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Imagined Commonwealths: Cambridge Essays on Commonwealth and International Literature in English.

Imagined Commonwealths: Cambridge Essays on Commonwealth and International
Literature in English. Ed. by T. J. Cribb. (Cambridge Commonwealth Series)
Basingstoke: Macmillan; New York: St Martin's Press. 1999. xii+322 pp.
[pound]47.


This book is a collection of essays arising from papers delivered to a seminar in the English Faculty in Cambridge on Commonwealth and international literature in English, most dating apparently from 1992 or earlier. The editor divides the book into five sections: his introduction; 'Gateways and Frontiers', containing four fine pieces, all of which have been published before, by male creative writers; 'Limits and Languages', on Englishes, translation, and literature in indigenous languages; 'Traditions and Places', on dissimilar topics; and a conclusion by Andrew Gurr on what he provocatively calls 'the New Geographism'. The essays 'have been chosen to open up possibilities, mark out boundaries and set objectives', linking new literary and critical practices to 'the original development of Cambridge criticism'.

The introduction indicates that the use of the word 'Commonwealth', and the book's ambition for itself will be clarified as the text unfolds. The emphasis in the introduction on Cambridge English is mystifying in relation to the new literatures; Leavis and Williams are invoked, but Leavis emphatically privileged English literature and Said remarks of Williams in Culture and Imperialism: 'I sense a limitation in his feeling that English literature is mainly about England.' The English Faculty's refusal in 1974 to host, jointly with the Department of Social Anthropology, Soyinka's lectures, published later as Myth, Literature and the African World, is excused by the editor as a myopia 'not peculiar to Cambridge English but includes the general formation of the subject in Britain'. This is implicitly contradicted in the final essay, which describes a major 'Commonwealth Literature' conference in Leeds in 1964. Readers in the many departments of literature throughout the world where these literatures have been taught for over thirty years are likely to be puzzled by a crusading tone in some of the essays, and by the volume's disorientating lack of context. An uninformed reader could be misled into thinking, for instance, that censorship still controls texts available in Malawi; that the 'ongoing drama of Salman Rushdie and the Satanic Regime of Iran' is as it was ten years ago; that South Africa still operates a policy of apartheid. Ironically, the final essay asserts that the task for academics is 'to contextualize [. . .] to supply the footnotes'.

Though for this reader parts of the book seemed out of touch with current debates, some of its contradictions produce vigorous critiques. Despite the title, three of the essays are on literatures in indigenous languages. Karin Barber addresses two major strands of postcolonial criticism, claiming that the first, exemplified by Homi Bhabha, consigns 'native' discourses to the realms of the unknowable, while the second, represented by Ashcroft, Tiffin, and Griffiths, conflates countries with radically different histories, such as India and Australia, and implies that 'the stunned natives literally could not articulate their responses to colonial rule' until they could write in English. Barber persuasively demonstrates the vitality of writing in Yoruba and other African languages, not as the shadowy and static oral tradition, which tends to be invoked as timeless and unknowable, 'but as a modern, mainstream, heterogeneous, hybrid and changing mode of discourse' produced in the present by its users.

The penultimate essay, David Richards's' "The Culture of Displacement and its Effects": Frazer, Freud and Others', plays on the othering process of colonialism, and links it with Cambridge. Sir James Frazer, author of The Golden Bough, 'rarely left his Cambridge college' but gleaned his information for this and Totem and Exogamy from a variety of sources, including Roscoe, a missionary to the Baganda. In a complex and almost archaeological argument, Richards links Roscoe with Freud and modernism's use of African materials, arriving at Okigbo's Labyrinths in which the poet displaces and reworks Frazer. This essay, in common with several others, opens up the possibility that the literatures themselves mark out boundaries and suggest objectives.
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Author:Smith, Angela
Publication:Yearbook of English Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2001
Words:665
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