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Reviewed by:
  • Postcolonial Disorders
  • Jonathan D. Ablard
Postcolonial Disorders. Edited By Mary-Jo DelVecchio Good, Sandra Teresa Hyde, Sarah Pinto and Byron J. Good. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).

Postcolonial Disorders considers how everyday people in Indonesia, Haiti, Congo, Brazil, Israel/Palestine, Morocco, the Balkans, Ireland, and the Spanish Basque country experience and understand violence, disease, political chaos, and disenfranchisement. Two motifs that appear in separate essays perhaps best unify this collection: curses and knots. In his examination of AIDS in Congo, David Eaton notes that many Congolese asked “Is this country cursed?” Stefania Pandolfo, in her study of a single psychiatric patient in Morocco, explains her subject as existing in a “knot” that is comprised of his Arabic and French modes of communicating and understanding the subjective experience. Finally, directly or indirectly, most of the essays consider the impact of “weak” or “failed” states on the human experience. The fifteen essays that comprise this edited volume, which emerged from a National Institutes of Mental Health seminar entitled “Post-colonialism, Psychiatry, and Lived Experience,” offer up a grim vision of the post-colonial condition. One of the great merits of this work is how many of the contributors are active participants in efforts to both understand and improve the human condition.

Several essays are exemplary for their clear analysis and empathy for the people about whom they are writing. Sandra Teresa Hyde’s “Everyday AIDS Practices: Contestations of Borders and Infectious Disease in Southwest China” demonstrates how AIDS on the border with Laos and Burma is informed by a tradition of viewing the region as barbarous and dangerous. Yet, AIDS policy in this region is in constant flux as local, regional, and international forces negotiate appropriate responses to the epidemic. Johan Lindquist’s “Of Maids and Prostitutes: Indonesian Female Migrants in the New Asian Hinterlands” uses a single case study of a women’s geographical and occupational migrations, which include sex work, to examine “how the experiences of migrants engaged in processes of global change must be analyzed in relation to the cultural contexts from which these migrants emerge (220).” The author devotes special attention to the levels of “shame” that are central to how and why women end up in sex work. Historical studies of prostitution are often frustratingly vague on the particulars of sex workers’ lives and subjective experiences. Anthropological studies such as this one will give historians some new ways to think about sex work. Erica Caple James’ “Haunting Ghosts: Madness, Gender, and Ensekirite in Haiti in the Democratic Era” provides case studies of families that have been torn asunder by violence, mental illness, sex work, and pauperization. In Haiti, as well as many of the other parts of the world discussed in the book, long-standing political and economic chaos means that “there is little space that offers hope for recovery, restitution, and democracy (151).” Finally, Kathleen Allden’s “Cross-cultural psychiatry in Medical-Legal Documentation of Suffering” recounts her work as an expert witness in a lawsuit against multinational oil companies which were complicit in widespread human rights abuses in Burma. Allden, who is a psychiatrist, makes a compelling case that there “is a layering and synergistic interaction between events, symptoms, and social consequences that determines the impact on the individual, the family, and community over time (414).” She concludes that medicine, including psychiatry, has a critical role to play in an era when migrants and refugees seem to be attracting suspicion.

For the most part, the essays in this volume do a serviceable job of introducing the readers to the complex layers of meaning that people in the post-colonial/developing world attach to various forms of suffering. The introduction provides a useful genealogy of thinking on the topic of “subjectivities” and “post-colonialism” starting with the writings of Frantz Fanon. Some of the authors, however, seem at a loss for how to explain political frameworks that might be characterized as post-colonial post-authoritarian non-democratic quasi-feudalistic polities. Caple James, for example, resorts to referring to Haiti’s “magico-paramilitary structures of power (151).” Yet the book’s introduction admits that the essays “are far from a neat and ordered whole...

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