The need to connect with our contextual environment, particularly forging strong bonds of association with other individuals is common to humanity. Paradoxically however, individuals often have to compromise their own values and personal integrity into order to be accepted. This is the case with Romulus in the 1998 memoir Romulus, My Father, written by Raimond Gaita, who is compelled by the rest of 1950’s Australian society to assimilate into the Anglo-Saxon dominated society in order to be accepted. This can be also seen in Sujata Bhatt’s poem, Search For My Tongue, in her poetry anthology The Colour of Solitude, where the persona laments the loss of the links to her cultural heritage and landscape as a result of the compromise that had forces her to assimilate into American society. It is these forged connections to people and place that may result in the concession of the individual’s existing values, and are the aspects of belonging being represented in these texts.
The new formation of connections to place and other people can have the grave consequences of the loss of the individual’s values and their self-identity if they inhibit one’s sense of belonging to their original identity. Romulus refuses to conform and assimilate to Australian society and faces hostility from nineteen fifties Australian society because of this in Romulus, My Father, as he wishes to maintain his original Romanian identity. The harsh tone of “The local newspaper criticized the New Australian for his folly” and the labelling of Romulus as a “New Australia” separates him from the rest of the town of Frogmore, which is a consequence of Romulus adhering to his existing values when he “without thinking, responding with an instinct of an immigrant unused to the tinder-dry conditions of an Australian summer…he set fire to the place in order to kill the snake.”
Despite all this agression, Romulus remained “a fierce moralist…whose judgements were not what we call ‘judgemental’…and were always never said in a tone that suggested he would turn his back on you.”, a description that contrasts the attitudes of others in Australian society who shunned him because of their failure to be non-judgemental in their opinions towards migrants in the nineteen fifties. Romulus also tries to develop a connection between him and the landscape, but struggles as “even after forty years my father could not become reconciled with it…longing for the generous and soft European foliage”. These high modality words with descriptive imagery convey that Romulus, despite all the hostility he experiences for not assimilating into Australian society, refuses to conform and compromise on his beliefs. Thus he rejects his new connections to both people and place in order to remain linked with his original Romanian identity, an aspect of belonging we can learn from this text.
However, Christine in Romulus, My Father juxtaposes her husband Romulus, who refuses to develop any new connections with people or place, as she longs to form connections with other people in order to feel accepted in this new, Australian society. These formation of connections can be seen in Christine who “felt isolated by the gum trees that surrounded Frogmore…deepened her romances with other men aboard the ship and at Bonegilla” with figurative language showing that she feels that this is the only way to establish a relationship with people. But despite this, Christine, like Romulus, struggles to form a link with the landscape where “A dead red gum stood only a hundred metres from the house and became for my mother a symbol of her desolation.”
This symbolism depicts Christine’s desire to assimilate and let go of her existing values, but struggles in accepting the new landscape as part of her identity. Christine is also treated harshly by the rest of Australia because of her suspected infidelity, where “the vast landscape with only crude wire fences and a rough track to mark a human impression on it, she appeared forsaken” where the descriptive imagery “the vast landscape” is used as a symbol to represent the alienation of Christine by the general Australian public.
This leaves her very desolate before she commits suicide, where upon Australian society continues to neglect her while Raimond and his father “began to resolve (their) intense and conflicting emotions concerning (Christine)”. This can be seen in “It seemed terrible to me that the story of her unhappy and tormented life should include the fact that she lay in an unmarked grave.” It is the description of these terrible consequences that make us question whether the individual must conform to society’s expectations and values and lose their self-identity in order to forge connections with people and place.
The poem Search For My Tongue by Sujata Bhatt as part of her anthology The Colour of Solitude conveys the consequences of the disconnection the persona feels from her Gujarati-Indian heritage as she laments the compromises she has undertaken in order to assimilate and be accepted into English society. The persona compares the two languages, Gujarati and English, by using the word “tongues” as a pun that can mean different dialects, but also can mean the body part used in speaking these languages. The persona then makes allusions to decaying organisms in “your mother tongue would rot and die in your mouth, until you had to spit it out” where the compromise on her Gujarati-Indian values have led to her self-identity being conceded. Thus Bhatt shows the consequences of compromise, a decision that Romulus in Romulus, My Father has upheld by maintaining connections to his Romanian heritage while Christine has rebelled against this ideology and developed relationships with other men, leading to her downfall as depicted in this poem.
This issue comes to a climax in the conflict of two cultures and the two languages, symbolised by the literal imagery of two twisted tongues in one’s mouth in “if you had two tongues in your mouth You could not use them both together, even if you thought that way, the way one twists…and ties the other up in knots”, which provokes a reaction from the reader as they struggle to digest this gruesome image. This helps the poet in forming a connection with her readers so they understand the difficulties of belonging to two different cultures, and thus sympathise with her for the duration of the poem. This loss of connections to one’s place and their cultural heritage can have devastating impacts on the individual’s psyche if it inhibits their sense of belonging, even if they form new connections with new people and foreign places in order to assimilate and be accepted in society.
However, the persona remains steadfast to her original identity because at night, metaphors of nature are used to describe the flourishing of the Gujarati language inside her mind, with the language “(tying) the other tongue in knots”, representing the two languages in battle, but with the invading “foreign tongue” being defeated as the “mother tongue blossoms out of (her) mouth), with nature metaphors used to not only convey the beauty of the language, but also juxtapose the poets feelings towards the Gujarati language earlier in the poem. Thus the poet accepts the “mother tongue” and celebrates her cultural heritage, which is crucial to the development of her identity as an Indian-American citizen. By refusing to surrender her links with her original cultural heritage in order to assimilate into a new society, the persona comments on the need for individuals to sacrifice their integrity in order to belong to another community, thus depicting another aspect about belonging in this text.
It is the need for the development of connections to people and place that may result in the compromise of the individual’s existing values and their integrity. This notion has been interwoven through the texts, Romulus, My Father by Raimond Gaita and Search For My Tongue by Sujata Bhatt, but with both protagonists reluctant to conform to society’s expectations as they wish to keep hold of their existing values, showing some of the aspects of belonging as well as not belonging in these texts. It is from these two texts that we learn that the individual should not have to compromise their values and integrity in order to belong and be accepted unconditionally in society.
Courtney from Study Moose
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