Postcolonialism in Guy Kay’s Tigana

This is an undergraduate paper by Kent Aardse written for a course taken at the University of Lethbridge in 2008.

The unifying movement of postcolonial literature sets out to expose the conditions experienced in the world by those people of colonized or former-colonized countries. Postcolonialism aims to give voice to those oppressed by colonial rule and expose the inequality of the different peoples of our world. Although set in a fantastical world that is not our own, Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana effectively represents themes common in postcolonial discourse. These themes include the forced diaspora of a group of people, the fight to reclaim one’s homeland and heritage, and language utilized as a means of oppression and power. Through the creation of the fictional country of the Peninsula of the Palm, and the exploration of its history rife with conflict and turmoil, Guy Gavriel Kay is able to raise many important issues in our postcolonial world. I am interested in the way in which Kay is able to use real-world postcolonial concepts, such as nationality, identity, and language, to create a believable fantasy world. In what follows, I will reveal Tigana’s roots in reality and discuss its significance as a postcolonial novel. Moreover, through analysis of literature written by postcolonial theorists, the struggle of the Tiganese will be better understood as a plight grounded in the postcolonial dichotomy of freedom and oppression.

The plot of Tigana is driven by the desires of a like-minded group of people fighting to reclaim their homeland, the former province of Tigana, now called Lower Corte. During a brutal battle, Brandin of Ygrath’s son was killed. In retaliation for his son’s death, Brandin conquered the province of Tigana and used a spell that effectively wiped out the name and the land of Tigana, save for those born in the province. The name of Lower Corte was given to the land so that the province north of Tigana, Corte, would seem superior and establish a relationship of subordination. This idea of inequality comes to fruition in Tigana through the representation of the treatment of those hailing from the province of Lower Corte. Dianora experienced this inequality firsthand as she travelled through the Peninsula of the Palm on a quest to kill the tyrant Brandin. During her travels, Dianora is informed of an elegant tavern named The Queen, in Stevanien (formerly the capital city of Tigana):

[Dianora] learned from the merchants that no one from Lower Corte was allowed to dine there. Traders from Corte were cordially greeted, as were those from farther afield, in Asoli or Chiara itself…It was only the King’s true enemies, the denizens of Lower Corte, of Stevanien itself, who were forbidden to stain or sully the ambience with their pustulent, heir-murdering presence (208).

Dianora experiences inequality and oppressions just as many people in the real world are subjected to. Postcolonial studies recognizes this world of inequality, and aims to seek a justifiable place for a non-Western voice to be heard. Although Tigana is not representative of the struggles of non-Western colonies, the idea of oppression and an inability to express outrage due to the omnipresence of the colonizers can still be found throughout the novel.

Tigana accurately represents the forced diaspora of a group of people from their homeland, another major theme in postcolonial discourse. As Devin first discovers he is from the land formerly known as Tigana, Alessan and the others discuss their memories and the stories that have been told of their homeland. During their conversation, Alessan discusses the movement of the citizens of Tigana, and their reasons for this movement:

A great many of the parents who managed to survive fled so that their children might have a chance at a life unmarred by the oppression and the stigma that bore down–that still bear down–upon Tigana. Or Lower Corte as we must name it now (118).

It is the children of these refugees that band together to fight and reclaim their homeland. Therefore, it is not a resistance from inside Lower Corte that eventually reclaims the name of Tigana, it is from a group of relative strangers bound together by a seemingly inherent concept of national pride. Touching on this concept of the nomad, Robert J.C. Young in Postcolonialism: A Very Brief Introduction discusses two important French philosophers in :

Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari have further developed the idea of the nomad as a strategic concept, arguing that the nomad is the person who most effectively resists the controlling institutions of the state (52).

The nomads in the novel are the main group of Tiganese that unify for the right to reclaim their homeland. Not only does their status as traveling musicians allow them to gather information and forge valuable friendships, it also allows them to resist the oppression that those citizens of Lower Corte experience in their province; due to their freedom as musicians, they are able to carry out their plot of reclamation and secure freedom for all Tiganese.

Alongside the concept of nationalism comes the concept of identity. The idea of cultural identity resonates throughout Tigana, as Alessan and his followers are all bound together through a perceived notion of cultural identity. In other words, they identity with each other as being Tiganese, and are willing to fight with everything they have in order to control their own identity. Robert J.C. Young states that the concept of identity is crucial in postcolonial studies:

Some western postmodernists have tried to characterize nomadism and migration as example of the most productive forms of cultural identity, emphasizing the creative performativity of identity, as opposed to an identity derived from the physical affiliations of family and place (53).

Kay’s Tigana directly deals with this concept brought up by Young, emphasized in the character of Devin and his childhood songs. Emphasizing Young’s idea of the “creative performativity of identity,” it is the tune that Devin hums to himself that catches the ear of Alessan and becomes the bridge that leads Devin to his true heritage. Kay focuses the narrative on Devin’s emotional reaction to hearing the words of the song for the first time:

The sweet sad words to the tune he’d always known drifted down to Devin, and with them came something else. A sense of loss so deep it almost drowned the light grace of Catriana’s song. No break waves now, or trumpets along the blood: only the waters of longing. A longing for something taken away from him before he’d even known it was his–taken so completely, so comprehensively he might have lived his whole life through without ever knowing it was gone (115-16).

Devin is not tied to an identity by family and place; rather, it is through the nomadism and performance of Alessan and his travelers that Devin is able to realize fully his identity. This identity that Devin discovers becomes an extremely powerful force, as he foregoes everything else in his life in order to join the fight for the reclamation of his former homeland.

Postcolonial theory stresses the concept of translation as a pertinent concept. As Young writes, “nothing comes closer to the central activity and political dynamic of postcolonialism than the concept of translation” (138). Translation is extremely important to the concept of postcolonialism because, according to Young, a “colony begins as a translation, a copy of the original located elsewhere on the map” (139). Of course, the concept of translation relies almost exclusively on the language used in this translation. In Tigana, language acts as a weapon as well as a wall of oppression built up a
gainst the Tiganese. To an extant language can be considered the battlefield in Tigana; the reclamation of the name Tigana is what the rebels fight for. In postcolonial studies, language represents another factor in oppression and the struggles for freedom that the colonized people must endure. In her novel entitled A Small Place, Jamaica Kincaid directly addresses this concept of language, frustrated by her childhood growing up in the British-colonized country of Antigua:

For isn’t it odd that the only language I have in which to speak of this crime is the language of the criminal who committed the crime? And what can that really mean? For the language of the criminal can contain only the goodness of the criminal’s deed. The language of the criminal can explain and express the deed only from the criminal’s point of view. It cannot contain the horror of the deed, the injustice of the deed, the agony, the humiliation inflicted on me (31-32).

This concept is ever-present in postcolonial discourse. Young touches on this idea as he states that “languages, like classes and nations, exist in a hierarchy…traditionally thought of in terms of an original and an inferior copy. Under colonialism, the colonial copy becomes more powerful than the indigenous original that is devalued” (140). Although in Tigana the language used throughout the Peninsula of the Palm is the same, this concept of language in postcolonial studies still rears its head in the novel. Just as the language of the colonizer takes over that of the colonized in the real world, so too does the language in Tigana replace a country’s history and identity:

Brandin of Ygrath did something more than all of this. He gathered is his magic, the sorcerous power that he had, and he laid down a spell upon that land such as had never even been conceived before. And with that spell he … tore its name away. He stripped the name utterly from the minds of every man and woman who had not been born in the province. It was his deepest curse, his ultimate revenge. He made it as if we had never been. Our deeds, our history, our very name. And then he called us Lower Corte, after the bitterest of our ancient enemies among the provinces (111).

This passage is worth quoting in length as it fully expresses the outrage felt by the people of Tigana, as they are completely wiped away from history and existence in one fell swoop. Kay touches on this pain later on in the novel as well. Kay writes that “the vengeance of the King of Ygrath went deeper than occupation and burning and rubble and death. It encompasses names and memory, the fabric of identity” (203). Again the concept of identity is evident, as it is the language and name of Tigana that the people find their identity wiped away with. The frustration of the rebels in Tigana is directly correlated to the frustration exerted by Kincaid as well as many other like-minded postcolonial authors. Again, although not dealing with the usual west versus non-west discourse of postcolonial studies, Tigana still accurately showcases a displaced group of people fighting for their own sovereignty and homeland, bringing to mind the plights of many refugees in the real world.

Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana presents us with a fantastical world in which its foundations can be seen as being rooted in those struggles and conflicts that postcolonial studies most constantly deal with. Although most work in the field of postcolonialism deals with first-hand, non-fictional accounts of survival and oppression, good versus evil, Tigana offers a look at postcolonial ideas through a completely different viewpoint. While engaged in a fantastical story dealing with the triumphant return of a group of people, the story still actively pursues and successfully explores issues such as nationality, identity, and language; these themes are constantly discussed in postcolonial discourse and deserve to be dealt with on a much grander scale. Although perhaps not intentionally, Guy Gavriel Kay accurately represents the struggles of a group of oppressed people in the face of an evil tyrant; in doing so, Kay creates a novel that successfully fuses postcolonial and fantasy literature. This fusion allows Kay to explore many different themes found in postcolonial studies, and his fantasy setting allows these themes to reach their maximum potency. Thus, Tigana adequately creates a secondary world that can be studied and explored in order to push our own thinking of our postcolonial world.

Works Cited

Kay, Guy Gavriel. Tigana Toronto: Penguin Canada, 1992.

Kincaid, Jamaica. A Small Place. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988.

Young, Robert J.C. Postcolonialism: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

This entry was posted in Student Papers, Tigana, Tigana Scholarship. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.