Literatur  |  Philosophie  |  Sprache

Isabel Boggio, 2004 | Basel, BS

With increasing globalisation and cosmopolitanism, the debate on identity is only gaining in relevance. Yet the underlying agreement on the fluidity of self, which reflects a more borderless society, remains. To investigate this fluidity, this study analyses “The Gunny Sack” by M.J. Vassanji and “In a Brown Mantle” by Peter Nazareth using a framework of five aspects of self-perception. The paper demonstrates that self-perception is a complex construct of factors, including the individual, society, external factors and the past. The novels both show that to deny the vastness of self-perception, either by focusing too much on external factors or on the past, is to go against the fluidity of a postcolonial self and often leads to incongruities with detrimental effects, like the loss of self.


This paper is a comparative literary analysis on two East African Asian novels regarding the perception of self: How do the two novels “The Gunny Sack” by M.J. Vassanji, and “In a Brown Mantle” by Peter Nazareth, differ in their portrayal of the factors which shape self-perception in an East African Asian context?


In order to analyse the selected works, a theoretical framework needed to be established, which was constructed specifically for the context of the two novels and based on pre-existing theories on post-colonialism and diasporic identities. The way both books are set up allowed the following categories to be determined, which guided a subsequent investigation on the fluidity of self-perception through select passages from the texts: perceptions of the past, external factors, perception by others, effects of incongruities, and self-perception.


“The Gunny Sack” demonstrates how the past offers a refuge for the self by glorifying it at times and justifying actions as inevitable repetitions of the past at others. Yet, the relationship with the past in self-perception also goes the other way, as the inherited guilt of the past is the cause for many incongruities. The influence of others’ perception is shown in the novel through the stereotypes and prejudices towards “half-castes,” i.e. the critique on interracial relationships. Names and nicknames, two types of labels given by others, carry importance in the perception of self, yet their arbitrariness show its fragile foundation. The fragility of self-perception results in incongruities, which in both novels are similar and portrayed through actions like running away, loss of self presented in the protagonists, attachment to the past, and even the disavowal of the nation. Furthermore, the importance of external factors, especially ethnicity and economic standing, is shown and often criticised in both works. Ethnicity also plays a very large role in “In a Brown Mantle” as stereotypes lie at the heart of the novel, especially regarding Asians as exploiters and Black Africans as lesser. The novel also demonstrates how nicknames, as well as rumours, allow us to understand other’s perceptions of a subject.


“The Gunny Sack” emphasises the fluid evolution of self-perception through character development, including the protagonist’s final liberation, as well as through the omnipresent focus on names and their changes. Although the past, especially inherited/generational guilt, plays a considerable role in his self-perception, the protagonist’s shift from being captured by the past to accepting it, is essential in order to emancipate oneself from the effects of an incongruity of self. In “In a Brown Mantle,” the fluidity of self-perception is limited by external features, especially of race and ethnicity. This is not only reflected in the protagonist’s personal experience but is felt in the political backdrop of East Africa in the 1970s, where anti-Asian sentiment was prevalent. Nazareth highlights the senselessness behind these sentiments, especially as these stereotypes derive from the fixed category of race. Thus, he contrasts them with a fluid self-perception that should reflect a diasporic nation.


The comparative analysis highlights that the acceptance of an inevitable fluidity and vastness of self is indispensable in self-perception, especially in a globalised society where the multitude of factors working behind this construction of self are felt exceptionally clearly. Nonetheless, this study offers a mere introduction to the wide range of insights East African Asian novels can provide in the identity debate. Analysis of other works, from the same authors as well as from different generations and genders, would further enrich this study.

Würdigung durch den Experten

Andrin Albrecht

With impeccable style and register, Isabel Boggio delivers a literary analysis informed by postcolonial and identity theory, but built on an original framework of a contingent ‘self’ she develops text-immanently. After providing a comprehensive historical introduction to the Asian diaspora in East Africa and its tenuous place between colonizer and colonized, she explores how selves are shaped and constantly renegotiated in two East African Asian novels. Her close reading and deduction skills are superb. Her subject is acutely relevant, her work innovative, perceptive, and frequently stirring.



Sonderpreis «London International Youth Science Forum (LIYSF)» gestiftet von der SJf-Trägerschaft

Gymnasium am Münsterplatz, Basel
Lehrerin: Dr. Alexandra Ramsden