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Reviewed by:
  • Transatlantic Women's Literature
  • Kate Flint (bio)
Transatlantic Women's Literature, by Heidi Slettedahl Macpherson. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008. 200 pp. $85.00.

Heidi Slettedahl Macpherson's Transatlantic Women's Literature makes it clear from the start that there is no one kind of transatlantic travel. It may be compulsory or chosen; it may include tourism, or forced exile, or searching for one's roots, or traveling in order to write a travel book. Similarly, the gendered sensibility of the women who undertake such travel, and who are impacted by it, is going to be extremely varied, the product (in the cases that Macpherson examines) of middle-class Victorian England (Isabella Bird features significantly in her introduction), or of life in a Jewish family in postwar Poland, or of a traditional Indian background. In some of the texts that she discusses, "home"—whether the United States or elsewhere—is an apparently secure and known location; in others, it is a free-floating and not necessarily knowable entity, however much the search for home may underpin reasons for travel. And home—as other scholars, such as Rosemary Marangoly George (whose work is not cited by Macpherson), have pointed out—is a particularly vexed concept for women, especially in postcolonial and transnational contexts.

Macpherson opens her study with an extremely useful survey of recent theories about travel and travel writing, and about women's travel narratives in particular. She draws on studies both of the actual and of the fictional since imagined locations and imagined responses to them play a significant role in both. She is alert to the ways in which the changing role of women prevents one from arriving at any monolithic generalizations about gender and travel, although she seems less confident making generalizations when it comes to race. She makes the point that "writers of the Black Atlantic will have conceptions of 'foreignness' thrust upon them wherever they go" (p. 34), and yet she instantly and deliberately complicates this comment by turning briefly to Paule Marshall's Praisesong for the Widow, in which an African American woman visits the Caribbean on a cruise and finds herself coming to terms with her previous disconnection with her African, and slave, ancestry. It would have been very welcome if Macpherson could have explored various forms of Black otherness addressed through forms that mingle autobiography, history, and travel (Saidiya Hartman's Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route, for instance, would give her some wonderful materials with which to work). [End Page 392]

Each of Macpherson's three main sections—on "the construction of racial identities across the transatlantic space and the lure of the exotic 'other'"; "the role of identity selection and national performance in memoirs of travel"; and "the pull of home and the reinvention of foreignness both within and outside the family" (pp. 24-25)—is preceded by a short methodological introduction. She then proceeds to analyze a selection of texts in detail in order to explore these themes: Nella Larsen's Quicksand and Bharati Mukherjee's Jasmine in part one; Eva Hoffman's Lost in Translation and Jenny Diski's Skating to Antarctica and Stranger on a Train in part two; and, finally, Anne Tyler's The Accidental Tourist and Digging to America, and Isabel Allende's Daughter of Fortune—novels that, as she points out, "also explore transpacific as well as transatlantic encounters, opening out questions of identity and travel across other oceanic spaces" (p. 132). Her individual readings usefully open up, through localized textual discussion, what it may mean to feel "foreign," and how women, in particular, may engage with this affect—which is, as she makes clear, not necessarily a disorienting experience in a negative sense. Through her invocation of Inderpal Grewal's work, Macpherson rightly emphasizes the importance of paying close attention to differences, and her own careful unpacking of textual nuances exemplifies the fact that this is a formal and stylistic, as well as a broad-based imperative: one that springs from acknowledging the attention due to individuals and to individual instances even as one explores broad categories of race, gender, and nationhood.

Yet, as Macpherson's interjection...


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