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  • "A Champion of Mixtures":Difference and Global Literature in Pauline Melville's Shape-Shifter
  • Jim Hannan (bio)

In Guyanese-British writer Pauline Melville's story "The Iron and the Radio Have Gone," Molly Summers, a white English school teacher, visits Guyana as part of her endeavor to "understand and promote the cultures of the oppressed races" (16). Once in Guyana, she experiences a form of globalization that just might kill her.1 Already disoriented by the collapsed infrastructure and economy of Guyana, where the airport toilets are "packed with shit" (22), the electricity is often out, food is scarce, and people from all walks of life bargain their way through an illicit economy, Molly finds that her actual experiences among the "oppressed races" she had hoped to understand contrast with her eager, blandly liberal idealization of multiculturalism. Most disconcerting is the sudden appearance near her stopped car in Georgetown of "the figure of a white man" (25), desperate, disheveled, poor, and begging her for money. The unexpected and forcible proximity of this strangely othered Englishman—"He shoved his head further in the car and [End Page 87] [Molly] pulled her head back. . . . 'But . . . but . . . you're English. You shouldn't be doing this'" (25)—unnerves her. By creating an unlikely neighborly familiarity between Molly and this disturbing figure, Melville emphasizes the violation Molly feels when confronted by the known category of an Englishman in the midst of the unknown Caribbean setting. The man speaks to Molly:

"I was in Pentonville prison. D'you know it? Near Kings Cross."

She nodded dumbly. . . .

"I used to live in Streatham Hill. D'you know round there?"

She nodded again, speechless, her mouth dry. . . .

. . . "I had a nervous breakdown. That's when they put me in Pentonville. Dr. Rhodes sent me here. You must have heard of Dr. Rhodes. He sent me here."


In this discordant encounter between Britons on the disorderly streets of Georgetown, Guyana, Melville creates a potent image of globalization as the jarring overlap of disparate elements that, in a differently ordered moment in world history, might have remained removed, remote, at a distance from one another. Melville also succinctly captures with this encounter the quandary of global literature, caught between the richness of multicultural diversity and the violent dislocations caused by global capital and a world market.2

While in Guyana, Molly has gathered "small items like a magpie, postcards, Amerindian artifacts . . . that would be a stimulus in the classroom" when she returns to England (17). These lifeless evocations of multiculturalism, however, do not enable her to cope with a breakdown in the governing logic of the new world order, which all members of the global community are invited (or forced) to join even as the developed world retains its primacy. This breakdown is signified by the expulsion of an Englishman from his proper place—"Dr. Rhodes sent me here"—to this chaotic Caribbean space that historically has sent impoverished economic migrants to England. Molly has imagined that [End Page 88] postcards and artifacts could substitute in the classroom for actual experience of the world, but by the end of Melville's story, experience of a sort new to Molly exposes the naïveté of her multicultural pedagogy. Back in England, "as far as the race question went [Molly had] prided herself on having got it pretty much right" (16), but in Guyana, the pedagogy of political correctness (and Molly's self-satisfied arrogance) gives way before brute experience. After Molly remarks to her Guyanese companions, "He's English . . . that beggar . . . a white man" (26; ellipses in original), she perceives their "accusing looks" and slumps forward, unable to breathe. "Blast it," one of her companions thinks, "don' tell me the woman has come all the way over here just to die in the back of my car" (26). Should it occur, Molly's death would make for an ignominious form of global exchange. With Molly's discomfiture in Guyana, Melville recognizes the hazards that can accompany a chance encounter with difference, adding complexity to her own frequent celebration of multiplicity.

I suggest that the varied invocations of cultural difference in Shape-Shifter, Melville's first book of short stories...


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pp. 87-123
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