by Adib Khan
© all rights reserved
The philosopher, Diogenes, was known to have an undisguised contempt for any distinction between Greeks and foreigners. When asked what his country was, he replied: ‘I am a citizen of the world’, and in so doing he coined the Greek word cosmopolitan to express his thoughts on the matter. I imagine that more than two thousand years later there are many among us who share that view.
The question of identity has been a complicated issue for me, long before I accidentally stumbled into writing. I have always been wary of any rigid, stereotyped characteristics that may be attributed to the word identity in a way that may compromise my notions of individualism. Undoubtedly my attitude has much to do with cultural fragmentation.
There are times when I recall an interesting experience during the early 1980s, after I became an Australian citizen. It was the singular incident that set me thinking about the multiple dimensions of identity, especially when you transcend boundaries and leap across cultures. On a tram in Melbourne, an elderly lady, whose grandfather had a stint in India as a British administrator, asked me politely if I was an Indian.
‘No,’ I replied, ‘although India is my ancestral home. My grandparents and my parents were born there, and I have relatives in Calcutta where I spent most of my school holidays.’
Was I a Pakistani?
‘No,’ I responded, ‘I was born in Pakistan, but my Australian passport doesn’t say so.’
‘Ah, an Australian!’
The enlightened exclamation sounded very definitive in its conclusion.
‘So, you were born in Pakistan but now you are an Australian citizen. A Pakistani-born Australian!’
Her triumph was short-lived. I wanted to be more precise about the confusion I was creating.
‘Not quite,’ I said, watching her frown. ‘I was born in Pakistan, but officially I can no longer claim that privilege.’
There was a perplexed silence. By this time I was rather pleased with the web of mystery I had spun around my national identity. The riddle had rapidly reached a complexity worthy of the Sphinx. It was time for the grand revelation.
She nodded and smiled, but I sensed that the bewilderment was still there. But I had stated the truth. It really summed me up. I was born in Pakistan, with familial connections in India, had a rebirth in Bangladesh without ever believing in reincarnation, and now I was an Australian in possession of a certificate and an associated document of sixty-four pages, valid for ten years, to prove who I was.
If one considers Hamlet’s situation as a parallel, then his dilemma was relatively simple. He was merely crawling between earth and heaven – an uncharted distance, I shall grant him that. But one may well ask, what should such fellows as I do with the claims of four different countries tugging at me for some declaration of who I am?
At any point in our lives, we can think of ourselves as relating to a number of identities – in terms of gender, age, family status and ethnicity, to name only a few. The conceptual and emotional difficulties that a migrant experiences in coming to a singular understanding of the term identity is akin to standing in the middle of a chamber of mirrors that are in constant, slow rotation. One catches glimpses of transient reflections without ever settling on a fixed image. Those of us who have reluctantly experienced displacement, or willingly shifted our cultural base, find our own private ways of locating and perceiving ourselves beyond the obvious coordinates of a street, a suburb, a town or a passport. I am no exception in this quiet search, and my vehicle of travel is writing fiction.
But undeniably, as a social being, I am part of a larger scene, and I have to say that looking at the bigger picture makes me uneasy about contemporary communal attitudes regarding identity. The cultural fragmentation with which I must cope merely complicates the issue, but it also alerts me to the pitfalls of excessive and sometimes blind patriotism that is often evident, for example, in such comparatively trivial matters as sports.
The alarming acceleration in technological evolution and its impact on social and cultural changes have significantly influenced the ways in which communities are insisting on defining themselves. It would seem that there is a desperate need to find historical and contemporary markers to construct a framework within which people can feel secure about their perceived values and lifestyles. Across nations there appears to be shift in the way people characterise identity. The identity of the individual is now sometimes subservient to a community’s ideology of what a person should be if he or she is to have a meaningful place in mainstream society.
Discourse on gender, ethnic and class identity appears to have subsided for the moment and we are caught in a mesh of aggressive nationalism that encourages a somewhat naïve and illusory view of a heroic identity. Guilt and alienation are frequently evoked to lash individuals into an acceptance of an advanced tribal mentality, and these are often achieved by clearly defined characteristics of unacceptable non-conformity. Probably this is a communal reaction to fear, a backlash against globalisation that is perceived to be threat to national identity.
I am rather uneasy by the resurgence of a myopic nationalism that can escalate into something more than just a chest-beating exercise about a community’s superior virtues. There is a strong and potentially dangerous martial component in such pride. In a recent article in The Australian (April 27, 2001), Helen Irving has suggested that:
The attempt to make the Anzacs stand for all Australians is part of a disturbing cultural process – seeking moral certainties in our lives and our history, and finding them in the imaginary homogeneity of the past.
Indeed, there is a trend to pinpoint what is considered to be ‘unAustralian’. Complementing Irving’s viewpoint, Rosemary Neill, in the same newspaper on the same day, posited that ‘unAustralian’ was a word ‘whose increasing use and abuse is suggestive of a new jingoism on the loose’. Thankfully, there is also a growing awareness that a society as diverse as Australia cannot be simply characterised by a set of traits to define us all for the sake of so-called social cohesiveness. As Irving points out, ‘There is no single identity for Australians’.
I do not believe that it is possible for me to wear the permanent tag of a cultural stereotype. An unqualified identification with a single, mainstream tradition would be a denial of the composite that I am. It would be futile and, indeed, undesirable to attempt to purge the cultural diversity that has shaped me. My splintered life is not entirely the result of migration. It was a natural consequence of an upbringing that was strongly influenced by history. In the 1950s and ’60s, the postcolonial subcontinent was still strongly affected by the cultural and institutional legacy we had inherited from the British. For my parents it was inconceivable that I would not attend a school where English was not the language of instruction. I was sent to a Catholic school run by Jesuits. The fragmentation took place early in my life.
There were parts of the New Testament to be studied at school in a subject that was absurdly titled Moral Science. We were strictly warned not to wander into the Old Testament. Some friends and I deduced that since anything forbidden had to do with girls and sex, the Old Testament had to be compulsory reading. So I readGenesis and Exodus and learned about creation and Moses, played cricket in the afternoon and returned home to face a Spartan mullah waiting to hear my reading of the Koran and teach me about the only faith he wanted me to know. In retrospect, the exposure to the historical richness of Christianity and Islam saved me from some of the prejudices of ignorance and set me on the path to cultural dualism where it was no longer possible to think about myself in terms of a single tradition. This dualistic cultural pattern was integrated into my life, as I grew older and matured.
On the one side there were Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare and Milton. On the other there were the influences of The Ramayana, Mahabharata, the Moghul poets, Iqbal and Tagore. The two sides met, not in combat, but in a synthesis of ideas out of which I emerged considerably enriched in thought and feeling but without any clearly defined sense of belonging to a monocultural society. I would not have it any other way. Even at the risk of sounding excessively egotistical, the awareness of my multiplicity makes me curious about myself. What I was, what I am and what I will be are subjective speculations with no definitive answers.
My writing life has merely intensified my curiosity about identity. Writing fiction was purely accidental during a period of soul searching to know why I was so restless when I turned forty. There was a growing dissatisfaction with my professional life as a teacher and boredom with the predictability of my middle-class existence in a Victorian country town. I had reached that point of lethargic blandness where any desire for intellectual fulfilment was being blunted by an increasing indifference about the wider world. Underneath all of this was a kind of insurgency, a revolution from within that insisted I pay attention to myself. Well I made an effort to meet the real me by recording my reflections in fragmented bits of writing.
A novel emerged as a residue of this attempt at self-analysis, and with it came the realisation that I was destined to occupy a kind of no-man’s-land, wedged between polarised cultures. My identity is simultaneously plural and mutable. There is no definitive measurement of who I am. My occupancy of a territory between the east and the west does not offer much stability. Here the earth often shakes quite violently to discourage me from developing any sense of permanence or belonging.
However uncomfortable this position may be, it is by no means an arid ground for the mind to discover a multiplicity of voices and what they have to say. The migrant’s voice tells me what it is like to feel a stranger and yet be at home, to live both inside and outside of one’s immediate situation, to be permanently on the move, to think of one way return journeys but to realise at the same time the impossibility of doing so, since the past is not only another country but also another time, beyond the grasp of the present. It tells me about long-distance journeys and relocations, of losses, changes, conflicts, powerlessness and visions of what might have been.
And with it comes infinite sadness that severely tests my emotional resolve. But there is another voice, different in tone and articulating entirely different perspectives of another landscape. It speaks about new experiences, of ideas that extend my intellectual and emotional frontiers and recharges the desire to explore unknown territories. It encourages me to celebrate the richness of cultural diversity. In a sense, writing has become a residence, a place I can call home.
So the question arises, in this house of writing which room do I occupy and can I be even vaguely characterised by the way I live?
Well, perhaps that was a possibility until very recently. At the moment, I am in a state of transition, shifting from one room to another, planning a novel set entirely in Australia, not about migrants, but about a white Australian, a Vietnam Veteran, troubled by guilt and concerned by his lack of responsibility during the war, seeking atonement through art and a commitment to a relationship with a partially paralysed woman. And how am I responding to this slightly alien scenario that I have built into the writing landscape? Well, I am still in the same house, merely changing rooms. That sense of familiarity has not deserted me. And I figure that if a Japanese could have written a novel about an English butler, then a Bangladeshi can fictionalise a white Australian’s experience. I don’t have a problem with pulling down artificial barriers. That is one of the supreme advantages of not being weighed down by a single identity.
Adib Khan lives and writes in Ballarat. He is the award winning author of three novels:Seasonal Adjustments (1994),Solitude of Illusions (1996) andThe Storyteller (2000). Adib presented a shorter version of this essay at the 2001 Sydney Writers Festival.
This essay was funded by the Literature Fund of the Australia Council.