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Modern Fiction Studies 46.2 (2000) 496-500

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Postcolonial Longings

Kanishka Chowdhury

Dennis Walder. Post-Colonial Literatures in English: History, Language, Theory. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1998. xii + 232 pp.

Epifanio San Juan, Jr. Beyond Postcolonial Theory. New York: St. Martin's, 1998. 325 pp.

In an age increasingly dominated by the rapacious raiders of global capitalism and the atavistic town criers of ethnic absolutism, academic claims for a field categorized as postcolonial studies begin to appear irrelevant to most of the (non)citizens who are the subjects of its theorizing. Postcolonial studies, after all, as it is currently designated, is limited primarily to the Anglophone world with its center of power squarely located in the western metropolis. It is from these sites of academic power that in the last three years several scholars have aspired to define and position postcolonial studies. In general, these works are characterized by the writers' skepticism regarding the field; thus they perform the paradoxical task of disavowal and celebration. Dennis Walder's Post-Colonial Literatures in English: History, Language, Theory and Epifanio San Juan, Jr.'s Beyond Postcolonial Theory are two such works that both confirm and deny the value of this field. [End Page 496]

Walder's text, an introductory examination of the field, is designed principally for undergraduate students who have little, if any, understanding of many of the issues facing so-called postcolonial writers or theorists. Walder limits his discussion to issues related to history, language, and theory and supports his assertions by analyzing the work of writers such as Edward Kamua Brathwaite, Nadine Gordimer, Linton Kwesi Johnson, R. K. Narayan, Nayantara Sahgal, and Derek Walcott. Walder claims to draw his inspiration from skeptical Marxists such as Frantz Fanon and A. Sivanandan; he argues that "the best anyone can do, however, is to work critically from their own position." For Walder, on some level, the "use of 'post-colonial' is simply an acknowledgment of its increasing currency in contemporary literary and cultural theory." However, "post-colonial theory is needed because it has a subversive posture towards the canon, in celebrating the neglected or marginalized, bringing with it a particular politics, history, and geography." Walder echoes this theme later in the text when he once again lays claim to the subversive potential implicit in the postcolonial: "Texts such as those I have been dealing with embody an important interventionary impulse, an impulse to shape as well as be shaped by the historical and the contingent, which distinguishes them from the typically post-modern work, with its lack of historicity and implicit privileging of present Western cultural norms." In his eagerness to celebrate this "impulse" inherent in the postcolonial text, Walder succumbs to the nostalgia that sometimes visits western critics as they try to recuperate some form of historical purity in the literature of the other. Surely Walder understands that the postcolonial is equally guilty in constructing its own canons and in "privileging Western cultural norms." Given the complexity and range of the literature, the various political and social alliances of its writers and practitioners, it is naive to romanticize postcolonial writing as a refuge from the so-called indulgences of postmodern relativism and privilege. Indeed, Walder's own laudatory analysis of V. S. Naipaul and Michael Ondaatje's work demonstrates precisely the canonization process that postcolonial theorizing sometimes mimics rather than resists.

Walder's tendency to idealize the authentic postcolonial experience is most forcefully demonstrated in his analysis of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart as an exemplary postcolonial text. He singles out this text because "the perspective adopted by Achebe's narrator is from within: [End Page 497] we are being introduced to the traditions, the way of life of a community by a voice that, apparently, belongs to it." He is even unwilling to concede Achebe's masculinist bias and is dismissive of feminist objections to Things Fall Apart, claiming that it would be "anachronistic to expect it to confront feminist, or gender issues in a sophisticated way. [. . .] Achebe's continuing concern [is] to respond to his country's present, rather than its past." Walder refers tellingly to...