National identity?

I have read various books by ‘Indian’ writers, ‘American’ writers, ‘British’ ones and even the odd ‘Nigerian’ or ‘Canadian’ writer. I don’t mean to mock these identities by putting them in quotation marks, but I’m still not quite sure what nationality really means, and more specifically, how it so powerfully manages to affect everything from literature to politics to our personal relationships.

What I specifically want to focus on here is nationality in literature. When I was studying English at university, the main focus of our first two years was literature of the British Isles. Some of my Irish friends were irritated about the fact that this included Irish writers, such as James Joyce. In the final year we were able to study ‘Postcolonial Literature’. The latter was probably my favourite paper at the time because we could finally say that Indian writers had a right to be studied (which somehow translated into my psyche as meaning that Indian students had a right to study English literature too…)

But a funny thing happened when I began studying postcolonial literature. I noticed that almost all the literature we studied for this paper was thematically linked to the issue of nationality itself. I understand that all literatures speak about the culture they originate from in one way or another, but postcolonial literature in English seems to be immersed in it. We can try to explain this historically by saying that postcolonial nations are still dealing with the aftermath of colonisation, and that the very word ‘postcolonial’ addresses the way in which English was spread to other countries, so obviously the ENGLISH literature of postcolonial literature will address the fact of national identity. It is understandable that a non-native writer who writes in English feels overly aware of the language she is using and why she is using it. Why is she using it? Well, because of postcolonialism and therefore because of nationality (the birth of nationality that drove the desire for self-governance in the last century). This is a justification for the fact that we now know English better than our mother tongues (which leaves us with guilt, regret, and also… a new identity to embrace).

I am finding that my own writing keeps coming back to the issue of nationality. What I am trying to understand is the new kind of identity that is emerging from multi-culturalism: the multi-culturalism which influences the personal and political spaces of ‘British Indians’ or ‘American Indians’ or the like. Even now, we have to keep going back to the fact of colonisation to explain what kind of ‘nationality’ we represent. Culture is a better word, less loaded with territorial division, but in this context, culture is almost synonymous with nationhood.

I sometimes find it frustrating that I have to keep coming back to the fact of national identity, in my reading and writing, my relationships, even in day-to-day interactions. But I don’t think that avoiding it is the answer. It is such a vague concept (nationality), but it has so many real consequences leading from it that we have to keep talking about it until someone somewhere creates a different way for human beings to relate to one another…

Please excuse the overuse of quotation marks in this entry.

The ‘other’

The concept of the ‘other’ is discussed in detail in Edward Said’s Orientalism. Said explains the way in which groups use contrasting identities in order to give themselves definition (i.e. you know what you are on the basis of what you are not; what you are not is ‘other’ to you). In this context, it is almost as though the other (whatever it may be) becomes more important than one’s own identity, because the self is dependent on the other for definition. This all sounds a bit ambiguous, but I think the best statement made about this is the one by Oscar Wilde, written much before ‘other’ even became a known term in philosophy and literature.

Wilde said: ‘most people are other people’. He may not have meant it in the orientalist context, but the same idea applies. We define our personal identity in relation to other people in our society. There is always a relative situation that enables us to define our place in society; I guess this is a natural part of living as separate creatures in a shared world.

A very interesting book by Amartya Sen opens with Wilde’s quote and goes on to explore the very question of identity, nationality and postcolonialism. It is called Identity and Violence: the Illusion of Destiny. It is full of humour and insight, and sheds tremendous light on the complex notion of an inherent identity. Sen is full of the wisdom of experience, brought to a sharp precision through his intellect.