Five Types of Hybridity: Steve Yao in Wasafiri

A little while ago I did a long post on the concept of 'hybridity', hoping to provide a resource useful for people who teach on this topic the classroom (along the lines of my earlier "Introduction to Edward Said & Orientalism"). My intention was to simplify a complex concept in postcolonial theory for a general readership, but I don't think I entirely succeeded -- since the essay I wrote raised three new problems for each conceptual problem it addressed.

Cultural hybridity is simply quite difficult to define, in part because it's a metaphor from biology, and we have to remember that metaphors can fit literary or cultural artifacts well or poorly. Hybridity can also be hard to pin down in part because it's become so widespread (if one takes a look at contemporary American popular music, for example, it's hard to find very much that isn't in some way hybridizing hip hop culture with the conventions of mainstream pop.).

One essay I came across recently, "Towards a Taxonomy of Hybridity" by Steve Yao (Wasafiri, 2003), seems to suggest that it might actually be helpful to embrace, rather than shy away from, the biologism in the idea of hybridity. I cannot post the whole essay for copyright reasons, and unfortunately it is not online as far as I can tell (if readers would like a copy, send me an email and I will send it to you). Here is how Yao sets up his "taxonomy" of hybridity:

Closer consideration of'hybridity's' biologistic foundations can help to delineate a more refined critical 'taxonomy'. As Robert J C Young has usefully pointed out, the English word 'hybrid' stems from the Latin term hybrida, meaning 'the offspring of a tame sow and a wild boar', or more generally according to another source, an 'animal whose parents belong to different varieties or to different species'.' Hence the word also meant a 'person whose parents belong to different ethnic groups, probably of non Indo-European origin'. Going back even further, a commonly held etymology relates the term 'hybrid' to the Greek word hubris, or the quality of overweening pride most closely associated with the heroes of classical tragedy. More specifically, hubris implies a going beyond one's proper station, as in presuming to the status of a god or committing rape. Based on its historical development, then, the term 'hybridity' carries with it a sense of sexual, and implicitly violent, transgression of 'natural' categories that produces a new entity with a complex and multiply determined lineage. Hence the notion entails a necessarily biologistic conception of (reproductive interaction between categorically separated 'types'. This inherent biologism finds its clearest expression, moreover, in the strictest current botanical sense of'hybridity', which designates the union of genetic material from parents of two different genotypes that results in the simultaneous expression of traits from both within a single organism. Transposing this idea of generative fusion to the domain of culture implies mutually constitutive and reinforcing signification between different cultures and traditions.

[...] I propose a new 'taxonomy' of hybridisation that explicitly acknowledges and builds upon 'hybridity's' biologistic foundations. Differentiating among various techniques for combining cultural traditions and/or linguistic systems, this taxonomy includes the following categories: 'cross-fertilisation', 'mimicry', 'grafting', 'transplantation', and 'mutation'.'

In subsequent pages, Yao goes on to show that Marilyn Chen's polyglot poetry (she inserts Chinese characters in her English-language poems, and plays on complex etymologies of Mandarin words in English verses) might be seen as "cross-fertilization": "At this moment in the lyric the Chinese language shapes the poetic articulation of English, thereby constituting an instance of productive cultural interaction."

[Examples of Marilyn Chen's poetry -- though without any Mandarin characters -- can be found here.]

Another example of "cross-fertilization" that comes to mind might be Agha Shahid Ali's attempt to encourage the use of the Ghazal form in English, which I talked about here.

Yao is less excited about "mimicry," which for Yao entails "the mistaken apprehension or
deployment of culturally specific information in a cross-cultural context" (not to be confused with Bhabha's own concept of mimicry). Yao goes on to mention some of the infamous 'bad Chinese' howlers in Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston's works. The emphasis here is clearly on the idea of a cross-cultural mistake; this seems to be a particular danger for diasporic writers who are trying to represent their homeland.

Yao is also less than excited about what he calls "grafting":

'Grafting' represents probably the most common approach to the challenge of combining elements from different traditions in order to establish the terms of an ethnic culture. This category involves the simple deployment of images, customs or ideas that are clearly identifiable with a given Asian culture in association or origin, but do not add to the work's signifying capacity. 'Grafting' includes the casual, or even reverent, invocation of such details as jade, the Moon Festival, tofu, mah-jongg, calligraphy and even historico-cultural figures like
Confucius or Li Po

From the South Asian American perspective, we might also see the "curry/mango/elephants/ arranged marriage" exoticism genre in South Asian fiction as participating in this kind of grafting. Films like "Bride and Prejudice" and novels like "Arranged Marriage" might also be relevant examples here.

The fourth concept from biology in Yao's taxonomy of hybridity is "transplantation":

A fourth technique of cultural combination I would like to identify as 'transplantation'. Perhaps the most obvious example of this strategy is 'code-switching', or the use of different languages in their original form without any concessions to potential incomprehensibility such as internal glosses or translations. Pound's use of Chinese and other languages in The Cantos falls into this category, as does the work of Marilyn Chin in which she incorporates actual Chinese characters into the textual fabric of her poems. Likewise, T S Eliot's use of multiple languages in The Waste Land can usefully be identified under this rubric.

The invocation of Marilyn Chin again here is a little confusing, since her inclusion (as well as T.S. Eliot) makes it hard for me to see how "transplantation" is different from his earlier concept "cross-fertilization." But Yao is thinking of transplantation a little differently, as his subsequent example of Ha Jin's English-language poetry shows:

Another form of'transplantation' might be seen in the early work of Ha Jin, whose first book of poems, Between Silences, carries the rather conspicuously evocative sub-title 'A Voice from China'. In this volume Jin writes English in an apparently unselfconscious way to 'present some experience of the 60s and 70s in China'," giving monologues and meditations by various personae about the Cultural Revolution, rather in the manner of a latter-day Edgar Lee Masters who has undergone the travails of an oppressive communist regime. Whether English suffices to represent a specifically named 'Chinese' experience never explicitly arises as an issue, but the work as a whole insistently raises the implicit question of linguistic commensurability, since few of the speakers are identified as capable themselves of employing the language used by the poet.

In other words, transplantation might be seen as something close to 'translation', only where the author is in some sense self-translating.

In the Indian context, one might see the reception in the west of the work of highly grounded Indian writers like R.K. Narayan as a slightly different but related form of transplantation. (We might possibly include Amitava Kumar as doing this in his new novel, which I recently reviewed.)
In popular music, perhaps Jay-Z/Panjabi MC's "Beware of the Boyz" was also an example of "transplantation."

Finally, Yao seems most excited about his fifth concept from biology, "mutation," which he finds present in John Yau's poetry:

Consequently, his invocations of Asian cultural traditions and forms function not as an attempt to recuperate a specific cultural inheritance, but rather as a means for critically interrogating established notions about both 'Asian' and 'American' cultures, as well as the boundary between them. Thus Yau's approach to ethnic expression in the 'Genghis Chan: Private Eye' series aims less at recuperating a lost personal history (and the accompanying idea of cultural authenticity) than at exploring the generative possibilities and limits of cross-cultural production. As even this single example from Yau's work suggests, his distinctive approach to ethnic expression underscores the need to establish a further category: 'mutation'. 'Mutation' signals a radically oppositional cross-cultural production because it necessarily upsets the familiar relationships and dynamics of exchange that structure different 'minority' traditions.

Again, popular music seems to give us some ready examples. I see someone like M.I.A. (though not so much in the new album) as engaged in what Yao calls mutation, along with new groups like The Kominas and Das Racist. Das Racist, for example, are not simply non-traditional minorities (an Afro-Cuban/Caucasian and two Indian Americans) doing hip hop; they are playing with their inauthentic identities in subversive ways, to challenge the idea of identity and authenticity in hip hop culture at a fundamental level (see "Fake Patois").