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Biography 23.4 (2000) 756-758

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Alfred Hornung and Ernstpeter Ruhe, eds. Postcolonialism and Autobiography. Studies in Comparative Literature 19. Amsterdam and Atlanta: Editions Rodopi, 1998. 264 pp. ISBN 9-0420-0685-4, $49.50.

Through its efforts in rendering the Western, subjective "'I' unstable, shifting, provisional, troubled by and in its identifications," postcolonial autobiography has in recent years been increasingly recognized as a powerful counter-hegemonic practice. Pedagogically and academically, too, postcolonial autobiography represents a burgeoning area of intellectual activity --placed as it is at the meeting point of two influential intellectual fields, auto/biography studies and postcolonialism, and implicating as it does the politics and the aesthetics of the self-narrative, and of re-membering lives. This new scholarly attention has been both skeptical, yet interested, as is Gayatri Spivak in this collection, or politically convinced and involved, as is Sidonie Smith, from whose stimulating and wide-ranging essay my opening quotation is taken.

Postcolonialism and Autobiography comprises the "revised manuscripts" of a 1996 W¨urzburg symposium on Anglophone and Francophone life writing from the Caribbean and the Maghreb. Six writers were showcased; the three who work in the English language (Michelle Cliff, David Dabydeen, and Opal Palmer Adisa) are featured in this collection. The editors Alfred Hornung and Ernstpeter Ruhe have published the Francophone conference papers in a separate volume, so paying exemplary attention to the linguistic diversity of the postcolonial. For the reader or student, however, the announcement of this arrangement at the start of the book does tend to exacerbate the impression of an uneasy open-endedness which the collection further creates through its limiting concentration on only three postcolonial/Caribbean writers. Why these in particular? And why does the section on Adisa consist of essays largely on Jamaica Kincaid?

It is perhaps too predictable to quibble with a conference collection for reading precisely as what it is--a more or less diverse set of papers on which there has been an attempt to impose a post hoc coherence. That said, there are important sub-themes which can be traced through the different contributions: the crucial emplacement of postcolonial identity (Smith, Hornung, William Boelhower); the strategies of counter-memory (Martina Ghosh-Schellhorn, Carmen Birkle); and the strongly autobiographical [End Page 756] aspects of Caribbean postcolonial fiction (which a number of the essays comment on, yet might have examined more closely). In some respects appropriately, the featured writers' self-expression is embodied within the overall structure of the collection, since extracts from their work preface the individual critical sections. But then again, this privileging of the fictional or poetic voice, and how it relates to the overall topic of autobiographical selving, might have been more explicitly addressed.

The impression of provisionality and incompletion remains, therefore--and cannot escape critical comment. This is especially so considering that postcolonial autobiography raises serious ethical, political, and generic questions about the encoding of secret, suppressed, buried, and perhaps unspeakable knowledges and memory--what Spivak refers to here in the keynote paper as the "subaltern's inability to testify" (9). In any study of postcolonial autobiography today, a more thoroughgoing analysis of the theories and methodologies of life writing, and of life writing in a post-colonial or minority context, would have been in order, such as one sees for example in another recent collection, Representing Lives: Women and Auto/ Biography, edited by Pauline Polkey and Alison Donnell, which carefully interrogates feminism's "representational" project.

Through writing the self, many of the contributors to Postcolonialism and Autobiography assume, the postcolonial subject repairs or constructs an identity, lays claim to agency, secures advocacy. Yet how such difficult constructions and claims might relate to the continuing hegemony of Western individualist humanism--for example, to managing the crisis of postcolonialism, or psychoanalytically, to the Kleinian oscillation between reality and metaphor that Spivak highlights (autobiography as a repeated "that is to say")--these are questions that are by and large only obliquely addressed. It might have made for an interesting internal intertextuality had contributors been asked to relate their revised papers to some of the...