A Continuing Debate
Rosinka Chaudhuri
THE NATION ACROSS THE WORLD: POSTCOLONIAL LITERARY REPRESENTATIONS by Harish Trivedi, Meenakshi Mukherjee, C. Vijayasree, T. Vijay Kumar Oxford University Press, 2008, 312 pp., 650
June 2008, volume 32, No 6

Just when one had thought that the magic of the nation state was beginning to be superseded, in Indian academia, by the glamour and increasing relevance of empire in the new millennium—following not only from Hardt and Negri’s Empire (2000) or Nicholas Dirks’s Scandal of Empire (2004), but also from the move made by that standard–bearer straddling most discussions of Indian nationhood, Partha Chatterjee, from nations and their derivative discourses or fragments, to the terrain of empire, as evidenced by his forthcoming publication titled, as of now, The Black Hole of Empire—we are presented with the prospect of three fat Oxford University Press books on the Nation. While Gayatri Spivak and Judith Butler speculate on Who Sings the Nation-State? (Seagull, 2007), in the arena of academic publishing in India, at least, we know who has been singing it this last year—Harish Trivedi, Meenakshi Mukherjee, C. Vijayasree and T. Vijay Kumar,

who together are responsible not only for the book under review, but also for the rather disappointing titles Nation in Imagination: Sub-Nationalisms and Narration (2007) and Focus India: Postcolonial Narratives of the Nation (2007). In exactly what manner the last three names on the list have contributed towards the compilation of this anthology of conference essays, however, remains unclear, for no elucidation on their respective roles has been offered to the reader in either the Preface and Acknowledgements, the Introduction, or on the jacket.

Harish Trivedi’s introduction to the concept of ‘The Nation and the World’ is a pithy summary of the origins, developments and recent trends in the study of nations; the ground covered starts from the ‘encyclopaedic’ Anthony D. Smith in Theories of the Nation to Benedict Anderson’s ‘seminal’ Imagined Communities, to Partha Chatterjee’s ‘most salient … arguments from a vast and complex body of work’. Neil Lazarus, Gayatri Spivak and Robert Young, Frederic Jameson, Aijaz Ahmad and of course, Salman Rushdie all make an appearance on behalf, perhaps, of the ‘postcolonial’ aspect to theories of nation, while Bhabha’s felicitous phrase ‘nation and narration’, predictably makes repeated entrances on the stage of this book. In conclusion, Trivedi is of the opinion that

There are more nations and histories of national formations, in the world than this volume can even begin to encompass. But it may be hoped that it will provide a substantial and varied enough contribution to the vigorous ongoing debate on the numerous Nations in our one and only World.

Apart from the wrongly printed comma, the two somewhat opaque sentences encapsulate the attempted enormity of the task at hand and seem to give up even before the book has properly begun—for to bring the plethora of variegated contributions from those whose work are included here under one rubric would mean evoking every ‘ism’ that comes to mind in aid of its ambitions. And such indeed is its attempt. ‘Colonialism, empire, race, language, ethnicity, resistance and rebellion, liberation, national self-fashioning and identity, and postcolonial migration and hybridity’ are among the ‘wide range of issues [that] are explored’ while examining ‘the present state of the Nation in a variety of political locations … around the world’—from Fiji to India, Australia, South Africa, and even (why not?) Britain, Spain and the USA. Part One titled ‘Nation and Creation’, contains a conversation with Vikram Seth conducted by Meenakshi Mukherjee and Shirley Chew and an essay by the Caribbean-Candadian novelist, Austin Clarke, ‘The Narrative that Defines Us’. Vikram Seth, not the most postcolonial of writers, is refreshing, honest, and candid in his opinions, but what he has to say in this conversation, at least, does not seem to possess the intellectual qualities that an anthology of this sort might want to exhibit in its opening pages. Seth refrains, in this instance, from inhabiting any of the speculative corridors of theoretical insight or literary analysis, and so, while the conversation is enjoyable to read, it offers nothing to the seeker after the meaning of ‘postcolonial literary readings’ and their implications. Austin Clarke’s contribution, on the other hand, launches into an intensive exploration of the meaning of narrative in the voice of the colonized subject in his own novel, The Polished Hoe. This is, essentially, a complex reading of the confessions of Nat Turner, an imprisoned black slave, in their incarnation as a 1967 novel as well as in their original form as recorded in prison in 1831, in relation to his own novel and its protagonist; the reading helps him to pose several uncomfortable questions about voice, narrative, and authenticity in a colonized context.

‘Nations in Black and White’ is the title of Part Two; here, the opening essay, ‘The Black Savant and the Dark Princess’ is by Homi Bhabha. Bhabha’s reputation is founded entirely on individual essays, and, as he has not published anything of any substance recently, this essay perforce becomes one of the star attractions of this volume. Here Bhabha juxtaposes W.E.B. Du Bois’s ‘Bollywood-style Bildungsroman’, The Dark Princess, with Du Bois’s Indian friend Lala Lajpat Rai’s Young India and The United States of America (1916). Du Bois’s own ‘rule of juxtaposition’ is explored as a representation, following Fanon, of ‘the groundwork of a counterfactual approach to political agency and aspiration’, and Bhabha draws on Amartya Sen’s insights in Inequality Reexamined to draw out the process of how counterfactual choice is ‘crucial to the process of constructing a legitimate claim to national freedom’. This last ‘claim to national freedom’ leads to a reading of Lajpat Rai’s ideas and the impact of Rai’s cosmopolitanism on Du Bois’s ‘allegorical inquiry into the internationalization of the colour-line which is the overarching theme of Dark Princess’, followed by an intriguing speculation on the real-life ‘dark princess’ sighted at the side of Du Bois at the First Universal Races Congress in London in 1911—was this Madam Bhikaji Cama? Young India and Black America, Bhabha shows, come together in Du Bois to emphasize the contiguous and contingent nature of the making of minorities, whose rights are defined not along racial or ethnic communitarian lines, but as Albert Memmi, Bhabha recalls, put it in a ‘beautiful phrase’, as a ‘community of condition’.

This second section of the book is then carried forward by John Scheckter, Geoffrey Davis, Gerald Gaylard and John Clement Ball, writing respectively on Australia, South Africa and the Caribbean. While Scheckter’s essay, ‘Borderless: Empire, Race, and the League of Nations’ is Australian in its concerns through the novels of Frank Moorhouse, where the protagonist is an Australian woman in Europe at the League of Nations, Davis’s essay also approaches Australian immigration policies through the prism of European intertextuality—in this instance the real life instance of a Jewish Czech called Kisch who illegally jumped ship in Australia in 1934 is explored through a novel about the case by Nicholas Hansluk. ‘Disgrace-ful Metafiction’ by Gaylard reads Coetzee’s Disgrace; the intention, as declared in the opening sentence, is to ‘examine the relation between nation and imagination via an analysis of the meaning of intertextuality in postcolonialism.’ The sentence summarizes much of what is wrong with many of the essays in this book—large generalized comments are made in the context of several layers of contemporary theoretical discourse without sufficient or closer attention being paid to the texture of the texts involved. Bringing up the rear, John Clement Ball writes on David Dabydeen’s ‘Oceanic Sublime’, speculating on the sea as ‘a multivalent sign in West Indian literature and culture’ while focussing on his novel, Disappearance. The lack of any reference to Dabydeen’s poetry (Slave Song; Coolie Odyssey) is sorely missed here, for apart from the fact that bringing it in might have enriched the reading, it might also have allowed an entry for poetry—greatly neglected in all postcolonial arena—into a postcolonial study of post-imperial Englishness. As it is, while the editors of the book very creditably allow an entry for the performing arts, even making room for film studies, poetry, arguably of enormous import in conceptualizing the nation, strikingly remains a missing category in this anthology of postcolonial literary readings.

Part Three, ‘Nations and Empires’, contains five essays; while Sukeshi Kamra writes on ‘Reading 1857: The Government Report and Indigenous “Narrative”’, Priyamvada Gopal deals with the Progressive Writers Association and Decolonization in an essay recycled from her 2005 book that originally contained it. From India we move to ‘Nation and Nationhood in Modern Sri Lankan Literature’ by Chelva Kanaganayakam and to the Australian expatriate in Britain, Clive James, who too is worked into nation and empire and postcolony from a wholly different vantage point. Eddie Tay writes about ‘Inventing National Identity in Singapore’ in the last essay in this section. Kamra’s essay is representative of a growing breed of postcolonial writing that successfully intercuts history with literature, using archival material and contemporary historiography with equal ease, alternating between a conversation between Amitav Ghosh and Dipesh Chakrabarty in 2000, Rosalind O’Hanlon’s theories, and the government records and newspaper reports of 1857 to interrogate the colonial text and its strategies of narration. This is one of the more interrogative modes of postcolonial thinking in relation to India and Indian history, and the other essay that also attempts to redress the existing lacunae in the postcolonial field most admirably is by Poonam Trivedi in the next section, ‘Nations At Play’, in her ‘Performing the Nation: Dave Carson and the Bengali Babu’. Trivedi herself is aware of crucial gaps in the discourse, as is made evident by her opening sentence: ‘Postcolonial studies have been slow to acknowledge the colonization of the performative sphere.’ Her essay examines the work of an early and extremely popular visiting performer, Dave Carson, who toured India repeatedly between 1861 and 1882, introducing local elements into his songs and impersonations, as well as assuming a black identity in his burlesques and pantomimes. ‘Issues of identity, representation, and colour, key issues of postcolonial inquiry, therefore became central to his playing and popularity’, Trivedi notes, before examining the responses to the most popular part of his repertoire—his take on the ‘Bengali babu’ and the ‘Parsi gent’. Trivedi’s essay is flanked by Ian Gaskell’s ‘Theatrical Representation and National Identity in Fiji’, which examines theatre in Fiji as mostly ‘assertions of ethnic and cultural identity, which speak to the separate communities’, but also theatre based on European models such as Sudesh Mishra’s ‘remarkable drama’—Ferringhi (2001)—together, these various elements constitute Fijian national identity, Gaskell maintains.

Finally, Isabel Santaolalla’s essay on ‘Changing Nations: British and Spanish Postcolonial Films’ changes the equations of the very parameters of postcoloniality, originally conceived of as the provenance of formerly colonized nations, by bringing in the two most powerful colonizing powers, Britain and Spain. Choosing two texts that ‘allow meditation on the changing discourse of identity in the European cinema’, she investigates why notions of European identity have ‘become increasingly contested during the latter third of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first centuries’. Praiseworthy though the essay might be, its silent insertion, arguably alongside the Clive James essay, into a reader of ‘postcolonial literary representations’ needs some explanation, and by not doing so in either the introduction or in the essay itself, an opportunity is lost for presenting a deeper theoretical or philosophical insight into what makes Britain and Spain postcolonial societies today—if indeed they can be called that—and whether it can really be reduced only to immigration and changing ethnic landscapes. In the last essay here, by Kathleen Firth, we are firmly back on postcolonial ground once again in the form of the cricket field, as referenced through Caribbean writers V.S. Naipaul, Michael Anthony, and, of course, C.L.R. James’s classic, Beyond a Boundary. These beloved books and the beloved game lead us back into comfortable territory, too comfortable perhaps to allow the anthology the degree of disquiet it might perhaps have desired. While several of the essays here are of a high standard, as I have indicated, several others fail to create much of an impact—perhaps an inevitability in a compilation of conference essays. Ultimately, whether or not the anthology will survive the obstinate topicality of its subject will depend on the originality of the individual contributions; as a whole, the editors have perhaps sacrificed insight or exploration at the altar of familiarity and inclusiveness.

Rosinka Choudhuri is a Fellow at the Centre for studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata. 

Review Details

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