Two Afrindian Diasporic Writers Compared
Afrindian is a term popularised by Pallavi Rastogi (2008), who applied it to the South African Indian community, its complex struggle to find an identity, and its long fight for recognition and acceptance. They feel themselves to be first South Africans, and then members of the diasporic Indian world. The term derives from Lal’s (2006) monumental Encyclopedia of the Indian diaspora. According to Lal (2006:242), Afrindian symbolises “the Africanization of the Indian self in a unique intersection of diaspora, postcoloniality, Indianness, apartheid, and black/white binary oppositions”. Specifically referring to Dangor, Lal (2006:253) further comments on the uniqueness of South African Indian literature, “that reflects distinct South African realities, so far a much neglected literary postcolonial entity”.
Dangor, born in 1948 in Johannesburg, is therefore representative of the relatively successful South African Indian community (despite discrimination under apartheid). He remained in South Africa, and devoted himself entirely to writing (novels, short stories, novellas, poetry). He also won numerous prizes, including the South African Bosman prize for Kafka’s curse and the Lifetime Achievement Award by South African Literary Awards (SALA). Bitter fruit was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2004.
Dangor’s uniqueness is emphasised by Ronit Frenkel (2010), who claims that Dangor confounds unitary taxonomies in both his writings and his identity. He has been listed as both Indian and ‘Coloured’, a category imposed on a heterogeneous group of people from areas as diverse as India, Madagascar, East Africa, West Africa, Indonesia and Malaysia. The British Council (2020) webpage on English language literature includes an entry on Achmat Dangor that explains this ambiguity:
“I am an African with Asian and Dutch blood in me, I don’t know what race I am, and I don’t care”—this is how South African poet and novelist Achmat Dangor, born into an Indian and Muslim family in Johannesburg, describes himself. This description, together with Dangor’s literary production, is a poignant reminder of the absurdity
The Translation of Diasporic African Indian Autobiographical 97 and arbitrariness of racial categories ... Thus, Danger’s fiction and poetry unsettle superficially-drawn racial divisions and challenge societies built on racial codes.
Some of Dangor’s characters mirror his hybrid identity:
What they really meant was: Oscar’s not one of us. He was a mixture, Javanese, and Dutch, and Indian, and God knows what else, they would later discover. He was the lovely hybrid whom Anna had fallen in love with, perhaps because of his hybridity.
Salvador Faura (2018:80-81, 86) never uses the label ‘Indian’ to describe Dangor, but ‘Muslim’, from its very title, “...the Distinct Muslim Communities of South Africa..." throughout:
Dangor’s account offers more than a postcolonial home to a myth that united the Afrikaans-, English-, and Arabic-speaking Muslims in this country ... Above all, Dangor’s “madman in the garden” contributes to the creation of a literary space for Muslims in a South Africa that is now culturally richer and socially more inclusive.
I propose that the term Afrindian can also be applied to East African Indians such as Vassanji, who lived in countries such as Uganda, Kenya or Tanzania. As Lal (2006) also mentions, they or their ancestors first travelled from India to East Africa, and then were forcibly expelled from Africa in the 1970s, many moving to the UK, the USA and Canada. Their two migrations, their two diasporas, have also been narrated in Afrindian literature.
Vassanji, born in 1950 in Nairobi, is representative of the suppressed and forcibly exiled East African Indian community. In 1978, he moved to Canada where he trained as a nuclear physicist at MIT and taught at different universities before devoting himself to writing (novels, short stories, memoirs and biography). He is a Fellow of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study in Shimla, India, and has won numerous awards, including the Commonweath Prize, the Bressani Prize, and twice the Gilles Prize -Canada's most prestigious literary award.
Afrindian Literature: Minority, Autobiographical and Diasporic
Afrindian literature is characterised by three main aspects: it is an example of minority writing, it has strong autobiographical tones, and it contains uniquely diasporic reflections on the Indian ‘homeland’.