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  • Domestications: American Empire, Literary Culture, and the Postcolonial Lens by Hosam Aboul-Ela
  • Ira Dworkin (bio)
Domestications: American Empire, Literary Culture, and the Postcolonial Lens. By Hosam Aboul-Ela. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2018. x + 241 pp. Hardcover $99.95; Paperback $34.95.

In one of his last essays, "The Other America," which was published in 2003 in the English-language Egyptian newspaper Al Ahram Weekly, Edward Said argues the need for scholarly studies of the United States from outside its geographical borders (Al-Ahram Weekly, 20 March 2003, Said advocates for the establishment of independent centers for American studies research in the Middle East and North Africa in order to challenge dominant narratives about the United States, which construct an unchallenged "narratheme of America as the honest broker, the impartial adjudicator, the entirely well-intentioned international force for good." These "narrathemes," Said posits, delimit the broader cultural space for critique of U.S. empire, which is the space that Hosam Aboul-Ela skillfully opens up for students and scholars of U.S. literature and culture in Domestications: American Empire, Literary Culture, and the Postcolonial Lens.

While Domestications does not directly address "The Other America," Aboul-Ela recognizes the ways that his work is in careful dialogue with Said's larger intellectual project in its efforts to bring postcolonial critique to bear on an "elite literary culture" that has far too often escaped its critical [End Page 782] lens (46). Drawing on world systems theory and other anticolonial intellectual traditions, Aboul-Ela weaves together a wide array of literary, critical, and political writings to demonstrate the necessity of Said's "contrapuntal" approach to the study of contemporary U.S. fiction. The task for novelists and critics of what Aboul-Ela terms "the American 'Third World' novel" is to engage in meaningful ways with the broader intellectual, political, and linguistic traditions of the Global South (which is something Aboul-Ela beautifully models in his prior monograph Other South: Faulkner, Coloniality, and the Mariátegui Tradition).

For Aboul-Ela, the most consummate representative of the "American 'Third World' novel" is Paul Bowles. Though many texts by Bowles and others of his ilk are characterized by some generically liberal political sensibility, the terms of its criticism of the United States are often narrowly based in U.S. thought and, therefore, reproduce the marginalization of local knowledge production from the many sites of U.S. empire. As a result, literary culture reinforces, with remarkable consistency, many of the colonial structures that it may purport to oppose. Aboul-Ela's critique is not aimed exclusively at the novelists themselves, but also at their many readers, American and otherwise, who have created a discourse around these texts that further entrenches the erasure of U.S. empire and Global South intellectual histories.

The book, whose five chapters are organized around the keywords of novel, idea, perspective, gender, and space, begins with "(Novel). The Specter of Normativity: Paul Bowles and the American 'Third World' Novel." While postcolonial literary studies have generally paid minimal attention to U.S. writing, scholars and critics of Bowles have paid minimal attention to coloniality. As a result, a substantial body of literary fiction that is ostensibly critical of U.S. normativity silences the local politics and intellectual history of the Global South.

Aboul-Ela's juxtaposition of the fiction of Bowles with Moroccan intellectuals continues in the second chapter "(Idea). Other Moroccos: Representation, Historicism, and the North African Lens." He centers Abdelhak Elghandor's remarkable 1994 interview with Bowles, which takes the U.S. novelist to task for ignoring written culture in favor of perceived vernacular, folk, and oral cultural forms. With Elghandor's interview, Aboul-Ela provides an exemplary moment of what happens, in practice, when contemporary U.S. writers are read by radical thinkers in the Global South locations where their novels are set. Aboul-Ela's efforts extend beyond direct critics of Bowles's orientalism to include figures like Abdallah Laroui, who rarely appear in U.S. literary scholarship that is diminished by his absence. (A notable exception like Ronald A.T. Judy's underappreciated (Dis)forming [End Page 783] the American...


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