Mimicry and Hybridity in Plain English
* * *
When the terms “mimicry” and “hybridity” are invoked in literary criticism, or in classrooms looking at literature from Asia, Africa, or the Caribbean, as well as their respective diasporas, there is usually a footnote somewhere to two essays by Homi K. Bhabha, “Of Mimicry and Man,” and “Signs Taken For Wonders: Questions of Ambivalence and Authority Under a Tree Outside Delhi, May 1817.” But students who look at those essays, or glosses of those essays in books like Post-Colonial Studies: The Key Concepts, generally come away only more confused. Though his usage of a term like “hybridity” is quite original, Bhabha’s terminology is closely derived from ideas and terminology from Freud and French thinkers like Jacques Derrida, and Jacques Lacan. I do respect the sophistication of Bhabha’s thinking -- and the following is not meant to be an attack on his work -- but I do not think his essays were ever meant to be read as pedagogical reference points.
What I propose to do here is define these complex terms, mimicry and hybridity, in plain English, using references from specific cultural contexts, as well as the literature itself. The point is not to tie the ideas up nicely, the way one might for an Encyclopedia entry, for example. Rather, my hope is to provide a starting point for initiating conversations about these concepts that might lead to a more productive discussion than Bhabha's essays have in my own experiences teaching this material.
Let’s start with mimicry, the easier of the two concepts. Mimicry in colonial and postcolonial literature is most commonly seen when members of a colonized society (say, Indians or Africans) imitate the language, dress, politics, or cultural attitude of their colonizers (say, the British or the French). Under colonialism and in the context of immigration, mimicry is seen as an opportunistic pattern of behavior: one copies the person in power, because one hopes to have access to that same power oneself. Presumably, while copying the master, one has to intentionally suppress one’s own cultural identity, though in some cases immigrants and colonial subjects are left so confused by their cultural encounter with a dominant foreign culture that there may not be a clear preexisting identity to suppress.
Mimicry is often seen as something shameful, and a black or brown person engaging in mimicry is usually derided by other members of his or her group for doing so. (There are quite a number of colloquial insults that refer to mimicry, such as “coconut” – to describe a brown person who behaves like he’s white, or “oreo,” which is the same but usually applied to a black person. Applied in reverse, a term that is sometimes used is “wigger.” [See more on "reverse mimicry" below.]) Though mimicry is a very important concept in thinking about the relationship between colonizing and colonized peoples, and many people have historically been derided as mimics or mimic-men, it is interesting that almost no one ever describes themselves as positively engaged in mimicry: it is always something that someone else is doing.
Mimicry is frequently invoked with reference to the “been-to,” someone who has traveled to the west, and then returned "home," seemingly completely transformed. Frantz Fanon mocked the affected pretentiousness of Martinician "been-tos" in Black Skin, White Masks, and the cultural confusion of the been-to Nyasha (and her family) in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions is one of the central issues in that novel. The characters in Nervous Conditions who have not had the same experience of travel in the west find the desire of those who have returned to impose their English values, language, and religion on everyone else bewildering and offensive.
Mimicry, however, is not all bad. In his essay “Of Mimicry and Man,” Bhabha described mimicry as sometimes unintentionally subversive. In Bhabha’s way of thinking, which is derived from Jacques Derrida’s deconstructive reading of J.L. Austin’s idea of the “performative,” mimicry is a kind of performance that exposes the artificiality of all symbolic expressions of power. In other words, if an Indian, desiring to mimic the English, becomes obsessed with some particular codes associated with Englishness, such as the British colonial obsession with the sola topee, his performance of those codes might show how hollow the codes really are. While that may well be plausible, in fact, in colonial and postcolonial literature this particular dynamic is not seen very often, in large part, one suspects, because it is quite unlikely that a person would consciously employ this method of subversion when there are often many more direct methods. Indeed, it is hard to think of even a single example in postcolonial literature where this very particular kind of subversion is in effect.
There is another, much more straightforward way in which mimicry can actually be subversive or empowering –- when it involves the copying of “western” concepts of justice, freedom, and the rule of law. One sees an example of this in Forster’s A Passage to India, with a relatively minor character named Mr. Amritrao, a lawyer from Calcutta, whom the British Anglo-Indians dread. They dread him not because he is unfair; indeed, what is threatening about him is precisely the fact that he has learned enough of the principles of British law to realize that those principles should, in all fairness apply to Indians as much as to the British. As a foreign-educated, English speaking Indian lawyer in colonial India, he might be mocked as a “mimic man” or a “babu,” but it may be that that mockery covers over a defensive fear that the British legal system is not quite as fair as it should be.
Indeed, the example of Amritrao in Forster’s novel might lead to a broader political discussion: many anti-colonial nationalist movements in Asia and Africa emerged out of what might be thought of as mimicry of western political ideas. The historian Partha Chatterjee argued that Indian nationalism emerged as a “a derivative discourse” –- a copy of western nationalism adapted to the Indian context. Over time, of course, the derivative ideas of justice, democracy, and equality, as they were used by activists, tended to get adapted to a local culture. Perhaps the person who did this best was Mohandas K. Gandhi. Gandhi took symbols of Indian asceticism and simplicity (such as traditional Indian dress and fabric) along with progressive western concepts of socialism, and used that new fusion of ideas to mobilize the masses of ordinary Indians, most of whom had had little direct contact with the British. Through Gandhi, Indian nationalism, which may have started as a “derivative” of nationalism in the west, became something distinctively and uniquely Indian.
As a final note before moving on to hybridity, it might be worthwhile to say a little about reverse mimicry, which in the colonial context was often referred to as "going native." Though mimicry is almost always used in postcolonial studies with reference to colonials and immigrant minorities imitating white cultural and linguistic norms (let’s call this “passing up”), mimicry could also be reversed, especially since there are so many examples, in the history of British colonialism especially, of British subjects who either disguised themselves as Indians or Africans, or fantasized of doing so. The most famous example of this kind of reverse mimicry (“passing down”) might be Richard Francis Burton, who often attempted to disguise himself as Arab or Indian during his time as a colonial administrator. In literature, the most influential example of affirmatively “passing down” might be Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, where Kipling invents a white child (the son of an Irish solidier in British India), who grows up wild, as it were, on the streets of Lahore, outside of the reach of British society. Though Kipling’s interest in “passing down” does not overcome the numerous mean-spirited and racialist statements Kipling made about Indians throughout his career, the thought of being able to break out of his identity as an Anglo-Indian and live “like a native” does seemingly reflect a real affection and a sense of excitement about Indian culture.
For other writers, the possibility of "going native" was seen as a threat or a danger to be confronted; the prospect that Kurtz has "gone native" is certainly one of the animating anxieties in Conrad's Heart of Darkness, for example.
* * *
By contrast to mimicry, which is a relatively fixed and limited idea, postcolonial hybridity can be quite slippery and broad. At a basic level, hybridity refers to any mixing of east and western culture. Within colonial and postcolonial literature, it most commonly refers to colonial subjects from Asia or Africa who have found a balance between eastern and western cultural attributes. However, in Homi Bhabha’s initial usage of the term in his essay “Signs Taken For Wonders,” he clearly thought of hybridity as a subversive tool whereby colonized people might challenge various forms of oppression (Bhabha’s example is of the British missionaries’ imposition of the Bible in rural India in the 19th century.).
However, the term hybridity, which relies on a metaphor from biology, is commonly used in much broader ways, to refer to any kind of cultural mixing or mingling between East and West. As it is commonly used, this more general sense of hybridity has many limitations. Hybridity defined as cultural mixing in general does not help us explicitly account for the many different paths by which someone can come to embody a mix of eastern and western attributes, nor does it differentiate between people who have consciously striven to achieve a mixed or balanced identity and those who accidentally reflect it. Hybridity defined this way also seems like a rather awkward term to describe people who are racially mixed, such as “Eurasians” in the British Raj in India, or biracial or multiracial people all around the postcolonial world. Fourth, though it is more commonly deployed in the context of Indian or African societies that take on influences from the west, one needs to account for how hybridity, like mimicry, can run in “reverse,” that is to say, it can describe how western cultures can be inflected by Asian or African elements ("chutneyfied," as it were). Finally, it seems important to note that there can be very different registers of hybridity, from slight mixing to very aggressive instances of culture-clash.
For all those reasons, it may not be that useful to speak of hybridity in general. What might be more helpful is thinking about different hybridities –- a set of differentiated sub-categories: 1) racial, 2) linguistic, 3) literary, 4) cultural, and 5) religious. The main sub-categories are really (2), (3), and (4), where (2) and (3) overlap closely. In what follows I will explain why (1) is not really very relevant in most cases. And sub-category (5) might be of secondary importance for some readers, though I would argue that it should be taken quite seriously.
1. Racial hybridity. The term "hybridity" derives from biology, where hybrids are defined as reflecting the merger of two genetic streams, so it might seem logical to talk about hybridity in terms of race. But in fact applying the term this way does not seem productive. Most formerly colonial societies have their very specific, localized words to describe people of mixed race ancestry, and the term “hybrid” is generally not used in the context of race. (Indeed, using this term this way might be offensive to people of mixed ancestry.)
In the Indian context, for example, there is an established community of “Eurasians,” who were marked as a separate community by the British after interracial marriage was banned, and who as a result held themselves as a clearly demarcated community even after Indian independence (when most Eurasians left the country). In Latin America, the term “mestizo” is often used to describe people of mixed European, African, and Native American descent. The idea of “racial hybridity” today seems awkward, in large part because it clearly relies on the idea, inherited from nineteenth-century race science, that racial difference is an empirically-verifiable reality. In fact, it is unclear that racial markers such as “African” or “Asian” have any precise meaning. Today, the norm amongst most scholars, which I agree with, is to deemphasize biological or genetic race in favor of “culture.”
Ironically, though the biological basis for the concept of hybridity seems to invite a discussion of race, it seems inappropriate to actually apply it to biracial or multiracial for the afore-mentioned reasons.
2. Linguistic hybridity. Linguistic hybridity can refer to elements from foreign languages that enter into a given language, whether it’s the adoption of English words into Asian or African languages, or the advent of Asian or African words into English. To talk about linguistic hybridity, one benefits from reference to terms from linguistics, including the ideas of slang, patois, pidgin, and dialect. Over the course of the long history of British colonialism in India, quite a number of Indian words entered British speech, first amongst the white “Anglo-Indians,” but over time these words entered the English language more broadly. Today, words like “pajamas,” bungalow,” and “mulligatawny” are often used without an awareness that they derive from Indian languages. Similarly, words like “mumbo-jumbo” have entered the English language from African languages.
As a result of colonialism, the English language has become established in Ireland as well as African, Caribbean, and Asian societies formerly colonized by England (just as French has become established in societies in Africa and the Caribbean that were formerly colonized by France). This fact was historically quite controversial, and it still produces some measure of anxiety throughout the postcolonial world, though most African and Asian countries now embrace English-language education as the language of international commerce. Aside from the fact that English is seen by some as an imposed language, the lingering problem is that in many cases writers who use English in Asia or Africa are using a language different from the one most likely spoken by their main characters. Achebe addresses this problem as follows:
For an African writing in English is not without its serious setbacks. He often finds himself describing situations or modes of thought which have no direct equivalent in the English way of life. Caught in that situation he can do one of two things. He can try and contain what he wants to say within the limits of conventional English or he can try to push back those limits to accommodate his ideas ... I submit that those who can do the work of extending the frontiers of English so as to accommodate African thought-patterns must do it through their mastery of English and not out of innocence (Chinua Achebe)
Works by people who have incomplete mastery of English, like Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard, are sometimes cited as examples of linguistic hybridity. But Achebe’s point here is that such works are less likely to be meaningful or interesting than those by people who have demonstrable mastery of English, but who are aware that one might wish to “extend the frontiers” of the language beyond Standard Written English in order to come closer to capturing the voices and thoughts of people living outside of Europe or North America.
There are many examples of linguistic hybridity that one could mention. James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man has a famous example of anxiety about the status of English. Stephen Dedalus, an English-speaking Irishman in Dublin at the turn of the century, encounters a British priest, and frets that “the language we are speaking is his before it is mine.” But for Joyce, for whom there was no option but to write in English, and it becomes clear even within Joyce’s novel it becomes clear that Stephen has as much right to English as any native-born Englishman. In Africa, beginning in the 1970s, quite a number of prominent intellectuals rebelled against English. The Kenyan novelist Ngugi w’a Thiong’o, who started his career writing novels in English, decided to give up that practice in favor of writing in his native Kikuyu. Arguing against Ngugi, Achebe defended his use of English as a language that many Africans might have in common (for that matter, Achebe argued, even within Nigeria, there are so many languages that English might be the only national language of the country.) Other interesting approaches to linguistic hybridity include the use of pidgin in Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English, and Edward Kamau Braithwaite’s concept of “nation language,” which entails the use of Caribbean patois elements as a liberatory gesture.
Over time, the practical and commercial advantages of writing in English or French over local languages have sometimes quietly settled the debate where writers might have a choice of language (that is to say, writers who have a choice tend to choose the language with the largest market). However, in India especially, vibrant and serious literature continues to be written in Hindi as well as regional languages, though this writing is often overlooked by "postcolonial" scholars, when it either remains untranslated or is translated badly.
3. Literary hybridity. What I am calling literary hybridity (hybridity at the level of narrative form) is fundamental to what we now know as postcolonial literature. In part, basic modern literary forms such as the novel and the short story are modes of writing invented in the West, though they were readily adopted by colonial authors in Africa and Asia (the first Indian novels were being published in the 1860s). But almost immediately after it emerged, the “foreign” genre of the western novel became one of the primary ways by which Africans and Asians began to collectively imagine a sense of national, cultural identity. The fact that the novel may have been a borrowed form did not seem to be a limitation for the first generations of Asian and Africans who used it; in fact, the novel has proven to be an incredibly flexible and open format.
Literary hybridity is often invoked with contemporary postcolonial literature that uses experimental modes of narration, such as “magic realism.” The Indian writer Salman Rushdie and African writers like Ben Okri have experimented with modes of storytelling that blend local traditions and folk culture with experimental (postmodernist) ideas. A novel like Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is an instance of literary hybridity in that mingles traditional Indian texts like The Ramayana with a self-reflexive narrative frame that is usually associated with European postmodernist writers like Italo Calvino.
Another way of thinking about literary hybridity relates to postcolonial literature’s response to the Western Tradition (the Canon). While postcolonial writers have freely adapted western literary forms for their own purposes, as with the question of language there remains some anxiety with regard to how Canonical authors have represented (or misrepresented) Africa and Asia in their works. As a result, postcolonial writers have often attempted to “write back” to the British Canon with revisionist adaptations of classic works. Here are three well-known examples:
--Aime Cesaire’s “black power” version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Une Tempete, with Caliban playing a revolutionary black intellectual.
--Jean Rhys’s Caribbean-centered version of Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea, which explores the back-story of the white Caribbean Creole Bertha Mason.
--Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North is a kind of reversal (or revision) of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
These three examples (and there are might be others... suggestions?) of postcolonial revisions might be thought of as a form of literary hybridity. Cesaire, Rhys, and Salih take the basic plot and form of British narratives that invoke Africa or the Caribbean, but write them from an African or Caribbean point of view.
Another, slightly different example of literary hybridity might be Agha Shahid Ali’s concept of an English-language ghazal (which I talked about here). In conceiving of this, Shahid Ali, as a Kashmiri poet writing in English and living in the United States, wanted to legitimize his own efforts at composing Ghazals in English. But he also clearly had in mind the idea that American poets with no connection to South Asia or the Middle East might start to think of the Ghazal as an English-language form they might adapt for themselves, like a Villanelle or a Sonnet.
4. Cultural hybridity. Culture, defined in terms of art, music, fashion, cuisine, and so on, might be the broadest and perhaps also the easiest place to think about hybridity. Cultural hybridity is also extremely widespread today, as one sees a proliferation of fusion cuisine, fusion cuisine, and fusion musical forms. For most readers cultural hybridity is a given -– something we might encounter without even giving a second thought, when we see an Indian-influenced design in a blouse on sale at the Gap, or when we hear about Japanese (or Arab or German) hip hop.
However, historically, cultural hybridity has not always been quite as easy, nor has it been uncontroversial. In colonial writing, hybridity was clearly less important in many ways than mimicry. Late Victorian writers like Kipling, for instance, saw Indians who seemed to be a mix of east and west as absurd, and mocked them in his stories as well as personal letters. For Kipling and some of his peers, the English-educated “Babus” were engaged in crude mimicry rather than a more intelligent kind of hybridity. For instance, on the occasion of the inauguration of Punjab University in 1882, Kipling wrote the following in a letter to George Willes:
Just imagine a brown legged son of the east in the red and black gown of an M.A. as I saw him. The effect is killing. I had an irreverent vision of the Common room in a Muhammedan get up. At the end of the proceeding an excited bard began some Urdu verses composed in honour of the occasion. It was a tour de force of his own—but I am sorry to say he was suppressed, that is to say, they took him by the shoulders and sat him down again in his chair. Imagine that at Oxford!
For Kipling, the sight of a “brown legged son of the east” in formal British academic regalia is mis-match that is, for him, inherently funny. (As a side note, biographers have pointed out that part of Kipling’s tendency to mock highly educated Indians may have been motivated by his anxiety about his own lack of a college education.) Interestingly, as Kipling continues in his description he seems to grow more sympathetic to the speaker, who has chosen to present verses in Urdu rather than English. Kipling seems to admire the verses (or at least, the choice to present them in Urdu), and yet the speaker's presumably British peers “suppress” what he has to say all the same, by forcing him, rather rudely, to sit down rather than complete his recitation.
By contrast to Kipling, E.M. Forster, in A Passage to India, clearly admires the way many ambitious Indians in the latter days of the British Raj were able to use the English language and make it their own. To continue the example of dress, Forster’s protagonist Dr. Aziz dresses quite easily like an Englishman, without being perceived as anomalous by fair-minded people. Though Ronny Heaslop is ready to mock Aziz for missing a collar stud in a famous early scene in the novel, in actuality Aziz had given his collar-stud to Fielding. Still, Forster’s novel also shows the sharp limits placed on the cultural interaction between Indians and sympathetic Englishmen at the time he was writing.
As a general rule then, cultural hybridity under colonialism seems to be a close cousin of mimicry. It is very difficult for an Indian or African, subjected to British rule, to adopt manners or cultural values from the British without in some sense suppressing his or her own way of being. Something similar might be said of a new immigrant in England or the United States: there is strong pressure to quickly acculturate to the norms of the place where one lives, which sometimes entails curbing a thick accent or changing one’s dress styles or habits. Books like Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, and Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, all address the problem of acculturation, and tackle the fine line between adapting as an immigrant to a new environment, and transforming so radically that one risks giving up an essential part of who one is.
Once colonialism ends, however, cultural hybridity in major metropolitan centers, in the west as Well as in Africa and Asia, becomes somewhat more neutral –- possibly a creative way of expressing cosmopolitanism or eclecticism. Many people celebrate cultural hybridity as a way of creating new artistic forms and developing new ideas. Cultures that stay still too long, many artists and musicians would argue, ossify and die.
5. Religious hybridity. This final sub-category of hybridity I’ll mention seems important, in part because religion (specifically, religious conversion) is such a widespread theme in colonial and postcolonial literature. It also seems like a fitting place to end, since Homi Bhabha’s example of hybridity in “Signs Taken For Wonders,” specifically invokes the imposition of the Christian Bible in India. Bhabha notes that despite the fact that local Indians “under a tree, outside Delhi,” readily accept the authority of the Missionary’s Book. And yet, despite that clear Authority, they can only understand the Christianity they are being exposed to through their own cultural filters. Perhaps, instead of becoming simple Christians, the local Hindus are simply adding the reference point of Jesus to a very crowded Hindu pantheon. In thinking about religious hybridity, the question is usually not whether or not someone converts to a foreign or imposed religious belief system, but how different belief systems interact with traditional and local cultural-religious frameworks.
The goal in invoking "religious hybridity," is not to pose people who practice a local religion as "pure," while those who may have converted might be seen as hybrids. In fact, religious traditions like Hinduism were heavily influenced by the encounter with British missionaries under colonialism. Hindu leaders formed societies such as the Brahmo Samaj and the Arya Samaj (and, in the Sikh tradition, the Singh Sabha movement), which instituted reforms and in many ways aimed to recast the Hindu tradition in a way that made it more legible, and perhaps more acceptable, to British missionaries as well as western scholars of religion. In short, by the beginning of the twentieth century, the way Hinduism is practiced and interpreted by many Hindus themselves reflects a certain amount of "religious hybridity."
Major works, such as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, or more recently, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus, centrally feature the issue of religious conversion. For Achebe’s Okonkwo, his son Nwoye’s conversion to Christianity is seen as a loss and as a form of subservience to foreign cultural values. Analogously, Kambili’s father, in Purple Hibiscus, is seen as imposing a rigid kind of Christianity on his family, at the expense of personal loyalty or familial love. But the novel argues that it is possible to be a “religious hybrid,” that is to say, an African Christian, without giving up entirely on what makes one uniquely African, or in this case, Nigerian.