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  • “Little Brown Girl” in a “White, White City”: Una Marson and London
  • Anna Snaith (bio)

Given that the modernist period coincided with the destabilization of the British empire as well as the rise of cultural and political nationalisms in the colonies, the minimal critical attention paid to the contiguity of modernism and colonialism is surprising. As Nigel Rigby and Howard Booth have argued, “the set of themes and issues for debate that cluster under the heading ‘modernism,’ and that began to form after 1945, excluded empire.”1 The impact of colonialism on metropolitan modernism needs further examination to facilitate an understanding of British modernity that takes into account both its repression of and reliance on racial and national difference. In particular, our readings of modernist, metropolitan space must themselves make room for the transformative exchanges that occurred between colonial and metropolitan writers. More than a decade ago Edward Said recognized the need for such scholarship when he noted, “most histories of European aesthetic modernism leave out the massive infusions of non-European cultures into the metropolitan heartland during the early years of this century.”2

This topic has not been entirely neglected, but scholarly attention has been fleeting. Fredric Jameson, for example, one of the few critics to theorize the nexus of modernism and imperialism, turns the colonial subject into an abstract trace found in motifs of spatial uncontrollability in British modernist writing.3 Certainly, the primacy of space and geography in British modernism speaks to the changing empire and its prominence in metropolitan political debate, but Jameson ignores the colonial writer’s perspective and presence completely, arguing that she or he “will be unable to register the peculiar transformations of the First-World or metropolitan life which accompany the imperial relationship.”4 On the contrary, the colonial presence disrupting the work of writers such as Virginia Woolf, Henry James, and E. M. Forster also disrupted their urban environment. In any study of modernist British literature, therefore, the impact of colonial artists, writers, students, servicemen, sailors, and professionals in London therefore is as important as the more abstract “spatial disjunction” generated by imperialism.

Even less attention has been paid in modernist studies to the black metropolis, particularly the place of Caribbean and West African colonials [End Page 93] in London and the unique inflections of national identity brought about by their “voyage in.” Recent scholarship by C. L. Innes and Sukhdev Sandhu, among others, indicates a growing interest in tracing a history of black writing in Britain beginning centuries before World War II.5 As this new work shows, before the arrival of Caribbean writers such as Sam Selvon, George Lamming, and Andrew Salkey in the capital, London was drawing Caribbean writers and political activists such as Claude McKay, C. L. R. James, Eric Walrond, Audrey Jeffers, Amy Ashwood Garvey, and George Padmore. That one can now turn to a growing body of scholarship on these writers now is encouraging, but much remains to be done.

Focusing on colonial writers in London may seem to reinforce the centrality of the metropole to an imperialist literary framework by ignoring developments in the colonies. I would argue, however, that exploration of the literal and metaphorical movement between colony and metropole serves to undermine rather than solidify the dichotomy between center and periphery and draws attention to the mutually constitutive nature of these spaces. Without acknowledgment of these transcultural exchanges, and what Simon Gikandi has called the “peripheral agency” of colonial culture, colonial writers will wrongly remain on the margins of modernist studies.6 If British modernity is defined, even if tacitly, in relation to the colonial other, then the appearance of the West Indian subject in the metropole stands for the crisis of faith in the dichotomy itself, a crisis that characterizes modernism. The anti-imperialism of so many texts of colonial modernism—by which I mean to describe texts written in the colonies or by colonial authors—further highlights the complex symbiosis between politics and aesthetics in the period. The modernism of black Atlantic writers speaks of a particular relationship to Western modernity, not only because of the centrality of slavery to capitalist underpinnings of the British empire, but also because...


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