- The Internationalization of English Literature
Few people can be better qualified than Bruce King to compile this thirteenth and ultimate volume of the Oxford Literary History, for the term "internationalization" is used here as shorthand to refer to writing by "people of colour" living in England (or occasionally, Scotland). In fact this is only the fourth volume to be published so far, and one is curious to know whether any writing by black and Asian writers living in Britain prior to 1948 will be acknowledged in earlier volumes. It is heartening, however, to see that the prestigious Oxford Literary History and its general editor, Jonathan Bate, acknowledge that the literary scene in Britain has been transformed so substantially in the past fifty years by the presence of writers of African, Caribbean, Indian subcontinental, and Sri Lankan descent that they are accorded a whole volume, and not just a paragraph or two (as in the earlier Oxford History of English Literature).
King provides an authoritative, brisk, and detailed survey of the poetry, fiction, and drama produced by these writers since 1948, the year that HMS Windrush brought the first boatload of immigrants recruited from the Caribbean to work in England's hospitals, transport systems, and factories. His focus is on creative writing, rather than memoirs or political or critical essays, but he deftly places the texts within their specific historical, social, and biographical contexts. There are four major sections organized chronologically: "The End of Imperial England and the Seeds of the New, 1948–1969"; "Transformations, 1970–1979"; "Fragmentation and Internationalization, 1980–1989"; and "England's New English Literature, 1990–2000." Each of these sections is in turn divided into four parts foregrounding the political and cultural context, prose, poetry, and drama (the last often very brief). Such a structure may at times seem a little too constraining, but it has the merit of acknowledging the specificity of historical contexts and also attending to genres which are often ignored in postcolonial criticism.
However, the chronological and genre divisions are not firmly adhered to. Authors are generally introduced during the period when their first publications appear, and King then gives brief accounts of all their most significant works. Thus all of Abdulrazak Gurnah's works are described in the 1980–1989 section, although his best known novels (Paradise and By the Sea) were published in the 1990s. Buchi Emecheta's writings are summarized in the section on the 1970s, though she has published nine books since 1980. While her first publications appear in the 1980s, and she has published fiction and drama as well as poetry, Jackie Kay is allocated to the 1990s poetry section. But given the constraints of space, King's decision to discuss each author's works as a whole makes sense, and offers a useful overview.
The Internationalization of English Literature provides an essential resource for anyone who wishes to explore the literature produced in England during the past fifty years, and a means for scholars who wish pursue the fuller implications of its title. It allowed me to discover many new writers, and to review the careers of familiar [End Page 239] ones. King's succinct appraisals of the hundreds of writers he surveys are sometimes debatable, and he is not one to express ambivalence, but there is no comparably wide-ranging and thorough study of post-World War II writers of color in England. Scholars and students will also find immensely useful King's inclusion of biobibliographies for over sixty of the most significant writers and his suggestions for further reading.