Re-visiting history, re-negotiating identity in two black British fictions of the 21st Century: Caryl Phillips’s A distant shore (2003) and Buchi Emecheta’s The new tribe (2000)

Moudouma Moudouma, Sydoine (2009-03)

Thesis (MA (English Literature))--University of Stellenbosch, 2009.


Notions of home, belonging, and identity haunt the creative minds of fiction writers belonging to and imagining the African diaspora. Detailing the ways in which two diasporic authors “re-visit history” and “re-negotiate identity”, this thesis grapples with the complexity of these notions and explores the boundaries of displacement and the search for new home-spaces. Finally, it engages with the ways in which both authors produce “new tribes” beyond the bounds of national or racial imaginaries. Following the “introduction”, the second chapter titled “River Crossing” offers a reading of Caryl Phillips’s A Distant Shore, which features a black African man fleeing his home-country in search of asylum in England. Here, I explore Phillips’s representation of the “postcolonial passage” to the north, and of the “shock of arrival” in England. I then analyse the ways in which the novel enacts a process of “messing with national identity”. While retracing the history of post-Windrush migration to England in order to engage contemporary immigration, A Distant Shore, I argue, also re-visits the trans-Atlantic slave trade. In the final section, I discuss “the economy of asylum” as I explore the fates of the novel’s two central characters: the African asylum-seeker and the outcast white English woman. My reading aims to advance two points made by the novel. Firstly, that individuals are not contained by the nations and cultures they belong to; rather, they are owned by the circumstances that determine the conditions of their displacement. Phillips strives to tell us that individuals remain the sites at which exclusionary discourses and theories about race, belonging and identity are re-elaborated. Secondly, I argue that no matter the effort exerted in trying to forget traumatic pasts in order to re-negotiate identity elsewhere, individuals remain prisoners of the chronotopes they have inhabited at the various stages of their passages. The third chapter focuses on Buchi Emecheta’s The New Tribe. Titled “Returning Home?”, it explores the implications of Emecheta’s reversal of the trajectory of displacement from diasporic locations to Africa. The New Tribe allows for the possibility of re-imagining the Middle Passage and re-figuring the controversial notion of the return to roots. In the novel, a young black British man embarks on a journey to Africa in search of a mythic lost kingdom. While not enabling him to return to roots, this journey eventually encourages him to come to terms with his diasporic identity. Continuing to grapple with notions of “home”, now through the trope of family and by engaging the “rhetoric of return”, I explore how Emecheta re-visits the past in order to produce new identities in the present. Emecheta’s writing reveals in particular the gendered consequences of the “rhetoric of return”. Narratives of return to Africa, the novel suggests, revisit colonial fantasies and foster patriarchal gender bias. The text juxtaposes such metaphors against the lived experience of black women in order to demythologise the return to Africa and to redirect diasporic subjects to the diasporic locations that constitute genuine sites for re-negotiating identity.

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