Nativism in Culture and Literature

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Nativism in Culture and Literature

Subrata Sahana

According to Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin (2005:159) nativism is a ‘term for desire to return to indigenous practices and cultural forms as they existed in pre-colonial society’. Nativism as a theoretical term received its present popularity and even notoriety in the last decade of the twentieth century. Benita Parry (1996:84) valorised the cause of nativism keeping in mind the practical problem of reviving the indigenous culture with its pristine originality in his famous essay “Resistance Theory/Theorising Resistance or Two Cheers for Nativism”. Rey Chow (1996:122) in her essay “Where Have All the Natives Gone?” problematizes the concept of nativism by asking the important question; ‘whether native is silent object or speaking subject?’1 G.N.Devy (1992) in his book After Amnesia: Tradition and Change in Indian Literary Criticism claims that India has great literary culture of its own. But for long it has remained submerged in the collective unconscious of the Indian psyche. According to him the cause of this repression or ‘amnesia’ is the colonisation of India, and the only way to get out of the clutches of that amnesia is to concentrate and practice pre-colonial Indian literary tradition. However, as early as 1970’s, the term with its present theoretical overtones was used by African cultural anthropologist Ralph Linton in his essay “Nativistic Movements.”2 Linton, Makarand Paranjape.(1997:160) opines, ‘identified a strategic and symbolic mode of protest adopted by groups which feel inferior or threatened by the onslaught of more powerful or dominant culture’. The concept with which Linton used the term (at least as claimed by Paranjape) was the guiding principle for the early postcolonial theorists like Frantz Fanon. In his book Black Skin, White Masks (1952) he accounts for the endangered state of the cultural independence of the people under colonial rule. Fanon(1952) recognises that many black people adopt ‘white masks’ in the sense that, to get entrance into the coloniser’s culture those black people conform to white values and versions of their behaviour. Ultimately this erases their own identity. Fanon urges them to recognise the damage of hiding behind such a mask and the need to seize and shape their own identity. In The Wretched of the Earth, published in French in 1961, he claimed that the first step for colonised people in finding their own voice and identity is to reclaim their own past. For centuries the European colonial power has devalued the colonised country’s own cultural past. It showed the pre-colonial era as a pre-civilised limbo or even as a historical void. History starts, it claims, with the arrival of the Europeans. If the first step is to reclaim one’s own past, the second step is to erode the colonialist ideology by which the past has been devalued. In this respect it is important to mention that eroding colonialist ideology is not an easy task, because ideology works in an insidious manner. Gauri Viswanathan (1990) showed how the study of English Literature in Indian institutions served the colonialist purpose.

The debate as to how far such a revival or returns to the precolonial past is possible (or even advisable) is a vigorous one. There is not only the existence of two or more groups with contradictory opinions, sometimes one single theorist holds deliberately two or more contradictory opinions. Farntz Fanon, as mentioned earlier, started his Black Skin and White Mask with the purpose of reviving and celebrating the black identity (Negritude) of the Negro people. Accordingly he declared, “I needed to lose myself completely in Negritude.”3 But by the time of conclusion it seems that his earlier stance is altered: ‘In no way should I dedicate myself to the revival of an unjustly unrecognised Negro civilization.’4 Perhaps he realises that any chauvinistic attitude will land him in the same group he is trying to resist. It does not prove that his stance is altered. At the core of his heart there is a painful belief that Negro civilization is ‘unjustly unrecognised.’ Another celebrated theorist Gayatri Chakraborty Spivak is also often accused of inconsistent theoretical stance. But her situation is different. Fanon is the founding father of postcolonial theory. He was trying to give a respectable identity to an ‘unjustly unrecognised’ group of people. Whereas when Spivak came to the theoretical field it was the heyday of postcolonial study. Subaltern study group was already established.5 There was much romanticism about voicing the voiceless ‘subaltern’. Her controversial essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (1985) induced other theorists to conceive that Spivak did not believe that the subaltern could ever have a voice. But later in an interview she claimed that she had been misunderstood. Her aim was instead, ‘to counter the impulse to solve the problem of political subjectivity by romanticising the subaltern.’6 Later on in another interview Spivak defended the postcolonial societies’ excavation for indigenous cultural forms.7 At least it helps them, she thinks, to resist the onslaught of global culture, though in a negative manner.

Indian Literature is replete with nativistic images. Arabindo Ghosh in his epic poem Savitri tried to revive the Hindu mythology. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (1960) for her subject in The Householder chooses one of the four ‘ashrams’ or stages of life (of ‘grihastha’ or householder) in a man’s life as it was in practice in Vedic period.8 Amitav Ghosh (1986) seeks to structure his The Circle of Reason on three cardinal qualities that, according to Indian philosophy, determine a person’s character: ‘Tamas’, ‘Rajas’ and ‘Satwik’. The order indicates the soul’s gradual and upward evolution. Ghosh reverses the order to indicate the degeneration of life in modern age. The Part One is entitled ‘Satwa’: Reason; Part Two, ‘Rajas’: Passion; and Part Three, ‘Tamas’: Death.9 In recent past Manil Suri (2001) in his The Death of Vishnu made use of Hindu mythology ‘while his goal was not to write treatise on Hinduism, but to create narratives and characters that pulsate with life’ (Singh,2004:216).

To create nativistic images, postcolonial writers use myth and legend as well as folklore and oral traditions of their own cultures. Chinua Achebe’s (1958) Things Fall Apart is full of proverbs and aphorisms from Igbo culture. Promad K. Nayar (2008: 223) claims “In Ngugi’s later fiction, especially, Petals of Blood (1977), Devil on the Cross (1982), and Matigari (1989) we see the return of a traditional African artist-as-prophet”. This Kenyan writer, who was used to write in English, has now switched over to his native language Gikuyu. African writer Toni Morrison’s (1977) Song of Solomon is reworking of the African flying legend. Her Beloved (1987) explores the role of supernatural in African traditions. Behind Yole Soyinka’s (1975) play Death and the King’s Horseman the presence of Yoruba belief that gods and humans once lived together on earth is clearly perceptible. Ben Okri’s (1991) The Famished Road reworks with the concept of ‘abiku’, a southern Nigerian belief in the endless reincarnation of a child. Salman Rushdie also turns to Indian traditions, both written and oral, instead of Western ones. Rushdie himself says, “In India the thing I have taken most from ... is oral tradition.”10 Promad K. Nayar (2008:234-35) justly claims:

Postcolonial cultures’ reliance on myth and local legend is an effort at de-contamination, a process of freeing their cultures from colonialism’s pervasive influence. The return to roots – while running the very real danger of fundamentalism, reactionary nativism, and chauvinism – is an attempt to gain a measure of self-affirmation that is not tainted by colonialism.11


  1. The comment is Padmini Mongia’s (1996:11).

  2. During discussing the origin of the concept of and the term nativism Makarand Paranjape (1997:160) mentions the essay. Originally this essay is in Adelin Linton and Charles Wagle (1971).

  3. Benita Parry (1996:99) quotes Fanon.

  4. Parry (1996:100) quotes Fanon.

  5. The first publication of that group, Subaltern Studies 1 edited by Ranajit Guha was published in 1982.

  6. Gina Wisker (2007) mentions this.

  7. Bill Ashcrofts, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin (2005:156) say of this interview.

  8. This Indian tradition is discussed in Eugene Benson and L.W.Conolly (1994:583).

  9. This tradition in reverse form is mentioned in Eugene Benson and L.W.Connoly (1994:583).

  10. During discussing the form of postcolonial literature Nayar (2008) quotes Rushdie.

  11. For the last paragraph I am greatly indebted to Nayar (2008).


Ashcraft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin (2005). Postcolonial Studies: The Key Concepts. Routledge: London and New York.

Benson, Eugene, and L.W. Conolly (eds) (1994). Encyclopedia of Postcolonial Literature in English, Vol.1. Routledge: London and New York.

Devy, G.N. (1992). After Amnesia: Tradition and Change in Indian Literary Criticism. Orient Longman: Hyderabad.

Linton, Adelin and Charles Wagle, (eds) (1971). Ralph Linton. New York: Columbia University Press.

Mongia, Padmini (1996). ‘Introduction’. In Podmini Mongia (ed), Contemporary Postcolonial Theory: A Reader, pp. 1-18. Arnold: London and New York.

Nayar, Pramod K (2008). Postcolonial Literature: An Introduction. Pearson Longman: New Delhi.

Paranjape, Makarand (1997). ‘Beyond Nativism: Towards a Contemporary Indian Tradition in Criticism’. In Makarand Paranjap (ed), Nativism: Essays in Criticism, pp. 153-76. Sahitya Academy: New Delhi.

Parry, Benita (1996). ‘Resistance Theory/ Theorising Resistance or Two Cheers for Nativism’. In Podmini Mongia (ed), Contemporary Postcolonial Theory: A Reader, pp. 84-109. Arnold: New York and London.

Singh, Anita (2004-05). ‘The Valorised World of Vishnu: Manil Suri’s The Death of Bishnu’. The Indian Journal of English Studies, Vol. 42.

Viswanathan, Gauri (1990). Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British rule in India. Columbia UP: New York.

Wisker, Gina (2007). Key Concepts in Postcolonial Literature. Palgrave Macmillan: Basingtoke and New York.

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