Post-Postcolonial Issues and Identities in Zadie Smith's N-W

By Pes, Annalisa | European English Messenger, Winter 2014 | Go to article overview

Post-Postcolonial Issues and Identities in Zadie Smith's N-W


Pes, Annalisa, European English Messenger


N-W, the latest novel by British-born Zadie Smith, first published by Hamish Hamilton in 2012, is representative of the need emphasized by Peter Childs and Patrick Williams to revise post-colonial frameworks by engaging directly with the question raised by Caribbean poet Lorna Goodison: "When is postcoloniality going to end?", "How long does the postcolonial continue?" (Childs and Williams 1997: 7). As a contemporary "Black British" novel, NW is in line with the urge emphasized by the New Labour government, that came to power in 1997, to contribute to a redefinition of Britishness in the terms of Britain's diverse and multifarious population, and it provides substantial elements to elaborate on Goodison's questions.

The young generation of dynamic writers known as "Black British writers", mostly born and bred in England to exiled parents within diaspora communities, has been defined by critics with a series of "post-" labels: "post-ethnic", "post-diaspora", "post-postcolonial" --all terms implying a beyond and a bypassed condition. But as Homi Bhabha underlines in The Location of Culture (1994:6), the prefix "post-" has a meaning only if it embodies "restless and revisionary energy" that "transforms the present into an expanded and excentric site of experience and empowerment". And indeed these writers have actually gone beyond the alienated condition of their migrant parents, showing in their novels the transformations and appropriations of excentric conditions of empowerment. As Mark Stein observes, unlike their parents' generation, they are no more self-consciously postcolonial; in their novels ethnicity is just displayed and not evaded, which means that the ethnic/racial background of their multicultural cast of characters is taken for granted and considered within the broader context of the whole community's social and economic problems and of intergenerational conflicts (Stein 2004:113). The burden of representation of marginal identities that was the main target of the early postcolonial novel is now perceived, as Sara Upstone (2012:6) puts it, as a pressure "placed on ethnic authors not only to write about certain themes, but also to present them in a particular light". So, what really distinguishes the literary production of these British-born writers from the first-generation immigrants' works is not so much the issues they deal with, but the perspective from which these issues are viewed. They work through the expectations laid on so-called ethnic writing, but they go beyond them and defy them often by means of parody and irony (Stein 2004:112).

Writers like Zadie Smith do not 'write back' to the centre but from the centre in order to 'de-centre' the site of experience and empowerment mentioned by Bhabha. And by so doing, they represent what Hanif Kureishi (1986: 8) had envisaged some thirty years ago as "a new way of being British" that should reject archaic notions of Britishness and employ a new approach to hybridized, blurred identities to be considered within a wider context of problems and ambiguities, afflicting the whole contemporary society in which they live and not only the ethnic communities they are identified with. This change of approach is necessary because, as Kureishi (1985: 26) again points out, "if contemporary writing which emerges from oppressed groups ignores the central concerns and major conflicts of the larger society, it will automatically designate itself as minor, as a sub-genre."

An important aspect reflecting the above mentioned decentring and restless energy in these post-postcolonial works is the issue of hybridity as a social and cultural, but also stylistic and formal process. In contemporary British fiction, hybridity does not only feature as subject matter, but as part of the creative act of writing itself (Lane et al. 2003:143): hybrid forms of writing, genres that cannot be contained into a specific generic category, a hybridized language are all reflections of a condition of discontinuity and dispersal that challenges a central and fixed idea of Britishness. …

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