- Reviewed by
If Mrinalini Chakravorty’s impressive new book In Stereotype were a Hollywood film, it would be Back to the Future. It is a bit jarring in 2014 to read a new book of literary criticism and theory that relies so heavily on the same 1980s and 1990s touchstones that defined my long-ago graduate career: Spivak, Bhabha, Said, a smattering of Foucault. (Very little from Derrida, who I take it must be out of vogue these days. Pity.) In Stereotype is strangely akin to the type of retro indie band of which a middle-aged academic such as myself might think: “Wow! These guys would have been huge in 1989.” This is not for lack of exciting new(er) postcolonial and globalization work; Vilashini Cooppan, whose hearty endorsement of In Stereotype appears on the book jacket, is only one of many in the field who have ensured that postcolonial studies remains viable in the global (or if you prefer, postglobal) era.
In Stereotype, for better and worse, is not that kind of book. Its greatest strength is its close readings of some of South Asia’s most canonical Anglophone fictions: Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost, recent Booker-Prize winners Adiga’s The White Tiger and Ali’s Brick Lane. It is no small achievement, as this book does, to produce efficacious readings of fictions as massively overanalyzed and overstudied as these. This is especially true for its trenchant analysis of Rushdie’s Booker-of-Bookers winner; I did not imagine it possible to have anything both new and useful to say about Midnight’s Children in 2014, as Chakravorty herself acknowledges in her own chapter on the novel, which turns out to be one of her book’s several highlights. [End Page 373]
What In Stereotype does not do is bring its subject fully into the global age. During most of the book’s six chapters this does not pose a problem, as its focus falls squarely within a mainstream postcolonial approach. And in fact In Stereotype’s opening salvo of questions in its inaugural paragraph is consistent with this approach, as only one of five even addresses the global: “What are the conditions under which cultures circulate or congeal globally?” (1). As a reviewer, though, I feel compelled to include the caveat that the book’s subtitle—“South Asia in the Global Literary Imaginary”—is, if not misleading, at least more wishful than factual. And when it does necessarily cross into discussions of global terrorism and outsourcing, as in readings of Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Bhagat’s One Night at the Call Center, it does not stray far from the culturally based analyses that have come to define late twentieth-century postcolonialism. Those wondering how, say, Bhabha might read Hamid will find one possible answer here. Those seeking, on the other hand, theoretical interventions that tend toward the more strategically political or economic—along the lines of, say, Arjun Appadurai or Saskia Sassen—will be better served elsewhere. It is almost as if Chakravorty’s editor at Columbia, having a terrific postcolonial manuscript but needing to broaden its appeal to readers interested in globalization, asked the author to add the relevant material, which is another way of saying that its relatively limited incursions into the global feel a bit tacked-on.
But to return to what In Stereotype does well: for the many of us currently teaching postcolonial or world literature at the undergraduate level, Chakravorty has produced a tremendously valuable study. The book exhumes and returns to relevance a topic that many students—and instructors—had assumed we knew everything about, or believed no longer worth discussing at the college level. (Consider, for example, the fact that “stereotype” does not even merit an entry in Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin’s reference text Postcolonial Studies: The Key Concepts.) In this regard the book’s first substantive chapter, “Why the Stereotype? Why South Asia?” serves as a kind of classroom manifesto, what Chakravorty calls “a literary...