The Impossibility of Nativising Marginality

By Aiman Khattak

Introduction

Kamau Braithwaite’s concept of the ‘alter|native’ is defined in his essay ‘Caliban’s Guarden’ as the alteration of the nature of our shared consciousness, which has been shaped in response to colonial subjugation (4). When we consider the alter|native in conjunction with World Literature’s concerns with the marginalised in a global system, we can see how it is coterminous with postcolonial struggles that seek to reclaim lost histories and identities. In this context, World Literature can be used to articulate alter|native narratives of our past, present or future that go beyond anglophone hegemonies, as World Literature encompasses as a collection of literary works that circulate from their original culture to other cultures.

I believe World Literature should not aim for the nativisation of the non-native. By nativisation I mean the mechanism that assimilates minority cultures with the hegemonic culture in the anglosphere. The homogenisation of minority cultures into Anglocentric cultures occurs when the marginalised have to alter their original identities, beliefs, lifestyles, vocations, etc. to survive in the anglosphere. Yet this process of assimilation is never complete as the minority culture is essentially non-anglocentric and cannot completely assimilate into the hegemonic culture. Therefore, it remains an oddity, a process which becomes a vicious cycle for the minority culture. Alternatively, World Literature should maintain a balance between native and non-native narratives. With time, these individualised and culturally disparate representations can be reflected in society, a society which is non-homogenous in essence and will therefore refuse homogenisation. This process will be a social arrangement where multiple narratives are heard, not in the spirit of nativising but rather acknowledging their presence, with equal space and opportunity for the marginalized to thrive even in the anglosphere. I explore this process in this article by examining Khaled Hosseini’s novel, And the Mountains Echoed (2013). I attempt to show what nativisation means for the marginalised in practice, and what kinds of alter|natives could be adopted instead to enable the mutual co-existence of cultures.

“A work only has an effective life as world literature whenever and wherever it is actively present within a literary system beyond that of its original culture,” writes David Damrosch (qtd in Ganguly 123). For any work or a body of literature to be considered as World Literature, it has to circulate beyond its culture of origin. It is precisely because of the transcultural circulation of texts that World Literature can address issues of the peripheral and the marginalized in global spaces where cultures intersect. Through such spaces, World Literature can suggest and develop new ways for the mainstream and marginalized to co-exist.

Khaled Hosseini—A De-marginalizing Marginal Voice in the Diaspora

Khaled Hosseini’s And The Mountains Echoed (2013) is a suitable text to consider in relation to discussions of nativisation and World Literature. Hosseini is a widely known and internationally best-selling, diasporic Afghan novelist. And The Mountains Echoed was originally published in English in 2013, and won anglophonic critical acclaim in the same year (such as the Goodreads Choice for Fiction award and Paris Review Best of the Best). Just like Hosseini’s other novels, And The Mountains Echoed is globally available to an anglophone readership and functions as a successful example of World Literature.

Hosseini was born in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1965. His family moved to San Jose, California in 1980 to seek political asylum from the Soviet invasion. In the U.S., Hosseini began writing his first novel, The Kite Runner (2003).

Hosseini was termed as “one of the world’s 100 most influential people” (Bush) and has written four successful novels since his migration to the U.S.: The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007), And The Mountains Echoed, and Sea Prayer (2018). As an asylum-seeker, a UNHCR Goodwill ambassador and an institutionally lauded voice, Hosseini is suitably placed to give voice to the experiences of other war-struck and displaced Afghans. His novels as anglophone works of World Literature, based in Afghanistan, allow the readers to develop alter|native understandings of Afghanistan and its people.

And The Mountains Echoed (2013), Hosseini’s third novel, is an alter|native intervention in popularised post-9/11 imaginings of Afghanistan. It is a deeply affecting tale surrounding the forced separation of Abdullah and his sister, Pari, to financially enable their family to survive through the season. Pari’s name, meaning fairy, and her separation from her loved ones is reflected in poetic verse toward the end of the novel: “I found a sad little fairy, beneath the shade of a paper tree; I know a sad little fairy, who was blown away by the wind one night” (Hosseini 428-429). Their separation shatters their vows to each other that they will never part (Hosseini 29). Separation from each other, and Pari from her homeland, also symbolises a torturous experience for them, through the uprooting from their original culture or mode of existence in which their past was rooted. In this way, Hosseini “weaves a gorgeous tapestry of disparate characters joined by threads of blood and fate” (Bissell 73). The novel is a multi-generational saga about the firm bond that binds families, and yet the ease with which loss and war can break them. In applying Hosseini’s narrative to the contemporary diasporic spaces, we can see how globalization may promise some upward social or financial mobility, but this exchange comes with its own violent implications: loss of family, loss of the sense of home and belonging, and ultimately a detachment from selfhood, which is shown through Abdullah’s lifelong mourning for his sister Pari.

Alter|native Understandings of Afghanistan in Hosseini’s And The Mountains Echoed

And The Mountains Echoed is set in a fictional Afghan village named Shadbagh (near Kabul), where an impoverished labourer, Saboor, lives with his two children and their step-mother, Parwana. He is faced with the conundrum of giving up one of his children for adoption to a beautiful and wealthy, but morally corrupt, poet Nila Wahdati and her husband Suleiman in Kabul. “No parent should have to make a choice such as this,” says the narrator (Hosseini 5). This transaction has been arranged by Parwana’s brother, Nabi, who remembers the cruelty of his crime until the end of his life. Nabi repents: “But all these years later, I still feel my heart clench when the memory of it forces its way to the fore. How could it not? I took those two helpless children, in whom love of the simplest and purest kind had found expression, and I tore one from the other” (Hosseini 117). This separation opens the prospect of survival for all of them, and a seemingly better life for Pari, yet it devastates Pari and Abdullah. Abdullah reflects, “The finger cut, to save the hand” (Hosseini 54). Pari’s belief that “no bad thing would ever befall her so long as he stood at her side” is shattered (Hosseini 20), and any improvement brought into their lives, by giving up Pari, is only short-lived.

This separation and loss impacts multiple generations of Saboor’s extended family. They are echoed, as in the title of the novel, in a series of different but inter-connected narratives from the perspectives of nine characters who are affected by it in various ways. These narratives, consisting of different narrative styles to suit the characters’ circumstances, span more than five decades in time, and are spread across four different countries: Afghanistan, France, Greece and the United States. Parts of the narrative are disclosed with the help of flashbacks, and at times use inter-texts to accommodate multiple perspectives. “An immense, ancient oak stands in Shadbagh”, which denotes spatial fixity yet symbolizes the complex inter-woven tales of tyranny and traumas in the lives of its characters that they experience across time (Seaman 20). 

I read And The Mountains Echoed as a novel that alter|nativises our understanding of the normal Afghan experience of displacement and dislocation by telling “a story of sacrifice and its consequences” (Argent 1). This alter|nativisation differs from Brathwaite’s contention of the nativisation of the non-native, in the sense that the child is not displaced due to war or some colonial condition, but rather consciously given up by her parents to improve all of their lives. The novel spans from the 1950s to 2010, beginning with Saboor taking his children across the desert to meet Nila and Suleiman. The night before, Saboor had told “a haunting parable of triumph and loss” to the children to set the scene for their planned misadventure the next day. The parable concerns a little boy taken by a fantastical creature to a heavenly land. The children did not know that the parable foreshadowed their forced separation the next day. The separation is particularly difficult for Abdullah, as he had looked after Pari since their mother had “bled to death giving birth” (Hosseini 23). Abdullah also felt closest to Pari because in her he saw his mother’s reflection (Hosseini 27):-

He was the one raising her… it was he she had awakened at night with her squeaks and mutters, he who had walked and bounced her in the dark. He had changed her soiled diapers… not father… And Parwana… She never had the patience or the energy… but he didn’t mind at all. He did it gladly… This was his purpose, he believed, the reason God had made him, so he would be there to take care of Pari when He took away their mother. (Hosseini 35)

Abdullah carries his grief throughout his life and it keeps resurfacing; in his feeling of emptiness in their house after Pari is taken away (55); in naming his daughter after Pari (400); in his constant fear of losing his daughter (422); in his remembrance of the lullaby their mother used to sing to them as children even after he loses his memory (428); and in his keeping safe the tin box in which Pari used to collect feathers (461). Other characters move in and out of the narrative, shaping Pari and Abdullah’s different trajectories, yet all of them feel inherently linked to the trauma of their forced separation. Later, Nila moves to Paris with Pari, leaving her ailing husband behind with Nabi in Kabul. Time passes, Americans take over Afghanistan, and Nabi dies leaving a letter for Pari with Markos (a Greek plastic surgeon renting Wahdati house). In the letter, he discloses the truth about Pari’s separation from Abdullah. Abdullah and Pari find each other after fifty-eight years apart (Hosseini 412), but Abdullah is unable to recognize Pari due to the loss of his memory.

And the Mountains Echoed has been interpreted in many ways since its publication in 2013. My interpretation is particularly interested in World Literature’s capacity to address the issues of the marginalised, and how Hosseini’s novel functions in this regard. Globalisation’s emergence in the twentieth century entailed growing global inter-connectedness (Steger 13). To be clear, by globalisation I mean a set of socio-political, economic and regulatory processes that have increased global connections, but have at the same time homogenised global hegemonic cultures over regional ones in an unpleasant manner (Steger 13; Simmer-Brown 31; Nicholas Ind. 57; Krishnaswamy 115). Consequently, the breach in socio-cultural and economic conditions between the powerful and the marginal has widened, such that globalisation has “increased economic inequalities” (Ghosh and Guven 1). Halil Guven, in “Globalization and the Third World: A Study of Negative Consequences” (2006) emphasises that the industrialised western civilisations have accumulated great amounts of wealth and have acquired the power to dominate weaker civilisations. In this globalised world, everything is subjected to what Jean Baudrillard calls a single programme, or a single ‘genome’. It tends to unify, totalise, and homogenise by dissolving national and cultural boundaries insofar that a single hegemonic culture of economic powers gets homogenised globally, a process that is hegemonic because it eliminates diversity and communal values, and elides difference (Baudrillard 61).

Hegemony, in the Gramscian sense, is “the way in which a governing power wins consent to its rule from those it subjugates” (Eagleton 112). “The term hegemony is applied to a variety of situations in which “one…appears to have considerably more power than others”, says Joseph S Nye (60). Eventually, this hegemonic force is displayed through different means which Nye describes as “different behaviors and degrees of control” (60). When we take World Literature in this context, it is a form of literature that allows marginalised voices to speak in an otherwise hegemonic literary system, yet it inclines towards homogeny and hegemony because of necessitated English language use in the wake of globalisation and colonialism with most texts written in English, or translated into English (Mufti 5). Hosseini’s And The Mountains Echoed is, therefore, World Literature that speaks for the marginalised in a hegemonic anglophone literary culture, and is simultaneously at risk of homogeneity because it is written in English, a hegemonic language.

This globalised system forces people to desire and adopt cultures of the more powerful classes which are homogenising, yet hegemonic in nature. I consider homogenisation as a deceptive facet of globalisation and neoliberalism. Berger calls this homogenisation cultural imperialism, in the sense that the “First World media is destroying the native cultures found in the Third World, leading to an eventual homogenization of culture, dominated by capitalist bourgeois values” (162). This homogenisation of hegemonic cultures over weaker cultures can happen, for example, through “control… over our spaces and choices” (Klein 136). Hegemonic classes of the global south feel pride and security in their association to cultures of Euro-America, which spread through socio-political, economic, and cultural “structures of power,” and which contribute towards establishment of their own hegemony (Dirlik 8). Hegemonic cultures appear as commodity fetishes to the minority class (Cohen 115), what Baudrillard explicates as signs or objects that are devotedly worshipped and consumed by people despite their having no need in their real life (Cane 377-378).

Conclusion

Through this discussion of the homogenisation of hegemonic culture in a global system, I have attempted to draw attention to the fact that if otherness and diversity are to be maintained in the anglosphere, then there should be a system where the marginalized and the mainstream cultures can co-exist in a mutually inclusive environment, an environment which does not necessarily nativize but rather enables co-existence. This relationship is suggested in And The Mountains Echoed (2013), as we can see by focusing on the loss of Pari’s separation from her brother Abdullah. The narrator tries to show the seriousness of its repercussions for Pari, Abdullah, and everybody associated with them. For Abdullah, it remains a continuous torture: “But there was no forgetting. Pari hovered, unbidden, at the edge of Abdullah’s vision everywhere he went,” (Hosseini 55). Pari, on the other hand, had the privilege of forgetting Abdullah after a while due to her young age. Still, it left its effect on her too: “a feeling that she had had for as long as she could remember. That there was in her life the absence of something, or someone, fundamental to her own existence,” (Hosseini 214-215). They eventually move and become homogenised into the hegemonic cultures of Paris and San Jose, but this does not bring them salvation from their anguish. It is only when they refuse those hegemonic impulses and meet towards the end that they find contentment. Thus, if a certain kind of World Literature wants to address the issues of marginalised cultures in the anglosphere, it needs to alter|nativise its own understanding of those cultures. It needs to develop alter|native modes through which to enable mutual co-existence of cultures that will neither be homogenous nor hegemonic for them but mutually inclusive in spirit.

Citation

Aiman Khattak, “The Impossibility of Nativising Marginality,” Alluvium, Vol. 9, No. 5 (2021): n.pag. Web 22 Oct 2021. DOI: https://doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v9.5.05

About the Author

Aiman is a doctoral researcher in the Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies at the University of Warwick. Her doctoral research intersects between the fields of peace and conflict studies, post-colonial and comparative literatures, and political philosophy. It looks at contemporary Afghan, Iraqi and Pakistani literatures through the lens of Michel Foucault’s theory of bio-politics to advance our understanding of the conflict in these regions. She has previously worked on Global Branding and Third World Consumer Identities. She has also written and presented inter-disciplinary papers related to education, globalisation, consumerism, feminism, and post-colonialism. She is further interested in exploring environmental concerns of the Global South, especially Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, as evident in their anglophone literatures. 

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