Searching for identity is big theme in Postcolonial studies. Identity or the sense of belonging plays a major role in everyone’s lives. Identity tells us who we really are and where we have come from. Identity can be either positive or negative. It gives us the sense of pride in being who we are. If we do not identify ourselves with our surroundings or the people we come in contact with, we are lost. We feel as if we do not belong there and hence we feel as if we have lost our identity. Actually, the search for identity is an ongoing g process and there is no ending for it. Many would do anything to find their identity and to search for the place where they belong.
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In both Funny Boy and Running in the Family, the search for identity is the main theme. These novels bring forth the challenges that the main characters face in the search for identity. The setting of these two novels is in Sri Lanka. However, Funny Boy’s Arjie faced negative challenges thrown at him whereas Running in the Family’s narrator’s (Ondaatje) journey of self-discovery is more towards the positive side. In this paper, I will the journey of self identification by the protagonists of the both novels that I mentioned above.
In Funny Boy, we are exposed to the history of Sri Lanka, Arjie’s homeland. A country like Sri Lanka that has just gained independence from the colonizers strives to build and recapture its own identity which was stolen by the colonizing powers. However, to form a unitary identity is not easy because Sri Lanka is made up of different ethnicities and religious beliefs. The history of racial conflict between the Tamils and the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka plays an important role in Arjie’s life. The rivalry between Sinhalese (Buddhist) and Tamil (Hindu) inhabitants of Sri Lanka is caused by the differences in religion and custom. Salgado argues that “the connection between language and ethnicity which substantiate the discrete ethnic markers of “Sinhalese” and “Tamil”, was very much the product of British orientalism, and was embraced by the Sinhalese who stood to gain from it” (12-13).
The Tamil minority from India migrated to Sri Lanka between the 3rd century BC and 13th century AD whereas the Indo-Aryan in who migrated in the 5th century BC created the Sinhalese population in Sri Lanka. Since, the Sinhalese are more in population compared to the Tamils; they hold much of the political power. For so long,
Sri Lanka has been under the Western powers like Portuguese and British before it gained independence in 1948, with both Sinhalese and Tamils uniting their forces.
Somehow, this unity did not last long because the Sinhalese immediately assumed power and began to marginalize the Tamils. They began to treat the Tamils so badly till the Tamils had to struggle to make their voice heard. The conflict reached its peak in 1956 when the Prime Minister Solomon Bandaranaike declared Sinhala as the national language and when Buddhism was declared as the official religion; the Tamils grew angry.
Arjie’s father says in Funny Boy, when asked about the riots, “Sinhalese wanted to make Sinhala the only national language, and the Tamils did not like this. So there was a riot and many Tamils were killed” (61). The Tamils after much pain and suffering from denial of rights begin to fight to establish their own nation and this is evident in Funny Boy. “There was a group in Jaffna called the Tamil Tigers. They wanted a separate country and the Sinhalese were very angry about this. Ammachi often talked about the Tigers. She was on their side and declared that if they did get a separate state, which they would call “Eelam”, she would be the first to go and live in it. Father told her she was mad. This made Ammachi even more angry and they had many disputes about the Tigers”. (61)
These political and racist power struggles heavily influence many chapters in this novel and especially when it reaches the climax in the last chapter, “Riot Journal: An Epilogue”. In “Pigs Can’t Fly”, Arjie clashes with his cousin sister Tanuja and disagrees with the common social norm which forbids him from playing feminine games with girls. In “Radha Aunty”, Radha’s and Anil’s love situation is almost similar to Romeo and Juliet love story. Radha is Tamil and Anil is a Sinhalese and they are forbidden to get married because they belong to different religion. “In See No Evil, Hear No Evil”, Daryl and Nalini endeavor to expose the corruption of the government, a fruitless effort in a corrupt and laden society. “In Small Choices”, Arjie’s father and Jegan had to battle against the racial stereotyping and violence, while in “The Best School of All”, Arjie and Shehan both defy the authority of the principal named Black Tie. At last, in the “Epilogue” the conflict between the Sinhalese and Tamils got worst which is the beginning of the civil war.
Furthermore, binary oppositions the “self” and the “other” exists in every chapter of this novel in a form of stereotyping every person in their own category. Ania Loomba says that, “stereotyping involves a reduction of images and ideas to a simple manageable form; rather than simple ignorance or lack of ‘real’ knowledge, it is a method of processing information. The function of stereotypes is to perpetuate an artificial sense of difference between ‘self’ and ‘other’ (55). In Funny Boy, Arjie’s grandmother Ammachi cannot accept Anil because she cannot see him beyond the stereotype. She cannot see Anil for more than just a Sinhalese. “What did I tell you? She was getting a lit from a Sinhalese. Only a Sinhalese would be impertinent enough to offer an unmarried girl a lift” (58).
Society expects its people to choose sides and in return they will be protected accordingly. Conformity makes someone feel safe and it ensures one’s survival. In a power struggle, when one party has the upper hand claim on the country and affirm other minorities will be marginalized. In the Empire Writes Back, Bill Ashcoft et al claims that “in post-colonial societies, the participants are frozen into a hierarchical relationship in which the oppressed is locked into a position by the assumed moral superiority which is reinforced when necessary by the of physical force” (172).
In “Small Choices” Arjie’s father explained the things Tamils might get in trouble with in which the Sinhalese will face no problem.
“When my father had finished relating the incident, Amma said, “You should have taken Jegan’s side. After all, he is more important than the peon.”
“As Tamils we must tread carefully,” my father replied. “Jegan has to learn that. Even I have to circumspect when I’m talking to the staff. If I was Sinhalese, like Sena, I could say and do whatever I liked.”
Amma sighed. “It’s so ridiculous,” she said.
“What to do? One has to be realistic.” (190).
When the minorities do not have equal rights as the majority, this will lead to dislocation and alienation in their own country. This will result in vengeance and vendetta:
“You know,” Sonali said, “Sometimes I wish I was a Sinhalese or a foreigner.”
“I don’t,” Diggy said. He glared at us again. “I’m proud to be Tamil. If
those damn buggers come here, I’llâ€¦” (196)
Diggy’s reaction is understandable and it’s called retaliation. His reaction is much similar to the reaction of the Tamil Tigers. Tamil Tigers are consists mostly of young people who are unable to put up with Sinhalese demands and discriminations.
Society draws a line between ‘us’ and ‘them’ so that people must confirm to either side, no matter how ridiculous it may seem. This applies to gender stereotyping as well. When asked why Arjie cannot play with his cousin sisters, his mother replies, “It doesn’t matterâ€¦Life is full of stupid things and sometimes we just have to do them” (20). So what will become for those who refuse not to belong to just one category? What if they exist in a third space; in between? In Arjie’s case, he belongs to the Tamil minority as well as in gay community. Homosexuality is not tolerated in Sri Lanka and therefore Arjie is marginalized twice than an average Sri Lankan. Hence, it will be harder for Arjie to feel accepted and to have a sense of belonging.
However, there many instance in Funny Boy where the characters try to defy the norm of life and social rules to live their life their own lives. This is evident in Arjie’s monologue below.
How was it that some people got to decide what was correct or not, just or
unjust? It had to do with who was in charge; everything had to do with who
held power and who didn’t. if you were powerful like Black Tie or my
father you got to decide what was right or wrong. If you were like Shehan
or me you had no choice but to follow what they said. But did we always
have to obey? Was it not possible for people like Shehan and me to be
powerful too?” (274)
Most of the time, the characters who decide not to follow the social rules or everyday norms are secluded and alienated by their family and country and people. For an example, Aunt Doris, the director of the stage play Arjie was involved in chose to go against her Burgher family’s wishes and married a Tamil man. This of course ended her relationship with her family. Even Arjie, after thwarting his principal and realize who he is and who he wanted to be with, thought to himself,
“As I gazed at Amma, I felt a sudden sadness. What had happened between
Shehan and me over the last few days had changed my relationship with her
forever. I was no longer a part of my family in the same way. I now
inhabited a world they didn’t understand and into which they couldn’t
follow me”. (285)
Here Arjie is talking about his sexual awakening but his feelings also apply to those who made choices that alienate them from the people and places they belong to.
However, to Homi Bhabha the third space gives people like Arjie a chance to create a new identity. This third space allows them to transcend their position and go against those suppress and oppress them. It gives them power and freedom to transcend boundaries society rules. They get the best of both worlds. It gives them self empowerment to move on in life and it’s a place where the can voice out their opinions. Most of all the third space gives them sense of belonging and identity.
“The third space is a mode of articulation, a way of describing a productive and not merely reflective, space that engenders new possibility. It is an ‘interruptive, interrogative,and enunciative’ space of new forms of cultural meaning and productive blurring the limitation of existing boundaries and calling into question established categorizations of culture and identity” (Bhabha, 1994)
Before Arjie is even aware of his “tendencies”, his family would have makes sure that any un-stereotypical gender fondness would have been eradicated by his family. His father who was afraid that Arjie might turn out “funny” forbids him to play “bride-bride” with his cousin sisters. Well, on the other hand when Arjie plays with boys he was called a “girlie boy”. This separates him from the possibility of being a girl or a boy. Gender stereotypes are enforced by families and society to demarcate the separate worlds of boys and girls. This leaves Arjie “caught between the boys’ and the girls’ worlds, not belonging or wanted either” (39). His exclusion from both parties suggests us that he inhabits some third space between these two. This third space is addressed as “funny” and it has a shameful connotation. According to Gopinath, “challenging gendered spaces in this novel which is portrayed by the main character. This is because he allows the “inner” space to be something more than a site of gender agreement. He allows gender and fantasy play. And by doing this he “reveal[s] how non heteronormative embodiments, desires, and pleasures surface within even the most heteronormative of spaces” (170-171).
Throughout the whole book, we follow Arjie’s journey growing up and attempting to search for his identity. Arjie’s search for identity is similar to Sri Lanka’s own research for identity amidst the warring ethnics. If the focus is just among the Tamils and Sinhalese, what about the homosexuals, Burghers and Muslims? Aren’t they part of Sri Lanka as well? Even though all of them are different in many ways, they yearn for a place to call home where they can be safe and live without persecution.
Funny Boy also puts the story of the everyday people of Sri Lanka in the spotlight. It doesn’t focus on one party but it focuses more on the struggle these people went through to live in a Sri Lanka they all own. “It is not about finding a balance between your identities, or trying to define within a particular one,” Selvadurai explained. Rather, he said “it is about being open-minded” and “being accepting of how others define you” (www.thecannon.ca/…/shyam_selvadurai_funny_boy_on_campus).
In Running in the Family, Michael Ondaatje narrates the quest to search about his father by “re-conceptualizing” the past and patching up the fragments of his family history. Ondaatje searches for his identity by retracing back his family’s past, especially his father in Sri Lanka.
“During certain hours, at a certain years in our lives, we see ourselves as
remnants from the earlier generations that were destroyed. So our job
becomes peace with enemy camps, eliminate the chaos at the end of
Jacobean tragedies, and with ‘the mercy of distance’ write
The framework that Ondaatje uses is a fictionalized memoir. This allows Ondaatje to create his own form of reality and his own truths. This enables him to challenge boundaries between fiction and reality.
Besides that, Ondaatje explores the autobiographical self and in his case, the quest for Mervin Ondaatje is an important “detour” in his search for his own identity. He uses the technique of searching about the other (his father) so that he can find his own identity. As Marlene Kadar points out, writing about life is “the site of the other, and this other is ‘autobiographical’ in one sense, and not at all in another” (153).When Ondaatje is searching deeply about his family’s and father’s roots he begins to shape his own roots. At the end of the book it is revealed that Ondaatje is the mirror image of his father. “One could certainly claim that the end of the narrative is just the beginning of the discovery of the other (i.e. the father) through the self (i.e. the narrator)” (Speaking One’s Truth: Reading, 3).
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In Running in the Family, Ondaatje uses the infusion of family tragedies, their life dramas, warmth and love to connect the dots and construct his identity. He includes both the public and private when he researches about his family past. By doing so, he is able to see the connections between his family and his colonial inheritance. As Patricia Hampl remarks,
“the truth memoir has to offer is not neatly opposite from fiction’s truth.
Its methods and habits are different, and it is perhaps a more perverse
genre than novel: It seems to be about an individual self, but it is revealed
as a minion of memory which belongs not only to the personal world but to
public realm” (205).
Sri Lanka is a country consisting of a complex social network because it is a multinational country which has many national and cultural identities. Ondaatje acknowledges Sri Lanka’s identity as hybrid and “creolized” nature. This almost similar to Ondaatje’s family background:
“Every one was vaguely related and had a Sinhalese, Tamil, Dutch,
British and Burgher blood in them going in back many
generations. There was a large social gap between this circle and
the Europeans and English who were never part of Ceylonese
community. The English were seen as transients, snobs, and
racists and were quite separate from those who had intermarried
and who lived permanently. My father always claimed to be a
Ceylon Tamil, though that was probably more valid about three
centuries earlier” (41).
However, there is a tension between Ondaatje’s endeavour to reunite him with his family and to keep a distance from his family so that he is able to break through his family’s history from different points of view. It is as if when Ondaatje runs in with his family, he is also running away from his family. The “running” aids the author in a more complex search for his identity because it allows him to discover his identity in different forms. Here, Ondaatje is creating history while collecting data, fragments of both Sri Lanka’s and family’s histories.
As to fill in the gaps in his identity, he uses myth to provide explanations and to be as closer to the “truth” of that time and closer to the truth of his family. By researching his country of birth, he sees it as “the other” that he is constantly searching for. He is both the insider and the outsider who speaks for both the marginal and the central: “I am the foreigner. I am the prodigal who hates the foreigner” (65). Here Ondaatje represents the immigrants, immigration and culture. “The framework of fictionalized memoir allows both writers to speak their souls’ truth” (cf.Hampl, 203).
The search of identity is a process where there is a need to rely on the national identity and family identities. It’s like you cannot runaway from where you belong because they somehow make you who you are. Arjie and his family had to leave Sri Lanka because Sri Lanka was no longer safe to be their home and it was no longer where they belong whereas, Ondaatje has to come back to Sri Lanka because that is where he can find his identity through his family’s history. Even though, Arjie and his family had to run to Canada to survive, they are still Sri Lankans and are part of that country. Arjie’s father sent Arjie to a different school so that Arjie won’t turn out “funny”, Arjie found Shehan who strengthen his sexuality. When it comes to Ondaatje, even though he is settled in Toronto, Canada, he has to go back to his birth place to find his identity. He even has dreams of going back to Sri Lanka. At last, one had to admit that the main part of their identity depends on where you are born and where you came from whether you are accepting it or not. This is evident in Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy and Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family.
Ashcroft, B., Griffiths, G. and Tiffin, H. The Empire Writes Back. New York: Routeledge, 1994.
Bhabha, H.K.(1994). The Location of Culture. London.Routledge
Gopinath, Gayatri. Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures.Durham: Duke UP, 2005.
Hampl, Patricia. I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory. New
York; London: Norton, 1999.
Kadar, Marlene. “Whose Life Is It Anyway? Out of the Bathtub and into the
Narrative.” Essays on Life Writing: From Genre to Critical Practice. Ed.
Marlene Kadar. Toronto: U of T Press, 1992. 152-161.
Loomba, Ania. Colonialism/Postcolonialism. 2nd Edition. New York: Routeledge, 2005.
Ondaatje, Michael. Running in the Family. 1982. NCL ed. Toronto: McClelland &Stewart, 1993.
Salgado, Minoli. “Writing Sri Lanka, Reading Resistance: Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy and A. Sivanandan’s When Memory Dies”. The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 39:1 (2004): 5-18.
Selvadurai, Shyam. Funny Boy. United States: Harcourt Brace, 1997
www.academon.com/Essay-Identity-in-Post…Texts/54654 – Cached – Similar
www.hichumanities.org/AHproceedings/Miriam%20Rothgerber.pdf – Similar
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