Worlds and words of the subalterns

The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. Second Edition - Postcolonialisms

May 26, 2006

In an early post-colonial text, The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in PostColonial Literatures , Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin summed up the post-colonial world a tad too neatly, to their regret perhaps. Their study of six texts from six different areas of the world and their positing of these as representing the key features of the entire post-colonial world came as something of a shock to those of us who would fail daily if asked to distil the socio-cultural features of our respective nations, let alone that of whole regions spanning the globe. This is especially true of a hybrid nation such as India. However, the business of organising an emerging field had to be dealt with; Salman Rushdie's famous statement that "the empire writes back to the centre" provided a handy linking idea, and the embarrassingly fertile production of literary texts (much of it mediocre, it must be said) seemed to justify the project. So the deed was done.

Little surprise, then, that six years later, in 1995, these three authors assembled a reader that allowed the post-colonial world a little more space or that their collection should open with the admission that it does not "claim some kind of completeness of coverage or absolute authority".

Now in its second edition, The Post-Colonial Studies Reader comprises 121 extracts spread over 19 sections encompassing topics such as "Issues and debates", "Universality and difference", "Nationalism", "Indigeneity" and "Language". It is clearly designed as an introduction to the major issues in the field, and therein lies its strength. It is a collection of ideas, the editors plainly state, not theorists, and so figures such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Antonio Gramsci - highly influential though they have been in the formation of post-colonial critical accounts - are left out, especially as their writings are easily accessible elsewhere. Another slightly limiting, though understandable feature of the selection is that it is largely drawn from the post-colonial societies that employ forms of English as a major language of communication - a more polyglot project being beyond the scope of the current post-colonial studies student.

Apart from a general introduction written specifically for this edition, Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin also open each section with a short piece. The arch of what might be considered their extended introduction begins with the debatable nature of the term post-colonial - can it refer only to the period after the colonies gained independence or must it engage with the totality of the experience that began with colonialism? The authors favour the latter. They also look at the very real, if subtle, presence of neocolonial domination and at the development of new elites in post-independent societies.

Important additions to the new edition are the sections on "Race" (this being not merely central to the field but remaining the "dominant category of daily discrimination and prejudice"), "Environment", "Globalisation", "Diaspora" and "The sacred". In other words, the text opens other lines of inquiry. A good example is Diana Brydon's essay, "The white Inuit speaks", inspired by the appearance of this figure in recent Canadian fiction and rooted in the study of two specific texts. Brydon's title echoes that infamous question Gayatri Spivak once asked: "Can the subaltern speak?" But more important is the fact that it is emblematic of the need to open up a field that has become overrun with theorists and has descended into what threatens to become a private conversation, with one theorist after another writing not for a wider audience but in response to fellow theorists.

The strongest contribution to the section on "Language" is also the shortest (merely a page) - Raja Rao's timeless preface to his Kanthapura , in which he articulated, more than half a century before the post-colonial field came to flower, some of the pressures of living and writing in a miscegenated world: "The telling has not been easy. One has to convey in a language that is not one's own the spirit that is one's own. English is not really an alien language to us. It is the language of our intellectual make-up but not of our emotional make-up." Moving with equal ease between his native Kannada, Sanskrit, French and English in his own writings, Rao was eminently equipped to comment. Appropriately enough, this section on language opens with the Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong'o, who perhaps has made the starkest statement on language usage by abandoning English as the primary language in his writing after his imprisonment in 1978, in favour of his native language, Gikuyu.

Gaurav Desai and Supriya Nair's Postcolonialisms: An Anthology of Cultural Theory and Criticism , though a more recent work and still in its first edition, adopts a more elementary approach to the field, starting the reader at first base as it were with extracts from Thomas Babington Macaulay's "Minute on Indian education", Edward Said's "Introduction" to his seminal work Orientalism and Edmund Burke's "Speech in the impeachment of Warren Hastings", to cite just three examples. This does not diminish the work in any way, but it simply makes the text valuable for beginners approaching the field, if slightly repetitious for others.

The book, inspired by Robyn R. Warhol and Diane Price Herndl's Femi nisms: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism , is organised in nine sections that include by now familiar categories such as "Ideologies of imperialism", "Genders and sexualities" and the overused "Reading the subaltern". What is also inevitable is that, as with The Post-Colonial Studies Reader , we have most of the usual suspects: Aimé Césaire, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Frantz Fanon, Derek Walcott and Homi Bhabha. In some cases, as in that of Ngugi's "The language of African literature", one has a distinct sense of déjà lu .

The introduction takes the reader through the evolution of "post-colonial" as a term, as well as of the field as a whole. Its lucid approach is a welcome change from some other works in the field, but it fails to recognise some of the subtler, more sophisticated elements in contemporary post-colonial studies. Its aspirations are lower than one would like, as is evident in the statement: "This second mode of post-colonial scholarship... finds recourse in materials not conventionally thought of as 'literature' and includes in its analysis social analysis, performance, film, and even the circulation of food such as chapatis."

Given the contentiousness of post-colonial studies, there will always be somebody calling for another approach, another theory, and the publication of yet another reader. These two examples will provide grist to their mill.

Dipli Saikia holds a PhD in literature from Bristol University, where she recently taught a course in post-colonial studies.

The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. Second Edition

Editor - Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin
Publisher - Routledge
Pages - 587
Price - £65.00 and £19.99
ISBN - 0 415 34564 2 and 34565 0

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