- Politics of the Female Body: Postcolonial Women Writers of the Third World
With her Politics of the Female Body, the Indian-born US critic Ketu Katrak sets out, as she says, to observe critically how the female body is experienced as a site of both oppression and resistance in a variety of women's texts from India, Africa and the Caribbean. In many societies, Katrak perceptively notes, constructions of female sexuality are displaced on to other social categories, including those examined in her five wide-ranging chapters: linguistic practices, educational structures, local traditions of social-cultural resistance, institutions of wifehood, motherhood, widowhood, etc. Not surprisingly for a critic best known for her African literary criticism, her study's focus often falls on such writers as Ama Ata Aidoo, Bessie Head, and Tsitsi Dangarembga. However, the author's more recent reconnections with activist projects in her homeland mean that discussions of Attia Hosain, Anita Desai, and the troubling issue of Indian suicide-murders also figure prominently within the study's overall synoptic framework.
As its full title anticipates, Politics of the Female Body is concerned to deploy broadly familiar working definitions of "postcolonial" and "Third World," and as such its analysis makes no significant departures from established, at once comparative and feminist approaches in the field. Throughout, Gayatri Spivak's caution that comparative literary studies not be read as relativism, and her ethical commitment to social justice via collaborations between activism and theory, cited in the preface, remain guiding principles. This familiarity aside, the grounds for Katrak's Third World comparative methodology that develop from these opening critical maneuvers, based in shared colonial pasts and neocolonial presents, has significant potential for other feminist postcolonial critics concerned to build political and feminist alliances across geographic boundaries in the field (xviii, 8).
Like related and affiliated studies and criticism, such as by Françoise Lionnet, Obioma Nnaemeka, Molara Ogundipe, Rajeswari Sunder Rajan, Elleke Boehmer, and a host of others, Politics of the Female Body will be useful to literary critics for its committed attempts to reconcile international activist and postcolonial feminist agendas. Its "broad survey" (at times even encyclopedic) approach to the field make it an excellent resource and first port-of-call for beginning scholars, though with the inevitable result of some loss of local specificity and complexity, paradoxically including in its discussion of the politics and pleasures of the female body itself. To speak of the female body as a singularity capable of transference across cultural boundaries of course provokes challenging debates concerning essential femininity and the body-as-identity, of which Katrak is far from unaware, yet which to some extent lay beyond the remit of the book.
With its concern to speak of solidarity and question epistemological divides, a puzzling aspect of Katrak's study, at least to a reviewer located within the British academy, is its seeming neglect of a swathe of postcolonial feminist scholarship not only from this country, but also from the African region itself. Exciting new [End Page 194] work investigating body politics, the interaction of language and desire, same-sex sexuality, life-writing, and so on, by critics like Caroline Rooney, Kay Schaffer, Stephanie Newell, Cheryl-Ann Michael, Denise deCaires Narain, and Raji Sunder Rajan (in no particular order), is left unmentioned, or only its early versions are cited. If anything, Katrak's book bears the imprint of the 1990s critical-pedagogical moment in which, its referencing suggests, it may largely have been written. That said, there is much here that is richly informative: postcolonial women writers' evocative and moving struggles to recuperate the female body and to imagine female futures, can never, as Katrak emphasizes, be celebrated enough.