This week’s blog post comes from Mareike Zacke, one of our new MLitt British Studies students at UHI for 2016-17. Mareike is an Erasmus student from the University of Bonn.
Earlier this year I did a course at my university in Germany on the postcolonial Bildungsroman, which, amongst other novels, covered Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions (1988) as well as Merle Hodge’s Crick Crack, Monkey (1970). Both novels portray the coming of age of their protagonists, Tambu and Tee, young girls who struggle to come to terms with their own identity after they have been exposed to different forms of ‘Englishness’.
Nervous Conditions follows Tambu as she moves from the patriarchal restrictions of her tribe in 1960s Zimbabwe to her paternal uncle who has just returned from studying in England. While living with her uncle’s family, Tambu experiences their new English’ lifestyle and soon, she notices a discrepancy with their ‘Englishness’: even though her uncle mimics Englishness and its progressiveness, he does not accept his daughter Nyasha’s even more modern – more English – way of thinking. To her, ‘Englishness’ means something different and as she has become a hybrid of both cultures, she struggles to fit into either society.
Similarly, Tee’s identity formation in Crick Crack, Monkey is equally disturbed as soon as she is exposed to ‘Englishness’ through education in school. Initially, she is brought up rather traditionally in colonial Trinidad by her aunt and is rooted in her culture. In school, however, she undergoes an English education that introduces her to strange concepts and thus leaves her confused about European customs and names. When she moves to her anglicised aunt Beatrice after winning a scholarship, Tee, like Tambu, begins to adapt a westernised lifestyle and is alienated from her cultural heritage and past.
Both novels depict the influence of ‘Englishness’ on individuals in a postcolonial context, yet, in terms of British identities it is challenging that the novels’ representations of Englishness, uncle or aunt respectively, are neither actually English (or British in the broader sense). What they impose on the young girls is what they believe to be ‘proper’ English behaviour, lifestyle and even language.
Their ideas of what the term ‘English’ stands for were rather stereotypical and I had to think about my own conceptions of British- and Englishness, realising that, being German, I tended to use both terms interchangeably. Naturally, as a non-native speaker of a different nationality I was not overly aware that what I called ‘British’ at times was actually perceived distinctly ‘English’ and that I consequently subordinated the other national identities in the UK. Just as I do not sympathise with the stereotype of the average German wearing Lederhosen, a traditionally Bavarian custom, at least they do not call us all Bavarian. The same understandably applies to other nations and cultures as well.
It is difficult to distinguish the terms ‘Englishness’ and ‘Britishness’ and ever since reading the novels I have become rather cautious of using either term. The habit of using the term ‘British(ness)’, especially abroad, probably arises from the problematic of having multiple national identities on the island. Instead of subordinating them to an English identity, we use the term ‘British’ to acknowledge the other national identities. The term, thus, becomes a sort of ‘neutral’ description and refers to common features of all identities. However, the stereotypes attributed to the supposedly neutral term ‘British’ then, remain the same, ignoring that what has been shaped by popular culture is actually English.
The overall problematic is not only apparent abroad but also for people in Great Britain. If they do not know what term describes them best, how am I supposed to know? Consequently, the question of which term to use and which alternative is considered the most appropriate remains. Just recently this issue occurred when I arrived in Inverness for my Erasmus exchange. When entering my host mother’s house, I complimented her on it being so “English”, when it caught me red-handed that I was in Scotland … and that in order to prevent any offense I should probably refer to it as Scottish? Or British? In the end I might have mentioned all three terms, just to cover all bases.