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Transnational Writers and the Politics of the English Language

Many scholars are of the opinion that contemporary transnationalism helps in a new post-national era. But such transnationalism does not necessarily weaken nationalism; on the contrary, it can at times operate to reinforce a nationalist agenda. Despite the creation of a new global order, has not transnationalism led to the politicization of identity in the form of fundamentalism, xenophobia, and a fanatical espousal of tradition, as many critics observe? It is increasingly doubtful that transnational practices are generally counter-hegemonic. The dissemination of transnational practices entails the transterritorialization of various socioeconomic, political, and cultural practices and identities that frequently bolster the formation and reconstitution of the nation-state.

As Arjun Appadurai observes in his book Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, diasporic communities such as the ones formed through the phenomena of transnationalism in the West Indies, Malaya, Fiji, Mauritius, Eastern and Western Africa, the U. K., and the U. S., “safe from the depredations of their home states . . . become doubly loyal to their nations of origin” (49). Transnationalism implies a process in which formations that have traditionally been perceived as restricted to well-defined political and geographical formations have transgressed national borders, producing new social formations. Yet transnational politics often lead to cultural and religious fanaticism by emphasizing a conception of identity between the “authentic” and the “demonic.” It is important to offer a critical dialogue between the works of transnational writers and the contemporary history they encounter, using history to interrogate fiction and using fiction to think through historical issues.

Often, in order to fortify the attempt to find new ways of delineating her/ his situation, the transnational writer appropriates and adapts the language of the country of adoption to define the reality of a different culture.  The adapted form of the English language creates a linguistic medium of a syncretic character. The metamorphosis in the English language effected by the incorporation of variance into it erodes the concept and use of Standard English, thereby halting the perpetuation of a hegemonic rhetoric in culture and literature. The development of English into the vernacular form privileges the experience of a submerged voice that breaks the shackles of the “standard”: “English is adopted as the national language, so its local development into vernacular form is one of both evolution and adaptation” (Ashcroft et. al. 56). In its evolved form, English challenges the traditional old culture/ modern civilization binary by establishing itself as an oppositional discourse that does not unquestioningly accept the dominance of the “norm.” The deployment of this oppositional discourse enables the writer to incorporate untranslated words or events of local significance in the text, requiring the reader to delve into the intricacies of a hitherto unknown culture.

Typically, the transformations effected by transnational writers involve rebirths and renamings in the realms of language of language and the imagination. As Salman Rushdie articulates, the “migrant” becomes the “midwife” of language itself, “as that language is new delivered,” because by making incursions into an alien language, the migrant is required to traverse new territories and discover “new ways of describing himself, new ways of being human” (Imaginary Homelands 24).

Writers create a site on which local thought-patterns, structures, and rhythms are accompanied by the delineation of an alternative social reality. Their writings not only coin neologisms, but also incorporate indigenous languages and dialects that are signifiers of the local as opposed to the universal. The sustained opposition between two opposing discursive systems prevents the transnational text from conforming to a restrictive system of representation.

In the 1950s and 1960s, South Asian writers in English attempted to affiliate South Asian writing with the dominant forms of the English novel. The generation of V. S. Naipaul and Anita Desai did not make a serious endeavor to either explore indigenous narrative forms or to appropriate the English language to the South Asian context. In these writings, the social, cultural, and political realms are often places of disillusionment and enable the analysis of individual aberrations. Shymala A. Narayan and Jon Mee observe about this generation of South Asian writers, “What these novelists did demonstrate was a command of the right of Indian novelists to be taken seriously in terms of the criteria of Western novel-writing” (231).

The 1980s witnessed a renaissance in South Asian writing in English. This generations of writers challenged the idea of national unity and integrity of the nation-state. These writers endeavored to narrate the history of the nationalist struggle in a form that negates colonialist historiography. The South Asian novel in English in the 1980s incorporates memory, imagination, and folk-tale into sanctioned versions of history and is skeptical about the stability of the nation and its symbols. As Mee observes about this generation of Indian novelists, “It has been deployed to call the globalization of culture to local account, to foreground the difficulties of translation and the possibilities of dialogue” (336).

However, celebration of dislocation as the contentious site where psychological and spiritual emancipation might be achieved, like universalizing the detached position of an exile, has been attacked for its lack of affiliation with local politics in South Asia.

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Nyla Ali Khan is the author of Fiction of Nationality in an Era of Transnationalism, Islam, Women, and Violence in Kashmir, The Life of a Kashmiri Woman, and the editor of The Parchment of Kashmir. Nyla Ali Khan has also served as an guest editor working on articles from the Jammu and Kashmir region for Oxford University Press (New York), helping to identify, commission, and review articles. She can be reached at nylakhan@aol.com.

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