Research in African Literatures 33.1 (2002) 183-184
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From the Margins of Empire: Christina Stead, Doris Lessing, Nadine Gordimer
From the Margins of Empire: Christina Stead, Doris Lessing, Nadine Gordimer, by Louise Yelin. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1998. 197 pp. ISBN 0-8014-8505-3.
As the final word in her 1994 Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard, Nadine Gordimer pronounced, "I am no longer a colonial. I may now speak of 'my people'" (Writing and Being [Cambridge: Harvard UP 1995]: 134). Louise Yelin's new book investigates what it means to make that kind of performative national affiliation (and the difficulties of making it) not just for Gordimer but for two other white, middle-class, colonial women writers: Christina Stead, whose national identity remains "unsettled," and Doris Lessing, who "is or becomes English" (1). Her book, therefore, has a very broad scope geographically--covering Australia, Britain, the United States, Europe, and southern Africa--and historically--a period including the rise of Fascism, the Second World War, and anticolonial struggles worldwide culminating in the formal end of apartheid. Yelin copes admirably with this range and sets each of the authors' works in its own specific political and historical context; she is particularly interesting in placing Lessing in the context of Britain's discriminatory immigration laws [End Page 183] and the impact of Thatcherism, and is very thorough in linking Gordimer's work to the various stages of resistance to apartheid. Yelin's superbly clear organization of this material is crucial to the book's success; while each chapter's detailed readings of novels (two by Stead, four by Lessing, and three by Gordimer) are all capable of standing alone, they also develop thematically and chronologically. In pointing to the writers' common ability in their various kinds of exile to expose international relations in an original manner, Yelin moreover justifies her choice to cover such a wide range.
What further unites Yelin's discussion is her highly intelligent analysis of gender and genre in affirming a national identity or writing the nation. Adeptly situating the texts between masculinist assumptions of national identity (whether posited by Benedict Anderson, Frantz Fanon, or Homi Bhabha, or critiqued by Virginia Woolf, Anne McClintock, or Etienne Balibar) and gynocritical definitions of "women's writing," Yelin shows that all three writers produce a new kind of political novel, which she calls the national family romance: "Tackling political issues such as nationality and exile, articulating sexual politics with other kinds, these writers refashion a European, traditionally masculine genre" (11). They may be thinking back through their literary fathers, but in politicizing the novel of sensibility and "foreground[ing] gender issues suppressed in the classical (male) poltical novel" (172), Stead, Lessing, and Gordimer are calling for new paradigms and relationships "between white women [. . .] and the postcolonial, postimperial nations their novels bring to life" (174).
While Yelin's transnational comparisons work very well in their own terms, readers of Research in African Literatures might wish to see closer consideration of how indigenous, locally specific cultures influence and compete with the European. Yelin's conception of the national family romance might indeed provide the kernel of a fascinating study of South and southern African novels by writers of both sexes and all races vis à vis the late production of nationality for the sons and daughters who make up Gordimer's "people."
Simon Lewis is with the Department of English and teaches African literature at the College of Charleston in South Carolina.