Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

"Sensible of Being Etrangers": Plots and Identity Papers in Banjo

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

"Sensible of Being Etrangers": Plots and Identity Papers in Banjo

Article excerpt

The subtitle of Claude McKay's 1929 novel Banjo tells readers what not to expect: "A Story Without a Plot." The novel reflects its setting--the imperial port city of Marseille in the 1920s, with its constant traffic of bodies and goods--in its serial narrative structure, which hinges on arrivals and departures, shifts in focalization, and the instability of the central group of characters, tramps living off the refuse of imperial trade. That these men are black, displaced, and geographically marginalized within the city suggests the ruptures of colonialism and the ways of authorities devoted to dealing with "suspect" populations. Much of the action of the novel concerns the failure of these mobile subjects to comply with what Michael Lipsky called Marseille's "street-level bureaucracy" (qtd. in Lewis 28)--its unique system of law and order in the early twentieth century--as they struggle with questions of racial and national categorization and deal with nebulous identity-document regulations on a daily basis. The novel thus provides a valuable perspective on the passport system in the interwar period and, I argue, traces the complicity of linear narrative with dominant bureaucratic discourses of identity. Reading Banjo in the context of McKay's own struggles with immigration authorities reveals that questions of form and content in the novel are not separable; rather, there is a fundamental relationship between the text's plotlessness and its thematic engagement with contemporary questions of identity management.

Recently, critics have read the novel as a portrait of defiance in the form of "vibrant resistance of the black boys to the forces that would contain them" (for example Edwards 206). The freedom of Banjo and his fellow wanderers from jobs, families, and the responsibilities of citizenship seems to elude the fixed categories created and maintained by racist oppression in the early twentieth century and to offer alternative ways of making do in circuits of nationalism, capitalism, and imperialism. (1) The title character, for example, was born in the American South but enlisted in the Canadian army during World War I, and on returning to the United States "calmly announced that he was not an American," though his "accent, attitude, and movement shouted Dixie" (Banjo 9). His failure to comply with immigration protocol takes precedence over his embodiment of the American South, and the authorities act on his disavowal of national identity and deport him. (2) This subversive gesture, among others, does demonstrate Banjo's resistance, but I want to focus on the novel's representation of state strategies of exclusion and policing of identity. Though critics like Brent Edwards and Michelle Stephens have noted the forcible presence of authority in the novel, I suggest that rather than operating as a straightforward context against which men like Banjo have to struggle, state power emerges as a necessary interlocutor in daily life that challenges ideals of cosmopolitan existence and shapes the ways individuals see and react to one another. Through both structure and character, Banjo explores the relationship between state-imposed identity and explanatory narrative. I will first consider McKay's specific troubles as a mobile colonial subject and then demonstrate how these issues shape questions of representation explored in the novel.

Narrating the self

The interwar period saw a proliferation of regulations concerning identity documentation in Europe and the United States. With the introduction of the modern passport system and the redrawing of national lines came many supplementary immigration rules, and the process of obtaining sufficient papers became increasingly difficult for those whose nationality and past movements were unclear. For Claude McKay, who was born in Jamaica but left for the United States in 1912, never to return, a transnational life involved serious bureaucratic complications. …

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