Sunday Observer Online


Sunday, 16 January 2011





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A discussion on Sunil Govinnage's Black Swans:

An exploration of the Sri Lankan migrant identity down under

Part one

Migrant Writing has taken on a significant facet of the contemporary literary scene with the acceleration of the globalization process and people now finding themselves developing a more multifaceted, multinational form of identity in both cultural as we as a legal aspects with Sri Lankans holding dual citizenship. The waves of migrations from countries with Asiatic cultures to western countries since it began in the 20th century keeps on increasing with many leaving their homelands for greener pastures. Amongst the countries that has been and still very much is on the list of top choices for hopeful Sri Lankan migrants is Australia.

Although many Indian migrants and their progeny who form the second generation of migrant communities (from the east in the west) have begun spinning narratives of their generational advents, and creating celebrated works of fiction and enriching literary discourses, very few Sri Lankans who migrated overseas seem to take up the task of 'telling their story' to contribute to the growing body of Sri Lankan literature.

Sunil Govinnage

One may assume that the expatriate Sri Lankan communities domiciled overseas can bring in their cultural experiences in to literary discussion through the medium of fiction since it will very likely be embraced by future generations when they seek answers to questions of identity and how it all happened.

In the course of a recent conversation had with a granduncle of mine, Dr. C. R. Panabokke a former Director of the Department of Agriculture, the ongoing serialized novel Sunburnt Home by Sunil Govinnage came into discussion. Dr. CRP remarked that he is a regular reader of SG's installments and recalled some of his own experiences in Australia when he was there in 1954 in Adelaide as a trainee sent on postgraduate work as part of the activities of the Colombo plan. What is of relevance to this discussion is that Dr.CRP observed SG's writings as presenting very accurate descriptions of the Aussie mindset that one such as he had come across when facing certain situations that has a noticeable cultural gap that causes inefficacy to grasp 'ways' of the Aussie setup. Keeping in mind that Dr. CRP's own experiences are a decade or two before the time frame SG's serialized novel is set in, the former is of the view that there is still much resonance that makes valid ground to explore the Aussie mindset through Sri Lankan eyes.

Sunil Govinnage's fiction as Sri Lankan migrant writings

SG's literary endeavour therefore has begun to open discussion that recollects through reflections how the Sri Lankan psyche (before the age of mobile telephony and Google) dealt with scenarios that were a social and cultural challenge on account of many aspects amongst which was modern technological advancement which the Australians had the benefit of, over Sri Lankans.

It is in this light that I believe SG's work of Short fiction -"Black Swans" merits discussion as it provides a cameo into the psychology of the 'Migrant' Sri Lanka dealing with a plethora of issues ranging from unspoken homesickness to cultural alienation to dilemmas in social values and much more. One must assume that the characters of Jayadeva and family in "Black Swans" and the serial Sunburnt Home are one and the same due to the similarity of how they have been contextualized and of course 'named'.

Therefore a discussion on "Black Swans" could also circumspectly relate to the theme(s) in Sunburnt Home. However the purpose of this article is not to expressly create such a line of intertextuality but to look at "Black Swans" as a separate work of short fiction and discuss it on the stream(s) of Migrant Writing and what it provides towards furthering cultural dialogue through literature.

Focus of the article

In this article I wish to connect what can be read out of the text of the story in connection with aspects of socio-cultural value that can be related to from a Sri Lankan sensibility. I will opt for a more postmodernist approach to analyze the text by itself rather than the usual methods of discerning what the 'author intended to say' and impute all that can be analyzed from "Black Swans" in essentially SG's intentions and explicit message. It may or may not be so, let us leave that open and focus on what the 'text' can tell one.

Jayadeva and Darwinian theory

The title itself evokes the most central of images that runs a pivotal thematic element in the story's meanings. The fact that Jayadeva (the central character of the story) embarks on a profound train of contemplations by the sight of the black swans while out on a camping trip starts the story with a thematic thrust that reflects the overarching nature of the title. The black swan is very much a metaphor as well as an image and a symbol and works very strategically through the text.

The fact that the black swan is said to be part of the state flag is very telling of what power bound connotations can be read out of the text. After all any symbol of the State is an expression of power from a point of the institutions as opposed to the individual.

The fact that Jayadeva ponders on Darwinian theory of evolution as well as how it may be applied to explain the black swan which is indigenous to Australia, speaks deeply of the character of Jayadeva and opens the discussion (though not in a very subtle manner I believe) on the idea/notion of 'otherness'. At this point one may suggest a discussion on alterity (cultural otherness) is incited through the subconscious of Jayadeva who even considers the black swan to possibly be a 'mutation'. By using the word mutation the text gives ground to infer that the white swan would be the norm and its dark cousin the oddity or deviant.

Thereby if one were to ask what exactly does the black swan (as a metaphoric image) symbolize? Amongst the numerous answers the text may provide is that it is very likely a poetic image symbolizing the Asiatic (or even African) migrant in a predominantly white society.

Could the tables turn on the White man?

The Darwinian theory of evolution and also the notion of 'survival of the fittest' have connoted many lines to explore on a more politically tuned theme. The white Australians claimed the land through use of force from its original inhabitants who are dubbed as 'Aborigines' (once again a term given by the Anglo Saxon discourse and not really the indigenous term for self definition) and the fact that there is no secret about the race politics that play significantly in such conquests it seems that the more fitter claimed the rights of the conqueror. However the fact that the waves of migrations to Australia from nations whose people are generally darker in skin colour shows how a new evolutionary process in Australian society is taking place. And the black swans it may be interpreted, have greater strength to survive, which is quite telling (in metaphoric language) of how the migrant adapts to ensure survival.

Though 'the other' presently in white Australia (or even western European societies like England), the migrant may one day become the sole survivor of the processes of power driven societal evolution that may have unforeseen outcomes. After all, the present increases in migrant populations in the west (though possibly still not so in Australia) have caused much alarm amongst the dominant white segments.

Is it possible that the text may be inferring that one day it will be the migrant who will succeed to the claims of being the dominant population segment? Or even the next inheritors of that land? Very much a potent (and contentious) prospect if one looks deep into the discourses of Migrant Writing and what can possibly be deduced as to the future of migrant communities.

Barbecues and curries and migrant dilemmas

The barbecue scenario in the story also seems to have some significant symbolic value(s) built into it. Food and society are effective means to devise a cultural study of a work which also can be read for the validity that Marxist criticism places to such approaches focusing on the connectivity between food and class. In "Black Swans" the barbecue that comes into discussion seems to reflect the cultural sensibilities of Australians and also offers windows to the migrant mindset of Jayadeva.

The suggestion made by 'Peter', Jaydeva's Aussie friend to make a 'barbecue curry chicken' opens another vista to look at the migrant's context in this line of food and culture/society aspect. Not being conversant in the culinary arts I will not venture to suggest that a 'barbecue curry chicken' qualifies as 'fusion food'.

(I simply have no idea on the matter). But what can be extracted from such a terming is that there is some connecting of two culturally symbolic elements that can be a statement on 'identity'.

The Australians are known to be barbecue lovers who project it as very much part of their cultural identity. The same goes without saying when it comes to curry from the Asiatic viewpoint. The fact that curry has become synonymous with the Asian identity has been taken to the extents that white Australians use to word 'curry' or 'curries' as a derogative for dark complexioned Asians such as Sri Lankans, Pakistanis and of course Indians. One may even suggest it is the Aussie dialect's equivalent of 'nigger' (which of course is a derogative for persons of African origin in the USA).

The barbecue matter even shows how Jayadeva's own dilemma as a migrant who is eager to be 'assimilated'. To want to show his Aussie friends that he can do a barbecue just as good as making (a) curry is telling of how he resents the position of the cultural 'other'.

To be able to do a barbecue just as good as many Aussie would no doubt make him (in some aspect of symbolism) as good as any member of the dominant mainstream social segment.

The food factor that the text presents seems a pathway to Jayadeva's mind that possibly seeks acceptance of him by the dominant white Australian, as more or less on par with them and not as the lesser 'other'.


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