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Affective Citizenship: Gender and Narratives of Affiliation in Multi-Ethnic British Literature

  • Author(s): Graves, Benjamin Suzuki
  • Advisor(s): Ellis, Nadia
  • et al.

This dissertation explores the vexed or thwarted longing for community shaping multi-ethnic British fiction from the 1970s onwards. I examine the work of five authors—Buchi Emecheta, Zadie Smith, Monica Ali, Alan Hollinghurst, and Jackie Kay—whose writings foreground the affective dimensions of British citizenship and the complex processes of affiliation and disaffiliation by which black, Asian, and queer Britons claim belonging in the imagined community of the nation. At a time when postcolonial literary studies increasingly privileges, without really interrogating, an idealized rhetoric of “conviviality,” the negative, anti-relational, and disaggregating emotions circulating in their works bring into uncomfortable focus the factors that undermine the forging of politicized identities and communities in black Britain. Their writings also converge in a discursive concern with what I call, after Edward Said, “affiliation,” a process in which citizenship claims are facilitated by prosthetic or proxy figures hailing from often remote cultural quarters, ranging from the English ice dancers Torvill and Dean to the American blues singer Bessie Smith.

The alternative kinship structures explored by these writers register the shifting meanings of family in postwar Britain, beginning with the pathologization of the black family in the 1950s and 1960s and coalescing in recent years around a similar stigmatization of the Asian family. The literary treatment of male and female communities of contest in multi-racial Britain also registers authors’ attempts to resolve a crisis of self-definition caused by the rise and fall of “black” as a political identity in the years since the “Windrush” generation of Afro-Caribbean migrants in the 1950s. Drawing on the works of queer and affect theorists, my analysis especially foregrounds the gendering of affiliative communities. While narratives of cross-cultural and cross-historical affiliation have the potential to disrupt normative ideologies of gender and domesticity, I also show how they indulge a sentimental narrative of women’s community predicated on cultural assumptions about women’s exemplary capacity for feeling.

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