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Issue 156

Around the World

National identity and ‘global fiction’

BY Rajeev Balasubramanyam in Frieze | 20 JUN 13

Alighiero Boetti, Mappa (Map), 1989. Courtesy: Sprüth Magers Berlin London

The modern prose novel emerged in the late 18th century as a vehicle for the articulation of national identity. In Europe, the novel’s popularitymarked the rapidly diminishing importance of the old transnational orders of religion, empire and aristocracy vis-à-vis the new dominance of the nation state. It brought together different social classes, styles, modes and dialects within a single form. Today, this continues to be the case, not only for European and American novels but for so-called postcolonial or Third World fictions too, with the reader’s automatic response often being to read the texts as narratives depicting a nation struggling with modernity or imperialism.

Marxist and post-structuralist critics both object to the dominance of this nationalist reading, arguing that it masks class and gender contradictions, places a false emphasis on culture over materiality, and relies on myths of origin, totalizing narratives and over-determined positions. And yet, at literary festivals today, writers are invariably introduced as representing their country. Blurbs on the backs of books or on Amazon regularlyposition the writer within his or her national context: ‘Turkey’s foremost novelist’, about Elif Shafak, for instance; or ‘Kenya’s literary ambassador’ about Ngũgî Wa Thiong’o.

In the case of writers from smaller, less powerful countries, national identity tends to be used as a means of identification, enabling readers to understand ‘who they are’. But for writers from countries with larger economies – the UK, the US, India, China, Nigeria – it becomes an accolade, a signifier of power and stature. Quotes about Salman Rushdie include: ‘India has produced a glittering novelist,’ and, ‘the literary map of India is about to be redrawn’. Or about Philip Roth: ‘the great all-father of American literature’, who ‘has re-energized American fiction and redefined its possibilities’.

For writers from so-called ethnic minorities, there arises a further problem. Hyphenated identities cause classificatory confusion. The label ‘British-Nigerian’ is usually understood to signify that the writer represents a sub-group within the nation. This has the unfortunate effect of relegating the writer from national to sub-national status, thereby denying him membership of the wider group. Such a writer would more likely be referred to as the ‘brightest star in the British-Nigerian firmament’, than as ‘the brightest star in the British literary firmament’. From a commercial perspective, we could argue that writers with hyphenated identities are inclined to attract hyphenated readerships, making them far less attractive to publishers than their peers who enjoy unqualified national status.

One could respond that labels like ‘British-Nigerian’ might actually gain the writer a larger audience, attracting readers from both countries, and appealing to diasporas in third or fourth countries. Hyphenated identities could be read as signs of cosmopolitan sophistication. I would contend, however, that the ethnic minority writers who have best succeeded in Britain, such as Zadie Smith and Monica Ali, have been marketed as definitively British, coinciding with the attempts by Tony Blair’s administration (1997–2007) to re-brand Britain as a multicultural society that accepts all ethnicities.

Of course, literature cannot be bounded – whether by national identity, sexuality, ethnicity or race. Writers are humans telling stories, not competitors in some sort of literary Olympics. And yet, taking into account the last 200 years, we have to concede that it is extremely difficult – if not impossible – for a writer to escape national classification and forge a new identity as a free human being.

Historically, there is a plethora of novels in which fictional characters flagrantly violate national boundaries. They do so in the ‘extraordinary voyage’ novels of Jules Verne (whose stated purpose was to recount ‘the history of the universe’), the ‘worldwide Utopias’ of H.G. Wells, and in the imperial romances of Rider Haggard, Joseph Conrad and Rudyard Kipling. We can also point to the émigré novels of Vladimir Nabokov and Henry James, and, more recently, the postcolonial ‘novels of exile’ of Rushdie, v.s. Naipaul and Samuel Selvon.

It would, however, be a stretch to argue that any of these texts reject or critique the nationalist paradigm. The ‘extraordinary voyage’ novels and imperial romances thrive on the titillation generated by the transgression of national boundaries, on the strange, exotic and often horrifying experiences to be found in unknown lands. Émigré and post-colonial novels display a greater ease with travel, but their focus, nonetheless, is on the alienation and loneliness engendered by crossing the water. Such fictions confirm the reader’s suspicion that to leave one’s own nation is neither natural nor mundane but an act of tremendous significance, if not deviance. It remains central, paramount, defining – and nationalism remains the dominant paradigm.

But what of globalization? Over the last two decades, the nation state has been subject to gradual displacement due to the forces of economic integration. We hear daily that the global has replaced the national as the limit of our vision, rearranging the ways in which we define and articulate our identities. If this is the case, it follows that novels might be agents of this process, enabling the envisaging of a post-nationalist world through global, as opposed to nationalist, fictions.

Certainly, ‘global fiction’ has emerged as a term in academic discourse over the last few years. There seems to be little agreement as to what constitutes a global novel, but I would identify two key categories:‘localized global novels’, which narrate the experience of internationally diverse groups of people operatingwithin a local context, and ‘globetrotter novels’, in which the narrator zips around the world. In localized global novels, the international group tends to consist of either the very rich – as in Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto (2001), in which a group of ceos and diplomats find themselves held hostage at a state dinner – or the very poor, as in Marina Lewycka’s Two Caravans (2007), which tells tales of migrant workers from various countries who find work together on a British farm.

Examples of globetrotter novels include Dave Eggers’s You Shall Know Our Velocity (2002), in which two friends tour the world in a week attempting to give out money to deserving locals, and David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten (1999), in which the action moves from country to country, telling different stories that interlink to form a master global narrative.

In both categories, however, the crossing of borders continues to be conceived of as a transgression. In localized global texts, there is invariably a conflict between the global and the local; in Bel Canto it’s between the global elite and the peasant terrorists, while in Two Caravans it’s between the global proletariat and the local power-mongers, landowners, pimps and human traffickers. In globetrotter texts, the narrators are privileged cosmopolitan protagonists whose subjects are always the locals whose stories they narrate and whose lives they interact with, before eventually leaving. Moreover, these rootless cosmopolitans have national and cultural identities of their own that define their cosmopolitanism and dictate the way in which they relate to the locals they encounter.

Authors of global fictions occupy the same space as globetrotting narrators: they may be cosmopolitan internationalists, but they retain their distinctive national identities, continuing to attend literary festivals as national representatives, regardless of where they might live, their cosmopolitanism often hailed as testimony to their own nation’s cultural virtues.

For ethnic minorities, all this signals that escaping into a cosmopolitan, diasporic or transnational identity is not a solution. There is no global authorial voice: the novel remains indelibly bound up with nation; writers continue to be categorized by nationality. The solution for the ethnic minority writer is to insist upon fully fledged nation status, rejecting hyphens and the assertion of difference based on point of origin or ethnicity, for to accept these is to risk relegation to sub-national status. Of course, writers could swing the other way, and claim their country of origin for their national identity, but to attempt to combine the two risks marginalization instead of gaining the best of both worlds. Until transculturalism and cosmopolitanism eclipse nationalism as the pre-eminent values of our times, it seems self-defeating for writers to insist on anything less than full, unhyphenated national status.

is a writer based in Berlin, Germany. He has published two novels, In Beautiful Disguises (2000) and The Dreamer (2010).