- The Postcolonial Short Story: Contemporary Essays ed. by Maggie Awadalla, Paul March-Russell
Maggie Awadalla and Paul March-Russell’s edited volume, The Postcolonial Short Story: Contemporary Essays, offers an eclectic look into the evolution of the short story over the past 35 years across a wide range of geopolitical contexts, from the transnational cities of London, Singapore, Vancouver, and Cairo, to India, Pakistan, the Gulf, South Africa, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, the United States, and New Zealand. Awadalla and March-Russell present the short story as a highly expressive and flexible medium that sits at the interstices of high and low culture and reflects the fragmentation and dislocations of the postcolonial condition. The volume is loosely organized around themes of cultural memory and historical trauma, urban and diasporic experience, gendered violence and sexuality, and democracy. While the editors affirm the value of eclecticism as “an entry point into the messy complexity of the postcolonial world” (10), this is ultimately both a strength and limitation of the volume. Despite the variety of geographical contexts studied, the focus remains firmly Anglocentric. Only four of the essays venture beyond Anglophone writing to address work in Urdu, Afrikaans, or Arabic; none of the essays mention works in French or Spanish, thus missing out on the opportunity to engage in a truly comparative discussion of the postcolonial short story. The Caribbean is represented, but [End Page 316] only through the lens of Jamaican and Trinidadian subjects in Canada; North Africa is entirely absent, as are Francophone Africa and South America. While there are inevitable lacunae in any collection of essays, the exclusions of this particular volume reinforce the disciplinary bias of postcolonial studies towards the Anglophone world at a moment when many critics are looking to expand and break out of these linguistic boundaries.
Awadalla and March-Russell provide an expansive introduction in which they sketch the history of the short story’s critical reception and establish the genre’s slippery marginality and political significance. They argue that the short story’s keen importance to postcolonial writers is at odds with its “critical and popular neglect in the West” (4). One of the most interesting features of the short story is its resistance to categorization: it is “simultaneously a product of mass and minority culture,” circulating in popular magazines, online forums, and volumes published by avant-garde, small presses. It poses considerable technical difficulty for writers and is endorsed by major literary prizes such as the Caine Prize (established in 2000), yet has garnered sparse critical attention. What the short story may lack in critical prestige, however, it more than makes up for in diversity and complexity: the genre draws on the fantastical and vernacular elements of the oral folktale as well as the realist and economical elements of the sketch. It inverts discursive hierarchies by giving constituent voices equal treatment, rather than relegating minor characters to the sidelines. Awadalla and March-Russell also point to the troubled relation between the short story and orality; orality functions both as a force of disruption and as a limit to which the genre reaches. Indeed, orality is a recurring issue throughout the collection. There is an uneasy slippage between the novel and the short story in many of the essays, underscoring the restlessness of the genre itself. In her contribution, for instance, Awadalla discusses a novel in four parts that she chooses to see in line with short story; this is also the case for Caroline Rooney, who focuses on Arab “short story novels.” More attention from the editors to this generic slipperiness would have been helpful in the introduction: how precisely are the “long short story” or “the short story novel” to be distinguished from the novel or from the short story?
In assessing the state of the field and the dearth of criticism on the postcolonial short story (the editors point out that only one prior volume had been published on the subject), Awadalla and March-Russell call for further investigation into the role...