The immigrant perspective: Jamila’s identity and the problem of belonging Thesis
Updated: May 13th, 2019
Jamila is the most vivid female character in Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia. The young girl belongs to the family of Indians who live in England, and she is the second-generation immigrant. This aspect is significant for understanding her opinion on the question of her personal and cultural identity.
In spite of the fact it was possible to notice the specific attitude to the other nations and races in the British society of the 1960-1970s, Jamila as a second-generation immigrant is not inclined to concentrate on the issue of her cultural ‘otherness’ as the influential factor for developing her personal problems. In this situation, ‘otherness’ is a category which is based on the definite stereotypes developed in relation to the certain nations, ethnic groups, and races1.
It can seem that Jamila discusses her cultural belonging in the context of the global problem associated with the minority groups, and this vision results in her active social position and fight for their rights. Jamila accepts her cultural and ethnic belonging without references to those problems which were actively discussed by the first-generation immigrants.
The concept of the ‘oneness’ as the element of the cultural identity is more characteristic for the first-generation immigrants2. Moreover, it is impossible to refer to the notion of the identity without paying attention to the development of the ethnic group, its characteristic features, specific visions and traditions.
According to Hall, “we cannot speak for very long, with any exactness, about ‘one experience, one identity’, without acknowledging its other side – the ruptures and discontinuities”3. The understanding of the personal belonging to this or that group also develops. Hall states that “in this perspective, cultural identity is not a fixed essence at all, lying unchanged outside history and culture. It is not some universal and transcendental spirit inside us on which history has made no fundamental mark”4.
Jamila’s behavior represents her understanding of her being a second-generation immigrant in the context of her active social position and interests in the politics with performing rather radical views. The girl is not really interested in her own position as an immigrant within the society, but she examines this problem globally with references to the social movements and political ideas.
The problem of identity becomes significant for her when she experiences the pressure of her father with relation to the necessity of arranging the traditional marriage with a person who is approved by her parents.
Nevertheless, Jamila focuses on the aspects of her identity as the personality in her daily life because she knows the peculiarities of regarding immigrants in the British society, but her reaction is characteristic for the representatives of the second-generation immigrants who are more adaptable to the features of the life in this society with references to their possible ‘otherness’.
It is stated in the novel that the young people who are depicted by the author as the second-generation immigrants are also inclined to associate themselves with the English even understanding their origins, but with focusing on the peculiarities of their bringing up. Karim focuses on his and Jamila’s position, “the thing was, we were supposed to be English, but to the English we were always wogs and nigs and Pakis and the rest of it”5.
It is important to note that Jamila’s personal identity depends on the concept of liberty as the reaction to the attempts to discriminate immigrants in the British society, the attempts to impose the traditional vision of the cultural identity which is typical for Jamila’s parents, the attempts to limit the sphere of the social activity.
Accepting the ideas proclaimed by Miss Cutmore, Jamila becomes open to the revolutionary views on the situations and phenomena which are her own representation of liberty. Jamila’s ideas are not limited by the boundaries of the suburbs, and they have the global character. This fact allows speaking about Jamila’s specific reflection of the concepts of cosmopolitism in this context. The girl’s active position is explained by her strong character and such her trait as persistence.
Thus, “under the influence of Angela Davis, Jamila had started exercising every day, learning karate and judo … she was preparing for the guerilla war”6. Moreover, speaking about the features of Jamila’s character, Karim states that “she was forceful and enthusiastic, Jamila. She always seemed to be leaning forward, arguing, persuading”7.
All these factors accentuate the girl’s inner freedom from any prejudices and biases which could develop under the specific perception of her own cultural identity. Jamila’s vision of herself as a second-generation immigrant is based only on the facts and aspects of the real life.
Jamila’s liberty which gives the fundament for her identity is associated with the girl’s vision of feminism as the way to realize her freedom. The girl’s feminism is her reaction to the events of her life when she was submitted to follow her father’s desire to marry a man whom she did not love. Jamila also refuses living a life according to the definite strict customs and traditions which are connected with the culture of her parents.
In spite of the fact Jamila’s feministic ideas are opposed to Anwar’s vision of the woman’s position in society and family, the marriage with Changez becomes the girl’s way to liberate herself in the context of her constant struggle for the personal identity against the cultural belonging. It is possible to focus on the fact that “marrying Changez would be, in her mind, a rebellion against rebellion, creative novelty in itself.
Everything in her life would be disrupted, experimented with”8. Being not afraid of any changes, Jamila is always ready to experiments which make her life full and active. One more example of Jamila’s referring to the ideas of feminism is her decision to live in the commune. From this point, she realizes her main intention to be free and live according to the principles of liberty which are stated in a rather revolutionary manner, but this vision is close to Jamila, and it makes the basis of her personal identity.
It is significant to pay attention to the fact that Jamila’s strong personal identity is more significant factor for her development in comparison with her vision of her cultural identity and belonging. This position is accentuated by the nature of the conflict with her father Anwar.
Anwar prefers to concentrate on the cultural differences, Indian traditions and customs as the aspect of belonging to the definite ethnicity when Jamila focuses on admitting these differences, but not on their accentuating in the context of the place where they live. Anwar develops the specific identity of an immigrant who tries to preserve his culture that is why he is dependent on the cultural ‘fixity’9.
As the representative of the second-generation of immigrants Jamila is also greatly influenced by the peculiarities of the cultural environment within which she was born. Jamila does not reject the cultural heritage which she has because of her origins, and she admits those cultural peculiarities which develop in the British society.
Her task is to combine them in order to form her own specific identity. This fact is the reason for the girl’s concentrating on the problems which are affected not by the issues of cultural and ethnic isolation, discrimination, and opposition, but by the common aspects typical for the British youth without references to their cultural identity.
Having analyzed the peculiarities of the cultural and personal identity from the immigrant perspective, it is possible to say that Jamila’s vision of identity is based not on her belonging to this or that ethnicity and culture, but on her understanding of the liberty and rights within that context which forms her environments.
Thus, Jamila is inclined to distinguish between the global idea of belonging and human rights with references to the rights of minority groups and her own position as an Indian and her own liberties and rights. Jamila knows her origin, but the aspect of the cultural identity is not so influential for her as the issue of identifying her position in the society as a free person with a specific vision of its development.
To determine her position within the society, it is not important for Jamila to refer to her cultural identity, and her fight against the aspects of injustice is of the ideological character. Jamila’s attitude to the issue can be also discussed as the multicultural one.
The notions of the cultural identity and belonging from the non-immigrant perspective
In his book The Buddha of Suburbia, Hanif Kureishi discusses the destinies of many people who are connected by their personal relations, and who are rather different in their nationalities as well as their visions of the world. If the main character of the book Karim and his friend Jamila are the representatives of the second generation of immigrants who live in the suburbs near London, Eva and Margaret were born in England where they spent all their life.
The English culture and the British society are familiar for them and form their cultural identity. Nevertheless, the women’s contacts with the representatives of the Indian culture also significantly influenced their personal identity.
Eva is the wife of the Indian man Haroon. She was brought up as an Englishwoman, and she knows everything about the aspects of the life in the British society. That is why she always did as much as possible in order to overcome the boundaries of the life in the suburbs and to reach the real success which can be achieved only with shifting to the highest society of London. Eva’s character and peculiar traits are given through Karim’s eyes, “Eva Kay was forward; she was brazen; she was wicked”10.
Being the part of the English culture and sharing the cultural identity which is typical for this society, Eva is not satisfied with her position. Moreover, her vision of her identity helps her to move forward and then to change the situation of her life. It is important to pay attention to the fact that Eva’s plans on moving to London and joining the highest society become close to reality under the impact of her relations with Haroon as the representative of the other, Indian culture.
Now, “she had a new interest; she was launching a huge campaign. Eva was planning her assault on London”11. Eva is always active and decisive in her thoughts and actions, and she knows what factors can help to realize her plans.
Eva’s intention to expand the boundaries of her cycle and to acquire a new position can be considered as the definite problems with her identity which also depend on her personal belonging to the factor of the social opinion. The social opinion is one of the most important and influential aspects not only in the British society.
That is why Eva prefers to use every opportunity to draw the public’s attention, and from this point, Haroon’s ethnicity and the peculiarities of his culture can be discussed as the effective contribution to her social status because of the possibility to attract the attention of the masses a lot of cultural differences.
Thus, Eva tries to find the balance in the question of identity with the focus on the social progress in the British society and with the concentration on the communication with the Indians whose culture is interesting and impressive for her.
The Indian culture does not become the part of her cultural identity, but the important aspect of her personal identity. Eva’s identity of the English woman with focusing on the elements of Indian culture is affected by the aspects of her everyday life. Moreover, the challenge of Eva’s desire to change the social status is also overcome.
If Eva is a rather self-centered woman with the definite desires and worked out plans, Margaret is concentrated on her family and its members’ interests. That is why the fact of her husband’s affairs with Eva becomes a kind of tragedy for Margaret. She understands her identity as an Englishwoman, but her marriage with Haroon, the Indian traditions which are the part of her life, the specific style of living in the suburbs make her change the principles and rules of her life according to these aspects.
Margaret’s identity is also influenced not only by the situation of her belonging to the English culture but also by the extra factors which form the woman’s daily life in the suburbs. Margaret is “a pretty working-class girl from the suburbs”12. Moreover, it is possible to speak about Margaret’s belonging to the suburbs as the place where her home is located. In spite of the fact Margaret wants to make her life diverse and exciting, she refers to the occupation of her husband and spends all her time doing households.
Margaret’s identity is formed as a result of the impact of two cultures, but it can be also discussed as quite stable. Admitting the principles of the two opposite cultures, Margaret also feels comfortable without hoping to shift her social status. Nevertheless, the problems in the private life make Margaret focus more strictly on her identity and inclinations. It is possible to conclude that Eva and Margaret are born in England, but their feeling of identity is influenced by their close interactions with the representatives of the Indian culture.
Charlie’s identity formation within the non-immigrant context
The problem of identity is not as significant for Eva and Margaret as for Eva’s son Charlie who is passionately strives to find his right place in the world, to achieve his goal and become famous. Charlie is an Englishman, he is not an immigrant, and he lives in the context of the culture according to which principles, customs and traditions he was brought up.
However, there is the situation in Charlie’s life when he experiences the fact of being immigrant in the USA. In spite of the character of the environments, different circumstances and situations, the life of immigrants is often associated with a kind of a struggle for the best position within the foreign society. Each person makes her own choice to what extend it is necessary to follow the foreign traditions because it is impossible to avoid the fact of the definite assimilation under the impact of surroundings13.
Some persons are inclined to make the accents on the benefits which their differences from the other society can bring, and the other people prefer to follow their national traditions in order to preserve their cultural and ethnic identity which makes them be the part of their cultural whole in contrast with the situation of being the ‘other’ person within a foreign society14.
Being a non-immigrant, Charlie experiences all the problems which are typical for the persons who have to live in the foreign community, and he also tries to determine his own cultural and personal identity. Hoping to gain the recognition and become the famous person in the future, Charlie is good in adapting to the circumstances and imitating all the ideas which can help him to achieve the goal.
The problem is in the fact Charlie cannot perceive himself as the unique personality and develop his feeling of identity because of his constant orientation to the public’s opinion and the social trends. When Charlie succeeds within the field of show business he is satisfied, but his identity is still difficult to determine. This young man understands that any limits in his vision of the world and its details can limit his own success.
That is why he is able to assess the advantages and make provocative decisions. If his feeling of identity as an Englishman can contribute to the success, he uses this chance. The author indicates that being in the USA Charlie “was selling Englishness, and getting a lot of money for it”15. Thus, he played according to the national contrasts and differences which can draw a lot of the public’s attention to his personality.
Nevertheless, Charlie can easily change his cultural identity and make the accents on those aspects which can be useful for him while adapting to the new situation. The problematic formation of Charlie’s identity is also based on the question of relations in his family. The young boy suffers from the lack of the father’s attention, and this fact influences his level of self-confidence. That is why there are no situations when Charlie is ready to identify himself in relation to the cultural context and to his own vision of him as a personality.
Charlie is oriented to the public’s opinion that is why it is possible to say that this understanding of the notion of belonging should be discussed in the context of society. Moreover, his mother’s relations with an Indian man also expand Charlie’s visions of cultures and traditions making the process of identifying himself as a part of the definite society more difficult. Charlie has the opportunity to observe the aspects of the cultural and personal identity in relation to his mother, Haroon, and Karim.
Charlie belongs to that society within which he is inclined to act at this very moment. If Karim and Jamila’s problems with their cultural identity are the result of the extra factors and the peculiarities of the ethnic and cultural environment within which they have to live, Charlie’s issues are associated with his inner personal dissatisfaction.
His ability to adapt to the situation is more intense in comparison with Karim and Jamila’s ones who struggle for their identity and positions in society. However, they prefer to focus on searching for the balance between the cultural differences and similarities when Charlie chooses that culture and those peculiarities and traditions which are in trend and more advantageous for him.
One the one hand, Charlie’s flexibility in making decisions and varying his identity according to his needs is effective for his success, but one the other hand, it is also the cause for his feeling confused and frustrated. Charlie’s perception of his identity is not formed completely, and it greatly depends on his ability to adapt to the situation according to his goals and definite circumstances.
Bhabha, Homi. The Location of Culture. USA: Routledge, 1994.
Hall, Stuart. “Cultural Identity and Diaspora”. In Contemporary Postcolonial Theory: A Reader, edited by Padmini Mongia, 110-121. USA: Arnold, 1996.
Kureishi, Hanif. The Buddha of Suburbia. USA: Faber Paperbacks, 2000.
Thomas, Susie. Hanif Kureishi: A Reader’s Guides to Essential Criticism. USA Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
1 Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (USA: Routledge, 1994).
2 Stuart Hall,“Cultural Identity and Diaspora”, in Contemporary Postcolonial Theory: A Reader, ed. Padmini Mongia (USA: Arnold, 1996).
3 Stuart Hall,“Cultural Identity and Diaspora”, 113.
4 Ibid., 114.
5 Hanif Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia (USA: Faber Paperbacks, 2000), 53.
6 Hanif Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia, 56.
7 Hanif Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia, 51.
8 Ibid., 82.
9 Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture, 94.
10 Hanif Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia, 8.
11 Ibid., 150.
12 Hanif Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia, 25.
13 Susie Thomas, Hanif Kureishi: A Reader’s Guides to Essential Criticism (USA Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).
14 Stuart Hall, “Cultural Identity and Diaspora”, 116.
15 Hanif Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia, 245.
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