Wednesday, February 4, 2009

A language of loss

An author’s concept of homeland, much like their idea of home, comes from what surrounded them when they felt most comfortable (and most likely when they were most impressionable), but does not necessarily come from their youth, or even their genetic heritage. Languages, in my opinion, work much the same way. The language you prefer is the one you are most comfortable in, so we must remember that these authors chose to write in English for a reason, despite their writing about a foreign land and the changes England, its empire and its language brought upon the lands of their ancestors.
For example, he will never be an English or American writer, no matter where he lives, because he’s Indian. As with all racial definitions, this means that Rushdie (and the other authors we read) must always be aware of the dual cultures that make up their mind, and therefore their work. Rushdie in particular is aware of this duality, and makes a point of it. “To be an Indian writer in this society,” he says, “is to face, every day, problems of definition.” This definition is so difficult to come by not because of how people perceive him, but instead how he handles his own perception of himself.
This is why he can create his imaginary homelands, his little Indias that never existed properly. Chandra, Achebe, and many others have used this important duality to not only share but recreate their ancestral land and show readers the effect that colonization and the introduction of new cultural rules have on a nation. Just as Achebe’s tonal cycles in Things Fall Apart are reminiscent (we presume) of the storytellers the Igbo use to pass their tales on from generation to generation, Chandra’s framed tale and whirling narratives are influenced by Indian literature and language.
The other important fact that readers must remember is that in order for the author to depict change, there must have been change at some point. The old culture had to lose influence or even just permit an alien tendency to take hold in its roots. These writers are conceding the failure of their culture to fortify itself against the onslaught of another nation, not with armies, but with words and concepts foreign to it until the moment the conquest took place. Having to “straddle two cultures” has made the author aware of how this blend came to be, whether by betrayed trust, perceived flaw, or even something so simple as an end at business end of a rifle. The sense of loss all the stories we have read so far share is not a coincidence. It is the last desperate battle-cry of a world fading behind a sunset and a Union Jack. Their use of English as a medium only emphasizes their defeat, and the success of their tales tosses up a small palisade or two before the advancing cavalry of the West. In the linguistic choices, the tones, the feeling of loss leaking out is universal because in their past, in their culture’s halcyon days, English would never even have been an option.

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