- Influence and Intertextuality in Arundhati Roy and Harper Lee
Never again will a single story be told as though it’s the only one.—John Berger, epigraph to The God of Small Things
Arundhati Roy’s debut novel The God of Small Things garnered international media attention for its commercial success, literary merit, and social critique.1 Despite the fact that Roy makes no immediately recognizable allusions to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, a closer examination reveals a stunning array of thematic, stylistic, and theoretical parallels between the two novels, so much so that Lee’s novel becomes a principal intertext in God, revealing a transnational influence that critics,2 readers, and even Roy herself3 marginalize within current postcolonial studies’ critical frameworks. These parallels are made more provocative because there are no explicit allusions to Lee’s Mockingbird, while Roy does name and employ numerous works of classic literature along with a variety of high and popular cultural intertexts in her novel.4 The novels’ differing American and Indian foci unexpectedly intersect on themes involving ideological formations of femininity within the national imaginary that align women in postslavery America with women in postcolonial India. Furthermore, reading Lee’s minoritized design through Roy’s subalternized design reflexively reveals the embedded colonial history within US [End Page 788] race relations. Rather than displaying a conscious influence or intentional rewriting of Lee by Roy, the texts’ parallelism evokes manifest symptoms of postcolonial racial and gender issues that point to the presence of larger transnational structures of power operating across national borders. My paper provides an influence analysis that does not locate intertextual repetitions in a single geographical location, authorial origin, or Western center, but offers instead a symptomatic reading first of conjunctions, then of telling disjunctions, to compare the authors’ geopolitical occasions without threatening their specificity. In addition to the surprising interrelations of these narratives, Lee and Roy’s sociohistorical locations, and experiences as women,5 as well as their divergent philosophies about and particularities within those parallels as articulated by their texts, demonstrate the imperative for transnational intertextuality studies in twenty-first-century feminist and postcolonial literary scholarship.
Many of the postcolonial studies that focus on Indian literature have turned to the engagement of Indian writers with the colonial culture of Britain and with India’s position as a new nation trying to establish real independence in the context of the ongoing effects of colonialism. However, the rise of globalization challenges us to extend the definitions and dynamics of imperialism and postcoloniality, and ask what is the impact of American history, culture, and literature on other postcolonial literatures? What does the cultural translation of an American racial and gender text involve as it moves into an Indian caste and gender framework? And how might such a translation suggest new ways of thinking about literary relations between the West and postcolonial nations at this quarter-century mark in postcolonial theory? The existence of an American intertext for a postcolonial novel that is only being read in a British literature context—as postcolonial studies encourages—ultimately draws strong parallels. These parallels occur between race and caste systems in relation to femininity, and between women with suppressed sexuality in different societies, creating a “continuity between divergent histories of slavery and imperialism” (Sharpe 225). Through a transnational paratactic reading, one can decentralize Lee’s Western influence to invite a new form of comparativism, “one not based solely on . . . tracing itineraries of influence often from a presumed Western center to non-Western peripheries” (Friedman, “Paranoia” 245), but one that recognizes intercultural encounters that reveal “patterns of repression and return around issues of race, gender, sexuality, class, religion, and national origin” (246). While early postcolonial studies, like The Empire Writes Back, necessarily concretized a binarist view where colonizers said one thing, and the colonized argued something else, critics are now becoming interested in the complicities between Britain and the US [End Page 789] in relation to the former colonies. Simon Gikandi, for instance, has made the provocative argument in a 2006 special issue of Modernism/Modernity that literature in the West “enabled” postcolonial literature (420).6 Susan Stanford Friedman also theorizes that...