Each migrant has a unique tale to tell of the home left behind and the home(s) carved out elsewhere, the people met on the way, the experiences of hostility, welcome, isolation and community. Edward Said wrote of exile (one form of migration, though with no possible return) as producing an awareness of ‘plurality’ that fosters creativity and artistic expression (2001). So it is perhaps unsurprising that migrant tales have provided rich stuff for novels, particularly in the post-colonial era, when many have been written by authors who are either migrants or children of migrants.
Central to novels of migration is the question of what constitutes home and how home is remade. M. G Vassangi writes of home being a gunny sack, comprised of things that are portable (memories, rituals, languages) that can be schlepped from place to place (1989). But is it so easy? Can everything be taken along for the ride? What is lost in translation?
Stories of migration are as old as the journeys themselves. For Jean Rhys, writing in the interwar years, loss and pain are central to the migrant’s experience. Isolation, alienation and the sensation of being out of place characterise Anna’s life in 1930s London in Voyage in the Dark. In this telling, the migrant’s journey, framed by colonisation, is a path to madness and despair. Trapped in colonial London, Anna is Said’s exile, the fragile stranger in the heart of the colonial metropolis, who can never belong or make a home, yearning for the Caribbean, a place of warmth and a home that cannot be returned to. Abandoned by her lover, longing for home and her childhood, Anna spirals into a decline from which it is suggested there will be no return, in which patterns of exploitation and alienation will repeat themselves ‘all over again… all over again’.
In contrast, Sam Selvon’s exuberant stories of West Indians in 1950s London depict young men having adventures, seducing English women, going hungry and looking for work. His novels, written in a joyful patois, celebrate through their very language the positive products of the colonial encounter: hybridity, the meeting and melding of languages, cultures, identities and bodies. Yet his protagonists also struggle in the city, contending with racism, poverty and cold. In The Lonely Londoners, newly arrived Galahad becomes so hungry that in an episode balanced delicately between comedy and tragedy, he attempts to kidnap a pigeon, much to the horror of an elderly white passerby: ‘“I must find a policeman!” the woman screech, throwing her hands up in the air, and she turn back to the road. Galahad make races through the park, heading down for Lancaster Gate.’
Overwhelmingly, post-Windrush London is a male world. But the few women Selvon writes into his stories are very different from Rhys’s Anna 20 years earlier. They are resourceful and refuse to be dominated by men, black or white. Tanty braves the tube and bus: ‘She was so frighten that she didn’t bother to look out of the window and see anything, and when she get off at the Prince of Wales she feel relieved. Now nobody could tell she that she ain’t travel by bus and tube in London’. Selvon’s stories are migrant love letters to the city which, despite all the setbacks his characters face, does become home.
For Rushdie, the process of migration entails a more carnivalesque hybridisation of cultures, languages and identities, so both ‘host’ and ‘traveller’ are forever changed by their interactions. The Satanic Verses is a novel much discussed for events that it provoked, but it is often overlooked as a work of fiction. It is a novel that depicts post-1970s travels to Britain vividly in all their violence, excitement, adventure and pain. Both Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha experience the transformative potential of migration, as well as disorientation and violence. The novel’s chaotic, hybrid English, and its layering of cultural references, pay testament to the ways the migrant encounter forges a ‘third space’ of cultural hybridity, where anything, at least in theory, is made possible (Bhabha, 1994).
Chamcha desperately tries to assimilate rather than celebrate his difference. Alas, his attempts to out-English the English are hampered by his physical differences (transformed into a devil at the start of the novel, he has hooves), which leads to a gruelling interrogation by the police:
“Who’re you trying to kid?” inquired one of the Liverpool fans, but he, too, sounded uncertain. “Look at yourself. You’re a fucking Packy Billy. Sally-who? – What kind of name is that for an Englishman?”
Chamcha’s abuse, and the riots of Brickhall that fictionalise the conflicts between ethnic minorities and fascist gangs in east London, represent a shift from the 1950s to the 1970s, when the relatively ‘polite’ racism represented in Selvon’s stories gave way to physical attacks and systematised racist abuse. The Satanic Verses records how the migrant’s journey is often scarred with incidents of humiliation, violence and unwelcome.
Three novels, and a whisper of the stories that migration has produced, a plethora of tales that, collectively, could be considered a subgenre of fiction. Just as the tellers of these stories have travelled, the stories themselves circulate beyond their places of origin. The positive reception of Monica Ali’s Brick Lane in Bangladesh stands in strong contrast to the controversy it caused amongst British Bangladeshis. Amongst the anglophone elite in Dhaka, the novel was received with pride, its author viewed as a daughter of the nation ‘done good’ overseas:
But beyond all these considerations, of course, is the fact that she has openly embraced us. We should embrace her in turn. She is one of us. She is a gifted and sincere daughter of Bangladesh. She has written a novel in English and succeeded at a level the rest of us should aspire to (Islam, 2003).
The transnational publishing market and the development of e-books, as well as the explosion of international literary festivals, further enable migrant fictions to travel ‘back home’ where they are read with interest, as the experiences of distant, scattered sons and daughters of the homeland.
Islam, K. (2003) ‘Monica Ali Denied Bangladeshi Visa: On Roots and Moments of Triumph’, The Daily Star, 4(24), http://www.thedailystar.net/2003/06/21/d30621210390.htm, date accessed 25 January 2014.
Rhys, J. (1934) Voyage in the Dark, London: Constable.
Rushdie, S. (1988) The Satanic Verses, London: Vintage.
Said, E. W. (2001) Reflections on Exile and Other Literary and Cultural Essays, London: Granta.
Selvon, S. (1994 ) The Lonely Londoners, London: Longman.
Vassanji, G. M. (1989) The Gunny Sack, London: Heinemann.