Voyages of self-discovery

October 20, 1995

Now that the literary centre stage is occupied by writers in English from erstwhile British colonies, such as Salman Rushdie, their struggle for recognition should be a matter of historical significance. The fact that this is not yet so, and the many vexed questions surrounding the teaching of "Commonwealth literature", are some of the issues addressed by Wasafiri.

Founded in 1984, Wasafiri promotes crosscultural communication among writers, critics and reviewers interested in the world of African, Caribbean, Asian and associated literatures. Until very recently many departments of literature reflected a narrow ethnocentric approach. In her editorial in the tenth anniversary issue Susheila Nasta points out that where courses on subjects like African, Caribbean or Asian writing did exist, "they were usually run as options which tended to stress either an anthropological interest in 'other cultures' - the 'sari and samosa' approach - or alternatively left students at a loss to see how Caribbean literature, for instance, might bear any relationship to European modernism or their other reading."

Implicit in its name Wasafiri, taken from the Kiswahili word meaning "traveller", is the question of cultural voyages, the crossing of borders, literal and metaphorical, within and beyond national boundaries. The issues under review range from commitment to ideals of the freedom struggle to debates as to whether these ideals were realised, and the soul-searching of the exile. Lively, intellectually adventurous, eclectic and accessible, Wasafiri is the most interesting and informative publication in this field.

The tenth anniversary issue, which has interviews with Caryl Phillips and Nayantara Sahgal, is preceded by the spring issue with the focus on South Africa, and followed by a special issue on "India, South Asia and The Diaspora" (coedited by Sudeep Sen), which, apart from interviews with V. S. Naipaul and Vikram Seth, and Anita Desai's reflections on "In-Betweenness", includes a symposium consisting of creative writing and academic analysis. The impressive range of poetry, critical essays on the literature of specific regions including black British, and the review sections in all the issues are particularly valuable, not least because this exposure is often the only source of information on the work being done and is largely ignored by mainstream academic journals.

Some questions crop up time and again: how does one define the terms diaspora and exile? How can the term "new literatures in English" be applied to the Indian subcontinent that has produced literatures long before such terms were remotely fashionable? Is not the term "post-colonial writing" too all-embracing for areas making up almost two-thirds of the world's geographical mass and with extremely different cultural and political backgrounds? If colonial discourse unified the field of experience, postcolonial theory has reasserted the singularity of the particular and the specific.

The centre no longer holds, the margin has now become the front line and the very valid claims of national literatures are being articulated, often in strident terms. If India, for instance, is the imagined, idealised homeland of the exile, it is also the inescapable reality of those who live and work there and face compulsions of which the exile has no up-to-date experience. Those who argue that these two versions of India do not match and are indeed in opposition to each other will pay little heed to Rushdie's recent comment that one must understand that there are many ways of being Indian. Equally, while the writers in Wasafiri celebrate difference, hybrid sensibility and "cultural mixture", voices within the nation - which itself is culturally very mixed indeed - advocate notions of purity. Clearly the cultural, historical, intellectual and political needs of contemporary black British people are different from those who live in Africa or Asia. Wasafiri, located as it is in London, which has been called the West Indian literary capital, contextualises the authority and truth of experience expressed in a variety of Englishes and in unfamiliar forms and structures.

The field of study is considerably widened in the issue on South Africa. The questions addressed differ from the familiar postcolonial framework: there is the issue of language (Afrikaans vs English); of the readership being addressed (the "crossborder" reader, meaning an international readership that is perceived as setting the terms of discourse and the ideal to be disseminated); and of the neglect of transformations in themes and styles of writing in Afrikaans for ideological, linguistic and economic reasons. This accusation was often levelled at Indians writing in English.

In place of an editorial, Kenneth Parker's "In the 'New South Africa' w(h)ither literature?" is a powerful critique of some overzealous aspects of cultural dictates in the postapartheid nation, the "hitherto (and continuing) domination of patriarchal discourses located especially in the primacy of English as the chosen language". Parker accuses writers ranging from Nadine Gordimer and J. M. Coetzee to Christopher Hope and Alex la Guma of participating in only one part of the essential project: they modernise the "existing dominant tradition by freeing it of its racist incubus by way of the search after the grail of The Great South African Novel"I but none of them seeks to dislodge the "claim on the part of the centre to superior knowledge not only of itself, but also of its Others".

Njabulo Ndebele is a powerful figure in the tradition of black consciousness, a movement against such official culture, against the dominant liberal-humanist consensus. These writers disregard the "crossborder" reader, spurn the notion of a nonracial nation and are grounded in historic memory, oral forms of narrative, and a rural past that interacts at all times with contemporary urban life as it does with writers such as Chinua Achebe and Ben Okri.

One is reminded here of a comment made by the Indian (Kannada) novelist U. R. Anantha Murthy to Malcolm Bradbury more than four decades ago after they had both watched Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal. Murthy revealed that his life in India encompassed both the Middle Ages and modernity, the village and the city and went on to write Samskara, a landmark in modern Indian literature. This double vision is the most enriching dimension of the literature discussed in Wasafiri, the double vision of exile as well as the complex perspectives of the writer within the nation. Wally Mongane Serote, straddles the black consciousness and liberal-humanist divide, the experience of exile and of an official position in African National Congress politics within the nation, having a poetic voice of compassion and faith that articulates the struggle in South Africa with echoes of human conflicts elsewhere in the world.

The prevalent trend in postmodernism, and the interest in high-profile writers, such as V. S. Naipaul, Michael Ondaatje, Nadine Gordimer and Ben Okri, has led to an upsurge within English departments of discourse on "difference" and "otherness", the tendency being to label, categorise and contain. As the editor of Wasafiri said in a recent interview, "another kind of imperialism has come about, with academics having jumped on the post-colonial bandwagon for dubious reasons". For Wasafiri the quest is for an identity or alternative that seeks to restore the self that was dislocated by the colonial experience.

Maria Couto, author of Graham Greene: On the Frontier, writes regularly on postcolonial literatures.


Editor - Susheila Nasta
ISBN - ISSN 0269 0055
Publisher - Queen Mary and Westfield College, London
Price - £16.00 (inst.), £12.00 (indiv.)
Pages - Two issues a year

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