‘Walking into Whiteness’ : Hari Kunzru’s The Impressionist and the routes of empire

Mahn, Churnjeet; Shaw, Kristian and Upstone, Sara, eds. (2023) ‘Walking into Whiteness’ : Hari Kunzru’s The Impressionist and the routes of empire. In: Hari Kunzru. Twenty-First Century Perspectives . Manchester University Press, Manchester. ISBN 9781526155191

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The literary self-awareness of The Impressionist (2002) facilitates a narrative excoriation of the English canon’s most persistently racist tropes and techniques through a precisely judged mimicry of form. The novel is replete with literary references which have been the mainstay of English Literature degrees, alongside recognition of the theoretical arguments and debates which characterised the intersection of postmodern, poststructuralist, and postcolonial thought in the 1990s. The critical appraisal of Hari Kunzru’s debut novel turns to Homi K. Bhabha’s studies of liminality, mimicry and hybridity (Haiven 2013; Haider 2004; Aldama 2005; Graham 2013; Aydenir 2006), as well Deleuze and Guattari, which has produced extremely productive accounts of multiethnic and diasporic experience, securing Kunzru’s reputation in the early 2000s as a leading figure in an emerging generation of British Asian writers. While Bhabha’s work provides a productive framework for thinking about hybridity and mimicry in The Impressionist as literary mechanisms for exploring identities caught between states (in more sense than one), it does not give us a framework for thinking about how the novel takes a critical aim at the histories of travel which have undergirded white supremacy. In some ways, The Impressionist is a classic travel text: it follows an itinerant protagonist skimming across different landscapes. The only thing that remains consistent in the text is that Pran will remain on the move. However, by deploying several sub-plots associated with different kinds of ‘travel’ (contagious diseases travelling across borders with people, people ‘crossing’ the boundaries of gender, people ‘crossing’ the boundaries of race), Kunzru focuses on the types of drag, inertia, and difficultly that minoritized and marginalised identities face.