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Embedded with the World: Place, Displacement, and Relocation in Recent British and Postcolonial Fiction

Au cœur du monde: lieu, déplacement et relocalisation dans le roman britannique et postcolonial récent
Christian Moraru


Cet article se concentre sur le rôle que la « sensibilité géographique » (Rovert D. Kaplan) a pu jouer dans les récentes orientations du roman britannique et anglophone. Ces changements s’ordonnent à d’autres transformation qui trahissent la transition du paradigme postcolonial vers un paradigme dominé par le modèle de la « littérature-monde ». Ce dernier tourne autour d’une nouvelle dynamique de l’espace et du sujet, et plus précisément autour de la localisation et de l’identité. Si des formes plus anciennes de littérature postcoloniale tenaient à situer des intrigues et des personnages en des lieux géographiquement et historiquement identifiables et faisant clairement référence aux empires, aux états-nations s’érigeant sur leurs ruines, et au cartes politiques en émergence, les auteurs britanniques et postcoloniaux contemporains semblent tournés vers des stratégies qui dé-situent, re-situent et relocalisent leurs histoires—avec leurs décors et personnages—, au sein d’un monde plus vaste. Cet article se fonde sur la lecture de How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, de Mohsin Hamid, et de Maps for Lost Lovers, de Nadeem Aslam.

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  • 1 ‘World Literature’ is here capitalized to designate the scholarly discipline and subject matter. He (...)

1Prompted by increasingly reiterated arguments about the contemporary ‘spatial turn’ across literature, visual arts, and the human sciences, my essay keys on fictional works that appear to suggest that, alongside authors working in other traditions, recent British and Anglophone writers participate in a large-scale effort to rethink their place in the world by picturing, again and again, this world as a shared if intensely disputed and sometimes violent place. This sharing, it seems to me, is subtended by a characteristically apposite spatial imaginary, which in turn bespeaks, as Robert D. Kaplan notes, a unique sensitivity to historicity and location. ‘My reporting over three decades’, Kaplan acknowledges in his widely read 2012 book The Revenge of Geography, ‘has convinced me that we all need to recover a sensibility about time and space that has been lost in the jet and information ages […] Instead’, Kaplan tells us, ‘I will introduce readers to a group of decidedly unfashionable thinkers, who push up hard against the notion that geography no longer matters’ (Kaplan xix). I certainly agree that geography does matter. However, such ‘sensibility’ translates not only into widespread responsiveness to culture as a complex formation fundamentally bound up with temporality and spatiality, but, as I will show, also into chronotopic reconfigurations that challenge more traditionally crafted thematizations of history and geography to the point of obscuring or even doing away with some of their basic markers. Roughly aligned with Kaplan’s endeavors, my intervention draws largely from Bertrand Westphal’s geocriticism to test a broader, paradigm-shift hypothesis according to which these adjustments are germane to cognate mutations that appear to drive what has been described as a transition from a postcolonial world picture to one refashioned by a World Literature or littérature-monde model.1 Revolving around a ‘worlded’ dynamic of space and selfhood, more precisely, of positionality and identity, this model rests, I further propose, on narrative protocols that inscribe and affiliate various localities into and with the bigger world and, vice versa, work the latter’s presence, en filigrane, into the cultural makeup of smaller places and communities.

2Now, generally speaking, earlier postcolonial literature went to great lengths to situate plots and human lives in geographically-historically concrete and recognizable environs visibly reminiscent of empires, of the nation-states rising on imperial ruins in the aftermath of World War II, and of the political maps reflecting these postcolonial transformations. To be sure, more recent authors remain committed to geoculturally and ethno-historically incontrovertible localizations of character and plot, whether these writers hail from formerly colonial locations, like Arundhati Roy and David Malouf, or from former imperial metropolises, like Hanif Kureishi and Zadie Smith. I would call their works geographically strong because, to put it simply, they ‘place’ identity, that is, they deploy locational information to categorize, pin down, and otherwise identify their dramatis personae. Accordingly, these novels and short stories are replete with realistically described existing topologies and toponymies, i.e., with actual places that are ordinarily referred to by extant, oftentimes real place names, from known neighborhoods and streets to towns, cities, regions, countries, and an entire attendant repertoire of geomarkers—designations, denominations, appellations, references, etc.—that usually help us figure out right away where a village, town, or town district lies, what the ethnicity, citizenship, or religion of the residents is, the country in which the heroes and heroines live or happen to be at some point in the story, and so forth. In brief, an identifiable place serves as an identity conduit, clarifies, characterizes, and builds reading expectations accordingly.

  • 2 Just a few examples of authors and novels illustrating the ‘re-situating’ model: Kazuo Ishiguro, Th (...)

3There is, however, a growing number of novelists who seem to be going in a different direction as far as the traditional—and traditionally realistic—umbilical nexus of place and identity goes. They would appear to be, by contrast, geographically weak. But, in an important sense, they are not. For, in their works, ‘weakness’ or lack of topographic specificity is actually a deliberate tactic, a paradoxical sign of profound and vastly critical interest in geography—in a geography produced rather than reproduced by the text, and by the same token a source of literary inventiveness and, indeed, strength. Along these lines, contemporary British, postcolonial, and Anglophone novelists from all over the world and of all kinds of racial and ethnic backgrounds, such as Kazuo Ishiguro, Julian Barnes, Mohsin Hamid, Nadeem Aslam, Brian Chikwava, Vesna Goldsworthy, Salman Rushdie, Joseph O’Neill, and J. M. Coetzee are increasingly keen on narrative strategies that de-situate, re-situate, and otherwise relocate their stories, along with these stories’ settings and people, in the bigger world.2 If other authors take pains to embed—and thus unequivocally affiliate and pinpoint—their characters geoculturally and otherwise, the likes of the later Coetzee dis-embed and de-localize, render the settings ambiguous or ‘generalizable’, if you will, yet not necessarily abstract, non-realistic, implausible, science-fictional, futural, utopian, or even imagined, made-up. Geographical contextualization and the reader’s capacity to determine places, historical traditions, and cultural sites do matter—pace Kaplan—in their fictions, but they do so otherwise: the postcolonial-culturalist ‘location of culture’ mantra now becomes, under the impact of the twenty-first-century world, ‘dis-location of culture’. It is not only—and, as the cliché would have it—that culture and people making this culture have become placeless or homeless, nomadic, ‘uprooted’, decontextualized, or free-floating cosmopolites ‘from nowhere’ under the sway of the late-global era’s sometimes brutally displacing forces. The ‘unfashionable’ writers who interest me here wield a certain narrative technology of displacement mixing up geocultural marking and unmarking, a two-pronged operation ultimately geared to new forms of spatial re-embedding and thus to the new production of space or to the production of a new space, of a new material chronotopology, of a new environment or geohistorical ecology for those characters and their milieus.

4How does this happen? And what does it mean practically? As we shall see momentarily, novelists like Hamid and Aslam, my main examples in what follows, narrate either by ‘un-narrating’, by withholding information about the specific geolocations of fictional people and events, or by presenting the diegetic environments and sites—houses, streets, community landmarks, public parks, natural scenery, and the like—as if they were or could also be part of faraway, sometimes unspecified yet existing and ‘conjecturable’ countries, continents, climates, and ecologies. This ‘possible-worlds’ kind of literature is, I submit, a sort of fictional cartography of the world, a mapping or, better yet, counter-mapping of the well-known, fast-integrating twenty-first-century ‘one-world’. For the new geographical sensibility attests, as I have insisted, to a geopolitical imaginary or, more exactly, to a powerful ‘counterimaginary’. The latter activates a spectacular ‘counter-cartography’ or ability to draw narrative maps that prove at odds with official representations, graphs, charts, and borders of political power, territorial administration, capital, internationally recognized literary traditions, language, cultural prestige, and other forms and locations of institutional and symbolic authority, identity, association, polity, and human expression. These maps do not simply displace, isolate, and alienate characters but inscribe them into broader stories, histories, territories, dreams, and communities—into a world that is wider and more turbulent, more promising and more ominous at once. These maps and the stories they trace and unreel do not ask characters and their readers to cast their worlds aside as much as they expand the horizons of the diegetic worlds of the fictional humanity inside the book covers and of the real humanity—the readership—holding those covers, so that they step into and respond to each other’s worlds and dramas. What I am talking about, then, is not a literature that leaves the historical, existing world behind, but one that enlarges, takes up, and takes responsibility for this world, its wonders, and shortcomings by engaging in its contemporary making and remaking.

5At a time when the humanities and the arts’ ‘relevance’ in and for the world is tested more than ever in their history, this world-oriented literature needs to be read and appreciated as such. ‘At the very start of the new millennium’, writes Westphal in his ‘Foreword’ to Robert T. Tally Jr.’s edited collection of essays Geocritical Explorations, ‘there is no doubt that literature has to be reinstated within a discourse on the world’. Thus, ‘what we call “world literature,’” geocriticism’s founder goes on to specify,

should imply a double openness on literary productions: first, that they be regarded as wholly universal and freed from any discrimination between supposed centers (they always have been plural) and peripheries, and second, that they be linked to real-life referents, a coupling that allows them to hold their own position in the global discourse about modern societies. (Westphal, 2014 xiii)

  • 3 See, among other trailblazing works by Bertrand Westphal: La Géocritique. Réel, fiction, espace (Pa (...)

6Among the most significant developments within literary studies in the wake of the abovementioned, late 1980s-mid-1990s ‘spatial turn’, Westphal’s géocritique and the North American geocriticism associated with it also participate in the global-studies-era spectacular comeback of ‘world literature’ both as a literary-cultural reality and academic field. This was as evident in geocriticism’s grounding text, Westphal’s 2007 La Géocritique. Réel, fiction, espace (translated into English by Tally in 2011 as Geocriticism: Real and Fictional Spaces), as it is in La Cage des méridiens. La littérature et l’art contemporain face à la globalisation, the book Westphal published in 2016. Together with Le Monde plausible. Espace, lieu, carte, which was brought out by the same Parisian press, Minuit, in 2011 and was translated into English by Amy D. Wells under the title The Plausible World: A Geocritical Approach to Space, Place, and Maps in 2013, the two volumes make for the core of a theoretical and analytic corpus that has shaped an entire, fast-expanding and quickly diversifying field.3

7Both tendencies are obvious in Tally’s work, including the collections of essays he has put together in the ‘Geocriticism and Spatial Literary Studies’ series at Palgrave Macmillan. In 2014, the same press released Tally’s Literary Cartographies edited collection. The difference between the two ‘companion volumes, is laid out by Tally in his introduction, and this distinction is pertinent to the present discussion. ‘Whereas [Geocritical Explorations] was’, Tally observes,

conceived in terms of an approach to reading works of literature, using geocriticism as an interpretive and analytic method that focused attention on the spatial significance of the texts under consideration, the contributors to Literary Cartographies emphasize the degree to which the writing of literary texts is itself a cartographic endeavor. (Tally 2014, 4)

8Otherwise, both books take to ‘spatiality and world literature’ (Tally 2014, 4) an approach that, notably enough, is interdisciplinary and comparative and that, more broadly, can be said to link geocriticism to ‘New Comparative Studies’ and neighboring disciplinary domains, inquiries, and concerns such as late global-era, planetary, or mondialisation studies. Across the contributions, geocriticism characteristically pivots, as Westphal points out, toward a ‘geo-centered rather than ego-centered’ reading of literature, with an emphasis on how such a post-anthropocentric if not post-humanist angle must account for the ‘transgressivity’, ‘fluidity’, and ‘deterritorialization’ of world spatiality (Westphal 2014, xiv-xv).

9De-centered and de-centering, sensitive to existential, cultural, and political polychrony, to ‘otherness’ and large-scale mobility, this kind of reading proves committed to a truly geocritical perspective to the extent that it remains keen, as Westphal repeatedly insists as well, on the world as a ‘referential’ and ‘worlded’ reality. In plain English, the world/monde of géocritique/geocriticism is a concretely material ontological entity whose tendency is toward oneness, toward an integration of its places and parts, and thereby toward coming together, ideally not at the expense of its fundamental and life-enhancing heteronomy. That is, we are talking about a ‘real’, one-becoming world, a world whose scope, defining processes, and literary-cultural makeup geocriticism may be better positioned to grasp than other critical orientations precisely because it operates with a concept of world attuned to what the world represents, to how ‘referential’—how painfully real—this world is. In the same vein, ‘reinstating’ literature ‘within a discourse on the world’—Westphal and Tally’s larger agenda—comes down to showing how literature acquires, under geocritical scrutiny, a new worldly import by deploying its own map-making protocols, a cartography by other—intrinsically literary—means. Specifically, the latter should be viewed as actively mapping the world in creative and inventive ways that are, to reiterate, not so much reproductive (mimetic) as they are productive, bringing locations, zones, intervals, borders, and whole worlds discursively into an existence that may or may not coincide with what we experience spatially, with what we see on world maps, with nationally and internationally endorsed geography and cartography, and, more generally, with what we know or think we know about the world and about ourselves in it. In brief, geocriticism—an epistemological GPS or sorts—repositions our understanding of literature and of its value by alerting us to how literature itself resituates and ultimately ‘makes’ world topology and by the same token makes a world tout court by projecting world possibilities.

10To clarify, let me play a bit longer with the GPS trope by drawing from recent novels by Hamid and Aslam. One can argue, I suppose, that, more than any other genre, the novel in general and the realist novel of still fairly young postcolonial literatures in particular is or sets out to be ‘geo-centered’. For obvious reasons, this geo-centering, this identifying presentation of the place, is both a literary and political project, given that re-centering one’s focus on recovered land, language, community, and their suppressed histories ‘matters’ in so many ways. This is, undoubtedly, a timely undertaking. It is, in fact—and also in Kaplan’s sense—both timely and untimely (‘unfashionable’) because it is geographically, or ethno-geographically, ‘thick’, descriptive identitywise. This geo-centering works, if you indulge my metaphor a little more, because the novel itself works like a narrative GPS: narrative discourse geopositions the character, and so the story is a story of geolocation. But, I wonder, what about recent novels that localize by unplugging or rewiring the GPS, as it were? In other words, what happens when the gizmo breaks down, fails to orient us, or lacks in expected accuracy? How are we supposed to react when the author ‘messes with it’? What about those fictions that set in train multiple, varied, competing, ambiguous, or ‘macro’ kind localizations that place the action on more than one plausible stage, perhaps wider than cities, regions, and even countries? What about those narrative devices that operate on several, larger scales and so, instead of finding or observing their humanity in a precisely identified or determined village X or city Y, lead the person sitting in the driver’s seat of the novel—the reader—to consider a range of locations, a plurality of broader possible worlds concomitantly? What kind of narrative GPS do they turn on as we work our way through them?

11You would probably love this kind of GPS in your car no more than I do my Garmin at a French roundabout. Nevertheless, this sort of purposeful disorientation or, better still, competing orientations does a pivotally guiding job in Hamid’s novels, for instance, where it does not make their heroes and heroines blurry and indistinct but defines them by opening them up to the world—to other worlds and to the others in them, while opening up these worlds of otherness to the characters’ humanity as well. This fictional world-making is, Westphal would argue, isotropic, namely—and ‘spatiologically’—a ‘systemic indecision’ generally defining, as the critic explains, postmodern fiction and different from the prevailingly isotopic treatment of space in more traditional, realist literature (Westphal 2007, 65). Where the latter’s predominantly ‘coherent’ approach situates, the former tends to de-situate by substituting hints and references to a range of possible locations for the systematic or consistent focus on the same place or on the same, unambiguously identified places and, by implication, on cultural sameness. It goes without saying, the distinction is far from clear-cut. But, overall, it can be maintained, as I have shelsewhere at length, that such isotropic techniques are more ethical, that is, they are better suited to make available worlds and, more broadly, a whole panoply of relatedness in which a plurality of geographies, identities, and ethno-stylistic modes are both uncovered inside the world’s cultural ecology and determined as quintessential to it (Moraru, 2011; 2015).

12There is, I suppose, an autobiographical motivation behind Hamid’s ‘defective’—or perhaps unconventionally effective, world-expanding—fictional geopositioning: a self-described ‘Lahore-born nomad,’ the author has ‘not lived […] since leaving [his] birth city […] at the age of eighteen, […] in any one place for more than four years’, as he discloses in ‘A Home for Water Lilies’ a piece included in his book of essays Discontent and Its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York, and London (Hamid 2015, 43). Whether the writer’s nomadic life has any bearings on his art or not, the bottom line is that the latter’s ‘signature’ in Moth Smoke (2000), The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013), and Exit West (2017) is a narration that does its job, as critic Rebecca Walkowitz contends, ‘reluctantly’ (Walkowitz, 195).

13What does this mean? It means that these books do tell stories—which can be fairly realistic at times—by un-telling them. This negative narrative poetics is fairly complex and even controversial with some critics. Here I can only single out two of its major procedures. One could be called inclusive; the other, exclusive. I label the latter exclusive because it functions by omitting or declining to release data and thus specify the geopolitical signposts that ordinarily assist the reader to pinpoint locations and thereby identify, for example, in which city or country—and even at what precise moments in history such as years, decades, and so forth—the story unfolds, what the ethnicity, citizenship, or the faith of the characters is, etc. How to Get Filthy Rich is famous—or, to some, infamous—for the extreme scarcity or sheer inexistence of such signifiers of place and identity, including proper names, place names, street names, and precise historical and cultural occurrences that would help with what I have designated as narrative geopositioning. There is plenty of material to work with, though. But, here as elsewhere in Hamid, all this stuff is non-locational or non-situational, which makes reading Hamid heavily—yet excitingly—conjectural work, a reading game, in all actuality, whose rules are laid down in what below I dub the book’s reading contract. Make no mistake: granted, the village where the novel’s main hero is born counts less in the plot economy, for it is left behind by his family early on in the story and so it can arguably remain unnamed, whereas the city where they all move is indeed a different story altogether. Not only does the urban location basically provide the settings for the whole novel, but this is one of the world’s megalopolises and also the home of the unnamed protagonist’s business. Such lengthy and measuredly poetic passages comprise the bulk of the fine print of what I see as Hamid’s reading contract with his audience:

Your city is not laid out as a single-celled organism, with a wealthy nucleus surrounded by an ooze of slums. It lacks sufficient mass transit to move all its workers twice daily in the fashion this would require. It also lacks, since the end of colonization generations ago, governance powerful enough to dispossess individuals of their property in sufficient numbers. Accordingly, the poor live near the rich. Wealthy neighborhoods are often divided by a single boulevard from factories and markets and graveyards, and those in turn may be separated from the homes of the impoverished only by an open sewer, railroad track, or narrow alley. Your own triangle-shaped community, not atypically, is bounded by all three. […]

Your city is enormous, home to more people than half the countries in the world, to whom every few weeks is added a population equivalent to that of a small, sandy-beached, tropical island republic, a population that arrives, however, not by outrigger canoe or lateen-sailed dhow but by foot and bicycle and scooter and bus. A limited-access ring road is under construction around the place, forming a belt past which its urban belly is already beginning to bulge, and from which ramps soar and arc off in every direction. Your bus barrels along in the shadow of these monuments, dusty new arteries feeding this city, which despite its immensity is only one among many such organs quivering in the torso of rising Asia. (Hamid 2013, 20, 82)

14‘Rising Asia’ is here the only attempt or, better yet, ‘tactical’ pseudo-attempt at geographical specificity. For the reference is definitely tongue-in-cheek, undercut as it is by the cliché’s reiteration, one that is not only locationally generic and stylistically ironic but that also conveys a non-Asian perspective—it is, no doubt, the Bloomberg TV experts who have been trading in the ‘rising Asia’ stock phrase rather than the poor residents of Asian villages or slums. And so the novelist comes back, on the same tone and with the same studied imprecision, to the city to sketch out the ambiance of the hero’s successful entrepreneurship:

Your office is adjacent to your factory and storage depot, in the city’s outskirts, on one of a thousand and one rutted streets where a few years ago were only fields but now little green can be seen, unplanned development having yielded instead a ribbon of convenience stores, auto garages, scrap-metal dealers, unregistered educational institutes, fly-by-night dental clinics, and mobile-phone top-up and repair points, all fronting warrens of housing perilously unresistant to earthquakes, or even, for that matter, torrential rain.

Here along its spreading rim live many of the recent additions to your city’s vast population, some of them born centrally and pressed out by the urban crush, others tossed up from regional towns and villages to seek their fortune, and still others arriving as castaways, fleeing homelands to which in all likelihood they will never return. Here, as well, resides the physical hub of your enterprise. You have thrived to the sound of the city’s great whooshing thirst, unsated and growing, water incessantly being pulled out of the ground and pushed into pipes and containers. Bottled hydration has proved lucrative. (Hamid 2013, 120-121)

15These urban surveys abound in the novel, and there is, of course, no reason not to call them descriptive or representational. Yet it is obvious that the author paints the place with a brush that is as poignantly descriptive (hence Hamid’s “metro-realism”) as it deliberately stops short of naming and, by the same token, of fully identifying any specific locale. In effect, if this reader were a betting man, he would put his money—given all we know about the author and the clues dropped throughout this and other books, nonfiction, interviews, and the like—on Pakistan and, more specifically, on Lahore as the main setting for How to Get Filthy Rich.

16The question that bears asking, though, is why does Hamid leave his characters and places de facto stateless, placeless, and even nameless. Why does he ‘un-qualifiy’ them so systematically throughout, here as in his other books? One answer is that he wants to ‘world’ the plot, its characters, and place, to ‘open up’, as I said above, the story and its ‘Asian’ environs to the bigger world. The book is, very simply speaking, about the downside of the narrative of social mobility represented and critiqued via a mock incorporation of the self-help genre. Both the genre and the social Darwinism saga are conspicuously international, or, more precisely, have internationalized American cultural stories. Hamid uses them, as he does his ‘un-narrating’ ploy to make the (presumably or most likely Pakistani) ‘Dream’ story appeal to a world Anglophone audience. But, vice versa, he also wants to help such readers relate—in Nicolas Bourriaud’s sense—to the novel, to draw this public, primarily those of us familiar with the American Dream genre, into a diegetic environment in which the difference from ‘our’ world is still marked (hence the references to colonial history, poverty, chaotic urban development, and so forth) yet no longer explicated or explicitly reinforced—disambiguated—by Urdu onomastics and toponymy. These are then exclusionary narrative decisions ultimately meant to include by setting up the novel as a ‘relational sphere’ susceptible to accommodate a world readership community (Bourriaud 2002, 43). The ploy works hand in glove with the other, properly inclusive technique mentioned earlier. This is the second-person narrative or ‘narrative address’, more exactly, which, as Walkowitz comments apropos of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, produces both ‘vagueness’ and a kind of ‘excess’ or multiplication of addressees and their worlds (Walkowitz 194). That is, the ‘you’ whom the first-person extradiegetic narrator addresses can be, in the 2013 novel, the main hero, the Asian man determined to get ‘filthy rich’, or can be the reader himself or herself as well. And so the story unfolding under our eyes can be both geoculturally specific, limited to the diegetic universe of, say, ‘Asia’ (or ‘India’, ‘Pakistan’, or even ‘Bangladesh’), and ours (presumably), the Western or (North) American readers of the novel. That is to say, the storyworld is not confined to any Asian country and its imaginary ecology. True, this time around, a number of countries, with the United States, Chile, and Pakistan among them, are named and provide some kind of geoculturally specific setting at various junctures in the plot. But this ‘specificity’ of locale does not translate into an equally clarifying pronominal rhetoric, which remains beholden to the same ‘negative’ communicational logic that undergirds How to Get Filty Rich in Rising Asia. Once again, this logic does depend on information. So important in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, the novel’s second-person character and addressee is acknowledged directly—metafictionally, one might say—to be information, actually, much like all other human entities referenced by pronominal signifiers of all sorts:

We’re all information, all of us, whether readers or writers, you and I. The DNA in our cells, the bioelectric currents in our nerves, the chemical emotions in our brains, the configurations of atoms within us and of subatomic particles within them, the galaxies and whirling constellations we perceive not only when looking outward but also when looking in, it’s all, every last bit and byte of it, information.

Now, whether all this information seeks to comprehend itself, whether that is the ultimate goal to which our universe trends, we obviously don’t yet know for certain, though the fact that we humans have evolved, we forms of information capable of ever-increasing understandings of information, suggests it might be the case […] all of us learning to combine this information, to find patterns in it, inevitably to look for ourselves in it, to reassemble out of the present-time stories of numerous others the lifelong story of a plausible unitary self. (Hamid 2007, 159-160)

17The fighter-jet pilot, the decision-making top-brass on the ground, and the equity trader, much like the rest of us regardless of who and where we are, Hamid insists, process information to find where we are—a place—and so ultimately ourselves, who we are. In embarking on this topo-existential adventure, we watch our radars and screen the world for a narrative pattern that geolocates one way or the other, placing something—a desire’s object, an objective, target, or some kind of occurrence or goal—somewhere in the world so we can relate to that place and whatever is placed in it, and by the same token constitute ourselves, be. But the ‘unitary self’ resulting from this undertaking is neither stable nor precisely identifiable because, ‘[f]rom the perspective of the world’s national security apparatuses’—and from any standpoint in this world, for that matter, ‘you exist in several locations’ (Hamid 2007, 161), physical and digital, and oftentimes simultaneously so. An effect of Hamid’s ‘nomadic’ view and style of life, this ubiquity has the paradoxical effect of rendering both location and identity ambiguous and therefore generalizable, ‘worldly’, for the place in which the self is located, described, and classified ethnically—yet ethically so—does not prevent other selves within or without the book from being addressed by the narration and consequently from competing for—or relating to—his or her position.

18Conversely, if Hamid ‘worlds’ Pakistan or Southeast Asia, Aslam, another Pakistani-British writer risen to global prominence of late, ‘Pakistanizes’ Great Britain, so to speak. The 2004 tellingly titled Maps for Lost Lovers centers on the Southeast Asian diaspora, in particular on the Pakistani immigrants to Britain who live in the fictitious British town Dasht-e-Tanhaii (‘Desert of Loneliness’). This is the title of a famous poem written in Urdu by Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz, but the name of the poem is also given to the entire planet (Aslam 377). Furthermore, there is hardly any reference in the book to recognizable and identifiable British toponymy and topography, place names, names of streets, neighboring towns, etc. Aslam too withholds information of this kind, except for passing references to London and its famous department stores and universities. Instead, the streets, landmarks, lakes, and roads bear names given by the Pakistani as well as Bangladeshi, Sikh, Punjabi, Hindu, and other Southeast Asian immigrants ‘[r]oaming the planet looking for solace’ (Aslam 9). We do know, of course, that the story is set in the U. K. But the author’s description of his characters’ environment is deliberately focused away from what we might call signs of ‘Britishness’. This is why ‘natives’ and their culture are presented quasi-exclusively through the immigrants’ eyes, which makes the natural world of plants, birds, insects, and elements abundantly and ‘disorientingly’ present. Compounding the disorientation is the absence or paucity of detailed references to advanced technology and to British material culture generally, at least compared to the extensively described natural world of a surprisingly elemental, lush, almost subtropical—‘Southeast Asia’-like—Britain. Indeed, this is not the ever-rainy, cloudy U.K., or not only, but the U.K. as planet. It is also the vaster planet, with its other continents, cultures, and dramas telescoped into a dramatically ‘defamiliarized’, ‘anthropolgically’ fresh Britain.

19The main source of this freshness—sociocultural, psychological, as well as literary—is a certain cartographic or, as I put it earlier, counter-cartographic perception whose prime meridian no longer runs through the Greenwich Royal Observatory but bends around a planetary positioning ‘sensibility’ more closely attuned to a world-system in which the sensuous materiality of natural bodies—of people, plants, birds, insects, elements, weather phenomena, foodstuff, etc.—supplies the major reference points. There are, accordingly, the historically drawn up and politically sanctioned world maps, on which the U.K. and countries like Pakistan, along with their peoples and traditions, are oceans and cultures apart, but then there are also the biomaps the U.K.-residing Pakistanis live by. On them, locations, distances, and divides of all sorts look strikingly different, and this difference, this remapping of a world asunder as one-world by radically repositioning the planet’s animate and inanimate substance is as corporeal and immanent as it is transcendent, divinely authorized. Unhappy as she is in her new country,

Kaukab knows her dissatisfaction with England is a slight to Allah because He is the creator and ruler of the entire earth—as the stone carving on Islamabad airport reminds and reassures the heartbroken people who are having to leave Pakistan—but she cannot contain her homesickness and constantly asks for courage to face this lonely ordeal that He has chosen for her in His wisdom.

She often reminds herself that Allah had given Adam his name after the Arabic word adim, which means ‘the surface of the earth’; he—and therefore the whole of mankind, his descendants—was created from earth taken from different parts of the world. His head was made from the soil of the East, his breast from the soil of Mecca, his feet from the West. (Aslam 31)

20In this sense—might we call it ‘theo-ecological’ or perhaps ‘eco-Islamic’?—humankind is ab ovo, multiply and inherently, ecumenical. True, people are earth, of it. But they are so planetarily also, to wit, in an ethical way that renders the earth a shared home, a commons. While nation-states, religions, ethnicities, languages, and cultures can be mapped out and, out of jurisdictional and administrative convenience, can even be pigeonholed territorially, they take a back seat to humanity’s pre-civilizational, ‘Adamic’, or ‘trans-territorial’ identity. This has survived millennia of post-Adamic ‘Babelization’ and accompanying cultural diversification and can be mapped out as well, but the obtaining map paints a picture of a planet hard to find on available world maps. This image, the one absent from any atlas, is primarily one of transit, bridges, passages, continuities, permutations, displacements, at-distance kinship, and unforeseen juxtapositions and proximities—a world portrait whose organizing principle is poetic and whose overall theme or content is ‘natural’. ‘“Look what I found,” Kaukab tells her husband when, in her kitchen, she comes across a seed of ravann. ‘In the palm of her hand’, the narrator informs us, ‘is a shiny blue bead, the outer skin flaking away to reveal the ivory within. “The packet” [Kaukab points out] said Product of Italy. That probably means they grow ravann in Italy. Is Italy somewhere quite close to Pakistan”? (Aslam 57).

21On a certain level—the one that counts most in Maps for Lost Lovers—the question is not necessarily naïve. Geographically speaking—or, better yet, speaking in physical terms—Italy or Britain for that matter is not close to Pakistan. But there is another geography, a geography of affect, the coordinates, distances, and locations of which are measured—geopositioned—by human emotion, whose world-making, fluctuating intensities and extensities are in turn functions of people’s concrete and very corporeal experiences with and amidst natural elements, plants, animals, food, and the like. In this spellbinding geography of the senses, of unforgettable and identity-shaping tastes and flavors, Italy and Pakistan come and ‘are together’, to quote Bourriaud again (2002, 60). On the novel’s map, they are neighbors and can even share the same territory, much like Kaukab’s ideal garden in her English town would contain both native and Lahore soil (Aslam 98). Similarly to the rechristening of British places and roads by the Southeast Asian inhabitants of the Desert of Loneliness, the ‘re-territorialization’ of Pakistani topsoil’s into Kaukab’s garden—she actually ‘contemplated’ having whole sacks shipped in from Lahore’s public parks [Aslam 98])—marks an attempt at a ‘semblance of belonging’ (Aslam 159) that is pointedly topo-centered, revolving as it does around place, topography, toponymy, and their saliently ‘identitarian’ dimension. But this reaffiliating effort, this reinvention of a communal identity away from its roots in a new place and through an intimate relation with it, has nothing to do with assimilation and ‘going native’. Instead, it has everything to do with the compensatorily imaginative repositioning of the U. K.—now a less and less welcoming country poised for Brexit—on an ‘Adamic’ world map of common ground and grounds, earth and soil, interests and goals. True, this relational map is aspirational rather than a reality at this point. It remains, however, as Aslam hints, worth completing. For, when the map will be fully drawn, the chasm between the former empire and its one-time colony will close, and various gaps, intervals, and fractures will suture so that both colonizer and colonized can start sharing and call the shared ground, its surroundings, and the world their home.

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Aslam, Nadeem, Maps for Lost Lovers, New York: Knopf, 2005.

Bourriaud, Nicolas, Relational Aesthetics, translated by Simon Pleasance and Fronza Woods with the participation of Mathieu Copeland, Dijon: Les Presses du Réel, 2002.

Chikwava, Brian, Harare North, London: Random House UK, 2010.

Coetzee, J.M., The Childhood of Jesus, New York: Viking, 2013.

Coetzee, J.M., The Schooldays of Jesus, London: Harvill Secker, 2016.

Goldsworthy, Vesna, Gorsky, New York: The Overlook P, 2015.

Hamid, Mohsin, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007.

Hamid, Mohsin, Moth Smoke, New York: Riverhead, 2012.

Hamid, Mohsin, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, New York: Riverhead, 2013.

Hamid, Mohsin, Discontent and Its Civilization: Dispatches from Lahore, New York, and London, New York: Riverhead, 2015.

Hamid, Mohsin, Exit West, New York: Riverhead, 2017.

Ishiguro, Kazuo, The Unconsoled, New York: Knopf, 1995.

Kaplan, Robert D., The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us about Coming Conflicts and the Battle against Fate, New York: Random House, 2012.

Moraru, Christian, Cosmodernism: American Narrative, Late Globalization, and the New Cultural Imaginary, Ann Arbor, MI: U of Michigan P, 2011.

Moraru, Christian, Reading for the Planet: Toward a Geomethodology, Ann Arbor, MI: U of Michigan P, 2015.

Rushdie, Salman, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, New York: Random House, 2015.

Smith, Zadie, N-W, New York: Penguin, 2012.

Tally, Robert T., ed., Geocritical Explorations: Space, Place, and Mapping in Literary and Cultural Studies, foreword by Bertrand Westphal, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Tally, Robert T., ed., Literary Cartographies: Spatiality, Representation, and Narrative, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Westphal, Bertrand, ‘Foreword’, ed. Robert T. Tally, Geocritical Explorations, ix-xv.

Westphal, Bertrand, La Géocritique. Réel, fiction, espace, Paris: Minuit, 2007.

Westphal, Bertrand, Le monde plausible. Espace, lieu, carte, Paris: Minuit, 2011.

Westphal, Bertrand, La Cage des Méridiens. La Littérature et l’art contemporain face à la globalisation, Paris: Minuit, 2016.

Walkowitz, Rebecca L., Born Translated: The Contemporary Novel in an Age of World Literature, New York: Columbia UP, 2015.

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1 ‘World Literature’ is here capitalized to designate the scholarly discipline and subject matter. Here and elsewhere in my work, the phrase is lower-case to refer to the world’s literature or to literature as a world phenomenon, whether or not ‘world’ has a special meaning or not.

2 Just a few examples of authors and novels illustrating the ‘re-situating’ model: Kazuo Ishiguro, The Unconsoled (New York: Knopf, 1995); Nadeem Aslam, Maps for Lost Lovers (New York: Knopf, 2005); Brian Chikwava, Harare North (London: Random House UK, 2010); Vesna Goldsworthy, Gorsky (New York: The Overlook Press, 2015); Mohsin Hamid, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007); Mohsin Hamid, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (New York: Riverhead, 2013); Mohsin Hamid, Exit West (New York: Riverhead, 2017); Salman Rushdie, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights (New York: Random House, 2015); Zadie Smith, N-W (New York: Penguin, 2012); J. M. Coetzee, The Childhood of Jesus (New York: Viking, 2013); J. M. Coetzee, The Schooldays of Jesus (London: Harvill Secker, 2016).

3 See, among other trailblazing works by Bertrand Westphal: La Géocritique. Réel, fiction, espace (Paris: Minuit, 2007); Le monde plausible. Espace, lieu, carte (Paris: Minuit, 2011); Bertrand Westphal, La Cage des Méridiens. La Littérature et l’art contemporain face à la globalization (Paris: Minuit, 2016).

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Christian Moraru, « Embedded with the World: Place, Displacement, and Relocation in Recent British and Postcolonial Fiction », Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 55 | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2018, consulté le 11 décembre 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/ebc.5054

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Christian Moraru

Christian Moraru is Class of 1949 Distinguished Professor in the Humanities and Professor of English at University of North Carolina, Greensboro. He specializes in contemporary American and Anglophone fiction, critical theory, and comparative literature with emphasis on international postmodernism and its post-Cold War developments and successors, as well as on the relations between globalism and culture across several national traditions in the modern era. His recent publications include monographs such as Cosmodernism: American Narrative, Late Globalization, and the New Cultural Imaginary (University of Michigan Press, 2011) and Reading for the Planet: Toward a Geomethodology (University of Michigan Press, 2015). He is the editor of Postcommunism, Postmodernism, and the Global Imagination (Columbia University Press/EEM Series, 2009) and the coeditor of The Planetary Turn: Relationality and Geoaesthetics in the Twenty-First Century (Northwestern University Press, 2015) and of Romanian Literature as World Literature (Bloomsbury, 2018).

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