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Sunday, 11 August 2013

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A homeland in cyberspace

In this week’s column, we examine the ‘homeland’ created by Sri Lankan diaspora in cyberspace contributing to make a sizeable digital diaspora in general and pioneering the role played by Dr. Vicumpriya Perera in propagating and preserving Sri Lankan culture in cyberspace. Apart from being a prominent Sri Lankan academic in the USA and a diasporic lyricist and poet, Dr. Vicumpriya Perera is the founder of the popular website Sinhala Jukebox and coordinator for several other cultural websites. He published his collections of poetry titled Mekunu Satahan (2001) and Paa Satahan (2012). He collaborated in the production of the first ever Sinhala audio-novel Kulageyin Kulageyata by Bhadraji Mahinda Jayatilaka in 2012.

One of his noteworthy contributions to the digitalisation and preservation of Sri Lanka’s religious legacy is the production of comprehensive Sinhala and English versions of the Dhammapada CD sets in 2005. Dr.Vicumpriya has produced six CDs exclusively containing songs he penned.

The exclusivity in his lyrics is his enduring attempt to recreate the ‘homeland’, exploring diasporic issues and themes such as nostalgia, sense of belonging and extended family in the creative space of songs most of which are digitally available free in the worldwide web.

The perception of ‘Homeland’ is central to the discourse on diaspora and its pervasive influence on the cultures of the countries they left.

Homeland

Describing how important the concept of Homeland is for the diaspora, Robin Cohen in his book ‘Global Diasporas, an introduction’ observes, “Indeed, a homeland is imbued with an expressive charge and a sentimental pathos that seem to be almost universal. Motherland, fatherland, native land, natal land, Heimat, the ancestral land, the search for ‘roots’ – all these similar notions invest homelands with ‘an emotional, almost reverential dimension’.

Often, there is a complex interplay between the feminine and masculine versions of homeland. In the feminine rendition, the motherland is seen as a warm, cornucopian breast from which the people collectively suck their nourishment. A Kirgiz poet fancifully claimed that the relationship between homeland and human preceded birth itself: ‘Remember, even before your mother’s milk, you drank the milk of your homeland,’ he wrote.

Suggesting the same metaphor, the biblical Promised Land was said to be ‘flowing with milk and honey’. In other interpretations, the nurturing white milk of the motherland is replaced by the blood of soldiers gallantly defending their fatherland. Their blood nourishes the soil, the soil defines their ethnogenesis. Blut und Boden (blood and soil) was Bismarck’s stirring call to the German nation, an evocation that Hitler renewed two generations later. Even in the wake of the post-1945 liberal-democratic constitutional settlement, the Germans were unusual in stressing a definition of citizenship and belonging – jus sanguinis, the law of blood – that emphasises descent rather than place of birth or long residence. Thus, third and fourth generation ‘ethnic Germans’ from the former Soviet

Union, many of whom no longer spoke German, were accorded instant citizenship in preference to second-generation Turks who had been born and educated in Germany. Sometimes the images of motherland and fatherland are conflated.

The androgynous British conceptions of homeland evoke the virile John Bull character exemplified in modern times by the indomitable wartime hero, Winston Churchill. They are also derived from the history of Boudicca, Britannia, Queen Victoria and, perhaps more fancifully, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The last was fond of denouncing her fellow citizens as being overdependent on the ‘nanny’ welfare state.

However, she too (as she accepted in a rare moment of self-awareness) was a nanny in another sense, administering to all the purgatives and punishment previously supplied only to the British upper classes by pitiless governesses.

Given the powerful sexual, psychological and affective attributes of ‘homeland’, it is hardly surprising that ‘foreigners’, ‘strangers’, or ‘newcomers’ are often identified negatively as ‘the other’ and used to construct the collective identity of ‘the self ’. This is not to justify racism or xenophobia, merely to suggest that the social construction of ‘home’ uses fears and passions that are deeply etched in human emotions and weaknesses. Of course, there are a number of immigrant societies (the USA, Canada, Australia and Brazil among them) where an official ideology has been advanced that a new national identity can be forged with people of diverse origins. However, even these societies rarely escape periodic outbursts of nativism and display imperfect social integration. ”

Cultural diaspora

In a paper titled ‘The Diaspora Effect: The Influence of Exiles on Their Cultures of Origin’, Martin Kilduff and Kevin G. Corley say, “ Swidler (1986) refers to the “toolbag” of culturally specific skills and abilities emphasised and developed within each cultural grouping. When exiles leave their home culture to join the culture of another nation, they bring with them certain aspects of the home culture as part of their approach to life.

This cultural capital can consist of values, skills, training, language, customs, life experiences and other socially learned behaviour and attitudes acquired through intense interaction with members of a specific cultural heritage. Exiles from the home culture are, in a sense, ambassadors carrying with them the culture’s toolbag of assorted attributes into new environments. As ambassadors, their endeavours are likely to be followed closely by those left for clues as to what changes are made to the common toolbag that cultural members carry. The successes and failures of members of the diaspora are likely to be read as providing evidence for how well a representative from one specific culture can do in a different context. ”

Dr. Vicumpriya Perera has invested his ‘cultural capital’ in cyber space in the form of songs. The Sinhala Juke Box which Dr.Vicumpriya founded, has contributed immensely to make Sinhala diaspora visible and e-diaspora which through the use of social media has made Sri Lankan expatriates scattered around the world as what constitutes a virtual diaspora with far reaching influence in the way the diasporic communities interact with ‘home/land’ and with one another. Some of his songs such as Lankavama Labugediyak , Mada Avva Udasana , Bana Kiyanna offer critical insights into the contemporary Sri Lankan society while in some other songs such as Batha Idena Thek, Maduvitha and Andurema Mal Pipena , he explores diasporic issues, nostalgia (homeland, culture) and Sri Lankan extended family.

 

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