- Postcolonial Life Writing: Culture, Politics and Self-Representation
This excellent overview of selected texts and issues in postcolonial life writing aims to prompt dialogue between its two main areas of study: postcolonial studies and auto/biography studies. It is, as its author suggests near the beginning, a kind of intellectual provocation, something fitting given that its object is itself a provocation, or rather series of provocations—a series of challenges that demand that we acknowledge life writing's plurality, and explore how it extends our ideas of "the human." Moore-Gilbert puts postcolonial [End Page 549] examples in the context of earlier phases of the study of life writing, but his point is to explore the different orientations adopted by these examples, and to tease out the heterogeneous goods to which they aspire. At the same time, there is a sense in which it really does make sense to categorize these texts as "postcolonial," and accordingly there is a real homogeneity to their aspirations, however different their contexts, authors, and so on. The book is composed of close readings of works by Gandhi, Olaudah Equiano, C. L. R. James, Wole Soyinka, Sara Suleri, and many more, without falling into the essentialist trap awaiting any critical study called "postcolonial." At the same time, Moore-Gilbert provides us with the beginnings of a general or even generic account of postcolonial life writing, despite the cultural and political diversity of writing that can be considered under that name. But as Derrida reminds us, "at the very moment that a genre or a literature is broached, at that very moment, degenerescence has begun, the end begins" (231). And so, inevitably, other critics will undoubtedly join the conversation, consider different examples, and extend this study's many insights.
The book features seven chapters that appear to follow a predictable pattern, in which postcolonial life writing is put alongside the study of women's life writing in order to see how it fits earlier political studies of the genre. However, as these chapters progress, their shifting focus helps us see the "clear blue water" between postcolonial life writing and other forms. Decentered, relational, and embodied—postcolonial selves are certainly all these things, or can be all these things (and Moore-Gilbert is particularly strong in offering corrections to generalizations about life writing), and so they are readily comparable to feminist selves, for example. However, postcolonial life writing is not just another version of the familiar, and the book explores the importance of matters like geographical location, which as Edward Said has argued is central to postcolonial studies.
Taking his analysis of its distinguishing features still further, Moore-Gilbert includes a fascinating chapter on non-Western narrative resources that are incorporated and often hybridized alongside familiar Western life writing modes, looking for example at Sara Suleri's "miniaturism" and adaptation of the ghazal. Interestingly, the book argues that the elusive generic status of life writing is quite appropriate to the postcolonial context, particularly our sense that postcolonialism can so often be characterized as hybrid. Exploring the borders of genre and non-Western narrative strategies, Moore-Gilbert demonstrates that "postcolonial life writing sometimes draws heavily on indigenous narrative resources and hybridises to a significant degree the standard forms of metropolitan languages handed down by colonialism" (108). Once again, however, he is at pains to offer a balanced argument, and notes that hybridity really is a category that helps us understand the postcolonial in general, and [End Page 550] specifically the cultural and generic identities of the texts he is reading. Life writing is a Western thing, sometimes, in some modes; it is also something that is transported far beyond expectations associated with that designation. And so, this book insists that postcolonial life writing has "relative autonomy from its western analogues" (129). Contrary to Georges Gusdorf, then, postcolonial life writing is not a derivative form or series of forms.
While the book offers a measured and thoughtful perspective on the texts and issues it considers, it could be argued that it really...