Caught between two worlds the Confusion of Cultural Identity in Three British Asian Novels

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The Confusion of Cultural Identity in Three British Asian Novels

Éva Pataki

University of Debrecen, Hungary

In today’s multicultural countries, hybridity and the confusion of cultural identity are key issues. Whether in Hungary or in the United Kingdom, immigration has resulted in a multi-ethnic society and cultural diversity as well as the problems of discrimination, assimilation, social and demographic change, which not only affected the society itself but the lives of the various ethnic groups and the individuals alike. In this lecture I intend to provide an insight into key terms such as cultural identity and hybridity, in the light of the position and problems of the British Asians in Great Britain compared to Hungarian minorities such as the Slovene diaspora, attempting to classify the treatment of the confusion of cultural identity from age and gender perspectives through three landmark novels of contemporary British Asian writers: The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureish, White Teeth by Zadie Smith and Brick Lane by Monica Ali.

Throughout my research I have found that although immigrants have similar difficulties in settling and adjusting in their new countries, there may be differences in their situations and conditions. In Hungary the main ethnic groups have all been present for a number of centuries, thus they have gone through a long process of assimilation and trying to find the right balance between taking up a new culture and preserving their own roots. However, it was only in the past few decades, mainly after the change of regimes in 1989, that minority groups recognized the importance of the revival of their old traditions and national language, and at the same time they were given the possibilities to open bilingual schools, to found cultural and political associations or to be represented in the parliament (M. Kozár Mária, „A magyarországi szlovének asszimilációja az 1980-as évektől napjainkig”). Today, the largest minority groups in Hungary are the Roma and the Germans, while other groups include the Slovaks, the Croats, the Romanians, the Ukranians, the Serbs and the Slovenes.

At present, there are approximately 5000 Hungarian Slovenes living in western Hungary, between the town of Szentgotthárd and the borders with Slovenia and Austria. The ancestors of modern Slovenes have lived in the western part of the Carpathian basin since at least the 6th century AD but in the late 10th century, due to the Hungarian invasion they were „magyarized” (hence the denomination “Hungarian Slovenes”). In her minority studies M. Kozár revealed that the traditional Hungarian name for the Slovenes used to be Vendek or Vends; and many Slovenes in Hungary accepted this name, although in their own dialect, they always referred to themselves as “Slovenes”. In the late 19th century, the denomination “Vends” was used to accentuate the difference between the Hungarian Slovenes and other Slovenes, thus creating a separate identity. In the 1990s, however, a social study claimed that the Vends were in fact Slovenes, their language being a dialect of the Slovene language. Nevertheless, at the next census, the individuals of this minority group declared themselves neither Vend nor Slovene but Hungarian, mainly because after the relocation of the Slovenes in the 1950s and with the turmoil of the southern-slav wars they were not assertive enough to admit their cultural identity but they chose total assimilation. („A magyarországi szlovének asszimilációja az 1980-as évektől napjainkig”).

In the 1960s, the majority of the Slovenes moved from the neighbouring villages to Szentgotthárd in Vas County, which was their economic and cultural centre until the 1990s. During this period, they assimilated, and the use of their mother-tongue was restrained to the homes. In many families, however, the next generation was not taught to speak “Wend”, neglecting the social value of being bilingual. According to M. Kozár, a 1984 study showed that urbanization resulted in cultural assimilation, and as the former peasants became factory workers like the Hungarian inhabitants of Szentgotthárd, they felt a need for a change in their values and customs as well (M. Kozár – Hirnök, “Szlovének a városokban”). M. Kozár also notes that assimilation is an integrative process within the family and between generations, and is not socially and culturally equable, thus resulting in hybridity and the confusion of cultural identity. The assimilation of the first generation is never complete, they are in an in-between state where they have already left their culture behind but have not integrated the new culture yet. On the other hand, the second generation tends to aim at total assimilation, by breaking away from the roots and traditions (M. Kozár, „A magyarországi szlovének asszimilációja az 1980-as évektől napjainkig” 2005).

A similar attempt of cultural assimilation can be observed in the case of British Asians as well, although they differ greatly from the Hungarian Slovenes in terms of their demographic number, the date and cause of immigration, and the extent of discrimination, even racial abuse that they have encountered. According to the 2001 census, there were approximately 2.3 million British Asians in the United Kingdom, living in colonies in most urban areas but particularly Greater London, Leicestershire and the West Midlands, somewhat isolated among native Britons. The biggest populations among South Asian immigrants were of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin. As subjects of the Empire for periods of various lengths, the immigrants that left Asia for Britain, mainly in the post-World War II and the decolonization period of the 1950s and 1960s, were familiar with British cultural patterns. Nonetheless, they were forced to face a new way of adjusting, this time without the protecting background of feeling at home, confused by the opposing nature of British culture and their own, suffering from the confusion of cultural identity.

According to Stuart Hall, one of the most renowned scholars in the field of cultural studies, „Cultural identities are the points of identification, the unstable points of identification or suture, which are made, within the discourses of history and culture. Not an essence but a positioning” (Hall, „A Place Called Home” 395). Defining one’s identity is a central question for every individual, especially in alien or unfavourable circumstances. As cultural identity is not only made up of nationality and ethnicity, but also of gender, religion and history, South Asian immigrants were to face a manifold culture-shock when arriving in Britain and a drastic culture-clash when they continued their life in their traditional way instead of quickly and totally taking over the ’new British way’.

Consequently, these immigrants strived to preserve and transmit their culture to their children, who were therefore surrounded by and taught to live according to two often contrasting cultural and social sets of traditions and expectations. It is this culture-clash that may transform into a serious confusion of cultural identity, a term applied by Leighton to denote the “weakening of norms derived from membership in a particular cultural group when the members of this group are brought into close contact with the contrasting norms of a different cultural group, and are unable to integrate the two sets” (Leighton et al. 47).

Naturally, the process of doing away with the confusion and realizing that there is no one right identity, as identities are fluid1 and constantly changing, is neither easy nor natural for South Asian immigrants as they have had to face decades of overt and indirect racism, poverty, exclusion and assimilation on behalf of native Britons. Besides, for first-generation British Asians, the nostalgia for their homeland makes adjustment and identity formation even more problematic and painful, they are likely to feel “caught between two […] worlds” (Ilona 98). In-betweenness is a constant feeling of dislocation and identity confusion, a feeling that characterises first generation immigrants the most. As for the second generation, however, a less strong bond with the home country and culture and the natural acceptance of the ’new’ world around them tends to result in another condition of cultural existence: hybridity.

In today’s globalised, multicultural world, hybridity is an issue often dealt with and argued about. Theorists Homi K. Bhabha, Paul Gilroy or Stuart Hall made hybridity a key term in postcolonial discourse, although they had different interpretations and aspects of the concept of hybridity. In The Location of Culture (1994) Bhabha suggests that „hybridity is camouflage” (193), related to a „process of translating and transvaluing cultural differences” (252). In Bhabha’s theory hybridity is the third space of the „in-between”, while other scholars argue that hybridity is not an in-between state, but the interaction and combination of cultures, a third entity, a new joint identity2. Hall suggests that hybridity is “the contaminated, yet connective tissue between cultures” („Reinventing Britain” 54) and it is transforming British life („Black and White Television”, 18). Hall also believes that hybridity stretches beyond race relations and incorporates identification related to gender and sexuality as well. Paul Gilroy approaches hybridity from a more radical point of view and argues against the use of hybridity opposed to ’purity’, the latter being irrelevant in today’s multicultural world (“Black Cultural Politics”, 54-55). His approach can be read as a sign that cultural and racial hybridity are becoming acknowledged and ordinary.

As the confusion of cultural identity and hybridity seem to be the inevitable and inescapable consequences of immigration, assimilation and multi-ethnicity, these notions are highly important for immigrant writers in expressing their thoughts and stances about the immigrant experience and being “other”. While the first generation of British Asian writers such as Nirad Chaudhuri and VS Naipaul recorded their experience of migration and the change in Britain in their writings, by the 1980s, a second generation of British Asians emerged on the literary scene, writers who were born in Britain and experienced exclusion and racism from native Britons. Their frustration and claim for the acceptance of a multicultural Britain was the subject matter of several novels and plays, and they put their own lives and identity in focus of their works. Hanif Kureishi’s play Borderline (1981) and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981) marked the coming of a new wave in British Asian Diaspora literature.

In terms of subject matter, the 1990s marked a shift towards more individual themes, and many writers such as Kureishi put the emphasis on individual lives and choices of hybridity, while introducing multicultural Britain as a natural phenomenon, an everyday experience for all Britons. Kureishi’s first novel, The Buddha of Suburbia (1990) is a comic story about the life and ‘evolution’ of a half-Indian, half-British boy, Karim, whose biggest aim is to leave the suburbs and find his place in the world. However, the novel is not simply a bildungsroman of a young man’s development to maturity, but also the development of identity in multicultural Britain and the portrayal of racism, the confusion of cultural identity, hybridity and ‘Englishness’.

The 1990s also offered a chance for female immigrant writers such as Atima Srivastava and Meera Syal to tell their individual stories of the immigrant experience and the confusion of cultural identity from a gender perspective, whereas at the beginning of the 21st century, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000) and Monica Ali’s Brick Lane (2006) undoubtedly showed that immigrant writers had a firm and noted place in British literature at the new millennium regardless of their exact location, gender or sexual orientation.

Although Zadie Smith is not of Asian origin, the treatment of the South Asian diaspora in her debut novel earned her a place among prominent British Asian writers as a cultural translator of new British communities and multiracial conditions. White Teeth is the gripping and comic tale of multicultural London told through the friendship of Englishman Archie Jones and Bengali immigrant Samad Iqbal, and their families – characters who are linked by the confusion of cultural identity caused by in-betweenness and hybridization, experiences of being ’other’ and being unable to escape history. The first and the second generation of characters have different experiences with and attitudes to this situation, yet they all feel in-between and need to learn to get past this feeling. Willesden Green, being positively portrayed by Smith as a melting pot, helps the characters deal with or even fight in-betweenness and accept their place in multicultural Britain as normal.

As opposed to Smith’s multi-ethnic setting and characters, Monica Ali’s Brick Lane portrays the position and identity confusion of Bengali women in the isolated community of Tower Hamlets in multicultural London through the story the 18-year-old heroine, Nazneen, who faces the immigrant experience for her arranged marriage with the immigrant Chanu, twenty years her senior. Through Nazneen’s eyes, the reader gets acquainted with the position and struggles of the women of the Bangladeshi community. The novel follows Nazneen’s life from the first confused and obedient years through her affair with the young radical Karim until her final decision to start a new, independent life, not as a duteous Bengali wife but as a strong British Asian woman. This process of Nazneen’s emancipation is accompanied by the emotional and culture shock of migration, the everyday reality of racism, the hardships of settling in and adapting to an utterly unfamiliar country, the feeling of dislocation and identity confusion.

The characters of these three novels are immigrants, just like the Slovenes in Hungary, the Hungarians in Ireland or the Turks in Germany. Although they come from various cultures, have different beliefs and their own individual stories of immigration and assimilation, they are similar in their experiences and going through the long process of trying to find or restate their identities. Nevertheless, their age and gender determines the way they come to terms with their otherness.

As it was mentioned before, first generation immigrants are in an in-between state, caught between two worlds, two sets of traditions, differing religions, lifestyles, and social expectations. For South Asians, the main reasons for migration were education and economic interest, or seeking political exile, but regardless of the causes they all had to face the same hardships of settling, adjusting or assimilating in an increasingly hostile atmosphere. In addition, finding their place in their new home was further complicated with prospects of unemployment or being employed as workers despite their higher level of education or experience. Samad of White Teeth, Haroon of The Buddha of Suburbia and Chanu of Brick Lane all have a low-paid job and prove to be unable to mediate between the conflicting set of values of East and West. To resolve their identity crisis, they strive to sustain their Muslim male superiority on their wives and children but eventually they all fail to do so, which reinforces their feeling of ’in-betweenness’ and forces them to re-think their identity: by admitting their faults, they can come to terms with identity confusion and accept their fate.

For the descendants of first generation immigrants, the confusion of cultural identity is something to put up with from the very first moment of their lives. In most cases, what they see at home and what they experience outside is in direct collision with each other; they are constantly reminded of their otherness and not being able to live up to the conflicting expectations of the two cultures. Whereas first generation immigrants find it difficult to accept being British Asian due to their strong ties to and nostalgia for their mother country, their children are usually unwilling to be labelled the same because they consider themselves simply British. Apparently, the second generation is more of a “post-in-between generation” (Moss 14), their identity confusion derives from other sources than their parents’ and they have their own different ways to deal with it. I found that on the general, there are two major types of second generation immigrants in this respect: the ‘rejecters’, who opt for assimilation to avoid confrontation, such as Allie of The Buddha of Suburbia and Magid of White Teeth; and the ‘traditionalists’, who return to their roots in terms of religion and political stance like Millat of White Teeth and Karim of Brick Lane. While Allie appears to be the prototype of the totally assimilated second generation British Asian, who consciously rejects every link and association with his origin, Magid takes up English identity and manners instinctively, despite being sent back to Bangladesh to get a traditional upbringing. In contrast, Millat and Karim are the representatives of a growing young militant generation, whose image involves crime, violence and drug abuse, cultural conflict and confusion and eventually religious fundamentalism (Hussain 101) as a the means of coming to terms with identity confusion. There is a third category among young second generation immigrants, and that is embodied in the hybrid character of Karim Amir, whose multiple and fluid identity represents a ‘new way of being British’ (Kureishi, „My Beautiful Laundrette” 18). He considers himself to be first and foremost English, but at the same time he acknowledges a sense of cultural responsibility towards his roots and learns to accept his identity confusion and hybridity.

As for the gender perspectives of the confusion of cultural identity, I have found that while searching for and dealing with their identity, first generation immigrant women all go through a process of considerable emancipation and westernization as well. Although living in secluded communities they initially preserve their female roles in an arranged marriage and take up their ultimate duties of housework and raising children, their limited contact with the outside world does not save them from identity confusion, questioning their female inferiority and the right of the tradition of the obedient wife. Gradually, Alsana of White Teeth, Jeeta of The Buddha of Suburbia and Nazneen of Brick Lane, learn to take more control of their lives, first by “silent mutiny”, then by making their voices heard in their home and making their own decisions. Nonetheless, in most cases, the change in their identity is subtler and more gradual, they are likely to find the right balance between traditions and feminism, to become strong, independent women, who are capable of living without fear, both respecting traditions and welcoming reform.

In conclusion, regardless of location, ethnic origin, age or gender, immigrants in Europe and the world all have to deal with and treat the confusion of cultural identity throughout their lives. Nevertheless, as the examples have shown, the treatment of this confusion differs according to age and gender, as every generation, every man and woman, every individual, immigrant or native alike, have their own tasks and ways of realizing their fluid, hybrid identities. And if we all succeed in doing so, our multi-racial countries can finally become the ones where multiculturalism is a functioning reality, where diversity is celebrated and hybridity is a part of everyday life, a natural and accepted phenomenon.


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Hall, Stuart. „A Place Called Home: Identity and the Culture Politics of Difference.” Identity:

Community, Culture, Difference. Ed. Jonathan Rutherford. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1990.

Hall, Stuart. ‘Black and White Television’, in Givanni, June (ed) Remote Control: Dilemmas of Black

Intervention in British Film and TV. British Film Institute. 1995.

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Hussain, Yasmin. Brick Lane: Gender and Migration.” Writing Diaspora: South Asian Women, Culture

And Ethnicity. (Studies in Migration). Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2005.

Ilona, Anthony. „Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia: ’A New Way of Being British.’ ”

Contemporary British fiction. Cambridge, UK : Polity Press ; Malden, MA : Blackwell

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Kureishi, Hanif. My Beautiful Laundrette and The Rainbow Sign. London: Faber, 1986.

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Danger. New York: Basic Books, 1963.

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Kisebbségkutatás - Szemle a hazai és külföldi irodalomból - Minorities Studies and Reviews. Volume 2 2005

M. Kozár, Mária - Hirnök Katalin, „Szlovének a városokban – Szentgotthárd” A III.

Békéscsabai Nemzetközi Néprajzi Nemzetiségkutató Konferencia előadásai 2., Budapest

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Smith, Zadie. White Teeth. London: Hamish Hamilton, 2000.


1 Fluidity is a term introduced by Michel Foucault in connection with sexuality and later used by several theorists such as Stuart Hall in the field of cultural identity.

2 Laura Moss, for example, argues that hybridity „is the third element produced by the interaction of cultures, communities or individuals” (12), and so does Salman Rushdie, who refers to it as “mongrelization” (Imaginary Homelands 395).

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