Nomadic Identities: The Performance of Citizenship


Neal McLeod

Saskatchewan Federated Indian College

Copyright © 2000 by Neal McLeod, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

Review of:

May Joseph's, Nomadic Identities: The Performance of Citizenship . Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.

  1. Nomadic Identities: The Performance of Citizenship offers important insights into discussions of citizenship and belonging of people uprooted from their homelands. By drawing upon examples and experiences from Tanzania and Black communities in the United Kingdom, Joseph deconstructs discourses which propose essentialism and closed borders (such as those of the Tanzanian leader Nyerere). She points to the complexities of identity in the face of the overwhelming pressures of diaspora, urbanization, modernity and post-colonial situations. The strength of Joseph’s book is that she demonstrates that "home" is a fluid and changing concept. She describes Matura’s plays as "blurring the distinction between here and ‘back home’ at one level and demarcating very clear boundaries at other …" (p. 106). Thus, narratives of nomadic identities both deconstruct and construct interpretative horizons of cultures. Joseph stresses however that these narratives move borders: "To grasp the question of borders, we must account for memory that cannot be contained, that overruns the border's limits" (p. 97). Her work bears comparison to that of James Clifford, Gerald Vizenor and Richard Rorty in her stress on contingency and the creation of identity.
  2. In the liminal space between diaspora and "home," nomadic identity and narratives emerge. Within this liminal space, traditions are engaged in a dynamic process and weave into the new circumstances surrounding the various people. Joseph notes that the playwright Kurup "explores the tensions between transplanted and reinvented traditions" (p. 148). Also, the space between emerges when the "competing logics of customary practice" (p. 117) which is certainly true of any situation in which "nomads" find themselves in a new country and circumstances. However, throughout the book, the author could have more clearly differentiated diaspora and modernity. While her discussion of diaspora and nomadic identities is multi-layered in many ways, she could have complemented with a thorough discussion of "homeland."
  3. May Joseph stresses the public nature of social meaning. She sees citizenship as a "performance" (p. 4) which lends itself easily to the extensive use of contemporary drama by various minorities throughout. Indeed, the notion of "nomadic identities" is metaphorical of the dynamic process of identity: the dynamics nature of these narratives is symbolic of modernity itself- the uprooting of tradition and meaning and the attempt to construct something else in its place. Joseph describes this as "competing mthologies of reinvention" (p. 5). Indeed, nomadic citizenship "fractures categories of belonging" (p. 17).
  4. In the emergence of liminal space, story-telling and orality are very essential components of this process as they offer alternative narratives and as they offer alternative ways of describing the world she sees oral speech as "the primary mode of anticolonial resistance" (p. 103).
  5. Joseph notes: "Through the use of story-telling, the border becomes an unmapping space … " (p. 105). Indeed, one of the motivating factors of the authors that she describes are to engage in a post-colonial discourse and to find their own voice. However, as Joseph points out, while some may attempt to find a primoridial voice, this is ulitmately bound to fail because "the home" is always shifting.
  6. While the examples that she draws from pop-culture are helpful, Joseph rarely discusses the critical notion of "home" and "tradition. The notion of borderlands and shifting identities is certainly a characteristic of our modern times, but one is left perhaps with the impression from reading the book that there are no significant differences between groups which are worth preserving. Instead, Joseph constructs a picture that all culture is enmeshed an ambiguous post-modern blurring of all distinctions. Also, throughout the book, Joseph seems to imply that any attempt of a people to construct an identity which anchors itself in "Otherness" is somehow a fabrication and attempts to construct boundaries are artificial. While the construction of boundaries can be extremely limiting and distort dialogue between peoples, the attempt to construct national discourses can be useful and important for people to find themselves in the world.

Back to Table of Contents, Vol. 4 Issue 2
Back to Jouvert Main Page