Transcultural Identity Constructions in a Changing World

by Irene Gilsenan Nordin (Volume editor) Chatarina Edfeldt (Volume editor) Lung-Lung Hu (Volume editor) Herbert Jonsson (Volume editor) André Leblanc (Volume editor)
©2016 Edited Collection 331 Pages


This volume takes a broad outlook on the concept of transculturality. Contributions from 19 authors and specialists, of almost as many diverse origins, grapple with this concept, each in their own way. How can transculturality be described? How can it help us understand our world? Many of the chapters deal with literary texts, others with the stories told in movies, drama, and visual art. There are texts about the complexity of the European Burqa-Ban debate, the negative aspects of Portuguese multiculturalism, or the border-crossing experiences of Filipino immigrants in Ireland. Several chapters examine stereotypes, the idea of movement, the dissolution of cultural borders, or the nature of bilingual writing. It is a unique contribution to the field, on a virtually global scale.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction: Transcultural Identity Constructions in a Changing World
  • Transcultural Transformations
  • Multicultural: Stories of Political and Cultural (Mis)Understandings
  • Curiously Mediating Identity Formations Across Borders and Interdisciplinary Boundaries: Transcultural Film Practice
  • Veil Dressing and the Gender Geopolitics of “What Not to Wear”
  • Interview With Haitian Canadian Novelist Dany Laferrière, de l’Académie française
  • Transcultural Memories
  • Ethnic Differentiation and Assimilation in Marguerite Duras’s Indochinese Texts
  • Transcultural Identity as a Personal Myth: The Case of Amélie Nothomb
  • Cultural Relations and Aboriginal Identity in Sally Morgan’s My Place
  • Remembering the Migrant Identity: A Comparative Study of Les Pieds Sales, by Edem Awumey, and Ru, by Kim Thúy
  • Transcultural Identities
  • “We Have to Keep Moving”: Transnational Witnessing in Dany Laferrière’s The World is Moving Around Me
  • Transculturality in Thomas Mann’s Novella Tonio Kröger
  • Travelling Art Cultures: Transcultural Identities Illustrated by Baltic Artists
  • Legal and Cultural Identity: A Case of Adultery in the Chinese Story “Drying Clothes”
  • Language and the Untranslatable
  • Not Crossing the Boundary: The Untranslatable in Japanese-English Bilingual Literature
  • The Dao of Writing: Transcultural Literary Identity in Gao Xingjian’s Novel Soul Mountain
  • Filmic Representation of Transculturality
  • Old Fear in New Face: Yellow Peril of the Twenty-First Century in Sherlock
  • Fallen Women on the Contemporary Global Screen: Transnational and Transhistorical Adaptations of Eça de Queirós’s The Crime of Father Amaro and Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles
  • Globalisation and Cultural Contact in Crash (2004) and Babel (2005)
  • My Name is Gary Cooper, But it is also Samoan
  • Contributors

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The idea for this book arose from an international conference on the theme of transcultural identities in a changing world, hosted by Dalarna University in April 2014. The editors of the collection were part of the organising committee for the conference, and the articles presented here were originally presented by plenary speakers and a number of the participants who took part in the conference. The editors wish to thank all those who have contributed to the collection and also to acknowledge funding, granted by the research group Culture, Identity, and Representation (KIG), at Dalarna University, which made the realisation of this book possible. ← 9 | 10 →

← 10 | 11 →

Irene Gilsenan Nordin, Chatarina Edfeldt, Lung-Lung Hu, Herbert Jonsson, André Leblanc

Introduction: Transcultural Identity Constructions in a Changing World

Although the phenomenon of transculturality has existed as long as human culture, the increased speed of movement and communication worldwide has made it impossible to ignore in any aspect of cultural studies. In a society where changes were slow and foreign influences were few, an illusion of culture as homogeneous and static may have been easy to uphold, but in today’s ever-increasing flux of cultural change, the perspective of transculturality is more satisfactory in understanding human identity constructions. Compared with concepts such as interculturality, multiculturality, or hybridity, which all may have some relevance for describing cultural encounters, but which often presuppose the notion of cultural essentialism, the concept of transculturality has the advantage of recognising change and diversity, rather than focusing on boundaries or differences.

As a result of changes taking place in society and the need to re-evaluate the concept of “culture” – from the idea of it being ‘folk-bound’ and representing a single and delimited entity, moving towards conceptualising it as a complex cross-setting of various influences1 – we have recently seen something that can be called a “transcultural turn” in several disciplines and research fields, in trying to understand the processes operating in the formations of culture and societies, as well as in the constructions of individual and collective identities. In the last couple of decades, the analysis of transcultural identities, understood as the formation of multifaceted, fluid identities resulting from diverse cultural encounters, has been central to various fields of knowledge, where traditional analytical categories, such as migration, multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism, postcolonialism, and cultural memory, have been re-examined.2 ← 11 | 12 →

The concept of transculturality, first developed within anthropological, sociological, and philosophical discourses, was used to describe the complex configuration of modern cultures.3 In 1940, the Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz introduced the concept of transculturation in his work Cuban Counterpoint. At a time when the current ideological view of most Western scholars on “culture” was as a single ethnic, territorial, and nation-state bound identity, Ortiz developed a concept that could grasp and describe the new mixed cultural and social landscape that emerged in the aftermath of the Spanish colonial enterprise on the American continent. He describes his choice of the term transculturation as follows:

I have chosen the word transculturation to express the highly varied phenomena that have come about in Cuba as an result of the extremely complex transmutations of culture that have taken place here, and without a knowledge of which it is impossible to understand the evolution of the Cuban folk, either in the economic, or in the institutional, legal, ethical, religious, artistic, linguistic, psychological, sexual, or other aspects of its life. The real history of Cuba is the history of its intermeshed transculturation. (Ortiz 98)

The concept of transculturation has since been adopted and developed in a range of studies, in several disciplines, focusing on colonial encounters and imperial cultural exchange as a means of grasping the complex processes of identity formations of/between the colonised and coloniser.4 In his text, Ortiz also suggests that transculturation could substitute the current use of the term acculturation, as the latter is limited in describing “the process of transition from one culture to another” (Ortiz 98). As Phyllis Peres explains:

[Transculturation] opposes the framework explicit in acculturation that assumes static tension between indigenous cultural discourse and the presumably superior metropolitan mode. The model of acculturation assumes a false dichotomy in which practices must be either native or that of the coloniser. Transculturation assumes a fluidity, however tense and ambiguous, that functions in both directions. (Peres 10)5 ← 12 | 13 →

In a more recent and highly influential text on transculturality, Wolfgang Welsch, a leading theoretician in the field of transcultural studies, argues convincingly that all modern societies in today’s globalised era are transcultural by nature, on a macro level, as well as on a micro individual level.6 In the globalised societies of today, which are entangled with migration and social media technologies, as he puts it, the “[w]ork on one’s identity is becoming more and more work on the integration of components of differing cultural origin” (Welsch 199).

But, as Welsch acknowledges, transculturality processes as a base of formation for culture and identity are in no way a new phenomenon in history (Welsch 199). On the contrary, we can probably argue that societies throughout history have always experienced cultural encounters between various populations, which place hybridisation and transculturation as a fundamental process for their formations since ancient times. Considering this, the old concept of a “single culture,” as delimited by territory, ethnicity and nation – hence developed in an époque that also hosted the separatist ideologies of nation-state building and colonial discourses of racial hierarchy – is in need of a re-conceptualisation, towards a concept of transculturality, independent of the historical period.

The aim of this collection of essays is to analyse how individual and collective identities in various geographical areas around the world are redefined from a transcultural perspective and how multiple cultural influences, and the integration of differing cultural origins, play a part in our cultural formation – both in terms of who we are, and how identity is expressed in narrative forms in how we tell our stories. The volume is divided into five sections, dealing with different aspects of transculturality: namely, transcultural mediations in a non-fictional context, memory, identity, language, and filmic representations of transculturality. ← 13 | 14 →

Transcultural Mediations

The volume begins with a section containing three essays dealing with the idea of transcultural mediations in a politicoethical and geopolitical context. In his essay “Multicultural: Stories of Political and Cultural (Mis)Understandings,” Miguel Vale de Almeida studies the case of Portugal, especially its late colonial period, and illustrates how a multicultural-like discourse is not simply the product of liberal democratic attempts at recognition and greater equality. It can also be an instrument for ways of categorising, dividing, and establishing hierarchies that are crucial for the narrative of the nation-state that has its origin in colonialism itself. It is the narrative of the history of the passing on of Portuguese culture, in language, artefacts, habits, affections, institutions, and so on, that needs to be deconstructed and subjected to critique so that tensions can be made explicit, eventually leading to some sort of transcultural transformation.

An example of an alignment of transcultural documentary film production and critical media studies, within a social justice framework, is given by Alan Grossman in his essay “Curiously Mediating Identity Formations Across Borders and Interdisciplinary Boundaries: Transcultural Film Practice” The essay demonstrates the transdisciplinary terrain of Grossman’s own creative practice, and focuses on two creative documentary film projects, linking these to a number of key thematic concepts framed by what he calls a dialogical “transcultural film practice” approach. The study highlights aesthetic and politicoethical considerations in a cinematic depiction of two Filipino migrant subjects, one a nurse and the other a caregiver, occupying different immigration legal status and class positions in Ireland. The essay mediates the structural inequalities and effects of globalisation that impact on mobility, citizenship, and human rights.

The controversy around legislation that bans women from dressing in a “visibly Muslim” way in public is the subject of M. I. Franklin’s essay “Veil Dressing and the Gender Geopolitics of ‘What Not to Wear’.” The essay reconsiders geopolitical, emotional, and intellectual crosscurrents of these ostensibly national controversies in parts of the EU. Reflecting on the geopolitical and ethical implications of laws that aim to police women’s bodies and ways of dressing in Western liberal democracies, Franklin examines the underlying contradictions and blind spots that characterise many of the arguments for and against these laws, used by critics of not only Burqa-Ban legislation but also Muslim women’s veil dressing, where Western public imaginaries about what the veil really means are becoming increasingly polarised.

In an interview given to Christina Kullberg, the Haitian Canadian writer Dany Laferrière reflects on his role as a cultural mediator moving between Quebec, US, ← 14 | 15 → France, and his native land, Haiti. For Laferrière, the problem of transculturality can be settled by answering the following question: is it the imposition of cultural items from outside of oneself, or is it one’s own desire for crossing borders to understand the Other? The role of culture is to change things, whether one likes likes it or not, to reach out and try to understand differences and how the Other thinks, regardless of where one comes from. For instance, he says, if we really want to know a writer, and understand his sensibility, instead of saying “he was born in Haiti and lived in Montreal,” take a look at his library instead in order to be better able to understand him. However, he claims: “We are still at the stage of geographical insults for judging and measuring people by their place of birth.”

Transcultural Memories

The section on transcultural memories explores the theme of memory against a transcultural background, as presented in a number of literary texts. The essay by Mattias Aronsson, “Ethnic Differentiation and Assimilation in Marguerite Duras’s Indochinese Texts,” focuses on two major themes in novels by French novelist, playwright, and scriptwriter Marguerite Duras. The works, set in French Indochina during colonial rule, and inspired by the author’s own childhood, demonstrate the interaction between white and non-white populations in Indochinese society. The essay shows how Duras describes the French colony as an inherently racist society, founded on the principle of white supremacy and strict separation of ethnic groups. At the same time, by means of cultural assimilation and hybridisation, colonial rules can be broken, as seen in the interracial, sexual relationship between the protagonist, a young French girl, and her Chinese lover.

André Leblanc also explores the theme of transcultural memory in his essay “Transcultural Identity as a Personal Myth: The Case of Amélie Nothomb,” which focuses on the widely read French-speaking writer Nothomb, who pretends to be born in Japan, but who considers herself Belgian. In her autobiographical novel Fear and Trembling, the narrator relates her struggles working in a large Japanese company. Parallel with this, many assertions on Japan expressed by the narrator are so doubtful that they seem to strengthen prejudices against Japanese culture rather than make them disappear. This essay explores the validity of these claims, and the way in which the ideas conveyed on the Japanese work culture, even if false, also help to forge a cross-cultural identity through a personal myth.

In “Cultural Relations and Aboriginal Identity in Sally Morgan’s My Place,” Britta Olinder explores the theme of memory and transculturality, understood as an open exchange between cultures, transferring and connecting one culture to another. The article begins with a discussion of the meeting and mixing of ← 15 | 16 → different cultures in the framework of the autobiographical story of Sally Morgan, who grows up feeling marginalised, and not until she is fifteen does she discover that she is aboriginal. The article traces how the identity formation of the main character develops in reverse, from an imposed culture to an active search for the original, and Sally’s autobiography develops into a piece of resistance literature, focusing attention away from colonial discourse to the culture of the colonised.

The theme of memory and remembering is also addressed by Christophe Premat and Françoise Sule in their article “Remembering the Migrant Identity: A Comparative Study of Les Pieds Sales, by Edem Awumey and Ru, by Kim Thúy.” This essay explores the work of two young francophone writers, Awumey, a Togolese-Canadian, born in Togo, educated in France, and now living in Canada, and Thúy, a Vietnamese-born Canadian. While Awumey deals with African-European intercultural connections, Thúy focuses on the linguistic relations between French and Vietnamese. Outlining the collection of memories and links to the past in both novels, the essay explores literature as a way of understanding the past by collecting fragments of narrative, and where the whole text is interpreted as a reconstruction of an identity rather than any historical attempt to re-experience past events.

Transcultural Identities

The essays in this section address transcultural interaction and the formation of identity and the way in which this is manifested in various ways. The theme of witnessing from the outside is explored by Christina Kullberg in her study “‘We Have to Keep Moving’: Transnational Witnessing in Dany Laferrière’s The World is Moving Around Me.” The essay discusses how the author, Dany Laferrière, born in Haiti but now living in Canada, relates his experience of the large Haitian earthquake in 2010. Kullberg demonstrates how the author does not speak with the voice of an insider, but feels more at ease as an outsider, preferring to recall the events from his hotel room in Paris. His position transcends national and cultural borders, and can only be discussed from his unique stance of a cosmopolitan traveller.

Ching-Chung Lin’s essay on Thomas Mann’s novel Tonio Kröger is an example of how a transcultural reading can cast new light on a work that has already been the object of extensive research. This novel has traditionally been discussed from the point of view of bohemian artists versus the bourgeoisie, but in Lin’s reading the focus is put on the protagonist’s dilemma of being a foreigner in the culture he regards as his own, due to his mixed cultural heritage. His “in-between” identity brings him not only beneficial but also conflicting experiences. ← 16 | 17 → The hybridisation of these two cultures provides him with an artistic talent, as well as a tenacious and ambitious disposition.

How travel has an effect on the identities of the artist is the theme explored by Emma Duester in “Travelling Art Cultures: Transcultural Identities Illustrated by Baltic Artists,” which examines how cultural influences are combined or contrasted in the artwork of a number of artists. As Duester’s essay demonstrates, the Baltic artist community has a particular type of short-term, recurrent travel, which enables artists to become and remain part of communities and collaborative projects across different cultures. In this way, they are enabled to readily combine influences from these different cultures in their creative work. The travel patterns of the artists show a difference between homeland and the multiple homes they establish for their work, thus illustrating a clear distinction between roots and routes.

Lung-Lung Hu’s essay, “Legal and Cultural Identity: A Case of Adultery in the Chinese Story “Drying Clothes,” also addresses how identity is formed against the background of a collision between different cultures. The essay focuses on two different cultures in the same Chinese cultural realm – Confucianism and Legalism, and shows how the individual can be influenced by one culture or the other, or by a fusion of the two. The analysis centres on the short story “Drying Clothes,” from the vernacular fiction Judge Bao, a respected cultural symbol of justice during the Ming Dynasty in ancient China. In the story, the collision and merging of the influences of the morality of Confucianism and the legality of Legalism is demonstrated in a trial where an innocent person is found guilty simply because his actions are deemed immoral, when judged within a colliding cultural framework.

Language and the Untranslatable

A very different aspect of cultural transfer is addressed in this section on transcultural aspects of language and the untranslatable. Hiroko Inose’s essay, “Not Crossing the Boundary: The Untranslatable in Bilingual Literature,” is a study of a couple of contemporary novels written in both Japanese and English. The essay shows that these novels are not just a random mix of languages, but that the linguistic combinations engender new meanings that are only possible to convey in this way. The issue of translatability is also discussed, as a bilingual text poses very specific challenges. Whether one regards such texts as untranslatable or not, the difficulty of translating proves that the mix of languages placed in a specific relationship can only be understood on its own accord, creating its own contexts, which go beyond specific national cultures. ← 17 | 18 →

The study by Letizia Fusini, “The Dao of Writing: Transcultural Literary Identity in Gao Xingjian’s Novel Soul Mountain,” offers another example of how inadequate a reading can become if based on a specific ethnic perspective. Although Gao is a Chinese writer, a reading of his novel within the limits of Chinese culture will not give justice to the complexity of the themes addressed. This essay shows that a transcultural reading that transcends cultural boundaries has a greater potential to elucidate a complex literary work, illustrating that transcending culture does not mean becoming universal, a common misunderstanding.

Filmic Representation of Transculturality

The final selection of texts in the collection investigates stereotypes generated and perpetuated by filmic representation in a transcultural context. Chu-chueh Cheng’s study, “Old Fear in New Face: Yellow Peril of the Twenty-First Century in Sherlock,” shows how century-old stereotypes of Asians are still alive in contemporary fiction. In spite of the fact that the drama takes place in a modern setting, many of the prejudices found in Conan Doyle’s original stories from the nineteenth century are still very much alive. The essay explores Chinese villainy in the BBC crime drama Sherlock and examines why the “Yellow Peril” still matters and sells in an age when crime narratives are set in cosmopolitan cities and circulated in an international market.

Stereotypical conceptions in different cultural contexts is focused on in the essay “Fallen Women on the Contemporary Global Screen: Transnational and Transhistorical Adaptations of Eça de Queirós’s The Crime of Father Amaro and Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles,” by Margarida Esteves Pereira. The essay examines screen adaptations of two nineteenth-century realist novels, which perform a transcultural and transhistorical movement from the nineteenth to the twentieth and twentieth-first centuries. The essay explores the transcultural processes which allow the transposition of two stories, one set in 1870s Portugal, and the other in 1890s England, to contemporary Mexico and contemporary India, respectively. Both films raise disturbing questions related to gender representation, closely following the nineteenth-century texts they are based on, and investigate ways in which these problems may be intertwined with stereotypical conceptions of different cultural contexts.

“Globalisation and Cultural Contact in Crash (2004) and Babel (2005),” by Tin Kei Wong, examines the themes of stereotyping and assimilation in a globalising setting. Based on the theoretical concept of cultural translation, together with two associated concepts, domestication and foreignisation, the essay examines two filmic texts to explore the implications of examples of cultural contact ← 18 | 19 → portrayed. Although both of the films address issues and stereotypes associated with transculturalism, this chapter argues that while Crash reinforces white supremacy within a biased framework and reduces racism to universal humanity, Babel is a fairer exposition, addressing differences between races without simplifying the problems.

“My Name is Gary Cooper, But it is also Samoan,” by Anita Purcell Sjölund, examines the “Gary Cooper phenomenon,” which exemplifies the contamination of Western popular culture in Samoan oral history and cultural memory. The essay analyses how Samoan creative practitioners subvert spectacles such as Return to Paradise to correct persistent colonial/neo-colonial stereotypes of the “South Pacific” in Samoan cultural history. The essay examines cultural identity and political discourse, exploring how the transcultural colonial gaze or ideal from a Western audience, is exploited by Samoan creative practitioners to preserve for a Samoan audience a localised experience, as well as an international experience of the culture eventuating in defining a transcultural Samoan identity.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (December)
sterotyping movement memory narratives globalisation the Other
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 331 pp., 3 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Irene Gilsenan Nordin (Volume editor) Chatarina Edfeldt (Volume editor) Lung-Lung Hu (Volume editor) Herbert Jonsson (Volume editor) André Leblanc (Volume editor)

Irene Gilsenan Nordin is Professor Emerita of English, Dalarna University, Sweden. Chatarina Edfeldt is Lecturer in Portuguese, Lung-Lung Hu is Lecturer in Chinese, Herbert Jonsson is Lecturer in Japanese, and André Leblanc is Lecturer in French – all at the School of Humanities and Media Studies, Dalarna University, Sweden. All are members of the Transcultural Identities research group at Dalarna University.


Title: Transcultural Identity Constructions in a Changing World