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Experiences of Afro Caribbeans and Asian migrants to Britain

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 5586 words Published: 4th May 2017

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The second half of the twentieth century saw a transformation of British society in which peoples from areas of the world that had formerly constituted colonies of the British Empire migrated to Britain in large enough numbers to have a significant impact upon the host community.  Since Elizabethan times, Britain had been host to significant numbers of black people. Yet their impact had never been felt as profoundly as it was in the late twentieth century, when many parts of Britain became what successive governments chose to term ‘multicultural’.   This change did not come about without resistance and upheaval.  The impact of migration was often traumatic, especially upon those individuals who had left their homes to seek a different life in what they had looked upon as the ‘Mother Country’.
The term ‘Mother Country’ is well-known and widely used.  However, during the period of the British Empire it was used as a trope that assumed a very particular meaning when applied to the relationship between the colonial power and its dependent territories.  During the nineteenth century, the expansion of the Empire was accompanied by a discourse that cast Britain in the role of parent and protector, as may be seen in visual products of the period, such as the Punch cartoon from 21 April 1894 in which John Bull is depicted discovering a black baby on his front doorstep, wrapped in a cloth marked ‘Uganda’, and with the caption: ‘THE BLACK BABY.  Mr Bull: “What, another!! – Well, I suppose I must take it in!!”’     David Dabydeen, in his first collection of poetry Slave Song (1984), includes an illustration of ‘Britannia and the Natives’, from a publication dated 1814, in which Britannia is shown on a raised pedestal surrounded by kneeling and supplicating black people with, in the background, the figure of Justice with her scales.     Britannia is thus configured as the ideal mother.  Such images gave Britain a benevolent and protective role (albeit with the reluctant undertones of John Bull), whilst to the colonies there were attributed the characteristics of immaturity, loyalty and submissiveness.

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However, in the history of Britain’s relations with its colonies, there is copious evidence of a breach in this unwritten contract of mutual loyalty and support.  At home and abroad, Britain exploited, rejected and abused the ‘Children of the Empire’, yet the bonds were not easily broken and the twentieth century saw a significant number of colonial (or ex-colonial) peoples seeking a first-hand encounter with Britain.
The growth of migrant communities has been termed ‘diaspora’, a term that was  borrowed from its traditional role in describing the dispersal of Jewish people, and it carries with it ideas of banishment and trauma, suggesting ‘a linkage asserted in the context of exile from a homeland, and a unity maintained in varying circumstances confronting a scattered population’. Beginning with the slave trade and continuing with indentured labour and the economic migrations of the later twentieth century, the British Empire was a significant force in the global migrations of successive communities of African and Asian peoples.  Postcolonial literature and the theories that it has produced addresses the issue of migration and the dismantling of the European imperial and colonial enterprise.
There are two important strands to postcolonial discourse that, rather than opposing one another, are often overlapping and inter-related: the first is one that might be termed pessimistic in that it concentrates on the debilitating effects of colonialism and the racism with which it went hand in hand, and the second is a more optimistic view of the transformative power of migration discourses that reveal that ‘truth is relative’ and that the shifting viewpoints of ‘outsiders’ and minorities have more to reveal about modern life than a totalising and deterministic central power.  

The ‘pessimistic’ viewpoint is usually one that is concerned with militant protest and the recovery of history and culture that had previously been denigrated and undermined and it has to be seen in the context of the negative effects of loss and dislocation suffered under the colonial system.  Any examination of migration must devote attention to the economic and social conditions which cause migrant peoples to seek opportunities away from their home communities and the structures of colonialism were particularly conducive to population movements, usually forced or encouraged by Britain for its own economic advantage.  The late twentieth century migration of Caribbean and Asian people to Britain was initiated by Britain for economic reasons and was accomplished by the combined mechanisms of active government policy and the poor living conditions which many hoped to escape.

It is clear that the economic rationale for the system of colonialism was exploitation and colonies inevitably remained underdeveloped because they were used as sources of cheap raw materials. Poverty was endemic; work was unskilled, low paid and intermittent; the reliance on foreign capital gave overseas companies a stranglehold over the economy; processed goods were all imported, including most staple food stuffs; housing was overcrowded and lacking in sanitation; the child labour force was large; spending on education was low and illiteracy was widespread .    The neglect of any political development towards self-determination and independence was also a feature of twentieth century British colonialism: executive control was centralised in the British parliament and, prior to the independence movements of the nineteen sixties, any expression of local government was chiefly confined to the representatives of the colonial power.  

The denial of the cultural heritage of the black peoples of the Empire was also a vital part of the colonising process.  It particularly affected those who were able to become educated through the system of providing scholarships to the most able pupils, who continued their studies to secondary and sometimes university level.  All education was dictated by European standards – French, Spanish, Latin, English literature, English history were all taught, whilst local history and geography were ignored.  The language of education was standard English: local accents, vocabularies and grammatical constructions were denied a voice.  The intention was to inculcate a sense of loyalty and belonging to Britain, creating a local educated elite whose knowledge and values were determined by colonial rather than national standards.    The long-term effect of this has been variously interpreted: Caribbean writer Kenneth Ramchand has written of a ‘cultural void‘  and poet Edward Kamau Brathwaite has referred to the ‘fragmented culture‘  of the Caribbean.  Yet Amon Saba Saakana claims that the indigenous communities retained many of their African characteristics and were in conflict with the imposed colonial culture – official culture may have been European, but many aspects of the alternative African culture remained intact, even though under siege.    Such diversity of opinion illustrates the dilemma of a society which had traditionally been unable to develop any real perception of itself, except in the terms dictated by an imperial foreign power.  It is impossible to ignore the fact that, for the first generations of twentieth century colonial and postcolonial writers, the system under which they were educated was colonial in outlook and many of them continue to be preoccupied by their responses to European influence and the artefacts of European culture.  For the individual growing up in a colonial society, the difficulty of developing any real sense of self was compounded by the constant conflict between the standards and values of the indigenous community and the official norms imposed by the ruling power; a dual sense of perception was often the result of these competing discourses.  The image of a psyche that is alienated, divided, open to exploitation, overawed and unable to assert itself in the face of the imperial aggressor particularly pervaded the earlier literature which was concerned with migration (for example in Jean Rhys’s Voyage in the Dark or V.S. Naipaul’s The Mimic Men).

The twentieth century had thus perpetuated its own version of the nineteenth century discourse that figures the colonial subject as child-like and in need of parental protection.  Although the historical evidence suggests the contrary – that, in the Caribbean at least, colonialism was aggressively imposed and required the stationing of quite large garrisons of troops to suppress opposition throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries   – nonetheless, until quite recently the belief in the passivity and powerlessness of the local population was widely held and has found its way into literature.  The myth of British superiority therefore had to be confronted when migrants had a firsthand experience of Britain and it is the dismantling of this myth that can be seen as a vital aspect of the postcolonial literary project.  One of the seminal texts of postcolonial literary theory is entitled The Empire Writes Back and this aspect of  ‘writing back’ to the imperial power, when previously colonised peoples create work which ‘adopts, adapts, and often rejects the established European models’ has become a key idea in postcolonial literature.   

From this idea of the liberating of postcolonial voices and the opening up of a new form of discourse a second, more optimistic, strand of thought has developed that is particularly concerned with the postcolonial experience of migration.  For writers such as Salman Rushdie and Hanif Kureishi, the newly emergent identities of migrants can be sites of ‘excitement, new possibilities, and even privilege’.

The migrant seems in a better position than others to realise that all systems of knowledge, all views of the world, are never totalising, whole or pure, but incomplete, muddled and hybrid.  To live as a migrant may well evoke the pain of loss and of not being firmly rooted in a secure place; but it is also to live in a world of immense possibility with the realisation that new knowledges and ways of seeing can be constructed out of the myriad combinations of the ‘scraps‘ which Rushdie describes – knowledges which challenge the authority of older ideas of rootedness and fixity.

The cultural commentator Homi K Bhabha, in his book The Location of Culture emphasises this notion of marginality and regards the crossing of boundaries as an exciting new departure in the construction of identity, not merely in terms of the individual, but also for communities.  The migrant has a crucial role:
Standing at the border, the migrant is empowered to intervene actively in the transmission of cultural inheritance or ‘tradition’ (of both the home and the host land) rather than passively accept its venerable customs and pedagogical wisdom.
The argument is that hybridity, liminality and the postcolonial condition are positive and productive and it forms the basis of a more optimistic reaction to the essentially negative history of slavery, Empire and colonisation.

However, it is possible for this approach to be seen as over-optimistic, in that it is produced from a cosmopolitan and educated elite (Rushdie’s experience of migration consisted in being educated at a top British public school and later joining the celebrity literary society of London and New York).  Smith warns that, for many migrants, ‘disconnection’ is not necessarily a comfortable state of being and that there is a danger in celebrating ‘a very privileged form of mobility’ and in ignoring ‘typical, everyday experience of localized forms of control and resistance.’

During the latter half of the twentieth century, the first substantial number of Caribbean migrants travelled to Britain on the S.S. Empire Windrush in 1948, and were greeted at Tilbury Dock by newspaper reporters whose banner headlines read ‘Welcome Home‘.   The idea of Britain as ‘home’ was one which had been deliberately encouraged in the British Empire and had served to alienate colonial peoples from their actual homelands.  Once in Britain, the idea of ‘home’ was transposed onto the places that had been left behind.  ‘Home’ therefore became a contradictory idea and was displaced from actuality into the imagination, never in the here-and-now, but always in the desired future or the remembered past.  John McLeod utilises Salman Rushdie’s essay ‘Imaginary Homelands’ to argue that the migrant experiences the concept of ‘home’ as ‘primarily a mental construct built from the odds and ends of memory that survive from the past’,    yet it is also true to say that, for many migrants, ‘home’ had always had a dual aspect: it was partly situated in the the ideologically determined concept that was the originating location of British education, law, language and culture but it was also located in their ancestral homelands in Asia or Africa.  The migrant experience is therefore one of liminality, poised on the threshold, never fully occupying the space called ‘home’. 

Just as identity within the colonial context was a contested site of contradictions, so the effect of migration on identity has become a recurrent theme of tension and conflict.  The ways in which postcolonial writers have found methods of replying and re-writing, rejecting, utilising and transforming European traditions and canons of literature has been complicatedly affected by migration.  As Anne McClintock remarks, the ‘tenacious legacies of imperialism’ continue to dictate ‘the sanctioned binaries – colonizer-colonized, self-other, dominance-resistance, metropolis-colony, colonial-postcolonial’, making strategic opposition problematic: ‘such binaries run the risk of simply inverting, rather than overturning, dominant notions of power‘.   The existence of these binaries is often explored thematically in the literature and can be detected in the oppositions of the past and the present; the places from and to which the migration occurs; the wider society and the individual; the language and culture of two (or more) places.  The perpetual tension created by the contradictions of postcolonial experience is explored through these oppositional themes.  The sense of self and the identity of the migrant is thus a divided one and, whether optimistic or pessimistic in outlook, the creative fertility of this division is what the postcolonial writer seeks to explore. By reading a few examples of postcolonial literature it is possible to weigh the positive and negative strands of theory and to explore to what extent the writers demonstrate that the contradictions and complications of migration and the muddle and pain of rootlessness have been outweighed by the excitement of discovering a fertile site of new identity.

In the discussion that follows, the poetry of Linton Kwesi Johnson and Grace Nichols will be explored, together with David Dabydeen’s novel The Intended and Ayub Khan-Din’s play and film East is East.  Not every work will necessarily be discussed in each chapter, as the different literary works exemplify the experience of migration in differing ways.  However, the thematic concerns of all of these works will, it is hoped, be seen to be so closely intertwined that each chapter will represent a facet of the whole.

The contrasting experiences of the past and present of the migrant’s experience is a common theme within much of the literature of migration.  As has been previously discussed, the colonial past was a brutalising political system.  David Dabydeen has taken up the theme of migration in Caribbean literature in terms of the shattering of illusions, ‘trauma and alienation‘, ‘personal disintegration’ and ‘shared vulnerability and dependence‘.   His novel The Intended is intensely concerned with the colonial past and he uses Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as its inspiration and organising theme.  Dabydeen’s view of Conrad’s novel can be summarised by his comments from his A Reader’s Guide to West Indian and Black British Writing:
Conrad’s Heart of Darkness offers a powerful denunciation of the horrors of Imperialism in its depiction of the cruelty of Europeans and the decimation of native Africans.  In the greed for ivory and quick profit, life is smashed up and squandered.

Dabydeen comments on the confusion, grotesqueness and absurdity depicted in the novel as the hallmarks of imperialism and he contrasts the brutal reality with the dreams and aspirations which had originally impelled it.  The figure of Kurtz degenerates from noble idealism to a squalid end:
At the beginning, he is a classical missionary figure, full of noble ideals about torch-bearing, about setting the bush alight with the concepts of European civilization. … Instead of the fulfilment of these burning ideals, Kurtz degenerates into an emaciated figure crawling on all fours and the only burning that takes place in the novel is fire which destroys the grass shed and which exposes the Europeans as ineffectual buffoons in their attempts to control it. 

Conrad’s theme is the turning of a dream into a sort of confused nightmare and Dabydeen has used this idea as the theme of his own novel.  For Dabydeen’s migrants, the journey from Europe to Africa is reversed, but their migration from their homelands to London, the heart of Empire, has a similarly brutalising and corrupting effect.  They also experience a descent into corruption, as they become increasingly involved in prostitution and pornography.  Whilst the desire to exploit the commodity of ivory is the motivating force for Conrad’s empire builders, Dabydeen turns this desire into an exploitation of white female flesh as a commodity.  Dabydeen has used Kurtz’s name for his fiancée – ‘the intended’ – as an ironic title for his own book in order to highlight the gap between aspiration and actuality.  The narrator’s comment to his girlfriend, Janet, reveals to him and to the reader this gap:

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‘But you are fragrant, you are everything I intended’, I blurted out, the words seeming to come from nowhere, and as soon as they were uttered, sounding foolish.  In one accidental sentence I had finally confessed all the dreams that I had stuttered out to her in a year of meetings, always trying to structure the expression of my desire for her so as to make it impersonal, philosophic, universal, but always failing, my plain needs leaking through the cracks in words.
However, in this very ability to articulate himself, the narrator, like Conrad’s Marlow, shows him able to distance himself and thus survive the brutality that surrounds him.  This is in contrast to figure of Joseph, who, in committing suicide by setting light to himself, recalls the futility of Kurtz’s ‘burning ideals’. 

Throughout Dabydeen’s novel, Joseph is depicted as the person least involved in European culture.  The narrator imbibes European culture through his contact with Western literature, as he reads Chaucer, Milton and Conrad.  Illiteracy frees Joseph from these influences and he is often depicted as a character who can take an outside, alternative view of things.  His adoption of Rastafarianism also aligns him with a more elemental Africanness and a closer association with his Jamaican origins.  Joseph stands outside European culture and is therefore a more trenchant critic of its negative forces.  It is he who comments that ‘Ivory is the heart of the white man’    and he similarly exposes the sterility of the narrator’s attitude to literature in the dissection of poetry that is an  uncritical mimic of his teacher’s methods: ‘Poetry is like bird…’ Joseph remarks, ‘You turning all the room in the universe and in the human mind into bird cage.’   Yet Joseph is unable to use his insight to gain freedom.  He is repeatedly confounded by his own ignorance, even to the extent of being unable properly to operate the video camera which is his chosen method of intercepting and interpreting his experiences.  His attempt to film ‘the wind as it brushed against the  leaves … capturing on film the invisibility of the wind’ leaves him ‘dangling dangerously by the waist’ high up in a tree and is misunderstood by witnesses as an attempted suicide.   Such an image is used to evoke other familiar images of slaves being punished, particularly one which Dabydeen has used in his own article on ‘Eighteenth-century literature on commerce and slavery’ (see below).   This illustration was based on a 1773 eyewitness description.  The background shows skulls on posts reminiscent of a scene in Heart of Darkness and also alludes to Joseph’s preoccupation with bones and skeletons.

It appears, therefore, that Joseph’s function in the novel is to represent the past in which the enslaved African was denied access to education and so was rendered inarticulate and, in terms of history, silent.  Joseph is eventually reduced to crouching in a derelict building, emaciated and silent, vainly attempting to scratch letters into the soil with a stick.  He has been unable to organise and record his experience in anything but confused and fragmentary images and in this way Dabydeen demonstrates the inarticulacy of the state of slavery and the ways in which modern historians and writers must reconstruct a past from inadequate evidence.  In telling Joseph’s story, the narrator of The Intended preserves Joseph’s history through the written word, but, just as in the history of slavery, it must always be a third person narration because, without access to reading and writing, Joseph’s own ‘I’ is lost when he himself dies.

Although it has been argued that the characters in Dabydeen’s novel ‘suddenly materialize, having no history, the past as empty as their pockets’  this is not true, for Dabydeen is using the past figuratively and the past of his characters is often not a personal one, but is implied by their relationship to history.  The novel’s narrative swings between the past, present and future of the narrator’s experience, relating his sense of ‘shame’ and unreality in the present, as he feels himself to be in a state of suspension between the past from which he has come and the future to which he aspires.  For him, the past and the future are always present, creating conflicting images of who he is, what he has been and what he will become.  In this way, he demonstrates the constant crossing and re-crossing of temporal boundaries and thus lives in the liminality of which Home K Bhabha has written.  

Dabydeen is not unique in his attempt to come to terms with the violence of colonial history and the aspiration towards a different future.  East is East illustrates the relationship between the past and the present through the intergenerational conflict in the Khan household.  The Khan children have no memory of a past elsewhere because they have been born in Britain; instead they are an example of the youthful offspring of the migrant generation who have an uncertain sense of where they truly belong and are alienated by their inability to find acceptance in the host community.  Having little or no sense of their past, their fragmented responses to identity are governed by their differing attempts to ‘assimilate‘.  George Kahn‘s inability to relate to his children and their aspirations symbolises the tension between the past and the present.  Though he is frustrated by his own inability to govern his family in traditional Pakistani ways and though he has failed to inculcate Muslim values into his children, George has a strong sense of his personal identity which his children seem to lack.  He is concerned at the current war in Kashmir  and he has a sense of personal involvement, feeling members of his family to be at risk.  The progress of this conflict on the television and radio acts as a background ‘noise’ in the family’s life, just as the past of colonial conflict is a background to their current situation.  The British Raj had united the disparate parts of the Indian subcontinent, but with independence came partition and the creation of East and West Pakistan.  The political events to which the film alludes are the rumblings of war and discontent which continued into the 1970s, with the separation of Pakistan and Bangladesh.   The past seems to offer no hope for the alienated generation of children who have been born in Britain.  The history of empire, whose repercussions continue to be felt, both politically in Asia and culturally in Salford, does not seem to offer a transformative or positive trope for the characters in Khan-Din‘s drama.

Linton Kwesi Johnson’s central concern is with this generation that has little or no sense of a past elsewhere or of the history which has moulded their identity.  In his work the theme of  ‘giving voice’ to the present and making sense of the past is always significant.  He has commented on the positive effects for the older generation of having memories with which to identify: ‘at least we could still identify with ‘home’ because we came from somewhere else… [Young people] born in this country … don’t have any other home to identify with.’    In this way, he describes the migrant experience of ‘routes’ that have to act as a substitute for ‘roots’, as McGill argues: ‘Preferring routes to roots, Johnson operates in what Homi Bhabha calls the “interstitial passage between fixed identifications.”’   Thus, Johnson can juxtapose his current experience of Britain with his memories of a distant homeland in very overt ways, for example in the trope of the letter home in ‘Sonny’s Lettah (Anti-Sus Poem)’.  This poem illustrates Johnson’s strategy in its title, by uniting the writer’s relationship with the past (as a son, he is explicitly identifying his place within the generations of history) and the present political situation (the hated ‘sus’ law which enabled police to stop and search and was perceived as a racist weapon against young black men).  The poem opens with the address ‘Brixtan Prison / Jebb Avenue / Landan south-west two / Inglan’ which by its spelling, defamiliarises Britain.  The following greeting, ‘Dear Mama, / Good Day’, is rendered in normal English spelling, yet it uses an expression that is specific to Jamaica, since ‘Good Day’ is not a way in which a British person would begin a letter.  Johnson is thus re-working both the spelling and familiar modes of British address in order to weld the past of Sonny’s warm and secure childhood to the brutality and grief of the present experience of Britain.  Johnson’s elegiac attitude to the ‘home’ of Jamaica is also clear in his poems ‘Reggae fi Dada’ and ‘Jamaican Lullaby‘, which both exemplify the importance of memory in the present and a connection to the past from which the migrant has come.

In her poem ‘One Continent/To Another’, Grace Nichols demonstrates that it is futile to separate the theme of past and present from the sense of place.  The passage of slaves and later migrants moving from one continent to another is a transition in space as well as time.  In her book I is a Long Memoried Woman, Nichols seeks to relate the past to the present by her focus on the subject of slavery and in poems such as ‘One Continent/To Another’ she describes the experience of the slave as a movement in time and space: from the past of ‘bleeding memories in the darkness’ to the future of ‘piecing the life she would lead‘.  Nichols uses the confusion between beginnings and endings to suggest the notion that past, present and future are simultaneous:

Being born a woman
she moved again
knew it was the Black Beginning
though everything said it was
the end.

This is an example of what Easton describes as ‘the imaginative, in particular metaphoric processes by which Nichols transforms the historical African-Caribbean female experience into positive images’.    Easton also comments that ‘Forgetting … is to be silenced’.   Just as Joseph in The Intended is silenced by his inability to record his experiences, so in the work of Nichols, the inability to call up memories is another form of silencing of the past and, through it, the present.  In the poem ‘One Continent/To Another’ Nichols uses the repeating of a negative phrase to convey a positive sense of the past when she describes the woman who ‘hasn’t forgotten / hasn’t forgotten’.  As the title of this poetry collection suggests, the theme of memory is central to Nichols’s intention and her construction of memory as a double negative in this poem – not merely remembering, but, more importantly, not forgetting – illustrates the experience of memories that on the surface are emphatically negative but that can actually be transformed into the positive and life-giving experience of the present.  In this way, Nichols transforms the memory of the experience of slavery into a discussion of the present experience of migration.  ‘One Continent/To another’ records the first experience of enforced migration: that of the slaves in the ‘middle passage womb’ of crossing the Atlantic who encounter a metaphorical giving birth to a new New World self.  Each migrant experiences the sense of figuratively ‘stumbl[ing] onto the shore’, being dragged down, thirsting, the disorientation of displacement, yet Nichols turns this negative, ‘bereft of fecundity’ into her final affirmation of the future: ‘the life she would lead’.  Nichols thus succeeds in changing an essentially brutal experience into one of affirmation and strength.  The transformational potency of migration is thus embedded not in the experience itself, but in the memory of survival and in the imaginative power of the migrant.  In this way Nichols’s work can be interpreted as an example of the power of the imagination over the ‘scraps’ of disparate experience to which Salman Rushdie refers (as discussed by John McLeod, above).

For David Dabydeen, too, the time shifts in the narration of The Intended are also geographical shifts.  Large portions of the book are concerned with the narrator’s childhood in Guyana and these memories of a distant homeland which are juxtaposed upon his experience of Britain.  During the time of the period of the British Empire there was always a sense that England – and especially London – was the dominant metropolitan centre, while the colonial homeland was regarded as dominated periphery and was denigrated as inferior.  Unable to define themselves, except in contradistinction to the imperial centre, the inhabitants of the colonies looked upon their own homelands with a sense of unreality because they were undefined in terms of the dominant colonial discourses.  In seeking to create his own homeland as a setting for his novel, Dabydeen creates multiple literary landscapes, not only enshrining London and Oxford as markers of education and achievement, but also giving status to the homeland in which his imagination was formed. Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin have discussed the crisis of migration in terms of the ambivalent relationship between identity and place that often distinguished the colonial experience:
A major feature of postcolonial literatures is the concern with place and displacement.  It is here that the special postcolonial crisis of identity comes into being; the concern with the development or recovery of an effective identifying relationship between self and place.

For the postcolonial writer, to re-cast their own homeland as a reference point against which to see Britain is a reversal of the pattern of the past in which all other countries were contrasted with the ‘normative core of British literature, landscape and history’.   What is perhaps most crucial to Dabydeen’s use of Guyana as a setting is its interweaving with the narrator’s experience of London in a way that always tends to dominate and qualify London.  For example, in his first reference to Guyana, the narrator begins with a metaphor:

I walked down Bedford Hill feeling sorry for myself, wishing I had a family to go home to.  Nasim’s mother was like my grandmother who waited by the roadside and when I stepped of the bus at Albion Village would take my hand tightly in hers and lead me


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