restricted access Confluences: Postcolonialism, African American Literary Studies, and the Black Atlantic (review)
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Reviewed by
John Cullen Gruesser. Confluences: Postcolonialism, African American Literary Studies, and the Black Atlantic. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2005. Xi + 177 pp.

John Cullen Gruesser's Confluences argues persuasively for a critical deterritorialization of the three fields of literary criticism that form the book's subtitle: Postcolonialism, African American Literary Studies, and the Black Atlantic. Structurally, Gruesser's book takes the form of a collection of literary essays on African American and postcolonial fiction; yet in its argument and critical scope, the book might be described more aptly as a discourse on method. Through its close readings of a wide range of English-language texts, Confluences offers an investigation into the critical methodologies for literary study proffered by the three critical fields the book strives to place in conversation. Gruesser recognizes that a full study of the relations between postcolonialism, African American literary studies, and the Black Atlantic would require a "comprehensive engagement with the history of anticolonial struggles, a history that ought to take account of African American experience and cultural productions but must not minimize the extent to which these diverge from those of colonized and formerly colonized peoples" (132).

While arguing for the value of such a comprehensive engagement, Gruessser's own study is emphatically literary; it focuses on the theories of intertextuality featured in each of the critical fields he studies, rather than on the intellectual history or geopolitical conditions of the fields themselves. The book's purpose is explicit: Gruesser seeks within the "confluences" he studies a critical paradigm for the study of literature of the black diaspora that neither falls back on racial essentialism nor loses its racial specificity in the vagaries of internationalism or textual play. In particular, Gruesser stresses that the strategies of African American literature and literary studies are more than simply conversant with postcolonial and Black Atlantic theories; they are integral to the development and circulation of diasporic criticism and literature alike. Likewise, Confluences [End Page 748] argues for the significance of reading African American literature in this circum-Atlantic critical and literary framework, offering valuable readings of texts by Alice Walker, Pauline Hopkins, and Harriet Jacobs that highlight their strategic, if under-acknowledged, focus on transatlantic travel.

Confluences proposes that postcolonial and African American literary studies each advocate the political exigency of rewriting earlier narratives as a practice of counter-discourse, which he defines as "a historically based and political motivated response to a dominant discourse that calls the terms of that discourse, as well as its own, into question" (55). This notion of counter-discourse is, for Gruesser, the common object of interest for scholars of postcolonialism, African American literary study, and the Black Atlantic. In support of this claim, Gruesser isolates three theoretical models—Bill Ashcroft's, Gareth Griffiths's, and Helen Tiffin's The Empire Writes Back (1989), Henry Louis Gates's The Signifying Monkey (1988), and Paul Gilroy's The Black Atlantic (1993)that develop notions of counter-discourse within their different disciplinary contexts. While these three models hardly exhaust the fields of study they are made here to represent, they do serve Gruesser's purpose in demonstrating how their approaches to literary relations of intertextuality are communicable. Gruesser's goal is to extend the postcolonial notion of "writing back" against Empire beyond its largely Anglophone—and British—literary context, as well as to extend Gates's notion of "Signifyin(g)" beyond its Americanist context. To this end, Gruesser turns to Gilroy's notion of the Black Atlantic as a circuit of transnational and transatlantic exchanges; Gilroy's work is significant for Gruesser for its "stress on movement through space" that "promotes the discovery of cross-cultural influence among peoples of African descent" (20), and which thus literally expands the terrains of postcolonial and African American literary studies alike. Yet like the two critical fields it helps Gruesser synthesize, even Gilroy's "Black Atlantic" model "assigns a privileged, mediating position to Britain" and only uses "the lives and texts of black American males to illustrate [its] major points" (128). Gruesser's aim is thus both to show the continuities between the three critical models he cites, and to suggest how this...