URC

Exploring Identities in Motion in Diasporic and Global Literature

Matthew Russo
Loyola University Chicago

Abstract

The increasing ease with which individuals can move across the globe provides more opportunities for people to explore the world, but it also results in the displacement of some individuals from their native countries or "homelands." This displacement, referred to as diaspora, is certainly not a new concept; however, the problem becomes exacerbated in an age of globalization. Two specific novels, Aleksander Hemon's The Lazarus Project and Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, provide narratives focused on characters in the midst of what sociologist Robin Cohen refers to as a "victim diaspora," but my reading of the novels suggests a slightly different view of diaspora than that suggested by Cohen (28). Particularly, I argue that the main character of each story is not necessarily searching for a lost "homeland" but rather reshaping or altering identity in response to the respective diaspora.

Introduction                                  

Whether conceived in terms of individuals or groups, identity has many precedents ranging from cultural backgrounds to the types of TV shows one grows up watching. This already-general part of the human experience is increasingly complicated by the process of globalization. In his article, "Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy," sociologist Arjun Appadurai presented a framework for analyzing globalization by breaking it down into various global flows or "-scapes," including "ethnoscapes" (588-589). Appadurai noted that in an increasingly global world, individuals are continually moving and dispersing at greater distances across the globe. He mentioned two specific groups affected in this process, immigrants and refugees, which are particularly pertinent in discussions of identity in an age of globalization (Appadurai, 589). Specifically, many of these individuals will struggle with their identity due to the highly precarious nature of diaspora, which is defined by Susan Stanford Friedman as "migration plus loss, desire, and widely scattered communities held together by memory and a sense of history over a long period of time" (268).

Although much of the discussion of identity, diaspora, and globalization is in the context of sociology or cultural theory, literature is another critical medium in which to analyze identity in the context of globalization. Aleksander Hemon's novel, The Lazarus Project (2009), stitched two different, but closely related narratives together to create a novel about the search for identity among diasporic individuals. The first narrative centered on Brik, a Bosnian immigrant living in the United States, investigating the history behind the murder of Lazarus Averbuch, the major subject of the second narrative. Persepolis (2007) by Marjane Satrapi is a powerful graphic novel that tells the story of a young Iranian girl, Marji, growing up and discovering her identity against the backdrop of Iranian revolutions and the Iran-Iraq War. Although these works do appear to differ on the surface, their approaches to the issue of cultural identity are very similar, providing crucial insight into both diasporic culture and "global" identities generally. First, both novels focus on identity in the context of immigration as well as presenting travel as a tool in the search for identity. Also, immigration itself is not necessarily the cause of each character's identity crisis but rather a diaspora triggered by war. Interestingly, neither novel provides a sense of closure but rather leaves the reader guessing as to what happens when the books end.

Lastly, both narratives establish a dichotomy between ethnicity versus citizenship of a country. In his book, Global Diasporas, social scientist Robin Cohen presented five types of diasporas, including one that is very present in the aforementioned texts, victim diaspora. Cohen provided examples of victim diasporas, such as the African slave trade and the Irish potato famine, which resulted in vast numbers of people being displaced from their homelands by a "scarring" event (28). Therefore, the fact that the main characters in both The Lazarus Project and Persepolis are displaced by the tragic and violent situation of war indicates that the novels present them in the midst of victim diasporas. Readers can further understand these characters in the context of their respective diasporic backdrops by examining the article "Cultural Identity and Diasporas" by the cultural theorist Stuart Hall. In this work, Hall presented two views of cultural identity. The second view, which presents cultural identity as an entity that is constantly transforming rather than remaining fixed, is particularly salient in these novels (Hall 225). I argue that although Brik and Marji experience the displacement brought about by victim diasporas, their narratives provide a view different from Cohen's. Specifically, these characters approach displacement as a new perspective in understanding their transforming cultural identities rather than a search for a lost "homeland."   

Discussion

My use of the term "victim diaspora" results from the role of war in the displacement of these characters. Although neither character was exiled or pushed out of their country, nonetheless the causes of their displacement were the wars. Although Marji clearly immigrated to Austria to escape war-torn Iran, the role of war in Brik's displacement is slightly less direct. The Bosnian War was not the source pushing Brik to emigrate from his country, but it was the reason that he could never return to his true homeland as he once knew it. The view presented by Cohen does allow these diasporas to be claimed as victim due to their causes. However, Cohen's definition of diaspora is concerned with what he terms "the politics of 'homeland' and the quest for a state" (29). These texts, on the other hand, present displacement and diaspora as a contributing factor to the transformation of cultural identity. This difference is clear in the instances where Brik and Marji return to their respective "homelands" after years of living as immigrants in another country.

The emphasis placed on the relationship of war, the event that triggered the diaspora, and identity is readily obvious in both The Lazarus Project and Persepolis. In the former, Brik constantly asked his friend Rora, who experienced the Bosnian War firsthand, questions about it. In these situations, it becomes quite obvious to the reader that Brik wanted to learn more about the war that he missed but affected his life so deeply. Similarly, when referring to her ex-husband, Marji blatantly stated, "I sought in him a war which I had escaped" (Satrapi 279). Again, it is clear that his appeal to Marji was due, at least in part, to the fact that he could provide her with some sort of understanding of the crucial event that caused her to leave Iran and thus a strain on her identity.

An important characteristic of the texts that contributed largely to my understanding of the identity crises as applying specifically to cultural identity is a dichotomy established in both novels between culture/ethnicity and citizenship. In The Lazarus Project Brik described the distinction by saying, "Bosnian is not an ethnicity, it's a citizenship" (Hemon 15). In my reading, the most thought-provoking parts of this statement were its gaps. Brik never truly established what he considered his ethnicity or his culture. Perhaps this is because he did not fully understand exactly what it was. This distinction is not as obvious in Persepolis, but it is certainly present. Although Marji continually referred to herself throughout the book as Iranian, one specific section toward the beginning of the book sets up a distinction between being an Iranian citizen and her family's cultural identity as Persian. In this scene, Marji was discussing her desire to be a prophet. She mentioned Zarathustra, whom she referred to as "the first prophet in my country before the Arab invasion," as well as two Persian traditions that she would like to celebrate with her family (Satrapi 7). The distinction between her culture or ethnicity and citizenship became clear at this point. Although she lived in Iran and is considered an Iranian citizen, that alone could mean she is Persian or Arab. However, she clearly indicated her family's roots in the Persian culture rather than simply as Iranian. Both Brik's explicit explanation and Marji's subtle specification of her cultural background guided the conclusion that their understandings (or misunderstandings) of their identities were largely embedded in the cultures they felt were gone, or had at least changed somehow.

Both novels presented the cultural identity crises of the main characters, Brik and Marji, in the context of constant immigration. In The Lazarus Project, Brik described his status as a Bosnian immigrant living in America by declaring himself a "citizen of a couple of countries" (Hemon 11). However, this statement emphasized how the lack of a true homeland caused Brik's uncertainty of where he belonged and what he could claim as an identity. This question of identity lead Brik to the decision to traverse various European countries and study the life of Lazarus Averbuch. However, it was quickly apparent in the text that the purpose of his trip was more about investigating his identity than the history of Lazarus. During his trip, Brik said upon a previous visit to Sarajevo after the war, in a fleeting attempt to make sense of what used to be a crucial piece of his identity, that he found the city he used to know riddled with bullet holes and without answers (Hemon 208). In Persepolis, Marji made multiple moves. First, she went from Iran to Austria, spending a large chunk of her life away from her home country. After being shaped by her freedom in Western Europe, she returned home where her identity crisis truly hit her. It became apparent at this point because she stated, "I was a Westerner in Iran, an Iranian in the West. I had no identity" (Satrapi 272). This statement made it clear that Marji's status as an immigrant did not disappear upon return to her homeland, but she instead felt foreign in her own country. It also indicated that her misunderstanding of her identity rested in a misunderstanding of her cultural identity. She could not reach a reconciliation of her Iranian and Western identities. The crucial point in both of these narratives was that upon each character's return to their original homeland, their cultural identities were not suddenly found. This suggests that the result of victim diasporas, contrary to Cohen's argument, was not a search for something that already existed, waiting to be found like a "homeland." Instead, the diaspora triggered a transformation of cultural identity, which became even more salient to the "victims," such as Marji and Brik.

This idea of a constant migration as a means to understanding cultural identity was highlighted by each text's emphasis on passports. Generally, passports serve as a person's key to traveling abroad, so it is understandable as to why they would be largely stressed in these novels. However, in both narratives, the importance of passports was emphasized nearly to the point of exaggeration. In one scene of The Lazarus Project, Brik actually described his soul as moving from his stomach and into his breast pocket because that is where he kept his American passport (Hemon 177). This implied that the passport was a magnet that attracted the deepest essence of his being. It presented it as an object that could wildly affect his understanding of himself. This importance most likely came from the fact that the passport allowed his journey for self-discovery to take place. Contrarily, in her narrative, Marji was not the character that stressed the importance of a passport. One particular portion of the novel dealt with her uncle who suffered from a heart attack and needed surgery immediately. The only way to get the surgery to save his life was to leave the country and have a specialist in England perform the surgery, for which he needed a passport (Satrapi 121). This scene implicated the possession of a passport as a matter of life and death. Although the passport was not crucial to Marji's survival in this scene, it most likely played a role in the value she placed on obtaining a passport. This stress on the passport in both novels is interesting, in that it presents a paradox. Specifically, the passport allowed for movement throughout the world, but it was critical in each novel because it served to fix each character's national identity. Overall, the vitality of a passport to each character was hyperbolized in each text to help the reader comprehend exactly the importance of the passport (the ability to travel between countries) was to the understanding Brik and Marji had of themselves.

Finally, the endings of the narratives were perhaps their most powerful aspects. Specifically, both stories ended in such a way that the issue of identity was somewhat resolved, but it was also left open. I contend that The Lazarus Project and Persepolis function as künstlerromans in which the main characters fully develop into the artists they would like to be. This is only strengthened by the fact that both novels were written in the fashion of memoirs. That suggested that the book that contained their story was each character's piece of work that signified the attainment of the growth seen at the end of a kunstlerroman. In this sense, both Marji and Brik's artistic identities were resolved by the end of the novels, but their cultural identities still remained somewhat blurred. However, this lack of understanding about their cultural identities seemed to be resolved by Brik and Marji. Specifically, the fact that their cultural identities still remained somewhat elusive suggests that they arrived at their resolutions, not by finding a lost homeland or rediscovering their old cultures. If that were the case, then each character would have obtained a clear and definite understanding of who they were in a cultural sense. Instead, Brik and Marji obtained an understanding by accepting that their identities were not lost but rather transformed by the tragic events that led to their displacements. According to my interpretation, this indicated that globalization is not necessarily an ending process, and therefore the search for identity (especially in the context of culture) is not a search that simply ends. There is no map with an X that marks the spot where one can find one's identity. In addition, the implication that both Marji and Brik became artists in some fashion suggests that identity is not fixed. Rather, this allows the lack of closure in each novel to become grounds for the artistic agency to actively "rewrite" one's identity. Essentially, people may find solace in a temporary closure, but there is no end to the search for cultural identity.

Identity is a fragile part of human nature, and it is easy to see how it can be shaken through victim diasporas. The aforementioned texts were perfect examples of the ways in which displacement can affect identity but also the ways in which people cope with it. I use the words "shaken" and "cope" to emphasize that identity, in the terms of The Lazarus Project and Persepolis, was not destroyed or lost. Rather, it was changed, or "shaken," in some way, and the main characters achieved understanding, thus "coping" with the changes to their identities. Therefore, one cannot find or discover one's identity by seeking out a homeland or state after a traumatic event. Rather, these novels suggested that cultural identity is fluid and constantly changing, as suggested by Hall. The selected narratives do not simply suggest this transformation of identity but also provide a commentary on how diasporic individuals understand these changes. In the face of globalization, migration and interstate travel has, and continues to become, much easier. This constant evolution in the ease of movement throughout the world allows for more rapid transformations of cultural identity and provides a new view for understanding the changes initiated by diaspora.

References

Appadurai, Arjun. "Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy." 1990. Media and Cultural Studies. Ed. Meenakshi G. Durham and Douglas M. Kellner. Revised ed. Malden: Blackwell, 2006. 584-603. Print. 

Cohen, Robin. Global Diasporas. Seattle WA, University of Washington Press: 1997. Print.

Friedman, Susan Stanford. "Migrations, Diasporas, and Borders." Introduction to Scholarship in Modern Languages and Literatures. Ed. David Nicholls. New York: MLA, 2007. 260–293. Print

Hall, Stuart. "Cultural Identities and Diaspora." Framework 36 (1990): 222-37. Print.

Hemon, Aleksandar. The Lazarus Project. New York: Penguin Group, 2008. Print

Satrapi, Marjane. The Complete Persepolis. New York: Pantheon, 2004. Print.


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