Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Nation and Contestation in Malaysia: Diaspora and Myths of Belonging in the Narratives of K. S. Maniam

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Nation and Contestation in Malaysia: Diaspora and Myths of Belonging in the Narratives of K. S. Maniam

Article excerpt

The study of the 'nation' has taken a key place in contemporary critical discourse. The central idea behind these theorizations is that the nation's identity is never conclusively fixed, but rather discursively constituted. Although state-sponsored discourses construct the nation and its concepts as fixed and homogeneous, the nation's identity is in fact continually being contested, fractured and rewritten by its people.

The postcolonial cultural theorist Homi Bhabha, in his introduction to Nation and narration, refers to 'the impossible unity of the nation as a symbolic force [in spite of] the attempt by nationalist discourses persistently to produce the idea of the nation as a continuous narrative of national progress'. (1) In another seminal essay in the volume, he elaborates on this point: 'The problem is not simply the "selfhood" of the nation as opposed to the otherness of other nations. We are confronted with the nation split within itself, articulating the heterogeneity of its population'. (2) The idea here is that as a process of cultural signification, national identity is constantly open to internal splitting by the 'othernesses' within the nation, which have the potential to contest dominant forms of representation that privilege cultural coherence and historical continuity. 'The social articulation of difference, from the minority perspective', Bhabha asserts, 'is a complex, on-going negotiation that seeks to authorize cultural hybridities that emerge in moments of historical transformation'. (3)

One such crucial moment of historical transformation that over the last few years has offered cultural critics a valuable space to rethink concepts of nation and identity is diaspora--the displacement of people from their native homelands through the processes of migration, immigration or exile and their relocation in one or more nation-states, territories or countries from the late colonial period through the decolonization era into the twenty-first century. While the term 'diaspora' itself has conceptually been contested, debated and redefined by various scholars and theorists, its etymological basis does carry positive resonances--the idea of dispersal, dissemination, re-routing. As the editors of Theorizing diaspora tell us, 'Diasporic traversals question the rigidities of identity itself ... in which the very parameters of specific moments are ... scattered and regrouped into new points of becoming'. (4) Indeed, in recent years the emergence of new forms of solidarity and identification within diasporic communities that refuse assimilation on hegemonic terms has begun to make extremely problematic the notion of the coherence and stability of national identity based on the idea of homogeneous cultural spaces and temporalities. Such new modes of belonging thus pose a serious challenge to hegemonic narratives and points of view and constitute a salient aspect of the recent new theorizations of nation and nationalism.

In the field of literary studies, the idea that the nation is under continual narration and that its meaning is open to new definitions from the perspective of its people acquires a charged significance. In Nation and narration, Bhabha argues that it is 'the act of narration' that fills out the empty space of the nation, allowing it to come into meaning as a system of cultural signification. At the heart of the argument that narrative is a precondition for the nation's existence is the idea that the nation depends implicitly, like all acts of composition, on 'textual strategies, metaphoric displacements, subtexts and figurative stratagems'. (5) Significantly, then, the understanding that the nation cannot exist outside language and the act of narrative, as Stuart Hall argues, 'gives questions of culture and ideology, and the scenarios of representation--subjectivity, identity, politics--a formative, not merely an expressive, place in the constitution of social and political life'. …

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