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The Transcultural Identities Of Michael Ondaatje English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 3991 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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In Notes Towards Definition of Culture(1948), T.S.Eliot writes that religion and culture encompass "the whole way of life of a people, from birth to the grave, from morning to night, and even in sleep" (31). For Eliot culture is tied to people, to an ethnic or national group, and therefore governs large territories with defined borders.

Modern societies are multicultural. The concepts of interculturality and multiculturality are more able to provide an appropriate concept of today's culture. Interculturality, indeed, supposes the interaction and existence of a relation between the people, who belong to the various cultural groups.This concept seeks a way in which such cultures could nevertheless get on with, understand and recognize one another. But it still proceeds from a conception of culture as different island and spheres.

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The concept of multiculturality is similar to the concept of interculturality. It takes up the problems which different cultures have living together within one society. The difference it catches up from the traditional concept of culture is that these differences exist within one and the same state community. The concept seeks tolerance, understanding and avoidance for handling of conflict. This concept is progressive but it is still deficit as it does not achieve the target of mutual understanding or a transgression of separating barriers. Both concepts imply traditional conception of cultures as autonomous spheres.

Identities which cut across distinct frames of reference; multiple identities which have recourse in several cultures; attachments which link up discrete cultural territory; such transgressions bring to crisis a traditional understanding of culture and now have promoted conceptualizations of transculture.

Azade Seyhan notes a Turkish saying "Two moves amount to a fire" (7).Multiple migrations end in the loss of our homes, possessions, and memorabilia. When the smoke clears, we are faced with charred pieces of identification, shards of language, burned tongues, and cultural fragments. However, from the site of this fire, the phoenix of a transnational, bi- and multilingual literature has arisen.

Transculturality is the consequence of interconnections of cultures. Cultures today have transcended national borders and are found in the same way in other cultures. The way of life of individual is not of particular Nationality but it has become rather European or Global. The origination of these new forms(i.e. hybrid forms) are result of migratory processes as well as development of worldwide communication systems which make all kinds of information available at every point in space. There is no longer anything absolutely foreign. Everything is within reach. Today every substance and everybody is Transcultural.( Welsch,198) Transnational and Transcultural perspectives encompass both the literary practice of writers who can no longer be related to one particular "National Literary Space"(Schulze-Engler,Preface(xvi)) and the complex articulations in their works of literature are not restricted to local, regional or cultural boundaries but to the worldwide field of literature and politics. Michael Ondaatje is a transcultural writer who himself is shaped by different cultures. He is Srilankan-Dutch resident of Canada. His works represent in many ways the best of Contemporary Canadian Literature in English not only in the context of Canada but also on the International scene. He is deeply concerned with cultural dynamics of the region and its people, and therefore articulates transnational/transcultural constructions of individuals and collective identity. He is an immigrant to Canada and his writings present identity, history and about people of "in- between". Identity, history and hybridity are of great relevance in the age of globalization, disappearing borders and the migration of people for economic, political or other reasons. The present thesis discusses Michael Ondaatje's selected novels paying particular attention to the issues of identity which has transcended borders and assimilated different cultures forming a new transnational/transcultural identity.

The approach used is one that draws on post colonial theory and takes a transnational perspective with regard to representation of the process of identification, individual and national identity and the discourse of multiculturalism. Ondaatje explores in his works issues of identity that traverses cultural and national boundaries and encompasses both central and marginal positions.

The objective and attempt of the present thesis is to redirect the interdisciplinary practice of Postcolonial Studies, to bring further innovation into the contemporary literary scene and bring to the light the concept of 'transcultural'. The terminology of transcultural has edged its way into contemporary theoretical and critical discourse. The discussion of Ondaatje's works aim to highlight the major arenas where questions and problems related to transcultural have come to the fore in the theories of culture and literature. This has resulted in complexity of culture in a world increasingly characterized by Globalization, transnationalization and interdependence; realities of individual experiences relating to transnational connections, blurring of cultural boundaries, exploring these realities, negotiating the edges of 'ethnic' or 'national' cultures and participate in the creation of transnational public spheres.

Earlier Asian Canadian literature has sought legitimacy within a national framework in its efforts to carve out a distinctive Asian Canadian Identity space. However, Canada is now explicitly 'transnational' and Asian Canadian literature has the potential to leverage itself a critical medium for disturbing and deterritorializing constructed borders. Literary texts like Anita Rau Badami's Tamarind Mem, The Hero's Walk, Hiromi Gotto's The Kappa Child, Ashok Mathur's The Short, Happy Life of Harry Kumar have transcended national borders claiming the nation to using present transnational contexts to rethink supposedly fixed identity spaces. As Diana Brydon writes, " it's a time for a new set of questions"(14) arguing that twenty- first century Canadians must move beyond seeing the nation as a static, coherent entity to conceiving of it as a contact zone of identities that are " negotiated, interactive , and open to change."(16). Contemporary Asian Canadian authors have increasingly come to be seen as transcultural and transnational authors, the writers of two homelands figuring global cross- borders.

Ondaatje's criticism has so far been unable to do full justice to the variety of themes and styles Ondaatje uses throughout his fiction. His critics have discussed Ondaatje's oeuvre and investigated diverse topics as Ondaatje's interests in national boundaries and identities, his increased sensitivity to gender relations, the complex cultural effects of war, and the glamorization of violence. In addition, reviewers have acclaimed Ondaatje's portrayal of Sri Lanka in his writings, often citing his lush descriptions of its landscape and detailed accounts of the country's rich culture. But most of them begin with some preconceived notion and then proceed to prove it as the central point of Ondaatje's fiction, thus reaching only a partial truth at the best. Our study on Michael Ondaatje's fiction takes a broader view and transgress the borders inorder to move beyond claiming the nation to using present transnational contexts to rethink supposedly fixed identity spaces. His study articulates transcultural constructions of individual and identity. He has written several books on poetry. Ondaatje can be seen beginning his career of narrative art with Coming Through Slaughter in 1976 and In the Skin of a Lion in 1987. The sequel to In the Skin of a Lion, 1992's The English Patient won the Governor General Award and the Booker Prize. It was also made into a major motion picture that won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Ondaatje continued his success with 2000's Anil's Ghost, which also won the Governor General Award and the Giller Prize. He has written several books of poetry and his recent work Divisadero, won another Governor General Award in 2007. Ondaatje in his novels focuses on the internal lives of his multigenerational characters and exhibits a fascination with extraordinary personality types, the dynamics of family life, the violence of war, and the loss of cultural identity in the postcolonial world.

Ondaatje's Coming Through Slaughter is explicitly about Bolden's identity expressed in his music, but it is implicitly about his identity as a black man whose musical insistence on freedom is thwarted by worsening racism in New Orleans at the beginning of the twentieth century. Ondaatje portrays Bolden, an American of African ancestry as a tragic artist, a man whose musical genius isolates him from friends and family, eventually leading to his insanity. The black-white racial conflict however does not become the focus of the novel. Rather structured like jazz music, the novel presents a fragmented, multi-voiced, episodic narrative that draws attention towards identity crisis leading to destruction of life.

In The Skin of A Lion deals with the experience of migration and bring into the narrative those migrated minority people who are generally ignored by history as also by the society. In the Skin of a Lion is set in the multi-cultural urban milieu of Toronto in the pre-second world war period and relates the history of immigrants to Canada. The plot consists of fragmented stories of Patrick Lewis, his two mistresses Clara and Alice, Ambrose Small, a millionaire who vanishes without a trace, Harris, the Commissioner of Public Works, Carvaggio, a thief, Nicholas Temelcoff, a doer of all kinds of difficult jobs. They all exist with immigrants from Macedonia, Greece and Finland. The fragmented way in which the story progresses is analogous to the idea that immigrants from a foreign country are not regarded as whole persons with individual complexities; they are simplified into separate body parts that are evaluated based on the various tasks that they can perform. Ondaatje revisits the defining moment in Canada's history when the foundations of modern industrialized nation was being laid by the immigrant European labourers. This setting features a continual influx of immigrants of various nationalities seeking jobs and a better life. As such, the portrayal of the immigrant experience is one of the most central, pervasive, and thematically suggestive aspects of the novel. The immigrants are presented as the ultimate 'outsiders'; they are separated from their old world and excluded from their new one. They leave familiar places and cultures and are transplanted into the alien environment of Canada. It is a wrenching, disorienting experience, and the immigrant characters continue to feel a profound sense of otherness, of not belonging. This condition is reinforced by the Canadian society which refuses to accept them.

Anil's Ghost depicts Sri Lanka, the island nation formerly known as Ceylon, off the southern tip of India, a country steeped in centuries of cultural achievement and tradition - and forced into the late twentieth century by the ravages of civil war and the consequences of a country divided against itself. Into this maelstrom steps a young woman, Anil Tissera, born in Sri Lanka, educated in England and America, a forensic anthropologist sent by an international human rights group to work with local officials to discover the source of the organized campaigns of murder engulfing the island. Bodies are discovered, skeletons. And particularly one nicknamed 'Sailor.' It is a story about love, about family, about identity, about the unknown enemy, about the quest to unlock the hidden past, unfolding against the deeply evocative background of Sri Lanka's landscape and ancient civilization is the pursuit of Anil's own cultural identity as well as the true identities of those around her.

Similarly in his family memoir Running in the Family(1982), after a long due visit to Sri Lanka from Canada, Ondaatje is thoughtful about the constructed nature of ethnic identities in Sri-Lanka. He states, "Everyone was vaguely related and had Sinhalese, Tamil, Dutch, British and Burgher blood in them going back many generations…."(Running in the Family,41).Ondaatje's journey to his native land lay emphasis on everyone being related and on hybrid ethnicities defying pure national identity.

Ondaatje tackles transcultural issues which are concerned with the phenomenon of migration than immigration in his novel The English Patient(1993). In its setting, time and the constellation of characters, the novel presents a transcultural microcosm; the Second World War , which was fought against, among other things, nationalistic and racist extremism. In the backdrop, the encounters of people from various ethnic and national extractions are revealed. The novel opens with a white man with black skin, and a "black body."[7] The mysterious Identity of the patient raises the issues of questioning the national identity. The setting is the Villa San Girolamo in Tuscany, Italy where the Canadian nurse Hana, after having refused to join the troops leaving the villa, nurses the badly burned English Patient. They are soon joined by Kirpal Singh, who is called Kip and works as a sapper for British troops, his main task being the defusing of bombs. Hana and Kip falls in love. Caravaggio, the other character joins them in the Villa. He already appears like Hana in Ondaatje's earlier novel In The Skin of a Lion. He has lost his thumbs in violent interrogation by the German army. Ondaatje focus on the uncertainty of the patent's identity, his Englishness coupled with his non-white appearance, his international entourage, and his exotic encounters in the desert which contribute to sense of dislocation and a questioning of traditional concepts of nation, identity, and race. As Geetha Sahib notes, The English Patient zooms in "on the identity crisis that has taken hold of the contemporary man as a result of the imperialist/native confrontation." (96).

His recent novel Divisadero: a performance tells a story of a family that is forever changed by a single, violent event, and examines themes of memory, identity, love and the grip of the past on the present. It is a story of separation, division, that feeling of not belonging quite any place or to any relationship. Every character seems to be alone, abandoned, fading in and out of the movie of Life. The novel is divided into three parts, a division which reinforces the sense of apartness. Part one begins in California in the 1970s, when a family--father, Coop, Anna, and Clare--is blown asunder by an act of violence. Anna goes into hiding and never returns home again. She pursues her research subject, an early twentieth century poet, Lucien Segura, from San Francisco's Bancroft Library to the house where he lived in France where she develops a relationship with Raphael, a man who knew Lucien. Clare works for a lawyer in San Francisco and goes home to father and the ranch on weekends. Coop becomes an itinerant gambler and when his misdeeds catch up with him, and a beating destroys his memory, Clare finds him and brings him home. Part two describes how the three generations of characters arrive at the house in France. Part three tells Lucien's story, his lonely childhood, the injury which blinded one eye, his love for his neighbour Marie-Neige, his marriage and daughters, his service as a field hospital worker during WWI, and his poetry. Old

Ondaatje's novels are always a worldly, seeking of correspondences; they use the scaffolding fragmented narrative, his unique style avoids the usual straightforward narrative method using a historical framework of actual events and discover what can stand alone and what is manifested in new form. When reading Ondaatje, gather up the strands of character and plot, follow a veiled set of instructions, paying special attention to subtle transitions in the text, and weave an intricate web of story. That story will lead us into a world filled with much sorrow, perseverance, identity crisis, migrations, cultural assimilation transgressing borders going transnational and becoming transcultural. Here it is worth mentioning observation of Rushdie "America,a nation of immigrants, has created great literature out of the phenomenon of cultural transplantation, out of examining the ways in which people cope with a new world".(Imaginary Homelands,20)

On the basis of above discussion, we intend to divide the contents of our study according to the following plan:

The Introductory chapter will discuss

a) The concept of 'Culture'

b) Definition of the terms Transcultural and Transnational in relation to the terms like 'multicultural', 'cross-cultural', 'intercultural'.

c) Background of Transcultural/Transnational in Indo-Canadian fiction.

2. Treatment of History: Chapter second will describe Ondaatje's treatment of historical data and the author's notion of 'the other'( focusing on relations between the margins and the centre} especially in the following works :

a) Coming through Slaughter: Recording History

b) Running in the Family: Family History

c) In the Skin of a Lion: civic History

3. Chapter three will elaborate the concept of Identity in his prose works taking into consideration the following points:

a) Post colonial dilemmas and exploration of self

b) Cross cultural clashes and Identity crisis

c) Reconstructing Identities

4. Chapter four will highlight the problem of language faced by expatriates in other countries leading to

a) barriers and Identity crisis

b) Inarticulateness and the inability to express oneself leading to silence and marginalization

5. Chapter five will discuss Ondaatje's Narrative Technique. His use of

a) Fragmented narrative to delineate the issues of immigrants

b) His art of leaving spaces, gaps here and there

c) depicting characters and places using photographs i.e. providing historical facts to tinge

fiction with reality.

c) His use of oral narrative describing history and identity.

6. The concluding chapter will describe :

a) Ondaatje's place as a writer in Post colonial Transcultural Literature

b) His contribution towards Transnational movement.

Working Bibliography


Primary Sources

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Ondaatje, Michael. The English Patient. London:Bloomsbury,1992

Ondaatje, Michael. Anil's Ghost. London:Bloomsbury,2000

Ondaatje, Michael. Divisadero. London:Bloomsbury,2007

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