Enticing fruits of many minds

The Oxford English Literary History
April 16, 2004

Aubrey Menen was born in London of Irish-Indian parentage. He was Roman Catholic, English educated and a Nayar - part of a matrilineal Indian elite that looked down on English snobbery and whose women were famed for divorcing a man by telling him to take his mattress and go. Not surprisingly, Menen the writer narrated incongruities. In his novel The Fig Tree, the Vatican approves of a scientist's attempt to make a fig tree produce an oral contraceptive, only to find that the fruit is an aphrodisiac.

From the late 1940s onwards, Menen was a contributor to a "new" English literature. In time came other, far greater talents who between them picked up all the literary prizes: the Hawthornden, the Booker, even the Nobel. English literature was permanently altered by this energy from outside Britain: "renewed," says Bruce King, "in a way that made it part of the new internationalism".

The starting point is generally seen as the arrival in London in 1948 of the SS Empire Windrush , carrying hundreds of migrants from the West Indies.

The ebbing of empire elsewhere added to the influx. Britain, and Europe generally, needed workers. Hence the mass movements. Ironically, most of the immigrants wanted to be English at a time when the natives were fragmenting and claiming their separateness as Irish, Welsh, Scots, gays or lesbians.

This 13th volume in The Oxford English Literary History measures the resultant shifts. Post-colonial literature may have its origins in the old colonies, but King is interested in its counterpart in Britain, in other words the post-imperial literature created here, not abroad, which became known as Commonwealth literature.

His chronological approach reveals evolution, in which stories of nostalgia give way to black consciousness and an assertion of Asian and black Britishness. He thereby elaborates on the half-century covered by C. L. Innes - who started the Association for the Teaching of Caribbean, African and Asian Literatures - in her History of Black and Asian Writing in Britain .

Each of the chapters looks at the socio-cultural dynamics of the communities in Britain at a given period, before moving on to study the prose, poetry and drama of this period. We move from "Immigrants in the 40s", through "The demanding of rights" and, finally, to "Celebrating multiracial England".

One of the book's strengths lies in its demarcation of literary influences.

We see how Wilson Harris affected a later generation, including Ben Okri and Fred d'Aguiar; the enormous influence of Wole Soyinka on many writers; and how Derek Walcott's teacher John Figueroa mocks a critic's complaint that Walcott is too learned and British: "Bwoy, you no hear wa de lady say?/ Watch di pentameter ting, man./ Dat is white people play!"

More important, King looks at the precariousness of the new literature, and the network that sprung up to support it. He writes of the new small publishing houses interested in the colonies, such as Bogle L'Ouverture and New Beacon Books, and of how Heinemann Educational Books came to play a key role. They published Samuel Selvon and George Lamming - who came on the same ship and wrote their first works on the same typewriter - within three years of their arrival. Andrew Salkey, who started with the BBC and became a teacher before turning to writing, knew Diana Athill of Andre Deutsch, and recommended to her the fiction of V. S. Naipaul. Asked to read the manuscript of Wilson Harris' Palace of the Peacock by his contacts at Faber, Salkey also recommended it for publication; six previous readers had felt unable to judge it.

But King's book does not properly engage with the contradictions that have marked Commonwealth literature, especially in more recent years. He tells us of its beginnings at the University of Leeds in 1964, followed by the creation of validating bodies, but does not look further. What really defines Commonwealth literature? To Judie Newman, the term "Commonwealth" is "antiquated, never includes Britain (the absent yardstick)... and (does not acknowledge) the realities of domination", while Diana Brydon wrily alters "Commonwealth" to "common poverty".

Less satisfactory still is King's citing of Nirad C. Chaudhuri's peculiar view that Hindus were degenerate Europeans who had been corrupted by the heat and geography of India, while commenting that Chaudhuri is thought by many to be the best of the Indian writers who based themselves in Britain.

Chaudhuri, who was caricatured in Tom Stoppard's In the Native State as "Niradbabu", was a brilliant eccentric who wrote some outstanding prose, no doubt; but time has not justified his early literary reputation. Chaudhuri believed that the withdrawal of the empire in 1947 led to India's decay.

But, as early as 1818, Shelley, in his preface to The Revolt of Islam , saw how a people held captive for centuries would need time before coming to order; he also summed up the pessimism of a Chaudhuri when he wrote of it as "the solace of a disappointment that... finds relief only in the wilful exaggeration of its own despair".

It is strange to find no reference by King to India's Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, who spent considerable time in Britain and influenced the literary scene here, not least through Yeats. And how could he refer to the Ceylonese poet J. M. Tambimuttu as "the most prominent Indian writer in England", when Ceylon was never a part of India?

Summing up the new literature, King says it not only reflects social and cultural changes but is also one of the ways in which people imagine themselves and, in the process, change society. Despite omissions, his book records the international changes that defined English literature after 1948 and, by doing so, it becomes a useful contribution to post-colonial studies.

Dipli Saikia holds a PhD in post-colonial literature from Bristol University.

The Oxford English Literary History: Vol 13, 1948-2000 The Internationalization of English Literature

Author - Bruce King
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 386
Price - £30.00
ISBN - 0 19 818428 X

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