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Marking Territory: Rawi Hage’s Novels and the Challenge to Postcolonial Ethics

From: ESC: English Studies in Canada
Volume 39, Issue 4, December 2013
pp. 71-90 | 10.1353/esc.2013.0043

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There has been a sustained interest in recent years, both in academic circles and in mainstream readership, in non-Western narratives of trauma and conflict, evidenced in the popularity of novels such as The Kite Runner, Half of a Yellow Sun, Beasts of No Nation, What is the What, and A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali, as well as non-fiction memoirs such as Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. The attention afforded to texts such as these, texts that describe the hardships that are too often a symptom of the postcolonial condition, can certainly indicate a trend in Western readership that is concerned with questions of social justice, human rights, and cross-cultural ethics. The mainstream Western reader and the scholarly Western critic seem united in a desire to bridge the ethical gap between the First and Third worlds, a desire that ultimately conceives of the reading of postcolonial literature as a vehicle for enacting cross-cultural ethics and the betterment of the world.

It is no surprise, then, that Rawi Hage’s De Niro’s Game, a novel documenting the experiences of a Lebanese teenager in war-torn Beirut circa 1982, has attracted critical attention. What is significant about Hage’s fiction—specifically De Niro’s Game and his second novel, Cockroach—is the way in which its narratives challenge conventional representations of postcolonial trauma and expose the imbalances in the standard models of cross-cultural ethics. Syrine Hout addresses this challenge in her book-length study Post-War Anglophone Lebanese Fiction, in which she contends that the postwar generation of Lebanese literature is distinctive as a genre, insofar as both Anglophone and Francophone writers are concerned primarily with “the debunking of two myths: the return to a golden age of a romanticized Lebanon and the slavish imitation of a supposedly superior Western lifestyle” (9). The protagonists in this genre, Hout suggests, “neither idealise their country of origin nor shed their past to embrace unquestioningly a Western mode of living” (9).

As Hout argues, Hage’s novels fall into a genre that is markedly diasporic, insofar as its subjects have no firm foundation in either the home country or the new host country, in the past or in the present, upon which to build a stable identity. As Salah D. Hassan suggests, Bassam, in De Niro’s Game, “roguishly turns his back on history and embraces the figure of the refugee: he harbors no thought of return and no desire to settle” (1628). Similarly, Hout, in her analysis of Cockroach, describes that novel’s unnamed narrator as a refugee or exile who “clearly has no interest in acclimatising to mainstream Canadian culture—but nor is he keen on flaunting his origins” (170). As well as offering a tangible manifestation of Hout’s generic definition, however, I would argue that Hage’s fiction goes further to consider how this diasporic state shines an interrogative light on the standard formulations of postcolonial ethics and ultimately proposes a much more complex but potentially enriching definition of postcolonial hospitality.

The fundamental question of postcolonial ethics is deceptively simple: How might citizens of the First World relate, ethically and productively, to the diasporic subject, to the new immigrant, to the refugee? Rawi Hage’s second novel Cockroach begins with just such a negotiation, as Genevieve, a Montreal therapist, attempts to connect with and heal the unnamed Lebanese refugee who narrates this text:

Last week I confessed to her that I used to be more courageous, more carefree, and even, one might add, more violent. But here in this northern land no one gives you an excuse to hit, rob, or shoot, or even to shout from across the balcony, to curse your neighbours’ mothers and threaten their kids.

When I said that to the therapist, she told me that I have a lot of hidden anger. So when she left the room for a moment, I opened her purse and stole her lipstick, and when she returned I continued my tale of growing up somewhere else.


In Hage’s novel the voice of compassion, the voice of cross-cultural understanding, is not only refused but...

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