Is literature interwoven with the building and maintaining of national identity? That rather begs the question: What is national identity? It’s a question that we’ve become obsessed with in Britain, especially since the introduction in 2005 of the citizenship test for immigrants applying for a U.K. passport. The government-published book, Life in the United Kingdom, that applicants have to study, gives some key historical information (about the Magna Carta, for example) but also tries to paint a picture of how we Brits supposedly go about our daily lives and what’s important to us.
I remember taking one of the online tests that immediately sprang up, to see if I knew enough to be truly British. I did fine on the historical questions. The other stuff was trickier. I couldn’t name the four national saint’s days in order (Saints David, Patrick, George, and Andrew). PG, I guessed, was one of the nation’s favorite brands of teabags. It is—but in the book, PG was the “Parental Guidance” part of the cinema classification system. I did guess right that if we spill someone’s pint in the pub, what we are supposed to do is offer to buy them another. (Although I had been tempted to plump for another option, which was to prepare for a fight in the car park. That might be more accurate, in certain pubs at least.)
What Life in the United Kingdom pointed up was the seeming impossibility of agreeing on what the British identity, for which applicants are signing up, actually is. Newspaper columnists frothed fulsomely. Everyone appeared to disagree with everyone else. It’s not hard to see why. What’s important to some, for example saints’ days, makes not a whit of difference to me. Even our “core” values are being questioned daily. According to the government, to be British we should hold the “traditional values of mutual tolerance and respect for rights and mutual concern.” But how does tolerance intersect with freedom of speech? Should we be tolerant of Muslim clerics who broadcast against homosexuality? Will the increased state sponsorship of religious schools foster mutual concern, or lead to more division?
So what about literature? Can fiction build or maintain our national identity when we are in such a state of flux, when (despite the official version) no two people in my country can agree on who we are and what we stand for? In our modern, multicultural world, one that has become geographically unbound, perhaps literature too has become unanchored. It can only add a sense of rootlessness, as writers and books traverse the globe. Certainly the university departments of post-colonial literature are behind the times. We’ve moved beyond that. V. S. Naipaul has spoken of writing “from the periphery.” But there is no longer a center against which the margin can be measured. And if there were, it would have to include Naipaul himself in his Wiltshire manor house.