At a moment of keen anxiety over issues such as cultural appropriation, which extends for readers and scholars of postcolonial literature into questions about who can write, interpret and teach stories that they do not share, Elleke Boehmer’s Postcolonial Poetics invites us to be fearless readers. She wants us to enjoy the process of allowing the text to “mould, shape, and reshape our understanding”. This, driven by readings of prominent novelists (Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, J. M. Coetzee, Ben Okri, Salman Rushdie) alongside essayists, poets and short story writers (Warsan Shire, Mongane Serote, M. NourbeSe Philip), makes for a liberating reading experience. Positioned as alert readers, we are reminded that, in order to learn from postcolonial texts, we don’t have to do intrusive things to them. Instead, Postcolonial Poetics offers strategies to reconnect with the surface aesthetics – textual patterns and flows, discontinuities and wit – that are particular features of postcolonial writing.
In so doing, Boehmer’s book is, nevertheless, a vindication of postcolonial studies and of the potential of postcolonial literature to change the world. She agrees with Okri’s suggestion that the writer’s task is to remake the world, and sees the potential of the reader to activate the work’s resistant power. Postcolonial literature is, she argues, best placed to represent the most fraught encounters in contemporary life; chapters confront terror, crisis, resistance, trauma, protest. Boehmer’s instruction to pay attention to the text’s formal and expressive meanings is a strategy to approach writings about terror or trauma without flattening them. A text can be understood to represent more than just an instance of terror or trauma; the text pushes the reader through and beyond that moment by the way that it employs direct address, rhythmic patterning, questions and even page layout. Reading the text in this way foregrounds the human subjectivity in extreme situations, then reveals terror as operating in a continuum of systemic violence of capital underpinning the colonial and neocolonial project.
Postcolonial studies is a very self-aware discipline, partly motivated by its prominence in the Euro-American academy. Many of its experts write about distant locations and are careful to become immersed in context rather than making assumptions about texts. Scholars responding to a history of misrepresentation are careful to avoid mistakes made by, for instance, Western feminists who use Euro-American feminism to speak for women in the Global South. This has led to the charge that the political and the formal are “concepts in irrevocable contention” in postcolonial studies, where texts of beauty are reduced to the message that they transmit because postcolonial scholars neglect text in favour of context. Boehmer somewhat overstates this problem, but her solution is enticing, in part because the words that she asks us to use are simultaneously familiar and surprising, and call attention to themselves, as do the texts that they refer to: struggle writing, zigzag reading, jagged thinking.
Boehmer’s question – when we read a postcolonial literary work, is our reading different from when we read other kinds of writing? – is important, while it elicits an unstraightforward response. Her reminder to ask this question (and the answers that her book provides) is potentially rejuvenating for a field, which can, as she points out, be too hesitant and stifled by self‑analysis.
Jenni Ramone is senior lecturer in postcolonial studies and co-director of the Postcolonial Studies Centre at Nottingham Trent University. She is currently writing about books and reading in Cuba, Nigeria, India and the UK.
Postcolonial Poetics: 21st-Century Critical Readings
By Elleke Boehmer
Palgrave Macmillan 240pp, £59.99
Published 10 August 2018