How do Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea and Guatam Malkani’s Londonstani engage with idea of hybridity?

Featured Image by F.H. Townsend, an illustration of Bertha Mason for the second edition of Jane Eyre 

The notion of ‘cultural identity’ can be described as ‘one, shared culture, a sort of collective ‘one true self’’. This reflects ‘the common historical experiences and shared cultural codes which provide us, as ‘one people’, with stable, unchanging and continuous frames of reference and meaning’ (Hall, 1996: 393). However, hybrid identities do not have such security of reference as they exist in the ‘third space’, an ambivalent site in-between cultures which transcends the ‘binary dialectic between ‘us/them’, ‘insider/outsider’, ‘inclusion/exclusion’ (Mondal, 2006: 112). Thus, hybridity is the location in which new identities are constructed because, as Hall explains, cultural identity is as much a ‘matter of ‘becoming’ as well as ‘being’ (1996: 394). In both Wide Sargasso Sea and Londonstani the texts explore the complex manner in which hybrid identities come to construct themselves and be constructed by others. By drawing upon the individual’s heritage amongst other, if problematic, elements such as race, nationalism and metropolitanism the hybrid identity exists as a deconstruction of the dominant/subculture and coloniser/colonised dichotomy.

In Wide Sargasso Sea, Rochester’s observations of Antoinette’s mixed physical appearance is a clear example of how the ambivalence of hybridity is a site that challenges the clear dichotomy in colonial discourse. This is particularly evident in the concept of ‘race’ that Rochester draws on, such a concept playing an important role in Rhys text as the main facet for dividing groups and constructing identities of the self and other. Importantly, as a concept ‘race’ has a long historical association with ideas of hybridity where, according to Robert Young, ‘contemporary cultural discourse cannot escape the connection with the racial categories of the past in which hybridity has such a clear racial meaning’ (Ashcroft et al, 2000: 98). This association actually arising from ‘negative accounts of the union of disparate races’ where the concern of the coloniser was that ‘hybrid’ offspring of these unions would ‘inevitably revert to their ‘primitive’ stock’, the term thus becoming ‘part of a colonialist discourse of racism’ (Ashcroft et al, 2000: 98). A fact that Rochester asserts in Brontë’s 1847 novel Jane Eyre where he states that Antoinette, now Bertha, is like ‘her mother, the Creole’ as ‘both a mad woman and drunkard!’ and ‘copied her parent in both points’ (Brontë, 2001: 249). Such as it is, ‘race’ has been established as a hierarchal concept where by emphasising the importance of physical features it is able to divide human beings into groups. The distinctions made between the superior, often white, European ‘race’ and the inferior, often non-white, non-European ‘race’ correspondingly position them in a hierarchy. Thus, Antoinette’s Creole heritage as ‘a person of mixed European and black descent’ (Stevenson and Waite, 2011: 337) challenges colonialism’s dichotomous superior/inferior racial structure, through her very existence as a ‘hybrid’. The ambivalence of the ‘third space’ she exists in means that Rochester’s imperialistic frames of reference in response to her ‘race’ are, in effect, made redundant and a new framework must be constructed in response.

In the text, Rochester describes Antoinette as having ‘Long, sad, dark alien eyes. Creole of pure English descent she may be, they are not English or European either’ (Rhys, 2000: 40). Rhys articulately deconstructing how the European coloniser in Rochester struggles to find reference amongst his imperialistic rhetoric for Antoinette’s hybridised appearance, she is ‘uncanny, familiar but not quite real to him’ (Halloran, 2006: 101). Or, as Ciolkowski asserts: ‘Not quite English and not quite “native,” Rhys’s Creole woman straddles the embattled divide between human and savage, core and periphery, self and other’ (1997: 340). Due to this Rochester constructs a new identity for Antoinette which he imposes upon her hybrid status. He does this in order to reconstruct it as something he can understand and fit with his colonialist attitudes and values, therefore, Antoinette is made ‘other’. The process of othering being the projection of qualities that  ‘we – as individual subjects, social groups or even nations – most fear, or dislike, about ourselves’ onto the other, a site which ‘helps to consolidate the (superior) identity of those responsible for its construction’ (Allen, 2006: 164-5). By reconstructing Antoinette’s hybridity in this way, the third part of the text consolidates Brontë’s original portrayal of Bertha Mason as an animalistic, mad woman; her Creole heritage being the foremost reasoning for such characteristics. Rhys’ language choices in Wide Sargasso Sea mirroring that of Brontë in Jane Eyre where Antoinette’s appearance is constructed as other. Bertha Mason having ‘a quantity of dark, grizzled hair’ and ‘purple face’ (2001: 250) is not dissimilar to Rochester’s descriptions of Antoinette’s eyes as ‘dark’ and ‘alien’ in Rhys’ text (2000: 40). Therefore, it is no wonder that Brontë’s Bertha has come to be known as Jane Eyre’s ‘dark-double’ with her dark, Creole characteristics being a complex other to the ‘self’ of Jane’s Englishness. As Halloran explains, her darkness is the ‘opposite of an abstract Englishness’, problematic in the text as Englishness is considered ‘a national and cultural identity that may or may not be dependent upon race and also reject[s] the Creole as an identity subordinate in status to that of European’ (2006: 101).

In Londonstani, as with Wide Sargasso Sea, ‘race’ does play an important role in the construction of hybridity as identity in the text. However, as author Gautam Malkani states ‘metropolitan identities can transcend other identities in the same way that your national identity can supplant your entire ethnic identity, or your racial identity or your religious identity’ (Graham, 2008: 37). This being because the text’s location is set in London and primarily the borough of Hounslow, a location where any number of racial, national, ethnic and cultural identities mix and result in that ‘there’s no dominant race in London: everyone’s a Londoner’ (Graham, 2008: 37). Thus, when speaking in terms of hybridity this viewpoint intrinsically inter-connects ‘race’ with other aspects such as metropolitanism and an individual’s cultural, ethnic and national identifies in order to produce a ‘hybrid identity’. The complex hybrid forms that transpire in the text arising because London is ‘the subcultural capital of the world’ (Graham, 2008: 37). One such complex form is that of Hardjit, who is the definitive example of cultural hybridity in combination with a metropolitan identity. Although Jas believes Hardjit to be the most ‘authentic’ desi in Hounslow, or perhaps even London, this authenticity in fact has a basis in hybridity. While Hardjit may think he is sourcing his identity from his ethnic roots it truly originates from ‘Hollywood, Bollywood, MTV Base and ads for designer fashion brands’ (Graham, 2008: 37), a combination that Jas calls ‘designer desiness’ (Malkani, 2007: 4). This construction of the self in a new, hybrid form reflects the notion that ‘Diaspora identities […] are constantly producing and reproducing themselves anew, through transformation and difference’ (Hall, 1996: 402). Hardjit’s very own name being a fundamental, self-defining case of this where his birth-name ‘Harjit’ transforms into ‘Hard-jit’. The latter moving away from the homogenous cultural ‘feel’ of ‘Harjit’ to become ‘Wid a d in it, innit’ (Malkani, 2007: 117), something more reminiscent of a Western subcultural normativity with the glamorisation of violent, ‘Hard’ gangster rap being a prime example. Thus, the text highlights how his identity is a ‘performed, made-up-as-you-go-along identity anyway, but the fact that it’s a metropolitan identity reinforces that’ (Graham, 2008: 37).

However, the text does not just explore how the desi identity constructs its own sense of ‘self’, it also, like Wide Sargasso Sea, explores notions of the other within the collective group itself. One such example in the text being when Jas is explaining the ‘coconut’ identity, which is constructed around Asians who are ‘deemed to be “white” on the inside because of their assimilation into mainstream British Society’ (Malkani, 2006); or in slang terms have become ‘gorafied desis’ (Malkani, 2007: 21). He states, ‘God had given him brown skin an so he could be a proper desi if he wanted to’ (Malkani, 2007: 23), a point of view which suggests the interconnection between having ‘brown skin’ and the act of being a ‘proper desi’. As skin colour, including brown skin, is considered a characteristic of racial difference in the category of ‘race’ the ‘boundaries of group membership’ become ‘marked by skin colour’ (Lusca, 2008). The collective desi group, and its membership, is a difficult term to define in itself as it is ‘broader than terms such as Indian, Pakistani, Hindu, Sikh or Muslim, and yet narrower than the term Asian or even South Asian’ (Malkani, 2006). Therefore, the collective desi identity can be suggested to have its roots based in the idea of ‘race’ where an individual must have certain ‘racial characteristics’ to fit into the group. Thus, the hybridised coconut identity is excluded from the group because although they share the same brown skin as ‘proper desis’ like Hardjit, they are deemed to be white inside. The fact that Jas, revealed to be a white character at the end of the text, is never called a desi by any of the other characters reinforces this discourse. It can then also be suggested that individuals who are identified as ‘coconuts’ may be excluded as they are not performing the ‘racial characteristic’ accepted by the group in an obvious enough fashion. This notion of performativity when displaying a ‘racial characteristic’ highlights, in this instance, the intrinsic association between culture and ‘race’. Whereby, in Jas’s definition Hardjit is a ‘proper desi’ because he displays associated and accepted cultural norms, norms that in their hybridity reinforce what it means to be a desi in metropolitan London. For example, Hardjit looks like he ‘went shopping with P Diddy’ while a ‘coconut’ has ‘long hair, grungy clothes’ and a ‘poncy novel an newspaper on his dashboard an Coldplay album playin in his car’ (Malkani, 2007: 4, 23). An irony where the ‘Asians who accuse others of being coconuts are, in their usage of patois and gangsta terminology, imitating aspects of black culture’ (Manzoor, 2007).

As has been shown, the hybrid identity is often constructed by members of the homogenous group as other, negative and different. A fact that is highlighted in both Londonstani and Wide Sargasso Sea where slurs are employed to refer to characters of mixed cultural or ‘racial’ heritage, as means of signifying their difference to the homogenous population. As aforementioned, Malkani utilises the term ‘coconut’ to ostracise and signify culturally assimilated British Asians: ‘Coconuts, Bounty bars, Oreo biscuits or any other fuckin food that was white on the inside’ (Malkani, 2007: 23). While in Wide Sargasso Sea the slurs that Rhys employs have a complex interconnection between ‘race’ and socio-economic status where Antoinette, and her family, are referred to as ‘white niggers’ and ‘white cockroaches’. As a Creole, it is complicated social exchange when such a slur is directed at Antoinette as she already exists in the ‘third space’ with both the white and black ‘racial’ characteristics. Therefore, the slurs ‘white cockroach’ and ‘white nigger’ are utilised by Tia and other members of the black community as performative name calling, a term designating the  ‘visual spectacle of humiliation and shame occasioned by a person’s skin color as it functions to signify both race and poverty’ (Halloran, 2006: 89). Such acts of name calling arising because, as Randall Kenny argues, ‘the term “nigger” can be, and frequently is, applied across racial boundaries’ (Halloran, 2006: 89). This being exemplified in the text in Tia’s words that ‘Real white people, they got gold money. They didn’t look at us, nobody see them come near us. Old time white people nothing but white nigger now, and black nigger better than white nigger’ (Rhys, 2000: 10). The term ‘white nigger’ therefore highlighting the socio-economic shift taking place in Dominica following the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, placing the Cosway family as Creoles in a new, in-between social position. A shift which Ciolkowski explains as:

‘the dramatic collapse of the Caribbean plantation economy in the 1830s succeeded in transforming the class of affluent Creole planters into economically and culturally disenfranchised “white niggers” and “cockroaches,” locating them outside the ranks of the new community of nonslaveholding English colonials’ (1997: 340-1).

Thus, it is Antoinette’s hybridised identity as a Creole that makes the direction of the slurs a complex social exchange, even in the obvious negativity of their meaning. This being because they rely on their ‘apparent status as oxymorons, or juxtaposition of opposites, for their particular sting’ (Halloran, 2006: 88). In her hybridity, Antoinette is not a ‘juxtaposition of opposites’ thus it instead highlights how her identity is one that destabilises the dichotomy in colonial discourse.

In conclusion, both Londonstani and Wide Sargasso Sea both exemplify how the hybrid identity exists as the ‘in-between space that carries the burden and meaning of culture’ (Ashcroft et al, 2000: 97). Therefore, the construction of hybridity results in the deconstruction of the homogeneous and its norms, values and beliefs. In a postcolonial context, this challenges colonial discourse and the coloniser/colonised/dominant/subculture dichotomy that through its systematic ideology it has created. Thus, a new frame of referencing is created by the coloniser or dominate group in order to reconstruct the hybrid identity in a way that they can understand.

WORD COUNT: 2188

References

Allen, J. ‘Other, the’ (2006) The Routledge Dictionary of Literary Terms. Edited by Childs, P. and Fowler, R. London: Routledge, pp.164-5.

Ashcroft, B. Griffiths, G. and Tiffin, H. (2000) Post-Colonial Studies: The Key Concepts. London: Routledge.

Brontë, C. (2001) Jane Eyre: An Authoritative Text. 3rd edn. London: Norton. (Original work published 1847).

Ciolkowski, L.E. (1997) ‘Navigating the Wide Sargasso Sea: Colonial History, English Fiction, and British Empire’, Twentieth Century Literature, 43(3), pp. 339-359.

Hall, S. (1996) ‘Cultural Identity and Diaspora’ in Williams, P. and Chrisman, L. (eds) Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader. Harvester Wheatsheaf: London, pp. 392-403.

Graham, J. (2008) ‘An Interview with Gautam Malkani: Ealing Broadway, 6th November 2007’, Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, 6(1), pp. 37.

Halloran, V.N. (2006) ‘Race, creole, and national identities in Rhys Wide Sargasso Sea and Phillip’s Cambridge’, Small Axe, 11(1), pp. 87-104.

Lusca, E.L. (2008) ‘Race As A Social Construct’, Anthrpology.net, 1st October. Available at: http://anthropology.net/2008/10/01/race-as-a-social-construct/ (Accessed: 7th January 2016).

Malkani, G. (2007) Londonstani. London: Harper Perennial.

Malkani, G. (2006) What’s Right With Asian Boys. Available at: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/9f2bb9fc-d03b-11da-b160-0000779e2340.html (Accessed: 8th January 2016).

Manzoor, S. (2007) The coconut conundrum. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2007/jul/30/comment.race (Accessed: 8th January 2016).

Mondal, A. ‘Hybridity’ (2006) The Routledge Dictionary of Literary Terms. Edited by Childs, P. and Fowler, R. London: Routledge, pp. 112-3.

Rhys, J. (2000) Wide Sargasso Sea. London: Penguin Classics.

Stevenson, A. Waite, M. (2011) Concise Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

 

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