WHO SPEAKS, and who is being spoken for, have always been loaded questions for postcolonial novelists. If a nation is, at least in part, imagined into being through feats of storytelling, the storyteller acquires a kind of authority over the soul, such as it is, of the nation. For a certain kind of postcolonial novelist—say, VS Naipaul—the novel must remain an unfinished business: the protagonist cannot develop beyond a certain point; he is stunted and half-formed, like his nation. For another kind of postcolonial novelist—say Hanif Kureishi—it is the former imperial centre that seems half-formed; no longer cocksure, forced to cede ground to the immigrant, or at least to the immigrant’s children, to reconcile itself to a new order. For Naipaul’s failed nationalists and doomed Third World intellectuals, emigration and self-exile is necessary penance; for Kureishi’s first generation Londoners, the baggage of their parents’ histories, the baggage of the ‘home’ country has to be sloughed off so that a new kind of English person can be created. Other postcolonial novelists writing in English have also taken up the theme of finding, creating and claiming a place in new national communities.
Ideas of home and belonging are hardly particular to postcolonial or migrant literature. Novels, from Don Quixote on, have been preoccupied with the radical act of leaving home on journeys and quests, followed by a return; the protagonist fundamentally changed, matured by having lived a little. Home and away: you need the one to recognise the other. The English novel developed in the eighteenth century, alongside an empire expanding ever further afield. Englishness was confronted by foreignness, and the outlandish travel narrative was among the most popular literary genres of the time. Stories, Edward Said wrote in Culture and Imperialism, “are at the heart of what explorers and novelists say about strange regions of the world; they also become the method colonised people use to assert their own identity and the existence of their own history.”
The novel has been a way of asserting and establishing individual and national identity, of making coherent what seems incoherent, of answering (or failing to answer) essential questions: Who are you? Where do you come from? What is your place in society? For a writer like Salman Rushdie, the loss of home can be assuaged by restoring the past “whole, in CinemaScope and glorious Technicolor,” as he wrote in the essay ‘Imaginary Homelands,’ and by creating “Indias of the mind.” Rushdie, for a while, offered hybridity, the double perspective, as a happy alternative to Naipaul’s baleful gloom. His writing proposed that the subcontinental writer in English had access to more than one tradition; he or she could be open to the world in a way more parochial writers could not. Of course, the Ayatollah Khomeini had different ideas.