The essay Imaginary Homelands describes the plight of the writers in the Diaspora as they attempt to reconnect with their homelands. However, the reconnection fails miserably due to incomplete memory. They are completely out of touch with their homelands and hence grossly alienated.
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This essay will focus on the features of semantic and lexical structures employed in order to highlight the question of memory fragmentation. These are metaphors, semantic fields, intertextuality and text types, and register.
Features of semantic and lexical structure
There is extensive use of metaphor in the essay Imaginary Homelands by Rushdie. This is driven by the need to convey the theme of alienation that people in the Diaspora are invariably plagued with.
Mostly, the exiles have to do with faint memories, which have gaping hiatuses and therefore, they have to fill in using their imaginations (Seyhan 2000). The use of metaphor, it can be argued, deliberately reflects on Rushdie’s personal history. The metaphors have been discussed as follows.
The old photograph that hangs in the room where Rushdie works is metaphorical. It represents a section of Rushdie’s past from which he has been totally alienated. He was not yet born when the photograph was taken. The old photograph is significant because it prompts Rushdie to visit the house immortalised on it.
This is a black and white image of the house, and as Rushdie discovers, his childhood memories were also monochromatic (Rushdie 1991, p. 9). This implies that his childhood memories were untainted.
Pillars of salt have also been used metaphorically. It is an allusion to the biblical story of Lot and his wife in which the latter turned into a pillar of salt upon looking back at the destruction that was befalling their homeland. Pillars of salt, therefore, refers to the dangers faced by those in exile when they try to reconnect with their homelands.
This point to the trouble that Rushdie faced from his motherland when he wrote the novel Satanic Verses which featured Prophet Mohammad sacrilegiously. Consequently, a fatwa was declared on him and he had to be given a round-the-clock police protection by the British government.
Then, there is the metaphor of the broken mirror. The metaphor denotes the distant and almost obscure memories that those in exile have about their homeland. The memories are made up of many pieces that cannot be patched up together. The fact that some crucial pieces are missing aggravates matters. In extreme cases, those living in diaspora have no recollection at all about their homeland.
Consequently, they resort to imaginations to complete the picture. In the essay, the author writes: “…we will, in short, create fictions, not actual cities or villages, but invisible ones, imaginary homelands, Indias of the mind.” (Rushdie 1991, p. 10). He further admits that he made Saleem, the narrator in one of his earlier works; suspect that “his mistakes are the mistakes of a fallible memory…” (Rushdie 1991, p. 10).
Closely related to the metaphor of broken mirror is the reference to shards of memory. Shards are small jagged pieces that result when something is shattered. It is impossible to reconstruct the original item using them. More often than not, a considerable number of them are irretrievable. This is a reflection of the hopelessly inadequate memories about their homelands that are nursed by those in the diaspora.
They can only afford tiny fragments of memories, which cannot be put together to build a complete picture of their motherland. They then resort to the “broken pots of antiquity” (Rushdie 1991, p. 12) to reconstruct their past. Rushdie further argues that as human beings, we are capable only of fractured perceptions (Rushdie 1991, p. 12) because we are partial beings.
Rushdie also likens meaning to a shaky edifice built from scraps, dogmas, childhood injuries, newspaper articles, chance remarks, old films among others. This implies that the meaning attached to the memories that those in exile harbour is constantly being amended. The shaky edifice has to receive constant patches and repairs in order to maintain it.
Brinton (2000) defines semantic field as a segment of reality symbolized by a set of related words (p. 112). The words in a semantic field share a common semantic property. There are various semantic fields in Rushdie’s Imaginary Homelands.
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Rushdie uses the expression “imaginary homelands” as a powerful metaphor to elucidate the shattered vision of the migrant who is abroad. This semantic field denotes the preoccupation with lost memories experienced by those in exile. To them, home is not a real place, but an imaginary rendition authored by discontinuous fragments of memory conceived in imagination.
According to Rushdie, it is impossible to reclaim the lost memories and, therefore, the need to recreate a vastly fictionalized “Indias of the mind” (Rushdie 1991, p. 10). This amplifies the alienation faced by those in exile.
Another semantic field is evident in the expressions “lost time” and “lost city” (Rushdie 1991, p. 9-10). In Rushdie’s essay, they refer to a lost history, which those in the Diaspora cannot recover. What are available are the disjointed shards of memory that are scarcely sufficient to build a history on.
Due to this, Rushdie is confined to creating his own version of India and as a result, he ends up writing a novel of memory and about memory. It implies that everything is lost thus making the exiles more alienated from their homelands.
The admonition on the bridge over a local railway line, “Drive like Hell and you will get there” (Rushdie 1991, p. 11) is another semantic field. This statement is curiously ambiguous. On the one hand, it may be a warning against over-speeding whose end result is likely to be death through a possible accident.
On the other hand, it might be a rallying call to drivers to zoom over the bridge so as to get to their destinations on time. Rushdie envisions a contradiction in this ambiguity. He holds fast to it because it is one of the fragments of memories about his homeland.
Then, there is the way in which Rushdie uses the expression “our worlds”. This is a semantic field that denotes people’s individual experiences, aspirations and dreams. In this essay, the author states that individuals have the freedom to describe their worlds according to the way they perceive them.
This is a deliberate attempt to escape the harsh reality of lost memories. He can find refuge in the use of imagination to recreate his own world; one that consists of memory fragments. It underscores the biting alienation afflicting those in Diaspora.
Text type and register
Rushdie’s essay is chiefly a literary text. This is because it employs narration as the method of presentation. The author narrates his moving experiences when he visits Bombay after many years.
He narrates: “A few years ago, I revisited Bombay, which is my lost city, after an absence of something like half my life.” (Rushdie 1991, p. 9). This is an effective way of reaching out to the readers, most of whom may not be familiar with the feeling of alienation experienced in exile.
The narrative forms involve orientation, which sets the scene, time and the characters in the essay. In this case, the scene is Bombay; the time is a few years ago; and the characters include the narrator himself. There is also the compilation, which outlines the problem that leads to a series of events.
In this essay, the old photograph made the author visit Bombay after many years. Narrative forms also involve a resolution. This is the answer to the problem elucidated in the essay. In this essay, the author reverts to the use of imagination to make up for lost memories. He creates the India that he can afford.
Being an essay, it can also be considered a factual text. This is because it entails a discussion on the problem of a fragmented memory. The author draws the reader’s attention to the plight of emigrant troubled by a lost history. Plagued by insufficient recollection, the author, as a literary artist, discovers that he is less than a sage.
Closely related to the text type is the use of register. Register refers to the set of meanings, the configuration of semantic patterns that are typically drawn upon under the specific conditions, along with words and structures that are used with the realization of these meanings (Halliday 1978, p. 23). This draws interest to Rushdie’s contextual use of language in the essay Imaginary Homelands.
Rushdie examines the complex situation that encumbers the writer in the diaspora as they attempt to transform nostalgia into an ideal past (Mannur 2010, p. 28). But seeing the past through broken mirrors diminishes the idealised image of the past.
He further draws an analogy between the old black and white photograph and his childhood perceptions. History had added colour to those perceptions, but nostalgia has drained hue out of them: “the colours of history had seeped out of my mind’s eye” (Rushdie, 1991, p. 9).
The essay Imaginary Homelands makes references to various other texts. These intertextual allusions serve to reinforce the plight of those living in exile. They heighten the alienation and the feeling of loss, which arise as a result of loss of memory. They also serve to build on the plot of the essay; thus, emphasizing the subject matter.
The first reference is made to L.P. Hartley’s novel, The Go Between. The first sentence of the novel forms the caption to the old photograph in the author’s room. It states that the past is a foreign country. This implies that those in exile are not familiar with their pasts.
However, the author makes a fervent attempt to escape the harsh reality of the statement by trying to reverse it. He would have preferred to grasp his humble beginning, but unfortunately, he is hopelessly trapped in the present. So, the past becomes a lost home, a lost city shrouded in the mists of lost time (Rushdie 1991, p. 9).
Another instance of intertextuality is evident in the use of the metaphor “pillar of salt”. This has been borrowed from the biblical story in which fire rains down on Sodom and Gomorrah, home to Lot and his wife. Lot’s wife turns back, contrary to the instructions given by the angel, and turns into a pillar of salt.
Similarly, those in forced exile face potential demise should they turn back home. A few do turn back home in spite of the risk they expose themselves to. As for Rushdie, the people back home are baying for his blood as controversy rages about his novel, Satanic Verses.
Rushdie also makes reference to a book he is scripting while in north London. He looks out the window onto a city that is inherently dissimilar to the one being illustrated in the book. This instance is quite relevant here in that it helps bring to the fore the disparity between reality and fiction.
The city described in the book being written is built on some obscure memories, which result from missing history. This is the distortion occasioned by broken memories. In that book, the author makes the narrator to suspect that his mistakes are as a result of distorted memories.
The author draws a parallel to his other work of art, Midnight’s Children. He is still grappling with the disturbing issue of memory. Before penning the book, he spends a long time trying to recall what Bombay, his homeland, looked like in the 50s and 60s. Due to insufficient memory, he shifts the setting to Agra under the pretext of creating a certain joke about the Taj Mahal.
What is evident here is the substitution made by individuals afflicted with incomplete recall in order to make up for the gaps in their memories. This is what informs the rather baffling conclusion that writers are no longer sages, dispensing the wisdom of the centuries (Rushdie 1991, p. 12).
The essay has also borrowed from John Fowle’s Daniel Martin. The opening line in this book thus goes: “Whole sight: or all the rest is desolation” (Rushdie 1991, p. 12). The statement seems to be implying that the problem of broken memories could be universal. It is felt by all, not just Rushdie alone. It also points to the fact that it is not possible to experience a complete memory recall.
Any attempt to total recall may only lead to desolation. This also explains why there is a universal resort to imagination to complete the missing picture. Consequently, writers cease to be sages as they have no wisdom to dispense – only an imaginary homeland.
Rushdie has successfully employed the various features of semantics and lexicon structure in order to express his meaning. Through the use of metaphors and intertextuality, the author successfully depicts the problem of a fragmented memory and explains why those in exile have to resort to imagination in order to recreate the homes they can never attain (Ramsey and Ganapathy-Doré, 2011, p. 162).
The text type used is also appropriate since it helps connect with the reader who may not be familiar to the alienating experiences of those in exile and the reason as to why writers engage in imagination rather than portraying reality.
Semantic fields in the essay have accomplished the intended purpose of expressing meaning to as many readers as possible. Therefore, it is important to study the semantic and lexical structure employed by Rushdie in his works in order to understand them fully.
List of References
Brinton, L J 2000, The structure of modern English: a linguistic introduction, Illustrated edn, Netherlands: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
Halliday, M A 1978, Language as social semiotic: the social interpretation of language and meaning, London: Edward Arnold Publishing Company.
Mannur, A 2010, Culinary fictions: food in South Asian diasporic culture, Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Ramsey, H and Ganapathy-Doré, G 2011, Projections of paradise: ideal elsewheres in postcolonial migrant literature, New York: Rodopi.
Rushdie, S 1991, Imaginary homelands, London: Granta Books.
Seyhan, A 2000, Writing outside the nation, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.