Moving between cultures: Postcolonial Identity in Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘The Namesake’ and Teju Cole’s ‘Every Day is for the Thief’ and ‘Open City’ ˗ Tamara Schempp

[Bachelor Thesis at the Technische Universität Darmstadt, Fachbereich 2 / Institut für Sprach- und Literaturwissenschaft, September 25, 2015]

We experience life as a continuity, and only after it falls away, after it becomes the past, do we see its discontinuities.’

Teju Cole, Open City


1. Introduction

In 2013, approximately 41.3 million immigrants lived in the United States, according to the official website of the Migration Policy Institute. Some of them came as refugees, others as migrant workers, and some in the hopes of living the American Dream. Western countries still remain a dream destination for people in the Third World who fight for survival every day. Poverty, hunger and violence keep African countries such as Liberia, Somalia or the Sudan in suspense. Persecuted people have no other choice than to leave their homeland. Refugees marked by the experience of war often endure long and hard travels, before they finally find refuge. Those who do not accomplish to flee are left behind on trucks, trains, and small boats in the open sea. Immigrants seek their fortune elsewhere and bring along ethics, traditions, cultures and myths from their country of origin. In the age of global migration, people constantly need to adapt to new environments.

But there was another time, when thousands of individuals were forced to leave their home in the Old World. Slavery in colonial America was equally tragic and dramatic for those who suffered – mainly people of African heritage. Through African Diaspora, the descendants of the former black slaves nowadays live all over the world. Black men and women developed a sense of solidarity, conscious of the torments of their ancestors. The aftermath of the colonial era and global migration has a significant impact on the individuals sense of identity. Those who were born abroad and second generation immigrants suffer from a lack of reference culture. The consequence is loss of orientation and a split identity caught between the culture and traditions of the ancestors, the country of origin, and the current environment. Individuals try to ‘reinvent’ themselves through practices such as the change of name in order to forge a unique identity or to bury the past. Postcolonial identity is a contemporary issue in American Literature. The colonial history of the United States has made an important contribution to contemporary literature. American writers nowadays have different social backgrounds, ethnicities and nationalities.

In the following thesis, I will discuss how identity is portrayed in a postcolonial context. To do so, I chose three works of two authors with multicultural backgrounds: Jhumpa Lahiris The Namesake from 2003, and Teju Coles Every Day is for the Thief (2007) and Open City (2012). I have based my thesis on the complex identity theory of psychoanalytic Erik H. Erikson. Eriksons entire life was dedicated to the investigation of identity which distinguishes him from any other scientist in this field. I will show how his identity theory developed from personal interest to a professional task. In addition, I will discuss Simon Durings short essay Debating Identity. The insight into identity theory is supplemented by a section explaining postcolonial studies’ major terms. After I clarified these terms, I will finally analyse how Teju Cole and Jhumpa Lahiri demonstrate their own hybrid identities and those of their characters.


2. Postcolonial Identity

 2.1 Erik H. Eriksons Identity Theory


„In the social jungle of human existence, there is no feeling of being alive

without a sense of ego identity“

– Erik H. Erikson (Identity and the Life Cycle 95).


Psychoanalyst Erik H. Erikson is known as identitys architect, which is also the title of Lawrence J. Friedmans most-famous biography. Eriksons entire life was dedicated to the investigation of identity, both personal and professional. As an introduction, I will give an insight into Eriksons life which was characterized by identity crises. Subsequently, I will show how Erikson developed his theories concerning ego identity, identity confusion and identity crisis, contained in his works Identity and the Life Cycle (1959), Identity: Youth and Crisis (1968) and The Life Cycle Completed (1997). Having been a scholar of Anna Freud, Erikson based a majority of his theories on Freudian themes. Therefore, I will first briefly introduce some of Sigmund and Anna Freuds concepts, before I explain the extension of Freudian theories by Erikson. 

Erik H. Eriksons life experiences and identity crises, particularly in childhood and adolescence, had a massive influence on the personality theory he developed as an adult (D. P. Schultz and S. E. Schultz 221). Identitys Architect (1999) by Lawrence Jacob Friedman is one of the best-known biographies of Erik H. Erikson and illuminates his life from all perspectives. In it, Friedman compares the difficulty of his texts with the difficulty of his whole life: “They are complicated, layered, and often difficult to pin down” (23). Eriksons interdisciplinary approach addresses different aspects of personality: the (psycho) social, the developmental, and the historical. To Friedman, it is “admirable, how Erikson portrayed his subjects – a Yurok medicine woman, Adolf Hitler, Martin Luther, Thomas Jefferson, and others – in their rich historical context while not losing sight of what was unique and idiosyncratic in each individual” (24).

To get a sense of what identity is, Erikson examined patients undergoing identity crises and developed the concept of identity confusion. Therefore, Eriksons texts contain several examples from his clinical studies. For Erikson, specializing in psychology, especially in psychoanalysis, was an opportunity to investigate identity in a both professional and personal way. Because of personal identity issues in his past, Erikson empathized with his young patients which motivated him to find solutions. Erikson clarifies the matter of identity from a both psychoanalytic and developmental angle, considering historical aspects, which distinguishes him from other identity scientists. In the foreword of Identitys Architect, Robert Coles notes that what Erikson “saw and felt happening to himself (as with Freuds examination of his own dreams, memories, fantasies) became the ‘research’ that enabled a flow of ideas, articles, books” (16). Erik H. Eriksons life story reads like a novel about the fantasticalness of life, complicated family affairs, kept secrets and a lifelong search for identity. In the following, I will present parts of Eriksons biography taken from Identitys Architect. In doing so, I will focus on his childhood and adolescence as the peak phase of his own identity crisis. The following summary is mainly taken from the biography, other references are marked.

 Erik Homburger Erikson was born on June 15, 1902 in Frankfurt and died in 1994 in New Haven. His mother Karla Abrahamsen came from a prominent Jewish family in Copenhagen and married a Jewish stockbroker named Valdemar Isidor Salomonsen (29). A few hours after the wedding ceremony, Valdemar fled to Mexico or the United States (destination unknown), supposedly because of crime, fraud and some financial irregularities (30). For legal appearances, Karla retained Valdemars surname and was now known as Karla Salomonsen (30). Karla had no idea that she was expecting a child, when she left Copenhagen for a holiday in northern Germany four years later in 1902 (30). Eriks mother had become pregnant with Erik as a consequence of a fatal affair but would never divulge who the father was (30). After her pregnancy was official, the Abrahamsens insisted that Karla stay in Germany under the care of three aging spinster aunts (30). Eriksons biographer Friedman supposed that “the prestigiously Copenhagen family wanted to avoid disgrace and scandal” (30). When Erik was born in Frankfurt, the birth certificate listed Valdemar and Karla Salomonsen as his parents (30). Erik Salomonsen was raised in Bühl and lived alone with his mother for the first three years (30). Eriks mother visually established a bond of trust when she was gazing at him, which prompted him to develop the first stages of his theory of psychosocial development (31).

According to Friedman, Erik was thinking of Karla, when he “observed much later in life how identity (the sense that ‘I am somebody’) began with the recognition of a mothers smile” (31). This very special bond was interrupted in 1904, when the mother married Eriks paediatrician Dr. Theodor Homburger who came from a prominent Jewish family (31). Dr. Theodor Homburger moved them to his family home in Karlsruhe where Erik was to be told that Theodor was his biological father (32). Eriks mother and stepfather decided to keep the secret (33). But the three-year-old sensed that something was wrong and never fully accepted Theodor has his biological father. He grew up suspecting this family secret and was always in doubt of his identity: “I was quietly convinced that I came from a different background and somewhat accepted it as a fact of life and a part of my mothers past which was not to be mentioned whether in Karlsruhe or in Copenhagen” (33). Friedman calls Eriks perspective a “sense of specialness, positive and negative” (33). Because Theodor wanted to maintain middle-class respectability, he adopted Erik immediately and had his surname legally changed from Salomonsen to Homburger (34). As he grew up, the boy developed a great need to identify himself and increasingly asked questions about his real heritage (39).

When he was an adolescent, Erik finally demanded the truth and Karla acknowledged that Theodor had adopted him but still claimed that his real father was Valdemar Salomonsen (39). Again, the mother concealed information (39). As reported by Friedman, “the suspici- on deepened during adolescence when [Erik] heard new rumors [about his father being] a Danish aristocrat, with artistic talents, and probably Christian” (39). With his in mind, Eriks conflicts over religion and nationality began: “Was he a Jew, like his mother and stepfather, or a Gentile, as he came to assume that his father had been? Was he a Dane like Karla, Valdemar Salomonsen, and perhaps his biological father, or a German like Theodor Homburger?” (40). A notable identity crisis occurred at school, when his German classmates rejected him for being Jewish, while his Jewish peers at temple school called him a ‘goy’ and rejected him because of his Nordic features: tall, blond and blue-eyed (D. P. Schultz and S. E. Schultz 220).

In Identitys Architect, Friedman quotes Erikson by saying that “I developed my nationalistic German tendencies for a while in order to convince my playmates of my loyality” [ref] During World War I. [/ref] (40). Friedman calls this period in Eriksson’s life „years of great confusion“ and (in Erikson’s words)FAILURE” (40). As a young man, Erikson began to emancipate himself from his parents and his three stepsisters, as well as the Jewish/German identity that was forced on him, and began to search for alternatives (41). After Erik graduated from the Karlsruhe gymnasium, he hiked for a few months about the Back Forest (45). Then in 1921, Erik enrolled at Karlsruhes Badische Landeskunstschule (Baden State Art School) (45). In art, Erik found his first purpose. In August of 1923, when he was twenty-one, he found a new medium to express his thoughts and feelings: writing (50). Eriks biographer Friedman emphasizes the importance of his notebook: “In it were the seeds of concepts he would spend a lifetime elaborating, including the human life cycle; the sense of ‘self’, ‘I’, and identity” (55). Consequently, Friedman states that “in a vague and suggestive way, the notebook also revealed several of the ideas and concepts that would transform him into a major twentieth-century intellectual” (51).

Erik experienced another terrible identity crisis, troubled about life and his future as an artist (56). At the start of adulthood, he was in a fragile state: “I was probably close to psychosis”, he recalled (49). His best friend from school Peter Blos, who had gone to Vienna to study biology, was very apprehensive to his friends emotional state and took him to Vienna (57). Peter offered Erik a job as a co-instructor at a small school, the experimental Hietzing School, where he taught Dorothy Burlinghams four children and others the sciences and German (56). Burlingham and other parents, as well as their children, were analyzed by Anna Freud, Sigmund Freuds daughter. (57). Erik agreed and described his arrival in Vienna as “the very beginning of my career” without even receiving a university diploma (57).


In Vienna, Erikson got in contact with Anna Freuds circle, was trained in psychoanalysis and finally became a member of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society (59). Within six years after his arrival in 1927, Erikson had also finished a teaching degree at the local Montessori school and had become a popular instructor (59). As Friedman records, “[Erikson] felt that… he had finally secured a real ‘vocation in the area of child psychoanalysis and education’” (60). In 1929, Erikson met his wife-to-be Joan Serson, born as ‘Sarah Serson’, a Canadian- born artist and dancer who became his lifelong intellectual partner and editor (81). With the Nazis coming into power, the Eriksons left Vienna for Copenhagen and later Copenhagen for America in the fall of 1933 (103). This process of constant uprooting and resettlement disturbed Eriksons sense of identity again. Friedman records that “he [Erikson] copied the frequent immigrant practice of changing his name and quickly became known as an effective therapist and a thoughtful intellectual” (103). He changed his name from ‘Homburger to ‘Erikson’ in order to ‘reinvent’ himself (103). As Bostons first child psychoanalyst he found positions at Harvard and then at Yale through happenstance and opportunistic contacts (103). Erik H. Erikson wrote many books and essays during his creative period. His most famous works are Childhood and Society (1950), Young Man Luther (1958), Identity and the Life Cycle (1959), Youth: Change and Challenge (1963), Identity: Youth and Crisis (1968), and The Life Cycle Completed (1997).

In Identitys Architect, Lawrence J. Friedman records how Eriksons identity theory developed from personal interest to a professional task. Erikson captured his thoughts about the importance of personal rapport between the self and the other for the first time in his 1923-1924 notebook (Friedman 91). Some years later, Erikson was concerned with the adult-child relationship, child development, and psychoanalysis during his time in Vienna (Friedman 93). Friedman recalls the beginning of Eriksons identity theory: “The task of amplifying the ‘I’ necessarily engaged him with its closest equivalent – the concept of the ‘ego’” (93). The ego is one aspect in Sigmund Freuds conception of personality which includes instincts as the basic elements, the levels (the conscious, the unconscious and the preconscious) and the structure of personality (the id, the ego and the superego) (D. P. Schultz and S. E. Schultz 57). In Theories of Personality (2005), D. P. Schultz and S. E. Schultz explain Sigmund Freuds personality theory. The following investigation is completely taken from Theories of Personality.

To Freud, the ego is “the rational aspect of the personality, responsible for directing and controlling the instincts” and therefore the “rational master of personality” (55). The instincts are part of what Freud calls the id: “The id is the reservoir for the instincts and libido (the psychic energy manifested by the instincts)” (54). Because the id is allied with the instincts, it is vitally and directly related to the satisfaction of bodily needs (54). D. P. Schultz and S. E. Schultz call the id a “selfish, pleasure-seeking structure, primitive, amoral, insistent, and rash” because it “strives for immediate satisfaction of its needs and does not tolerate delay or postponement of satisfaction for any reason (54). Therefore, the id knows only instant gratification (54). According to D.P. Schultz and S. E. Schultz, the id “drives us to want what we want when we want it, without regard for what anyone else wants” (54). The ego works as a kind of tamer, it decides when and how the id instincts can best be satisfied (54). D. P. Schultz and S. E. Schultz explain that “it determines appropriate and socially acceptable times, places, and objects that will satisfy the id impulses” (55).


But there is a third part of the personality: the superego. The superego is an internal morality which shapes our ideas of right and wrong and gives us a conscience (56). Children acquire the superego at the age of five or six (56). D. P. Schultz and S. E. Schultz describe it as “a powerful and largely unconscious set of dictates and beliefs” (56). Children learn a set of rules that earn acceptance or rejection from their parents (56). The superego is divided into two parts: the conscience and the ego-ideal (56). The two psychologists explain the difference. Behaviors for which children are punished form the conscience, one part of the superego (56). Through praise, punishment, and example, children learn which behaviors their parents consider good or bad (56). The ego-ideal consists of good, or correct, behaviors for which children have been praised (56). Eriksons scientific work developed from a personal interest in the concept of the ego. His theories are an extension of Freudian theories. In Identitys Architect, Friedman records the first steps of this process. The following insight is completely taken from the biography.

At the beginning of his research, he was focused on Anna Freuds theories. Anna Freud concentrated on the ego, as opposed to her father Sigmund who attached value to the id and its instincts. According to Friedman, “Erikson had listened to Anna Freud elaborate the various mature and immature defenses of the ego” but criticized her formulations for being fragmentary: “What may limit and endanger the childs ego it [her work] says little about the ego itself” (93). Erikson turned towards Heinz Hartmanns discussion of how the ego adapted to the environment but he failed to explain the essence of the ego itself (93). Anna Freud and Heinz Hartmanns theories did not go far enough in this regard (93). Therefore, Erikson finally turned to Paul Federn who was “a more ‘obscure and yet fascinating teacher’” (Friedman 93). Erikson found interest in Federns concept of ‘ego boundaries’, but Federn “struggled to elaborate what distinguished or provided boundaries or limits to the individual ego” (93).


Again, Erikson remained unsatisfied in his thirst for knowledge. But Erikson himself did not feel ready to expound upon identity or even ego boundaries – that would happen in America (94). During his Vienna training, Erikson was interested in Ernst Kriss concept of regression in the service of the ego (94). As Friedman concludes, Erikson was moving toward the ideas of Federn, Kris, and Reich as he “sought to lodge fuller meaning in the ‘ego’ by somehow linking it to his concern with the ‘I’ and ‘selfhood’” (94). In America, the thinking of Federn, Kris, and especially Reich, became more significant (94). In his 1968 work Identity: Youth and Crisis, Erikson states that Sigmund Freud used the term inner identity once, in a 1926 address to the Society of B’nai B’rith in Vienna, and as an expression for his Jewishness (94). We will come back to Freud and the inner identity at a later point. Friedman assumes that it may have been fortunate for Erikson that several scientists had not done anything of significance with the identity concept (94). Concluding, Eriksons biographer Friedman states that “Erik had been drawn to ego boundaries and identity through an interest in the sense of ‘I’ that predated his awareness of the Freudian worldview” (94). According to him, Erikson later recognized that he had been trying to discover meaning in his own existence all along (95). During his lifetime in America, he finally developed his concept of identity and identity crisis.


Erik H. Eriksons identity theory is embedded in his theory of lifelong development, which he based on Sigmund Freuds theory of psychosexual development and devised as a sequence of eight (later nine; see Erik H. Erikson and J. Erikson 1997) psychosocial stages (Noack 37). As Erikson explains in Preface 1 of Identity and the Life Cycle (1959), “the title states the over-all theme: It is the unity of the human life cycle, and the specific dynamics of each of its stages” (Life Cycle 7). What Erikson called the psychosocial is the interplay between the persons inner emotions and outer social circumstances (Friedman 24). The first four stages are similar to Freuds oral, anal, phallic, and latency stages, but Erikson emphasized psychosocial correlates, whereas Freud focused on biological factors (D. P Schultz and S. E. Schultz 223).

At each psychosocial development stage, we must cope with a crisis. Once the crisis has been resolved satisfactorily, the human being can develop virtues or basic strengths and finally gain an identity (D. P. Schultz and S. E. Schultz 223). Basic strengths are motivating characteristics and beliefs such as hope, will, purpose, competence, fidelity, love, care and wisdom (D. P. Schultz and S. E. Schultz 223). At each stage, human beings develop one of these basic strengths. They are interdependent because one strength cannot develop until the strength associated with the previous stage has been confirmed (S. P. Schultz and S. E. Schultz 223). In the following, I will name Eriksons eight psychosocial stages and their features without giving a detailed description. However, I will at a later point examine adolescence as a central stage of life in order to investigate the concept of identity. The following summary of all eight stages is taken from Juliane Noacks essay Erik H. Erikson: Identität und Lebenszyklus from 2010 [ref] Own translation. [/ref]


The first stage of psychosocial development is the oral-sensory stage which occurs during our first year of life and is characterized by the conflict of trust versus mistrust (44). The developed basic strength is hope (44). The subsequent muscular-anal stage in the second and third years of life is dominated by the conflict of autonomy versus doubt and shame, and creates the will (44). Initiative versus guilt occurs at the locomotor-genital stage between the ages three and five (44). The developed strength is purpose (44). The fourth stage, the latency stage, occurs from age six to eleven; its main conflict is industriousness versus inferiority (44). This stage creates competence (44). The fifth and central stage is adolescence (45). Between ages 12 and 18, young adults are troubled by the conflict of identity cohesion versus role confusion: the identity crisis (45).

Fidelity as a basic strength is the result of the successful overcoming of an identity crisis (45). In young adulthood between the ages 18 to 35, love is the result of the conflict of intimacy versus isolation (45). Young adulthood is the sixth stage of psychosocial development (45). The seventh stage, adulthood between ages 35 to 55, is coined by the conflict of generativity versus stagnation (45). The basic strength is care (45). The eighth and final stage is maturity or old age (45). The period at the age of 55+ is troubled by the conflict of ego integrity versus despair. The last developed basic strength in life is wisdom (45). As stated above, Eriksons psychosocial development stages strongly resemble Freuds oral, anal, phallic, and latency stages (D. P. Schultz and S. E. Schultz 223). Erik H. Eriksons achievement is to deepen and enlarge Freudian theory without having changed it fundamentally (Noack 51). He stresses the importance of the exploration of identity in due course in contrast to the importance of the exploration of sexuality in Freuds day (Noack 51).

 In Theories of Personality, D. P. Schultz and S. E. Schultz explain the difference. They state that “Freud emphasized childhood and proposed that personality is shaped by approximately age 5, [whereas] Erikson suggested that personality continues to develop in a succession of eight stages over the entire life span” (220). D. P. Schultz and S. E. Schultz continue that Eriksons second departure from Freudian theory was to place greater emphasis on the ego than on the id: “In Eriksons view, the ego is an independent part of the personali- ty; it is not dependent on or subservient to the id” (220). The third way in which Erikson extended Freuds theory, is the impact of cultural and historical forces on personality (D. P. and S. E. Schultz 220). Although innate biological factors are important in child development, they do not provide a complete explanation (D. P. Schultz and S. E. Schultz 220). To Erikson, personality consists of multiple factors. The following section illustrates Eriksons distinction between the ‘I’ and the ‘ego’. It is completely taken from his last published work The Life Cycle Completed (1997).


Eriksons definition of the sense of ‘I’ is “the individuals central awareness of being a sensory and thinking creature endowed with language” and “a sense of being centered and active, whole and aware” (85-86). He emphasizes that the ‘I’ is hard to find in dictionaries and psychological texts (86). Instead, Freuds original use of its German equivalent, Ich, is habitually translated into ‘ego’ (86). In Freudian terms, the Ich is an ‘immediacy’ and ‘certainty’ of experience ‘on which all consciousness depends’ (86). Freud calls consciousness ‘die Leuchte’ or ‘the shining light’ which ‘illuminates’ the unconscious (87). Therefore, the self-observing ‘I’ is a conscious entity and into the exclusive service of the study of the unconscious (87). Further, Erikson speaks of the linguistic difficulty of speaking of the ‘I’, the ‘ego’ or the ‘self (87). Although we own a series of myselves, it does take a sense of ‘I’ to be aware of a ‘myself (87). Concluding, Erikson states that “the ‘I’ is the ground for the simple verbal assurance that each person is a center of awareness in a universe of communicable experience” (87).

In order to explain the concept of the ego, Erikson recalls its history. He explains that in scholasticism the ego stood for the unity of body and soul, and in philosophy in general for the permanency of conscious experience (89). William James, to Erikson one of the two [ref] The other is Sigmund Freud. [/ref] “founding fathers of the psychologies on which our thinking on identity is based”, spoke of “the egos active tension” and “thought of the subjective sense of ‘I’ as well as the unconscious workings of a build-in ‘ego’” (89). According to Erikson, “one of the functions of the egos unconscious work is to integrate experience in such a way that the I is assured a certain centrality in the dimension of being” (89). Erikson describes what it needs to have a sense of I as follows:

To feel the flux of events like an effective doer rather than an impotent sufferer. Active and originating rather than inactivated; entered and inclusive rather than shunted to the periphery; selective rather than overwhelmed; aware rather than confounded: all of this amounts a sense of being at home in ones time and place, and, somehow of feeling chosen (89).

The Prologue of Identity: Youth and Crisis (1968) provides probably the most in-depth definition for the concept of identity. Unless otherwise stated, the statements and definitions in the following section are taken from Identity: Youth and Crisis. As a preliminary point, Erikson emphasizes the importance of the history of the concept (15). He records the increasing usage of the term identity in all kinds of contexts (popular and scientific), hence its great popularity. Therefore, a definition would almost feel petty (15). The term demands a definition despite – or perhaps because of – its excessive use. In order to understand the meaning of the present-day echo of our terms, Erikson starts with a look back to professional and conceptual ancestors (19). According to Erikson, today, “the term identity refers to something ‘noisily demonstrative’, to a more or less ‘quest’, or to an almost deliberately confused ‘search’ (19). Therefore, he presents “two formulations which assert strongly what identity feels like when you become aware of the fact that you do undoubtedly have one” (19). He remains with the examples of William James and Sigmund Freuds lives. Concerning a sense of identity, William James demonstrates “subjective sense of an invigorating sameness and continuity”, whereas Sigmund Freud is an example for “a unity of personal and cultural identity” (20-21). In a letter to his wife, William James wrote:

 A mans character is discernible in the mental or moral attitude in which, when it came upon him, he felt himself most deeply and intensely active and alive. At such moments there is a voice inside which speaks and says: ‘This is the real me!’ (qtd. in Youth and Crisis 19).

 In James’ experience, identity is something that ‘comes upon you’ as a recognition , almost a surprise and an active tension rather than a paralyzing question (20). Erikson observes that Freud used the term identity in a most central ethnic sense (21). He had used the term inner identity as an aspect of his Jewishness in an address to the Society of B’nai B’rith in Vienna in 1926 (Friedman 94). According to Erikson, Freud speaks of “a clear consciousness of inner identity” which includes a “bitter pride preserved by his dispersed and often despised people throughout a long history of persecution” (Youth and Crisis 21). To Erikson, these two statements and the lives behind them serve as an example for the complexity of identity formation.

Erikson calls identity formation a “process ‘located’ in the core of the individual and yet also in the core of his communal culture”, which includes simultaneous reflections and observation (22). Erikson captures the complexity of this process. Identity formation is all about judgment: How I judge myself in the light of what I perceive to be the way in which others judge me in comparison to themselves, while I judge their way of judging me in the light of how I perceive myself in comparison to them (22). Identity formation is a mutual process, always changing and developing, and for the most part unconscious (23). The only exception is where inner and outer circumstances combined trigger a “painful or elated” ‘identity-consciousness’ (23).

 The psychoanalyst also speaks of a psychosocial relativity which is the interplay between the psychosocial and the social, the developmental, and the historical (23). The four instances cannot be separated because the individual life and contemporary crises in historical development define each other and are relative to each other (23). The youth of today for example, is not the youth twenty years ago (26). Clinicians and psychologists consider cultural, social and historical circumstances in order to grasp an identity problem (26). Erikson concludes that identity formation is a “generational issue” and beyond childhood and the ideology of youth (42). According to him “only an adult ethics can guarantee to the next generation an equal chance to experience the full cycle of humanness” (42).


In Identity and the Life Cycle (1959), Erikson asks himself whether the sense of identity is a conscious awareness. Youth is the best example for an extreme form of identity consciousness (127). We are most aware of our identity when we are just about to gain it or when we are just about to enter a crisis and feel the encroachment of identity confusion (127). Furthermore, an increasing sense of identity is experienced as a sense of psychosocial well-being (127). Psychosocial well-being is what Erikson calls “a feeling of being at home in ones body, a sense ‘knowing where one is going’, and an inner assuredness of anticipated recognition from those who count” (127-128). Erikson compares a sense of identity to a good conscience, which is never gained or maintained once for all, it is constantly lost and regained (128). As already mentioned, youth is the stage in life where adolescents are confronted with identity crisis.

The subsequent section is an investigation of Eriksons concept of identity crisis. Firstly, I will define the term. Secondly, I will examine the development of identity crisis in the fifth and central stage in Eriksons concept of the human life cycle. The following definition of the term is completely taken from Identity: Youth and Crisis (1968). According to Eriksons definition, an identity crisis (besides the negative undertone of the word crisis) “no longer connotes impending catastrophe”, but “is now being accepted as a necessary turning point, a crucial moment, when development must move one way or another, marshaling resources of growth, recovery, and further differentiation” (16). Erikson remembers that the term identity crisis was first used for a special clinical purpose in a national emergency during World War II (17). He describes the identity crisis of his veteran patients: “Most of our patients…had through the exigencies of war lost a sense of personal sameness and historical continuity” (17).

In this context, Erikson emphasizes the loss of ego identity, because “only the ‘inner agency’ of the ego could be held responsible” (17). He continues, that since World War II, psychoanalysts have recognized “the same central disturbance in severely conflicted young people whose sense of confusion is due, rather, to a war within themselves, and in confused rebels and destructive delinquents who war on their society” (17). An investigation of identity confusion during adolescence will follow shortly. Between ages 12 and 18, young adults are troubled by the conflict of identity cohesion versus role confusion (Noack 45). In the following, I will examine the fifth and central stage in Eriksons concept of the human life cycle, which is adolescence. It is completely taken from Identity and the Life Cycle (1959).

During the first four stages of psychosocial development, namely childhood, the child establishes “a good relationship to the world of skills and to those who teach and share the new skills” (94). Youth begins when this period is completed successfully and adolescence is a new stage in life: “All sameness and continuities relied on earlier are questioned again” (94). According to Erikson, it is the time “when life lies before one with a variety of conflicting possibilities and choices” (98). It is the time when questions such as “Who am I? What makes me a man or a woman? Where do I belong?” arise for the first time. Suddenly, young people from age 12 to 18 are confronted with a rapidity of body growth which Erikson calls a “physiological revolution within them” (94).

But young people do not only have to deal with physical changes; they are confronted with a social role. In Eriksons terms, adolescents are “preoccupied with what they appear to be in the eyes of others as compared with what they feel they are, and with the question of how to connect the earlier cultivated roles and skills with the ideal prototypes of the day” (94). Therefore, the question of “How do others see me?” is added to the question of “How do I see myself?”. At this point, the young adult creates an ego identity. Erik H. Erikson defines the ego as inner sameness and continuity in psychological sense (94). According to him, the ego identity “is more than the sum of the childhood identifications… it is the inner capital accrued from all those experiences of each successive stage, when meaningful identification led to a successful alignment of the individuals basic drives with his endowment and his opportunities” (94).


This successful alignment is what Erikson and psychoanalysis in general call ego synthesis (94). As Erikson states, “the sense of ego identity… is the accrued confidence that ones ability to maintain inner sameness and continuity (ones ego) is matched by the sameness and continuity of ones meaning of others” (94). Erikson uses the expression sense of ego identity equal to self-esteem, which is the awareness “that one is developing a defined personality within a social reality which one understands” (95). Erikson emphasizes the importance of this awareness: “There is no feeling of being alive without a sense of ego identity” (95).

A sense of ego identity is confirmed at the end of each major crisis (95). He explains that “adolescents are desperately seeking for a satisfactory sense of belonging, be it in cliques and gangs here in our country or in inspiring mass movements in others” (95). Therefore, adolescents organize themselves in groups. Erikson did a long-term investigation of the youth which had following results: “To keep themselves together they temporarily overidentify to the point of apparent complete loss of identity, with the heroes of cliques and crowds” (97). Erikson sees the organization in groups as a necessary process for orientation: “Adolescents help one another temporarily through such discomfort [of conflicting possibilities and choices] by forming cliques and by stereotyping themselves, their ideals, and their enemies” (98). By “enemies”, Erikson means the so-called out-groupers (97).

According to him, the consequence of the “exclusion of others who are ‘different’, in skin color or cultural background, in tastes and gifts” or other aspects, is intolerance in its most radical form: discrimination (97). In Eriksons view, this is “the necessary defense against a sense of identity confusion” and therefore “unavoidable” in adolescence (97). But, Erikson warns, it also “makes clear the appeal which simple and cruel totalitarian doctrine have on the minds of the youth” (98). Erikson takes “the dynamic quality of the tempestuous adolescence lived through in patriarchal and agrarian countries… which face the most radical changes in political structure and in economy” as an example of “young people [who find] convincing and satisfactory identities in the simple totalitarian doctrines of race, class, or nation” (98).

Therefore, Erikson claims that the responsibility of the older generations in each country is to show consideration for the “special dynamic conditions of adolescence” and the special needs of their youngsters (97). Further, he appeals to the older generation to “demonstrate (by living it) a democratic identity which can be strong and yet tolerant, judicious and still determined” (98). In Eriksons concept, this democratic society must be liberal and tole– rant: “Our democracy… must present the adolescent with ideals which can be shared by youths of many backgrounds and which emphasize autonomy in the form of independence and initiative in the form of enterprise” (99). “Our democracy” is referred to the political system of America [ref] In the following discussion, I will refer to the North American continent as America. [/ref] where Erik H. Erikson had immigrated in 1933, 26 years before the publication of Identity and the Life Cycle.

But Erikson sees aspects in American politics as a cause for criticism. The adaption to the demands of an “increasingly complex and centralized system of economic and political organization” like America is what blocks the adolescent from “freedom of self-determination” which is to Erikson, alongside with “a certain degree of choice, [and] a certain hope for an individual chance”, necessary for “the development of a healthy personality” (99). Further, Erikson criticizes the idea of the “self-made man” as a “synthetic personality” (100) which is a phenomenon in the United States of America – the founder of the “American Dream”. He states that “in a culture once pervaded with the value of the self-made man, a special danger ensues from the idea of a synthetic personality: as if you are what you appear to be, or as if you are what you can buy” (100).

As stated above, young people are orientated towards group leaders and successful higher authorities. But Erikson sees aristocracy, “which in its widest possible sense connotes the conviction that the best people rule and that that rule develops the best in people” (100) as a problem. Concluding, Erikson is of the opinion that we [ref] We is referred to the American society. [/ref] need “a system of education that transmits values and goals which determinedly aspire beyond mere ‘functioning’ and ‘making the grade’” (100). But does every individual in America really have an equal chance for a ‘successful life’ in Eriksons (aristocratic) terms? To what extent enables or prohibits society and the political balance of power personal identity development? To get to the bottom of this question, I will ask what it means to ‘have an identity’.


2.2 Simon During’s Debating Identity

The question “What is identity?” also arose to Simon During, who then discussed it in De- bating Identity, a short essay contained in Cultural Studies: A Critical Introduction (2005). In the following, I will single out major points. During argues that individuals dont have a single identity, they have identities (146). He speaks of individual identities that form a ‘whole’ identity and explains its complexity. A human being has certain traits such as gender, skin color, age, nationality, etc. which mark it as an individual. Therefore, During maintains that identities define who somebody is in terms of a trait (145). Other individuals can share that trait. The consequence is that the profit of identity is accompanied by the loss of particularity, or in Durings words: “Identity is won at the price of reducing individuality” (145). The fact that I am a woman reduces my individuality because I share this trait with almost 50 per cent of the world population. But these traits are determined socially and individuals have little power to choose, what features will be used to identify them (145).


According to During, traits are always contingent: “Since whatever trait is chosen to fix identity, another one could have been chosen” (145). During is of the opinion that societies, identities and individuals do not exist independently of one another: “Because individuals exist socially in and through their identities without an identity there is no such thing as a socially situated individual” (145). In this context, he corresponds with Eriksons identity theory. This, in turn, means that an individual that is not socially situated, such as a migrant, might struggle for identity.

Identities do not have the same social consequences or carry equal weight (145). Some of them, such as gender, ethnicity and class, are identities by which we are placed socially (145). Using the example of nationality, During shows that the relative weight of identities change across time and space (145). He notices a change: “In many nations the country in which one was born used to matter a great deal in terms of identity. Now (generally speaking) it matters much less” (146). Returning to the argument of the relationship between societies, identities and individuals, During speaks of identity words. Identity words such as ‘nigger’, ‘punk’ or ‘hippie’ mark an individual. According to During, these words are culturally inflected because “the terms by which identities are ascribed do not describe traits and groups neutrally” (146). Furthermore, they are determined by power relations within a community (146). During argues that identity words shape social relations between “those using the identity-descriptor and those to whom the descriptor applies” (146), which can be seen as a long-term effect of the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized. Simon During emphasizes the importance of identity words in context.


Simon During (2005) states that:

it matters a great deal whether an American black person is called nigger, an African American, a black, a Negro, etc. Each of these terms marks an identity which is both the same as (in that it marks out the same group) and different from (in that it has different connotations) each of the other terms. And each of these terms may change its meaning depending on who is using it, and in what context (146).  Words used by others to define a group can either be insulting or prejudicially but in both cases, identity words such as ‘nigger are appropriated by the group themselves (146). 

In Durings opinion, these terms can enable a self-identity and are usually used “after passing through a brief phase were they are used ironically” (146). By doing so, the individual member of the group deals with its social situation. At a later point, I will show how Teju Cole demonstrates the effect of identity words. But there is also the phenomenon of ‘dis-identification’, which can be found in the cases of transsexuals. In this case, people “detach” themselves from given identities” (146). People who dis-identify from given identities such as gender, can internalize negative images of themselves (146).

As a further important point, During distinguishes between given or inherited and chosen identities. Given identities are those given to the individual in the sense of biological preconditions, such as gender or nationality. Many of them are “based on corporeality” (147). We enter this world, in biological terms, as male or female, and in a particular region or country. In Durings terms, given identities are “based on cultural, material, or ideological choices or preferences” (147), such as political directions, professions, and hobbies. After explaining the characteristics of identity, or merely identities, During concentrates on its role in the community: identity politics. According to During, identity politics are “engaged on behalf of those with particular identities (usually historically empowered ones)” (147). People presume the origins of identity politics in the civil rights movement in the USA during the early sixties of this century (147).

During explains that these groups made political claims on the basis of specific cultural and social identities, for example “African American on behalf of their racially defined community and feminists on behalf of woman” (147). These movements had a clear message. As reported by During, they “complained that for centuries in the West the values and attributes of a particular group – white, heterosexual men, and especially white, heterosexual, bourgeois men – had been taken as the norm (147). Nowadays, white, heterosexual, bourgeois men are still taken as the norm. Critics such as Simon During assume that identity groups that do not fit the norm are “fuelled by the desire for ‘recognition’, access, liberty and fair, unprejudiced treatment” (148). He further explains that “they struggle for wants and needs that they have by virtue of their marginalized identity” (148). Through the eighties and nineties, critics attempted to articulate a ‘post-identity’ cultural politics by turning to concepts such as ‘hybridity’ (149).

According to Curing, “these attempts were fuelled by an increasingly concrete sense of identity politics’ conceptual and political difficulties” (149). During lists six of these difficulties, which I will not discuss in detail. I will pick out one issue to demonstrate, why the hybridity theory became one of two popular concepts in ‘post-identity’ cultural politics [ref] The other concept is what Stuart Hall called unities in difference (Hall 1987, 45). [/ref] He explains one difficulty that identity politics often assumes identity to be an essence and “that there exists an essential (or authentic) way of being a woman, a Maori, an Asian, etc.” (149).

 This misconception, alongside five other issues as mentioned above, has brought a certain rigidity to the topic. To take away the concepts rigidity, cultural studies turned to the concept of hybridity which conceives identity not as a fixed marker (149). As stated by During, hybridity theory considers the processes or performances by which identities are formed and regards them as continual because “the meaning and force of all identities are in constant mutation” (149). Hence, hybridity theory has a more complex understanding of identities. Identities are not just given or chosen, they have to be enacted (151). In order to explain why hybridity theory is crucial in identity theory, Simon During refers to the influential postcolonial critic Homi Bhabha, who came to the question of identity through his interest in colonialism (151). At a later point, During refers to cultural theorist Stuart Hall (151). A reason for the influence of hybridity theory is Bhabhas concept of ‘subaltern identities’.

During explains ‘subaltern’ as follows: “‘Subaltern’ is a term used originally by Gramsci but which now usually refers to those social groups with the least power of all, especially colonized peoples” (151). Subaltern identities “are regularly articulated in terms that are not their own but are those of the dominant faction” (151). What is unique to the identity of subaltern groups is that it “is articulated in signifying practices that imitate and displace contexts (or discourses) that have been articulated by the colonizer” (151). Bhabha calls this kind of imitation ‘mimicry’, which can be described as the act of imitating (mimic) the codes of the dominant group, such as language, dress and manners (Meyer 197). “In imitating and deflecting dominant identities and discourses“, During recalls Bhabha’s argument, „the hybrid subaltern subverts the oppressor outside any formal political struggle” (151).


Rather, “hybridized identities acquired by the dominated cause ambivalence…and they call into question the naturalness and legitimacy of hegemonic identities [ref] See Bhabha 1994. [/ref] (151). According to During, the second reason for the suitability of hybridity theory is because groups and individuals do not have a single identity but several (151). At this point, he consults Stuart Halls work New Ethnicities. In it, Hall argued that the term ‘black’ includes different groups coming from various places around the world (151). He calls this concept ‘difference in unities’ (Hall 45). According to Hall (in Durings words), this has a particular consequence: “The ‘black’ identity could not call upon myths of a past to consolidate itself, and…not easily settle back into assumptions of shared culture” (Debating Identity 151). Therefore, what is different between members of one identity is just as important as what is shared (151).

During concludes that hybridity theory thinks of identity not as a stable marker or a stable trait shared across groups, but as “a practice whose meaning and effect is constantly as its context changes” (151). Therefore, it helps to take away some of the concepts rigidity. For the reasons I have just mentioned, hybridity theory is a common concept in postcolonial studies and can be found in nearly every reader and compendium related to this subject. In the fol lowing, I will explain postcolonial studies’ major terms, before I demonstrate the issue of postcolonial identity in American Literature [ref] American Literature is referred to the literatures of the United States. [/ref]



2.3 Postcolonialism: Definition of terms


To define major terms, I will adhere to Patsy J. Daniels’ approach. Her remarkable work Understanding American Fiction as Postcolonial Literature (2010) contains an overview of explanations. Daniels states that the best attempt to define postcolonialism can be found in the 1989 The Empire Writes Back by Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin (34). In it, Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin name three important features of all post-colonial writing which are “the silencing and marginalizing of the post-colonial voice by the imperial centre; the abrogation of this imperial centre within the text; and the active appropriation of the language and culture of that text” (83). At this point, Daniels emphasizes the necessary distinction between the practice of imperialism and the later practice of colonialism (34). She explains Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffins approach. The critics affirm that one must define colonialism by first defining imperialism because colonialism is a part of imperialism (34). Therefore, Ashcroft et al. place imperialism as prior to colonialism (Loomba 1998). In Post-Colonial Studies: The Key Concepts (2007), Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin quote Edward Said by saying that imperialism refers to “a dominating metropolitan centre ruling a distant territory”, but colonialism which is almost always a consequence of imperialism, is “the implanting of settlements on distant territory” (40).


In Colonialism/Postcolonialism (1998), postcolonial theorist of Indian descent Ania Loomba states that both concepts are best understood by “not trying to pin it down to a single semantic meaning but by relating its shifting meanings to historical processes” (4). Loomba explains the difficulty of the subject and confusion about the term. In the introduction, she quotes Russell Jacoby who complains that there is a “trend” towards the unreflected use of the term ‘postcolonial’ in all kinds of context (xi). Loomba is of the opinion that the “relatively new field of postcolonial studies” is surrounded by a great deal of excitement as well as confusion and scepticism (xi). “Relatively new” relates to the time, when Loomba first published Colonialism/Postcolonialism at the end of the 1990s. To Loomba, confusion and scepticism originate in the difficulty of the subject. She states that “the term ‘postcolonialism’ has become so heterogeneous and diffuse that it is impossible to satisfactory describe what its study might entail” and justifies this difficulty with the “interdisciplinary nature of postcolonial studies” (xii). In this context, Michael Meyer speaks of “an ambiguous umbrella term” (Meyer 196). According to Loomba, postcolonial studies cover various disciplines such as the social science and literary and linguistic studies and therefore “cannot simply be replaced by an everyday terminology” (xiii). Nevertheless, Loomba appeals to a “language that is more ‘user-friendly’” (xiii), because postcolonial theory does not have to be ‘depressingly difficult’ (Williams and Chrisman xi). Generally speaking, postcolonialism deals with the effects of colonization on cultures and societies (Key Concepts 168).


Concerning the origin of the term, Patsy Daniels asserts that “while ‘colonial dis– course theory’ was developed in the writings of critics like Said, Gayatri Spivak, and Homi Bhabha, the term postcolonial was first used by Spivak in her 1990 publication The Post-Colonial Critic (168)” (Daniels 34). Further, Daniels speaks of the debate over the hy- phen in post-colonial and whether it should be used in the spelling of the word (Daniels 34). In their short essay What is Post(-)colonialism?, Vijay Mishra and Bob Hodge explain that the word post-colonialism (hyphenated) is not given an independent entry in the OED because it is still a compound in which the ‘post-’ is a prefix (Mishra and Hodge 276). According to them, ‘post-colonial’ thus becomes something which is ‘post’ or after colonial (Mishra and Hodge 276). Consequently, post-colonialism refers to the period after colonialism.

However, the sense of an ending is hard to maintain in any simple or unproblematic fashion (Childs, Weber, and Williams 3). This raises the question of “When is the Post-colonial?”. In their 2007 Post-Colonial Studies: The Key Concepts, Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin explain that originally the hyphen was used in order to distinguish post-colonial studies as a field from colonial discourse theory per se (Ashcroft et al. Key Concepts 169). Postcolonialism is now used in wide and diverse ways (Key Concepts 169). Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin‘s (2000) detailed definition reads as follows:

 It [Post-colonialism] includes the study and analysis of European territorial conquests, the various institutions of European colonialism, the discursive operations of empire, the subtleties of subject construction in colonial discourse and the resistance of those subjects, and…the differing response to such incursions and their contemporary colonial legacies in both pre- and post-independence nations and communities. (Key Concepts 169)

 Patsy Daniels explains that we now speak of neo-colonialism and cultural imperialism (35). Hereby she uses the definition of Lois Tyson in Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide (2006). Tyson writes that neo-colonialism is “the idea that international corporations practice a similar kind of subjugation of vulnerable nations in terms of politics, economics, and culture” (425). Cultural imperialism is “the effect that one culture, specifically American, has upon another culture, perhaps India, which consumes the artifacts of American culture; for example, American dress, music, and movies” (425-26). In the context of postcolonial discussion, some critics use the hyphen, some critics do not. In the following analysis, I will use the term postcolonial without the hyphen. Postcolonial in my terms, includes every effect that has its origin in the colonial period.

In the subsequent section, I will discuss how identity is portrayed in a postcoloni– al context. In doing so, I will focus on American Literature. According to Patsy Daniels, “American writers [are] having a hybrid, ‘split’ identity with one eye focusing on the mother country and the other looking to forge a unique identity upon the North American continent” (Daniels ii).



 3. Postcolonial Identity in American Literature


Jhumpa Lahiri, American writer of Indian descent, wrote her debut The Namesake (2004) about her life and the struggles of being an immigrant, narrated by young Indian American Gogol. Nilanjana Sudheshna Lahiri was born in London in 1967 to Bengali parents. When

she was a small child, Jhumpa and her parents immigrated to the US, where she later attended Barnard College in New York, and Boston University, specializing in English literature and Renaissance studies [ref] See Lahiris biograph [/ref]. Lahiris The Namesake mainly deals with the change of name and the affect it has on a sense of identity. It points at the struggles of people who were born in the United States to Bengali parents.

Teju Cole, born as Obayemi Babajide Adetokunbo Onafuwa, is a writer, art historian, and photographer. He was born in the United States in 1975 to Nigerian parents, and raised in Nigeria. When he was 17, Cole returned to the States and attended Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo College, University of Michigan, School of Oriental and African Studies in London, and finally Columbia University, where he pursued a doctorate in art history [ref] See Coles biography on his homepage ( [/ref]. His first work Every Day is for the Thief was published in 2007. It is the story of an African American returning to his Nigerian roots. Four years later, Cole published his most famous book Open City, which is dedicated to the hybrid, open city of New York. Since the publication of Open City in 2011, Teju Coles works are known as a hallmark of contemporary American migration fiction and have been the subject of several scholarly studies. In recent years, the author was a welcome guest in culture centers and often depicted on literature magazines.

As a brief look at the MLA bib. shows, Teju Cole has chiefly been discussed in the context of cosmopolitanism and transnationalism. Further secondary literature, such as Ewa Adamkiewiczs thesis about “Race and the Multiracial Subject in Danzy Sennas You Are Free and Teju Coles Open City”, can be found on Coles official homepage [ref] See secondary literature on Coles homepage ( [/ref]. Memory is another much discussed topic in the context of Teju Coles works, which can also be found in this thesis. Cole and Lahiri write from a ‘non-white’ perspective with reference to their ‘black experience‘ of colonialism. Both writers point at the problem of identity formation in postcolonial societies (Bičakčić 1).



 3.1 Postcolonial Identity in Open City: Part One


“And so when I began to go on evening walks last fall, I found Morningside Heights an easy place from which to set out into the city” (3). Julius, a young prospective psychiatrist, wan– ders the streets of New York. The regular wanderings are a counterpoint to his busy life at the hospital, a “release from the tightly regulated mental environment of work” (7). The first pages of Open City are characterized by a deep interest in art, music, and literature. Indeed, Julius is a man of vast culture. The wide range of his knowledge covers the whole book and initially impresses the reader, who is overwhelmed with precise descriptions, information and links to historic events. Julius, the walking encyclopedia, is both a modern flâneur and an astute observer; but another crucial factor of his identity is the key to his thoughts and actions. One night, as Julius decides to walk through New Yorks district Harlem, the reader learns an essential part of his identity: “In the Harlem nights, there are no whites” (18).

Julius is African American, who left Nigeria to study at the other side of the ocean. But he is no typical young man of African origin: Julius has a German mother. It was her, who gave him his atypical name and lighter complexion: “The name Julius linked me to another place and was, with my passport and my skin color, one of the intensifiers of my sense of being different, of being set apart, in Nigeria” (78). Julius has a hidden Yoruba middle name, which he never used. He describes his surprise, whenever he sees it on his passport or birth certificate and compares it to “something that belonged to someone else but had been long held in my keeping” (78). Certain traits such as his skin color and atypical name are a reminder of his sense of being different: “Being Julius in everyday life thus confirmed me in my not being fully Nigerian” (78). How a name can cause serious damage on ones sense of identity shows Jhumpa Lahiri in The Namesake.



3.2 Naming and Identity in The Namesake

In The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri gives an insight into a Bengali family living in the United States. Lahiris autobiographic work contains her personal experience of identity crisis caused by a life between traditions and names. The Namesakes narrator Gogol is the child of Bengali parents and grows up in the United States. Gogols parents Ashima and Ashoke immi rated to the US to make a better living. Right from the start, Lahiri exposes the problems of Indian traditions concerning names. Ashima has adopted her husbands surname but refuses, for proprietys sake, to utter his first name: “Its not the type of thing Bengali wives do…A husbands name is something intimate and therefore unspoken” (2). To Bengali wives, this is a sign of respect and veneration.

Bengalis have two names: a private pet name, which can be compared to a nickname, and an official good name. But the narrator grows up with only one name: his pet name G gol. The boy is named after the Russian writer Nikolai Wassiljewitsch Gogol. Unlike Bengali names, this name has no meaning. It is a link to the fathers survival from a train accident. Jhumpa Lahiri explains the problem: “Not only does Gogol Ganguli have a pet name turned good name, but a last name turned first name. And so it occurs to him that no one he knows in the world, in Russia or India or America or anywhere, shares his name. Not even the source of his namesake” (78). Therefore, the narrator has no reconnection to the world. In his youth, Gogol begins to hate his name, which in turn causes self-hate. He refuses to be who he is.


In Erik H. Eriksons view, this sense of confusion is due to a war within himself (Youth and Crisis 17). This feeling is reinforced by the confusion of living between two cultures. In his childhood, Gogols parents make a great effort to keep up Indian traditions. They force their son to learn the Bengali language and culture, which he detests. Erikson (1959) sees this as a trigger for identity crisis:

Their [minority groups of a lesser degree of Americanization] crises come when their parents and teachers…create violent discontinuities; or where, indeed, the children themselves learn to disavow their sensual and overprotective mothers as temptations and a hindrance to the formation of a more American personality (Life Cycle 96).

Gogol and his sister Sonia are primarily influenced by the American culture which causes the parents to mix traditions and customs. As a consequence, the children are stuck in between cultures. In America, Gogol and Sonia are Americans of Indian descent and some- what different. In Calcutta, the hometown of their parents, they are strangers. While Ashima and Ashoke “slip into bolder, less complicated versions of themselves” (81) by being in their familiar surroundings in West Bengal, the children “stand out in their bright, expensive sneakers, American haircuts, backpacks slung over the shoulder” (82). During their first visit in Calcutta, Gogol and Sonia experience a culture shock. Back home in America, they “are disconnected by the space, by the uncompromising silence that surrounds them. They still feel somehow in transit“ (83).

In order to overcome his identity crisis, the narrator changes his name. In Eriksons terms, Gogols identity crisis is a “necessary turning point, a crucial moment, when development must move one way or another” (Youth and Crisis 16). Therefore, he decides to shed his identity as Gogol and live a new life as ‘Nick’, which is an abbreviation for Nikhil. Thereby, he follows in plenty of peoples footsteps: “European immigrants had their names changed at Ellis Island…slaves renamed themselves once they were emancipated” (97). For a moment, this process is a release, an act of freedom, the return of autonomy. But Gogol has problems to adopt his new identity and draws a conclusion: “He had tried to correct that randomness, that error. And yet it had not been possible to reinvent himself fully” (287). In the end, he accepts his sense of being different as a part of himself. Jhumpa Lahiris conclusion is that “these events have formed Gogol, shaped him, determined who he is” (287).

This is perhaps a self-referential statement because The Namesake can be seen as autobiographic. In an interview with the New York Times [ref] See the interview on ( [/ref], Lahiri articulated her resentment of carrying a pet name instead of one of her two good names. She states that Jhumpa, which is her only name now, was supposed to be her pet name. When she was a child, she never knew how to write her own name. According to her statement in this interview, she is also upset about the fact that the name Jhumpa has no meaning. Jhumpa Lahiri shows that a name can cause identity confusion and is a link to the family and country of origin.



 3.3 Postcolonial Identity in Open City: Part Two


In Open City, Teju Cole makes naming a subject of discussion, too. The narrators Yoruba middle name is like a foreign matter to him, but at the same time a link to Julius’ country of origin, which he has visited only two or three times since his emigration seventeen years ago. During his time in America, the English language took over: “By now my English is much stronger” (142), he confesses. Julius’ first language was Yoruba, the second biggest of Nigerias native language. His second language German was the secret language between my mother and him until he was five (142). But Julius hides this part of his identity in order to distance himself from his mother, although his name forever ties him to her. Julius was named after his fathers wife, who came in her early twenties from Germany to the United States (78). Julianna Müller had become Julianne Miller (78). Julius describes her as a coldhearted person. But one day, after the fathers death, she decides to share her memories with him (79). In her story, Julianne becomes Julianna again. She tells Julius about her childhood in Germany, where she was born as a war baby. This story is a story of suffering: “She’d been born into an unspeakably bitter world, a world without sanctity” (80).

When Julius got older, he tried to image the details of her life: “It was an entire vanished world of people, experiences, sensations, desires, a world that, in some odd way, I was the unaware continuation of” (80). Juliannes memory of being Julianna is somehow a part of Julius, a part he decides to get rid of. But his mothers past is not the only thing Julius forgot. His new life in the States slowly erases his past in Nigeria. Julius describes the past as a “mostly empty space, great expanses of nothing, in which significant persons and events float” (155). Nigeria was lost in this “empty space” and is “mostly forgotten, except for those few things that I remembered with an outsize intensity.” (155). But what remains in Julius’ nature and endures the test of time is the habituation to hot temperatures and continuous sunshine. In wintertime, Julius chooses to be alone and retreats. The cold months makes him feel dull (194). In the warmer months of the year, his energy and conviviality returns. Therefore, Julius makes an effort to “develop a mind of winter” (149), in order to conform to American temperatures. Another thing survived Julius’ memory: Nigerian myths of his childhood. A swarm of hovering bees reminds him of the “Yoruba epithets for Olodumare, the supreme deity: he who turns blood into children, who sits in the sky like a cloud of bees” (42). Associations like this one accompany the young man in his everyday life and on his evening walks.


On his way through the city, Julius encounters various people and their stories. Some of them are well disposed to him, some of them are not. The African American Julius experiences the consequences of prejudices, discrimination, and racism. He is offended by a thirteen-year old girl and her little brother: “Hes black…but hes not dressed like a gangster. I bet hes a gangster…I bet he is” (32), they say japing. Even at work, the young psychiatrist experiences hostility against Africans. But each time Julius prefers to ignore it. “It was mid– night, and I didnt feel like giving public lectures” (32) or “how [he] had spoken of Africans, had sidestepped the specific and spoken in the general” (31) are some of Julius’ justifications for remaining silent.

But each time, Julius is confronted with something that is linked to his African origin, he can best identify with Nigerians. Julius defends them, whenever someone says something insulting about the Nigerian people: “We are a bit aggressive, but I think the reason is that we like to get ahead, make our presence felt” (88). Significant here is the way Julius speaks about himself and Nigerians as “us” and “we”. Depending on the situation and his interlocutor, Julius identifies with either Nigerians or Americans. But in most cases, he identifies with American blacks. To Farouq, a European émigré from Morocco, Julius ex- plains how American blacks really are, as opposed to what mass media displays: “American blacks are like any other Americans; they are like any other people…Many of them are poor, that is true, for reasons of history…but…some of them are engineers, university professors, lawyers, and generals. Even the last two secretaries of state have been black [ref] Teju Cole wrote Open City before Barack Obamas presidency. [/ref]” (119).


Julius’ time in America had a lasting effect on his political views, as well as economic and social thought. In Brussels, where he makes half-hearted attempts to find his grandmother, Julius compares Europe with America. He himself is not free of prejudices. He has arrived in Brussels with the idea that all the Africans in the city were from the Congo because he has a basic understanding of the history of the slave state and the colonial relationships (138). He learns that his knowledge has “dislodged any other idea from [his] head” (138). Julius is constantly on the lookout for Africans in European or American society. In his observations of people around him, Julius tends to categorize: “five pairs of [chess] players…all of them black…another pair of men, both white” (47) or “I saw black women in charcoal gray skirt suits, and young, clean-shaven Indian-American men” (47) are some of his assessments. In situations where he finds himself the only black person among whites, he is most aware of his identity. This identity differs from the average American. According to Erikson, this is an observable phenomenon in psychology: Julius experiences a “clear consciousness of inner identity” (Youth and Crisis 21).


Another case, where individuals of mixed ethic descents experience identity con– sciousness, is when they encounter people ‘of their kind’. One observable phenomenon is black solidarity. Julius explains this phenomenon: “A gesture of mutual respect based on our being young, black, male; based, in other words, on our being ‘brothers’. These glances were exchanged between black men all over the city every minute of the day, a quickly solidarity worked into the weave of each mans mundane pursuits, a nod or smile or quick greeting. It was a little way of saying, I know something of what life is like for you out here” (212). In We Who Are Dark (2005), Tommi Shelby, philosopher and African American studies professor at Harvard University, explains black identity as multidimensional and speaks of certain modes and “degrees” of blackness (207-213). Shelby distinguishes thin and thick conceptions of black identity. In his concept, “on a thin view, blacks are persons who (more or less) fit a particular phenotypic profile and certain genealogical criteria and/or who are generally believed to have biological ancestors who fit the relevant profile” (Shelby 208). The definition of a thick conception is more complex. It requires something more or other, than a common psychical feature and African ancestry: “Here the social category ‘black’ has a narrower social meaning, with specific and sometimes quite austere criteria for who qualifies as black (Shelby 209).

In Open City, Julius’ appearance and skin color is enough for his ‘fellow blacks’ (Shelby 2011) to call him a ‘brother’. Shelby investigates the common use of ‘brother and ‘sister’, although “blacks are not a family, not even an extended one, in any ordinary sense” (211). One explanation of him is that “members of a family often share important experiences that contribute to their feelings of connectedness, trust, and loyalty. And in a similar way, black people have a common vulnerability to racial discrimination” (212). The concept of black solidarity as solidarity amongst people who experience something similar and who can understand one another, is relatable to Eriksons opinion that adolescents organize themselves in groups, because they desperately seeking for a satisfactory sense of belonging (Life Cycle 95). Sometimes, Julius is annoyed by involved expectations of statements such as “Hey, I’m African just like you” (53). He feels pressurized by some ‘brothers’ who make such a claim (53).

Open Citys narrator is obsessed with the stories, emotions, and destinies of others: “Unimaginable how many small stories people all over this city carried around with them” (155). He tries desperately to put himself in the position of people who had to fight, suffered, and were uprooted. People like the young Rwandans: “What losses…lay behind their laugh– ter and flirting…Who, among those present…had killed, or witnessed killing? The quiet faces surely masked some pain I couldnt see” (139). Julius tells of an odd feeling, whenever he is introduced to young men from Serbia, Croatia, Sierra Leone, or Liberia – countries that are still marked by war (139). Those people had experienced unimaginable human suffering, which Julius tries to retrace.

In general, memory is a strong issue in Open City. At the beginning, the reader learns Dr. Saitos definition of memory. Dr. Saito is an old teacher of Julius, who has many memories of the Second World War. As a refugee, Dr. Saito had to leave England. Julius soaks up his stories like a sponge: “I learned the art of listening from him” (10). Dr. Saito is a grandfather figure to Julius, who appreciates the “value of memory” and teaches Julius “how to think it as mental music” (14). The old man wrote many poems to remember his past. Therefore, he sees memorization as a helpful skill (13). New York, the open city, is full of memories. Julius’ route guides him along buildings and places that call to mind the terrible events that took place in and through New York. The city is still in deep sorrow for the loss of thousands of people on September 11, 2001. 9/11 – a date that will never be forgotten. The New Yorkers are extremely sensitive about this subject: “I remembered a tourist who once asked me how he could get to 9/11: not the site of the events of 9/11 but to 9/11 itself, the date petrified into broken stones.” (52). The place where The World Trade Center stood, is still a blind spot. According to Julius, “the place has become a metonym of its disaster.” (52). And again, Julius tries to grasp the catastrophe: “Nothing separated them, nothing separated us, from the people who had worked directly across the street on the day of the disaster” (58).

The city of New York, like any other metropolis: written, erased, and rewritten (59). Coles strong metaphor indicates the mortality of the city, which he further illustrates in death related metaphors: large masses of people hurrying down into “underground chambers” (the subway), pushed by a “counterinstinctive death drive” into “movable catacombs” (7). Cole dedicated one half of Open City to this melancholic topic: Death is a perfection of the eye is the title of Part 1. In Open City, the narrator himself experiences two losses: the death of Dr. Saito and the death of his own father. After his fathers death when he was fourteen, Julius “wanted for myself…some sense of belonging, and loss paradoxically helped enrich that sense” (81). According to Erik H. Erikson, we are most aware of our identity, when “we are just about to gain it and when we…are somewhat surprised to make its acquaintance” (Youth and Crisis 127). In search of a sense of belonging as an adult, Julius takes a great interest in historic events, especially those concerning the country of his origin Nigeria. One day, Julius visits Ellis Island. From 1892 to 1924 Ellis Island was Americas largest and most active immigrant station, where over 12 million immigrants were processed [ref] See the website of the National Park Service ( [/ref].

Places like Ellis Island are a link to the suffering of Julius’ people and simultaneously an opportunity to reflect on his origin and those of his fellow blacks: “Ellis Island …had been built too late for those early Africans – who werent immigrants in any case – and it had been closed too soon to mean anything to the late Africans…Ellis Island was a symbol for European refugees. Blacks, ‘we blacks,’ had known rougher ports of entry” (55). “Rougher ports of entry” is referred to the time, when European colonial powers brought African slaves to the New World. New York was “the most important port for the building, outfitting, insuring, and launching of slavery ships” (163). One port of departure for slavery ships on the West African coast was Lagos in Nigeria, the hometown of the unnamed narrator in Teju Coles first work Every Day is for the Thief (2007).



3.4 Homecoming in Every Day is for the Thief

Every Day is for the Thief is the story of the prodigal son returning to his African roots. After fifteen years in America, the narrator visits Lagos for the first time. Teju Coles first book is a portrait of Africa far away from euphemistic descriptions of a romanticized continent. Corruption, violence, and constant fear are the reality of Nigerias largest city. The narrator returns to Africa as a dual citizen of the United States and Nigeria. But in each country, he is a stranger. On the other side of the ocean, our unnamed hero is one of the countrys many blacks and therefore always ‘different’ from the average white American.

But in Every day is for the Thief, Cole shows what happens, when an African immigrant returns to his country of origin. What is striking here is the narrators feeling of being different in his home country. In Lagos, his light complexion could make him a target for robbers and other criminals (39). At the market, he is kept for an oyínbo, which is the Yoruba expression for a ‘white man’ (57). The narrator is affected by this false assessment and asks himself: “What subtle tells of dress or body language have, again, given me away? This kind of thing didnt happen when I lived here” (57-58). Coles narrator traces this phenomenon back to the adaption of Western ideas: “I have taken into myself some of the assumptions of life in a Western democracy – certain ideas about legality, for instance, certain expectations of due process – and in that sense I have returned a stranger” (17). A stranger who seems to be the only one who is upset about the common corruption in the country: “For many Nigerians, the giving and receiving of bribes, tips, extortion money, or alms…is not thought of in moral terms. It is seen either as a mild irritant or as an opportunity” (17). The narrator guides the reader through the individual steps of this “informal economy” (15) and explains the system in specific. His annoyance works like an engine in the book.

 Furthermore, his time in America has softened him, as a family member notices (33). He is no longer used to poor conditions such as the electricity supply problem or the loudness and bustling of people: “People talk all the time, calling on a sense of reality that is not identical to mine” (68). He misses places of retreat, where his work and creativity can grow. Suddenly, he fells off-color in his own home country. Facing the dangers of the country, he experiences an unfamiliar will to violence: “I think of myself as a pacifist, but what I want now is to draw blood, to injure, even to be injured…I no longer know myself” (109). To find himself again, the narrator overidentifies with a woman he meets on public transportation. The woman is reading “a challenging work of literary fiction”, (42) which is a rare sight in Lagos. He immediately wants to get in contact with her and interrogate her (43): “I hunger for conversation with my secret sharer” (42-43). The narrator complains about the absence of a culture of reading and literary education. To him, the reason for this is the uncertainty of life in Nigeria. He explains that people are exhausted after the hassle of a normal Lagos day (68). Therefore, the vast majority prefers mindless entertainment to any other kind such as literary fiction (68).

The narrator returns to his home country Nigeria, but finds himself a changed man which causes identity confusion. He is neither a native, nor a complete stranger. He does not know where he belongs anymore, and where he should stay. He thinks about moving back to Lagos but rejects the idea. What he takes into consideration are practical issues such as money, professional development, and his tolerance for the environment (66). But another reason is how Nigeria changes the way he is – an identity that developed during fifteen years in America. So he asks himself: “Am I ready for all the rage Nigeria can bring out of me?” (66). After this trip, the narrator knows that “there is something drawing me back to this city, this country” (157). But what has been lost is the meaning of home: “The word ‘home’ sits in my mouth like foreign food. So simple a word, and so hard to pin to its meaning” (156). Comparable with Julius in Open City, Coles narrator in Every Day is for the Thief searches for his identity in Nigerian culture and history. Therefore, he visits the National Museum in Onikan and is disappointed. He complains that no one cares about the artifacts that mean a lot to him: “All people who are far from home have something they hold on to. For me, it was the museum and the meaning I had invested in its collection” (72).

The narrator could find Nigerian culture all over the world, which was like medicine against homesickness. The disappointment cuts deep: “London, New York, and Berlin had made me long for Lagos. The West had sharpened my appetite for ancient African art. And Lagos is providing a crushing disappointment” (74). Museums are places that give us a sense of where we are located in the world. We have to situate ourselves. The absence of Nigerian culture and memorial places in Nigeria worries the narrator. Lagos is a traditional place but there are only a few monuments. Therefore, he criticizes the lack of historical conservation. For him, it would be necessary to have an “official Nigerian response to slavery” (78) in order to heal the wounds. This sad fact makes him worry about Nigerias future: “What…are the social consequences of life in a country that has no use for history?” (79). In this respect again, Cole uses the metaphor of erasing the past. He tells the story of the “secret twinship” of Lagos and New Orleans: “New Orleans was the largest market for human chattel in the New World” (112). Lagos, on the other side, was the busiest port of the West African shore (113). The narrator blames Nigeria for the repression of its past: “No one wants to know about …The citys slaving past drowned in drink and jazz and Mardi Grass” (112-113). But to him, it is impossible to drown the past. In this context, he quotes Faulkner: “The past is never dead. Its not even the past” (114). But the Nigerian people decided to bury the past in the ground.



3.5 Postcolonial Identity in Open City: Part Three


On the other side of the ocean in New York, Julius blames the American society for the same fact. In Open City, Julius finds a memorial for the site of an African burial ground, named Negro Burial Ground back in the days, which was intact between the 1690s and 1795. Julius complains that the people of the city had forgotten it. To him, it is hard to imagine that there was a time, when it was prohibited for black people to bury their dead. He cannot believe “how difficult it was…to fully believe that these people, with the difficult lives they were forced to live, were truly people, complex in all their dimensions as we are” (222). According to Erik H. Erikson, the memory is not indiscriminate, it rejects and selects (Youth and Crisis 144). Just like Julius, when he remembers New York as “the most important port for the building, outfitting, insuring, and launching of slavery ships” (163), or 9/11 as one of New Yorks most terrible events while repressing his own memories like the rape of his school friend Moji Kasali. This is due to selective perception. Julius recalls the past in a way that benefits him. He tries to find himself in the city, which is impregnated with a long history of events: “Generations rushed through the eye of the needle, and I, one of the still legible crowd… wanted to find the line that connected me to my own part in these stories” (59). These stories, which make the city a hybrid one, are stories of immigration.

 In the following, I will present four of Coles characters in Open City, who face the struggle of having a postcolonial identity. Hereby, I will focus on how these characters handle political violence, discrimination, and a sense of being different. I will show that each character reacts differently and that identity confusion might even cause mental disorders such as depression, as in the following example.

V. is a member of the Delaware Tribe (of Indians) and one of Julius’ patients who suffer from depression. She is assistant professor at New York City University and wrote a historical biography as her doctorial dissertation at Columbia. The Monster of Amsterdam is the biography of Cornelius Van Tienhoven, who “had been notorious as a seventeenth-century schout of New Amsterdam” (25). Van Tienhoven “became known for his many brutal acts, notable among them a raid he led to murder Canarsie Indians on Long Island, after which he had brought back the victims’ heads on pikes” (26). Julius explains the reason for her mental disorder: “V.s depression was partly due to the emotional toll of these studies [she did for her book]” (27). Julius’ patient is deeply affected by the happenings of the past and “the horrors Native Americans had had to endure at the hands of the white settlers” (27). The horrors that they continued to suffer, affected her on a profound personal level: “I cant pretend it isnt about my life, she said…once, it is my life” (27).

V. complains that this horror of New Yorks past disappeared from peoples minds: “It isnt right that people are not terrified by this because this is a terrifying thing that happened to a vast population. And its not in the past, it is still with us today; at least, its still with me” (27). To her, “its a difficult thing to live in a country that has erased your past” (27). The young woman puts herself in the position of her tribe several hundred years ago. Inside, she literally feels the pain and suffering they had to endure. Her mental disorder is her personal reminder of the American society that, in her view, repressed the memory of the terrible events of colonialism. V. will never feel at home in the United States of today, the here and now, because she still blames the country for the suffering of her tribe. Her mental prison is the past.


One day, Julius visits Saidu, a young prisoner from Liberia. Unlike V., who is a prisoner of history, Saidu is a prisoner “in a large metal box in Queens” (64). Julius joins an organization of his girlfriend Nadège, which offers regular excursion to a detention facility in which undocumented immigrants were held. Saidu has been waiting more than two years to be released. He describes how he ended up there. When the war began, he had to leave. He tells Julius that in Liberia, America is seen as the superior nation: “In school and at home, he had been taught about the special relationship between Liberia and America, which was like the relationship between an uncle and a favorite nephew” (64). Therefore, “America had sat solidly in his dreams, had been the absolute focus of his dreams” (65). To Liberians like Saidu, the powerful nation America promises help in times of need: “When the war began, and everything started to crumble, he was sure the Americans would come in and solve the whole thing. But it hadnt been like that: Americans had been reluctant to help, for their own reasons” (65).

Even after this disappointment, Saidu still believes in America. He tells Julius the story of the great escape from Liberia and his immigration to America, which took two years in total. He explains that he was caught at JFK Airport and that he has been said that he might have had a chance before 9/11(69). Saidu reports of his forthcoming deportation, “but there is no date, just this waiting and waiting” (64). But the young Liberian has accepted his fate: “Its okay, I’m okay” (69). “I dont want to go back anywhere”, he complains, “I want to stay in this country, I want to be in America and work” (70). Saidu is an example of unsuccessful immigration, mainly as a result of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. His positive and humble personality survived the terrible experience of illegal immigration. People like Saidu, who had to undergo a long time of uncertainty and fear, are thankful for what they have. He is a fighter, along with many other refugees that are still on their way to the Western hemisphere.

A man who managed to flee to America is Pierre from Haiti. Pierre left his home country “when things got bad there, when so many people were killed, blacks, whites” (72). Most of his family members had been killed. Therefore, Mrs. Bérard, a wealthy American, brought Pierre and many others to America. In New York, Pierre and his sister Rosalie worked in the service of the Bérard family. Pierre tells Julius of the immigrant situation in his new surrounding: “Irish, Italians, and blacks. All working in the service trades…Yes, some people worked in terrible conditions, I know, inhuman conditions. But it was a question of what family you were with.” (72). Pierre is aware of the dependence on his ‘new family’, but his deep gratitude predominates: “They [the Bérards] were higher, we were lower, but in truth it was a family, as the apostle describes Gods family, in which each part plays a role” (72). Pierres Christian belief orders respect and modesty, the gratitude for the chance for a new life orders subservience. He learns to love his superiors and accepts them as family members: “The loss of Mr. Bérard was like the loss of my own brother. He wouldn‘t put it this way, of course, but he taught me to read and write…I give thanks to God who saves me from any lasting injustice” (73).

Only when Mrs. Bérard died, Pierre was free: “I mourned her as I had mourned her husband, and only then did I seek the freedom without” (73). The story of Pierres new life in America is a modern story of colonialism. The Bérard family used their wealth, social status and nationality in order to take advantage of the helplessness of individuals from the Third World. But in Pierres view, he must thank Mr. and Mrs. Bérard for giving him an opportunity in America. Pierre and his wife Juliette have found their provision in the work for black children, many of them orphans, and established a school for them. With ‘Gods help’, they improved the childrens situation, “so that they were not in the debt of any man” (74).


A key figure in Teju Coles Open City is Farouq, a young man from Morocco. Farouq works behind the counter of an Internet and telephone shop in Brussels, where Julius makes half-hearted attempts to find his grandmother. Apart from his good intensions, Julius subconsciously encounters him with western arrogance and (supposed) intellectual superiority. But Farouq turns out to be a “smiling, serious-faced thinker” with “crisp, self-certain intellectual language” (103), who is interested in literature and philosophy. They begin to exchange views about literature, and Julius feels intimidated by him: “I didnt quite grasp all the distinctions he was making, but I was impressed with the subtlety in them” (104). Julius is blinded by Farouqs eloquence and has difficulties to follow his arguments. In the first instance, Farouq acts as humanistic and liberal-minded. For him, the Internet and telephone shop is a place, where individuals of mixed ethic descents peacefully come together: “Its a test case of what I believe; people can live together but still keep their own values intact. Seeing this crowd of individuals from different places, it appeals to the human side of me, and the intellectual side of me” (112). But there is another side of Farouq: a side, which is heavily influenced by Islamist ideas and anti-Semitism. Right from the start, Farouq declares that he identifies with Malcolm Xs philosophy more than with Martin Luther Kings. With this position, Farouq clearly distances from any western Christian belief: “This is not an idea I can accept” (105). Subsequently, Julius recapitulates the conversation and thinks about himself as a “victimized Other” (105), as Farouq calls it. In this context, Julius identifies himself with Farouq. He feels like being in the same situation than the young Moroccan: “My presentation, the dark, unsmiling, solitary stranger – made me a target” (106).

Julius begins to think about Islamophobia in society: “The classic anti-immigrant view, which saw them as enemies competing for scarce resources, was conceiving with a renewed fear of Islam” (106). But, as he returns to Farouqs shop, Julius suddenly sees Farouq in a different way: “He, too, was in the grip of rage and rhetoric” (107). Julius’ new friend seems to be obsessed and compares his thoughts as “a can- cerous violence” (107) that had eaten into every political idea in Farouqs head. Following the slogan “Where theres a will theres a way”, people tend to sacrifice actions. Action leads to action. Julius criticizes that “the way to be someone, the way to catch attention of the young and recruit them to ones cause, was to be enraged” (107). As Erikson has already warned, simple and totalitarian doctrine has a great appeal to the minds of the youth (Identity and the Life Cycle 98).

Being a young Moroccan with Islamist ideas in the Western hemisphere, which is marked by Christian belief, Farouq has difficulties to adapt. On the other hand, Farouq faces humiliating experiences. Rejection and prejudices prevent him from a successful life in Belgium. He wants to be a scholar one day, but his thesis was rejected by the university.Disappointment transformed into resignation and rage. “It is impossible, and it is arrogant, to think that the present reality of Western countries is the culminating point of human history”, he criticizes (114). But again and again, Farouqs believe in a better world breaks through. For the second time, he tells Julius about his project of a deeper kind. He “strongly believes” (113) that people can live together in peace. Therefore, he wants to understand how that can happen on a bigger scale, because it already happens in his shop (113). Farouq calls himself a pacifist, who doesnt believe in violent compulsion, but when one of Farouqs friends joins the conversation a few days later, the situation takes an unexpected turn (115). During Julius’ conversations with Farouq, the reader is torn between two personalities: Farouq, the peaceful and liberal-minded European migrant, who believes in a better world, and Farouq, the radical Muslim, who dishonors the dominant Belgian culture. Farouq himself faces a conflict between humanistic ideals and values, western pleasures such as alcohol and cigarettes, and his religion including a “deep love for the Prophet” (127). With a gesture to the bottle of beer in front of him, Farouq says: “I know that this is a choice I have made, and the consequence of this choice is that the wine of paradise will not be available to me” (127).


The young Moroccan Farouq celebrates his otherness living in Belgium, as Coles figure Dr. Maillotte criticizes. Dr. Maillotte herself is a European immigrant, who now lives in the United States. Although she “cant stand American public morals” (142) and calls America a “terrible, hypocritical…sanctimonious country” (92), she is of the opinion that émigrés must conform to the country of destination. Julius explains Farouqs issue: “My friends specific trouble is about being different and maintaining his uniqueness, his difference” (142-143). Dr. Maillotte cannot understand this behavior. She argues that the Belgian society has made itself open for “such people” as immigrants (143). She criticizes that many of them refuse to adapt to the society: “Why would you want to move somewhere only to prove how different you are? And why would a society like that want to welcome you?” (143). In her opinion, “for people to feel that they alone have suffered…is very dangerous” (143). Dr. Maillotte was fifteen, when World War II ended. She decided to go into medicine and left the country for America. As opposed to Farouq, Dr. Maillotte has accepted her fate. She explains that “theres a reason…I had to leave Belgium and try to make my life in another country. I dont complain and, to be honest, I really have little patience for people who do” (143). In spite of her dislike of the United States, Dr. Maillotte spent the majority of her life there. It is the country of her children and became her new home. Julius notices: “You’ve been away for a long time, so you’re not a typical Belgian in any sense” (142).


Similar to Dr. Maillotte, Moji complains about the political system in America. Moji is a young woman who went to school with Julius in Nigeria and also decided to start a new life in the United States. Unlike Julius, who visited Nigeria two or three times since then, Moji maintains close contact through annual visits. Comparable with Coles narrator in Every Day is for the Thief, Moji continuously compares Western with Nigerian conditions. Especial– ly racism is in the focus of her observation. She complains about the name Africanized killer bees: “Africanized killers: as if we dont have enough to deal with without African becoming a shorthand of murderous” (199). In her time in America, Moji experienced racism several times and sees the racist structure of the country as “crazy-making” (203). Moji still sees herself more as African, living in a foreign country. During her time in America, she developed a brittleness and defensiveness, which Julius notices and cannot understand (203). Moji is always spoiling for a fight, when it comes to the difference between black and nonblack people: “Speaking of her boyfriend, whom I had not met yet, she’d demanded of me: Are you trying to find out hes black?” (203). Mojis experiences of ‘being different’ in America made the young woman sensitive about comments. Her defensiveness is a sign of the fundamental refusal she experiences because of her paradigmatic ‘black’ phenotypic features – dark skin color, wooly hair, flat nose, and full lips (Shelby 41).

What the characters in Open City have in common, is the loss of orientation. Teju Cole expresses this experience in two powerful metaphors: doubling and awakening. During his trip to Brussels, Julius has a dream in which he is running across Lagos. He wakes up with a total loss of orientation: “I couldnt remember where I was…What country is this? What is this house, and who am I with?” (130). He puts together the pieces of his identity. Afterwards, he feels like being “someone, not a body without a being” (131) again. He describes this exhausting experience as “slowly returned to [himself] from a distance” (131). Julius is haunted by memories in his dreams and the constant change of location disturbs his psycho-social well-being, which is a feeling of being at home in ones body (Life Cycle 127).


At another time, Julius loses orientation in broad daylight. A Chinese marching band in Chinatown suddenly throws him back to Nigeria, where he attended military school. The melody of Mahlers Second Symphony matches his memory of “those boyhood morning assemblies” (192) so closely, that Julius experiences “the sudden disorientation and bliss of one who…could clearly see the world doubled in itself” (192). This loss of orientation is taken to the extent that he “could no longer tell where the tangible universe ended and the reflected one began” (192). At that precise moment, Julius feels like his self would double and this double begins “to tussle with the same problem as its equally confused original” (192). Julius compares this experience with life itself: “To be alive, it seemed to me…was to be both original and reflection, and to be dead was to be split off, to be reflection alone” (192).

What distinguishes Open City and Every Day is for the Thief is the point of view in society. Both books document the authors own experiences: “In New York, you are black. In Lagos, you are a mixture: still one of them but somewhat white [ref] I documented this quote during Coles reading at DAI Heidelberg on June 17, 2015. [/ref]. Cole emphasizes what Simon During has called ‘difference in unity’ with reference to Stuart Hall [ref] See Halls concept of ‘unities in difference’ (1987,45). [/ref]. Black people are not all the same; they have had different experiences, have lived different lives, and originate from different countries. Durings ‘difference in unity’ is the answer to prejudices and racism. Finally, it is important to emphasize that there are less and less homogeneous societies and the world must adapt to its changes. Or to say it in Iris Bičakčić words: “Purity does not exist in the postcolonial world…modern, transcultural, hybrid identities do…consist of ‘a bit of this and a bit of that'“ (Bičakčić 1).


4. Conclusion


Every Day is for the Thief, Open City and The Namesake are full of stories – stories of mar– ginalized subjects, who struggle for a unique identity in the age of global migration. Jhumpa Lahiris and Teju Coles characters are embodiments of a modern and hybrid world. They are refugees, immigrants, and descendants of Native Americans. Some of them experience political violence based on their belonging to cultures that were formerly colonized. Hybrid identities lack a reference culture as something they can refer to in between a mixture of cultures, traditions and nationalities. Therefore, they are desperately seeking for a satisfactory sense of belonging. The consequence of identity confusion is a loss of psychosocial well-being as a sense of being centered, active, whole and aware. As I have shown in my thesis, individuals who experience identity confusion react differently to this issue. Coles characters experience a loss of orientation, respond with hypersensitivity and suffer from mental disorders such as depression. Furthermore, they are searching their roots in history and society.

Some individuals who struggle for a stable identity, try to get rid of their ‘old’ one and deny their roots. They try to forget and ‘reinvent’ themselves by changing their name. But, as my investigation shows, roots cannot be forgotten. The memory links individuals to their country of origin and people they left behind. Often, a confused search can enable a creative period as in the example of Cole, Lahiri and Erik H. Erikson. They developed relevant scientific works or obtain a hearing through their literary works. American Literature can look back at a history of writers with multicultural backgrounds. Identity is the sense that ‘I am somebody’. But who am I, caught between the culture and traditions of my ancestors, the country of origin and my current environment? Where am I located in the age of global migration? Postcolonial Literature tackles these questions. The issue of identity in a postmodern world will simultaneously grow with the hybridity of the world. It is the problem almost every individual sees itself confronted with: to find ones own place in the world.


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Tamara Schempp über sich selbst: „Mit einem Bachelor-Studium der Anglistik und Philosophie an der TU Darmstadt in der Tasche, widme ich mich vorrübergehend der Kunst einer etwas anderen Art: Latte Art. Als Barista versuche ich mich an Herzen und Blumen im Caffè Latte. Mehr Talent besitze ich allerdings im Texten. Seit zwei Jahren arbeite ich als freie Mitarbeiterin für das P Stadtkulturmagazin Darmstadt und schreibe mit Leidenschaft über lokalpolitische, soziale und kulturelle Themen. Meine Bachelor-Arbeit widmete ich der Frage, wie Autorinnen und Autoren innerhalb ihrer Bücher Erfahrungen kultureller Heimatlosigkeit und ihre Suche nach Identität verarbeiten. Ab Oktober werde ich meinem Interesse an transkulturellen und postkolonialen Themen weiter frönen. Dann beginne ich den Master „Anglophone Literatures, Cultures and Media“ an der Goethe-Universität Frankfurt. Mehr über meine Person, sowie meine Artikel gibt’s hier nachzulesen:“

Tamara Schempp über sich selbst:
Mit einem Bachelor-Studium der Anglistik und Philosophie an der TU Darmstadt in der Tasche, widme ich mich vorübergehend der Kunst einer etwas anderen Art: Latte Art. Als Barista versuche ich mich an Herzen und Blumen im Caffè Latte. Mehr Talent besitze ich allerdings im Texten. Seit zwei Jahren arbeite ich als freie Mitarbeiterin für das P Stadtkulturmagazin Darmstadt und schreibe mit Leidenschaft über lokalpolitische, soziale und kulturelle Themen.
Meine Bachelor-Arbeit widmete ich der Frage, wie Autorinnen und Autoren innerhalb ihrer Bücher Erfahrungen kultureller Heimatlosigkeit und ihre Suche nach Identität verarbeiten. Ab Oktober werde ich meinem Interesse an transkulturellen und postkolonialen Themen weiter frönen. Dann beginne ich den Master „Anglophone Literatures, Cultures and Media“ an der Goethe-Universität Frankfurt.
Mehr über meine Person, sowie meine Artikel gibt’s hier nachzulesen: