Communities and individuals, whose identities are post-national, not limited by geographical boundaries and often prone to change or transition maybe referred to as diaspora. In all its complexity the post-globalized world presents enough possibilities for the diasporic phenomenon to exist in a cyclical fashion; in its occurrence to its affects. Diaspora basically originates from dispersion or displacement of individuals or communities from a point of origin to another, yet diaspora cannot be just merely categorized in the terms of physical displacement, occurring either upon choice or not, but also in terms of psychological displacement of state of mind.
To address the complexity of behavior and identity of the diaspora communities, Literature, Art and Music have continued to serve as a playground for identity building and retaining, and addressing politics of belonging and conflict of migration and transition. Self- expression and Art serve as a tool for representation of diaspora in their new habitat through validation of personal history, memory and identity.
The Distance From Here is a video work by Bani Abidi, sketching out the starting point for diaspora i.e. physical displacement. The work is a reenactment of various real and surreal spaces and situations that are linked to the experience of visa application, border control and ideas of permission and approval. The video work portrays the high security, controlled environment of entering the Diplomatic Enclave (such as the one in Islamabad) for one’s visa interview. Queues, body searches and a lot of waiting are all part of the visa interview routine. The diplomatic enclave is a satellite space of international governance on national soil. So this physical displacement can occur in two situations; either the individual is displaced from an origin to a new point of origin or the community surrounding that individual has been changed. In both the cases the displacement eventually leads to reconfiguration of one’s sense of belonging to his/ her immediate environment as in the case of Bishen Singh, the character from Manto’s Toba Tek Singh. Hence there is another state, which is neither of complete displacement, nor of complete belonging. A state of a psychological diaspora induced due to physical displacement, where a person is unable to achieve either one of the states of acceptance or rejection fully; it’s both or neither.
“Not quite the same, not quite the other, she stands in that undetermined threshold place where she constantly drifts in and out”. (Trinh T. Minh-Ha, Elsewhere, Within Here)
Trinh T. Minh-Ha, the post-colonial theorist and feminist defines this state as a threshold, a boundary line between the two states, where a person is neither here nor there, and loses a sense of belonging which binds him or her. But here the question arises as to inquire that whether one in situation of his dislocation is really displaced, or have the ties only now really been established? Does displacement really detaches one from his/her home or does it establish newer, perhaps stronger ties with the home? Forgetting Vietnam, an award-winning documentary by Minh-Ha commemorates the fortieth anniversary of the end of war in Vietnam. It speaks about the origin of the nation and the myth of the two dragons. The film indicates towards the pressure points in the recovery period since the war. And narrates the scars that are carried in the narrative behind the name of the land, its origin and its history of matriarchal sacrifice. A very interesting factor in the choice to title of the work ‘Forgetting Vietnam’ is the irony in the film’s attempts as an actual commemorative piece; it would be an automatic assumption that the film aims at remembering Vietnam’s origin.
A work addressing home through memory and personal associations is Mangoes, again by Bani Abidi. “Mangoes, my first video mixed Urdu and English as an everyday language” again emphasizing her relationship with home yet at the same time her acknowledgment of the newer location, hence diminishing this thin line of here or there.
What makes Mangoes a seminal work of Abidi, is the presence of artist herself in the work. The duality and conflict of self is further enhanced by the conversation she seems to be having with herself. The video work is a split screen single shot capturing the artist eating mangoes and discussing the merits of the fruit. The delusion of competition, longing and desire deepens as the she starts to hold on to the flavor from her country, and she enforces her identity through a single piece of seasonal fruit.
Anila Qayyum Agha takes a similar stance in her work, My Forked Tongue (a tongue which has two ends), where the artist presents a case of her personal history of identity and expression, through hybridity of languages. Agha creates an installation in a walk-in space, with suspended letters of the alphabet from all languages of her origin. This work raises concerns of belonging as a set of cultural and visual codes instigated through language. The language serves as a key to unlock a code that is social, cultural and geographical in time and space. And Agha’s work addresses the complexity of linguistic demarcation, overlapping and her own position in respect to that code. “First I am a hybrid of Pakistan and India. Then ten years ago I settled in the United States of America. There’s a third history that has become entwined with the first two, that of the United States.” This case is very specific to the history of the sub-continent; we emerge as hybrids of Arabs, Turks, Mongols, Hindus, and British among many others. The multiple consciousness’s’ can sometimes be an instigator of displacement.
In terms of diaspora the medium or the technique of expression becomes really important as this forms a full circle back to the roots of origin of the individual, and it reflects the influences in the formation of an individual. Through his/her expression of this hybridity, as in the case of Hanif Kureishi’s work Buddha of Suburbia, it is interesting to note three prominent features in the style of novel writing. The first is the classification of the genre, Bildungsroman that is related to “Bildung”= ‘education’, and “Roman” which means ‘portrait’, ‘shaping’ or ‘formation’. The Bildungroman genre hence is a classic novel writing about the coming of age where the protagonist goes through a series of processes in order to mature, learn and adapt to his new state of being. Buddha of Suburbia is also a narrative style novel, which roots itself back to the story telling tradition of sub-continent, and lastly it may be classified as an autobiography of Kureshi himself. The story has been narrated by a male figure in first person as if Kureshi would have narrated his own story of formation and desire of acceptance to the British society. Nahem states: “The Buddha was kind of autobiographical but it was revved up autobiography […] The relation between autobiography and your writing is a complicated one (…) It came out of my experiences in that sense” – Hanif Kureshi (Yousaf Nahem on Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia)
The playful redundancy of the use of the word Englishman, really offers an insight into the attempt made by the author towards subversion of the power dynamism associated to the word. Yet there lies an irony in the repetition of the word to illustrate the character sketch of the protagonist Karim. Being called an Englishman is both a normalization of the status of the character’s nationality and yet a mockery of his true position in the British society. If we also look into Hanif‘s personal history, (he was born and raised in London Suburbs and faced racism in the early years of childhood. After his father‘s migration from Subcontinent post-partition, he too just like Karim’s father married a British woman and thus settled in Britain) we would start to wonder if it was really Karim or Hanif himself reflected through Karim in the novel, or is the similarity purely a coincidental poetic license?
A similar style can be observed in the works of Kamila Shamsie. Kamila was born in Pakistan, and currently lives in London, similar to Kureshi her works are narrated through the lens of a single lead character, mostly female though. Her characters too, evolve against the backdrop of diaspora tension of loss, belonging and unresolved nostalgia. Through her works she continuously reminisces her homeland and her country. She titled her novel Kartography with a K after Karachi, her birthplace. The female protagonist deals with various levels of dislocation in the novel and that conjures up memories of homeland, identifying her own dislocation and attempts to cure it through memory. The story unfolds primarily in Karachi but carries scars of violence and unresolved drama in its character’s history of the 1971 War that led to the partition of the East Pakistan as a separate state of Bangladesh. The second-generation characters born out of the unrequited character’s union are unable to cope with the weight of their past and escape to yet another part of the world where they attempt to reconcile with the conflicts surrounding their identity. Similarly, Salt and Saffron deals with escape and departure from the place of origin to find happiness and acceptance. In both these novels an interesting quality is the use of Urdu language intermixed with English. The unique multi-lingual narration provides the characters a customized dimensionality and accessibility for their readers. Shamsie’s works may be read as an attempt to reminisce or announce one’s presence in another land.
These issues of identity and control or lack thereof, are also visible in East is East (1999), comedy, and drama award nominee film. In the work of Ayub Khan Din, the writer of the screen play for East is east, a personal experience is visible: “The disintegration of Pakistan mirrored in some way what was going on with us – for my father the most, I think. Raising dual-heritage children in Salford in the 70s wasn’t easy. My father may have married an English woman, but he expected us to be good Pakistanis,” (Din in an interview to the Guardian UK). The entire film circulates around the Khan family with a strict Muslim Pakistani father, a British mother and their seven children. The entire family struggles with notions of identity, cultural and religious expectations and familial ties in the 70’s. The father’s continuous disappointment in is own choices and his increasingly Anglicized children set a series of comic yet sad events into motion. The irony of his own very-British-choices such as marrying an English woman, running a fish and chips shop often escape Mr. Khan as he desires to live in a highly fictional and outdated version of a small Pakistani town. This character’s dilemma may be best explained by Leela Gandhi, “… aggressive asservations of cultural identity frequently come in the way of wider international solidarities.”
This article is borrowed from notes from a course on Anthropology co-taught by Hurmat Ul Ain and Waqar Aziz in 2013, Islamabad. Aroosa Javaid and Humna Naveed, then students, have contributed to research on the topic of Diaspora Art.