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Recherche littéraire/Literary Research

Fall 2019


Edited By Marc Maufort

Daniel Acke, Mark Anderson, Eugene L. Arva, Franca Bellarsi, Valérie-Anne Belleflamme, Thomas Buffet, Ipshita Chanda, Mateusz Chmurski, Wiebke Denecke, Christophe Den Tandt, Lieven D’hulst, César Domínguez, Manfred Engel, Dorothy Figueira, John B. Forster, Massimo Fusillo, Gerald Gillespie, Marie Herbillon, S. Satish Kumar, François Lecercle, Ursula Lindqvist, Jocelyn Martin, Jessica Maufort, Marc Maufort, Sam McCracken, Isabelle Meuret, Delphine Munos, Daniel-Henri Pageaux, Danielle Perrot-Corpet, Frank Schulze-Engler, Monica Spiridon, Jüri Talvet, Daria Tunca, Cyril Vettorato, Hein Viljoen, Jenny Webb

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Frank Schulze-Engler: Janet Wilson and Chris Ringrose, eds. New Soundings in Postcolonial Writing: Critical and Creative Contours. Leiden and Boston: Brill/Rodopi, 2016. Pp. 296 + xxiv. ISBN: 9789004326415.

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Janet Wilson and Chris Ringrose, eds. New Soundings in Postcolonial Writing: Critical and Creative Contours. Leiden and Boston: Brill/Rodopi, 2016. Pp. 296 + xxiv. ISBN: 9789004326415.

This wide-ranging collection of critical essays and creative writing offers a highly welcome tour d’horizon of world Anglophone studies. It assembles essays, prose and poetry in honour of Bruce King, the octogenarian maverick scholar, jazz lover and world traveller who in the course of his “literary and musical peregrinations” – as he calls them in his autobiography – not only met many literary giants (often at a time when they were still budding writers), but also published a large number of essays and books that made decisive contributions to conceptualizing the emerging field of world Anglophone writing. Several of the critical and literary contributions in this volume pay tribute to Bruce King’s powerful presence in the field of world Anglophone studies and set up a wide-ranging conversation spanning all the regions where King himself was active: the Caribbean, England, South-East Asia, and New Zealand and the South Pacific.

New Soundings in Postcolonial Writing also provides a comprehensive interesting snap-shot of the current state of the field that Bruce King was active in for most of his academic life, a field that used to be known as “Commonwealth Literature,” that King himself has famously referred to as “New Literatures in English” or “New National Literatures” and that many have habitually referred to as “Postcolonial Studies” from the 1990s onwards.

There is, of course, a certain incongruity in the fact that Janet Wilson’s and Chris Ringrose’s introduction to the volume suggests that Bruce King is to be honoured for his “remarkable contribution to the understanding of postcolonial literatures,” while King’s own critical work has largely bypassed the term ‘postcolonial’ as a critical category. King’s truly stunning list of publications encompasses only two ‘postcolonial’ titles, both of which – the edited collections Post-colonial English Drama: Commonwealth ←287 | 288→Drama since 1960 (1992) and New National and Post-colonial Literatures: An Introduction (1998) – collocate the ‘postcolonial’ with other critical categories. His most incisive publications – e.g. his path-breaking The New English Literatures: Cultural Nationalism in a Changing World (1980), his magisterial The Oxford English Literary History, Vol. 13 1948–2000: The Internationalization of English Literature (2004) and his collected essays From New National to World Literature: Essays and Reviews (2016) – have explored the potential of other critical concepts to elucidate the emergence and further development of Anglophone literatures worldwide.

This incongruity is compounded by the fact that not only Bruce King’s work but also most of the contributions in this volume seem to bypass the conceptual frame set up by the editors. The first two pages of their introduction set out a somewhat self-congratulatory account of the inevitable rise of postcolonialism that reiterates the fallacy that has bedevilled postcolonial literary theory from its very beginnings: the conflation of a critical analytical method (‘postcolonial theory’) with a whole academic field (‘postcolonial studies’) and the subject area of that theory and field (‘postcolonial literature’). Thus “postcolonialism” is apostrophied as a “movement” (xii) that presumably encompasses writers, scholars and theorists, while “postcolonial studies” not only seem to hold conceptual sway over the field of (“postcolonial”) Anglophone literatures worldwide, but literally seem to call them into being, as the editors assert that both the critical and the literary contributions to New Soundings in Postcolonial Writing “are associated with the discipline of postcolonial studies and might be seen as products of this broad field” (xi). Following this line of thought, the editors also claim that many contributions to their volume testify to “the project of re-examining the literatures and cultures of decolonized nations under the disciplinary banner of postcolonial studies” (xii).

A cursory look at these contributions shows that the field of world Anglophone studies is indeed thriving (as are the diverse Anglophone literatures across the world), but that the willingness of practitioners in the field to rally behind the banner of postcolonial studies is not particularly pronounced. Most contributions do not even mention the term postcolonial; some mention it but do not work with it as a theoretical category; some work with the term, but in a very circumscribed way; and the only contribution that can really be said to hoist the postcolonial banner is, in fact, the most problematic essay in the volume.

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Kathleen Gyssels’ essay “From ‘The Rivers of Babylon’ to Un plat de porc aux bananes vertes: Intricacies of the Postcolonial and Postwar Jewish Condition” provides an interesting tour d’horizon of literary engagements of African American and Afro-Caribbean writers with Jewish history and the holocaust, but shrinks the idea of the “postcolonial” to slavery and its legacies. In a reductive move typical of a variety of postcolonialism particularly popular in the USA, the postcolonial is exclusively defined in terms of what Michelle M. Wright (2015) has called “Middle Passage Epistemology” and is thus made to radically exclude other (post)colonial experiences in Africa, Asia, the Americas and the Pacific that are not predicated on the legacy of slavery. A brief transdisciplinary glance at recent work in Memory Studies (such as Michael Rothberg’s Multidirectional Memory [2009], a seminal study of the strong and strained relations between Jewish and anticolonial memories in the 20th century) might have helped both to open up the concept of “the postcolonial condition” and to avoid awkward conclusions such as that “the condition of slavery resembles in many respects that of the persecuted Jew” (55).

Two more essays employ the ‘postcolonial’ as a critical category, albeit in much more precise terms that evade fuzzy catch-all notions such as “the postcolonial condition”. Bénédicte Ledent’s “The Many Voices of Postcolonial London: Language and Identity in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000) and Andrea Levy’s Small Island (2004)” scrutinizes two well-known Black British novels to gain insights into “the cultural plurality of postwar London” (87). At a time when Brexiteer anxieties are tearing Britain apart, Ledent’s sober analysis of the “inherently multiple, impure and unpredictable” role of English in White Teeth (84), the “fusion and confusion that characterize London” in Small Island (91) and the “redefinition of Englishness” at work in both novels (92) shows the potential of literary studies to address the ‘great questions’ of the day not through ideologized discourse, but meticulous philological labour. Geetha Ganapathy-Doré’s “A Postcolonial Passage to England: Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table” also employs ‘postcolonial’ terminology in her analysis of Ondaatje’s migration novel, but ultimately perceives The Cat’s Table in terms of a transition towards “the contemporary novel” (108) and an instance of “the transition from the postcolonial moment to the globalization moment in the history of the novel” (96).

Globalization – not in the incarnation of a capitalist conspiracy, but as a sociocultural configuration that presents new challenges to literary studies – and world literature are two key categories taken up ←289 | 290→in this volume. They not only figure prominently in Ganapathy-Doré’s essay, but also in Laetitia Zecchini’s “ ‘A Message in a Bottle’: On the Pleasures of Translating Arun Kolatkar into French” that presents the bilingual author writing in Marathi and English as a “pirate of a poet” who “derides debates over the ‘right’ to translate or the ‘right’ to write in English, and challenges the patrimonial urge to guard a culture or a tradition from possible perversions of history or ‘foreign’ hands” (118); Zecchini describes her own urge to translate Kolkatar’s work as the desire to ensure that this author “would register on the map of world literature” (115). Marta Dvořák’s “Intertext, Architext, and Métissage: Anita Desai’s Negotiation of Cultural Gaps” explores Desai’s Clear Light of Day and In Custody against the background of “global tendencies in literary creation and cross-cultural dialogism” (134) and seeks to develop a literary mode of analysis that “discloses the manner in which the literatures of the globe can be brought together both cross-culturally and architextually” (135). Highlighting the negotiation and translation of cultural differences in Desai’s work, Dvořák suggests that “the view of alterity as a feature of a material location, rooted in a specific spatial, socio-political, linguistic or religious context” may shift back to an enquiry into “the distinction between the self and epistemic Other (arguably destined to dissolve)” (147).

This view is supported by a number of contributions that engage in a critical scrutiny of such “material locations” and move beyond both a celebration of self-enclosed local, national or regional contexts and identities and the notion that such an identity must necessarily emerge from “writing back” to a putative centre towards a literary sounding of transculturality, translocal entanglements, and the specific features of local modernities. While John T. Gilmore’s “The Rock: Island and Identity in Barbados” is largely based on a more conventional understanding of landscape informing the literary imagination, J. Michael Das’s “A Perpetual Surprise: East Indians in the West Indies” underlines the cultural complexity at work in the Caribbean by moving the role of “New World Indians” centre stage in his discussion of creolization and cultural openness in the work of Lovelace, Naipaul and Walcott. In a similar vein, Robert D. Hamner’s, “The Present Absence of the Father in Derek Walcott’s Poetry” scrutinizes how Walcott develops the literary means “whereby the poet may be in and of the island even as his imagination transports him to the farthest reaches of the earth, ←290 | 291→physically and spiritually” (29), while Muneeza Shamsie’s “Pakistani English Novels in the New Millenium: Migration, Geopolitics and Tribal Tales” unfolds the recent history of Pakistani English novels as “a discourse which both looks unflinchingly at the problems of the troubled land and celebrates its cultural riches” (166), but also sets up intricate relations with the “klose-knit Pakistani community-in-exile” (153) and features protagonists “that glide effortlessly across South Asia’s national boundaries” (164). Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s “Jejuri-Bandra-Jejuri: Strolling with Kolkatar” unpacks the rich literary world opened up in Kolkatar’s Jejuri poems while strolling through the ‘real’ Jejuri in Maharashtra, and Gordon Collier’s “Read Instructions and Shake Carefully Before Use: Fragmented Wholes in Narratives by Bill Manhire and Gregory O’Brien” searches for “narrative ways of celebrating the homegrown without succumbing to parochialism” (193) in New Zealand writing that turn “the anxious quest of a small nation for worldwide recognition” (201). Together with other New Zealand authors, Collier argues, Manhire and O’Brien have produced novels in which “New Zealand is always a ‘real’ if not a realistic presence”, but that also contribute “to the slow and sadly affectionate leavetaking from the tradition of realism” (213). Finally, in his “ ‘The Biggest Adventure’: Indigenous People and White Men’s Wars,” Geoffrey V. Davis (whose sudden death in November 2018 sent shockwaves across the worldwide field of Anglophone literary studies) explores Patricia Grace’s Tu and Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road and examines a facet of indigenous literature in Canada and New Zealand that provides fascinating insights into the often sidelined history of indigenous participation in World War I and II, but also testifies to indigenous cultures’ entanglements with global history.

By way of conclusion, New Soundings in Postcolonial Writing displays thought-provoking contributions from across a burgeoning field that seems to have outgrown the name it is conventionally known by. Janet Wilson and Chris Ringrose have put together a volume that shows how alive the field of Anglophone literary studies is and that indeed honours Bruce King’s lifelong explorations in this field, not least by showing how seminal many of his contributions have been and (in the part dedicated to creative writing) what an impact his personality has had on many practitioners in Anglophone literatures around the globe. Whether the (hopefully numerous) readers of this excellent book will come away with ←291 | 292→the idea that what has been sounded out in this volume is “Postcolonial Writing” is anybody’s guess.


Frank Schulze-Engler

Goethe University Frankfurt (Germany)