Hostname: page-component-7d684dbfc8-w65q4 Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2023-09-21T13:29:35.285Z Has data issue: false Feature Flags: { "corePageComponentGetUserInfoFromSharedSession": true, "coreDisableEcommerce": false, "coreDisableSocialShare": false, "coreDisableEcommerceForArticlePurchase": false, "coreDisableEcommerceForBookPurchase": false, "coreDisableEcommerceForElementPurchase": false, "coreUseNewShare": true, "useRatesEcommerce": true } hasContentIssue false

In-Between World and Worlds Within: Reading Diasporic Return in Vassanji and Bissoondath*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 June 2014

Robert Zacharias*
University of Waterloo, University of Toronto


The return journey has long been recognized as a central feature of diaspora, yet contemporary diaspora studies have conventionally understood it in stubbornly mythological terms. This paper looks to foster discussion about physical diasporic return journeys by juxtaposing M. G. Vassanji’s The In-Between World of Vikram Lall (2003) and Neil Bissoondath’s The Worlds Within Her (1998). Although the two novels overlap in their exploration of the Indian diaspora against the backdrop of racially volatile independence movements in former British colonies, they offer starkly different renderings of diasporic return that are reflected in their engagements with diasporic history. The paper closes with a consideration of the critical assumptions that have allowed the return journey to be overlooked in diaspora literary studies to date, suggesting that its absence may reflect the methodological nationalism of the field.

© Cambridge University Press 2014 

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)



An early version of this paper was presented at the 2011 Association of Canadian College and University Teachers of English conference, and I am grateful for the feedback it received there. Thanks, too, to Smaro Kamboureli and Ato Quayson for their comments on early drafts and to the anonymous readers at The Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry. The research for this paper was made possible by a SSHRC postdoctoral fellowship, which was held at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies, and a Banting postdoctoral fellowship, held in the English Department at the University of Waterloo.


1 For valuable exceptions, see Hirsch, Marianne and Miller, Nancy K., eds. Rites of Return: Diaspora Poetics and the Politics of Memory (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011)Google Scholar, as well as Ahmed, Sara, Castañeda, Claudia, Fortier, Anne-Marie, and Sheller, Mimi, eds. Uprootings/Regroundings: Questions of Home and Migration (New York: Berg, 2003)Google Scholar.

2 Hirsch and Miller, 3.

3 Mishra, Vijay, The Literature of the Indian Diaspora: Theorizing the Diasporic Imaginary (New York: Routledge, 2007)Google Scholar, 6; Safran, William, “Diasporas in Modern Societies: Myths of Homeland and Return,Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies 1.1 (Spring 1991)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 86.

4 Clifford, James, Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997)Google Scholar, 246.

5 Brah, Avtar, Cartographies of Diaspora: Contesting Identities (New York: Routledge, 1996)Google Scholar, 192.

6 Hall, Stuart, “Cultural Identity and Diaspora,Theorizing Diaspora: A Reader, eds. Jana Evans Braziel and Anita Mannur (Alden: Blackwell, 2003)Google Scholar, 244.

7 Ang, Ien, On Not Speaking Chinese: Living Between Asia and the West (New York: Routledge, 2001)Google ScholarPubMed, 34.

8 King, Russell, “Generalizations from the History of Return Migration,Return Migration: Journey of Hope or Despair? ed. Bimal Ghosh (Geneva: International Organization for Migration, 2000)Google Scholar, 7.

9 Harper, Marjory, “Introduction,Emigrant Homecomings: The Return Movement of Emigrants, 1600–2000, ed. Marjory Harper (New York: Manchester University Press, 2005)Google Scholar, 1.

10 Stefansson, Anders H., “Homecomings to the Future: From Diasporic Mythographies to Social Projects of Return,Homecomings: Unsettling Paths of return, eds. Fran Markowitz and Anders H. Stefansson (Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2004)Google Scholar, 3.

11 Here I am gesturing to Khachig Tölölyan’s oft-quoted description of diasporas as “the exemplary communities of the transnational moment” in “The Nation-State and Its Others,” Diaspora 1:1 (1991), 5. For examples of scholarship emphasizing diaspora as a condition of consciousness, see Mishra, Vijay, “The Diasporic Imaginary: Theorizing the Indian Diaspora,Textual Practice 10.3 (1996)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Cho, Lily, “The Turn to Diaspora,Topia 17 (2007)Google Scholar.

12 King, 28.

13 The terminology of “African Asians” employed by the novel is the subject of some debate in the larger literature about the Indian diaspora in Africa. For a discussion of the history and politics of this frame in literary studies, see Desai, Gaurav, “Asian African Literatures: Genealogies in the Making,Research in African Literatures 42.3 (Fall 2011)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, v–xxx. For a discussion of related concerns in the novel itself, see Murji, Karim, “Mistaken Identity: Being and Not Being Asian, African, and British,Migrations & Identities 1.2 (2008), 1732Google Scholar.

14 Vassanji, M. G., The In-Between World of Vikram Lall (Toronto: Doubleday, 2003)Google Scholar, 199.

15 Ibid., 324.

16 See, for example, Jacinto, Leela, “The Other Africans,” The Nation, December 27, 2004Google Scholar. Web. Accessed March 13, 2013; Primorac, Antonija, “‘Not This, Not That’: In-Between Identities in The In-Between World of Vikram Lall by M. G. Vassanji,Central European Journal of Canadian Studies 6 (2008), 133142Google Scholar.

17 I thank the journal’s anonymous reader for underscoring this passage for me.

18 Here I am gesturing to Aijaz Ahmad’s well-known critique of Fredric Jameson’s arguments about reading “third world literature” as national allegories: “Jameson’s Rhetoric of Otherness and the ‘National Allegory,’ ” Social Text 17 (Autumn 1987), 3–25.

19 Sharma, Charu, “‘Tortuous Histories and Migratory Roots’: An Anthropological Study of The In-Between Worlds of Vikram Lall,Mapping Migrations: Perspectives on Diasporic Fiction, ed. Charu Sharma (New Delhi: Books Plus, 2006)Google Scholar, 91.

20 Vassanji, 1.

21 Habila, Helon, “Memories of Mau Mau,” The Guardian, September 18, 2004Google Scholar. Web. Accessed March 6, 2013.

22 Vassanji, 354.

23 Ibid., 93.

24 Ibid., 339.

25 Ibid., 41, 260–61.

26 Ibid., 354.

27 Tsuda, Takeyuki, “When the Diaspora Returns Home: Ambivalent Encounters with the Ethnic Homeland,A Companion to Diaspora and Transnationalism, eds. Ato Quayson and Girish Daswani. (New York: Blackwell, 2013), 184185Google Scholar.

28 In the process, Vikram reminds us of the overlaps between India’s “new” and “old” diasporas. According to Vijay Mishra, a critical focus on the Indian diaspora in Britain, Canada, and the United States has led to “the fetishization of the new diaspora and an amnesiac disavowal of the old” (“Diasporic” 427). Elsewhere, Mishra references Vassanji’s writing as part of his claim that “It should be self-evident that the ‘old’ has become part of the ‘new’ through re-migrations” (Literature, 3).

29 Vassanji, 67.

30 Ibid., 16–17.

31 Ibid., 61.

32 Ibid., 23.

33 Ibid., 243.

34 Ibid., 382.

35 Primorac, 6.

36 Bissoondath, Neil, The Worlds Within Her (Toronto: Cormorant Books, 2008)Google Scholar, 240.

37 Ibid., 164.

38 Ibid., 70.

39 Jacinto.

40 Mishra, , “Diasporic” 442Google Scholar.

41 Bissoondath, , Worlds Within, 265Google Scholar.

42 Ibid., 265.

43 Ibid., 265.

44 Birbalsingh, Frank, Neil Bissoondath: Indo-Caribbean-Canadian Diaspora (New Delhi: Rawat Publications, 2005)Google Scholar, 115.

45 See Birbalsingh, 101; Nurse, Donna Bailey, What’s a Black Critic to Do? Interviews, Profiles and Reviews of Black Writers (London: Insomniac Press, 2003)Google Scholar, 153; and Sankar, Celia, “Neil Bissoondath: Hungering for an Imperfect Homeland,” The Guardian, February 5, 2001Google Scholar. Web. Accessed March 6, 2013. For references to Trinidad as a neighboring country in the novel, see Worlds Within, 43, 89.

46 Bissoondath, , Worlds Within, 47Google Scholar.

47 Ibid., 341.

48 Ibid., 63.

49 Ibid., 41.

50 Nurse, 154, 155.

51 Bissoondath, , Worlds Within, 385Google Scholar.

52 Genetsch, 96.

53 Bissoondath, , Worlds Within, 117Google Scholar.

54 Birbalsingh suggests the novel presents Canada as “desirable to unanchored souls because of its open or undefined nationality,” 136; Genetsch calls Bissoondath’s Canada “a blank slate onto which immigrants truly can inscribe themselves,” 109.

55 Both Birbalsignh (106) and Nurse (153) have noted the politics of the novel to be closely aligned with Bissoondath’s controversial bestseller Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada (Toronto: Penguin, 2002). Bissoondath’s longstanding endorsement of the autonomous individual subject in Canada—elsewhere he calls for the country to be a nation “where every individual is unique and every individual is a Canadian, undiluted and undivided” (“Multiculturalism,” New Internationalist 305, September 5, 1998. Web. Accessed January 9, 2014)—presupposes a particular brand of nationalistic, ahistorical liberalism that many critics have found problematic. For a representative critique of ideological underpinnings of Selling Illusions that I would suggest is adaptable to The Worlds Within Her, see Huggan, Graham, The Postcolonial Exotic: Marketing the Margins (New York: Routledge, 2001)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 141.

56 R. Radhakrishnan, for example, warns that it is fully in keeping with “the nature of a racist, capitalist society to isolate and privatize the individual and to foster the myth of the equal and free individual unencumbered by either a sense of community or a critical sense of the past.” “Ethnicity in an Age of Diaspora,” Theorizing Diaspora: A Reader, eds. Jana Evans Braziel and Anita Mannur (Alden: Blackwell, 2003), 124.

57 Ibid., 192–93. Donna Bailey Nurse points to this passage as part of her suggestion that, at times, Bissoondath “writes dishonestly about race,” 154.

58 Genetsch, 109.

59 Tsuda, 183.

60 Quayson, Ato, “Postcolonialism and the Diasporic Imaginary,A Companion to Diaspora and Transnationalism, eds. Ato Quayson and Girish Daswani (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2013)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 151.

61 Ibid., 148.

62 Said, Edward, “Travelling Theory,The World, The Text, and the Critic (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983), 226227Google Scholar.

63 On the connection between postcolonialism and diaspora studies, and on the ways in which “postcolonial literary study is still in thrall to extant forms of methodological nationalism,” see Quayson, 144.

64 Brydon, Diana, “Global Designs, Postcolonial Critiques: Rethinking Canada in Dialogue with Diaspora,Ilha do Desterro: A Journal of Language and Literature 40 (January/June 2001)Google Scholar, 63.

65 I have made a fuller version of this argument in the conclusion to my study Rewriting the Break Event: Mennonites and Migration in Canadian Literature (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2013), 179–87.

66 For essays that overlap on their argument for the national frame and against denationalizing theoretical paradigms within the context of Canadian literary studies, see Henighan, Stephen, “The Canadian Writer Between Postcolonialism and Globalization,When Words Deny the World: The Reshaping of Canadian Writing (Erin, Ontario: Porcupine’s Quill, 2002), 91107Google Scholar; Wyile, Herb, “Hemispheric Studies or Literary NAFTA?Canada and Its Americas: Transnational Navigations, eds. Winfried Siemerling and Sarah Phillips Casteel (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010), 4861Google Scholar; and Pennee, Donna Palmateer, “Literary Citizenship: Culture (Un)Bounded, Culture (Re)Distributed,Home-Work: Postcolonialism, Pedagogy & Canadian Literature, ed. Cynthia Sugars (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2004), 7585Google Scholar.

67 Here I am thinking primarily of Frank Davey’s much-discussed pronouncement of recent Canadian literature as “post-national.” Post-National Arguments: The Politics of the Anglophone Canadian Novel Since 1967 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993). For a trenchant critique, see Szeman, Imre, Zones of Instability: Literature, Postcolonialism, and the Nation (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), 157160Google Scholar.

68 Hirsch and Miller, 18.