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Research in African Literatures 33.4 (2002) 219-221

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Book Review

Using the Master's Tools:
Resistance and the Literature of the African and South Asian Diasporas

Using the Master's Tools: Resistance and the Literature of the African and South Asian Diasporas, by Anuradha Dingwaney Needham. New York: St. Martin's, 2000. xii + 176 pp. ISBN 0-312-22542-3 cloth.

"The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house," declared the poet Audre Lorde in 1979. The phrase has a powerfully intuitive appeal but, like other slogans, should probably come with a warning label: Not to be taken literally. For if it seems to urge a radical break with the standards of an oppressive culture, it remains perhaps too respectful of the rights of property itself, especially where matters of language are concerned. Who, we might ask, built the master's house in the first place? "All things have two handles," Emerson once remarked, "beware of the wrong one."

In Using the Master's Tools, a sober and penetrating study of literary resistance to the legacies of Empire, Anuradha Dingwaney Needham explores the subtleties and pitfalls of different ways of understanding Lorde's statement. Her choice of examples is, at first glance, eclectic enough: there are chapters devoted to C. L. R. James, Salman Rushdie, Ama Ata Aidoo, Michelle Cliff, and Hanif Kureishi, a selection whose political contexts range from late 1930s anticolonial Marxism to mid-1990s post-Thatcher liberalism. Needham's argument depends less on historical specifics, however, and more on a careful scrutiny of the range of stances, textual as well as ideological, available to writers who would contest dominant meanings from the perspective of emancipation. Following scholars such as the anthropologist James Scott, as well as the more directly political theories of Fanon and Cabral, Needham seeks to identify a wide spectrum of resistances to colonial culture, from C. L. R. James's forthright claim to being "a black European [and] a British intellectual" (29) to Ama Ata Aidoo's unequivocal affirmation of African nationalism over against "the blandishments of the West" (86). In a series of searching close readings, Needham attempts both to do justice to the views of resistance explicitly advanced by the authors, and to tease out the more indirect and implicit workings of their texts.

As Needham points out in her introduction, the key questions of her study arise from a familiar pedagogical dilemma. Hired to teach "anglophone literatures of the Third World," she found herself disconcerted by "the sharpness, clarity and ease with which my students felt they could distinguish between writers, works, and cultural practices they found resistant and those they did not. [. . .] Any writer, work or cultural practice that did not aggressively confront and reject 'the West,' or anything 'Western' was declared a witting or unwitting accomplice of the 'West'—deemed enthralled by and thus collusive with its value system. [. . .] it was hard not to be struck by the irony of these judgments being made in a privileged corner of the West they excoriated" (4). Needham's students, in other [End Page 219] words, found the most overtly "resistant" texts easiest to assimilate—or rather, to neutralize—by simply taking over critical positions as their own. More challenging, because less easily situated, texts were brushed aside and condemned by the students' "desire for purity, for a resistant subject and subject matter somehow uncontaminated and therefore uncompromised by (or despite) its encounter with the West" (4). Finding a similar attraction to stark dichotomies at work in certain strands of "Third Worldist" critics, Needham sets out to extend the understanding of political possibility by reading the rhetoric of resistance with an eye towards its complexities.

This view towards complexity informs Needham's selection of texts, as well as the arrangement of her book. The authors can be ranged on a series of different axes—male and female, African and South Asian, cosmopolitan and nationalist—but none of these consolidates itself into a fixed position, where politics and identity...


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