“Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,” wrote Rudyard Kipling, a man with a silly name who only had a career because West met East and immediately mugged it, running off with wallet, shoes and pants. Through Kipling’s pen, the British learned about India, and through Kipling and English medium schooling the British taught India about ‘itself’.
West and East are not just changeable, cardinal directions, but a worldview. Edward Said said in Orientalism that the Orient (East) was a construction of the Occident (West), whereby Westerners (Judeo-Christian, European, white) could identify themselves as superior to an imagined Eastern Other. East and West in this context are concepts agnostic of time and space, equally relevant in the colonial, postcolonial, post-Cold War and post-9/11 worlds. Regardless of where in the world you were or who you dealt with, East and West was the binary split between the colonised and the colonisable, the civilised and the savage, the powerful and the powerless. This is why the imagined West includes Australia while excluding Albania.
While the details have changed, key to the East-West binary is the notion that the West’s position of relative material power makes it producer, curator and arbiter of legitimate knowledge. America was not ‘discovered’ by the people already living there before Colombus rolled up. Domination of knowledge not only allows the West to constitute who and what count as Eastern, but determines ‘facts’ about the East. Facts such as the legitimate existence of an Iraqi nation, but not a Kurdish one. The practise of the West imagining the East and then telling the East what it is, Said called Orientalism.
While the West of yesterday attempted to define the East through cartography and the science of skull shape measuring, Orientalism’s framework persists in the Western practices of going to India to ‘find oneself’, in French hijab bans and ‘random’ searches by airport security. Something like Orientalism is also practiced in and by the East as well, where administrations and academies in former colonies attempt to classify and contain their own domestic Others—religious and ethnic minorities, particularly indigenous populations, are vulnerable not just to discrimination but being told by the State who they are. Similarly, Easterners have their own ideas about the West, as anyone who’s ever heard their grandfather talk about gay marriage can attest.
While it might be tempting to dub this as reverse Orientalism, in the case of Easterners stereotyping the West there has not been an equivalent reversal in material power that would give these stereotypes teeth, and the domination of national minorities is invariably the continuation of colonial-era, Western-led, projects.
Nevertheless, Orientals are arguably capable of Orientalism. Lisa Lau has presented the theory of re-Orientalism, which states:
“…the East (in particular South Asia) has now seized self-representation to a large degree, yet continues to draw on Western referential points and use Western yardsticks as it attempts to self-define. Moreover and insidiously… contemporary re-Orientalising, Eastern representations continue to be Western-centric: maintaining the status quo of the original orientalist dichotomy, reinforcing the centrality of the West.”
Lau formulated her theory through an examination of English language literature by diasporic South Asian writers. In her analysis, writers in the diaspora have a tendency to stereotype, simplify and exoticise their ‘home’ countries in their work—a joint result of themselves often not being situated in the societies they write about, and the need to convey meaning to the Western audiences of their Western publishers.
Readers of diasporic authors will recognise this in narrators explaining their societies to readers like outsiders looking in, talking about ‘common’ practices such as arranged marriage or kite-flying as though there is a secret understanding between them and the readers that these are, in fact, rare and remarkable phenomena. Characters and situations in re-Orientalist literature must display and embody Indian-ness, or Muslimhood, or whatever other label they are classified under for the convenience of the Western reader. With its fetish for presenting South Asia as excitingly different to the West, re-Orientalism prevents the presentation of complexity. The development of empathy through nuanced, natural and diverse storytelling is axed in favour of homogenous exoticism.
The theory of re-Orientalism is not without its critics, with Minoli Salgado in particular castigating Lau for reinforcing the East-West divide of Orientalism by arguing that diasporic writers—reductively framed as at once of the East and outside it, instead of the complex relations of belonging unique to each person—perpetuate Orientalism. While Salgado’s critique is dense reading primarily of interest to academics (i.e. no one anyone else wants to spend time with), re-Orientalism hits at the fundamental problems of belonging. Where ought we situate ourselves?
Where can we?
Ironically, there are aspects of South Asian culture that really can only be written by the West-based diaspora. Writers on ‘sensitive’ subjects as such minority rights, homosexuality, feminism or atheism have had good reason to be afraid to voice their opinions at home, leaving them little recourse but to either stay silently vulnerable, or to export their voices. In doing so, such diasporic authors may indeed reproduce what Lau calls re-Orientalism, either benignly or through having a bone to pick, playing into the established Western tropes of the backward, violent East. It is difficult to discuss such subjects without resorting to unflattering comparisons to Western countries, which are modern and aspirational. Orientalism obscures the role colonial states played in perpetuating and codifying the same systems of oppression that Western liberals pride themselves on having “overcome” at home (though the myth of Western domestic progress is being increasingly exposed through the resurgence of right-wing politics.) Not glorifying the West may be a hard sell for diasporic authors who cannot even express themselves at ‘home’. The sympathy bred from belonging is difficult in the face of alienation.
In my own limited writing career I’ve run into the problem of writing about themes I’m familiar with—for example, animal sacrifice—and the confusion this elicited from Western readers for whom this is exotic, and should be treated as such. I have been asked whom my intended audience is. My use of visibly non-Western elements in Western-centric media such as cyberpunk fiction has been critiqued as purely cosmetic, difference for the sake of difference. Otherness must have some utility, it cannot simply be. However, where is the authenticity in a man born and raised in Dhaka writing something Jane Smith could have churned out—and probably better?
While I don’t consider myself diasporic as yet, I cannot claim to feel true belonging anywhere. I’m an Anglophone, English medium, Western-educated academic and writer from a well-off family. These are the filters through which I perceive Bangladeshi life, and my representation of it in my writing is arguably inauthentic and Western-centric (I could not have written this article in Bangla). Is it my personal duty at this point to shed these filters and immerse myself in “my” culture in order to create work that does not perpetuate the legacy of Orientalism? Should I abandon trying to be intelligible and sympathetic to a Western audience because in order to do so I may—intentionally or otherwise—write stereotypically and reductively about ‘my’ culture?
Doesn’t the luxury of writing something abroad that I would not dare write in Dhaka vindicate Orientalism?
I don’t know, but I think we should ask ourselves these questions and seriously wonder how to avoid the perpetuation of Orientalism in our work—with an increasing awareness of how practically difficult this may in fact be.
Zoheb Mashiur is a writer and artist with an MA in International Migration from the University of Kent.