- Decolonizing Cultures in the Pacific: Reading History and Trauma in Contemporary Fiction
Susan Y Najita’s Decolonizing Cultures in the Pacific: Reading History and Trauma in Contemporary Fiction has arrived into a scholarly field of great contradiction. Despite the immense body of writing produced in the Pacific, the field of Pacific literary studies worldwide (and especially region-wide) remains increasingly under-resourced: Few scholars of Pacific literature are employed at universities, few national or regional school curricula include Pacific texts, Indigenous scholars of the field struggle to publish research, and few book-length treatments of Pacific literatures have achieved publication. It is tempting, then, to applaud the arrival of any critical text, simply on the basis of its existence. However, Najita’s Decolonizing Cultures not only offers a sustained treatment of five specific texts with a committed focus on decolonization but also calls our attention to the stakes and possibilities of comparative critical work.
In order to foreground the critical basis for her comparative “Pacific” project, Najita brings an interdisciplinary view of the field of Pacific (literary) studies together with the area of psychoanalysis that explores the notion of trauma. The major theoretical intervention of Decolonizing Cultures is Najita’s articulation and productive mobilization of “traumatic realism.” A cousin to “magical realism” (in which the inherent fragmentation of the nation prevents systematic realist narration), Najita finds that much of the scholarly work around trauma focuses on the twentieth-century Europe-based Holocaust; therefore, the focus on trauma is, ultimately, in the past; yet colonial trauma in the Pacific is both historical and ongoing. In this context, “traumatic realism” provides a way to read Pacific texts with recognition that the fragments of multiple and ongoing colonial traumas necessarily reemerge in various forms.
In separate chapters, Najita explores single texts by key writers of the region: John Dominis Holt’s Waimea Summer (1976), Albert Wendt’s Leaves of the Banyan Tree (1979), Keri Hulme’s The Bone People (1983), Gary Pak’s The Watcher of Waipuna (1992), and Jane Campion’s The Piano (1992). With the exception of Campion’s feature film, these texts are all prose fiction, and each writer has a different relationship to the Pacific. The texts are all somewhat canonical, and while one fears the cumulative effect of centering certain writers and certain texts when there are so many more who never receive attention, each of these texts demands careful critical analysis—historicized, theorized, critical—of the type that Najita offers here. Certainly the first three writers (Holt, Wendt, and Hulme) are crucial Indigenous writers of Hawai‘i, Sāmoa, and Aotearoa, respectively; while Wendt and Hulme enjoy an embarrassment of scholarly as well as popular treatment, Najita [End Page 486] applies a corrective to Holt’s comparatively quiet critical reception by treating his work as robustly as she does the others. Neither Pak nor Campion are indigenous to the Pacific, but their positions within their respective occupying nation-states of the United States and New Zealand are different.
Each chapter, in turn, foregrounds a particular configuration or context of colonial trauma, and in these chapters the book moves at a confident and productive pace, conducting conventional readings of the literary text in question but refusing to let such readings stand apart from Najita’s impressive and often extremely productive engagement with historical, legal, cultural, and theoretical material. Her repeated turn to the place and metaphor of genealogy provides an important methodological intercession. Rather than simply conduct a historicist critical reading, which might describe the relevant contextual landscape in order to allow various aspects of the text to become more clearly or complicatedly apparent, Najita consciously manipulates the line between the discursive production of legal or cultural material and the discursive work of the literary text. In this way she affirms through...