Write an Essay Exploring How Kureishi’s Novel Maps Englishness as a Contested Terrain of Identities, Politics and Performance. Your Discussion Should Refer to Stuart Hall’s Work on Ethnicities and on Judith Butler’s
English and Literature
Submitted By acqu45
In Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, the protagonist Karim states:
“Yeah, sometimes we were French, Jammie and I, and other times we went black Americans. The thing was, we were supposed to be English, but the English we were always wogs and nigs and Pakis and the rest of it”.
Write an essay exploring how Kureishi’s novel maps Englishness as a contested terrain of identities, politics and performance. Your discussion should refer to Stuart Hall’s work on ethnicities and on Judith Butler’s writing on performance as identity.
Much of the Kureishi’s early work is grounded primarily in racial and cultural conflict between British mainstream culture and ethnic minority communities; the conflict between the cultural claims that the first-generation immigrants were prone to clinging onto and the sense of belonging, which they their children aspired to develop in mainstream British society. To the children of immigrants, particularly those who had migrated from British Commonwealth or ex-colonized countries, any reflection on Britain, or their parents’ homeland, in terms of “home” may differ significantly from that perceived by their parents. As a writer born and bred in Britain of a Pakistani father and an English mother, Kureishi reflects upon his own identity, affirming in an interview his own sense of identity be seeing himself as British: “Critics have written that I’m caught between two cultures. I’m not. I’m British; I’ve made it in England. It’s my father who’s caught. He can’t make it. Elsewhere he proclaims his British identity in a similar way:
I’m British, as wrote in The Rainbow Sign. Just like Karim in the Buddha. But being British is a new thing now. It involves people with names like Kureishi or Ishiguro or Rushdie, where it didn’t before. And we’re all British too. (Kaleta8)
Stuart Hall in his Old and New Identities proclaims a more advanced idea that “people like me who came to England in the 1950s have been there for centuries; symbolically, we have been there for centuries, I was coming home. I am a sugar at the bottom of the English cup of tea. I am the sweet tooth, the sugar plantation that rooted generations of English children’s teeth because they don’t grow it in Lancashire. Not a single tea plantation exists within the United Kingdom. This is the symbolization of English identity. Where does it come from? Ceylon-Sri Lanka, India. There is no English history without that other history” (16).
The obvious and intentional theme running through The Buddha of Suburbia is that of race and primarily about identity. Hanif Kureishi almost writes an alter ego in the character of Karim, who is searching for his positionality in his continuous movements between ‘here and there’. The plot begins with Karim’s identifying himself as “a new breed of Englishman” and ends with more affirmative recognition of his positionality as he sits “in the centre of this old city that I loved , which is itself set at the bottom of a tiny island”(284).Throughout the course of the novel, Karim moves from the suburbs to the city, from the school life to theatrical apprenticeship, from his homosexual adoration for Charlie to a heterosexual affair with Eleanor, from the hippy culture to oriental culture, and from London to New York. He uses blunt humour to detail his journey as a white-Asian male in England by saying, ‘perhaps it’s the odd mixture of continents and blood, of here and there, of belonging and not, that makes me restless and easily bored’ (3). For Kureishi, and his protagonists, the notion of hybridity, of ethnically mixing, has been through some considerable negotiation of Englishness; thus, a hybrid identity challenges the “fixed” notion of Englishness, which, has been defined simply for second-generation immigrants. The seventies were to emerge as a time for negotiating with both Englishness and cultural identity in a sense of “hybridity”, during the process of searching for identity.
Simon Gikandi raises a crucial issue in Maps of Englishness, when questions: “how do you read black subject and their experiences as important generative agents in the formation of modern English culture when the most forceful ideas and ideals on English identity insist on the intrinsic and racial purity of Englishness?” (51). Indeed, the whole idea of Britain as a homogenous and exclusively white nation has been increasingly challenged by a hybrid culture of diversified ethnic groups.
Although Karim does struggle with the uncertainties of living as a mixed race teenager in a suburban town, his mixed parentage is not a taboo topic for him. Karim’s hybrid is not just a question of his mixed race background, but his sense of identity, his bisexuality; his being of outsider, the complexity he faced with his maturation and the process of growth that he undergoes in the novel. Karim’s bisexuality is a representation of his hybridity as he says:” I felt it would be heartbreaking to choose between one or the other, like having to decide between the Beatles and the Rolling Stones (55). As Stuart Hall writes: “There are at least two different ways of thinking about cultural identity. The first position defines cultural identity in terms of one, shared culture, a sort of collective one true self' and the second position recognises that, as well as the many points of similarity, there are also critical points of deep and significant difference which constitute what we really are; or rather - since history has intervened - what we have become” ( 223-225).
Debates over what it means to be English have taken place throughout English history. The concept of Englishness was created in 1882-1920 as a way of forming the English national identity and the English character. The background was “war, imperialism, economic crisis in the British industry and cultural and political changes”. (Giles, Middleton, p4). “Englishness is a specific set of mind that is based on the values, attitudes, believes and ideas. They are represented as unique to England and those who identify as, or wish to indentify as English” (Giles, Middleton, 5). In other words it is a belief in a national identity that depends upon a unity of identity and purpose. In literature the Others exist to reinforce the sense of Englishness and by contrasting these two notions.
In the Buddha of Suburbia the Others, is the ethnic group of Indians contrasted to the English and also to their social classes. Kureishi presents the characters striving for social acceptance and their ideal of authenticity. Entangled in the everyday battle of survival, he presents the characters fragmentation both culturally and racially. He examines the diverse experiences of post war immigrants with regard to how Englishness is formed through their multiple heritages and what it actually means to be British. Much of Karim's story is about identification, specifically being an "Englishman born and bred, almost" (3). Caught between belonging and not, between his Indian heritage and desire to assimilate into British society.
The novel begins in an autobiographical mode in which Karim Amir, the narrator-protagonist, introduces himself as character inhabiting in between the world: “I am English born and bred, almost. I am often considered to be a funny kind of English, a new breed as it were, having emerged from two old histories. But I don’t care – Englishman I am (though not proud of it). Perhaps it is the odd mixture of continents and blood, of here and there, of belonging and not, that makes me restless and easily bored” (3).This passage suggests a process of reflection, a state of self-consciousness. With an English mother and Pakistani father and suburban upbringing, Karim faces existential struggle to accept his Indian origins. He questions his own cultural belonging, and comes out with the new sensibility of his identity. In Hall’s view, the new politics of ethnicities are based on difference and diversity operated by connecting ‘the relation of these cultural practices to the past’. Such notion “foregrounds the positionality and conceptuality of Diaspora identities and is alternative to the nation-centred ‘hegemonic concept of Englishness” (Stuart, 131)
In Kureishi’s representation of England Karim identifies himself in an ambiguous way where “almost the same but not quite” reveals the predicament of such identity. As Stuart Hall writes, “There are at least two different ways of thinking about cultural identity. The first position defines cultural identity in terms of one, shared culture, a sort of collective one true self' and the second position recognises that, as well as the many points of similarity, there are also critical points of deep and significant difference which constitute what we really are; or rather - since history has intervened - what we have become” ( 223-225). However Karim’s the real problem is not that of his hybrid background or his sexuality but this of the class and his suburban origin. Suburban development is a complex combination of political, economic and social factors that are finally bound on the human psychology. In general, it is a new resident on a greenfield site that has the relationship mentioned above to an urban area.
Fundamentally suburbs are caused by two factors: the increase of population and the migration of foreigners. A suburb represented a cheap place the only place where people can survive but with little prospects for a better future. A suburb was not only a place of poverty and social problems. Race and class cross issues were common and when it comes to the Indian characters they are often viewed as second class citizens. "In the suburbs, people rarely dreamed of striking out for happiness" (8). The move to central London with Eva and his father removes Karim’s feeling of inferiority, as London as a heart of culture promotes his self-conscious as a sophisticated Englishman. To be successful in this world Karim has to learn to cover his traces and hide his origins; he seeks, like Eva, ‘to scour the suburban stigmata’ right of his body.
Karim is continuously on the move due to “the odd mixture of continents and blood, of here and there, of belonging or not”, in order to give a redefined conception of “Englishness” which includes the earlier reference to “funny kind of Englishman” by Karim himself (3). Through his continuous movements he discovers his identity, constantly maintaining his alliances with different households across London. Commuting has a much importance to Karim as a strategy of evasion, escape, and liberation: “I was not too unhappy, criss-crossing South London and the suburbs by bus, no one knowing where I was. Wherever someone tried to locate me, I was always somewhere else”(52). Caught between two different cultures and identities, Karim is faced with the problem of defining himself as an English man, and although he sees himself as English, his Englishness has not yet been accepted by others:” The thing was we were supposed to be English, but to the English we were always wogs and nigs and Paki and the rest of it (53). Karim’s hybrid identity, “almost English, but not quite”, serves as a strategy enabling him to engage in movements back and forth in order to construct his sense of belonging.
Haroon and his childhood friend, Anwar, represent a group with which Karim is unable to identify himself, although their ambivalence to India, their imagined homeland, appeals to him. They both share the same experiences, pursuing India of their imagination in their old age. Karim concludes that their problem is concerned mainly with the negative effects associated with lacking a “home”. In Haroon’s case, such paradox is apparent in his preference for England over India, despite the fact that he clearly never feels at home in England.
‘Englishness’ was the concept conventionalized in 19th century and later perceived as common sense knowledge. In 1838, when the definition of ‘Englishness’ was given, it was important to be born in the island and those born in other countries, as India, could never be included. Karim, even though born in a London suburbs represents a “those identities that do not remain the same, that they are frequently contradictory, that they cross-cut one another, that they tend to locate us differently at different moments” (Hall, 59). This is the reason why Karim’s father -Haroon thinks he is able to live a life between two worlds: the West of the material and the East of the spiritual. He has no desire to return physically to India, and will live and die in West even though he remains “to all intents and purposes an Indian man”. To insist on his Indian way of life, Haroon practices mediation of Orientalism. According to Stuart Hall:”People have to find some ground, some places, some position on which to stand. Blocked out of any access to an English or British identity, people had to discover who they were” (52). Apparently, the characters of The Buddha of Suburbia well illustrate the basic dilemma of the modern man’s choice between the desire for freedom and independence, and the necessity to comply with all kinds of rules imposed by the English society.
The lives of the Karim’s family, both the English and Asian ones strive to find out how to respond to the turbulent 1970s, when old morals and taboos annihilated. Karim leaves the suburbs and pretend to be an English city man, but this is only pretence. Any attempts to be culturally ‘authentic’ are exposed as farce. He is aware that after the racial heritage apparent in his complexion, his clothing has a second impact on whoever is viewing his identity. Before leaving to the house of his father’s new friend Eva and her Karim changed his ‘entire outfit three times’ (6). This eager to please them shows that Karim is mindful that his costume is a part of his own performance. Karim is not the only character to change his costume for personal gain. Charlie, in striving to keep up with the musical times changes his appearance according to the in styles of the time; from the progressive rock flared jeans and opens shirts to the punk scene to the new romantics at the end of the book. Charlie attributes his international success to "selling Englishness" (245). His character represents how individuals can profit off of other's desires to consume something foreign. This imitation shows how Charlie adapts his personality according to circumstances, for the purpose of becoming famous. “England's decrepit. No one believes anything. Here, it's money and success. But people are motivated. They do things. England's a nice place if you're rich, but otherwise it's a fucking swamp of prejudice, class confusion, and the whole thing. Nothing works over there'" (256). Charlie’s adoption of a new personality is insincere. In the words of Karim, it is a wonderful trick and disguise. This insincerity is reinforced when Charlie re-adopts his cockney accent, which he has consciously been suppressing throughout his youth: He was selling his Englishness, thus betraying his real identity.
Building on Foucault, Butler describes modern notions of identity “as being made up regulatory ideals. These regulatory ideals provide idealised and reified norms which people are expected to live up to. Thus categories such as male and female, straight or gay, young or old are not biological facts, but categories which we create and recite through performance. Charlie is a pattern of such performance. Moreover, Kureishi seems to make clear that the performance of identity is a tool. This idea would apply to Judith Butler advanced notion of gender performativity. In a Gender Trouble she regards that gender as a script that is a rehearsable act. Every human being is an actor performing the script in the reality through repetition. Then it turns to perform in the mode of belief that everyone should act accordingly to those norms (Butler, 24). In the same manner Kari’s father loses his Englishness to put on a stronger Indian accent. Karim is made to transforms his identity, and loose the voice of his past and create an inauthentic voice of a class identity different than his own. The rhetoric used by the stage manager Shadwell defines his own identity. He asks Karim to modify his speech, denying the English language to Karim and labelling him a ‘half-caste in England:”Belonging nowhere, wanted nowhere” (141). “Paradox of paradoxes: to be someone else successfully you must be yourself!” (220.) Aware of the racist connotations of cultural designation that the original text of the Jungle Book had, he himself articulates that Karim is being cast because of his racial suitability, not his acting ability. One of the characteristic features of Kureishi’s work is a resolute dismissal of any typification, social, political or ethnic, and strong belief in people’s individuality. Even people of the same background, like Karim’s father Haroon and his uncle Anwar, are portrayed as distinctive characters, each of whom, regardless of the tradition he adheres to, finds his own peculiar life philosophy. As Stuart Hall states in Old and New Identities:”Because people have to find some ground, some place, some position on which to stand. Blocked out of any access to an English or British identity, people had to try to discover who they were. It is a crucial moment of the rediscovery or the search for roots” (52). Haroon distances himself from the English identity returning to his origins with the following confession:“I have lived in the West most of my life, and I will die here, yet I remain to all intents and purposes an Indian man. I will never be anything but an Indian”. The adoption of a new identity as a rejection of the identity can be assumed as response to British society. Moreover, since Haroon consciously adopts a new identity as ‘Buddha’, he does not completely return to his original Indian identity either. In other words, “Haroon starts off as the mimic Englishman and, when this fails, he becomes a mimic Indian”. It is reflected in Butler’s idea that race or gender is not an arena of free play but is shaped by the “reiterative power of discourse. It is through repeated action that these norms are created and lived up to (Butler, p2)
From the beginning of the novel, Hanif Kureishi draws a picture of Haroon and Margaret’s relationship as being without passion, and stuck in daily routines Margaret was a lower middle class woman living in the suburbs and this status quo does not change: “She was always the world’s sweetest but most miserable woman”(153)As Haroon gains is thrown into society, he does not seem to realise to what extent Margaret feels left outside. In a sense, the situation is turned upside down, and Margaret is indirectly turned into an immigrant of his new world and to contemporary society. The general trend at that moment in British history seems to be about being exotic and different, and suddenly, instead of Haroon, Margaret is the one being perceived as the boring, incomprehensible outsider, as she does not submit to or follow this trend. Suddenly, she is the one who is not ‘Indian enough, instead of Haroon, “I’m not Indian enough for her. I’m only English”. (15) In this way, Margaret is made into an ‘immigrant’ herself, an outsider to a lifestyle of flow movement. As Margaret represents stability and tradition, geographical fixedness, Eva instead represents novelty, joy, life of excitement. First of all, contrary to Margaret’s very English physical and psychological nature, Eva, although also being English by birth, is described as being exotic right from her first appearance.
Through Buddha, Kureishi points to difficulties faced in identity formation by the children of migrants whose situation was very different to that of their parents. Compared to their immigrant parents, they become increasingly determined in claiming their rights as British citizens. The novel’s opening words are spoken by a self-reflecting Karim, but the book is named after his father, Haroon, whom Karim comes to think of as the “Buddha of Suburbia.” This introduction suggests that the narratives of father and son are intertwined. The other character Jamila seems to be the most powerful and at least comfortable personality in the entire novel. Like Karim she is a product of an environment and culture combined of different forms. Unlike Karim she is politically, socially and ethnically conscious; influenced by all kinds of anarchists, visionaries and revolutionaries: “her feminism, the sense of self and fight it engendered, the schemes and plans had made herself know, and all the understanding it gave, seemed to illuminate her tonight as she went forward, an Indian woman, to live a useful life in white England (216). Although she submits to her father and agrees to marry the “imported” husband, in reality she gains a complete control of her marriage and life. She represents Stuart Hall’s idea that there are two kinds of identity, identity as being and identity as becoming. The first one is necessary, but the second one is truer to the postcolonial conditions.
Butler’s formulation on gender that race proves to be performative - constituting the identity it is purported to be. In this sense, race is always a doing, though not a doing by a subject who might be said to pre-exist the deed. There is no racial identity behind the expressions of race. Race is performatively constituted by the very ‘expressions’ which are said to be its results”. This formulation leads to various questions what it means for race to be performative. In Gender Trouble, Judith Butler described gender as “a repeated stylisation of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being”(Butler, 33). According to Judith Butler it would be possible to repeat these kinds of analysis for race. Race can be acted up.
Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia is mainly a novel about the ideal of authenticity. The authentic is invoked, by both the dominant group and minorities, as a sign of identification and recognition in cultural practices and representation. Both groups attempt to seize and appropriate the sign are governed by what Stuart Hall has called “an unproblematic, transcendental ‘law of paradoxically negate its fundamental element: its historic dynamic. Post-colonialism is perhaps the increasing awareness that it is not feasible to subtract a culture, a language, an identity, from the wider transforming currents of the increasingly metropolitan worlds. It is impossible to go home again either” (74). The 1970s and 1980s witnessed the transformation of British national and cultural identity, thereby reflecting the pluralism that continued to exist in Britain; that is the rise of black British identity, the emergence of “new identities” and more hybridized cultures. Thus, prior to the hybrid multiculturalism of the 1990s and 2000, black British writers, notably Hanif Kureishi, were already beginning to comment on British politics and social events from their own perspective, challenging and contesting the notion of Englishness.
1. Gikandi, Simon. Maps of Englishness: Writing Identity in the Culture of Colonialism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.
2. Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. Feminism and the subversion of identity London: Routledge, 1990.
3. Butler, Judith. Bodies that Matter. On the discursive limits of sex. London: Routledge, 1993.
4. Hall, Stuart. Cultural Identity and Diaspora in Rutherford . Identity, Community, Culture, Differences, p222-37. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1999.
---Old and New Identities, Old and New Ethnicities.
5. Kaleta, Kenneth C. Hanif Kureishi: Postcolonial Storyteller. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998.
6. Kureishi, Hanif. The Buddha of Suburbia. London: Faber and Faber Ltd., 1990.
7. Kaleta, Kenneth C. Hanif Kureishi: Postcolonial Storyteller. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998.
8. Ranasinha, Ruvani. Hanif Kureishi: writers and their work. Devon: 4 House Publishers Ltd., 2002.