The Postcolonial Jew in Anita Desai’s Baumgartner’s Bombay and Caryl Phillips’ The Nature of Blood

Published: Apr 11, 2019
Postcolonial Anita Desai Caryl Phillips Holocaust Jewish identity Indian culture
Beth Rosenberg

Anita Desai’s Baumgartner’s Bombay (1988) and Caryl Phillips’ The Nature of Blood (1997) are novels that feature Jewish protagonists; both represent the history of the Holocaust and diverge from the postcolonial landscapes the authors are associated with. Though the Indian Desai and the Anglo-Caribbean Phillips are distinct as postcolonial subjects, their Jewish protagonists help to create what Rebecca Walkowitz terms “comparison literature,” the “work of books that analyse… the transnational contexts of their own production, circulation, and study.” In other words, Desai and Phillips are interested in the structures and dynamics of ethnic identification in a global context. Through what I term the postcolonial Jew, these novels move beyond the notion of ethnic authenticity to a cosmopolitan view of identity as hybrid and positional. The authenticity of and in these novels does not rely on the authors’ ethnic backgrounds, but is found in their ways of telling history. Their intention is to break from the traditional association of Jews with the Judeo-Christian tradition, to represent them instead as separate from the Occidental tradition. As a result, Desai and Phillips utilise a decentred Jew, one who is constantly in flux, disparate, conflicted, and the embodiment of diaspora. The existential condition of this Jew —the placeless place he is called upon to inhabit, which the reader is invited to visit— and the paradoxical states of belonging and displacement become the conditions of all displaced others and represent the constant deferral of meaning in the narrative act.

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Author Biography
Beth Rosenberg, University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Beth Rosenberg is an Associate Professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and has published Virginia Woolf and Samuel Johnson: Common Readers (St. Martin’s Press, 1995) and co-edited Virginia Woolf and the Essay (Palgrave-Macmillan, 1997). She has published work in Modernism/modernityWoolf Studies Annual, and Modern Language Notes. She is currently completing her book, Modernism, Immigration, and Jews: Aesthetics of the Ugly, which will be published by Northwestern University Press in 2016.
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