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  • The Location of Literature:The Transnational Book and the Migrant Writer
  • Rebecca L. Walkowitz (bio)

Precisely where is English literature produced?" This is Gauri Viswanathan's question, from an essay about the transformation of English studies in the wake of postcolonial theory (22). Her answer—not only "in England, of course"—focuses on the genealogy of the discipline, its development within the British Empire and other dominions outside England through the education of colonial subjects and the efforts of strangers such as "Jews, Dissenters, and Catholics" (23). But her answer also focuses on the dynamic relationship between "sites of cultural production and institutionalization," the way that "English literature" names a mode of analysis and a collection of works as well as the way that modes of analysis establish collections. In fact, she suggests, there is no "English literature" before institutionalization: only with disciplinary protocols do cultural products become a field (20). "Where is English literature produced?" thus asks us to consider that the location of literature depends not only on the places where books are written but also on the places where they are classified and given social purpose.

In its emphasis on critical geographies, Viswanathan's question remains important to continuing debates about the "national attributes" of literature (21). Yet today we would be likely to ask several other questions as well: In what language does English literature circulate? Where is English literature read? Who counts as a producer (writers, but also editors, printers, designers, publishers, translators, reviewers)? And how has the global circulation of English literature shaped its strategies and forms of appearance? These questions turn from production to circulation, and back again, reflecting a new [End Page 527] emphasis on the history of the book and what Leah Price calls "the geography of the book" within postcolonial studies and world literature ("Tangible Page" 38). This work reinvigorates and reframes Homi K. Bhabha's claim that disciplinary models of comparison and distinction will have to be tested by new ways of understanding community. In The Location of Culture, published in 1994, Bhabha argued, "The very concepts of homogenous national cultures, the consensual or contiguous transmission of historical traditions, or 'organic' ethnic communities—as the grounds of cultural comparativism—are in a profound process of redefinition" (5). A decade and more later, essays and reports about the future of literary studies assume the heterogeneity and discontinuity of national cultures, and many scholars now emphasize "networks" of tradition and the social processes through which those networks are established (Damrosch, "What Is World Literature" 3; Greene 216–21). Haun Saussy's essay on the state of comparative literature, published with replies as Comparative Literature in an Age of Globalization, marks and elaborates this turn. Like Saussy's volume, Immigrant Fictions suggests that literary studies will have to examine the global writing of books, in addition to their classification, design, publication, translation, anthologizing, and reception across multiple geographies. Books are no longer imagined to exist in a single literary system but may exist, now and in the future, in several literary systems, through various and uneven practices of world circulation.

Consider, for example, the literary systems represented on the cover of this volume, which displays in miniature the covers of five contemporary works of fiction in English—or, really, the covers of five editions of those works: they are, from left to right, the U.S. paperback reprint of George Lamming's Season of Adventure (1999; first edition, 1960), the U.S. paperback reprint of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's Dictée (2001; first edition, 1982), the British paperback translation of Iva Pekárková's Gimme the Money (2000; first edition, 1995), the Japanese paperback translation of David Peace's Nineteen Seventy-Seven (2001; first edition, 2000), and the U.S. paperback reprint of Monica Ali's Brick Lane (2004; first edition, 2003). These editions (as well as several others) are discussed in the volume's essays, which follow Contemporary Literature's stated mission by focusing only on literature in English. But as I have been suggesting, [End Page 528] it has become more difficult to assert with confidence that we know what literature in English is. Some of the books depicted...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9949
Print ISSN
0010-7484
Pages
pp. 527-545
Launched on MUSE
2007-02-16
Open Access
No
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