Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Quest for the Elusive African Identity

By Christine Emmett

An obituary in The Guardian for the late cultural theorist, Stuart Hall, quotes from a 2012 interview with the Jamaican-born Oxford-educated academic, where he observes, "three months at Oxford persuaded me it was not my home, I'm not English and I never will be.
"The life I have lived is one of partial displacement. I came to England as a means of escape, and it was a failure."
Contextualising this, the author of the obituary, Stuart Jeffries, points out that the significance of Hall's work has ensured it could never be construed as failure. But what rings so heavily through Hall's speech here is something more significant than personal grievance. 
Hall has been hailed as "the father of multiculturalism" - his work focused on race, racism and the growing prominence of immigrants and the diaspora. He mobilised new ways of thinking about nations and citizens. 
But what becomes clear is that even Hall, after working with these issues for years, recognised that the identity of the immigrant was built around "partial displacement". 
In its most basic and negative expression, this displacement tells us: this is not my home and I do not belong here. And this problem can seldom be resolved by simply returning to the country of origin.
The protagonist in Esi Edugyan's re-issued first novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, exists within this fracture. Samuel is a Ghanaian, living in Canada with his wife and twin girls, but if he seems homeless in Canada, he doesn't seem to belong back in Ghana. 
The novel is set in 1968, with Samuel clearly a member of a small African diaspora. The late sixties also finds America in the midst of the Vietnam war and the American civil rights movement. 
Despite the flurry of activity we know must underpin the narrative, Samuel lacks interest and investment in the political events around him. Conversely, he also hasn't acknowledged the political independence of his country of birth. 
He and his wife, Maud, still refer to Ghana, which reached independence in 1957, by its colonial title, "Gold Coast"; as he notes, "the country would always be 'Gold Coast' for them; having lived so long away from it, in their minds, it was largely defined by its name". 
His dislocation and alienation may stem from the fact that Samuel is self-absorbed; engulfed by personal problems of day-to-day life, he is unable to focus on the interests or the existence of the outside world. 
Indeed, he has his own share of strife: an alienated and recalcitrant wife, two emotionally distant children and a boring job.
Added to this is the ubiquitous racism so implicit and woven into the texture of people's actions and speech, it characterises most of the interactions in the novel.
It's conceivable then, that Samuel would want to change his life so when his estranged uncle dies, leaving him his house in the small Canadian village of Aster, Samuel jumps at the opportunity. Not only is owning the land and house in which you live suggestive of being part of a community, but having it passed down from a previous generation suggests a more steady notion of belonging.
What this change might occlude though, is that even in moving to a new place, Samuel is in part trying to move back to some kind of home. 
The move to Aster is as much about trying to find one's roots in what has been passed down, as it is about forging a new, second life.
Samuel should be able to return to a golden past but this is unfeasible. It's not that the notion of returning to your roots isn't a tendency of the immigrant imagination. 
The ludicrous fantasy of an uninterrupted return was represented quite unintentionally by Isidore Okpewho's novel, Call me by my rightful name (2004). 
In it, the protagonist, an unsuspecting African-American basketball player, suffers from unexplained bouts of shouting Yoruba during college parties. Luckily before he is consigned to a mental institution, he is sent somewhere in Nigeria to "find himself". 
The ridiculousness of Okpewho's novel inheres not merely in spontaneous outbursts of Yoruba, but the notion that deep-down beyond the African-American identity remains an unchanged and true African one. If by some bizarre notion one's identity hasn't been altered by the last few hundred years, then we are still left with the essentially racist notion that Africa is somehow waiting in a timeless primitive zone - that it remains a part of an unchanging past.
So for Samuel, taking up residence in his uncle's house, is some kind of return to what was familiar - a longing for the "Gold Coast" of his past which no longer exists. The idealism of Samuel's move is exhibited and ingrained in Edugyan's representation of the house. As one character observes, "a house is the direct reflection of its owner" and by this logic, the house Samuel inherits is itself a mixture of signs and symbols that are tangled and complex: "Brown and ivory, it sat fat and pacified among the overgrown foliage. Thick, thorned vines veined its face. It had the white front stoop so classic of Aster culture, but flanked by colonial pillars, as if built by a Confederate. It was beautiful in a brooding sort of way." 

The house, represented like an awkward old man, is an unsettling mixture of traditional and intrusive elements having grown into decrepitude. It is falling apart, withering, leaking and plagued by obstinate shadows, flanked by a weathervane that shrieks through the night. 
By trying to impose belonging on his fragmentary life, Samuel enters a haunted space.
It is one of the strange aspects of Edugyan's narrative that the novel is recognisably gothic. Inexplicable and mysterious events occur. 
The tone of the novel is at times so dark and convoluted it is |exceptional as a work in the diaspora genre. 
This, though, is also what makes the novel difficult, and perhaps a bit tedious: the deluge of unexplained secrets, disasters, close escapes and domestic misery leaves one pained and perhaps longing for some sort of comic relief. 
Edugyan does attempt to balance this by providing peripheral political and socio-historical details, but it merely serves to leave the novel overburdened by information.
If pain is the way Edugyan typifies Samuel's experience, we know this is not necessarily the case for immigrants any longer. 
Esi Edugyan herself is the daughter of Ghanaian immigrant parents and is, as a writer, the cultural product of so many migrations which are nowadays more the norm than the exception. 
Hall attested that migrant identities are perhaps best considered as "constantly producing and reproducing themselves anew, through transformation and difference".
As he would have noted, the dream of a static, intergenerational home is a vestige of the past. |"The future belongs to the impure. The future belongs to those who |are ready to take in a bit of the other, as well as being what they themselves are."
If this is the case, then The Second Life of Samuel Tyne acts as the excavation of a history, an origin myth for the current generation. It is as though the path into the ubiquity of immigration had to be forged by the alienated, disappointed Samuel Tynes of the world. 
The notion of belonging had to be a failure, had to be dismantled, for there to be a space for new identities. As the quotation from Hall's obituary impresses on us, failure is now necessarily encoded in the search for belonging. published March 23, 2014. 

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