Identity is a two-way street. It’s not simply a question of what you yourself feel your identity to be – for it to have meaning, it has to be recognised by others. I can feel British to my fingertips, but if employers refuse to extend the rights that go with citizenship, if my neighbours ostracise me, abuse me as a foreigner and drive me from my home, my identity isn’t a great deal of use to me. If, when I complain to the government, the state stands with my unscrupulous employer or my bigoted neighbour, my sense of nationhood is worth even less.
If your family has, within living memory, been forced to uproot itself due to political turmoil or some other disaster, the fragility of identity is keenly felt. I am, so far, the first generation in my family not to have to change its country, name, job or all three thanks to politics. My great-grandfather put aside our family name of Shimanski, fearing that our obvious Jewishness would lead to our destruction should Adolf Hitler cross the Channel, choosing instead the impeccably Gentile name of Bush.
My grandmother, having fallen in love with a South African from that country’s Cape Malay population, had to flee to England. When she and my grandfather left North London to another part of sub-Saharan Africa, my mother ended up having to fly halfway around the world to attend secondary school because of the war between Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Today’s politics has lent Kamala Markandaya’s novel a new and urgent sense of relevance.
In each case, they found that the identity they thought they had was more conditional than they had hoped. The topic is as old as nations themselves, but today’s politics has lent Kamala Markandaya’s The Nowhere Man, an elegant novel originally published in 1972, a new and urgent sense of relevance. Republished by Small Axes, a publishing house that aims to revive forgotten post-colonial classics, the book has languished in entirely undeserved obscurity for many decades.
It tells the story of an Indian widower, Srinivas, living in suburban London, who, following the death of his wife, falls into a depression that is only lifted when he meets an English divorcee a decade older than him. But their happy domestic idyll is blighted and ultimately destroyed by the intolerance of their neighbours.
The novel’s focus is narrowly drawn on a handful of streets in one small part of the capital, but its echoes and implications feel universal. A similar narrowing of scope might have benefited Helon Habila’s Travellers, a contemporary novel about modern migration. Through a series of linked tales, the novel depicts almost every type of immigrant it is possible to imagine: refugees fleeing war, bigotry and economic collapse, globetrotting academics and more besides.
The individual stories lose their impact because they aren’t given the room to breathe, and its epic cast of characters feel less well-drawn than the small world of The Nowhere Man. And it’s that discipline that makes The Nowhere Man a vital read close to five decades after its publication.
Stephen Bush is political editor of New Statesman @stephenkb
Illustration: Gary Neill
The Nowhere Man by Kamala Markandaya (Small Axes, £10.99)
Travellers by Helon Habila (Penguin, £12.99)