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Mapping the Position of Women in New Diaspora: A Study of Transnational Paradigms in Burnt Shadows and Brick Lane


Mapping the Position of Women in New Diaspora: A Study of Transnational Paradigms in Burnt Shadows and Brick Lane

Mujaffar Hossain

PhD Research Scholar

Department of English and Foreign Language

Guru Ghasidas Vishwavidyalaya (Central University),

Bilaspur, Chhattisgarh, India



Contemporary diasporic identity becomes dynamic that includes globalizations and transnationalism with the aid of modern technological development in the field of transportation and tele communication. The rise of female diasporic writers has enhanced the glory of South Asian diasporic writings and offered it a distinct identity in the global literary scene. In post-colonial new diasporic literature, transnational existence or national ambivalence is one of the prevalent paradigms. The new way of thinking about the interactions between cultures and nations is referred to as “trans-national”. Thus, through “time-space compression,” the second generation of South Asian diasporas transcends national and cultural boundaries, adopts various cultural practices, and creates flexible, porous, and fluid identities (Harvey 284). The second-generation women novelists write from a position of migrant women and narrate the cultural and spatial uncertainty, aspiring to imagine a state of togetherness in difference in culture and politics. The novelists in the select texts highlight the dilemmas of the diasporic women and their cultural and national ambiguity in the relocated spaces. This study explores how transnationalism is used as an emancipatory tool for the women to develop independent, self-reliant identities in the novels through the postcolonial concepts of “third space,”“cultural hybridity,” and “transnationality.” It also looks into the transgressive existence of the female characters with their constantly changing identities beyond boundaries.

Keywords: New Diaspora, Transnational, National ambiguity, Third Space, Cultural Hybridity


The writer Randolph Bourne popularised the term ‘trans-national’ in his seminal article “Trans-National America” which denotes the new way of thinking about the interactions between cultures and countries (94). Hence, the notion of transnational identity offers a new dimension to the study of Diaspora. In the common-sense, Diaspora meant to the dispersed people; dispersed means dwelling in a space that deviates people from their cultural and national practices. People who are in the diaspora typically have recollections of their home countries, which makes them feel alienated in their new locations. This kind of diasporic community is referred to as “exclusive diaspora,” and it is distinguished by a strong desire to preserve the authenticity of its original culture while maintaining a continual distance from the culture of the host country (Mishra 423). These essentially represents the pre-modern diaspora situations from the slow communication era, when telecommunication was less developed than it is now. However, the Contemporary scholars of diaspora such as William Safran, Homi K. Bhabha, Steven Vertovec, James Clifford, James Fergson, and Stuart Hall have defined diaspora in a different way with a wide range of possibility. As William Safran, a prominent scholar known for his work on diaspora studies rightly identified diaspora as “a minority ethnic population living in one or several host countries but maintaining sentimental and material ties to the country of origin, which thus forms an integral part of their ethnic identity” (83). Steven Vertovec claims that migrants “maintain affiliations to families, communities, and causes outside the boundaries of the nations-state to which they have migrated”, which sheds more light on diasporic identity regarding homeland and host land (574). As a result, Vertovec re-examines the limits of diasporic identities and relationships both inside and outside of host countries. He also attracts our attentions to diaspora as an arena where new cultural spaces can be created, which is a distinctive quality of second-generation South Asian woman diaspora. Therefore, in this study I will highlight the complex interplay of identity, memory, and transnational connections within the second-generation diasporic community with special reference to the women participants in the two novel Burnt Shadow and Brick Lane.

The distinguish phenomenon of the second-generation new diaspora is the active involvement of women in the process of identity development, which was lacking in the old diaspora scenario. Diasporic literature makes it evident that women’s roles were generally passive and that they were forced to travel to other countries because their male dependent had to migrate there, leaving them with little chance to establish new identities there. She seldom ventured outside to explore the new culture of the relocated land; instead, she spent much of her time in housekeeping. It is believed that the well-known male diaspora writers of that time either failed to adequately represent women's life in dispersed circumstances or were incapable of understanding the feelings of female diasporic figures. As a result, women are excluded from the dialogue until or unless the female diasporic writers come to narrate them. In the second-generation diasporic writing women writers are obviously in leading position.

The commendable progress in the field of science and technology; particularly in the transport and tele communication system bring the world closer and shorten the span of time and distance of places. This phenomenon of globalization and late capitalism that David Harvey called “time-space compression,” affecting the national and cultural identities of the contemporary second-generation diaspora, with regard to the native land and the country of settlement (284). Harvey writes:

I use the word ‘compression’ because a strong case can be made that the history of capitalism has been characterized by speed-up in the pace of life, while so overcoming spatial barriers that the world sometimes seems to collapse inwards upon us. The time takes to traverse space. . . As space appears to shrink to a ‘global village’ of telecommunications and a ‘spaceship earth’ of economic and ecological interdependencies. (240)

Therefore, now it may be acclaimed the world becomes a global village. Now, I am getting into the core subject of this study, since we become familiar to the background of new trends of diaspora and able to distinguish some important basic grounds from the old diaspora, it is clear to us that the new second-generation diaspora is more liberal than the first-generation diaspora. There is more than one trajectory that makes new diasporic identities more liberal and transgressive. The speedy communication system has brought major shift in the immigrants’ lives. It transforms the emigrants’ sense of alienation into a sense of belonging by fostering a connection between them and their home societies. It facilitates a chance of maintaining a strong connection to different spaces, cultures and nations to the contemporary immigrants. Naturally, their subjectivity becomes blur; the belongingness of the new diasporic participant is a big question – it may be the question of cultural belongingness or national belongingness, every identity is mixed up. There is no monolithic and dominating culture in this identity. This kind of plurality in cultural and national identity is termed as transnationality. Homi K. Bhabha’s explanations of hybridity, third space, ambivalence, and liminality have created the foreground of the idea of transnational fluid identity.

In his introduction to The Location of Culture, Bhabha (1994) sheds light upon the “liminal” negotiation of cultural identity across differences of race, class, gender, and cultural traditions (3). He argues that cultural identity cannot be ascribed to pre-given, a historical cultural traits that define the conventions of ethnicity nor can “colonizer” and “colonized” be viewed as separate entities that define themselves independently. Instead, Bhabha suggests that the negotiation of cultural identity involves the continual exchange of cultural performances that in turn produce a mutual recognition of cultural difference. This “liminal” space is a “hybrid” site that witnesses the production of cultural meaning (Bhabha 2). As he claims: “The representation of difference must not be hastily read as the reflection of pre-given ethnic or cultural traits set in the fixed tablet of tradition. The social articulation of difference, from the minority perspective, is a complex, on-going negotiation that seeks to authorize cultural hybridities that emerges in moments of historical transformation” (2). Bhabha opposed the “essentialist” views of cultural identity, those that try to define culture as pure and monolithic by means of national, historical and cultural border. For him, the notion of cultural liminality, should replace the essentialist polarity between a nation and other nations (148). Thus, the concept of interstitiality, hybridity, liminality, according to Bhabha, should undo the binary opposition that assist to construct transnational identity (142).

To discuss the transnational or cross border cultural identity one more Bhabian concept- “third space” is of importance here. This concept concentrates on border situations as the spaces where identities are performed and contested (Bhabha 12). Third space is a transcendental concept that is constantly expanding to include an “other”, thus create a field of contestation and re-negotiation of boundaries and cultural identities. It represents the fusion of the first and second space into a networked place that can be inhibited by multiple factors engage with one another. Refusing all the traditional notion of binary oppositions, Bhabha asserts that hybridity is what is “new, neither the one nor the other” (25). Therefore, none of the contesting culture is genuine or pure.

 Another prominent cultural critic Stuart Hall, in his well acclaimed essay “Cultural Identity and Diaspora”, argues that cultural identity is affected by the location and the community we live in, but it is not completely determined them (131-38). Hall regards cultural identity as an ongoing product of history and culture, rather than a finished product.  Hall observes: “Perhaps instead of thinking of identity as an already accomplished fact, which the new cultural practices then represent, we should think, instead, of identity as a ‘production’ which is never complete, always in process, and always constituted within, not outside, representation” (222). Hall further suggests that “cultural identity is a matter of ‘becoming’ as well as of ‘being’ and it belongs to the future as well as to the past”(222).

Burnt Shadows (2009) by Shamsie is a novel about history, war, and constant displacement. It is divided into four sections and covers the period from the end of World War II in Japan to the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in the United States of America. The story of the novel is set in diverse locations documenting the catastrophic impact of war and partition on humanity, identity, and daily lives of individuals through the fictional characters who have witnessed and experienced horrible situations of wars and partition. Shamsie tells a possible story of a young girl’s voyage, as well as the journeys of other victims, overlapping many identities, spaces, locales, and politics through which she intended to present a woman’s identity formation in the transnational world of new diaspora.

The plot opens in Nagasaki, industrial heartland and military hub of Japan where the United States dropped a nuclear bomb on August 9, 1945. The story then shifts to Delhi in the final year of the British Raj recounting the national movements of India against colonial rule. Though, the British retreated in 1947, a political confrontation erupted among the religious group, splitting Indian continent. Shamsie chronicles the brutality and communal crimes before and after the partition in this section of the novel. As a result, a large number of Indian Muslims moved to Pakistan and Hindus in the newly formed Pakistan felt unsafe and moved to India. Third section of the narrative takes place in Pakistan in the 1980s, at a period of civil strife and Soviet military control over Afghanistan, which triggered the global Cold War. The Afghan and Pakistani people’s lives are made intolerable by the Cold War between the two most powerful countries, Soviet Russia and America. Finally, the narrative comes to an end by depicting the consequences of 9/11 in New York and Afghanistan.

Many border crossings are interwoven throughout the plot of the novel, challenging the associations to national boundaries, languages, and cultures in the development of national identity. Shamsie establishes and cross-examines the relationship between nationality, culture, and identity in Burnt Shadows by constant travelling and reshaping the national and cultural identities of the characters as they move beyond geopolitical and cultural borders, dismantling and creating new identities. As a result, nationalism remains a problematic concept in the novel, and the characters are unable to form a firm attachment to any one country because the narrative’s setting of war and religious horrors denies them to stay and live in any specific space. This is one of the reasons why the novel’s protagonist Hiroko Tanakaremains skeptical to the notion of nationalism and adhere the moving transnationality.

Throughout the novel Burnt Shadows, Kamila Shamsie tells the story of two families, one Asian and the other the Western- Ashraf-Tanaka and Burton-Weiss family. The plot of the novel criss-crosses with history in order to reshape identity, through circumscribing, maintaining, crossing, altering, moving, or eliminating spatial and cultural constraints. The protagonist, Hiroko Tanaka recounts her relationship with Konrad, a German man. They had grown close and vowed to marry and start a family, only a few minutes before Konrad was turned into a burnt shadow by the bombing, as Hiroko tells Konrad, “We’ll leave them all behind, Konrad.  We'll discover an island where we’ll have to live alone” (Shamsie 22). Hiroko’s Japanese identification and Konrad’s German identity enunciates a subversive hybrid space or “third space” (Bhabha 211) that calls into question the conventional discourse of bipolar positioning. The bombing on Nagasaki had not only left her just physical scars but entirely devasted her world and turned her surroundings into hellish place to live. However, the frightening aftermath of the attack altered and reduced her to ‘hibakusha,’ the Japanese term for the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bomb survivors following World War II. She does not agree with the idea of reducing her identity to that of a ‘hibakusha’. As a result, Hiroko could not embrace any national identity and loyalty in the fear of losing her individual identity. It also causes her to travel to a different world, to a different country, and to adopt new culture, language, and identity by crossing national and cultural boundaries.

Therefore, she flies to India to visit Konrad’s step-sister Elizabeth in Delhi in quest of new identity. She meets there Sajjad Ashraf, James' assistant with whom she learns Urdu, a new language for Hiroko. They fall in love and got married. After their marriage many mutinies and movements against the British rule arouse. The colonial force had been defeated, and the British had retreated from India. However, another catastrophe strikes Hiroko and Sajjad’s lives. The growing communal violence between Hindu and Muslim of British left India resulted in partition. The partition of India and Pakistan led to huge migration from both countries, with people fleeing their homes in quest of a new home in an unknown space. Hiroko, now Sajjad’s wife, also relocates to Pakistan to protect her family from communal violences and atrocities. Her national and cultural connection to the nations has a direct correlation with historical events, it may be the Partition of India that forced her to move to Pakistan, or Indo-Pak nuclear threats that sent her to the U.S.A. Hiroko is constantly forced to travel throughout her life, transforming her national and cultural identities by putting them in flux.

Hiroko is the only character in the novel who appears in every section. She travels from Japan to India, India to Pakistan, and finally to New York. Hiroko is portrayed as a woman without a country, a woman without a religion, and a woman who can easily transcend boundaries without jeopardising her agency and strength. Shamsie portrays her as a woman warrior who survives a catastrophic tragedy and fights every new challenge that comes her way. Hiroko’s tragic background in Japan, full of loss and misery, could have killed her will to live but as a bold and sensible woman she forges ahead carrying the past gently in her heart. Shamsie describes her- “She had become, in fact, a figure out of myth. The character who loses everything and is born anew in blood.” (Shamsie 48-9)

The renowned book Brick Lane is written by Bangladeshi-British author Monica Ali and released in 2003. Following an arranged marriage to an older man a Bangladeshi woman relocates to Brick Lane in London, the city recognised for its rich cultural diversity and historical significance. The book explores, the protagonist, Nazneen’s issues in relation to cultural adaption, her feelings of loneliness, and her changing self-perception. As time goes on, Nazneen becomes more active in the neighbourhood Bangladeshi community and develops close relationships with numerous Bangladeshi families and women. She witnesses the struggle of Bangladeshi women who have settled in this alien country. She becomes friend of Mrs. Islam, Mrs. Azad, and Razia. Nazneen encounters issues of freedom, love, and self-identity via her interactions and experiences. The story covers themes of tradition, as represented by Chanu, versus modernity, as represented by all of the female characters. They all share immigrant experiences and the quest for identity within a new cultural setting. In this much praised story, Ali offers a transnational perceptive of individual identity construction for the women immigrants.

Cultural and national identity is presented in a problematic way in the novel, where identity is constructed on the ground of the malleable boundaries between two nations or cultural communities. Transnational identity developed as a result of crossing boundaries as it enables characters to adapt the host community. The overlapping and mixing of identities transcend the notion of fixity of national and cultural identity and create a field of ambivalent fluid identity. Ali, in her present novel portrayed her female characters in such a situation that they often belonging to the third space that provides them a new understanding of individual and cultural identity. Nazneen, being uprooted from her homeland, adaptation becomes an urgency for her. Initially, she maintains her homeland culture and avoids meeting the local people. First few years, Nazneen was obedient to her patriarchal husband and only did what he wanted her to do. The great transformation in her life and identity comes when she decides to earn herself for the family by sewing clothes. One think is significant to remember here, that the place they live in London is Brick Lane, it is a place for Bangladeshi community, a kind of ghetto. Therefore, Nazneen easily meets other Bangladeshi women and learnt from them the process of adaptation and the art of living in between the cultures. It is Razia, who suggests Nazneen to start the sewing work which in the long run brings all the things Nazneen needed as a woman immigrant to assimilate in the new culture. While she tries to assimilate the culture of the settled land, she maintains relation to her siter Hasina who is in Bangladesh. Nazneen, though dwells in London, knows all the economic, political upheavals and about the entire climate changes in Bangladesh.  Despite being in London she does not forget her home culture; she wears Sarees and does her prayer regularly along with Qur’an recitation. On the other side, as an empowered women in London, she goes outside to the streets and market to buy her sewing materials, joins the club meeting of ‘Bengal Tigers’ club. Thus, cultural hybridity becomes an effective way for Nazneen to assimilate herself into the British Culture.  Ali, through Nazneen indicates that identities in new diaspora cannot be strictly reduced to fixed categories as there is much scope for transcending the cultural values in the new diaspora. Therefore, the essential concept of the essentialists and the significance of national and cultural boundaries or territorial borders are diminished. Thus, it can be asserted that Ali, in Brick Lane portrayed Nazneen as a culturally hybrid as well as transnational woman character.

            Almost all of the female characters in the story including the protagonist Nazneen—live culturally hybrid lives. All of the women characters that Ali portrays in the book avidly engage in the process of assimilation, adaption, creolization, and integration into the host culture. Razia, who is the mother of Shefali and Tariqmoves to Brick Lanewith her husband who works at a Bucher’s shop. After the death of her husband, Razia felt at sea in the new land. Razia has to manage the expenses of the family by arranging second hand clothes for the children and for herself. Despite acknowledging defeat, she struggles to manage household in the new location and culture. She starts the same job that had been doing by her husband, and through this job she supports her family very well. It is Razia who first of all suggests Nazneen to do sewing job, and through this job Nazneen find herself economically empowered. Later on, this job invokes her to live an independent life the way women live in England. She began to attend club meeting and going out to market with Razia. Another women character, Mrs. Azad represents a true spirit of new diasporic community when she claims that little changes in her life style makes her much advanced and empowered woman. She says- “Listen, when I’m in Bangladesh I put on a sari and cover my head and all that. But here I go out to work. I work with white girls and I’m just one of them…The society is all wrong. Everything should change for them. They don’t have to change one thing. That is the tragedy.” (Ali 114). While we study the character of Mrs. Islam, we find the true transnational aspects of modern diasporic figures. She lives in Brick Lane by her business of money lending to the Bangladeshi community and without any kind of fear and hesitations she collects money from her parties in the immigrated land. Finally, we should discuss transnational characteristics embedded in Sahana who has been exposed to British society as the older daughter of Chanu and Nazneen. She damages her entire collection of salwar kameez and prefers to wear jeans. Every time her father requests her to return Bangladesh with his family, she objects. Thus, transnationalism emancipates Sahana from the patriarchy and religious prejudices of her native land Bangladesh.


Following the study of the novels Burnt Shadows and Brick Lane, it may be asserted that the two authors stress the notion of “deterritorialization” that breaks the notion of cultural wholes and fixed identities by representing second-generation woman characters. Deterritorialism, and transnationalism allows women in South Asia to break free from patriarchal, cultural, and national restrictions that offers a free life of self-asserting identity to women. In the text, Burnt Shadows we have seen Tanaka, as a global citizen who has established a secure life and possessions in other countries. She is not a member of any particular culture, to her, borders are meaningless and her identity is always shifting. As a result, we cannot simply equate her identity with hyphenated existences like Indo-Japanese, Indo-Pak, or Pak-American because she is constantly forced to shift her location and identity as a result of nation-building events and power politics.  Nazneen, a Bangladeshi woman, in the novel Brick Lane also crosses the national, cultural and patriarchal boundaries and creates her transnational fluid identity in Birck Lane, England. Therefore, in conclusion it may be said that existence of diasporic people become transgressive, they have no fixed cultural and national identities which is affiliated to a single nation or cultural group. The identity of the second-generation new diaspora is transnational, transcultural and fluid identity that provides emancipation to the women of the new diaspora.

Work Cited

Ali, Monica. Brick Lane. Black Swan, 2003.

Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. Routledge, 1994.

Bourne, Randolph S. “Trans-National America (1916).” Theories of Ethnicity, 1996, pp. 93–108,

Hall, Stuart. “Cultural identity and diaspora.” Transatlantic Literary Studies, 2007, pp. 131–138,

Mishra, Vijay. “The diasporic imaginary: Theorizing the Indian diaspora.” Textual Practice, vol. 10, no. 3, 1996, pp. 421–447,

Safran, William. “Diasporas in modern societies: Myths of homeland and return.” Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies, vol. 1, no. 1, 1991, pp. 83–99,

Shamsie, Kamila. Burnt Shadows. Bloomsbury, 2009.

Vertovec, Steven. Transnationalism. Routledge, 2010.