Analysis of the Concept of Nation in Salman Rushdie’s Novel Midnights Children and GraceLand by Chris Abani
People often perceive of the nation as something that has always been there, which is marked by stable boundaries, and which unproblematically defines those born within its borders as being members of a nationality. How do Midnight’s Children and GraceLand examine and challenge this view?
The concept of the nation is interrogated by Salam Rushdie and Chris Abani. Both authors blur the boundaries lines of the nations they present by highlighting the problems of categorising the nations residents into one universal narrative. Both novels are advantageously set in the context of post independent colonial ruled countries. Enabling the authors to deconstruct the colonisers view of the nation by voicing the lost stories of their protagonists, the colonised subjects.
Rushdie’s protagonist Saleem Sinai explains due to the conditions of his birth at the precise moment of India’s independence ‘I had been mysteriously handcuffed to history, my destinies indissolubly chained to those of my country.’ (Rushdie, 1981, p. 3). Saleem’s ability to narrate the nation is evident throughout the text as the significant events in Indian history correspond to important parts of his life. In exploring the nation through narrative Neil Ten Kortenaar explains the narrative ‘exposes the ideological underpinnings of the nation, which stands revealed as a fiction manipulated by the classes that control the state.’ (Kortenaar,1995, p.41).
It seems suitable to use Kortenaar’s proposal to discuss Midnights Children in relation to Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism. In maintaining the concept of Orient is constructed by western forces. Said’s theory relates to Midnights Children as although sometimes questionable, the narrative is understood as an allegory for India.
The oxidant is narrated through a colonised subject’s perspective and thus presents India as an emerging nation free from western interpretation. This may challenge Said’s philosophy that there is a ‘hegemony of European ideas about the Orient, themselves reiterating European superiority over Oriental backwardness. (Said,1978, p.7). Midnights Children questions the authority that Said demonstrates as the voice of the subaltern is able to narrate the nation.
This is not to say that aspects of Said’s Orientalism are not presented in Midnights Children. In the wake of independence, the East is presented as a place of mystery and chaos particularly through the use magic realism. This echoes Said’s idea that a western fantasy is produced in texts surrounding colonial dominance. Although fantasy is present, it is narrated by Saleem’s voice not a western one, this is significant as the idea that culture is defined and created by the Orient is removed. This argument supports the idea presented by contemporary critic such as Kortenaar who suggests ‘Rushdie’s novel explodes the notion of the nation having a stable identity and a single history. (Kortenaar,1995, p.41-42).
Suggesting that through Saleem’s narration Rushdie is questioning the Western definition of nationality by challenging the boundaries it presented for colonised people. To improve the applicability of Said’s theory to Midnights Children it seems suitable to utilise Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities. Like Said, Anderson accepts the fact that eastern culture and thus nationality has been created by the west. Anderson also notes on the nation as an imaginary construct making Imagined Communities more relevant to Midnights Children as a central focus in the novel is the idea that the nation is an imaginary construct. Anderson explains the nation is ‘imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.’ (Anderson,1991, p.5-6). Similarly to Anderson, Rushdie presents the nation as a fictional construct ‘A nation which had never previously existed was about to win its freedom, catapulting us into a world which … was nevertheless quite imaginary’ (Rushdie,2006, p.112).
In suggesting for nations to exist the identity of the nation must be constructed by the imagination, Rushdie is able to overcome the monolithic view of the nation as if the concept of nation only exits in the mind it is objective to the individual. This highlights the importance that Rushdie places on narrative in overcoming the idea of the nation as a single entity. Edward Mallot explains ‘the memory and its aretfacts are as important to the nation’s sense of itself as they are to the individual. (Mallot, 2012, p.126) he draws from Rushdie’s own essay ‘In God We Trust’ that praises Imagined Communities for ‘if the nation itself is an imagined construct, then nationalism and a sense of national identity seem also to be products of individual and collective.’ (Mallot, 2012, p.126). Subsequently, this challenges western notions of individualism and suggests imagined nations are a fictional creation of the individual. allowing colonised subjects to create their own definitions of what nationality is.
Within Midnights Children the creation of India’s identity is represented through a mixture of political, social and religious culture. Through the multitude of religions presented, I would maintain that Rushdie presents the postcolonial concept of hybridity, theorised by Homi K. Bhabha. The combination of religions within one nation presents the idea that not all members of one nationality can be defined into one nationality due to their beliefs. Whilst Saleem’s multiple identities exemplify Bhabha’s concept of hybridity, it seems suitable to suggest that the hybridity of religions also signifies the disorder of India’s national identity at the time of independence. The complications caused by religious hybridity in the novel also refer to India before Independence, presenting a broader view of India nationality and arguably suggesting the legacies of colonialism are still present within the post independent nation.
In Midnights Children the hybridity of the Indian nation creates conflicting identities for the citizens of India, Bhabha claims ‘The problem is not simply the “selfhood” of the nation as opposed to the “otherness” of other nations. We are confronted with the nation split within itself, articulating the heterogeneity of its population.’ (Bhabha, 1994, p.98.).
The heterogeneity that Bhabha explains is clearly presented through the religious divisions in Midnights Children. The uncertainty that follows these religious divisions is illustrated through Saleem’s relationship with this grandfather Aadam Aziz. Although they are not biologically related the hole caused by religion presented in Aadam’s life is assumed by Saleem ‘the hole at the center of himself caused by his (which is also my own) failure to believe or disbelieve in God’ (Rushdie,2006, p.315). This attitude remains with Saleem and whilst in Pakistan he struggles to accept the religion of his family, presenting the hybrid of beliefs that existed within the nation at the time of independence. Although beliefs in the novel are evidently shaped by the colonial past, the presentation of several religions illustrate that Indianness is a construct and there is no one way of being Indian. Kortenaar views the hollow presented within the faith of Aadam and Saleem to rebel against colonial forces explaining the void is ‘a hollow ready to be filled with the new faith of nationalism.’ (Kortenaar,1995, p.43). In suggesting this, Kortenaar to agrees that in identification with one’s own nation characters can embrace their nationality and the hybridity of religion and culture within India.
The lasting impact of colonial rule is portrayed through the economic and social imbalances in post independent countries. This colonial dominance is particularly evident in GraceLand. Set during the years following the Biafran Civil War, one of the bloodiest post-independence conflicts. Abani provides a rich portrayal of postcolonial Africa which challenges the concept of the nation. Matthew Omelsky supports this idea stating in fusing together the aesthetic political Abani ‘inserts his own narrative into the nation’s fraught historical metanarratives of civil war, political violence and severe socioeconomic inequality.’ (Omelsky,2011, p.84). The trauma of the Biafran war and its national impacts clearly shape the characters views towards the meaning on nationality. The vast gap between rich and poor is exemplified, creating a different meaning of nationality for the abundance of deprived characters living under the impact of neo-colonialism.
The novels protagonist Elvis highlights the corruption present within his own nation, explaining although newspapers claim Nigeria was home to the highest percentage of millionaires the articles ‘failed to mention that their wealth had been made over the years with the help of crooked politicians, criminal soldiers, bent contractors, and greedy oil company executives.’ (Abani, 2004, p.8). The corruption that Elvis understands and Africa’s relationship and dependence on neo-colonial power impacts the meaning of nationality for several characters. Resulting in those characters rejecting their nationality to celebrate American culture, Omelsky too questions this concept ‘does the idea and cultural capital of America and other external spaces allot GraceLand’s youth characters a sense of agency and possibility?’ (Omelsky,2011, p.85)
It is evident that texts like Graceland respond to postcolonial theory and it seems appropriate to apply Franz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Mask’s to GraceLand. Fanon theorises that colonial rule and its impacts impose an inferiority complex within the mentality of colonised people. In imposing that European culture is superior, he explains that native people are encouraged to reject their culture and thus nationality in favour if the colonising one. Fanon explains ‘Every colonized people- in other words, every people in whose soul an inferiority complex has been created by the death and burial of its local cultural originality-finds itself face to face with the language if the civilizing nation’ (Fanon,1962, p.18).
This may help readers to understand why the answer to overturning history is not seen from within African culture but American culture. For example moments of euphoria are related to American consumerist culture, Coca-Cola and American branded cosmetics are viewed as an escape, particularly for Africa’s youth. Omelsky highlights this concept ‘the “idea of America” is situated above all other non-African spaces because of the sense of appropriated social distinction that it confers on youth in the novel.’ (Omelsky,2011, p.87). The emphasis that Omelsky places on youth is significant as he highlights the troubles faced by children growing up in post independent countries. Suggesting that Abani’s use of a subverted bildungsroman is crucial in voicing the status and mentality of Africa following the Biafran Civil War. Consequently, the idea of stable boundaries existing in a newly independent nation is challenged in GraceLand, the youth are born within national boundaries, those boundaries are clearly questioning their nationality in their rejection of African culture due to the postcolonial context.
Franz Fanon’s later work The Wretched of the Earth explains how colonial contact causes psychological trauma in the minds of colonised people. In effect the trauma of colonialism creates a systematic negation ‘of the other person and a furious determination to deny the other person all attributes of humanity, colonialism forces the people it dominates to ask themselves the question constantly: “In reality, who am I?”’ (Fanon,1968, p.250). This questioning of self is mirrored within Elvis mentality that constantly refers to American as a nation ‘‘What if he had been born white, or even just American? Would his life be any different? Stupid he thought. If Redemption knew about this, he would say Elvis was suffering from a colonial mentality’ (Abani,2004, p.78).
The colonial mentality that Elvis refers to epitomises Fanon’s idea that living within a context of colonialism creates an internalised racism and rejection of one’s own nationality. Although the colonial mentality explained by Fanon is evident in GraceLand, resistance against colonising forces is portrayed through Igbo culture. Recipes and rituals are featured and present characters with a method of survival that destabilises the binary of America as a place of opportunity and Nigeria as condemned. They counterbalance the idea that all good things are a product of western culture. Elvis is seen as reconnecting with his culture and resisting western forces, this ritual presents a pride within Nigerian Igbo culture and nationality.
Although at a basic level the mimicry of Elvis Presley may be viewed as removing pride for African culture and thus nationality, Elvis’s imitation cannot be simplified by one means of interpretation. Whilst other theorists suggest colonised people are encouraged to adopt the characteristics of the coloniser, Homi K. Bhabha offers a reverse interpretation of this concept within his theory of mimicry. Bhabha describes that mimicry can be reformed to destabilise fascination with American nationality and aid colonised people in manipulating mimicry to fit their own desires and thus have pride within their own nationality. Bhabha explains ‘colonial mimicry is the desire for a reformed, recognizable Other, as a subject of a difference that is almost the same, but not quite.’ (Bhabha,1944, p.86). It seems suitable to argue that the difference highlight by Bhabha is utilised by Elvis in his desire to cross gender boundaries through his use of makeup ‘With a defeated sigh, he turned to the small tin of talcum powder stuck in one of the pockets in his bag. He shook out a handful and applied a thick layer, peering into the mirror. He was dissatisfied; this was not how white people looked’ (Abani,2005, p.78).
In his comparison to white people Elvis becomes the subject of the other, who is not quite the same. In mimicking the American idol with a difference Elvis subverts the traditional colonising view by shaping American culture to explore his own desires. The familiarity of American culture suggested by Bhabha is transformed to meet the need of the colonised. Suggesting that in GraceLand, however complicated Elvis can explore his own identity and thus nationality by remoulding a symbol that epitomises American culture.
In subverting traditional American culture, Elvis highlights issues within African nationality caused by capitalist American culture. Omelsky supports this idea in suggesting that unconsciously Elvis ‘morphs the image of the real Elvis to fit his desire to obscure gender distinctions. He employs and manipulates the Presley trope in order to circumvent the constraints of heteronormativity.’ (Omelsky,2011, p.89). I would argue if achieved subconsciously or not Elvis’s mimicry characterises Bhabha’s theory. It demonstrates a way for the African youth to empower themselves and explore the meaning of nationality without the influence of western forces.
While not every postcolonial text explores the impacts of colonialism, the platforms it reaches have certainly been impacted by colonialism. These platforms allow both Rushdie and Abani to interrogate the concept of nationality by presenting their protagonists are breaking down the boundaries that define their nations as monolithic.
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