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Diasporas, Cultures of Mobilities, ‘Race’ 2

Sarah Barbour
David Howard
Thomas Lacroix
et al.

Intersecting Identities

Meeting Mr Hyde and Dr Stone: Mixed Race Twins and White Fathers in Diana Evans’ 26a and Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone

Christine Vogt-William


Diaspora has often been used in conjunction with racial and cultural differences when discussing the tensions generated by attempts at situating selves and communities in new matrices far from natal spaces. Diasporic conditions thus often bear the stamp of ‘unbelonging’—at best an uneasy belonging— called forth by the marginalised positioning of diasporic communities in ‘host’ societies, whereby the term ‘diaspora’ is applied to those defined through racial and ethnic minority status, difference and exclusion. The term is however problematic since the attendant questions of origins, shared history and contemporary solidarity render it ambivalent: ‘it can be seen to reinscribe and champion essentialised notions of racial and ethnic difference, as well as contest and fracture them’ (Alexander, 2010: 113). In conjunction with this, my essay will explore mixed race identities and the concomitant condition of being astride cultural borders in Diana Evans’ 26a (2006) and Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone (2009).

A common feature in both novels is that the main protagonists are identical twins: female twins in 26a and male twins in Cutting for Stone. Hence, besides questions of race and gender, the twin sensibilities of ‘twoness in oneness’, ‘wholeness’ or ‘halfness’ are just as relevant to ideas of boundaries and borders, being and belonging intrinsic to the concept of diaspora. The African spaces of Nigeria and Ethiopia are of considerable import to both sets of twins in the novels since they relate to these spaces through their maternal genealogies. At the same time, both sets of twins also navigate the diasporic spaces of England and America while shaping their individual life trajectories.

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  • 1 Racial belonging is often predicated on biological markers i. e. phenotypical features denoting gen (...)

1When discussing diaspora, racial and cultural differences are often the pivots about which tensions are generated in attempts at situating selves and communities in new matrices far from natal spaces.1

2Race is primarily a social construct and, as Paul Spickard and Jeffrey Burroughs remind us, ‘the process of racial labeling starts with geography, culture and family ties and runs through politics and economics to biology’ (Spickard and Burroughs 2000: 3). Thus groups are defined in accordance with cultural practices, social connectedness and locations. Elements of shared histories and cultural solidarities at the core of the term ‘diaspora’ render it ambivalent; indeed, as Claire Alexander remarks, diaspora ‘can be seen to reinscribe and champion essentialised notions of racial and ethnic difference, as well as contest and fracture them’ (113). Thus diasporic conditions often bear the stamp of uneasy belonging, engendered by the marginalised positioning of certain migrant communities in ‘host’ societies. The multiplicity and tenacity of diasporic experience is marked by liminal ‘in-betweenness’ of borders, both physical and metaphorical.

3I will address how diaspora and mixed race identities function in the shaping of home spaces in Black British writer Diana Evans’ novel 26a (2006) and South Asian American writer Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone (2009). My understanding of diaspora involves the evocation of originary narratives in identificatory processes inherent to diasporic situations. These originary narratives provide the paternal and maternal genealogies accessed by the protagonists in these novels as relevant to their own consciousness of their mixed race identities.

4Moving between Nigerian and British contexts, Diana Evans’ 26a (2006) maps out the lives of the female twins Georgia and Bessi Hunter through their negotiation of the suburban and urban spaces of 1990s London as mixed race subjects. While exploring their mother’s ancestral home of Nigeria as a cultural resource, initially through physical relocation to this space for a limited period of time and later through memories and even dreams, the twins are also invested in exploring whiteness as a mode of belonging. Here Georgia is preoccupied with her white father’s apparent disinterest in and violent behavior towards his daughters, which contributes to her feeling of being unhomed.

5Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone (2009) addresses diaspora and mixed race identities in the postcolonial space of Ethiopia during the 1960s. The story of the identical male twins Marion and Shiva Stone, of mixed Indian and British parentage, takes place against a transcultural backdrop of Indian and British medical professionals living in diaspora amidst the Ethiopian community in Addis Ababa. A further diasporic dimension is addressed in the context of Marion’s migration from Ethiopia to America, due to personal and political reasons, which entail exploring the history of his white birth father Thomas Stone, and following in his footsteps to a certain extent.

6In both novels, the elder twin is the main focaliser of the narrative. The younger twin’s perspective is infrequently articulated in the narratives, either due to personal idiosyncrasies as in Cutting for Stone or because the novel is meant to be a psychological quest as in the case of 26a, where the younger twin’s perspective does not necessarily illustrate the intricacies of psychological pathology and/or development. The reader might be led to surmise that the twins share the same perspective, by virtue of their identical twinship. For my purposes here, I will focus on the perspective of the elder twins in both novels, who actively recognise and interrogate their straddling of the different cultural legacies and spaces bequeathed to them by their parents—and the attendant difficulties of being astride such boundaries.

7The spaces of London in 26a and New York in Cutting for Stone are aligned with the twin protagonists’ white fathers Aubrey Hunter (also known as Mr. Hyde) and Dr. Stone. Of course, the spatial relations in the self- perceptions of these mixed race twins are not to be understood as being tidily assigned to the respective parental genealogies and natal spaces. This is especially important, since these fathers too have had their own sojourns in the aforementioned African spaces, where they initiate relationships with the twins’ (non-white) mothers, thus complicating their own cultural histories and affiliations, which in turn serve to challenge their own positions of hegemonic white masculine privilege.

  • 2 In line with critical whiteness studies, however, the fact that whiteness can also be racialised, b (...)

8A noteworthy aspect shared by both novels is that the mixed race protagonists are two sets of identical twins. The idea of mixed race here carries connotations of ‘half-ness’ as well as ‘doubleness’, of being not quite whole and of being too much—salient concerns in the construction of these twin selves. While these novels do not address experiences of blatant racist behaviour, issues of cultural Othering and in-betweenness are evident in how these second generation mixed race twin protagonists negotiate the different degrees of belonging in their respective diasporic situations. The uncanniness of twinning here also evokes the uncanniness of the (mixed)-raced diasporic subject for mainstream social contexts, which are often themselves seemingly unmarked by race i. e. white.2 Here then the idea of whiteness as a racial marker will be significant in how the mixed race protagonists in these two recent novels negotiate their identities and their spaces of belonging.

  • 3 Dr. Stone’s name is also a play on the phrase ‘I will not cut for stone’ in the Hippocratic oath, w (...)

9Another manifestation of the uncanny can be found in the names of the white fathers—Mr. Hyde and Dr. Stone, resonate with the well-known Gothic science fiction novel Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which has intertextual echoes in both novels. Something of the uncanny and the sinister surrounds both these fathers: the normally ineffectual Aubrey Hunter’s transformation into Mr. Hyde with the consumption of copious amounts of alcoholic beverage, is palpably threatening to his wife and daughters, while the shy, retiring Dr. Stone,3 usually focused on his surgical activities, turns into a veritable madman, intent on murdering his twin sons in utero, believing them to be threats to his lover’s life, while at the same time denying that they are his children. Thus Gothic forms are integrated into these texts that may otherwise be read as family stories and coming of age narratives, whereby the ‘uncanniness’ of the mixed race subjects is also displaced onto these white fathers, who function as embodiments of patriarchal monstrosity, thus serving to undermine received constructions of white masculine privilege as well as of the ostensible deviance of raced bodies.

  • 4 Incorporating spatial forms of orientalism and the ways in which geographic space is orientated, Ah (...)

10In light of Stuart Hall’s (1993) observation of diasporic identities as reiterating transformation and difference, such transformation caused by diasporic experience in the identities of the white fathers bears scrutiny, in that their own self-perceptions as white men are transformed—indeed thrown into crisis—when they realise that they are fathers of mixed race children with bodies that are all too evidently racially marked. This resonates with Sara Ahmed’s observation that the ‘matter’ of race describes embodied realities, whereby one’s perception of the self as white, black or mixed affects one’s own sense of agency and action in certain spaces (112).4 These white fathers perform a type of masculinity that is not concomitant with expected codes of social fatherhood. It would be of import here to consider the form of masculinity evident in patterns of fatherhood in conjunction with gender performances in traditional and more modern family constellations, where David Morgan observes that ‘the linkage between gender and familial identities is a source of complexity and variability in gender differentiations and inequalities’ (225). My readings of the white fathers in these novels further complicate Morgan’s observation, with the added dimension of privileged white masculinity being read here as a racial and cultural inheritance that is rendered ambivalent in the protagonists’ mixed race identificatory processes. I note that the twins’ white fathers are distant and effectively, strangers to their children—indeed to all intents and purposes they appear to have abandoned their children; they are figuratively absent from their children’s immediate frames of emotional and cultural reference.

11Yet despite such abandonment, the twins attempt to access these white paternal genealogies in their understandings of themselves as possessing multiple cultural heritages. While mindful of maternal diasporic experiences in these narratives, I focus on the twins’ preoccupation with this perceived lack in their white fathers—which circumscribe the extent of the twins’ belonging in the diasporic cultural spaces, through the very absence of these fathers. Whiteness then will be read here as a racial construct, which in both novels, is a paternal legacy that does not provide the mixed race protagonists with the privilege that is assumed to be automatically connected to whiteness. It is however claimed by especially the elder twins in mobilizing alternative strategies that allow for more fluid, if rather ambivalent politics of cultural identification, as I hope to show in what follows hereafter.

  • 5 Growing interest in mixed race literatures shows greater necessity for mixed race literary studies (...)
  • 6 Diana Evans is of British and Nigerian origins and a native of London, while Abraham Verghese is of (...)

12The protagonists’ exploration of their white cultural legacies, inherited from their fathers, contribute to their understandings of themselves as mixed race diasporic subjects, on the quest for home spaces. With regard to mixed race identity, Jonathan Brennan acknowledges the ubiquity of racial definitions and argues for a critical engagement with race in literary texts, observing that ‘once one enters the territory of race, one must simultaneously suspend disbelief (because even though the consequences of racism exist, race exists only as a false biological and social construct), acknowledge the powerful grasp race often maintains over us and work actively to challenge our beliefs’ (7). While favouring a more specific terminology for mixed race literary traditions, Brennan advocates categories of belonging that are defined culturally and not racially, since ‘one is grounded in a culturally (and not racially) defined literary tradition, although within this context, issues of racial categorization and racism arise as well and are engaged in the literary text’ (9). Although mixed race identity is read here as a metaphor for cultural hybridity, the physical significance of race for mixed race subjects cannot be ignored, especially in the light of parental genealogies. Mixed race literary texts5 are defined as those written by authors who represent and draw on multiple cultural and literary traditions—be they of mixed race heritage themselves or not.6 In line with Brennan’s caution of ‘the powerful grasp that race maintains over us’ (7), the absent white fathers in both novels illustrate Ahmed’s assertion that ‘in a way (...) race does become a social as well as bodily given, or what we receive from others as an inheritance of (...) history’ (111)—the history being alluded to here in the novels being that of the white fathers who had both been agents of colonialism in Africa—one as an administrator in Lagos, Nigeria, and the other as a surgeon in a colonial hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

13Contingent upon this understanding of mixed race identity as cultural hybridity in literary texts, I access Stuart Hall’s deconstructionist approach to identity, where ‘ [p] erhaps instead of thinking of identity as an already accomplished fact, which the new cultural practices then represent, we should think, instead, of identity as a ‘production’ which is never complete, as always in process, and always constituted within, not outside, representation’ (234). Such production is a constant process that mixed race people engage in—this is also intrinsic to the sense of displacement that inheres with the diasporic situation. The mixed race protagonists in most mixed race literary texts wrangle with rather different ideas of belonging and positioning, where there is often pressure to subscribe to one particular identity and align one’s self with the idea of ‘oneness’, ‘wholeness’ and thus ‘authenticity’ underlying the concept of cultural identity. However as Hall has observed, cultural identities grounded in specific spaces, like all historical entities, undergo transformation—a process that is ineluctably bound to movement, as well as the simultaneous vectors of similarity and continuity, vectors of difference and rupture (see Hall 1993: 237). Diasporic identities then are:

...defined not by essence or purity, but by the recognition of a necessary heterogeneity and diversity; by a conception of identity which lives with, and through, not despite, difference; by hybridity. Diasporic identities are those which are constantly producing and reproducing themselves anew, through transformation and difference. (244)

14In my readings of the negotiations of the elder twin protagonists in the novels, Hall’s ruminations on diaspora and cultural identity take on an added complexity through the dimensions of race and gender, with regard to the expansion of the concept of ‘wholeness’ through the doubling of twin bodies, where twoness can indeed constitute oneness. The more common characteristics of mixed race subjectivities represented in such literary texts are grounded in the experience of marginality—a concern just as salient in literary representations of diasporic experience. Nearly always ambiguously defined, these protagonists serve as social barometers, revealing racial tensions in their respective textual universes. Thus they are necessary plot-driving forces, often embodying crisis points in the narratives during their confrontations with their indeterminate racial status (see Brennan 2003: 35). The crisis points to be dealt with in this piece are the white fathers’ violence and abandonment of their children; which in themselves cause moments of crisis in the mixed race twins’ attempts in building viable identities that allow for fluid rooting in their diverse cultural resources.

  • 7 In the context of my larger project, I find that the exploration of space as practiced place in the (...)

15The African spaces of Nigeria and Ethiopia are significant to both sets of twins in the novels since they relate to these spaces through their maternal genealogies—relations which are not free from difficulty. Equally ambivalent are the ways in which the twins relate to the spaces of London and New York, through their white fathers. These literary representations of mixed race diasporic identities serve to complicate notions of racial and ethnic difference, when read against the experiences of the parents in these novels, where movement and space acquire multiple meanings.7 Here the normative, racially unmarked bodies of the white fathers, are equally relevant to the reading of these mixed race twin bodies. Besides race, gender contributes to rendering these identities just as complex. Intrinsic to these are also the twin sensibilities of ‘twoness in oneness’, where ‘wholeness’ or ‘halfness’ are just as relevant to ideas of boundaries and borders, being and belonging intrinsic to the concept of diaspora.

  • 8 ‘A space exists when one takes into consideration vectors of direction, velocities and time variabl (...)

16In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau observes that ‘space is practiced place’, whereby space is composed through the intersections and interactions of movements, people, meanings, histories and time variables (117).8 The management of space and meaning is evident in the experiences of migration and diaspora. In my readings of these two narratives, I also have recourse to Avtar Brah’s ideas of diasporic spaces, imaginaries and sensibilities as shaped by multiple locations of home and abroad as well as by contested relations among a diversity of subject positions, originary narratives and histories of migration:

Diaspora space is the intersectionality of diaspora, border, and dis/location as a point of confluence of economic, political, cultural and psychic processes. It is where multiple subject positions are juxtaposed, contested, proclaimed or disavowed; (...) Diaspora space is the point at which boundaries (...), of belonging and otherness, of ‘us’ and ‘them’ are contested. (...) the concept of diaspora space (...) includes the entanglement (...) of the genealogies of dispersion with those of ‘staying put’. (208–209)

17The twins’ perceptions of the different cultural contexts of their parents in their own racial and cultural identifications are contingent with their ‘entanglement of the genealogies of dispersion with those of staying put’, meaning that their own efforts at creating home spaces to root themselves depended on negotiating the histories of their parents’ migratory movements and identifications. While writing this piece, it became obvious that the roles of the Nigerian and Indian mothers of the twins were foregrounded as diasporic elements in the novels. These maternal genealogies shaped the twins’ diasporic sensibilities through the positioning of these genealogies in the narratives as the primary forms of cultural Otherness, which mark both sets of twins as racially and ethnically different in their own natal spaces of London and Addis Ababa.

  • 9 Ahmed observes that ‘it should, of course, be difficult to think of race and inheritance together, (...)

18Sara Ahmed observes that ‘ [t] he alignment of race and space is crucial to how they materialize as givens, as if each extends the other. In other words, while the ‘other side of the world’ is associated with ‘racial otherness,’ racial others become associated with the ‘the other side of the world’. They come to embody distance.’ (121). Indeed the twins in both novels do embody distances between the spaces of Africa, India, Britain and America—and yet they function as bridges between these contexts. The twins are also often aligned with their maternal contexts, by virtue of their skin colour—which one might refer to as the more visible ‘dusky’ element of their phenotypical features, often associated with ‘the other side of the world’.9

19One notes that whiteness—as an indicator of racial and cultural belonging is rendered ambivalent—taken for granted as the norm, from which ‘the other side of the world’ deviates. Linking the concept of movement, genealogy and the construction of whiteness as a normative racial vector, Ahmed observes:

This embodiment of distance is what makes ‘whiteness’ (...) the starting point for orientation. White becomes what is ‘here’ (...) which also makes what is ‘there’ on ‘the other side’. (...) whiteness is invisible and unmarked, as the absent center against which others appear only as deviants (...). We can ask how whiteness gets reproduced through acts of alignment (...). We can do this by thinking of whiteness as form of bodily inheritance. (121)

20Forms of whiteness then are ‘reproduced by acts of alignment’ by the twin protagonists in these novels, who become uncomfortably aware of their paternal legacies of whiteness as ‘bodily inheritance’. While engaging with these inheritances as possible resources to construct secure spaces for themselves, both Georgia and Marion realize that the doubleness of mixed race identity is also complimented by the doubling of their bodies through twinship, which also allows for a method of homing in their mixed race bodies.

21At first glance, Evans seems to have eschewed addressing the multicultural complexities of contemporary Black Britain; indeed her novel seems to be more a psychological quest for belonging and individuality undertaken by the elder twin, Georgia, who is more introverted and plagued with angst about her place in the family, as well as in life in general. Sabrina Brancato describes the use of twins in Black British literature thus:

  • 10 I would observe at this point that this not only applies to Black British authors’ works exclusivel (...)

One of the devices most commonly adopted by Black British authors to explore the plurality of perspectives in the way individuals articulate their identity is duality. By introducing two characters (usually siblings) which represent mutual counterparts, they foreground different possibilities of coming to terms with identity.10 (32)

22Both Georgia and Bessi, as twin siblings use different strategies to come to terms with their mixed race identities: Georgia is more introspective and anxious in her attempts to find a secure home space, while Bessi is more open and adventurous in her location and negotiation of her cultural contexts. During childhood, the twins seem inseparable and find comfort in each other, despite the displacement they feel in the violence of their home, which is coloured by their parents’ ambivalent relationship to each other. As adolescents and young adults however, the twins grow apart in their attempts to chart life trajectories for themselves in keeping with their individual interests.

23In this Georgia experiences great difficulty in seeing herself as a separate entity from Bessi, her gregarious and enterprising twin. And yet, the negotiation of bodies and belonging around whiteness—indeed skin colour and race—becomes evident in 26a, where the twins ruminate on their sameness and difference as children, with a view to establishing their individualities through the colour of their clothing— which in turn covers their obvious marked mixed race bodies:

Georgia and Bessi didn’t believe in looking absolutely the same because that was there in their faces (...) They were twoness in oneness. (...) The real differences, the ones that mattered most, were inside, (...) in the soul. There was light and there was shade. If they wore different colours it meant they could be whole people inside themselves (...) before they’d discovered the ability of colour to make a half into a one.

  • 11 With a view to elucidating the value of mixed race people for contemporary British cultural percept (...)

24While this preoccupation with colour helps the twins to differentiate themselves from each other on a personal level, it also allows for reflection on race relations in Britain itself, where concepts of the Self and the Other are interrogated in attempts to locate Englishness on raced Black British bodies.11 The twins’ bodies here obliquely articulate the preoccupation of wholeness, doubleness and halfness with regard to how racial belonging is marked by skin colour, thus conferring or withholding modes of belonging. In another instance the matter of mixed race identity and its effects in Black British communities is addressed, this time complicated through gender. On reaching adolescence, the twins are confronted with intracommunal race perceptions and positions addressed through the perspective of a Jamaican British teenager intent on courting the twins, focusing in particular on the young women’s similarity in looks:

Errol (…) could not see any difference—pretty lips, (…) fit bods, sandy skin (sand was better than coal—a light brown black girl on your arm was good for a man’s street cred, it meant that you could get a white girl if you wanted to but you decided to keep it real and stay with the race). (113)

25Here a Black woman’s skin colour is instrumentalised in a particular construction of authentic Black British masculinity in the community, allowing a Black British man access to both white and Black female bodies. Read against the twins’ white father Aubrey’s ease of access to their mother Ida’s black African body during their period of courtship in Nigeria and their subsequent shortlived love relationship, one notes the efforts required by a Black British man to locate himself with regard to his space of belonging in his community and in the larger mainstream sociocultural context. At the same time, the objectification of the Black woman’s body to generate modes of belonging here is more than apparent. The mixed race children of Aubrey’s and Ida’s union, however—the twins and their older and younger sisters Bel and Kemy—suffer from the violence between their parents. Thus Errol’s ruminations on how to locate himself as a Black man in British society strongly contrast with the twins’ own preoccupation with their dysfunctional family life which has long-lasting consequences for their own self-perceptions as mixed race women in Britain. Errol’s dubious form of acceptance from outside the family space does not allow for any ease of being or belonging for the twins in Black British cultural spaces — their immediate concerns still lie with their insecure home space, where their racial and cultural inheritances aligned with their parents seem incommensurate.

  • 12 Georgia is almost raped as a child by a Nigerian house employee, when the Hunter family have a temp (...)

26Confronted with the parents’ estrangement from each other and their daughters, the twins try to create a semblance of stability for themselves, i. e. they are ‘home’ to each other, in ‘their twoness in oneness’. Despite obvious attachments to London in their attempts to make their home a secure space, the twins have difficulty in accessing their paternal cultural heritage, while having an uneasy relationship with their mother Ida’s cultural legacy from Nigeria.12 Their father Aubrey’s increasing perplexity about his marriage to a woman who has remained a stranger to him, by virtue of her race and cultural background (38–39), exacerbates the lack of connection to his daughters; one could read this as an inability to recognize them as his children, due to their obvious mixed race bodies. Indeed, Aubrey’s whiteness here seems to be in question, in crisis even, as a father of four mixed race girls who seem to have ‘t (a) inted’ or ‘watered’ down his whiteness and thus his own claims to Britishness and its attendant white authority (see also Smith 2006: 2). Considering himself a specimen of failed white British masculinity, Aubrey attempts to reinstate patriarchal authority by indulging in alcohol as well as verbal and (occasionally physical) abuse of his wife and daughters.

27When their father turns into ‘Mr. Hyde’ regularly during his evening binges, Georgia develops the imaginative faculty of meeting former British Prime Minister William Gladstone (1809-1898) in her dreams, who functions as a father substitute for her, unlike the oppressive and ineffectual Aubrey. It is through her dream conversations about her family with Gladstone, that Georgia, the more reflective, sensitive and imaginative of the twins, finds some solace:

‘Goodnight,’ said Georgia. ‘I’m going to see Gladstone.’ (...) Bessi heard Georgia falling asleep. (...) In her dream, Georgia walked to Gladstone Park. (...) She reached up and knocked on Gladstone’s door. (...) Gladstone was in his dressing gown. (...) He invited Georgia to sit down (...) and tell him all about it over a mug of hot chocolate. (...) Georgia liked sitting with Gladstone (...) She felt sleepy. In a slurred voice she said, ‘It feels like there’s someone missing all the time, when everyone’s together at the table (...)’. She heard Gladstone’s voice in the distance. It said: ‘My dear Georgia, the future has already happened, just like the past. And one day you will see that there are no answers, only the places we make.’ (24–25)

  • 13 One notes however that Georgia actively undertakes this particular imaginative task, while Bessi se (...)

28Gladstone is a benevolent instance of white masculinity for Georgia— the park where the twins often spend time, is named after him, thus marking this as safe space for them outside the sphere of domestic violence. Here a specific public space outside the home is connected with a former British Prime Minister, whose historical authority might lend credence and security to Georgia’s and Bessi’s identification as British. Georgia seems to have displaced whatever affection she might have for her father, onto the historical figure of Gladstone, thus imagining a more approachable white paternity for her and her sisters (10–11).13 Despite the historical fact of Gladstone’s terms of office during the heyday of colonialism, the imagined Gladstone offers Georgia a modicum of ambiguous comfort of soon carving out a space of belonging for herself and Bessi—this however occurs in a rather unconventional and tragic manner. As an adult, Georgia eventually suffers a psychological breakdown and commits suicide; she eradicates her physical self, and unites herself with her sister, thus re-shaping the spaces and the meanings the twins have in the family by literally making oneness out of twoness.

  • 14 Ato Quayson remarks on the complicated communal histories of Indian communities in East Africa, whe (...)
  • 15 While Marion is preoccupied with his biological parents’ histories, his twin Shiva does not seem in (...)
  • 16 Incidentally Thomas Stone chooses to settle first in New York and then later in Boston, after his o (...)
  • 17 Besides these objects, Marion also remembers the song ‘Tizita’ meaning ‘memory tinged with regret’ (...)

29In Cutting for Stone, both parents of the mixed race twin protagonists are absent—their mother (a former nun) Sister Mary Joseph Praise dies at birth and their father Thomas Stone abandons them soon after—yet both are kept alive in the twins’ memories by their adoptive parents, Hema and Ghosh, who are both members of the Indian medical community in Addis Ababa.14 Again it is the older twin, Marion, who embodies the diasporic experience of uneasy belonging.15 Marion invests his affections in his Indian adoptive father Ghosh, who contributes to shaping the twins’ home space in Ethiopia. At the same time, he entertains considerable resentment at his birth father’s abandoning of him and his twin, after their mother’s death. When Marion is forced to leave Ethiopia, due to accusations of being involved with Eritrean rebels, Ghosh tells him to find his father Thomas Stone, who was believed to have migrated to the US.16 To this end, Shiva provides Marion with their father’s surgical textbook and a letter from their dead mother.17

30Both these objects had been kept by the twins’ adoptive parents as mementoes, parental legacies to the twins. The textbook allows for a certain unemotional claiming of their birth father’s professional legacy of surgery as knowledge, while the letter from their mother to their father functions as a sign of a former emotional attachment between their parents.

31Marion’s diasporic experience in the US is embedded in another medical community of Indian doctors in a hospital similar to the one in Addis Ababa, where both Thomas and Ghosh had worked. It is in his work as a surgeon that Marion finds ways to root himself in his new home in New York:

I welcomed my slavish existence as a surgical resident, the never-ending work, the crises that kept me in the present, the immersion in blood (...) and tears—the fluids in which one dissolved all traces of self. In working myself ragged, I felt integrated, I felt American, and I rarely had time to think of home. (573–574)

32One notes that Marion’s diasporic self perception as an American is contingent on his professional identity as a surgeon; the fluids that form part of his work space and action in repairs of the human body, seem to dissolve the agonies of forced displacement in an uprooted self. Thus this particular diasporic experience connected to his surgical career, exilic as it is for Marion, is a paternal legacy from Thomas Stone. Work at the hospital shapes this new home space for Marion, which is free from family ties and responsibilities. Marion’s rooting his sense of self in his professional identity as a surgeon is also facilitated by a community of immigrant medical interns, who have established an alternative family unit, with the commonality of diasporic experience. While ethnic categories were an issue of contention during the political unrest between Eritrea and Ethiopia in the 1970s after Ethiopia’s annexation of Eritrea in 1962, both race and ethnicity are openly addressed during Marion’s sojourn in New York. He learns that hospitals and medical internship programs in the US are classed and raced spaces and situations, despite supposed humanitarian ideals of treatment of patients from all cultural and class backgrounds. Initially Marion does not notice the discrete separation between certain classes of American patients and medical personnel:

‘(...) doesn’t it seem strange’ I went on, ‘that here we are, a hospital full of Indian doctors and on the other side of that wall are the patients we are taking care of. American patients, but not representative of—’ ‘You mean black patients, mon’ Nestor said (...)
‘Yes... but what I am getting at is where are the other American patients? Where are the other American doctors for that matter?’
‘You mean where are the white patients? Where are the white doctors, mon?’
‘Yes!’ I said. ‘Precisely!’ (...) ‘But my question is, are all the hospitals in America like this?’
Gandhi grabbed my arm (...) ‘See here (...) Let’s call it an Ellis Island hospital. Such hospitals are in places where the poor live. The neighbourhood is dangerous. Typically such hospitals are not part of a medical school. [... A] Mayflower hospital [is] a teaching hospital for a big medical school (...) Every American medical student dreams of an internship in a Mayflower hospital (...) Here’s the problem—who is going to work in hospitals like ours when there is a bad neighbourhood, no medical school, no prestige? (...) American students have their pick, and (...) they don’t want to come and be interns here. Not when they can go to a Mayflower hospital. So every year (...) all the Ellis Island hospitals look for foreign students. You are one of hundreds who came as part of this annual migration that keeps hospitals like ours going.’ (Verghese 2009: 489–491)

33At his enquiry after the other Americans, meaning white doctors and patients whom he hardly meets, Marion’s fellow interns Nestor and Gandhi teach him the difference between ‘Ellis Island’ and ‘Mayflower’ hospitals: metaphors serving to describe the raced and classed spaces and the politics inherent to these. The Ellis Island hospitals are spaces of unbelonging in white American contexts, peopled by foreign interns who cater for patients from poorer areas, while Mayflower hospitals, affiliated with medical schools and generally staffed by white privileged medical personnel, serve a more middle class clientele—those who belong (491). Thus America’s own migratory histories are thematised in race and class relations through the metaphors of the Mayflower, the ship that first brought European migrants to the US during the 17th century, and Ellis Island, a space where immigrants of working class backgrounds first set foot on American soil at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. More contemporary immigrant groups from postcolonial countries are aligned with the Ellis Island groups, illustrating a classed reading of the raced bodies in these more contemporary diasporic waves. But Marion also learns that these Other raced bodies living in diasporic spaces (denoted by Ellis Island hospitals) create their own brand of Americanness and modes of making home. Ironically, he is later offered access to ‘Mayflower’ hospitals in Boston by his father Thomas Stone who attempts to reconcile with his estranged son—an offer Marion refuses, preferring to remain at the New York hospital which reminds him of his home in Ethiopia (Verghese 2009: 563). This is a rejection of Thomas Stone’s offer of white privilege, which would have marked Marion as white and perhaps have facilitated his medical career advancement. Instead Marion opts to embrace the in-between Third Space of the ‘Ellis Island’ hospital which allows him to identify as mixed race and culturally hybrid, as well as to pursue his vocation as a surgeon whose services are available to the socially underprivileged—a legacy rooted in his relationship with his Indian adoptive parents in Ethiopia. He is able to reinforce his relationship with this home space through his return to Addis Ababa when his brother Shiva dies after an operation. As in Evans’s 26a, the twins are reunited in Marion’s body, again realigning body spaces and allowing for a reconceptualisation of the mixed race self as whole.

  • 18 In the event of these losses, both fathers are galvanized into trying to compensate for their absen (...)

34Both novels conclude with the twins in uneasy truces with their white fathers and the cultural legacies associated with these. Both fathers remain essentially helpless and are unable to connect with their children.18

35This proves even more tragic with regard to another commonality between the novels—the death of one twin: Georgia commits suicide in 26a, and in Cutting for Stone Shiva dies of a brain hemorrhage after donating part of his liver to save Marion’s life. However, in what amounts to a magical realist move, the dead twin is reunited with the surviving twin, through a new realignment of bodily space: the spirit of the dead twin literally moves into the live twin’s body. Here a unification of the self is achieved where the surviving twin serves as a secure home space for the other. There is no sign however that the white fathers can find ways to re-connect with their mixed race children—their self perceptions as white fathers of mixed race children must perforce bear the stamp of loss and failure.

36Race is thus a fraught site of identity negotiation for these mixed race twins, as I have attempted to show in my readings here. Despite being ‘not quite white’ the twins ultimately reject any form of singular alliance with either parent’s heritage. The certainty of twinship, i. e. literally having a reliable second self, allows them to find homes within these doubled selves—doubly inscribed through mixed race and twinship. I read the engagement of the twins with their white heritages as a translation of sorts of Ahmed’s reflection on diasporic raced bodies and diasporic spaces in constructions of home and belonging:

Diasporic spaces are also shaped by object histories. The gathering of objects at home takes a different form; objects scatter ‘along with’ the scattering of bodies into spaces, as a scattering that makes an impression. When bodies and objects resurface they acquire new shapes. For diasporic communities, objects gather as lines of connection to spaces that are lived as homes but are no longer inhabited. Objects come to embody lost homes. (...) such objects make new identities possible in the ‘textures’ of everyday. Or (...) such objects keep the ‘impressions’ of the past alive, and in doing so they make new impressions in the very weave or fabric of the present. (149–150)

37The twins’ bodies can be read as the objects that both keep the impressions of the past alive (the parental genealogies), while making new identities in the textures of everyday. This is imagined in these two literary texts by negating physical twinship through the death of one twin; new identities and embodiments of mixed race identity have thus ‘resurfaced’, embodying ‘lost homes’ and reinventing the ‘fabric of the present’. Here a modicum of wholeness is achieved by facilitating a mixed race identity, where twoness can indeed be oneness—ways of being and belonging that are marked by loss, ambivalence and ultimately a reliance on the self to create viable home spaces that enable living in diaspora.


Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. Queer Phenomenology: Objects, Orientations, Others. London and Durham: Duke University Press Publisher, 2006.

Alexander, Claire. ‘Diasporas, Race and Difference’, in Diasporas: Concepts. Intersections, Identities, Kim Knott and Sean McLoughlin, eds. London and New York: Zed Books, 2010; 112–117.

Brah, Avtar. Cartographies of Diaspora: Contesting Identities. New York & London: Routledge, 1996.

Brancato, Sabrina. ‘The Bush Revisited: Twins in Black British Fiction’, in Recycling Culture (s), Sara Martin, ed. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008; 31–39.

Brennan, Jonathan, ed. Mixed Race Literature. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2002.

Certeau, Michel de. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984.

Evans, Diana. 26a. London: Vintage, 2006.

Hall, Stuart. 1993. ‘Cultural Identity and Diaspora’, in Theorizing Diaspora, Jana Evans Braziel and Anita Mannur, eds. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2003; 233–246.

Mathews, K. ‘India-Ethiopia Ties on Upward Spiral’, in Africa Quarterly: Indian Journal of African Affairs. vol. 47. no 1. (Feb-Apr 2007): 12–20.

Morgan, David. J. ‘Family, Gender and Masculinities’, in The Masculinities Reader, Stephen M. Whitehead and Frank J. Barret, eds. 2005. Cambridge, Malden: Polity Press, 2008; 223–232.

Quayson, Ato. ‘Colonial Space Making and Hybridizing History’, in Diasporas: Concepts. Intersections, Identities, Kim Knott and Sean McLoughlin, eds. London and New York: Zed Books, 2010; 243–248.

Smith, Laura. ‘Absent Voices.’ The Guardian. Wednesday Sept. 6. 2006. supplement1. Accessed Oct. 3, 2012.

Spickard, Paul. ‘What’s Critical about Whiteness Studies?’ in Affect and Power: Essays on Sex, Slavery, Race and Religion, Paul Spickard, David Libby and Susan Ditto, eds. Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Michigan, 2005; 107–125. frankfurtm/Doc?id=10157869\ & ppg=129. Accessed Sept. 27, 2011.

Spickard, Paul, and W. Jeffrey Burroughs, eds. We are a People: Narrative and Multiplicity in Constructing Ethnic Identity. Philadeplhia: Temple University Press, 2000.

Verghese, Abraham. Cutting for Stone. New York: Vintage, 2009.

Zack, Naomi. Race and Mixed Race. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993.


1 Racial belonging is often predicated on biological markers i. e. phenotypical features denoting genetic make-up, the more prominent being skin colour and hair types. The concept of race divides people into groups that are on an average different from each other. And yet, physical features, which ostensibly confer racial membership on groups of people are socially defined and determined. Despite having little basis in scientific veracity, the idea of race has been implemented by race-conscious scholars of the late 18th and early 19th centuries (e. g. Galton, Kant, Blumenbach, Gobineau among others) to produce racial hierarchies that subordinated and subjugated certain groups to serve the interests of others. Spickard describes their rationale as follows: ‘Such racists arranged the ‘races’ hierarchically, with northwestern Europeans at the top and a rough hierarchy of color descending. Differences between peoples were deemed to be immutable, the inevitable product of their gene pools’ (Spickard and Burroughs 2000: 4). Needless to say, this resulted in colonial epistemologies, which propagated systems of slavery and indentured labour, where people of color were denigrated to objects of exploitation. While biological concepts of race are tenuous, the term ‘race’ is burdened with negative historical and political implications, which unfortunately are still socially operational today to the detriment of many.

2 In line with critical whiteness studies, however, the fact that whiteness can also be racialised, bears scrutiny and reflection with regard to challenging the normativity of whiteness and its associated socio-political privileges. Paul Spickard charts the diverse periods and approaches of white studies in order to elucidate ‘what is critical about white studies’ that can help challenge racial hierarchies that govern social relations in Anglo-American contexts (Spickard 2005: 108). Among the different critical agendas mapped out by Spickard, white studies include: the effusions of pseudoscientific racialists of the early 20th century, which propounded the categorization of humankind based on supposed scientific principles and set negative stereotypes of non-white peoples in place (109); struggles to abolish white privilege from within the system, by disavowing ‘the privileges of white skin’ (109); to focus on hardships faced by white immigrant groups and thus segue into a justification of white privilege by ‘denying its distinctive existence’ (110); the new whiteness studies of the 20th and 21st centuries which focused on the definitions and acceptance of status and privilege conferred by racial understandings of whiteness as a class issue (111), the value of literary criticism with regard to its appropriation by white male authors and critics, who make ‘the decisions as to what is important, excellent and true’—and the erasure of black authors, critics and themes from literature (112–113). See Spickard 2005: 107–125.

3 Dr. Stone’s name is also a play on the phrase ‘I will not cut for stone’ in the Hippocratic oath, which is also the source for the novel’s title Cutting for Stone. The phrase refers to the operation of cutting into patients suffering from gall stones, to remove them. When Thomas Stone discovers that the woman he loves is dying while giving birth to his twin sons, he tries to crush the skull of the younger twin in utero, much like a surgeon attempting to remove an unwanted gall stone—in a clumsy attempt to save her life. This also evokes a stoniness of heart in the man, who is defined mainly through his role as a surgeon in the novel, which offers the only possible point of contact between the doctor and his estranged twin sons much later in life.

4 Incorporating spatial forms of orientalism and the ways in which geographic space is orientated, Ahmed examines ‘how ‘proximity’ and ‘distance’ come to be lived by being associated with specific bodies as well as places’ (see Ahmed 2006: 112–156).

5 Growing interest in mixed race literatures shows greater necessity for mixed race literary studies to help scholars and readers acquire comparative and comprehensive knowledge of the diverse literary and cultural traditions that inform the writing practices of ‘sixteenth century writers to contemporary playwrights and novelists’ (Brennan 2002: 6). Naomi Zack posits that since people of mixed race history have almost no documented history, they lack ‘previousness’ (prior knowledge of their collective ancestral roots)—a lack that extends to ‘the representations and examinations of mixed race characters in literature’ where common histories are absent (Zack 1993). Thus while the category of race is (and should be) debated, it still has currency in literary productions.

6 Diana Evans is of British and Nigerian origins and a native of London, while Abraham Verghese is of South Asian background and spent his childhood and adolescent years in Ethiopia, before moving to the US to pursue a medical career.

7 In the context of my larger project, I find that the exploration of space as practiced place in the twin protagonists’ psychosocial worlds in these fictional works is intimately linked to the twins’ bodies. Embedded in the concept of twinship are the physical realities manifest in the duplication of entities and how they occupy and shape spaces, i. e. twin embryos in the womb, twin bodies at birth, twin perspectives on shared lives as well as individual trajectories. Thus twins, as human beings with identificatory mechanisms based on their twinship, evoke multiple meanings and symbolisms in socio-cultural and psychological contexts. Contiguous with these observations, I read biological twinship as pivotal sites of disturbance and rumination on bodies and selves and how these navigate spaces.

8 ‘A space exists when one takes into consideration vectors of direction, velocities and time variables. Thus space is composed of intersections of mobile elements. It is in a sense actuated by the ensemble of movements deployed within it. Space occurs as the effect produced by the operations that orient it, situate it, temporalise it and make it function in a polyvalent unity of conflictual programs or contractual proximities. (...) space is (...) situated as the act (...) (of a time), and modified by the transformation of successive contexts. In contradistinction to the place, it has thus none of the (...) stability of the ‘proper’. In short, space is practiced place’ (de Certeau 1984: 117).

9 Ahmed observes that ‘it should, of course, be difficult to think of race and inheritance together, partly because the concept of inheritance has been so central to biological models of race, where racial hierarchy is seen as a natural product of a difference in kind’ (Ahmed 2006: 121).

10 I would observe at this point that this not only applies to Black British authors’ works exclusively.

11 With a view to elucidating the value of mixed race people for contemporary British cultural perceptions, Laura Smith observes: ‘Mixed race people have become the acceptable face of ethnic minorities for advertisers and programme makers. We are sufficiently exotic for viewers and consumers to recognize as ‘other’, and therefore a handy shorthand for diversity without the potential alienation associated with using somebody too black, too different, too dangerous’. See Laura Smith, ‘Absent Voices’, The Guardian, Wednesday Sept. 6, 2006. guardiansocietysupplement1. Accessed Oct. 3, 2012.

12 Georgia is almost raped as a child by a Nigerian house employee, when the Hunter family have a temporary sojourn in Nigeria for three years. Additionally the twins are troubled by Nigerian cultural perceptions of twins and the accompanying mythology that contributes to demonizing twins. Traumatised thus, Georgia does not recover once the family returns to England—rather she is haunted by the attempted rape and the myth throughout her young adult life, ultimately leading to her suicide. While Bessi remains ignorant of Georgia’s childhood trauma for the most part, she is aware that Georgia seems to be guarding a secret that she is not party to—which in turn also contributes to driving a wedge between the twins. Georgia keeps the attempted rape a secret because she wants Bessi to be free of her own debilitating fears.

13 One notes however that Georgia actively undertakes this particular imaginative task, while Bessi seems to benefit from it, in that she appears quite unconcerned about Aubrey’s paternal role in their lives. Since Georgia has shaped the home space through her presence, Bessi is protected from the uncertainties that plague her twin, which finally lead to Georgia’s voluntary exit from life.

14 Ato Quayson remarks on the complicated communal histories of Indian communities in East Africa, where the ‘twice migrant phenomenon’ involving North America, England and India marks this particular diasporic experience. At the same time, he asks ‘Are the Indians of East Africa Africans or Indians?’ thus raising the question of whether psychosocial alliances have to be contingent on geo-political locations and affiliations (Quayson 2010: 41). In charting Indian-Ethiopian interaction through history and the rapid modernization of the two countries, K. Mathews observes that relations between the two countries have long been cited as a feasible model of South-South cooperation. India and Ethiopia share historical commonalities in their struggles for independence from colonizers like England and Italy respectively. There are also considerable similarities between India and Ethiopia with regard to common political aspirations and socio-economic characteristics and relations. Mathews further remarks: ‘The presence of a strong Indian community in Ethiopia, particularly in Addis Ababa, possibly the largest foreign resident community in the country, is yet another indication of the strength of growing Indo-Ethiopian cultural relations’ (20).

15 While Marion is preoccupied with his biological parents’ histories, his twin Shiva does not seem in the least interested in them. Rather Shiva lives in the present, developing a strong relationship to their adoptive mother Hema, and her Indian cultural context, through the Indian dance of bharatanatyam and develops a keen interest in gynecology, which is also Hema’s professional specialty. Like his namesake the god Shiva, this twin remains enigmatic to his brother Marion; he seems less engaged in agonistic ruminations on his space of belonging. Shiva does not speak much nor does he show his feelings in the manner Marion does, although he does exhibit strong emotional bonds with his twin. He seems almost autistic in his relations and attitudes to his environment and appears indifferent to how his surroundings perceive him, indeed he seems to have outsourced that faculty to Marion.

16 Incidentally Thomas Stone chooses to settle first in New York and then later in Boston, after his own flight from Ethiopia following the death of Sister Mary Joseph Praise at childbirth. He abandons his infant twin sons, believing them to be responsible for the death of the woman he loved.

17 Besides these objects, Marion also remembers the song ‘Tizita’ meaning ‘memory tinged with regret’ (152), which was taught him by Almaz, one of the twins’ Ethiopian nurse-maids who is part of their extended family. This song functions as a memento that will help him discover and connect with other diasporic Ethiopians in the US: When I leave Addis Ababa as a young man, I will carry it with me on a cassette (...) In my years away from my birth land, living in America, I will see how Ethiopians are invisible to others, yet so visible to me. Through them I will easily find other recordings of ‘Tizita’. They are eager to share, to thrust that song in my hands, as if only ‘Tizita’ explains the strange inertia that overcomes them; it explains how they were brilliant at home (...) and then the first foothold in America (...) has turned out to be a cement foot plant, a haven that they are fearful of leaving lest they suffer a fate worse than invisibility, namely extinction (Verghese 2009: 227–228).

18 In the event of these losses, both fathers are galvanized into trying to compensate for their absence from their children’s lives, by trying to create home spaces for them. After Georgia’s funeral, Aubrey undertakes to paint the bathroom in Georgia’s favourite colour—the bathroom was a space of refuge for the twins and their mother in the parental home. Indeed Ida had spent a lot of time in the bathtub, while expecting her twins, which thus inscribes this space with a particularly maternal meaning (see 26a 39; 223). Thomas Stone establishes a surgical intern exchange program between his ‘Mayflower’ hospital in Boston and Marion’s ‘Ellis Island’ hospital, although the son refuses the father’s offer to advance his surgical career by giving him access to the ‘Mayflower’ hospitals in Boston (see Verghese 2009: 559; 563).


Humboldt University, Berlin
A native of Singapore, studied English, German and Psychology at the University of Essen, Germany. Between 2002-2008, Vogt-William was a junior lecturer and research assistant at the Department of New English Literatures and Cultures at the Goethe University of Frankfurt, Germany. She spent a year (2006 -2007), at the University of York, England as a Marie Curie Gender Graduate Fellow and completed her doctoral thesis on ‘Women and Transculturality in Contemporary Fictions by South Asian Diasporic Women Writers’. Besides publications on South Asian diasporic women’s literature from the US, Canada, England and the Caribbean, she co-edited and contributed to Disturbing Bodies (2008), an essay collection on artistic and literary representations of deviant bodies. Vogt-William was a Visiting Scholar at the Department of Women’s Studies at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, from 2008 to 2010. She taught in the Postcolonial and Media Studies Department at the University of Muenster, Germany, between 2009-2011. Vogt-William has embarked on her postdoctoral project at the Goethe University, Frankfurt, Germany, entitled: Twins in American and Anglophone Literatures. She taught at the North American Studies department at the University of Freiburg, Germany from 2012 to 2014. She is currently guest professor (in the areas of Postcolonial Studies and Gender Studies) at the English and American Studies department at the Humboldt University, Berlin, Germany.

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