Mimicry and Hybridity in Plain English (Updated and Expanded)

This essay is a sequel of sorts to an earlier blog post essay I wrote a few years ago, introducing Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism for students as well as general readers. 

Update from April 2017: I added a new section called "Close Reading Bhabha's 'Signs Taken For Wonders.'" Also, for folks assigning this in a classroom, there is a downloadable PDF version of this essay here

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When the terms “mimicry” and “hybridity” are invoked in literary criticism, or in classrooms looking at literature from Asia, Africa, or the Caribbean, as well as their respective diasporas, there is usually a footnote somewhere to two essays by Homi K. Bhabha, “Of Mimicry and Man,” and “Signs Taken For Wonders: Questions of Ambivalence and Authority Under a Tree Outside Delhi, May 1817.” But students who look at those essays, or glosses of those essays in books like Post-Colonial Studies: The Key Concepts, generally come away only more confused. Though his usage of a term like “hybridity” is quite original, Bhabha’s terminology is closely derived from ideas and terminology from Freud and French thinkers like Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Lacan. I do respect the sophistication of Bhabha’s thinking -- and the following is not meant to be an attack on his work -- but I do not think his essays were ever meant to be read as pedagogical starting points.

What I propose to do here is define these complex terms, mimicry and hybridity, in plain English, using references from Bhabha's own writings, but also from other sites -- from specific cultural contexts, historical events, and works of literature art that aren't under Bhabha's purview. The point is not to tie the ideas up nicely, the way one might for an Encyclopedia entry, for example. Rather, my hope is to provide a starting point for initiating conversations about these concepts that might lead to a more productive discussion in the classroom than Bhabha's essays tend to do alone.

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1. Mimicry

Let’s start with mimicry, the easier of the two concepts. Mimicry in colonial and postcolonial literature is most commonly seen when members of a colonized society (say, Indians or Africans) imitate the language, dress, politics, or cultural attitude of their colonizers (say, the British or the French). Under colonialism and in the context of immigration, mimicry is seen as an opportunistic pattern of behavior: one copies the person in power, because one hopes to have access to that same power oneself. Presumably, while copying the master, one has to intentionally suppress one’s own cultural identity, though in some cases immigrants and colonial subjects are left so confused by their cultural encounter with a dominant foreign culture that there may not be a clear preexisting identity to suppress.

Mimicry is often seen as something shameful, and a black or brown person engaging in mimicry is usually derided by other members of his or her group for doing so. (There are quite a number of colloquial insults that refer to mimicry, such as “coconut” – to describe a brown person who behaves like he’s white, or “oreo,” which is the same but usually applied to a Black person.) Though mimicry is a very important concept in thinking about the relationship between colonizing and colonized peoples, and many people have historically been derided as mimics or mimic-men, it is interesting that almost no one ever describes themselves as positively engaged in mimicry: it is always something that someone else is doing.

Mimicry is frequently invoked with reference to the “been-to,” someone who has traveled to the west, and then returned "home," seemingly completely transformed. Frantz Fanon mocked the affected pretentiousness of Martinician "been-tos" in Black Skin, White Masks, and the cultural confusion of the been-to Nyasha (and her family) in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions is one of the central issues in that novel. The characters in Nervous Conditions who have not had the same experience of travel in the west find the desire of those who have returned to impose their English values, language, and religion on everyone else bewildering and offensive.

Mimicry, however, is not all bad. In his essay “Of Mimicry and Man,” Bhabha described mimicry as sometimes unintentionally subversive. In Bhabha’s way of thinking, which is derived from Jacques Derrida’s deconstructive reading of J.L. Austin’s idea of the “performative” (in "Signature Event Context"), mimicry is a kind of performance that exposes the artificiality of all symbolic expressions of power. In other words, if an Indian, desiring to mimic the English, becomes obsessed with some particular codes associated with Englishness, such as the British colonial obsession with the sola topee (the English hat worn to protect from exposure to the sun), his performance of those codes might show how hollow the codes really are. While that may well be plausible, in fact, in colonial and postcolonial literature this particular dynamic is not seen very often, in large part, one suspects, because it is quite unlikely that a person would consciously employ this method of subversion when there are often many more direct methods. Indeed, it is hard to think of even a single example in postcolonial literature where this very particular kind of subversion is in effect.

There is another, much more straightforward way in which mimicry can actually be subversive or empowering – when it involves the copying of “western” concepts of justice, freedom, and the rule of law. One sees an example of this in Forster’s A Passage to India, with a relatively minor character named Mr. Amritrao, a lawyer from Calcutta, whom the British Anglo-Indians dread. They dread him not because he is unfair; indeed, what is threatening about him is precisely the fact that he has learned enough of the principles of British law to realize that those principles should, in all fairness apply to Indians as much as to the British. As a foreign-educated, English-speaking Indian lawyer in colonial India, he might be mocked as a “mimic man” or a “babu,” but it may be that that mockery covers over a defensive fear that the British legal system is not quite as fair as it should be.

Indeed, the example of Amritrao in Forster’s novel might lead to a broader political discussion: many anti-colonial nationalist movements in Asia and Africa emerged out of what might be thought of as mimicry of western political ideas. The historian Partha Chatterjee argued that Indian nationalism emerged as a “a derivative discourse” –- a copy of western nationalism adapted to the Indian context. Over time, of course, the derivative ideas of justice, democracy, and equality, as they were used by activists, tended to get adapted to a local culture. Perhaps the person who did this best was Mohandas K. Gandhi. Gandhi took symbols of Indian asceticism and simplicity (such as traditional Indian dress and fabric) along with progressive western concepts of socialism, and used that new fusion of ideas to mobilize the masses of ordinary Indians, most of whom had had little direct contact with the British. Through Gandhi, Indian nationalism, which may have started as a “derivative” of nationalism in the west, became something distinctively and uniquely Indian.

As a final note before moving on to hybridity, it might be worthwhile to say a little about reverse mimicry, which in the colonial context was often referred to as "going native." Though mimicry is almost always used in postcolonial studies with reference to colonials and immigrant minorities imitating white cultural and linguistic norms (let’s call this “passing up”), mimicry could also be reversed, especially since there are so many examples, in the history of British colonialism especially, of British subjects who either disguised themselves as Indians or Africans, or fantasized of doing so. The most famous example of this kind of reverse mimicry (“passing down”) might be Richard Francis Burton, who often attempted to disguise himself as Arab or Indian during his time as a colonial administrator. In literature, the most influential example of affirmatively “passing down” might be Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, where Kipling invents a white child (the son of an Irish soldier in British India), who grows up wild, as it were, on the streets of Lahore, outside of the reach of British society. Though Kipling’s interest in “passing down” does not overcome the numerous mean-spirited and racialist statements Kipling made about Indians throughout his career, the thought of being able to break out of his identity as an Anglo-Indian and live “like a native” does seemingly reflect a real affection and a sense of excitement about Indian culture.

For other writers, the possibility of "going native" was seen as a threat or a danger to be confronted; the prospect that Kurtz has "gone native" is certainly one of the animating anxieties in Conrad's Heart of Darkness, for example.

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2. Hybridity

By contrast to mimicry, which is a relatively fixed and limited idea, postcolonial hybridity can be quite slippery and broad. At a basic level, hybridity refers to any mixing of eastern and western culture. However, in Homi Bhabha’s initial usage of the term in his essay “Signs Taken For Wonders” (1985) he clearly thought of hybridity as a subversive tool whereby colonized people might challenge various forms of oppression (Bhabha’s example is of the British missionaries’ imposition of the Bible in rural India in the 19th century.).

2A. A Close Reading of Bhabha's "Signs Taken For Wonders"

Bear with us for a minute, this is going to get a bit technical. For those who want a simpler explanation, skip down to "In Plain English" below

Let's start with Bhabha's opening comments from "Signs Taken For Wonders":
 It is the scenario, played out in the wild and wordless wastes of colonial India, Africa, the Caribbean, of the sudden, fortuitous discovery of the English book. It is, like all myths of origin, memorable for its balance between epiphany and enunciation. The discovery of the book is, at once, a moment of originality and authority, as well as a process of displacement that, paradoxically, makes the presence of the book wondrous to the extent to which it is repeated, translated, misread, displaced. (Bhabha, "Signs Taken For Wonders") 
Some of the language Bhabha is using here ("a moment of originality and authority" and "the presence of the book") alludes to ideas from French theory -- from deconstruction. Theorists like Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida argued in the 1960s that in western culture the authority of printed words on the page has eclipsed that of spoken words: our laws are written laws, western religions are religions of the book. (They call this phenomenon Logocentrism.) We place our trust in various figures of authority who are supposed to interpret those written words for us -- Priests and Preachers, judges and lawyers. But upon closer investigation, this authority turns out to be more slippery than we might expect. We still place a very high value on first-person witnessing and the live "presence" of authors who produce the texts we interpret; in his influential book Of Grammatology, Derrida talked about the way the ancient Greeks actually preferred oral authority (the speaker as present) over written representations (which they thought of as only supplementary to the spoken word). Some of that ambivalence about written texts is still with us even though we are living in a very different world now. We still worry whether we are interpreting author's intentions correctly. We might have fixed texts in front of us that ought to have authority -- the Bible, the Constitution -- but actually, lawyers and Priests spend years learning how to interpret those texts for us. In the end, the authority of written texts proves to be elusive -- we never quite know whether we are getting the message as it was intended by its author. And the project of attempting to reconstruct original intentions and textual meanings is always going to be doomed to a certain kind of disappointment. (Which isn't to say we stop working with those texts: there is pleasure and play and a certain possibility of freedom in even our misinterpretations.)

A version of that deconstructive move is in these opening lines. If western colonialism is going to be partly a colonialism of the Book -- if western powers are going to bring their system of laws and their concept of textual authority to cultures that don't already have it -- the moment of the presentation of the Book to non-western people is a big deal. And yet, Bhabha is going to argue in this essay, at various moments as we look back at these early encounters with the technology of the book and the printed word, something doesn't quite work as intended. Above he describes the "process of displacement that, paradoxically, makes the presence of the book wondrous to the extent to which it is repeated, translated, misread, displaced." It's not that the western book works as a transparent extension of colonial authority over the natives. Instead, what Bhabha is interested in is the way that authority proves to be elusive at the moment that the "natives" begin to read and interpret the book. But its magic is partly in the way the natives don't get precisely the meanings that might have been intended -- the magic of the book is that it's actually a remarkably open-ended technology that -- wondrously -- produces meanings we can play with, repeat, translate, misread, and displace.

After these opening comments, Bhabha gives three quotes from primary sources. One is a magazine put out by British missionaries, called The Missionary Register, from January 1818. (Through the magic of Google Books, we can access the full source text Bhabha is using here!) Another is a quote from Joseph Conrad, whose name is strongly associated with the literature of the British Empire, and the third is a quote from V.S. Naipaul, an Indo-Trinidadian writer who straddled the end of the colonial period and the beginning of the postcolonial era.

I won't dwell much on the Conrad or the Naipaul quotes here -- the one I always find most interesting and revealing is the quote from the Indian Christian convert Anund Messeh. Messeh has gone to a place in Delhi where he finds a large crowd of Indians reading a version of the Bible that has been translated into Hindi for them -- and distributed to them for free some years earlier by an English Missionary some of them had encountered at Hurdwar (now usually spelled Haridwar). They now think of the book as their book, the book of God -- but they also consistently remember that it's the "European book" ("but how can it be the European Book, when we believe that it is God's gift to us? He sent it to us at Hurdwar"). Here is part of the long quote from Messeh Bhabha includes in his essay:

He found about 500 people, men, women and children, seated under the shade of the trees, and employed, as had been related to him, in reading and conversation. He went up to an elderly looking man, and accosted him, and the following conversation passed.

'Pray who are all these people? and whence come they?' 'We are poor and lowly, and we read and love this book.' -'What is that book?' 'The book of God!' -'Let me look at it, if you please.' Anund, on opening the book, perceived it to be the Gospel of our Lord, translated into the Hindoostanee Tongue, many copies of which seemed to be in the possession of the party: some were PRINTED, others WRITTEN by themselves from the printed ones. Anund pointed to the name of Jesus, and asked, 'Who is that?' 'That is God! He gave us this book.' -'Where did you obtain it?' 'An Angel from heaven gave it us, at Hurdwar fair.' -'An Angel?' 'Yes, to us he was God's Angel: but he was a man, a learned Pundit.' (Doubtless these translated Gospels must have been the books distributed, five or six years ago, at Hurdwar by the Missionary.) 'The written copies we write ourselves, having no other means of obtaining more of this blessed word.' -'These books,' said Anund, 'teach the religion of the European Sahibs. It is THEIR book; and they printed it in our language, for our use.' 'Ah! no,' replied the stranger, 'that cannot be, for they eat flesh.' -'Jesus Christ,' said Anund, 'teaches that it does not signify what a man eats or drinks. EATING is nothing before God. Not that which entereth into a man's mouth defileth him, but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man: for vile things come forth from the heart. Out of the heart poceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts; and these are the things that defile. ' 

There are other curiosities from this account. It's interesting that the native Christians, who have been reading and disseminating the Hindi-language Bible on their own without the direct intercession of the Missionary, have in some ways adapted and invented a version of Christianity for themselves. And when the more "correct" Christian informs them that they need to be Baptized and accept the Sacrament (Communion), they resist that -- it's not stated in their Book. (Which is true. These rituals were added later.) They now own the Book themselves, and they make handwritten copies of its text to read and share on their own; they don't particularly respect Messeh's authority as an "official" Christian. Bhabha's version of these arguments looks like this:
If these scenes, as I've narrated them, suggest the triumph of the writ of colonialist power, then it must be conceded that the wily letter of the law inscribes a much more ambivalent text of authority. For it is in between the edict of Englishness and the assault of the dark unruly spaces of the earth, through an act of repetition, that the colonial text emerges uncertainly. Anund Messeh disavows the natives' disturbing questions as he returns to repeat the now questionable "authority" of Evangelical dicta [...] What we witness is neither an untroubled, innocent dream of England nor a "secondary revision" of the nightmare of India, Africa, the Caribbean. What is "English" in these discourses of colonial power cannot be represented as a plenitude or a "full" presence; it is determined by its belatedness. (Bhabha, "Signs Taken For Wonders")
We can bracket the idea of "belatedness" for the moment now (it applies more to Conrad and Naipaul than it does to Messeh). The key phrase for me is "ambivalent text of authority" -- the British have brought their Book with them, but it doesn't seem to work as intended on its own. Instead, it needs the corrections and amendations of the properly trained Christian (engaged in practices, such as Communion, that are not actually directly prescribed by the Bible!) to work as intended. So who has final authority?

Following this, Bhabha spends several pages introducing and interpreting Derridean deconstruction -- specifically the ideas of presence and differance; he also invokes theories of power from Michel Foucault that are relevant to the colonial contextThis leads us, finally, to the key term of the essay, namely, hybridity. And we have a rather challenging passage introducing that term here:

Hybridity is the sign of the productivity of colonial power, its shifting forces and fixities; it is the name for the strategic reversal of the process of domination through disavowal (that is, the production of discriminatory identities that secure the "pure" and original identity of authority). Hybridity is the revaluation of the assumption of colonial identity through the repetition of discriminatory identity effects. It displays the necessary deformation and displacement of all sites of discrimination and domination. It unsettles the mimetic or narcissistic demands of colonial power but reimplicates its identifications in strategies of subversion that turn the gaze of the discriminated back upon the eye of power. (Bhabha, 154)
Much of this is just going to be a bit baffling and slippery to those not schooled in French theory (and now we also have terms, like "disavowal" that come from Lacanian psychoanalysis). The key phrases to remember might be the "strategic reversal of the process of domination" and the idea that hybridity "unsettles the mimetic or narcissistic demands of colonial power." This is very abstract -- what Bhabha appears to be saying is that there's something in the kind of hybridity that emerges out of the cross-cultural encounter in colonialism that leads to the subversion of the power of the Europeans aspire to have over the Natives. What that something is that's happening as the Natives take in aspects of the Book culture of the west hasn't actually been totally spelled out yet.

Much of the middle part of the essay is heavily driven by Bhabha's rehearsal of some key concepts from French theory. But towards the end of "Signs Taken For Wonders," Bhabha returns to Anund Messeh and the native Bible readers, making a number of interesting points:
The historical "evidence" of Christianity is plain for all to see, Indian Evangelists would have argued, with the help of William Paley's Evidences of Christianity (1791), the most important missionary manual throughout the nineteenth century. The miraculous authority of colonial Christianity, they would have held, lies precisely in its being both English and universal, empirical and uncanny, for "ought we not rather to expect that such a Being on occasions of peculiar importance, may interrupt the order which he had apppointed?" The Word, no less theocratic than logocentric, would have certainly borne absolute witness to the gospel of Hurdwar had it not been for the rather tasteless fact that most Hindus were vegetarian! (Bhabha, "Signs Taken For Wonders")
This brings up a key moment in the passage above -- the native Bible-readers were happy with the Book they were reading and disseminating, but not interested in the idea of the Sacrament, as it appeared to conflict with the spirit of vegetarianism. Insofar as they were becoming Christians, it could be said, they were becoming Christians in a Hindu cultural matrix: Indian vegetarian Christians. Is the Bible colonizing them or are they indigenizing it?

Bhabha returns to variations of this point in a couple of different ways. Another issue that comes up is in the fact that the Bible the natives are reading has been translated into Hindi and abridged into a much smaller, more manageable format:
What is the value of English in the offering of the Hindi Bible? It is the creation of a print technology calculated to produce a visual effect that will not "look like the work of foreigners"; it is the decision to produce simple, abridged tracts of the plainest narrative that may inculcate the habit of "private, solitary reading," as a missionary wrote in 1816, so that the natives may resist the Brahmin's "monopoly of knowledge" and lessen their dependence on their own religious and cultural traditions
On the one hand, there is a clear set of intentions driving the missionaries to create a text that will 'work' on its own within the native Hindu population. The Book they've created will lessen the hold of their orthodoxies and lead them to challenge their own indigenous sources of authority (the Brahmins). That should make it easier to then swoop in and convert them to a semblance of English Christianity. But something else seems to be happening instead:
For by alienating "English" as the middle term, the presence of authority is freed of a range of ideological correlates, for instance, intentionality, originality, authenticity, cultural normativity. The Bible is now ready for a specific colonial appropriation. On the one hand, its paradigmatic presence as the Word of God is assiduously preserved: it is only to the direct quotations from the Bible that the natives give their unquestioning approval-"True!" The expulsion of the copula, however, empties the presence of its syntagmatic supports--codes, connotations, and cultural associations that give it contiguity and continuity--that make its presence culturally and politically authoritative. (Bhabha, "Signs Taken For Wonders") 
In plain words: the advent of the Bible succeeds insofar as it introduces a new form of textual authority to the Indian Hindu community: the authority of the Book. But through the process of translation and indigenization -- hybridity! -- the "cultural associations" that come with that authority are subtly changed. The Book, the natives feel, is authoritative. But the Missionaries who come to them and tell them they have to take Communion to be full Christians are not.

At the very end of the essay, Bhabha brings in some new examples from the same Missionary Register from which he took Anund Messeh's account. He quotes one missionary who is disappointed by his inability to fully and thoroughly convert natives in Madras to Christianity:
for in embracing the Christian religion they never entirely renounce their superstitions towards which they always keep a secret bent. . . there is no unfeigned, undisguised Christian among these Indians.
We do know that later in the 19th century this pattern would begin to shift. There would in fact be a sizable community of what we could comfortably call "unfeigned, undisguised Christians" in India. But some elements of Indian / Hindu tradition would linger on in these communities for generations. Moreover, conversion would often be strategic. Scholars such as Jane Haggis and Padma Anagol have recently shown -- looking at women who converted to Christianity in the second half of the 19th century -- that Hindu women often converted to gain access to education and other privileges that might have been denied them under traditional patriarchal caste Hindusim (and if the conversion is seen as largely strategic, the "content" -- the Christ part -- of Christianity gets displaced).

2B. In Plain English -- the Biological Metaphor. The Five forms of Hybridity.

One thing we have not mentioned -- and that Bhabha himself does not really mention -- is the fact that "hybridity" derives from a metaphor from biology. Part of the confusion that has come out of Bhabha's deployment of this term has been that Bhabha himself didn't bother to talk about the common-sense usage of this term, nor did he discuss the biological concept of race. In this section, then, we will go beyond Bhabha and try and fill in some of the blanks.

One key point it seems necessary to acknowledge is that hybridity, as a concept from genetics, inevitably seems to suggest the biological concept of race. Is Bhabha talking about interracial relationships -- mixed-race individuals? Actually, for the most part he is not -- he's far more interested in culture and language than he is in race.

But even the shift to culture seems insufficient. Relying as heavily as it does on just one historical example from a Christian missionary text, Bhabha's account of cultural hybridity does not really account for the many different paths by which someone can come to embody a mix of eastern and western attributes, nor does it differentiate between people who have consciously striven to achieve a mixed or balanced identity and those who accidentally reflect it. Hybridity defined this way also seems like a rather awkward term to describe people who are racially mixed, such as “Eurasians” in the British Raj in India, or biracial or multiracial people all around the postcolonial world. Fourth, though it is more commonly deployed in the context of Indian or African societies that take on influences from the west, one needs to account for how hybridity, like mimicry, can run in “reverse,” that is to say, it can describe how western cultures can be inflected by Asian or African elements ("chutneyfied," as it were). Finally, it seems important to note that there can be very different registers of hybridity, from slight mixing to very aggressive instances of culture-clash.

For all those reasons, it may not be that useful to speak of hybridity in general. What might be more helpful is thinking about different hybridities –- a set of differentiated sub-categories: 1) racial, 2) linguistic, 3) literary, 4) cultural, and 5) religious. The main sub-categories are really (2), (3), and (4), where (2) and (3) overlap closely. In what follows I will explain why (1) is not really very relevant in most cases. And sub-category (5) might be of secondary importance for some readers, though I would argue that it should be taken quite seriously.

1. Racial hybridity. The term "hybridity" derives from biology, where hybrids are defined as reflecting the merger of two genetic streams, so it might seem logical to talk about hybridity in terms of race. But in fact applying the term this way does not seem productive. Most formerly colonial societies have their very specific, localized words to describe people of mixed-race ancestry, and the term “hybrid” is generally not used in the context of race. (Indeed, using this term this way might be offensive to people of mixed ancestry.)

In the Indian context, for example, there is an established community of “Eurasians,” who were marked as a separate community by the British after interracial marriage was banned, and who as a result held themselves as a clearly demarcated community even after Indian independence (when most Eurasians left the country). In Latin America, the term “mestizo” is often used to describe people of mixed European, African, and Native American descent. The idea of “racial hybridity” today seems awkward, in large part because it clearly relies on the idea, inherited from nineteenth-century race science, that racial difference is an empirically-verifiable reality. In fact, it is unclear that racial markers such as “African” or “Asian” have any precise meaning. Today, the norm amongst most scholars, which I agree with, is to deemphasize biological or genetic race in favor of “culture.”

Ironically, though the biological basis for the concept of hybridity seems to invite a discussion of race, it seems inappropriate to actually apply it to biracial or multiracial for the aforementioned reasons.

2. Linguistic hybridity. Linguistic hybridity can refer to elements from foreign languages that enter into a given language, whether it’s the adoption of English words into Asian or African languages, or the advent of Asian or African words into English. To talk about linguistic hybridity, one benefits from reference to terms from linguistics, including the ideas of slang, patois, pidgin, and dialect. Over the course of the long history of British colonialism in India, quite a number of Indian words entered British speech, first amongst the white “Anglo-Indians,” but over time these words entered the English language more broadly. Today, words like “pajamas,” bungalow,” "juggernaut," and “mulligatawny” are often used without an awareness that they derive from Indian languages. Similarly, words like “mumbo-jumbo” have entered the English language from African languages.

As a result of colonialism, the English language has become established in Ireland as well as African, Caribbean, and Asian societies formerly colonized by England (just as French has become established in societies in Africa and the Caribbean that were formerly colonized by France). This fact was historically quite controversial, and it still produces some measure of anxiety throughout the postcolonial world, though most African and Asian countries now embrace English-language education as the language of international commerce. Aside from the fact that English is seen by some as an imposed language, the lingering problem is that in many cases writers who use English in Asia or Africa are using a language different from the one most likely spoken by their main characters. Achebe addresses this problem as follows:

For an African writing in English is not without its serious setbacks. He often finds himself describing situations or modes of thought which have no direct equivalent in the English way of life. Caught in that situation he can do one of two things. He can try and contain what he wants to say within the limits of conventional English or he can try to push back those limits to accommodate his ideas ... I submit that those who can do the work of extending the frontiers of English so as to accommodate African thought-patterns must do it through their mastery of English and not out of innocence (Chinua Achebe)
Works by people who have incomplete mastery of English, like Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard, are sometimes cited as examples of linguistic hybridity. But Achebe’s point here is that such works are less likely to be meaningful or interesting than those by people who have demonstrable mastery of English, but who are aware that one might wish to “extend the frontiers” of the language beyond Standard Written English in order to come closer to capturing the voices and thoughts of people living outside of Europe or North America.

There are many examples of linguistic hybridity that one could mention. James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man has a famous example of anxiety about the status of English. Stephen Dedalus, an English-speaking Irishman in Dublin at the turn of the century, encounters a British priest, and frets that “the language we are speaking is his before it is mine.” But for Joyce, for whom there was no option but to write in English, it becomes clear even within Joyce’s novel it becomes clear that Stephen has as much right to English as any native-born Englishman. In Africa, beginning in the 1970s, quite a number of prominent intellectuals rebelled against English. The Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who started his career writing novels in English, decided to give up that practice in favor of writing in his native Kikuyu. Arguing against Ngugi, Achebe defended his use of English as a language that many Africans might have in common (for that matter, Achebe argued, even within Nigeria, there are so many languages that English might be the only national language of the country.) Other interesting approaches to linguistic hybridity include the use of pidgin in Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English, and Edward Kamau Braithwaite’s concept of “nation language,” which entails the use of Caribbean patois elements as a liberatory gesture.

Over time, the practical and commercial advantages of writing in English or French over local languages have sometimes quietly settled the debate where writers might have a choice of language (that is to say, writers who have a choice tend to choose the language with the largest market). However, in India especially, vibrant and serious literature continues to be written in Hindi as well as regional languages, though this writing is often overlooked by "postcolonial" scholars, when it either remains untranslated or is translated badly.

3. Literary hybridity. What I am calling literary hybridity (hybridity at the level of narrative form) is fundamental to what we now know as postcolonial literature. In part, basic modern literary forms such as the novel and the short story are modes of writing invented in the West, though they were readily adopted by colonial authors in Africa and Asia (the first Indian novels were being published in the 1860s). But almost immediately after it emerged, the “foreign” genre of the western novel became one of the primary ways by which Africans and Asians began to collectively imagine a sense of national, cultural identity. The fact that the novel may have been a borrowed form did not seem to be a limitation for the first generations of Asian and Africans who used it; in fact, the novel has proven to be an incredibly flexible and open format.

Literary hybridity is often invoked with contemporary postcolonial literature that uses experimental modes of narration, such as “magic realism.” The Indian writer Salman Rushdie and African writers like Ben Okri have experimented with modes of storytelling that blend local traditions and folk culture with experimental (postmodernist) ideas. A novel like Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is an instance of literary hybridity in that mingles traditional Indian texts like The Ramayana with a self-reflexive narrative frame that is usually associated with European postmodernist writers like Italo Calvino.

Another way of thinking about literary hybridity relates to postcolonial literature’s response to the Western Tradition (the Canon). While postcolonial writers have freely adapted western literary forms for their own purposes, as with the question of language there remains some anxiety with regard to how Canonical authors have represented (or misrepresented) Africa and Asia in their works. As a result, postcolonial writers have often attempted to “write back” to the British Canon with revisionist adaptations of classic works. Here are three well-known examples:

--Aime Cesaire’s “black power” version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Une Tempete, with Caliban playing a revolutionary black intellectual.
--Jean Rhys’s Caribbean-centered version of Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea, which explores the back-story of the white Caribbean Creole Bertha Mason.
--Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North is a kind of reversal (or revision) of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

These three examples (and there might be others... suggestions?) of postcolonial revisions might be thought of as a form of literary hybridity. Cesaire, Rhys, and Salih take the basic plot and form of British narratives that invoke Africa or the Caribbean, but write them from an African or Caribbean point of view.

Another, slightly different example of literary hybridity might be Agha Shahid Ali’s concept of an English-language ghazal (which I talked about here). In conceiving of this, Shahid Ali, as a Kashmiri poet writing in English and living in the United States, wanted to legitimize his own efforts at composing Ghazals in English. But he also clearly had in mind the idea that American poets with no connection to South Asia or the Middle East might start to think of the Ghazal as an English-language form they might adapt for themselves, like a Villanelle or a Sonnet.

4. Cultural hybridity. Culture, defined in terms of art, music, fashion, cuisine, and so on, might be the broadest and perhaps also the easiest place to think about hybridity. Cultural hybridity is also extremely widespread today, as one sees a proliferation of fusion cuisine, fusion cuisine, and fusion musical forms. For most readers cultural hybridity is a given – something we might encounter without even giving a second thought, when we see an Indian-influenced design in a blouse on sale at the Gap, or when we hear about Japanese (or Arab or German) hip hop.

However, historically, cultural hybridity has not always been quite as easy, nor has it been uncontroversial. In colonial writing, hybridity was clearly less important in many ways than mimicry. Late Victorian writers like Kipling, for instance, saw Indians who seemed to be a mix of east and west as absurd, and mocked them in his stories as well as personal letters. For Kipling and some of his peers, the English-educated “Babus” were engaged in crude mimicry rather than a more intelligent kind of hybridity. For instance, on the occasion of the inauguration of Punjab University in 1882, Kipling wrote the following in a letter to George Willes:

Just imagine a brown legged son of the east in the red and black gown of an M.A. as I saw him. The effect is killing. I had an irreverent vision of the Common room in a Muhammedan get up. At the end of the proceeding an excited bard began some Urdu verses composed in honour of the occasion. It was a tour de force of his own—but I am sorry to say he was suppressed, that is to say, they took him by the shoulders and sat him down again in his chair. Imagine that at Oxford!

For Kipling, the sight of a “brown-legged son of the east” in formal British academic regalia is mismatch that is, for him, inherently funny. (As a side note, biographers have pointed out that part of Kipling’s tendency to mock highly-educated Indians may have been motivated by his anxiety about his own lack of a college education. He felt threatened) Interestingly, as Kipling continues in his description he seems to grow more sympathetic to the speaker, who has chosen to present verses in Urdu rather than English. Kipling seems to admire the verses (or at least, the choice to present them in Urdu), and yet the speaker's presumably British peers “suppress” what he has to say all the same, by forcing him, rather rudely, to sit down rather than complete his recitation.

By contrast to Kipling, E.M. Forster, in A Passage to India, clearly admires the way many ambitious Indians in the latter days of the British Raj were able to use the English language and make it their own. To continue the example of dress, Forster’s protagonist Dr. Aziz dresses quite easily like an Englishman, without being perceived as anomalous by fair-minded people. Though Ronny Heaslop is ready to mock Aziz for missing a collar stud in a famous early scene in the novel, in actuality Aziz had given his collar-stud to Fielding. Still, Forster’s novel also shows the sharp limits placed on the cultural interaction between Indians and sympathetic Englishmen at the time he was writing.

As a general rule then, cultural hybridity under colonialism seems to be a close cousin of mimicry. It is very difficult for an Indian or African, subjected to British rule, to adopt manners or cultural values from the British without in some sense suppressing his or her own way of being. Something similar might be said of a new immigrant in England or the United States: there is strong pressure to quickly acculturate to the norms of the place where one lives, which sometimes entails curbing a thick accent or changing one’s dress styles or habits. Books like Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, and Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, all address the problem of acculturation, and tackle the fine line between adapting as an immigrant to a new environment, and transforming so radically that one risks giving up an essential part of who one is.

Once colonialism ends, however, cultural hybridity in major metropolitan centers, in the west as Well as in Africa and Asia, becomes somewhat more neutral –- possibly a creative way of expressing cosmopolitanism or eclecticism. Many people celebrate cultural hybridity as a way of creating new artistic forms and developing new ideas. Cultures that stay still too long, many artists and musicians would argue, ossify and die.

5. Religious hybridity. This final sub-category of hybridity I’ll mention seems important, in part because religion (specifically, religious conversion) is such a widespread theme in colonial and postcolonial literature. It also seems like a fitting place to end, since Homi Bhabha’s example of hybridity in “Signs Taken For Wonders,” specifically invokes the imposition of the Christian Bible in India. Bhabha notes that despite the fact that local Indians “under a tree, outside Delhi,” readily accept the authority of the Missionary’s Book. And yet, despite that clear Authority, they can only understand the Christianity they are being exposed to through their own cultural filters. Perhaps, instead of becoming simple Christians, the local Hindus are simply adding the reference point of Jesus to a very crowded Hindu pantheon. In thinking about religious hybridity, the question is usually not whether or not someone converts to a foreign or imposed religious belief system, but how different belief systems interact with traditional and local cultural-religious frameworks.

The goal in invoking "religious hybridity," is not to pose people who practice a local religion as "pure," while those who may have converted might be seen as hybrids. In fact, religious traditions like Hinduism were heavily influenced by the encounter with British missionaries under colonialism. Hindu leaders formed societies such as the Brahmo Samaj and the Arya Samaj (and, in the Sikh tradition, the Singh Sabha movement), which instituted reforms and in many ways aimed to recast the Hindu tradition in a way that made it more legible, and perhaps more acceptable, to British missionaries as well as western scholars of religion. In short, by the beginning of the twentieth century, the way Hinduism is practiced and interpreted by many Hindus themselves reflects a certain amount of "religious hybridity."

Major works, such as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, or more recently, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus, centrally feature the issue of religious conversion. For Achebe’s Okonkwo, his son Nwoye’s conversion to Christianity is seen as a loss and as a form of subservience to foreign cultural values. Analogously, Kambili’s father, in Purple Hibiscus, is seen as imposing a rigid kind of Christianity on his family, at the expense of personal loyalty or familial love. But the novel argues that it is possible to be a “religious hybrid,” that is to say, an African Christian, without giving up entirely on what makes one uniquely African, or in this case, Nigerian.