- Exiles on Main Stream: Valuing the Popularity of Postcolonial Literature
This essay explores the problematic (lack of a) relation between postcolonial and cultural studies. It argues that the commitment to mass popular culture characteristic of so much work in cultural studies is one that is largely absent from postcolonial literary studies. If Jamaica Kincaid has nothing but contempt for the media star Roseanne (as related in the introductory pages of the essay), this hostility is not simply a sport of her querulous nature: counterintuitive as it might sound, her dismissive attitude exemplifies the “foundational bias” of postcolonial studies. The essay attempts to tease out this modernist bias against the “inauthentically popular” through several case studies, the first of which involves Tony Delsham, the most popular writer in the French Caribbean and yet one who is completely ignored by academic critics. The reason why this is so has much to do with the surreptitious elitism of postcolonial literary studies. In the second section, the essay introduces the concept of the “postcolonial middlebrow,” arguing that the consecration of a novelist like Maryse Condé has gone hand-in-glove with a dogged refusal on the part of her academic readers to engage in any discussion of the middlebrow qualities of her work—qualities that help account for her popular appeal. The essay concludes by asserting a paradoxical double imperative for the postcolonial (literary) critic that entails both a concerted turn to cultural studies and a self-conscious return to literary studies, a thorough assimilation of the former’s positive assumptions about the value of the popular and a cautious reassertion of the latter’s necessarily doubtful, and doubtfully necessary, claims about the value of the aesthetic.—cb
Put me in a room with a great writer, I grovel. Put me in with Roseanne, I throw up.—Jamaica Kincaid1
When Tina Brown asked Roseanne Barr to serve as guest consultant for a special women’s issue of The New Yorker in 1995, Antiguan-American novelist Jamaica Kincaid made her negative feelings crystal clear. She trashed Brown’s protégé in the most emphatic of terms—as my epigraph demonstrates—and eventually severed her decades-long ties with The New Yorker, accusing Brown of transforming that once venerable journal into “a version of People magazine.” In the following pages, I argue that Kincaid’s hostile reaction represents something more than an individual fit of pique on the part of a notoriously irascible and opinionated writer; rather, her nausea at the thought of being forced to occupy the same physical and textual space as Roseanne has much to tell us about the vexed, and very under-theorized, relations between postcolonial cultural producers (be they creative writers or academic theorists) and what is still often condescendingly referred to as mass culture. Kincaid’s testy comments direct us toward the surprisingly uncharted territory in which postcolonial and cultural studies (don’t yet) meet.
The one-sided confrontation between Kincaid and Roseanne can be read as emblematic of a failed dialogue between postcolonial and cultural studies. In Kincaid, we have a respected author of such postcolonial (or Afro-diasporic) “classics” as Annie John and In a Small Place, someone frequently lionized by critics as a writer who “speaks to and from the position of the other” (Ferguson 238). In Roseanne, we have a U.S. TV icon, someone who has also accumulated her fair share of academic plaudits from critics in disciplines such as women’s and cultural studies who have lauded “her subversive potential as a source of resistance and inspiration for feminist change” (Lee 96) or the way her show “potentially helps restore class visibility to the overwhelmingly middle-class world of television” (Bettie 142). While Roseanne may never have read Kincaid, the postcolonial author obviously feels that she has ingested enough of this media icon to pass definitive judgment on the degraded form of culture she represents: only those with “coarse and vulgar” taste, like Tina Brown, could possibly be drawn to such a nauseating figure as Roseanne.2
Revealingly, in voicing this negative evaluation of Roseanne, Kincaid seems compelled to preface it with the positive counterweight of groveling at the...