Having recently arrived in New Zealand from South Africa, I have been met with myriad questions about myself and about my country, including: what do South Africans eat? How many safaris have you been on? Why are South Africans so good at rugby? (cough cough) And the most frequently asked question: do you know where to (cue thick Afrikaans accent) park your car? Each time I am asked to tell my story or small facts about “South Africanness,” I reaffirm my own identity as a South African, and it has been both interesting and amusing watching myself becoming increasingly patriotic. A sense of patriotism has not been my only discovery, however, as I have found myself confronted with questions of: “how do I find a place to call home outside of home?” And “why do I feel like I need to be re-introduced to myself?”

Given that I spent an entire year exploring questions of identity and home through postgraduate study in English Literature, I thought that I would have a pretty good handle on these particular concepts when coming to New Zealand. As it turns out, the transition from theory to experience has not been as smooth as I would have hoped, and I have found myself grappling with the need to find words to make sense of my time in a foreign environment.

REFLECTIONS UPON THE USE OF NARRATIVE IN IDENTITY FORMATION

I have always been incredibly fascinated by words and language. I am intrigued by the way our words shape our experiences and construct the way we see and understand the world. Some things certainly cannot be confined to description, but I love the fact that we are able to capture ideas and beauty and truth in words—even if the ones we find only give us glimpses of the reality they invoke. I am interested in the way human beings are always trying to find new ways of saying things, and how in finding the right words, we are able to make sense of our worlds.

Directly connected to my fascination with words and their significance in clarifying (and confusing) the way we perceive things, I chose to use a Master’s thesis as means of looking at the way in which people construct home and identity through narrative. My thesis sought to navigate and explore African diasporic identity by looking at three very different postcolonial novels birthed out of the Atlantic context (at different points of the Atlantic triangle and at different moments in history): The Chosen Place, The Timeless People (1969) by Paule Marshall; Our Sister Killjoy or Reflections from a Black-eyed Squint (1977) by Ama Ata Aidoo; and Crossing the River (1993) by Caryl Phillips. Recognising the weight of location—cultural, geographic, temporal—on the narrative construction of identity, I attempted to trace the way in which Aidoo, Marshall, and Phillips use fictional texts as tools for grappling with ideas of home and belonging in a world of displacement, fracture, and (ex)change.

The beauty of encountering difference is that we are not simply absorbed into it, but that we are changed in the process. We are able to appreciate, celebrate, and learn from difference, particularly as we come to see it embodied in the people we meet.

Marshall’s The Chosen Place is written within one geographic space—fictional Bourne Island, situated in the Caribbean during the late 1900s. While the island remains unattached and essentially free-floating within the Atlantic Ocean, both the land and its inhabitants epitomise creolity—or the blending of cultures or racial groups (eg. European and African) evidenced in language, dress codes, and cultural practices—unable to conceal the scars of exit and entry manufactured by the colonial enterprise. Caught in the confluence between the history (memory) of Africa as origin and Europe as colonial motherland, the people of Bourne Island reflect the ambiguity of the place they have come to call home.

Aidoo’s Our Sister Killjoy, providing much in the way of diaspora history and its far reaching impact, takes place on a two-dimensional scale, moving between Africa and Europe, following the travels of a young Ghanaian woman, Sissie. With an undisguised emphasis on nationalism and pan-Africanism, Aidoo’s story insists that there can be no home for the diasporan outside the geographic coordinates of the African continent.

Roots & Routes, Man on bike, South Africa, identity, national identity

The third and final text, Phillips’s Crossing the River, presents a transnational narrative and an amalgam of stories and characters, touching the shores of Africa, England, and America, as well as devoting an entire section to life aboard a slaving vessel.

The three texts present perspectives either vested in the relationship of identity to a sense of (physical) rootedness—which naturally takes on a nationalistic agenda—and that of identity as a far more transnational, malleable, and mobile process, more appropriately explained as the result of routes. Where geographic roots are considered to be the most important element in identity realisation for the diasporan, there is only one option available for those seeking a place to call home: return. However, where the impact of routes is considered as a far more transformative and powerful force, the emphasis shifts from one of return to one of embracing a mobile and fragmented existence. All three novels are by no means autobiographies, and yet the stories created by the authors are certainly attempts to construct, with words, narratives in which their own (transatlantic) identities make some sense. Despite reaching vastly disparate conclusions, the texts portray how integral stories and relationships are in the realisation and formation of identity and belonging.

FINDING HOME

Turning to today’s (Western) society—a perpetually restless society—we see many people yearning to find and hold onto some form of stability and security despite the assumed glamour of a lifestyle governed by variation and distraction. Not unlike the postcolonial novels I analysed in my thesis, we too seek to find narratives that will tell us who we are and where we belong.

While much of the late-twentieth century placed an emphasis on “nationality and race” in telling these stories, it seems the historical scales have now been tipped somewhat to incorporate and celebrate the transnational, the fluid, the cosmopolitan.

I am interested in the way human beings are always trying to find new ways of saying things, and how in finding the right words, we are able to make sense of our worlds.

The life of Caryl Phillips, the author of Crossing the River, provides one such example of this trend. Born in the West Indies (consequently having African ancestors), raised in England, and now dwelling in North America, Phillips’s writing—both fictional and non-fictional—reflects his struggle to define “home.” Unsure of his national identity, Phillips considers himself as belonging not to any one of these specific localities, but to the Atlantic Ocean itself.
I would also argue that because of his lack of personal connection to a particular place, Phillips uses his writing to create and capture a sense of home that finds expression through stories—stories that continually question what it means to be human. In A New World Order, a collection of essays written by Phillips, he records his unspoken thoughts during a conversation with a hotel waiter in West Africa:

“These days we are all unmoored. Our identities are fluid. Belonging is a contested state. Home is a place riddled with vexing questions […] I want to tell Daniel that this boy has had to understand the Africa of his ancestry, the Caribbean of his birth, the Britain of his upbringing, and the United States where he now resides, as one harmonious entity. He has tried to write in the face of a late-twentieth century world that has sought to reduce identity to unpalatable clichés of nationality and race.”

In today’s society, cosmopolitanism has become rather fashionable, attaching itself to presupposed aesthetic and intellectual qualities. The more places you visit, cultures you encounter and the more eclectic and transnational you seem, the more “street cred” you earn. With the general adoption of a “global” mind-set and a society that values travel and mobility, comes a subtle disdain for nationalism (except, of course, during international sports matches).

Whether we desire a particular nation or group with which to identify, to create our own exciting, cosmopolitan sense of self, or whether we are trying to find some kind of coherency within a fragmented existence, the underlying assumption is that as human beings we desire to be known. We are constantly seeking to find a story that is able to provide clarity, meaning, and purpose to our lives. If we cannot find such a narrative, we assume the role of author and simply try to construct one.

For all our searching and creativity, however, the beauty of being known is simply not possible outside of relationship. I am aware that this may seem glaringly obvious, but it is so easily forgotten. On our quests towards self-discovery we tend to forget that we have been designed for relationship—with our creator, our communities, and with the natural world around us. Without discounting the immense impact of culture and history, this is as true for those who have lived in the same place all their lives, as it is for those who have constantly been on the move. To be human is to come to know ourselves as we are known and held by others. To quote Regent College Professor Craig Gay: “to the extent that we are free from others, we are alienated from ourselves.”

This may mean that when we move from within a familiar cultural and historical framework to one that is strangely unfamiliar, we will encounter difference. New locations do not nullify our connection to our geographic roots, but allow us to see—sometimes with surprising clarity—the cultural and national lenses we have been wearing without even noticing. The beauty of encountering difference is that we are not simply absorbed into it, but that we are changed in the process. We are able to appreciate, celebrate, and learn from difference, particularly as we come to see it embodied in the people we meet.

Not unlike the postcolonial novels I analysed in my thesis, we too seek to find narratives that will tell us who we are and where we belong.

Designed to live in relationship and desiring to be known, we are continually confronted by the stories of people’s lives; stories often very different to our own.

Drawing on the work of James Clifford, I found his definition of diasporic identity helpful for the purposes of my research as well as for my own experience. He suggests that identity comes to encompass and complicate multiple ways to “stay […] and be something else,” to retain elements of previous national and cultural affiliations from one’s original “home,” while coming to weave threads of new cultural, linguistic, and contextual forms into another narrative of self in community. Kiwi poet Glenn Colquhoun puts it this way:

The art of walking upright here,
Is the art of using both feet.
One is for holding on.
One is for letting go.

Entering into the New Zealand context has been a fascinating and challenging process as I have struggled to make sense of my own identity outside of the familiar contours of the South African culture, landscape, and people. I have been confronted with difference and beauty, with clarity and confusion, and in the process I have come to see that I cannot hold onto familiarity as a substitute for security. I have come to see that being proud of my South African home and heritage does not have to be mutually exclusive to embracing and celebrating the story of a different people and place. There is a deep, resonant sense of belonging in opening oneself up to being known and to knowing others. Community is a gift, and to be fully human is to find oneself in the midst of it.

Author

Michelle Neethling

Michelle manages the Creative and Development Team at Parenting Place—a non-profit with a heart for whānau. After completing an MA in English literature, she spent a couple of years in the communications team at Laidlaw College, and then joined Parenting Place in 2015. Michelle is a South African who has come to deeply love Aotearoa and its people. She’s married to Nico, addicted to popcorn, and is excited to be learning te reo Māori alongside her colleagues this year.

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