Mobility and Anxious Cosmopolitanism: Jamaica Kincaid's among Flowers

By Nayar, Pramod K. | Transnational Literature, November 2013 | Go to article overview

Mobility and Anxious Cosmopolitanism: Jamaica Kincaid's among Flowers


Nayar, Pramod K., Transnational Literature


Eden is never far from the gardener's mind. It is The Garden to which we all refer ... and it is forever out of reach ... Vermont, all by itself should be Eden and gardenworthy enough. But apparently, I do not find it so. I seem to believe that I will find my idyll more a true ideal, only if I can populate it with plants from another side of the world. (Kincaid 189)

The 'transnational' in its adjectival form describes 'processes between or beyond national boundaries involving several nations or nationalities.' As a noun, it describes 'someone operating in several countries' (American Heritage Dictionary). As Donald Pease notes in his introduction to a volume on transnationalism and American studies, when used as a noun, 'transnational' refers to a condition of 'in-betweenness ... flexibility, non-identification, hybridity, and mobility.'1 Since it lacks a 'thematic unity', it refers at once to 'factual states of affairs' as well as to 'the interpretive framework through which to make sense of them' (4). Pease further notes that the term frequently 'bears the traces of the violent sociohistorical processes to which it alludes' (4). As an interpretive framework, then, the 'transnational' re-evaluates social and cultural formations within national imaginaries by showing/tracing how identities, people, objects and ideas were never bound within national borders, or even national identifications. The transnational may be studied in its localized sites and domains. The analysis maps the flows, mergers and confluences of the transnational within these local sites. One such site is the subject of the present essay: travel and mobility. Rüdiger Kunow in the same volume proposes that since mobilities constitute cultural relations, then mobility must become 'part of ... the critical lexicon wherein a field of study defines itself as cross-cultural, comparatist, and transnational.'2 However, what cannot be left out of the study of the transnational is the anxiety and tensions attendant upon the cross-cultural encounter and the awareness of socio-historical processes that influence these encounters. It is this anxiety of the transnational that I examine in a text that foregrounds mobility and cross-cultural interaction.

In 2001 the well-known author Jamaica Kincaid embarked on an expedition, with collector Daniel Hinkley and a collector-couple, Bleddyn and Sue Wynn-Jones, to the Himalayan regions of Nepal to collect flowers for her garden back in Vermont, USA. The trip was funded by the National Geographic, which later also published her travelogue, Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalaya. Kincaid writes with an awareness of the socio-historical processes and events of botanical imperialism. She is also, simultaneously, aware of the privileged mobility she enjoys as a First World traveler in a Third World nation. Her travelogue exhibits a cultural insiderness that redefines her mobility as a 'different' (being Black) First Worlder in a Third World context and setting. This cultural insiderness is a characteristic, as has been recently argued in the case of Indian travelers of the colonial period, of the philosophicalideological accompaniment to the transnational condition - of cosmopolitanism.3

However Kincaid's narrative offers a slightly different kind of the confident, even strident, cosmopolitanism celebrated in the fiction of Salman Rushdie or the critical theorizations of a Homi Bhabha. This essay traces the emergence of an 'anxious cosmopolitanism' in Kincaid's text. It is a cosmopolitanism that emerges in the cultural expertise and privileged travel of the First Worlder in a Third World region, but it is also riddled with tensions that suggest Kincaid's anxiety around her legacies of horticultural empires and her privileged position. Further, anxious cosmopolitanism in Kincaid is the result of an attempted distancing from both her legacies and her present identity as a First Worlder expert in gardening.

Before examining the discourse of uncertainty a preliminary discussion of the discursive contexts of anxiety is in order. …

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