Thursday, November 17, 2011

Decolonizing Geography, Starting with Names

"What's in a name?" as Shakespeare wrote, and then he goes on with some claptrap of how roses smell the same. Except, of course, that's not how communication works: the essence of a thing is always communicated through a lens, and the lens will be affected by a lot of other things, including but not limited to, what any given thing is called.

Names are important.

This is a post brought to you by this excellent list of names of the Caribbean islands as called by the natives before the colonizers popularized the names used today. So if you don't want to read what's under the cut, you should at least go have a look at that.

Lots of places, peoples, artifacts are called specific names because of a particular history with that which gives it its name. Malaysia, for example, only took up that name in 1963 after Sabah and Sarawak joined forces with Peninsular Malaya. And Malaya is the name the British gave us--locals called the Malay archipelago (which includes what is now called Indonesia, and the Philippines) Nusantara. Some people still refer to the region as Nusantara, especially when speaking in Malay, because it refers to a particular region and shared cultural roots (as well as some shared biological features).

Being able to name something is a kind of power; if you can name something and make it stick, you obviously have the political and social clout to be taken seriously and have people adopt your terminology. 

Names also shift from region to region: as I mentioned above, what's called South East Asia (a name taken up for geopolitical and economic reasons) is called Nusantara by some folk, and I've no doubt that the Laotians, the Vietnamese, and the Filipinos have different names for the same region. It is not important to agree on a single name; that's where a great deal of unhappiness comes from (and seriously, imposing what you think its name should be at the expense of others? That's imperialism). It is, however, a sign of consideration, multicultural respect, to acknowledge the other names, and use them when appropriate. 

No, it is not a lot of work remembering different names for one thing. I get that it may be difficult for someone who has learning problems, but if you can remember that there are certain rules and codes of behaviour for certain situations (like, there are ways to act in class that one does not act with family), you can certainly remember, different people call different things different names. 

I talk a lot about de-centering Eurocentrism, and part of the postcolonial project involves decolonization. While it's not possible to go back to that perfect uncolonized state, it's possible to begin a process of reclamation. Part of that process involves names. 

When writing Between Islands, I had to make a ton of decisions about naming certain places and regions and things. For example, I had to find an alternate name for "airship," because there's no way to nicely translate that into Malay (itself a mixture of Arabic, Sanskrit, Portuguese, and English) (you think the English language is the only language to pilfer? Vocabulary exchange happens all the time, especially in an entreport region like Nusantara). I also had to find a pre-colonial name for Penang (which, as it turns out, have different pronunciations, depending on the speaker's language). 

To make these names commonplace, part of a daily lexicon, when we've been taught so long that there is a specific name for it, is sometimes very difficult. To use the names that another has given us, and sometimes imposed on us, that elides a huge part of a story, is a little success, a little push against a hegemony that permeates every part of our lives. 


  1. Love this post. I think this really extends also to how the Middle East is this very bizarre geographic location that has shifting boundaries, often dependent on how the U.S views its geopolitical interests. I've heard Afghanistan described as Middle Eastern, which to me is just bizarre. But reducing this differentiation and creating this giant thing called the "Middle East" where the "Muslims" live produces knowledge that frames all American antagonists as one regional culture.

    Also, I once had a friend who insisted that Egypt and India were pretty much the same thing. Because, you know, they both don't have white people and are kind of brown and stuff. And they were also kind of close together (but they weren't), in the sense that they were east of Canada.

    She couldn't understand why I was angry.

  2. Great post. Obviously I argue for decolonizing time, too.

    Especially given that there's a deep mythology connected with many of the hours, let alone years, in many areas, it lends itself to some interesting possibilities.

    From a steampunk query, when we're using a notion of 'the time machine' whose time do we mean?

    "What year am I in, good sir?" "Why, it's the year 2554." "Good heavens, I've gone too far!" "Or.... 2011 by the European version."

    And are there any situations where that might become more of a serious problem, other than just one of calibration?

  3. Sarah: The Middle East is definitely one of those examples in which labeling is a deeply politicized thing that has moving goalposts. Same with regions like Southeast Asia (that isn't really recognized by a lot of folk) and distinguishing between the different Asians... I've noticed when people here say "Asian" they really mean "East Asian". (My beef with Nova Albion! Asia = China & Japan!)

    Egypt doesn't have any white people lolololol

    Bryan: It would rather depend on who's in charge at the time, eh? In my short story, I used the Hijri calendar, because the characters belonged to a Muslim kingdom.

    It would make any kind of long-term planning tricky for the time-traveler to communicate / leave plans for the linear folk if the time-traveler was ignorant of local calendars.

  4. Just curious, does your "decolonial project" address the residue of islamic imperialism and colonization? Or Chinese cultural imperialism expressed by the Chinese dispora? If not why not.

  5. MY decolonization project does not, because Malaya adopted Islam through trade and the adoption of Islam did not impose a radical change of social mores the same way British colonization did. Rather, the adoption of Islam meant adapting Islam to local beliefs. Same thing with Hinduism in the region (which reached us much earlier!) (you can still find residues of Hindu beliefs in some areas that are Muslim), which adapted to the region, rather than imposed itself. Islamic and Hindu "colonization" is not exactly colonization per se since much of both spread across my region through trade, rather than military force (the religions of various empires notwithstanding! I believe the Srivijayan empire was Hindu, but unlike Christianity, Hinduism was never used to justify the imperialism. My textbooks were pretty racist so I'm sure if that had been an issue, they would have raised it as a talking point).

    It is also very much worthwhile examining how China's spread and centralization has imposed a certain rule over ethnic minorities (although the dynamics are a lot more complex, given how Chinese history is FILLED with revolutionaries and everybody hates the current monarchy but somehow this lesson doesn't take everytime a new dynasty is established). China has a very long history of its people criticizing the status quo.

    The Chinese diaspora, however, does not create the same kind of cultural imperialism. When Chinese people migrate abroad, their beliefs used to adapt to local customs and mores. It's only more recently, AFTER the centralization of China and the creation of a sort of "definite" Chinese identity (which is a 20th century phenomenon, after Chinese revolutionaries adapted ideas from the West), that we're starting to see more of a unified ideal of what makes a Chinese person Chinese. I'm guessing that you're also hinting at potential Chinese neocolonialism due to China's rise as an economic power--Chinese people have always migrated without causing the same cultural damage that Western powers have. It is entirely possible to imagine continued Sino-African relations, for example, that were unhindered by British imperialism. Therefore, I highly doubt it's possible to argue in good faith that there will be Chinese cultural imperialism through the diaspora without falling back onto Western anxiety about China's rise. What I'm more worried about is the racial hierarchy that places brown and black bodies below light-skinned bodies like mine. And that is, of course, a racial hierarchy that British colonialism perpetuated, if not created.

    My immediate project, however, deals with the residue of Western colonization, which has been instrumental in creating the schisms between non-white peoples, especially in Asia, in the last two centuries. The problem with decolonization as a project is that many of us grow up with colonized minds thinking that the West is not only normal as a cultural default, but also on the side of non-white civilizations.

    So, for me, part of decolonizing is recognizing how Western ideals have permeated our minds so much they poison us against each other, and how to tease away harmful notions that turn us against those closest to us and prevent us from creating peaceful relations.

    And that's why not, on this blog. I'm sure someone else's decolonization project deals with it, though.

  6. Just writing to say thank you for this.

    My current project involves a very long alternate history, and a very different discovery of land on the far side of the Atlantic, and I needed to read what you wrote.

    (And the list of Caribbean island names in the native languages was directly useful, too.)