- Better Britons: Reproduction, National Identity, and the Afterlife of Empire by Nadine Attewell
The centrality of reproduction to imperial and settler projects of nation building is a rich, productive topic that has garnered scholarly attention since the 1970s, when path-breaking historians began making visible the emphasis placed on producing the supposedly right type of babies for achieving and maintaining imperial and colonial rule. Nadine Attewell’s new study, Better Britons, brings a fresh, sharply intelligent, critical eye to the construction of civic, national, and racial identities in Britain, New Zealand, and Australia during the era of decolonization and its aftermath.
The book is concerned with what Attewell terms the “afterlife” of empire, meaning the persistence of empire into the present. She begins and ends the book with a discussion about and what remains, a play by Maori and Cook Islands writer Miria George first staged in 2005 but set in 2010. The premise of the play is that the New Zealand state has devised a solution to the high rates of teenage pregnancy and child abuse in Maori society, namely, to sterilize Maori women, a threat that provokes a mass exodus of Maori from Aotearoa New Zealand. Attewell cites reviewers’ skeptical reaction to the play, rightly, as a symptom of the ongoing “process of forgetting” that occurs in imperial and colonial contexts of the kinds of reproductive violence that long sustained colonizing nation-states and that continue to appeal to eugenically minded settlers today. Her overarching argument is that “the convergence of projects of reproductive management and governance is not just one of the things the inhabitants of colonizing nation states … have forgotten about the colonial past; it is one of the ways in which they have worked, and continue to work, to disown the burdens of their colonial inheritance” (emphasis in original). The book is a postcolonial study and analyses a variety of texts, mainly novels, as a means of approaching and unpacking this convergence.
The book is divided into two parts. Part One, “Beginnings,” has two chapters addressing “fantasies of re-beginning” that were central to post-imperial projects of nation building. The first chapter deals with the utopianism of early twentieth-century discourses of reproduction and analyses three novels to show how an imperial imaginary that envisioned Antipodean islands in the Pacific as “staging grounds” for utopian experiments “is redeployed—repatriated—by metropolitan and Australian utopian nationalisms.” Chapter two draws on primary sources such as newspaper reports, government reports, and fiction to focus on Australia’s early twentieth-century policy of trying to advance a “White Australia” and defend settler claims to Australia against Aboriginal claims of priority by “breeding out the colour” of its citizens and subjects. [End Page 345]
Part Two, “Endings,” contains three chapters about “fantasies of (fore)closure,” meaning the ways refusals or inabilities to reproduce emerged as sites of production of national meaning. Chapter three reflects on two novels to discuss the relationship between the politics of abortion and anxieties about the nation-state’s capacity to reproduce itself. Chapter four analyses a dystopian novel and unpublished prose poem by New Zealand writer Robin Hyde, works of “necrophilic nationalism” written in the late 1930s when war seemed very likely; Attewell detects in these texts settler claims to indigenous land rooted in the “ability to perform the role, usually reserved for Indigenous people, of a dying race.” The final chapter examines the afterlife of eugenics in Britain, specifically the resurgence in Britain during the late twentieth century of panics about “demographic decline in relation to post-war developments in citizenship and nationality law.”
The book pulsates with a sense of urgency. Attewell rightly urges beneficiaries of settler colonialism to question our “preferred original stories” in order to make visible and account for colonialism’s ongoing effects. At the same time, it is theoretically sophisticated, even dense at times, and seems aimed at scholars already familiar with the plethora of terms and names that make up the vocabulary and community of the postcolonial literary theorist. The book’s argument...