistance identity to genuine identity making.[5]

2. Contemporary English Literature and the Role of Muslim Writers

In the past literature has too long been looked at from a sociological, political, economical and only partly from a religious perspective. This neglection of the religious went along with two other important elements of society, culture and literature. This is astonishing if you take into account that literature in general is one major part of a literary analysis of migration, it is something that Chambers (1994) calls “the making of identities” (ibid.: 82). Bhabha (1994) picks up this idea and continues it with his central notion of the “Third Space” (ibid.: 39). This term stands for a fictitious place, some sort of contact level, where cultures, religions and concepts of life meet and have to get along. Religion as one expression of culture is taken up and can (with radical Islam) newly be defined. Migration and its effects have made clear that any construction of identity is nothing but a permanent process that includes hybrid forms as well as demarcation. Any literary expression and description of migration is an example, in the widest sense of the word, of this reflection, and it continues the question of the relativity and instability of individual and group identity. It hereby becomes obvious that the world of the 21st century has become unstable and fast running. Modern man, especially in global cities, lives in surroundings defined by religiously marked terms such as exile, diaspora or ghetto. Here difference and pluralism appear as two further terms to describe central parts of the concept of modern man. The literary presentation of the migrant experience marked by globalization and migrant processes is often connected with the religious and thus appears to be in contrast with a pluralistic world. Here the use of religion provides a clear opposite concept for a world that seems to be out of control (Kirchhofer/Stinshoff, 2010: 12). Religion in general and Islam in particular are seen as alternatives within the question of man’s identity. The incorporation of Islam and Islamic fundamentalism into contemporary British literature can thus be viewed as a continuation of the modern novel, since they appear as ideal platforms for a critical description of present migration processes.[6] It is against this background that it becomes obvious that Muslim writers belong to a new type of authors whose background is not modern but yet already globalized. This is also seen by Eaglestone (2013), who describes their literary basis with the following words:

“As the process of globalization increased and changed the 21st century, so the novel and the ‘national imagination’ have changed to reflect this. Writers not only move globally themselves, publish internationally, and so on, but it is impossible to limit their work to a ‘national tradition' or their audience to one country.” (Ibid.: 67)

Muslim writers, therefore, are products of our globalized world, and it is (and will be) their (natural) task to talk about Islam and Islamic fundamentalism in their works. The fact that they have chosen the novel as the mode of expression shows that most of them understand its importance and background.

The term ‘novel’ basically means new, and many Muslim writers have truely renovated the novel, while re-using religion in the shape of Islam. They hereby added innovations in form, engaged in new ways of coping with past and present and threw a new light on the importance of modern man’s identity.

3. Postcolonial Writing and the Position of Muslim Writers

The English novel of the 20th and 21st centuries can basically be seen as a literary continuation of the 19th century. The reasons for this close connection can be found in structural elements and the great variety of topics connected with questions like class, gender or race. This development mainly took place in two movements, realism and naturalism, which emerged as the driving forces of British literature (Bradbury, 1973: 175).[7]

The taking over of traditional stylistic and topical elements was also combined with factors that included completely new facets and trends into the novel as a literary genre.[8] A cornerstone in the development of the present novel was the end of the Second World War. The monopoly of the classical English novel was broken, and writers with a migrant background more and more added to its development. The changes taking place in the decades after 1945 brought massive political, cultural and economical changes. It was, therefore, a question of time when a long-lost element of the classical novel, religion, found its way back into the novel. The renaissance of religion as well as philosophy meant a return to the roots of the novel. Watt (1976) clearly sees this, too: “In the novel, more than perhaps in any other literary genre the qualities of life can atone for defects of art.” (Ibid.: 343) The dissolution of the Empire, the migration movements to Great Britain, the failed integration of immigrants and their attempts to start a new life there paved the way for a type of authors who disposed of the migrant background. These writers offered a completely different approach to literature that was “new and engaging,” “experimental” and concentrated on a “new subject matter” (McLeod, 1961: 10).[9]

Ethnic minorities suddenly took up the chance to express themselves in literature, and since the 1970s, a massive publication of their literary work set in. It was a mix of tradition and innovation, whose most important basis consisted in literature describing colonial and postcolonial experience that soon began to develop independently. These “visible minorities” (Seeber, 1999: 460) integrated non-British facets into the novel and described the West from a different perspective. Research work uses a term for this movement that seems to best describe this trend. The expression “The New Literatures in English” (Wagner, 2003: 230) differentiates between two groups of authors; one that consists of writers from the former colonies, the other disposes of an experience of several backgrounds due to their past migration. It was, above all, Thieme (1996), who stressed the political ambition of these writers with the term ‘postcolonial.’ For him, ‘postcolonial’ only partly refers to “all the culture affected by the imperial process from the moment colonization to the present day” (ibid.: 1). Thieme (1996), like Bhabha (1994), instead suggests a more general term that combines the mixture of two cultural levels in the form of hybridization portrayed by Salman Rushdie.[10] Rushdie himself favours some sort of access to ethnic plurality, which Head (2002a) describes as follows:

“That is situated between a glib multiculturalism and a flat assimilation. He is defining the space of the hybridized culture of the postcolonial migrant, of crucial significance to all inhabitants of the new emerging culture.” (Ibid.: 161)

The final aim for Thieme (1996) and Head (2002a) is some transcultural literature, which is convinced that migrant literature cannot be put aside by national and regional literature because of the permanent dialogue taking place on both sides (Thieme, 1996: 4). In the course of this dialogue, it becomes obvious that migrant literature finally helps dissolve the cultural dependency resulting from the political and economical entanglement of the former colonies with Great Britain or the new industrial nations. Thus, a precise terminology for national or migrant literatures appears to be difficult. Kosok and Prießnitz (1977) have already pointed at this and other terms such as ‘englische Kolonialliteraturen,’ ‘Commonwealth Literature’ or ‘World Literature Written in English’ and ‘Literaturen in englischer Sprache.’[11] One of the most important terms of migrant writing since the early 1990s was coined by Homi K. Bhabha. Bhabha (1994) not only started the discussion on the terms hybrid and hybridity, he also explained them in detail. He combined the notion of hybridity with the expressions ‘mimicry’ and ‘ambivalence’.

For Bhabha, hybridity is based on a mix of different cultures, ideologies or religions (Wachinger, 2003: 144 et seq). In this place of difference, a new development emerge. Bhabha calls this the ‘third place.’ In his work The Location of Culture (1994), he defines hybridity as a ‘space in-between’ where different modes of reality, culture or religion are in permanent movement. Since this process is dynamic, something other can emerge. This new status is the result of two other forms. In the ideal case, this ‘third space’ is the consequence of a dialogue in which all sides must learn to deal with the best and the worst in order to experience and learn new kinds of coexistence and commonly accepted manners.

It remains to be viewed critically whether Bhabha’s concept on the whole is too theoretical and ideal and whether it romanticizes the reality of immigrants and the host society. Yet on the whole it must be pointed out that the notion of hybridity has to be seen as a reaction to the discussions on imperialism and European colonialism (Hiddlestone, 2009: 113–125). It thus disposes of a political character that found a home in postcolonial writing (Hein, 2006: 57; Eagleton, 2012: 191). Once more, hybridity works as a form of resistance in the postcolonial arena, as it already worked in the colonial setting. This critical aspect also stresses the connection with colonialism, because Hein (2006) ties this term to the feeling of superiority of the white race, which fears “Identitätsverlust” und “eine Verschmutzung der europäischen Mutterkultur” (ibid.: 27). It remains an open question whether hybridity is a sort of fashion or part of the transformation processes occurring in a modern society. Ha (2005) here is close to Neumann (2005), who also does not see an ‘all-in-one-solution’ within the hybrid form: “Global culture is often seen as postmodern: fast changing, fragmented, pluralist, hybrid and syncretic.” (Ibid.: 71)[12]

What finally happened was, above all, a change of place. Colonial writing brought the British perspective to the colonies, postcolonial writing did the opposite. Thus, place, point of view and idea, some of the most important elements of the novel, were slowly but steadily taken over by writers with a background of migration. Their topics were about a criticism of British colonial rule and the mother country itself, the experience of migration and immigration and the loss of cultural and religious roots abroad and at home. Bock/ Wertheim (1986) confirm this change, too: “Returning from studies or exile is a recurrent theme in post-colonial fiction as is the reaction of characters from colonial and post-colonial areas to live outside their country” (ibid.: 5).[13]

During the last two or three decades, this literary reflection of writers with a migrant background has been pushed forward. The most important element was the experience of living in two different worlds. The common basis for these novelists were similar experiences concerning their national history, a political concern, the closeness of their literary topics and a common religion. Connecting elements were political, cultural and religious self-awareness. Their own cultural heritage and religious motifs were incorporated into elements of the traditional English novel via a contrast against Western logical thinking and its feeling of superiority. The result was an elaboration of a rational and controlled form of narration, that does not only describe the many facets of alienation and being a stranger, but also achieves a literary contrast of cultures and religions. This synthesis of ‘Tradition’ and ‘Innovation’ was already seen by Nünning (2000) for the novel of the 1980s and 1990s, but it yet seems to have proceeded into the 21st century as well.

The imperial past and the postcolonial presence enable some sort of recess for authors like Rushdie, Kureishi, Ali or Smith, where they could mix their migrant experience with British reality in order to describe the consequences resulting from them (Childs, 2005: 21). The literary framework they used was (in most cases) the biographical novel or the autobiography, because these turned out to be the two best forms of narration to describe this dilemma of migration and immigration.[14]

Thus, the majority of these writers partly follow mainstream British literature, where matters of identity seem to have gained a major position.[15] What became obvious was the fact that multiculturalism cannot be reversed but contains a lot of problems. Head (2003) pinpoints this to Zadie Smith’s novel White Teeth (2000), yet his ideas can be generalized with regard to Muslim writers as well:

“Smith has found a way of harnessing the novel’s capacity to embrace heterogeneity, and has used it to give convincing shape to her presentation of an evolving, and genuinely multicultural Britain … [Yet] White Teeth does not avoid the fact of ethnic tension but, in its self-conscious mode of end-of-millenium tour de force, it presents the social problems of ethnicity as the shared problems of a diverse citizenship with a common home.” (Ibid.: 107–108)

It was Said (1994) who stressed the responsibility of intellectuals and novelists who have to criticize the Western practice of power. That this Western point of view also affects Islam is of central concern here. The key question for him is that if people stress one point of view, then the result must be some sort of ethnic centralism. In the case of the relationship between the West and Islam, this means that if Islam is judged by Western perspectives and morality, then a dilemma is at hand, because the West constructs the East. History has proved this too often, because in the past, Islam has experienced imperialism, and therefore subjugation/ degradation and racism were logical results (ibid.: 3; 204).

The reactions of writers from former colonies were mainly concerned with this negative experience with the West. At first, their literary response took place in their home countries (King, 1980: 31–39; 48), but then slowly but steadily a literary shift to England set in.[16] So a different phase of the ‘writing back’ took place, “when Third World intellectuals have arrived in First World academe” (Dirlik, 1994: 329). This process of ‘writing back’ has not been completed, and it is a dynamic process about which Childs/Williams (1997) stated: “As we have already pointed out in this section, postcolonial can in no sense be regarded as a fully achieved state.” (Ibid.: 7)

The tension that arises from colonial and postcolonial writing does not only dispose of the dynamic character mentioned above, simply because “postcolonialism is both the aftermath and the reaction against colonialism” (Whitla, 2010: 306). Yet what became more clear with writers talking about Islam and Islamic fundamentalism was a different perspective for both Western and Muslim readers: “But again and again, postcolonialism runs into the problem of narrating otherness” (Khair, 2009: 147). The topics picked up by migrant writers with an interest in Islam range from sex, sexuality, race, culture, class nationality to religion or consist in a mix of them (Edwards, 2008: 1; 132; 171). The final aim of this description of Muslim life is the presentation of characters with the intention of a critical reflection of all sides, because “postcolonial life-writing may prove equally useful in teaching the West a more credible and crediable conception of its place in the contemporary world” (Moore-Gilbert, 2009: 130). What also became obvious down the years was the fact that the implantation of Islam into literature unmasked Christian and European values which were transported with imperialism and which turned out to be shallow and as nothing else but a myth.[17]

One, if not the most important reason for the incorporation of Islam and Islamic fundamentalism into postcolonial writing was the experience of discrimination and racism.[18] The literary basis for this was laid by the writers coming from England’s former colonies. They started a literary tradition whose effects are still valid today (Head, 2002a: 162–163; 168). Legal measures such as the Commonwealth Immigration Act (1968) that were meant to curb the high numbers of immigrants destroyed the chance of a transcultural literature at an early age, because they simply denied a postcolonial responsibility and pushed back a postcolonial and Western heritage. This “culture of denial” (Head, 2002a: 164) showed that the topics involved in this dilemma posed a permanent literary challenge, especially for the novel, because of its close connection with the cultural and social developments. Thus, the novel turns “zum Stimmungsbarometer und fiktionalen Kommentar der jeweiligen historischen Konstellation” (Wolfzettel 1999: 4) and delivers an “Experimentier- und Innovationsfeld” (Ashold, 2006: 69).[19] On the whole, the incorporation of topics connected with Islam and Islamic fundamentalism was not only a logical consequence of the discrimination or the renaissance of religion in literature, it was also a consequence of 9/11.[20] First and foremost, Islam and Islamic fundamentalism are elements of the contemporary English-speaking novel, which portrays immigrant life within two worlds. Nevertheless, writers with an interest in Islam point at the fact that postcolonial writers clearly neglect to portray Muslim life in two worlds. Gomille and Stierstorfer (2003) hint at this failure, because for them “little has been said about the sensibilities of writers or indeed migrants with ‘hyphenated identities,’ those ‘hy-Brits’ who are placed in between cultures” (ibid.: 40). What emerged from cultural hybridity as one central element of Muslim writing was an openness for traditional and experimental forms of narration. It included a tremendous amount of energy, which found an early climax in Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1988) .

The terrorist attacks on America in 2001 and Great Britain in 2005, however, were followed by a new discussion on multiculturalism and cultural diversity which also took place in the USA and Canada. In the face of these terrorist attacks, it became clear that the traditional policy of integration had collapsed and become useless. The statement “We are now in a different world from the Sixties and Seventies” (Philipps, 2004-04-02) made clear that the generation of writers around Rushdie, Kureishi, Ali, Perera or Smith had finally emancipated themselves from the first generation of migrant writers such as Salvon, Lemming or V.S. Naipul. Their characters are completely different from their white British fellow citizens because of their ethnic and cultural background. Now human beings are at the center of attention who add their ethnic and cultural heritage, plus their religion, to Western society.

It remains to be mentioned that the social changes of Great Britain, along with the structural and cultural conditions resulting from them, had a tremendous impact on the literary development of the English novel. The many different descriptions of immigrant writing all describe one specific element of it, yet a more open term seems to sum this up best. The concept of ‘fictions of migrations’ (Sommer 2001) seems to be ideal to cover all different directions of literature dealing with migration and immigration[21]. Sommer (2001) understands his suggestion as an open and integrative concept of interculturalism endangered by Islam and Islamism. Any Islamic search for identity in a diasporic situation takes place in the area of tension between an idealized notion of Islam and the personal I and any expectations from the West. The renaissance of Islam and its fundamental branches do, however, shift power to the Muslim side, simply because its former weakness is now experienced as a strength. The old notion of ‛ The Empire Writes Back with a Vengenance ’ has now turned into ‘ The Empire Writes Back with Religion ’ (a term coined by the author of this text). It can thus be understood as one central present answer of migrant writers to the military, political, cultural and religious tutelage of the East by the West (Novak, 1998: 76; Sommer, 2001: 9). Novels of this type present characters who give different answers due to their individual, collective and national past and presence. They face a tension that is characterized by the search for cultural and religious belonging in multicultural frameworks that seem to support the dissolution of a collective identity (Sommer, 2001: 58).[22]

The function of religion in most novels is to settle tension and inner strife within the characters, to accompany them and to offer a solution. Positively speaking, this solution can turn out to be a concept of identity-building; negatively speaking, it can include failure. Faith, in this context, turns out to be a reflection on the world as such. The personal wish or value are indications for the human attempt to shape the world according to his will. According to Mitchell (1995b), however, any literary presentation of failure involves a political consequence, because “if literature is a ‘representation of life,’ then representation is exactly the place where ‘life,’ in all its social and subjective complexity, gets into literary work” (ibid.: 15). The implantation of Islam or its faith elements thus turns out to be part of postcolonial ideology, it is a critical element for identity matters and must also be understood as a diverse description of Muslim life in the West.[23] Their use in the contemporary novel stresses the literary representation of Muslims in the West, yet it demands an answer from Western readers as well.[24] Critics sometimes have talked about a cliché-ridden presentation of Muslim life in the West (see Uerlings 1997), this argument does not, however, fit for the novel analysed here. Hage's book offers various answers to the challenge of Muslim life in the West. It functions as a literary addition to the question of personal and cultural identity of which Whitla (2010) rightly says: “Postcolonial and ethnic studies of every kind enter the critical discussion of English literature by two fundamental gestures: one to find a place on the map, a gesture in space, and the other to find a place in history, a gesture in time.” (Ibid.: 312)

These attempts to find a place on the map or a place in history are clear indications of the embodiment of Muslim writing in postcolonial thinking. The evaluation of Islam and Islamic fundamentalism in this postcolonial background put religion in a key position in the ongoing debates of today’s world:

“While postcolonialism involves numerous heterogenous discourses, making it impossible to view the world as uniform, there is a discernible common denominator that indicates a resistence to engage with religion as a key category pertinent to the debate about contemporary neo-colonial reality.” (Malak 2004: 17)

What results from this is the fact that Muslim writing does not only empower people to write it also gives Muslims the voice to express itself.


[1] In the following Cockroach will be used in the short form C.

[2] Contemporary Muslim writing in general can also be seen as a reaction to 9/11. The attacks on the Twin Towers did not come out of the blue but Muslim writers started to give notice of a new kind of Islam. Rushdie was one of the first to encorporate this in his great theme of the relationship between East and West. He showed (above all, in Shalimar the Clown, 2005) that international and intercultural exchange has two sides. They are positive when both sides profit from it, and they are negative when violence, evil, greed, human frailty and radical (religious and economic) fundamentalism prevail (Eaglestone, 2013: 68).

[3] Hage is a Canadian writer disposing of a Muslim background who focuses on one central element of contemporary Muslim writing in general. The talk is of trauma as a key element of migrant writing in connection to exile, diaspora, ghetto, immigration, integration, assimilation or xenophobia. Unlike Black writers who favour cultural mernory as a key element of their (critical 'writing back') it is the personal and collective traumatic experience which is at the center of attention based on the leitmotif of the cockroach symbolising the status of migrants.

[4] The postcolonial concept of a 'writing back' is added by two other notions disposing of a postcolonial root. The talk is about 'writing home' and 'writing beyond'. The term 'writing back' in Canada is normally linked to her Native Literature (esp. see Cardinal l969, Kuester 1994, Sturgess/Kuester 2008).The division between these terms is, however, rather academic since they complete each other in the attempt to describe what is human. This 'condition humane' is based on the attempt to show who and what people are.

[5] Before 9/11, the priority of immigrant writing in the West was focused on the politics of recognition. This relict from the colonial past has become vulnerable ever since. Strictly speaking, Muslim religious identity after 9/11 criticized this concept and made clear that Islam was still on the list of those major challenges which the West thought to have left behind.

[6] The theoretical basis for Muslim writers can be seen in Foucault, Said and Spivak, who criticized the traditional image of the Orient during the time of colonialism. Their terms ‘marginalization,’ ‘oppression’ and ‘subjugation’ (Hiddlestone 2009: 76–77) became central elements among these writers. They were based on the supposition that there was a direct link between politics and textual representation (ibid., 83 et seq). This widely seen concept of postcolonialism is also stressed by Acheson/Ross (2005), who rigidly state that “postcolonialism is a critical and theoretical term with an application wider than literature, also being used in relation to the analysis of history, politics” (ibid.: 3).

[7] Apart from realism and naturalism, it is also postmodernism that had a strong influence on British literature. Lodge (1992) talks about the possibility of a “supermarket of styles” (ibid.: 209). Broich (1993) only sees some sort of ‘subdued postmodernism,’ an idea that is taken up by Zerweck (2007), who connects it with the possibility of contradictionary cultural phenomenona in the novel.

[8] For a closer look at the development of the contemporary British novel, see Schirmer/Esch, 1977: 345. Seeber (1999) also writes about the closeness of the present novel to the novel of the 19th century (ibid.: 309), whereas Firdous (1993) explicitly stresses a political concept of the novel, which for him is a “carrier of bourgeois ideology” (ibid.: 26) and of “imperial messages” (ibid.: 30–32).

[9] This new trend was, of course, closely connected with political developments taking place in England. It was especially the years of the Conservative Prime minister Margret Thatcher that brought about literary reactions from both British and migrant writers. For a closer analysis of the so-called ‘Thatcher effect,’ see Bradford, 2007: 29–47.

[10] Hybrid has a Greek and Latin background. Hybrida (Latin) means mixed and crossed. This mix of cultures and lifestyles, religions etc. already describes the tension in which these writers are. It also becomes clear that hybrid is in opposition to an Islamic concept of the world, because Islam does not know any mixed forms. The term was at first used in the field of science (biology) and only later gained an important role in linguistic and cultural modes of expression before it found access to the humanities. Ha (2005) on this term: “Kaum ein Begriff hat in jüngster Zeit in der intellektuell-akademischen Öffentlichkeit wie in der Tagespresse für so viel Furore gesorgt und hat dabei so viel Unklarheit hinterlassen. Besonders in der Form des scheinbar universell ‘andockbaren’ Adjektives ‘hybrid’ referiert er auf diversen Themenfeldern auf sehr unterschiedliche Formen der Hybridisierung, Vermischung und (Re-)
Kombinierung.“ (Ibid.: 12)

[11] A more open terminology seems advisible because one definition cannot define all the possibilities involved in this multiple access to a description of migrant experience. Further terms that have to be mentioned in this context are ‘fictions of (in)betweeness’ (Egerer 1997), ‘immigrant fiction’ (Göbel 1998) ‘Black British literature’ (Korte 1998), ‘trans-culture literature’ (Novak 1998), ‘ethnische Minderheitenliteratur’ Kreutzer (1999) and ‘cultural nationalism,’ ‘Third Worldism,’ ‘writing back paradigm’ and ‘hybridity’ (Engler-Schulze (2005). The more open term ‘fiction of migration,’ coined by Sommer (2001), seems ideal in the sense of a precise and modern continuation of the concepts of a ‘writing back’ and ‘hybrididy’ (ibid.: 17).

[12] For further criticism on Bhabha, see Young 1990; Thomas 1994; Chow 1994; Ahmad, 1995:12–13; Childs/Williams, 1997: 143; Lewis/Neal 2005. At present, postcolonial studies set the term ‘difference’ close to ‘hybridity’. In this essay, the closeness of migration and religion must be seen under the focus of the terms hybridity and globalization. This is mainly due to the fact that globalization processes exert a massive influence on culture and religion (Edwards 2008: 139 et seq) Schreiter (2011) here stresses four different types of processes:
1. Homogeneity (global processes continue to extinguish local languages, customs and conventions and/or create opposition).
2. Differentiation (as one form of opposition) stands for an extreme form of difference, because an exchange of ideas only stays among equals. There is no critical reflection.
3. Territorialisation and the loss of it (people are expelled from their home, they loose their sense of life, their culture and their religion).
4. Hybridity. It appears as a logical consequence of globalization, because it includes positive and negative elements. People, cultures and religions can only start a positive exchange with the aim of an improvement of human relationships. On the other hand, hybridity also stands for a loss of purity with the result of instability and fear.

[13] Bradbury (1997) also adresses the negative elements being brought into modern literature by society. In this context, he also mentions the return of philosophical religious ideas and values. His final aim is some sort ideological pluralism. This, of course, is in clear contrast to Muslim writers who criticize the values of Western society, which seems to have lost its moral orientation (ibid.: 243–247). Rorty (2003) has also pointed out the importance of the contemporary novel, because novels describe a social and human panorama, where readers are confronted with completely different kinds of mentalities, cultures and ideologies (ibid.: 57).

[14] These authors here correspond with the two most important types of the British novel and its renaissance in the late 20th and early 21st century. The regained interest in theory and practice of biography and autobiography seems to be of central importance (see Batchelor 1995; Klein 2002). Besides the novel (see Maack 1993), it is, above all, the drama (see Kramer 2006), the biography (see Schabert 1990), and the meta-biography (see Nadj 2006) that help support this development.

[15] Other key terms, apart from identity problems, are diversity, difference and the above-mentioned notion of hybridity.

[16] In the mother country, the classical topics of the novel (class, gender and race) were completed with religion. Like Black immigrant writers, most Muslim authors stressed the topic of location by describing Muslim life in global cities (Procter 2003; Cuevas 2008, Rupp 2010). Schabert (2006) points out the enormous literary quantity of literature resulting from an immigration background and stresses a present trend of the description of life in England (ibid.: 379–380). Stein (2004) talks about the importance of the character’s change, which seems to be predominant in Black Literature and Asian Literature. Her central term “postcolonial polyphony” (ibd.: 14) is also connected with hybridity. Interestingly, speaking at present, the former term migration, which was of central importance, seems to be replaced more and more by the notion of exile. For Black writers, the key term at the moment is ‘cultural memory’ (see Rupp 2010). For further analysis of memory and identity in contemporary British literature, see Birkle (2008).

[17] This myth, above all, consisted in a portrayal of Islam and the Far East as constructions of romanticism, the exotic and adventure. Writers with an Islamic background turn this concept upside down and make clear that Islam and Islamic fundamentalism play major roles in many countries and their political and intellectual cultures. In short, they show that Islam is part of our common world (Said 1995: 91; also see, Said 1978; Bhabha 1994). As a product of the “cultural transfer” (Mitchell, 1995a: 475), this group of writers stands right in between the former imperial powers and their colonies. Their writing ranges from opposition to representation and also hints at the self image of Europe as a tolerant continent and its demand to deal with ethnic diversity in a normal way.

[18] The use of topics related to Islam hints at the development the novel has taken. The old roots of colonial literature connected with the response of a ‘writing back’ were taken up yet had to make way for a multiethnic pluralism, which disposes of a strong vitality and which is well described with the term “fictions of migrations” (Nünning, V., 2007: 8). The result is a mix of minor genres that integrate many elements among which hybridity seems to stand out as the most important one. The fact that the use of religion within the hybrid delivers identification, provocation and polarization is at hand. It turns out to be the experience of racism as a key role of Muslim writing that makes clear that England is characterized by “many emergent ethnicities […] but also[ …] a residual racist animus” (ibid.: 74). Scheiterhauer (2003) also stresses the paradigm of racism and discrimination. For her, Islam turns out to be an “ethnic marker” (ibid.: 291) that unveils structures of discrimination and modes of rascism. Besides social criticism and the offer of an identity provider, the return of religious and philosophical questions related to Islam has to be pointed out as well. Muslim writers have returned God to the novel in which he has been declared dead (Spanos, 2002: 169). The result is a portrayal of modern characters who are characterized by “otherness” and “yearning” (Hooks, 2002: 424–425).

[19] Modern writers coming from the Third World, thus disposing of a migrant background, regard the English language as an essential component of an economic, cultural and linguistic network (see Marx 2005). Nünning (2001) here discusses the present dynamics of literature to cross barriers of text types, genres or national literature. Thus, hybridity is added by two other terms, “Intermedialisierung” and “Internationalisierung” (ibid.: 167).

[20] It was Zadie Smith who stressed the specific role of authors with a migrant background and their longing to find an answer to their question of identity in the face of 9/11: “We cannot be all writers all the time. We can only be who we are” (Smith, 2001-10-13).

[21] The basic literary decision to use a female main character and to set her into the hybrid complexity of the dilemma emerging from the Eastern and Western background has found a fixed place in current 'migrant fiction' and is common among many female authors. One splendid example for this development is Samina Ali's debut novel Madras on Rainy Days (2004) which can be compared with both novels analysed here although Ali - like many migrant writers of the second and third ~ generation disposing of a Muslim background prefers to concentrate on the former colony India as the place of action. It is the former colonies - in this case India and Madras - which at present have replaced England or London as the former settings to further stress the complexity of Muslim women who have a British/ American or Bengali/ Indian background.

[22] For a closer analysis of the new relationship between literature and religion, see Dennett 2006, Walton 2007, Jasper 2009, Horlacher 2010, Wallace 2010. At present, critics move away from an uncritical acceptance of the category religion, towards a critical interrogation of religion as a literary category (Chambers, 2011c: 7).

[23] What becomes clear from this is that the use of Islam or Islamic elements helps describe something that Hillgärtner (2000) sees as the central element of modern times, namely being a stranger and the isolation of the cultural situation (ibid.: 9). What is new is the fact that heterogeneity, instability and insecurity are permanent companions of modern existence. It here becomes obvious that authors operating with Islam have discovered the fringes of man’s subjectivity as a literary source of tremendous creativity. They show that they do not want to present theological texts or problems in the purest sense of the word, they simply want to link religious topics with existential, moral, social or cultural questions. Although they bring back the religious into contemporary English literature, they depart from the traditional use of religion, which disguised the religious too often. Jasper (2009) on this past neglection: “Literature, in other words, was a mere cover for the real business of theology” (ibid.: 9). For a closer analysis of the literary use of Islam in modern literature, see Scanlan (2001); Houen (2002); Lentricchia (2003).

[24] This answer also includes the possibility of showing Muslim characters as nihilists “who can not suffer the impurities of this world” (Martiny, 2009: 165).

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The Muslim quest between integration and provocation in contemporary Canadian writing. A close analysis of Rawi Hage's "Cockroach"
Comenius University in Bratislava
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Canada, Canadische Literatur, Canadian Muslim Writing, exile, diaspora, emigration, hybrid existence, 9/11
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Dr. Matthias Dickert (Author), 2017, The Muslim quest between integration and provocation in contemporary Canadian writing. A close analysis of Rawi Hage's "Cockroach", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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