Transcending the Politics of "Where You're From": Postcolonial Nationality and Cosmopolitanism in Jhumpa Lahiri's

Article excerpt

Globalization is producing a new kind of fictional writing that may be better described as cosmopolitan than postcolonial because it moves beyond the cultural categories described in postcolonial theory without ignoring inequalities of power. This article analyses Jhumpa Lahiri's short story collection Interpreter of Maladies by way of example.

Keywords: Cosmopolitanism, Jhumpa Lahiri, Interpreter of Maladies, Postcolonial Literature, Nationalism

"Where are you from?"

"I'm not from anywhere."

"Well, where were you born?"

"I was born in the United States, but I have no memories of it because my family left when I was two."

"So where did you grow up?"

"All over the world: South Africa, Kenya, Brazil, Mexico. And as an adult I've lived in the United States, Singapore, and Trinidad, but mostly Britain."

"But you're still American, aren't you?"

"Yes and no. I have British and U.S. citizenship, but I have never felt that either of those identities fits me."

"So how do you define your identity?"

"Not in terms of nationality"

How many times have I had variations of that conversation? And it usually leaves the other person frustrated, unable to categorize me, or certain that I am being stubborn and difficult, making heavy weather of what should be easy small talk. To people who are alarmed or baffled by this refusal of national identity, I can only say: get used to it. Globalization is happening, whether we like it or not, and consequently there will be more and more people who do not define themselves in terms of nationality. Many people see globalization as a sinister phenomenon; they equate it with homogenization, Americanization, and loss of indigenous identity Others see it as a potential force for good in the world: they believe it encourages people to look beyond artificial divisions of nationality, ethnicity, religion, and other forms of cultural identity, to envision a world community that is inclusive without being homogenous. Ideally, in this globalized world, close connections between people of diverse origins will reduce mutual misunderstanding, hostility, and conflict. For good or ill, there might even be more people like myself who cannot comprehend tribalism because we do not have a tribe and who do not have an "us and them" attitude because we are not sure who is "us" and who is "them." Some people describe this condition as cultural rootlessness; others identify it as cosmopolitanism, or cultural identity rooted in individual experience rather than geographical location. Far from producing homogenization, this venture beyond nationally-demarcated borders produces more flexible and varied forms of cultural identity. Cosmopolitan people like myself are not homogenized or Americanized; the cultural identity of each cosmopolitan person is unique, eclectic, and certainly not "American"--whatever that may be.

Cosmopolitanism has traditionally been considered a condition available only to the elite, but in the contemporary world of increased migration, mass travel, and communications technology, this is certainly no longer the case. Many migrants and refugees become cosmopolitan without becoming elite, and even people who have never travelled live in a world in which cultural and linguistic diversity is omnipresent. As Steven Vertovec and Robin Cohen observe, "the capacity to communicate with others and to understand their cultures is available, at least potentially, to many" (5). This observation implies that cosmopolitanism is an attitude rather than a lifestyle. It is possible to have a culturally open disposition and to imagine the world as one community while remaining rooted in one's homeland; conversely, it is also possible to retain a. limiting sense of national and cultural affiliation while travelling and even living all over the world. As Rachel Trousdale notes in her discussion of transnational fiction, people with a cosmopolitan orientation conceive of their communities "based not on the location of their roots but on a shared willingness to reach beyond them" (194). …