A common wealth

Encyclopedia of Post-Colonial Literatures in English
May 5, 1995

The publication last year of The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry in English was greeted with a degree of scepticism in some quarters. The inclusion of so many unpronounceable foreign names was seen as further evidence of the relentless march of political correctness. Even the more favourably disposed reviewers were apt to focus attention on predictably familiar names, merely commenting on the presence, in Hamilton's Companion, of a number of Commonwealth poets. This persistence of divided and distinguished worlds in the republic of English letters accounts for the separate bibliographical space, generally called "Post-colonial", designed to give critical prominence to what until recently has been treated as marginalia.

Like most literary terminology, "Post-colonial" is both imprecise and ambiguous. On one level, this is comparatively unimportant. Any reference tool that so admirably widens the scope of available information on writers and writing will be welcome to the student of literature. But the manufacturer of so vast and undiscriminating a category can also unintentionally perpetuate the cultural apartheid it seeks to remedy. Of course, Eugene Benson, L. W. Conolly and most of the 574 scholars who have contributed to this work are already acutely aware of the ambiguous nature of their enterprise. In the brief introduction, the editors admit that "it has always proven difficult to find completely satisfactory nomenclature that would accommodate, for example, the literatures of such diverse countries as Canada, Nigeria, Sri Lanka and New Zealand". At the same time, they fail to ask the more radical question as to why the discovery of a single term should be felt necessary.

It is possible to detect at least four contending and overlapping definitions of "Post-colonial Literatures'' at work in the encyclopaedia. The unattributed description on the back covers of both volumes assumes that, like Caesar's Gaul, English literature can be divided into three parts: English, American and Post-colonial. This arrangement conflicts with the strikingly catholic definition provided by Benson and Conolly in their introduction. Here we learn that the term "post-colonial" is used "to cover all the culture affected by the imperial process from the moment of colonisation to the present day". Aware that such a definition would create the expectation of finding English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh and United States writers in the encyclopaedia, the editors explain these literatures' absence on the pragmatic grounds of their adequate documentation in other works of reference. While this broader definition avoids the uncomfortably neo-colonial implications of the tripartite approach (with Canada being excluded from America and Ireland, Scotland and Wales being subordinated to England) one wonders when the "imperial process'' is held to commence. We are, after all, five centuries away from the year John Cabot set sail for Newfoundland.

In Alastair Niven's incisive contribution on the Post-colonial novel, he adopts a slightly different approach. Here, the connective tissue is the way in which English language novelists have been influenced by, and responded to, the imperial process. His conspectus therefore includes English writers whose work, like that of Kipling and Forster, was engaged in the colonial encounter, as well as novelists like Achebe and Soyinka whose careers have been dominated by the transition from colony to independence. Niven deftly draws these strands together by directing attention to that growing body of post-colonial writers whose identity can no longer be described "in terms of national labels". His thematic approach suggests a useful if limited definition, but not one that could be uniformly applied to the many writers who owe their inclusion in the encyclopaedia to their nationality rather than to their concern with the imperial process.

For most of the contributors, however, "Post-colonialism" is not viewed as a strictly historical, geographical or thematic term. It is rather a strategy designed to bring into critical prominence those literatures that, for reasons associated with the imperial process, have been viewed as subordinate to the literatures of Europe and the US.

It is indeed difficult to discover an elegant and expressive name for this project, but "Post-colonialism" seems a reasonable description. There are, incidentally, concise demystifying accounts of the three most prominent post-colonial theorists, Edward Said, Homi Bhabha and Tayatri Spivak. The application of the term to so heterogeneous a body of literature as this work records is less convincing than its use to denote a critical stance. Despite the amount of ink that has been spilled advancing the claims of "post-colonialism" in preference to the "Commonwealth" label, anglophone writers remain obstinately (with the exception of the Philippines) Commonwealth nationals. The revised nomenclature scarcely alters the nature of Clarke Blaise's objection to the earlier term, quoted in Graham Huggan's entry on the novelist, "a category without conscious (or admitted) practitioners, claiming participants from every race, religion and national background, from six continents and Oceania''.

An associated problem is that a few of the contributors have felt constrained by the "post-colonial'' label to evaluate their subject almost entirely in terms of the writer's willingness to endorse the critic's idea of "post-coloniality". One of the most unbalanced entries in this vein is devoted to Anita Desai. P. S. Chauhan, writing from Beaver College, USA, provides little more than an inventory of Desai's supposed failures to understand the real India. The reason for these venalities is not so much her flawed artistic purpose as her mixed Bengali-German parentage. At one point we are told that Desai's "view of India . . . is no less Eurocentric than that of another German migrant to India, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala''. It is clear from the beginning of Chauhan's account that he is aware that Desai was born in India and educated in New Delhi, but to have a German mother is presumably, in his view, tantamount to being born in Germany. At another point, Chauhan confuses the mother and daughter. He quotes Desai's own description of her mother "as carrying a European core . . . which protested against certain Indian things". This, according to Chauhan, explains "Desai's western disdain for Indian social customs". Desai's father, it is hinted, was also a bad lot, "a product of Bengal's elitist culture". He not only married a German but the couple were seen happily "passing through the heyday of British colonialism". Worse was to come. The young Anita exhibited a degenerate tendency to people her novels with "intense, artistic and witty" characters, and this, we are assured by our critic, was "not an accident". "The woman" (a character Chauhan cannot bring himself to name) in Desai's novel Bye-Bye Blackbird is "involved in a mixed marriage" and (guess what) in Baumgartner's Bombay, "a woman's several interracial liaisons are explored". I doubt whether the object of this xenophobic spite will be greatly perturbed, but I cannot help wondering whether Anita Desai has read Lorna Goodison's fine poem, "I Am Becoming my Mother''.

Mercifully, entries such as Chauhan's are rare, but perhaps inevitably accounts of well-known writers are less illuminating than those devoted to lesser figures. John Figueroa, for example, writes with infectious enthusiasm on Caribbean writers John Bunting, Barbara Ferland, Harold Telemaque and Ralph Thompson. I hope Syd Harrex's excellent piece will do something to revive an interest in the comparatively neglected Sudhin Ghose and I intend to read Dhan Gopal Mukerji's My Brother's Face on the recommendation of Shyamala Narayan. Although I have misgivings about the terminology used, I have none about the value of the encyclopaedia. Since it came into my possession it has been so frequently consulted that the second volume is now disintegrating (publishers kindly note).

It is a measure of the vitality of anglophone writing worldwide that in the five years it has taken to compile this guide, so many new writers have risen to prominence. The understandable omission of these newcomers argues the need for a supplementary volume. Just to think of writers whose names commence with the letters G and U, there are the Booker-shortlisted novelists Abdulrazak Gurnah and Romesh Gunasekera, together with the accomplished novels of Sunetra Gupta, that surely deserve inclusion. Such a supplement might also remedy more puzzling omissions. My own list would include Elleke Boehmer, Biyi Bandele-Thomas, Valerie Bloom, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Marion Halligan, Amryl Johnson, Firdaus Kanga, Kojo Laing, E. A. Markham, Pauline Melville, Vicki Raymond, Cornelia Sorabji, Tambimuttu and Benjamin Zephaniah.

Ronald Warwick was formerly literature officer, Commonwealth Institute, London.

Encyclopedia of Post-Colonial Literatures in English: Volumes One and Two

Editor - Eugene Benson and L. W. Conolly
ISBN - 0 415 05199 1
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £150.00
Pages - 1,874

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