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  • Autobiography and Decolonization: Modernity, Masculinity, and the Nation-State
  • Ousmane Kane (bio)
Philip Holden. Autobiography and Decolonization: Modernity, Masculinity, and the Nation-State. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 2008. 279 pp. ISBN 0-299-22610-7, $55.00.

The central role played by founding fathers in the rise of formerly colonized nations of Asia and Africa has been addressed by a substantial body of social science literature. Aspects of their private life have been documented in their autobiographies and by other biographers and are now well-known. However, there has been no attempt to date to pull together the various aspects of their public and private life, struggle, and rule into an integrated analysis, [End Page 350] addressing issues of decolonization, masculinity, and modernity. Philip Holden must be praised for such a painstaking and erudite study.

The author traces his project to his arrival in Singapore, where he’s been teaching postcolonial literature for many years. As he read the memoirs of Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew, and those of other African and Asian nationalist leaders, Holden realized that they were part of “a larger and neglected genre” (5). He coins the phrase “national autobiography” to refer to this gendered genre, whose life is ending due to the passing of those historical figures. Holden attributes two main functions to national autobiography by these male leaders. On the one hand, he argues, “they demonstrate to an international audience, through the life of a representative individual who is paradoxically also an exceptional leader, the nation’s entry into modernity” (5). On the other hand, “they function within the nation as documents of—and indeed, by being read, incitements to—the production of citizens of the new nation-state” (5). The author is well-read in history, and in postcolonial, and gender studies. He has spent time teaching and researching in the third world, including but not exclusively Ghana, Singapore, South Africa, and Malaysia. He brings a wealth of experience to his book.

In the first two (and somewhat dense) chapters, the author surveys concepts of autobiography, modernity, and masculinity, and their relations to each other. He also analyzes “imperial autobiography,” with a focus on the autobiographies of Lord Frederick Lugard, Hugh Clifford, Cecil Rhodes, and other proconsuls. In chapter 3, titled “Absent States,” Philip Holden deals with the autobiographies of nationalist leaders Casely Hayford, Mohandas Gandhi, and Marcus Garvey. Much of the book, however, is devoted to four towering figures of third world nationalism, each of whom is revered in his country as an artisan of national liberation. They are Kwameh Nkrumah and Jawaharlal Nehru (two icons of third worldism in the spirit of Bandung), Nelson Mandela, and last but not least, Lee Kuan Yew. The author uses the autobiographies and other political writings of these figures to support his argument. In addition to identifying and analyzing a new genre, the author strives to provide an intellectual history of third nationalism and nation building. He compares and contrasts the different figures and discusses their relationships where relevant.

The former Asian and African colonies decolonized after the Second World War form the focus of the book. One wonders to what extent the author’s findings would apply to Latin America, a region which largely became independent in the nineteenth century. Another noteworthy absence in the book is the Arab world. Given the Arab world’s large population and central location in Africa and Asia, the author would have gained from including at least one Arab leader in his study, particularly since many of its findings on [End Page 351] this new gendered genre of national autobiography and its functions might apply to the Arab world.

These limitations notwithstanding, this book will be useful to students of history, autobiography, postcolonial and gender studies, political science, history, and international studies.

Ousmane Kane

Ousmane Kane is Associate Professor of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. His recent books include Muslim Modernity in Post-colonial Nigeria (Brill, 2003), and The Homeland is the Arena: Religion, Trans-nationalism and the Integration of Senegalese Immigrants in America (Oxford UP, 2010).