Postwestern Cultures: Literature, Theory, Space
Some of the finest work in western American literary and cultural studies is coming to us through the University of Nebraska Press's Postwestern Horizons series, and Susan Kollin's Postwestern Cultures: Literature, Theory, Space is a collection of superior scholarship. Kollin's introduction to the volume, drawing on examples including W.'s rhetorical western blunders and Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner (2003), does an excellent job of explaining the "postal" state of western American studies, and her collection features a number of essays that not only illustrate but no doubt will continue to shape the field. [End Page 81]
The strength of the book is its theoretical sophistication, as contributors build from such positions as critical regionalism, thirdspace, hybridity, and deterritorialization. While, as Kollin notes, postwestern criticism is not clearly defined, it is clear from the various essays that it does work against common paleowestern-critical problems, reaching for a sense of region, as Krista Comer puts it, "not inevitably productive of conservative nationalisms, masculine or white authority or essentialistic/authentic definitions of place" (32). Many essays share what Neil Campbell defines as a "desire to bring the Outside into the frame" as well as explore the West outside that frame, beyond geographical referents in a postregional West. Further, the contributors' choice of subject demonstrates a cultural studies model, focused as much on material culture and critical theory as on literature.
Kollin organizes the book into three parts, "Newer New Wests," "Nature and Culture," and "Contested Wests." The first includes Stephen Tatum's theorizing of the West as simultaneously actual/virtual and local/ global and Krista Comer's cultural mapping of the Pacific surfer-girl new-world order. "Nature and Culture" presents Lee Clark Mitchell's critique of the cult of authenticity in western American literature and Kollin's own essay on the commodification of wild nature in Alaska. "Contested Wests" contains Beth Loffreda's follow-up on her Laramie work on Matthew Shepard and Melody Graulich's essay on an adopted Korean cowgirl. One finds in this collection essays in which contributors build upon previous work important to the field.
While many essays have some degree of engagement with ethnic studies both within and without the West as a region, I found curiously absent any essay focused on the Indian reservation or the US border, two kinds of real and imagined western space that seem crucial to defining a postwestern criticism. Shouldn't a postwestern project begin with a strong acknowledgment of borderlands influence? How do ongoing indigenous claims to sovereignty complicate this bold new postfrontier West? Where is Leslie Marmon Silko's Almanac of the Dead (1991), Guillermo Gómez-Peña's "Gringostroika" (1993)? Surely the matter of the US West as (post?)colonial space has not been resolved. Audrey Goodman's wonderful description of Pueblo country in her essay on Otowi Bridge and the atomic West is the most direct discussion of a West that is contested along ethnic lines.
Overall, I enjoyed the diversity of topics and writing styles, the blending of critical and narrative modes in these essays. My initial response to "postwestern" criticism was one of some concern: after all, as western American scholars, do we not run the risk of negating our subject, of "posting" ourselves out of our disciplinary boundaries? After admiring the work [End Page 82] included in Kollin's excellent collection, however, I was put at ease. From Tatum's description of the fecal plumes of Wilderado, Texas, to Nancy Cook's essay on ranching in Montana, these essays are strongly redolent of a continuing fascination with a place that continues to make claims upon us.