Place and Displacement

The experience of colonialism often creates a question of identity, as the domination of the country by outsiders threatens the identity of that country, and the indigenous people’s place in it. In the colonies of intervention, the indigenous peoples were subject to cultural denigration, their own identity and culture oppressed by a culture and language which was supposedly superior. In this way the homeland itself loses its identity and integrity as the colonial power assumes dominance. In this context, the urge to reassert the vitality of the indigenous culture (Course Section 2) becomes fully comprehensible. It is this which motivates both Achebe and Ngũgĩ in Africa, but the idea is very interestingly explored in Brian Friel’s play Translations, set in mid-19th century Ireland. It raises the questions both metaphorically and literally, as the play centres on the British Ordnance Survey teams mapping and renaming Ireland, so that the named topography of the landscape is no longer recognisable to its inhabitants.

Essay on naming in Translations

On the other hand, the population of the Caribbean are literally displaced, the majority by involuntary migration. In this case, not only were the people forcibly severed from their roots and taken thousands of miles from their homelands, but their languages were also actively suppressed. After slavery was abolished, many Asians travelled to the Caribbean as indentured labourers on the plantations. In both cases, this voluntary and involuntary migration leads to a sense of profound alienation, and of loss, which is often apparent in the poetry of Derek Walcott and the novels of V.S. Naipaul.

The displacement of the settlers in New World colonies is of a different order, but no less important. New arrivals in Australia, New Zealand and Canada struggled to reproduce their sense of ‘Englishness’ and the way of life they had known in a strikingly different landscape and climate, thousands of miles from home, and therefore with no real prospect of return. Even their England-honed language was inadequate to describe their new experiences, so a process of change and adaptation is enforced, which further separates the colonisers from their homeland, while in the early stages they often hanker after the links to England. The work of Peter Carey and David Malouf in Australia demonstrates these concerns, and they are also reflected in the winner of the 2006 Orange Prize for Fiction, The Secret River by Kate Grenville. Katherine Mansfield’s short stories often fit very European-style narratives within the turbulent background of a developing New Zealand society, where European manners and conventions begin to break down.

Though the causes of displacement vary, it is perhaps the most widespread concern of post-colonial literature, and is a recurrent theme in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, as Samad yearns for Bengali Muslim values and Irie seeks to rediscover her Jamaican roots. It is no accident that so many of the chapter titles refer to root canals.

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