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Construction of identity in diaspora communities

Migration, it is the movement of people to a new area or country sometimes it is done voluntary by those seeking better lives and opportunities or necessity by people fleeing war or oppression other times it is involuntary as observed during slavery. Either way it is no secret that large diaspora communities have developed all over the world due to colonial and post-colonial migration. Thus, persons belonging to these diasporas must now not only construct their identities within the host country but also within the despotic community that they belong to. Identity, it is something we all struggle to define. It is how we see ourselves and how we want others to see us. Therefore, we often put on a performance accentuating the characteristics we want to be defined or identified by. According to Dr Denise Filmer identity may be defined as the distinctive characteristic belonging to any given individual or shared by all members of a particular social category or group. And it is this construction of identity that will be discussed in this essay. In the novels A Bend in the River by V.S Naipaul and The Intended by David Dabydeen the main characters attempt to construct identities for themselves within the homeland and/or the diaspora.

The novel A Bend in the River opens with this line “the world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it”, thus, immediately setting the tone of construction of oneself and identity of which the main character does indeed attempt to do. The main character is Salim, Indian by blood, African by birth, and an exile through his experience and spirit. Salim is the novel’s first-person narrator, who is trapped in a seemingly intractable identity crisis as a result of his confinement in the pre-and post-independence situation of East and Central Africa. This intractable identity crisis stems from Salim’s feelings of ambivalence, according to critic Homi Bhaba this feeling of ambivalence refers to the complex structure of attraction and repulsion. On hand Salim is repulsed by the Africans and their ways holding himself above them but on the other hand he is attracted to them wanting to belong in some way. Thus, he attempts to construct his own specific identity to mitigate this feeling. He begins by moving away from his diasporic community in which his family and friends reside to the town at the bend in the river. He does so because even in his diasporic community the feelings of ambivalence exist. That is Salim has a different perspective of the events that are happening around him while his friends and family simply refuse to admit that they are “washed up”. This is a very much part of his identity construction because it fits into the identity of not being a traditional man or Indian following in the ways of his ancestors. Instead Salim wants to be seen as making good and being a good man or Indian in his own way. “My wish was not to be good, in the way of our tradition, but to make good.” Thus, he opens the general store constructing the identity of a business man. Furthermore, he continues to construct his identity of a good Indian by joining a new Indian diasporic community by visiting the few other Indian families living in the town as well as taking in Metty a servant who use to lived in his home back on the coast.

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As stated, before identity is a distinctive characteristic belonging to any given individual and a performance thus, Salim from the very opening of the book beings to construct his identity not only to those around him but to the reader. He does so by specifically saying of himself, “so from an early age I developed the habit of looking, detaching myself from familiar scenes and trying to consider it from a distance”. Here he has given the reader the impression that he is an observant and analytical man. However, he does not stop there, later when Metty arrives and then Ferdinand he develops an identity as a bit of an aloof authority figure. He makes conscious decisions to stay quite in certain parts of a conversation or argument adapting a certain stance or look to impress his authority on to Metty and especially Ferdinard the only African in the home. It is ironic because these are all things, he later accuses Ferdinard of doing of purposely constructing an identity hence, inadvertently constructing the identity of a hypocrite to the reader. This is also seen in his blatant attempt to construct an identity as an intelligent and well-read individual despite leaving school early. He does this not only after arriving at the town in the bend in the river but also when he resided on the coast. He does this through his reading of various academic books that he both procured himself and received from others. However as much as Salim would like to believe that his identity is a construction of his own making, that is not true. You see Salim himself has said all his knowledge of himself comes from books written by Europeans. Therefore, for his view of self is extremely limited and maybe even stereotyped as according to Edward Said Europeans/westerns do have a history of othering individuals not belonging to their race and where as they tend to demonize Africans in their othering they often romanticize other Asian or oriental races. Thus, Salim’s construction of identity can be seen as occurring out of romanticism of self.

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Similarly, the main character of The Intended also seeks to forge his own identity though his journey is taken in extremely different circumstances. Unlike Salim the main character who remains unnamed is not in his birth country but a completely different land he is inexcusably other. The narrator of The Intended is twelve when he leaves his rural village in Guyana and is brought to England by his father. However, it is not a heart-warming reunion as he is later abandoned by his father and taken into “social care” home. As an Indian from Guyana, the narrator is often seen as a ‘Paki’ by the English, and more cruelly as some sort of pothound (hybrid mix of unknown races) by ‘real’ Asians from India and Pakistan despite having a common British ‘Blackness’. Additionally, the narrator is acutely conscious of the real cultural divisions between Africans and Indians back in Guyana yet being grouped the same in Britain which will later add to his confusion in identity. Despite the mountains of adversity the main character is soon to face he boldly seizes every opportunity to follow his aunt’s farewell advice: ‘…but you must tek education…pass plenty exam’. Therefore, he does just that, he works hard and gets a scholarship to Oxford, and in the process finds an upper-class white fiancée. Which in his mind means he has unquestionably arrived? However, this arrival into success and identity is done at the cost of ignoring the other part of his aunt’s farewell: ‘you is we, remember you is we”. This is because the main character leaves the “darkness” or poverty of Guyana to the “whiteness” or wealth and opportunity of which Britain represents to him. In a reversal of the usual process of colonization instead of the bringers of civilization coming to him, he travels to them. For the main character this journey is an escape from poverty, stagnation and ignorant of society. Freedom from alcoholism and brutality and the irresponsibility and vulgarity of adults. Furthermore, there is no pride to take from home to comfort him in a forgine and unfriendly land, no positive images with which to combat the colour-based prejudice he encounters in Britain. Thus, it is with the first part of his aunt’s advice that the main character uses to construct his identity. As he has no positive images to draw on from home the main characters identity is not so much a construction but a mimicry. Mimicry is when members of the colonized society or in this case member of a diasporic community imitate the language, dress, politics, or cultural attitude of their colonizers or the economically and socially powerful members of the host country. Therefore, because the narrator sees Britain as a eutopia of civility and a places of opportunity and success and because the other immigrants around him either engage in behaviour that reinforce the racist stereotypes such as his friend Patel and Shaz or kills themselves from an inability to assimilate such as Joseph the main character sees it fit to throw away his identity as Guyanese and instead adopt the characteristics of the British. Furthermore, the main character whom lacked power as a child and had no control over his own life during that period seeks to construct and identity of power through the use of mimicry. According to Bhaba, mimicry is a sign of a double articulation; a strategy which appropriates the Other (in this case white Europeans) as it visualizes power. Thus, further supporting the idea that the narrator’s constructs his identity throw the use of mimicry.

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In this way, Salim and the boy the narrator in the novel The Intended construct their identities in the same way. Salim constructs his identity by “mimicking” characteristics he deems is valuable whether it be from Europeans or other members of his diaspora while the main character completely copies the Europeans as he believes is the only way to gain status and prestige. However, the two do diverge in their construction. That is, Salim’s construction of identity does not seem to mature but remains the construct of insecurity and ambivalence. On the other hand, the narrator of the intended’s construction of identity does see maturity as the main character is able come to terms with and merge both influences of his personality. Indeed, when he first arrives, he is filled with insecurity and confusion about his identity indicative of colonial peoples. And at first his identity is shaped by this insecurity; however, the narrator does remember the urging of his aunt that “you is we” and because of this he is able to become the “intended”. That is he is able to construct a stable identity one that represents the promise and pride not only for himself and others like him but also for himself and his diasporic community as a whole.

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