MFS Modern Fiction Studies 49.2 (2003) 386-388
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Ann Blake, Leela Gandhi, and Sue Thomas. England through Colonial Eyes in Twentieth-Century Fiction. New York: Palgrave, 2001. x + 207 pp.
In this collection of three theoretical essays and eight brief author studies, Ann Blake, Leela Gandhi, and Sue Thomas examine—to adapt as they do the terminology of Mary Louise Pratt—imperial and postimperial transculturation, focusing on representations of Englishness that occur in literature when the far-flung "citizenry" of the British empire find their way to England's shores and cities. In this context, England becomes the object of the postimperial gaze—not a gaze that feeds into the scopophilic, narcissistic thrill of the imperial spectacle, but the gaze of the colonial who turns what amounts to an ethnographic eye on the colonizing metropolis. Intertwined, however, in these moments of arrival and observation is also an acute consciousness of being observed, and it is this tension that Blake, Gandhi, and Thomas seek to document in the writing of such authors as Mansfield, Rhys, Stead, Lessing, Naipaul, Emecheta, Rushdie, and Dabydeen.
The first section, "Mapping Some Territory," consists of an essay by each contributing author, all analyzing a particular mode of transculturation. The first, by Thomas, is a survey of literary works that incorporate constructions of whiteness as a nonnormative identity. For example, Thomas convincingly discusses Samuel Selvon's The Lonely Londoners for his revision of the Fanonist moment of racial recognition in Black Skin, White Masks, but her essay, in its attempt to cover four novels and three stories in twenty-two pages, fails to allow for in-depth discussion or far-reaching conclusions. In the second essay, Blake examines notions of domestic fictions—of homecoming and belonging—in light of racial tensions that entered a new phase starting with the midcentury large-scale migrations from the colonies to England. Recent postimperial fiction, she argues, can serve to force the reimagination of England as a home to immigrants, [End Page 386] as opposed to England as a white domestic space peopled by unhomely immigrant faces; the discussion of Abdulrazak Gurnah's novel Dottie is particularly effective in support of her claims. Of the three essays, Gandhi's is the most compelling in its balance of literary and historical analysis; drawing from her discussion of the bhakti religious practices that sought to decenter authority from Brahmin castes, Gandhi theorizes that Indian appropriations of the bildungsroman revised the genre's conservative allegiance to European civil society by offering alternative, self-directed paths of fulfillment that remain "genuinely sceptical in the face of colonial authority."
The second section of England through Colonial Eyes features eight brief author studies, largely biographical in focus, and thus containing the highs and lows of biographical approaches: on one end of the spectrum, Blake's discussion of Christina Stead yields some wonderfully vitriolic moments drawn from her letters about the English; on the other end, Thomas's discussion of Rhys quotes but does not interrogate a source that offers a racially inflected "physiognomical reading of Rhys's ancestry." Gandhi's studies of Rushdie and Naipaul are less dependent on the biographical, contributing to the critical debate on the two authors by reversing their traditionally ascribed roles; she exposes the undermining conservatism of misogyny and "postcolonial homosexual panic" in The Satanic Verses, while asking of Naipaul's work whether, redemptively, "the reverse migrations foregrounded and lamented in [his] books also register the savage inequities produced by empire."
In reading England through Colonial Eyes, one experiences the frustration of catching quick glimpses at a number of issues that could be expanded upon in lavish detail. While this frustration is a sign, as the authors claim in their introduction, of "the richness and vitality" of their topic, it also points to a larger concern about how their project might have benefited from a more detailed application of the theoretical questions they raise. How, for instance, would they expand Pratt's contact zone to match the postimperial, metropolitan contexts of their chosen authors? How do the dynamics of...