No Place as Home: The Exploration of Diasporas in The Nature of Blood and the Caribbean Experience
By April Joyner
On its most immediate level, Caryl Phillips’ The Nature of Blood narrates several stories of the Jewish Diaspora, using the familiar Shakespearean character Othello to provide a counterpoint to the others’ experiences of displacement. The Nature of Blood thus initially seems to fit awkwardly among texts by other West Indian authors who use the Caribbean as the setting of their work or incorporate West Indian characters into their work. Through his multi-stranded narrative, however, Phillips creates a geographical setting that mirrors the multi-regional influence of the Caribbean. The triangular space of Europe, the Middle East, and Africa shaped by the character’s stories parallels the historical and cultural exchange among Europe, North America, and Africa: the triangular trade which produced the African diaspora. Unlike people of African descent in mainland North America, those of Caribbean background have historically had a more fragmented allegiance to home, negotiating between African and European influences. Likewise, The Nature of Blood illustrates its characters’ discomfort in claiming one particular space as home and in maintaining ties to one space as they move to another.
Each of the characters in The Nature of Blood illustrates the challenges that geography, culture, and memory pose to claiming a singular home. Moshe and Eva, both affected by the Holocaust, convey ambivalence as they seek literal geographical spaces in which to rebuild their lives. Malka’s relocation includes the additional obstacle of cultural and racial differences which mark her past home and prevent her from assimilation in her new space even as she attempts to leave her old one behind. And, Stephan faces the burden of memories of home, which haunts his attempts to construct a resettled future. Through these characters, Phillips thus conveys the impossibility of establishing a singular home for diasporic populations, exploring the effects of uprooting through a triangular framework: physical space (geography), social space (race and culture), and mental space (memory). This triangular situation of spaces in turn allows Phillips, while not specifically addressing the region, to explore the condition of the Caribbean diaspora.
The first narrative of The Nature of Blood unsettles the existence of geographical “home” by questioning optimistic views of settlement. Stephan opens the novel, explaining plans for the creation of the new state of Israel to Moshe, a Romanian Holocaust survivor. Their dialogue reveals Moshe’s unease with the claim to Israel as a new Jewish state, even as Stephan expresses optimism: “‘Tell me, what will be the name of the country?’ ‘Our country,’ I said. ‘The country will belong to you too’” (Phillips 3). While Stephan insists upon claiming Israel both for himself and Moshe, Moshe resists this possessiveness, hence his inquiry about “the country” rather than “his country.” Even after Stephan asserts that Moshe has as much stake in Israel as the other settlers, Moshe hesitates, failing even to remember the name of the new country. At the same time that Stephan and Moshe’s dialogue questions resettlement, the prose of the novel’s opening establishes Moshe as part of a diasporic population. The narrator describes Moshe as one of “the orphaned and the unattached” (4), in limbo between being nurtured by parents and living independently. As a result of this condition, the leader of Moshe’s camp issues the mandate, “We must endeavour to treat them as though they were our own lost children” (5). Both the description and the mandate allude metaphorically to displacement and diaspora. Moshe is not only orphaned from his familial parents but also his geographical site of parentage—his home. The phrase “lost children,” in addition, alludes to the trauma of this orphanage, his seizure from both home and family by the Nazis. Although the camp mandate conveys hope that Moshe, as a lost child, will find a parent in Israel, his characterization as an orphan challenges the idea of such a recovery. Orphanage implies the loss of one’s original parents; thus, in a geographical sense, Moshe can never find his home of parentage because it no longer exists. Israel can only provide surrogate parentage, hence the phrase “as though they were our own lost children,” leaving doubt as to whether such surrogacy is adequate as a replacement for what has been lost.
As a fellow Holocaust survivor, Eva also encounters the problem of settlement and reestablishment in a new geographical space. Although in a similar camp as Moshe, she does not even receive the same information about her destination after the dissolution of the camp. Thus, her fate, like Moshe’s condition of orphanage, leaves her in limbo, and she seeks resettlement in the first location that presents opportunity to her, London. The setting of London provides an explicit link between Eva’s narrative and the narratives of Caribbean immigrants to Britain, particularly as conveyed in fictional accounts such as Samuel Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners. Like Selvon’s Caribbean immigrants, Eva discovers a country to which she can never lay full claim. On board the train to London, she avoids conversation with another passenger, remarking, “My foreign voice will only jump out and assault her” (Phillips 188). Although she has not yet uttered a word to anyone, she assumes that her foreignness has already manifested itself and that, moreover, it will cause harm to others. This reaction is reminiscent of Selvon’s character Galahad, who isolates Blackness from the rest of his body (as Eva isolates her voice) as the root of not only his own problems but also “a lot of misery in the world” (Selvon 88).
Eva’s ties to her old home, though severed by the Holocaust so that she cannot return, prevent her from any serious attempt at resettlement. Even as Eva clings to Gerry, her supposed suitor, as her sole hope of resettlement in London, she fails to assert a full claim of ownership in the city: “…I like these streets which…seemed to tolerate my presence. I liked Gerry’s London” (193). Her tone in these statements reveals her inability to assimilate fully. The streets “tolerate” her presence rather than welcome it, akin to Selvon’s Caribbean immigrants being able to find work, but only menial labor. This cool reception is startling given Eva’s background, for in comparison to Selvon’s West Indian immigrants, she has no immediate marker of foreignness, and Britain, geographically detached from the European continent, lacks the taint of the Holocaust. Her statement, however, reveals London’s “toleration” as illusory. She admires “Gerry’s London,” not London in general, and especially not her London; the city belongs to Gerry, not her. The phrase “Gerry’s London” also establishes Eva’s favorable perception of the city as an illusion, a distortion of the actual city. In “Gerry’s London,” Eva believes she can find a new home, but in actual London, she cannot. Hence, even more so than Moshe, Eva demonstrates the fallacy of optimistic views of resettlement. Like Moshe, she encounters an inability to recover home, but unlike Moshe, she also affirms, rather than speculates, the impossibility to replace home.
Through Malka’s narrative, Phillips presents an even stronger challenge to the idea of home by exploring it as a socio-cultural space. Malka’s attempt to settle in Israel demonstrates her cultural isolation from her old geographical space as well as the new home she seeks to claim. At first, Malka’s move to Israel seems the opposite of the other characters’ displacement, for she initially situates it as a return home rather than a departure from home. This distinction highlights her cultural separation from her place of origin but also her anxiety of cultural resettlement: “My sister and I wondered, in this new land, would our babies be born white? We, the people of the House of Israel, we were going home. No more wandering. No longer landless. No more tilling of soil that did not belong to us” (Phillips 201). Malka’s language (“we the people of the House of Israel”) asserts herself and her family as rightful members of the society they seek to enter. She further accomplishes this assertion in her portrayal of her family’s existence in Ethiopia, which defines them as “landless” and unassimilated. Her initial question, however, troubles this characterization of both Israel and Ethiopia. Malka acknowledges race as the cultural wedge that separates her family from the rest of Israel. By asking the question, “Would our babies be born white?” she raises doubt as to whether their assimilation will be successful, for she realizes a cultural adjustment must take place despite her family’s seeming claim to Israel. At the same time, this question complicates Ethiopia as home. While Malka and her family share a common race with Ethiopians, their Jewish faith creates a separation further exacerbated by their move to Israel. Her children may not “be born white” in Israel in a racial sense, but their cultural setting would indeed divide them from Malka’s place of origin, proving return to Ethiopia problematic.
Malka’s racial and cultural identity, however, renders her assimilation in Israel impossible despite her initial optimism. Her encounter with Stephan exemplifies the racial and cultural prejudices she faces. After they part ways, Stephan delivers a seeming judgment upon Malka’s settlement in Israel: “But she belonged to another land. She might be happier there. Dragging these people from their primitive world into this one, and in such a fashion, was not a policy with which he had agreed. They belonged to another place” (Phillips 210). This statement characterizes Malka’s move as forced and inappropriate. In fact, it describes Ethiopia as a land from which she was “dragged,” in language akin to that describing slavery and the Holocaust, situations in which both tragedies’ victims lost their homes by force. The statement also identifies culture as the problematic factor in such a move, as Malka’s place of origin is seen as a “primitive world.” Thus, rather than the glorious return home she previously imagined, Malka finds a place in which she cannot gain acceptance. She herself acknowledges this ultimate failure: “This Holy Land did not deceive us. The people did” (207). By distinguishing the people of Israel from the country itself, Malka recognizes race and culture, instead of geography, as the factors in her displacement.
Malka’s realization in turn draws a parallel between her displacement and that of Caribbean immigrants to London. In his analysis of The Nature of Blood, Bénédicte Ledent finds Malka’s quote reminiscent of Samuel Selvon’s quote on England, “the land did not deceive me, as the people did” (qtd. in Ledent 192). Other Caribbean narratives, fictional as well as actual, convey the same sentiment. In Andrea Levy’s novel Small Island, Gilbert, a Jamaican soldier, tries to explain his self-perception as British to two Black American soldiers: “Jamaica is a colony. Britain is our Mother Country. We are British but we live in Jamaica” (131). Although Gilbert attempts to identify himself as part of the “British Empire,” as Malka identifies herself as part of “the House of Israel,” the American soldiers’ reaction to his explanations, albeit comical, illustrate Gilbert’s naïveté to his second-class status as a Jamaican. Just as Malka realizes she is not accepted as a fellow Israeli, Gilbert realizes that despite Jamaica’s geopolitical inclusion in the British Empire, he is not considered British in London. The parallel between Malka and Gilbert further demonstrates the cultural challenges posed by resettlement. Malka’s settlement in Israel, as Gilbert’s immigration to London, creates heterogeneity in her new location that the concept of assimilation, claiming membership in a single community, inherently resists.
Another narrative in The Nature of Blood disturbs characters’ attempted resettlements by exploring memory as a problematic mental space. Memory haunts Stephan’s existence in Israel even as he feigns confidence in the new state during his conversation with Moshe. His self-reflection after the conversation reveals a much less optimistic tone. Using the same metaphor of “beautiful trees laden with fruit” Moshe initiates in order to speculate Israel’s promise, Stephan imagines another locale for himself: “Truly I felt ashamed, for I had not described my country…My country? At dawn, going back to beautiful trees laden with fruit. But what about the joy of swirling snow on a cold winter’s morning?” (Phillips 10). The detailed description of Stephan’s old home that follows illustrates his feigned faith in Israel as well as his inability to heed the advice he gives Moshe. Indeed, Stephan acknowledges, “I still carry within me the old world that I once cast aside. (She is in America with my daughter.)” (11). This statement in turn, through metonymy, allies Stephan’s abandonment of his family with the departure from his old country. Thus, in resettlement, Stephan carries guilt with him, for his memories inevitably remind him of the family he left behind. And, as his cynicism towards the image of fruit on the trees indicates, he reveals little hope for regeneration in Israel. Stephan’s memory, in effect, prevents him for foreseeing a future for himself even as he attempts to guide others toward doing so.
Stephan’s struggles with memory complicate his relationship to the past at the same time that it cripples his present and future existence in Israel. At the end of the novel, Stephan recognizes his problematic relationship with memory: “Every day, assaulted with loneliness. Every day, eaten up by guilt. His only companion was memory, and how he struggled with the burdensome weight of this single relationship. He now understood that to remember too much is, indeed, a form of madness” (211). His reference to memory as a “companion” highlights the primary burden his memories impose upon him: guilt for leaving his wife and daughter, the two primary companions in his former country. While the quote emphasizes his failure to find new companionship in Israel (particularly after his encounter with Malka), it also demonstrates his inability to reencounter lost companions. The last passage of the novel involves Stephan conjuring a past image of his nieces, Eva and Margot, ending with the image of “him alone on the bench, his arms outstretched, reaching across the years” (212). This last image conveys visually what Stephan attempts to do through memory, to reach out to his family despite his physical disconnection from them. But as the desperate tone of this line suggests, such a task is impossible. Although his family members, including his wife, daughter, and nieces, reside in his memories, Stephen ultimately finds memory as his only lasting companion, so unsatisfying that he terms it a “burdensome weight.” The dissatisfaction Stephan finds with memory and the inability to reclaim his past leads him to denounce it as “a form of madness.”
As other spaces prevent characters from finding a suitable home, past or present, Stephan’s mental space, memory, complicates his present with images of a guilty past, irretrievable for correction. Stephan’s struggles with memory evoke the experience of collective trauma in general, particularly that of diasporic populations such as the Caribbean. Paule Marshall’s novel The Chosen Place, The Timeless People portrays the fictional Bourne Island and the inertia memory imposes upon the financial and social progress of the island. Just as Stephan terms “too much” memory “a form of madness,” Merle in The Chosen Place says of West Indian history, “It is a nightmare, as that Irishman said, and we haven’t awakened from it yet” (Marshall 130). Both Stephan’s narrative and the narrative of The Chosen Place explore the effects of memory and its collective form, history, on national identity and come to similar conclusions. Stephan’s affinity to the Israeli nationalist movement is feigned at best, an attempt to convince himself and others, like Moshe, to forget their European pasts. While Merle adopts the opposite strategy, to use history as an empowering tool, her efforts do not succeed either. She fails to rid the islanders of their lethargy, and in fact, they ridicule her for sacrificing her teaching job.
Yet Stephan’s narrative differs crucially from that of Marshall’s novel in his relation to trauma. Whereas Merle and the inhabitants of Bourne Island are victims of a collective trauma, the narrative of The Nature of Blood positions Stephan as an offender, one who left his family to suffer both the trauma of the Holocaust and the challenge of escape. Stephan’s position reveals the complexity of memory and its mixed legacy for diasporic populations. In her short story collection The Dew Breaker, Edwidge Danticat explores a similar theme through the titular character, who is responsible for several murders ordered by the Haitian dictatorship. Although the Dew Breaker carries even more guilt than Stephan—his wrongdoings are criminal, unlike Stephan’s, and directly result in mass deaths—he shares with Stephan the desire to make amends for a personal history of a collective trauma as well as the inability to assert fully a new identity in a new geographical space because of the burden of memory. The endings of both The Nature of Blood and The Dew Breaker convey the futility of Stephan and the Dew Breaker’s quests to amend the past by illustrating the past’s elusiveness. Just as Stephan “reach[es] across the years” to no avail, the Dew Breaker’s wife notes ultimately that her brother, the Dew Breaker’s last victim, “had set his body on fire in the prison yard at dawn, leaving behind no corpse to bury, no trace of himself at all” (Danticat 242). Stephan and the Dew Breaker’s sources of guilt leave them no tangible traces of the past with which to initiate amends, thereby leaving them with haunted futures. By examining the burden of memory from the perspective of the wrongdoer as well as the victim, Stephan’s narrative, as its comparison to The Dew Breaker illustrates, demonstrates the complex challenges of resettlement for diasporic populations, ones which cannot be resolved simply by choosing between binaries, whether victim versus victimizer or past versus present.
Analyzing the problems that geography, culture, and memory bring to resettlement, The Nature of Blood, while omitting the Caribbean from its narratives, addresses the Caribbean’s own struggles in its identity formation. Each of the characters in The Nature of Blood finds choosing between past and present homes, whether through physical, social, or mental spaces, an impossible task. Similarly, the Caribbean faces the task of shaping a distinct regional identity, and in turn defining its independent future, from hybrid sources, ranging from Europe to Africa to the Americas. Phillips’ novel, through the disappointing outcomes of the characters’ narratives, suggests that the isolation, or extrication, of one of these sources proves an ineffective and ultimately damaging means of resettlement, or in the case of the Caribbean, identity reformation. Complete resettlement fails for each of the novel’s characters precisely because of the inability to disjoint the old completely from the new. By presenting the consequences of such futile negotiation between past and present, The Nature of Blood thus issues an admonishment against the shunning of hybridity. Although issues of geography, culture, and memory continue to burden the Caribbean, its embrace of hybridity places the region on the path to resolving its identity and mapping its destiny.
Danticat, Edwidge. The Dew Breaker. New York: Vintage, 2005.
Ledent, Bénédicte. “A Fictional and Cultural Labyrinth: Caryl Phillips’s ‘The Nature of Blood.’” ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature 32:1 (January 2001). 185-195.
Levy, Andrea. Small Island. New York: Picador, 2004.
Marshall, Paule. The Chosen Place, The Timeless People. 1969. New York: Vintage, 1992.
Phillips, Caryl. The Nature of Blood. New York: Vintage, 1998.
Selvon, Samuel. The Lonely Londoners. 1956. White Plains, NY: Longman, 1983.
© April Joyner