restricted access Improvising the Oikos
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Improvising the Oikos
Susan Strehle. Transnational Women's Fiction: Unsettllng Home and Homeland. New York: Palgrave, 2008. vii + 213.

Since the end of World War II, we have borne witness to a revolutionary expansion of a neo-imperial global perspective inaugurated by the consumer dynamics of transnational capitalism. In opposition to this pernicious recuperative perspective, the postcolonial theory and criticism emerging from the self-destruction of Western imperialism's logical economy have been attempting to articulate a more benign global perspective, one, to invoke Edward Said's provocative phrase, that foresees "'the complete consort danc[ing] together' contrapuntally." Given the disabling provincialism of the humanities in North America even as late as a decade ago—no doubt the legacy of the myth of American exceptionalism—anyone attuned to this rapid but ambivalent globalization of the planet since the beginning of the Cold War cannot but be grateful for the emergence to prominence in academia of a postcolonial literary criticism that offers a radical alternative to that of global capitalism. But this prominence, I suggest, following a major directive of Said's literary criticism, has, by and large, come at the expense of the creative literature that constitutes one of the most important witnesses to both the particular depredations of Western imperialism and to the various symptomatic efforts to articulate such a radical alternative "world order." To put it bluntly, all too much "postcolonial" literary criticism, in its (justified) will to delegitimize the disabling binary logic of colonialism and to affirm its own anti-colonial ideology, plunders rather than reads the witnessing [End Page 833] texts. That is to say, in interpreting literary texts, it tends to employ the very imperialist logic of the colonialism it is attempting to subvert. Susan Strehle's book, Transnational Women's Fiction, aptly subtitled Unsettling Home and Homeland, is noteworthy precisely because it eschews this kind of imperialist—and patriarchal—reading of postcolonial literary texts. Taking its directives from postcolonial women writers like the Ghanese Ama Atta Aidoo, who are reacting against patriarchal male postcolonial writers, Strehle lets the texts she writes about be, enables their witness to speak for itself.

Strehle's insightful book consists of an introductory theoretical chapter explaining the relationship between home and homeland; readings of six postcolonial novels written by women who are simultaneously in and outside of the colonized society they write about, that is, they possess, in the term she borrows from R. Radhakrishnan (rather than from W. E. B. Du Bois), double consciousness; and a concluding chapter that shows the remarkably similar damage inflicted by the domesticating imperatives of Western imperialism on the women protagonists of diverse cultures around the world and their similar resistance to these life-damaging effects.

Strehle's critical project falls into the category of postcolonial criticism best exemplified by Gayatri Spivak's essays on the writing of Mahasweta Devi; Carol Boyce Davies's Black Women, Writing and Identity (1994); Anne McClintock's Imperial Leather (1995); Inderpal Grewal's Home and Harem (1996); Susan Stanford Friedman's Mappings (1998); and Amy Kaplan's The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of U.S. Culture (2002), all of which extend and productively modify the earlier (male) postcolonial critiques of Western colonialism by bringing the hitherto marginalized colonized female to center stage. In so doing, they also retrieve the traditional Western distinction that identified women with the oikos (the home or private sphere) and the male with the polis (the homeland or public sphere) in order to show that the home, far from being irrelevant to the politics of the homeland is, in fact, a mirror of it. This retrieval and reversal constitutes the point of departure of Strehle's study. "Home," she writes, "has traditionally been thought in the West as a private, secluded space for settlement, separated from the public arena in a dichotomy of separate spheres" (1). As Strehle's telling play on the hegemonic terms associated with the home ("settle" and "settlement") suggests, however, the imperial idea of the homeland is intrinsic to this traditional Western understanding of the oikos. The "settler" (and the "settlement"), for example, is, in Western discourse, privileged over the "nomad" (and "unimproved...