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Reviewed by:
  • Vernacular Worlds, Cosmopolitan Imagination ed. by Stephanos Stephanides and Stavros Karayanni
  • Shao-Pin Luo (bio)
Stephanos Stephanides and Stavros Karayanni, eds. Vernacular Worlds, Cosmopolitan Imagination. Leiden/Boston: Brill/Rodopi, 2015. Pp. xxvii, 230. €55.

On a twilight pilgrimageI cross Venetian rampartsI journey inwardseeking a language of lamenta muffled murmuring of old heart …and I move outward through city gateswhile I dream of east and northof apparitions of a communitya communionwith sea citrus milk of sheepand olivein a dawning waning earthfragile trophy of my quest

Stephanos Stephanides, Blue Moon in Rajasthan and Other Poems (44–45)

Vernacular Worlds, Cosmopolitan Imagination came out of the Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies (ACLALS) triennial [End Page 191] conference held at the University of Cyprus in 2010. Cyprus, marked by political divisions and painful borders, with its layers of linguistic pasts, colonial histories, and multiple cultures, is a unique locale for reflections on tensions between intimacy and estrangement, the vernacular and the cosmopolitan. It prompts the question, which the poem above evokes and editors Stephanos Stephanides and Stavros Karayanni ask in their introduction to the text: “How do we renegotiate the tensions that short-circuit the relationship between inside and outside to create a magical island of layered transculturation?” (xii).

In the volume’s opening essay, “Do the Right Thing: ACLALS, Social Change, and Cultural Activism,” Geoffrey Davies describes two innovative grassroots projects, one in India and the other in Zimbabwe. He urges postcolonial scholars to apply their relevant expertise and experience to social and cultural activism and quotes Bill Ashcroft’s introduction to Literature for Our Times, the collection of essays that resulted from the previous ACLALS conference in Vancouver in 2007: “What is the field of post-colonial studies beginning to look like in the twenty-first century?” (Ashcroft xv). Literature for Our Times covers a wide range of themes and topics concerning world literature and cosmopolitanism, translation and Orientalism, diaspora and migrancy, gender and race, indigenous literature, the city, terrorism, trauma, and loss. Such expansion of postcolonial inquiry, whether in the direction of indigeneity, ecocriticism, transculturality, or globalization, has generated much debate. Ashcroft characterizes this excess of “dizzyingly broad network[s] of cohabiting intellectual pursuits” as a strength and describes the capacity of different approaches and methodologies in the field of postcolonial studies as a “convivial critical democracy” (xvii). Interestingly, the book problematizes the notions of world literature and cosmopolitanism. Ashcroft asks: “Who can be included in the world? Who can be included in literature?… Which narrative of identity in the transitional, open, exogenous space of the world city frames a cosmopolitan subject? Who, exactly, is a cosmopolitan?” (xxi–xxii).

Vernacular Worlds, Cosmopolitan Imagination presents myriad and sometimes startlingly new ways of tackling those questions in its own fascinating array of essays that think through and negotiate the tensions and intersections between the vernacular and the cosmopolitan from varied geographies and political positions. More than a few of the volume’s essays as well as the editors’ introduction cite Sheldon Pollack, Homi Bhabha, and others who see cosmopolitanism “as a congeries of constantly changing repertories of practices” and challenge “the perspective that sees the vernacular and cosmopolitan as stable categories that interact and clash with each other” (Stephanides and Karayanni xii). [End Page 192] Indeed, the collection as a whole offers many comparatist approaches and nuanced analyses that disrupt any facile juxtaposition of the seeming dichotomy of the vernacular and the cosmopolitan, all while “mapping processes of hybridity and cultural dissemination in the larger context of world literature and cosmopolitanism” (xxii).

For example, Diana Wood Conroy’s essay “Vernacular Patterns in Flux: Mirroring Change in an Aboriginal Workshop, Tiwi Designs, Northern Australia” offers a fantastic interweaving of the changing linguistic patterns in Conroy’s personal journal, the self-reflective field notes of a cultural worker, and the ever-evolving experimental transformations of the artistic patterns and motifs of the Tiwi designs that are gaining global significance. Another effective example is in Felicity Wood’s anthropological study, “Wealth-Giving Mermaid Women and the Malign Magic of the Market,” on contemporary oral accounts of the South African mamlambo. She...


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