Beyond Border Politics: The Problematics of Identity in Asian Diaspora Literature

By Zhang, Benzi | Studies in the Humanities, June 2004 | Go to article overview

Beyond Border Politics: The Problematics of Identity in Asian Diaspora Literature


Zhang, Benzi, Studies in the Humanities


The empowering paradox of diaspora is that dwelling here assumes solidarity and connection there. But there is not necessarily a single place or an exclusivist nation.--James Clifford

In the history of human civilization, the question of identity is usually tied to the politics of place. As Gaston Bachelard notes, the idea of self stands in close relation to the passion for place--"topophilia" (8); or in other words, the sense of place has essential significance in the understanding of human identity. Place, however, is not a stable concept, for the notion of place as a bordered realm or a narrowly defined point in space is obviously inadequate to describe modern diaspora in which place has been displaced and opened up to an undelimited system of spacing. Against Bachelard's topoanalysis, scholars in recent years start to reconsider place in a new perspective. As Edward Casey observes, "As deeply localized, nomad space always occurs as a place--in this place. But as undelimited, it is a special kind of place. It is a place that is not just here, in a pinpointed spot of space, but in a 'nonlimited locality'" (304). Diasporans, in the process of crossing and recrossing multiple borders of language, history, race, time and culture, must challenge the absolutism of singular place by relocating the trajectory of their identity in the multiplicity of plural interrelationships. Nonlimited locality, in other words, does not mean the disappearance of borders, but rather it suggests the complexity and changing meanings of place between and beyond various outside and inside borders. Owing to their shared experience of mobility, Asian diaspora poetry in America expresses a paradoxical attitude towards the question of borders which, for them, are at once barriers and bridges.

This paradox indicates a tension between different cultural localities--a kind of spatial-cultural multiplicity that both challenges and defines diasporans' self-conception. As Lakshmi Gill describes in her poem,

   north going south my east in this west crossing
   over st. john icedesert february drive
   morning trail to a diminishing unversecity
   flashing sunlight through bridgegrids
   telstar from dustplanets spreading ogaden
   texas rain sahara into the fatehpur sikri
   of my heart perfect city drought stricken
   abandoned

   civilized then now barbaric in neuter
   accelerating bomb smelted in spacefurnace
   while nepal is still familial
   going the way of mahabharata atlantis
   the cosmos plunge into canada for outreachers
   kublai khan training lions to blow
   before him king of kings or made khaddafi
   squatting on the sand listening to desert music (23)

The diaspora journeys described in Gill's poem disrupt the constraints of borders: and the noticeable interlinear spacing seems to suggest an excessive force of acceleration that transcends limitary gaps. The poet does not intend to delimit a clear place, but wanders through "a diminishing universecity" from "barbaric" desert to "civilized" metropolis. For diasporans, the emotional, cultural and psychological identification is often related to difference, distance and dislocation. "We are condemned to wander--critically, emotionally, politically," as Iain Chambers describes, "in a world characterized by an excess of sense which while offering the chance of meaning continues to flee ahead of us" (1990, 12). Diasporans, therefore, have to redefine their sense of place against the grain of primordial limitations and to reconstitute their identities outside the overdetermined discourse of closure that excludes displaced differences from the landscape of locality.

Diaspora, however, does not merely refer to a wandering journey, since it enacts a process of mutual translation and interaction, in which place has been translated into plural interrelationships that bridge and abridge different cultures. The (a)bridging effects of diaspora require us to examine the spatio-temporal imaginaries of place within a new context, for diaspora informs of the multifaceted complexity of the dialectical negotiation between here and there--a tension that not only reflects the very nature of diasporic identity but also indicates a salient feature of nonlimited locality. …

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