‘An Englishman, almost’: Hybridity and Initiation in Kureishi's 'Buddha of Suburbia'

Term Paper 2009 13 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature



1 Introduction

2 Hybridity and Alienation in The Buddha of Suburbia
2.1 A definition of the term “hybridity”
2.2 Karim as a racial hybrid
2.3 Karim as a social hybrid
2.4 Karim as a sexual hybrid

3 Initiation novels:

4 Conclusion

Works cited

1 Introduction

“My name is Karim Amir, and I am an Englishman born and bred, almost. I am often considered to be a funny kind of Englishman, a new breed as it were, having emerged from two old histories. But I don’t care – Englishman I am (though not proud of it), from the South London suburbs and going somewhere. Perhaps it is the odd mixture of continents and blood, of here and there, of belonging and not, that makes me restless and easily bored. Or perhaps it was being brought up in the suburbs that did it. [...] I was looking for trouble, any kind of movement, action and sexual interest I could find, because things were so gloomy, so slow and heavy [...] it was all getting me down and I was ready for anything.” (The Buddha 3)

The first lines of Kureishi’s novel reveal most of what this “utterly irreverent, wildly improper but also [...] truthful [...] and very funny” (Salman Rushdie) story will deal with: “initiation, identity, the outsider looking in, and racial conflict. All of these issues are introduced in the first paragraph.” (Kaleta 68) Karim Amir, the son of an Indian father and a white English mother is the protagonist and narrator of the novel The Buddha of Suburbia. First published in 1990, the novel is considered to be Hanif Kureishi’s most successful novel. It combines the two genres “Bildungsroman” and “Condition of England” novel. Both are typical for the 19th century, but Kureishi successfully combines them both and brings them into a contemporary setting. (Bentley 161) The term “Bildungsroman” was coined by the German philologist Johann Morgenstern and arose during the German Enlightenment, presenting the psychological, moral and social shaping of a usually young protagonist. In The Buddha of Suburbia, the reader gets to know and understand the narrator Karim, starting with his teenage years and following him into his early twenties. Thereby the reader gets a deep insight into Karim’s thoughts and feelings, as well as the problems and questions he has to deal with. The “Condition of England” novel is considered a sub genre of the “social novel” or “realist fiction”. It arose as a reaction to industrialization in the 19th century and acts as a literary means of protest and awareness, highlighting the disadvantages of those who did not profit from England’s economic prosperity. Through the eyes of Karim Amir, the novel describes the political and social condition of London in the 1970’s. A particular emphasis is placed on racism, prejudice and culture clash, as well as the youth culture of that era: The Buddha of Suburbia “traces the cultural history of Britain, especially the importance of several popular musical forms and subcultures of the period, from the end of the influence of the hippie movement in Britain to the beginnings of New Wave in the late seventies.” (Bentley 162) The novel also focuses on the question of identification for immigrants from India and Pakistan, and their children. The latter are second generation immigrants, maybe even half British, which makes it hard for them to identify which group or nation they feel they belong to. The first part of this paper is an analysis of the aspects of hybridity and alienation in The Buddha of Suburbia, followed by a comparison between Kureishi’s novel, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, placing a particular emphasis on their function as initiation novels.

2 Hybridity and Alienation in The Buddha of Suburbia

2.1 A definition of the term “hybridity”

A major key term of Kureishi’s novel The Buddha of Suburbia is hybridity, which means “mixture” in its broader sense. It is closely related to colonialism and its effects on the people in the former colonies and those who migrated to e.g. Great Britain. The term was coined by Homi Bhabha, a professor at Harvard University and theorist of postcolonialism: “Every human being, in addition to having their own personal identity, has a sense of who they are in relation to the larger community – the nation.” (123helpme.com) As a consequence of colonialism and subsequent immigration from India and Pakistan amongst others, the United Kingdom is a unified state only politically, but culturally it is a mixture of “social, ethnic and national identities” (Bentley 160): “Each nation, province, island, state, neighbourhood and individual is its own unique amalgamation of history, culture, language and tradition. Only by understanding and embracing the idea of cultural hybridity when attempting to explore the concept of national identity can any one individual, or nation, truly hope to understand or communicate the lasting effects of the colonial process.” (123helpme.com)

Anyone who has lived in a country not as a native, but as a “foreigner”, not on holiday but permanently resettled in a new environment, is most likely to understand the dimensions of the term “hybridity”. Especially those who are second generation immigrants, those whose parents moved from e.g. India or Pakistan to England as a consequence of colonialism, will understand what a struggle it is to define one’s identity. For half-castes the dilemma might prove to be even more complicated, since they combine two or more nationalities in them, but might never have a strong feeling of belonging to any of them, and are often accepted by neither of their compatriots, neither the British nor the Indians. To those who have never moved away from their native country, the problem of hybridity and alienation, of “here and there, of belonging and not” (The Buddha 3), can never be fully understood. When living in a country which is not our home country, we might feel as if we are losing a part of our identity, the strong and secure notion of being part of a nation. But we might also gain from this step out of our comfort zone, since it allows us to see the world and ourselves from a different angle. Moving to a foreign country forces us to rethink who we are, and the aspects that define us as a person.

2.2 Karim as a racial hybrid

Karim Amir, the protagonist of The Buddha of Suburbia, is a hybrid. He is a young man who has to live between the Indian and the British culture. Clearly looking more Indian due to his skin colour, he seems to feel much more like an Englishman on the inside: “Englishman I am, from the South London suburbs” (The Buddha 3). For this reason the theatre director Pyke finds it amusing that Karim, who looks foreign and exotic to a white English person, is in fact from a typical suburban area in Britain. This clearly points out the irony of Karim’s personal dilemma: The suburbs of Britain are predominantly white, working class to lower-middle class areas. But since Karim lives in the suburbs and “has influences from two ethnic backgrounds” (Bentley 162), which is why he looks Indian, he is regularly confronted with racism, encountered in several different forms. Although Karim feels more English than Indian: “…if I wanted the additional personality bonus of an Indian past, I would have to create it.” (The Buddha 213), this prejudice against him makes it nearly impossible for him to live and identify as an Englishman. Karim feels more alienated from the Indian culture than from the British culture. Therefore Ravasinha points out that “for the generation who were born or grew up in Britain, by contrast, the dominant culture’s attempt to exclude them is felt more acutely and differently.” (Ravasinha 223) This struggle and desperate wish to belong to the dominant culture which is often denied to him is most likely the reason why Karim long denies his partly Indian descent. Only at the end of the novel does he begin to understand that the only way to feel complete will be to accept what he has denied for so long: “But I did feel, looking at these strange creatures now – the Indians – that in some way these were my people, and that I’d spent my life denying or avoiding that fact. I felt ashamed and incomplete at the same time, as if half of me were missing, and is if I’d been colluding with my enemies, those whites who wanted Indians to be like them.” (The Buddha 212 )Karim’s father Haroon, the novel’s namesake, has taught him that “You couldn’t let the ex-colonialists see you on your knees, for that was where they expected you to be.” (The Buddha 250) Karim’s struggle to define his place culturally and socially is clearly pointed out here. Desperately trying to fit in to British society during his teenage years, it is only at the end of the novel that he understands he has to accept both parts in him since he will never feel complete when denying his Indian descent. Both a strong wish to succeed in England, the country of the ex-colonialists, and an inferiority complex due to his descent are expressed in Karim’s personality. At the same time, he despises and satirizes racists such as Helen’s father “Hairy Back”, by using a form of post-colonial self-irony: “This was a delicious moment of revenge for me, because the Rover belonged to Helen’s Dad, Hairy Back. Had he known that four Pakis were resting their dark arses on his deep leather seats, ready to be driven by his daughter, who had only recently been fucked by one of them, he wouldn’t have been a contented man.” (The Buddha 78)



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University of Regensburg – Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik
hybridity alienation kureishi karim amir initiation huckleberry finn catcher in the rye london england indian indianness englishness race sex racism english



Title: ‘An Englishman, almost’: Hybridity and Initiation in Kureishi's 'Buddha of Suburbia'