Home Truths: Fictions of the South Asian Diaspora in Britain

Article excerpt

Susheila Nasta. Home Truths: Fictions of the South Asian Diaspora in Britain. London: Palgrave, 2002. Pp. xii, 305. $90.61 CDN he.

One of Nasta's central aims in Home Truths is to place the "fictions of the South Asian diaspora in Britain" within the framework of the narrative of modernity. She insists that the postcolonial writers under consideration--ranging from the 1940s to the present--are not simply writing about and against colonialism, but are also significant shapers of modernism, a literary movement from which they have been excluded. Nasta presents a striking example of the deliberate exclusion of South Asian diaspora writing from the history of modernity: a photograph from 1942, reproduced in a recent TLS essay, depicts black, white, and Asian writers present at the BBC Radio programme Voice, but with a caption that reads "among others--T. S. Eliot, George Orwell, and William Empson" (25-27). Nasta argues that South Asian writers in Britain, far from being absent from the modernist narrative, were engaged with presenting a new face of modernity that must be acknowledged in what is still seen as "exclusively European and American phenomenon" (25).

After first considering some pre-twentieth-century representations of Britain by im/migrant writers such as J. M. Malabari and Sake Dean Mahomet, Nasta discusses the origins of modernity in South Asian diaspora writing. Writers who were concerned with "shifting the angle of the gaze" include Mulk Raj Anand and Raja Rao (1930s), G. V. Desani (1940s), Aubery Menen (1950s), and Attia Hosain (1960s). Nasta persuasively argues that while these writers were not conventionally seen as part of modernist writing in Europe, in fact, they were actually writing in that very tradition. According to Menen, the aim of this "lifelong project" was to "widen the angle of the lens and to open up the essentially dualistic perspective of a Western modernity" (50). Exhibiting characteristically modernist features such as silences and fragmentary narration, these diaspora writers were stylistic and linguistic innovators in the manner of James Joyce and T. S. Eliot. Nasta's devoting an entire chapter to Sam Selvon's work is especially notable: she situates his novels with Anand's and Rao's (the "fathers" of the Indian novel in English), claiming that his mythic, creolized reinventions of London must be considered alternative modernist narratives.

These early fictions anticipate the diverse range of diasporic writing that followed in the second half of the century. Nasta argues that post-World War II novelists V.S. Naipaul and Salman Rushdie reveal a common concern with questions of "home" and "abroad" that lead to the creation of "imaginary homelands," or mythical mental constructs based on reconstituted fragments of memory firmly rooted in the past. Naipaul's work in particular, with its emphasis on migrancy and double exile, reconfigured the trends that became the basis of postcolonial theory and cultural studies in the 1980s (95). Novels such as The Mimic Men, A House for Mr. Biswas, and The Enigma of Arrival are important in their "ambivalent and equivocal positioning in relation both to a decaying imperial past and the ambivalent realities of a diasporic and postcolonial present" (124). Nasta also situates Rushdie's work at an apex or liminal point within the tradition of South Asian writing: he brought the South Asian diaspora "centre stage, a subject previously ignored by the modernist avant-garde" (157). Just as the ground for his writing was cleared by earlier black and Asian literary figures, by raising migrant issues in The Satanic Verses, Rushdie also charts new territory and sets the stage for the "second-generation" (British-born) South Asian writers who follow him. …