Thursday, December 24, 2009

SALA Conference Program 2009

For the past few years I've been posting the program of the annual South Asian Literary Association conference here. I won't be at the conference this year, but there are some really interesting features on the program, so I thought I would post the program all the same. People who are in Philadelphia on 12/26 and 12/27 might want to stop by.

As a hint, the events not to miss are at the end -- the plenary with Wendy Doniger and Rupa Viswanath on 12/27, and the special commemorative session on Meenakshi Mukherjee with Gayatri Spivak and Rajeswari Sunder Rajan that follows.

The Sacred and the Secular in South Asian Literature and Culture

Tenth Annual South Asian Literary Association (SALA) Conference Program
December 26-27, 2009
Radisson Plaza—Warwick Hotel, Philadelphia
1701 Locust Street, Philadelphia, PA 19103

Saturday, December 26

4:00-5:15: Session 1

1A. Sikhism and Religious Signification and Demarcation

Gina Singh, California State University-Long Beach, “Sikh Women: Markers of Insurgency”

Sharanpal Ruprai, York University, “The Top Knot: Sikh Women Weaving Gender into the Turban”

Rajender Kaur, William Paterson University, “Marking History, Tracing Diasporic Sikh Subnationalism and Subjectivity in Anita Rau Badami’s Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?”

1B. Religion and the South Asian Novel

Bina Gogineni, Columbia University, “God and the Novel in India”

Roger McNamara, Loyola University Chicago, “Secular Narratives and Parsi Identity in Rohinton Mistry’s Family Matters”

Prasad Bidaye, University of Toronto, “Thus Spake the Brahmin: The Rhetoric of Caste in Raja Rao’s The Serpent and the Rope”

1C. South Asian Protest Discourse

Namrata Mitra, Purdue University, “The Limits of the Secular: Riots and State Violence in Contemporary India”

Simran Chadha, Dyal Singh College, Delhi University, “Of Virgins, Martyrs, and Suicide Bombers”

Amber Fatima Riaz, University of Western Ontario, “The Blasphemy of Protest: Challenging Religiosity and the Zenana in Tehmina Durrani’s Blasphemy”

1D. Enchantments in Theory

Bed Giri, Dartmouth College, “Modernity Re-enchanted? On Postcolonial Modernity”

Ashmita Khasnabish, Boston University, “Reason versus Spirituality: Sri Aurobindao, Amartya Sen, and Mira Nair”

Mary Jo Caruso, St. John’s University, "Building a Community of India: Rabindranath Tagore and the Fusing of the Sacred and the Secular”

5:30-6:45: Session 2

2A. V. S. Naipaul: Diasporic and Transnational Contexts

Jayshree Singh, Bhupal Nobles Girls’ P. G. College, Udaipur, India, “The Context and Construction of Religion and Art vs. Reality: A Critical Study of Selected Travel Writing of V. S. Naipaul”

Bidhan Roy, California State University-Los Angeles, “Encountering Islam: Muslims, Travel Narrative and Globalization in V. S. Naipaul’s Beyond Belief”

Abdollah Zahiri, Seneca College, “A Contrapuntal Reading of Naipaul’s India: A Wounded Civilization: The Bhakti Movement”

2B. Religion, War, Terror, and Violence: The Effects of Trauma on the South Asian Child

Krista Paquin, University of the Fraser Valley, “Children of the Divide: Physical and Psychological Trauma on Children in Cracking India and ‘Pali’”

Mark Balmforth, University of Washington-Seattle, “Struggling to Abide by Sri Lanka: An Attempt to Engage in Responsible International Youth Activism”

Summer Pervez, University of the Fraser Valley, “The Absence of Childhood: Narratives of Kashmir”

2C. Sri Lanka and Gendered Spaces

Nalin Jayasena, Miami University, “Gendered Geopolitics in the Sri Lankan Armed Conflict: Santosh Sivan’s The Terrorist and Mani Ratnam’s A Peck on the Cheek”

Arch Mayfield, Wayland Baptist University, “Cultural Challenges in Sri Lanka: The Gonnoruwa Anicut Project”

Maryse Jayasuriya, University of Texas at El Paso, “Women Writing Religious Difference in Contemporary Sri Lanka”

2D. Diaspora and Postcolonial Writing

Sukanya Gupta, Louisiana State University, “In Search of ‘Destiny’: Cyril Dabydeen’s The Wizard Swami”

Jaspal K. Singh, Northern Michigan University. “Trauma of Exile and the Muslim Indian Diaspora in South Africa: Dual Ontology in Ahmed Essop’s Fiction”

Sohrab Homi Fracis, Independent, “From Darkness into Light: Zoroastrian Mythology and Secular Awakening in My A Man of the World”

Sunday, December 27

8:45-10:00: Session 3

3A. Partition Narratives

Shumona Dasgupta, St. Cloud State University, “Constructing Community: Negotiating Violence and National Identity in Partition Texts”

Prabhjot Parmar, University of Western Ontario, “Bridging the Communal Divide: Manoj Punj’s Shaheed-e-Mohabbat, Boota Singh”

Amrita Ghosh, Drew University, “Towards Alternative Imaginaries: Subversive Border Crossings in Qurrantulain Hyder’s Sita Betrayed”

3B. Anatomies of Postcolonial Theory

Maya Sharma, Eugenio Maria de Hostos Community College/CUNY, “The White Tiger as an Anatomy of Postcoloniality”

Waseem Anwar, Forman Christian College University, “Theorizing the Pakistani Post-Postcolonial Real: Ambivalent, Emerging, Amorphous, or Even Beyond!”

Moumin Quazi, Tarleton State University, “A Post-Structural Study of Binary Oppositions in Vikram Seth’s Two Lives”

3C. Songs and the Subaltern

Ira Raja, La Trobe University/University of Delhi, “Living to Tell: Mirabai and the Challenge of Categories”

Sheshalatha Reddy, University of Mary Washington, “‘In brotherhood of diverse creeds’: Hyderabad/India in the ‘speech and song and struggle’ of Sarojini Naidu

Aparajita De, University of Maryland, “The Caged Bird Sings: The Politics of Subaltern Agency in Pinjar”

3D. Arundhati Roy and the Secular

Rajiv Menon, The George Washington University, “’Whose God’s Own Country?’: Caste and Politics in Guruvayur and Roy’s The God’s of Small Things”

Navneet Kumar, University of Calgary, “Humanism, Secularism, and Universalism: Edward Said and Arundhati Roy”

Nicole Tabor, Moravian College, “Secular International Fantasy and Sacred Kathakali in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things”

10:15-11:45: Session 4

4A. Sacred or Secular? History and Identity in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Fiction

Madhuparna Mitra, University of North Texas, “History as Trope: Jhumpa Lahiri’s Narrative Habits”

Farha Shariff, University of Alberta, Canada, “Negotiating Cultural Identities: Second-Generation South Asian Identities and Contemporary Postcolonial Text”

Christine Vogt-William, Emory University, “Reflections on the Sancrosanctity of Names and Naming in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake”

4B. The South Asian Secular Citizen Body

Sukanya Banerjee, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, “Bureaucratic Modernity, Moderate Nationalism, and the Secular Citizen Body”

Sami Ullah Band, Kashmir, India, “Whether the Secularism in Kashmir Has Stood the Test of Time”

Indrani Mitra, Mount St. Mary’s University, “Gendered Spaces, Minority Identities and Secular Formations: A Muslim Woman’s Voice”

Suhaan Mehta, The Ohio State University, “Other Stories: Aesthetics and Ideology in Kashmir Pending”

4C. Religion and Class/Caste

Chinnaiah Jangam, Wagner College, “Sanitizing the Sacred Space: Hinduization of Dalit Identity in Telegu Country, 1900-1935”

Smita Jha, Indian Institute of Technology-Roorkee, “Crisis of Indian Secularism: A Study of Untouchable, Waiting for the Mahatma, and Train to Pakistan”

George J. Filip, Arcadia University, “What’s in a Name? Hinduism, Christianity, and the Evolution of Dalit Identity”

Deepika Bahri, Emory University, “The Sign of the Cross: Colonialism, Christianity, and Class in South Asian Literature and Film”

4D. Constructions of South Asian Political Identities

Nivedita Majumdar, City University of New York, “Reclaiming the Secular: An Engagement with the Politics of Religious Identity in India”

Chandrima Chakraborty, McMaster University, “Masculine Asceticisms and the Indian Nation”
Nyla Ali Khan, University of Nebraska-Kearney, “Forces of Regionalism and Communalism in South Asia”
Anupama Arora, University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, “Pandita Ramabai’s Encounter with American Orientalism”

1-2:15: Session 5

5A. Spiritual and Material Imagery in South Asian Poetry

Cynthia A. Leenerts, East Stroudsburg University, “Divine Migrations: Religious and Spiritual Imagery in Meena Alexander’s Poetry”

Mahwash Shoaib, Independent, “‘The grief of broken flesh’”: The Dialectic of Desire and Death in Agha Shahid Ali’s Lyrics”

5B. Bollywood and the Representation of Religion

Monia Acciari, University of Manchester, “Jhoom Barabar Jhoom: Worshipping the Star”
Karen Remedios, Southern Connecticut State University, “The Depiction of Christians in Indian Cinema: A Study of Essentialism”
Jogamaya Bayer, Independent, “Jodhaa: A Myth or a Fantasy of an Emperor?”

5C. Salman Rushdie and Postcolonial Epistemological Anxiety

Melissa Lam, Chinese University of Hong Kong, “Religious Autonomy and Midnight’s Children”

Umme Al-wazedi, Augustana College, “The Rise of Fundamentalism and the Negotiations of the Islamic Laws in South Asia: (Political) Shari’a, Fatwa, and the Taslima Nasrin and Salman Rushdie Affair”

Pennie Ticen, Virginia Military Institute, “Skeptical Belief and Faithful Questioning: The Satanic Verses 20 Years Later”

2:30-3:30: “A Conversation with Meena Alexander,” winner of the SALA 2009 Distinguished Achievement Award, Distinguished Professor of English at the City University of New York, Teacher in the MFA program at Hunter College and the Ph.D. Program at the Graduate Center, moderated by Cynthia Leenerts, East Stroudsburg University, and Lopamudra Basu, University of Wisconsin-Stout, with Parvinder Mehta, The University of Toledo, with an award presentation by Dr. P. S. Chauhan, Arcadia University

3:45-4:45: Plenary Keynote Roundtable Discussion: “India: Religion, Politics, and Culture,” with Wendy Doniger, Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions in the University of Chicago Divinity School; also in the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations, the Committee on Social Thought, and the College; and Rupa Viswanath, University of Pennsylvania, with a presentation by Dr. P. S. Chauhan, Arcadia University

5:30-6:30: Commemorative Panel: “Remembering Meenakshi Mukherjee: The Teacher and the Scholar,” led by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Columbia University, with Rajeshwari Sunder Rajan, New York University, Amritjit Singh, Ohio University, and Anupama Arora, University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, with introductions by Rajender Kaur, William Paterson University

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Thursday, August 13, 2009

Fall Teaching: "Global English" and "Converts and Rebels"

This post is partly inspired by Tim Burke's recent post, asking why more web-oriented academics don't post drafts of their syllabi on their blogs or websites.

I'm teaching two undergraduate-oriented classes this fall. One is called "Global English," and it's a senior "capstone" course, while the other is a more general, upper-level course called "Converts and Rebels: Debating Religion in Modern British Literature."

1. "Converts and Rebels" (English 395)

Here is the course description for "Converts and Rebels":

Though the modern period was generally a time when religious institutions were in decline, several major British writers from the early twentieth century had intense religious conversion experiences, leaving an impact on the literature of the period as a whole. These conversions, many of which involved Roman Catholicism, were seen as controversial by mainstream English society. Analogously, and just as importantly, several important writers found themselves falling out of religious faith in dramatic fashion, suggesting that the period as a whole was one of intense religious ferment. Is it possible to view religious conversion as a "subversive" activity? How might religious conversion relate to the aesthetics and ideological premises of literary modernism, which is so central to our understanding of this period? Writers whose work and lives will be explored in this course include T.S. Eliot (poems), James Joyce ("Portrait of the Artist"), Oscar Wilde ("Salome"), John Henry Newman ("Loss and Gain"), Salman Rushdie ("The Satanic Verses"), W.H. Auden, Evelyn Waugh ("Brideshead Revisited"), Graham Greene ("End of the Affair"), and Iris Murdoch ("The Bell").

In this course, I'll be building on ideas related to my first book ("Literary Secularism"), and using James Wood's "Broken Estate" as a conceptual jumping off point.

In terms of period, I decided to start with a little material based in the Victorian period. Though he's not talked about very much outside of Catholic circles, it seems to me like John Henry Newman is a key figure -- someone who had influence on quite a number of writers who converted to Catholicism, or thought about it.

I have been debating whether to bring in people who converted out of minority faith traditions to Christianity. Benjamin Disraeli seems like an obvious figure to consider, though in his case he never appeared to be especially passionate in his Anglicanism. As far as I know, he never directly addressed his personal experience of conversion, though some of his novels are clearly about figures who might be described as "crypto-Jews" (I'm using the term along lines described by Michael Ragussis). I'll also be using Ellis Hanson's "Decadence and Catholicism" to help triangulate some of the interesting questions about sexuality and religious conversion (especially Catholic conversion) circulating in the fin de siecle.

I decided against assigning C.S. Lewis for this course, though I may use a few short passages from "Surprised by Joy," and I will certainly mention his conversion experience as an important one. I haven't found his non-fiction writing related to his conversion interesting enough to have something to say about it in a classroom.

I was strongly tempted to assign The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman, but decided against it at the last minute. If I do a version of this course again, I might do both The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and The Golden Compass -- thinking of the latter as a kind of refutation of the former.

This is a new course for me. Though I know a fair amount twentieth-century writers like Graham Greene, Salman Rushdie, Evelyn Waugh, and Iris Murdoch, Victorian figures like Newman are a bit of a stretch. I'm open to suggestions for biographical and critical sources that might be relevant -- as well as primary texts or authors readers would recommend for a course like this.

2. "Global English" (English 290/Senior Seminar)

Here is the course description for this course:

The English language has traveled, and found a home in many parts of the world that were formerly colonized by Great Britain, especially Ireland, Scotland, India, Africa, and the Caribbean. With the rise of English as a literary language in those areas has come a new slate of anxieties and questions. Some writers have noted the uncomfortable fact that English seems to be tied to the history of colonial domination; it is the 'master's' language, and should be rejected. Others (like Joyce) have expressed their discomfort with English, but have nevertheless written in English with affection. It need not be an either/or proposition, and this course will aim to explore the global embrace, not without its anxieties, of English as a literary language. Along the way, a few critical terms and concepts related to linguistics will be introduced (i.e., slang, dialect, creole, patois, acrolect, and basolect, to name just a few). Authors will include a mix of short and long works by James Joyce, Arundhati Roy ("God of Small Things"), Irvine Welsh ("Trainspotting"), Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie ("Purple Hibiscus"), Amitav Ghosh ("Sea of Poppies"), Brian Friel ("Translations"), G.V. Desani ("All About H. Hatterr"), Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, J.M. Synge ("Playboy of the Western World"), and Ken Saro-Wiwa ("Sozaboy").

The reading list could be much longer than it is; indeed, one could easily have a whole semester's worth of material just based on language questions in any of the particular national literatures that will be at issue here -- including Ireland, Anglophone West Africa, the Caribbean, and India, respectively. I decided to make the approach of the course comparative because the overlap between different national experiences of "Englishness" seems like it might be interesting to a broad group of students. I was also tempted by Junot Diaz's "Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," though in the end bringing in the Dominican diasporic experience seemed to a bit too far afield. (Again, perhaps next time.)

We'll be using scholarship by David Crystal ("English as a Global Language"), and also Dohra Ahmed's anthology, "Rotten English." I would be grateful for any suggestions on criticism or theory here as well.

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Friday, May 08, 2009

Mimicry and Hybridity in Plain English

This essay is a sequel of sorts to an earlier blog post essay I wrote a few years ago, introducing Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism for students as well as general readers. I do not know if this post will prove to be as useful, in part because these concepts are considerably more difficult to explain. At any rate, I would appreciate any feedback, further examples, or criticisms.

* * *

When the terms “mimicry” and “hybridity” are invoked in literary criticism, or in classrooms looking at literature from Asia, Africa, or the Caribbean, as well as their respective diasporas, there is usually a footnote somewhere to two essays by Homi K. Bhabha, “Of Mimicry and Man,” and “Signs Taken For Wonders: Questions of Ambivalence and Authority Under a Tree Outside Delhi, May 1817.” But students who look at those essays, or glosses of those essays in books like Post-Colonial Studies: The Key Concepts, generally come away only more confused. Though his usage of a term like “hybridity” is quite original, Bhabha’s terminology is closely derived from ideas and terminology from Freud and French thinkers like Jacques Derrida, and Jacques Lacan. I do respect the sophistication of Bhabha’s thinking -- and the following is not meant to be an attack on his work -- but I do not think his essays were ever meant to be read as pedagogical reference points.

What I propose to do here is define these complex terms, mimicry and hybridity, in plain English, using references from specific cultural contexts, as well as the literature itself. The point is not to tie the ideas up nicely, the way one might for an Encyclopedia entry, for example. Rather, my hope is to provide a starting point for initiating conversations about these concepts that might lead to a more productive discussion than Bhabha's essays have in my own experiences teaching this material.


Let’s start with mimicry, the easier of the two concepts. Mimicry in colonial and postcolonial literature is most commonly seen when members of a colonized society (say, Indians or Africans) imitate the language, dress, politics, or cultural attitude of their colonizers (say, the British or the French). Under colonialism and in the context of immigration, mimicry is seen as an opportunistic pattern of behavior: one copies the person in power, because one hopes to have access to that same power oneself. Presumably, while copying the master, one has to intentionally suppress one’s own cultural identity, though in some cases immigrants and colonial subjects are left so confused by their cultural encounter with a dominant foreign culture that there may not be a clear preexisting identity to suppress.

Mimicry is often seen as something shameful, and a black or brown person engaging in mimicry is usually derided by other members of his or her group for doing so. (There are quite a number of colloquial insults that refer to mimicry, such as “coconut” – to describe a brown person who behaves like he’s white, or “oreo,” which is the same but usually applied to a black person. Applied in reverse, a term that is sometimes used is “wigger.” [See more on "reverse mimicry" below.]) Though mimicry is a very important concept in thinking about the relationship between colonizing and colonized peoples, and many people have historically been derided as mimics or mimic-men, it is interesting that almost no one ever describes themselves as positively engaged in mimicry: it is always something that someone else is doing.

Mimicry is frequently invoked with reference to the “been-to,” someone who has traveled to the west, and then returned "home," seemingly completely transformed. Frantz Fanon mocked the affected pretentiousness of Martinician "been-tos" in Black Skin, White Masks, and the cultural confusion of the been-to Nyasha (and her family) in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions is one of the central issues in that novel. The characters in Nervous Conditions who have not had the same experience of travel in the west find the desire of those who have returned to impose their English values, language, and religion on everyone else bewildering and offensive.

Mimicry, however, is not all bad. In his essay “Of Mimicry and Man,” Bhabha described mimicry as sometimes unintentionally subversive. In Bhabha’s way of thinking, which is derived from Jacques Derrida’s deconstructive reading of J.L. Austin’s idea of the “performative,” mimicry is a kind of performance that exposes the artificiality of all symbolic expressions of power. In other words, if an Indian, desiring to mimic the English, becomes obsessed with some particular codes associated with Englishness, such as the British colonial obsession with the sola topee, his performance of those codes might show how hollow the codes really are. While that may well be plausible, in fact, in colonial and postcolonial literature this particular dynamic is not seen very often, in large part, one suspects, because it is quite unlikely that a person would consciously employ this method of subversion when there are often many more direct methods. Indeed, it is hard to think of even a single example in postcolonial literature where this very particular kind of subversion is in effect.

There is another, much more straightforward way in which mimicry can actually be subversive or empowering –- when it involves the copying of “western” concepts of justice, freedom, and the rule of law. One sees an example of this in Forster’s A Passage to India, with a relatively minor character named Mr. Amritrao, a lawyer from Calcutta, whom the British Anglo-Indians dread. They dread him not because he is unfair; indeed, what is threatening about him is precisely the fact that he has learned enough of the principles of British law to realize that those principles should, in all fairness apply to Indians as much as to the British. As a foreign-educated, English speaking Indian lawyer in colonial India, he might be mocked as a “mimic man” or a “babu,” but it may be that that mockery covers over a defensive fear that the British legal system is not quite as fair as it should be.

Indeed, the example of Amritrao in Forster’s novel might lead to a broader political discussion: many anti-colonial nationalist movements in Asia and Africa emerged out of what might be thought of as mimicry of western political ideas. The historian Partha Chatterjee argued that Indian nationalism emerged as a “a derivative discourse” –- a copy of western nationalism adapted to the Indian context. Over time, of course, the derivative ideas of justice, democracy, and equality, as they were used by activists, tended to get adapted to a local culture. Perhaps the person who did this best was Mohandas K. Gandhi. Gandhi took symbols of Indian asceticism and simplicity (such as traditional Indian dress and fabric) along with progressive western concepts of socialism, and used that new fusion of ideas to mobilize the masses of ordinary Indians, most of whom had had little direct contact with the British. Through Gandhi, Indian nationalism, which may have started as a “derivative” of nationalism in the west, became something distinctively and uniquely Indian.

As a final note before moving on to hybridity, it might be worthwhile to say a little about reverse mimicry, which in the colonial context was often referred to as "going native." Though mimicry is almost always used in postcolonial studies with reference to colonials and immigrant minorities imitating white cultural and linguistic norms (let’s call this “passing up”), mimicry could also be reversed, especially since there are so many examples, in the history of British colonialism especially, of British subjects who either disguised themselves as Indians or Africans, or fantasized of doing so. The most famous example of this kind of reverse mimicry (“passing down”) might be Richard Francis Burton, who often attempted to disguise himself as Arab or Indian during his time as a colonial administrator. In literature, the most influential example of affirmatively “passing down” might be Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, where Kipling invents a white child (the son of an Irish solidier in British India), who grows up wild, as it were, on the streets of Lahore, outside of the reach of British society. Though Kipling’s interest in “passing down” does not overcome the numerous mean-spirited and racialist statements Kipling made about Indians throughout his career, the thought of being able to break out of his identity as an Anglo-Indian and live “like a native” does seemingly reflect a real affection and a sense of excitement about Indian culture.

For other writers, the possibility of "going native" was seen as a threat or a danger to be confronted; the prospect that Kurtz has "gone native" is certainly one of the animating anxieties in Conrad's Heart of Darkness, for example.

* * *


By contrast to mimicry, which is a relatively fixed and limited idea, postcolonial hybridity can be quite slippery and broad. At a basic level, hybridity refers to any mixing of east and western culture. Within colonial and postcolonial literature, it most commonly refers to colonial subjects from Asia or Africa who have found a balance between eastern and western cultural attributes. However, in Homi Bhabha’s initial usage of the term in his essay “Signs Taken For Wonders,” he clearly thought of hybridity as a subversive tool whereby colonized people might challenge various forms of oppression (Bhabha’s example is of the British missionaries’ imposition of the Bible in rural India in the 19th century.).

However, the term hybridity, which relies on a metaphor from biology, is commonly used in much broader ways, to refer to any kind of cultural mixing or mingling between East and West. As it is commonly used, this more general sense of hybridity has many limitations. Hybridity defined as cultural mixing in general does not help us explicitly account for the many different paths by which someone can come to embody a mix of eastern and western attributes, nor does it differentiate between people who have consciously striven to achieve a mixed or balanced identity and those who accidentally reflect it. Hybridity defined this way also seems like a rather awkward term to describe people who are racially mixed, such as “Eurasians” in the British Raj in India, or biracial or multiracial people all around the postcolonial world. Fourth, though it is more commonly deployed in the context of Indian or African societies that take on influences from the west, one needs to account for how hybridity, like mimicry, can run in “reverse,” that is to say, it can describe how western cultures can be inflected by Asian or African elements ("chutneyfied," as it were). Finally, it seems important to note that there can be very different registers of hybridity, from slight mixing to very aggressive instances of culture-clash.

For all those reasons, it may not be that useful to speak of hybridity in general. What might be more helpful is thinking about different hybridities –- a set of differentiated sub-categories: 1) racial, 2) linguistic, 3) literary, 4) cultural, and 5) religious. The main sub-categories are really (2), (3), and (4), where (2) and (3) overlap closely. In what follows I will explain why (1) is not really very relevant in most cases. And sub-category (5) might be of secondary importance for some readers, though I would argue that it should be taken quite seriously.

1. Racial hybridity. The term "hybridity" derives from biology, where hybrids are defined as reflecting the merger of two genetic streams, so it might seem logical to talk about hybridity in terms of race. But in fact applying the term this way does not seem productive. Most formerly colonial societies have their very specific, localized words to describe people of mixed race ancestry, and the term “hybrid” is generally not used in the context of race. (Indeed, using this term this way might be offensive to people of mixed ancestry.)

In the Indian context, for example, there is an established community of “Eurasians,” who were marked as a separate community by the British after interracial marriage was banned, and who as a result held themselves as a clearly demarcated community even after Indian independence (when most Eurasians left the country). In Latin America, the term “mestizo” is often used to describe people of mixed European, African, and Native American descent. The idea of “racial hybridity” today seems awkward, in large part because it clearly relies on the idea, inherited from nineteenth-century race science, that racial difference is an empirically-verifiable reality. In fact, it is unclear that racial markers such as “African” or “Asian” have any precise meaning. Today, the norm amongst most scholars, which I agree with, is to deemphasize biological or genetic race in favor of “culture.”

Ironically, though the biological basis for the concept of hybridity seems to invite a discussion of race, it seems inappropriate to actually apply it to biracial or multiracial for the afore-mentioned reasons.

2. Linguistic hybridity. Linguistic hybridity can refer to elements from foreign languages that enter into a given language, whether it’s the adoption of English words into Asian or African languages, or the advent of Asian or African words into English. To talk about linguistic hybridity, one benefits from reference to terms from linguistics, including the ideas of slang, patois, pidgin, and dialect. Over the course of the long history of British colonialism in India, quite a number of Indian words entered British speech, first amongst the white “Anglo-Indians,” but over time these words entered the English language more broadly. Today, words like “pajamas,” bungalow,” and “mulligatawny” are often used without an awareness that they derive from Indian languages. Similarly, words like “mumbo-jumbo” have entered the English language from African languages.

As a result of colonialism, the English language has become established in Ireland as well as African, Caribbean, and Asian societies formerly colonized by England (just as French has become established in societies in Africa and the Caribbean that were formerly colonized by France). This fact was historically quite controversial, and it still produces some measure of anxiety throughout the postcolonial world, though most African and Asian countries now embrace English-language education as the language of international commerce. Aside from the fact that English is seen by some as an imposed language, the lingering problem is that in many cases writers who use English in Asia or Africa are using a language different from the one most likely spoken by their main characters. Achebe addresses this problem as follows:

For an African writing in English is not without its serious setbacks. He often finds himself describing situations or modes of thought which have no direct equivalent in the English way of life. Caught in that situation he can do one of two things. He can try and contain what he wants to say within the limits of conventional English or he can try to push back those limits to accommodate his ideas ... I submit that those who can do the work of extending the frontiers of English so as to accommodate African thought-patterns must do it through their mastery of English and not out of innocence (Chinua Achebe)

Works by people who have incomplete mastery of English, like Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard, are sometimes cited as examples of linguistic hybridity. But Achebe’s point here is that such works are less likely to be meaningful or interesting than those by people who have demonstrable mastery of English, but who are aware that one might wish to “extend the frontiers” of the language beyond Standard Written English in order to come closer to capturing the voices and thoughts of people living outside of Europe or North America.

There are many examples of linguistic hybridity that one could mention. James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man has a famous example of anxiety about the status of English. Stephen Dedalus, an English-speaking Irishman in Dublin at the turn of the century, encounters a British priest, and frets that “the language we are speaking is his before it is mine.” But for Joyce, for whom there was no option but to write in English, and it becomes clear even within Joyce’s novel it becomes clear that Stephen has as much right to English as any native-born Englishman. In Africa, beginning in the 1970s, quite a number of prominent intellectuals rebelled against English. The Kenyan novelist Ngugi w’a Thiong’o, who started his career writing novels in English, decided to give up that practice in favor of writing in his native Kikuyu. Arguing against Ngugi, Achebe defended his use of English as a language that many Africans might have in common (for that matter, Achebe argued, even within Nigeria, there are so many languages that English might be the only national language of the country.) Other interesting approaches to linguistic hybridity include the use of pidgin in Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English, and Edward Kamau Braithwaite’s concept of “nation language,” which entails the use of Caribbean patois elements as a liberatory gesture.

Over time, the practical and commercial advantages of writing in English or French over local languages have sometimes quietly settled the debate where writers might have a choice of language (that is to say, writers who have a choice tend to choose the language with the largest market). However, in India especially, vibrant and serious literature continues to be written in Hindi as well as regional languages, though this writing is often overlooked by "postcolonial" scholars, when it either remains untranslated or is translated badly.

3. Literary hybridity. What I am calling literary hybridity (hybridity at the level of narrative form) is fundamental to what we now know as postcolonial literature. In part, basic modern literary forms such as the novel and the short story are modes of writing invented in the West, though they were readily adopted by colonial authors in Africa and Asia (the first Indian novels were being published in the 1860s). But almost immediately after it emerged, the “foreign” genre of the western novel became one of the primary ways by which Africans and Asians began to collectively imagine a sense of national, cultural identity. The fact that the novel may have been a borrowed form did not seem to be a limitation for the first generations of Asian and Africans who used it; in fact, the novel has proven to be an incredibly flexible and open format.

Literary hybridity is often invoked with contemporary postcolonial literature that uses experimental modes of narration, such as “magic realism.” The Indian writer Salman Rushdie and African writers like Ben Okri have experimented with modes of storytelling that blend local traditions and folk culture with experimental (postmodernist) ideas. A novel like Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is an instance of literary hybridity in that mingles traditional Indian texts like The Ramayana with a self-reflexive narrative frame that is usually associated with European postmodernist writers like Italo Calvino.

Another way of thinking about literary hybridity relates to postcolonial literature’s response to the Western Tradition (the Canon). While postcolonial writers have freely adapted western literary forms for their own purposes, as with the question of language there remains some anxiety with regard to how Canonical authors have represented (or misrepresented) Africa and Asia in their works. As a result, postcolonial writers have often attempted to “write back” to the British Canon with revisionist adaptations of classic works. Here are three well-known examples:

--Aime Cesaire’s “black power” version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Une Tempete, with Caliban playing a revolutionary black intellectual.
--Jean Rhys’s Caribbean-centered version of Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea, which explores the back-story of the white Caribbean Creole Bertha Mason.
--Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North is a kind of reversal (or revision) of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

These three examples (and there are might be others... suggestions?) of postcolonial revisions might be thought of as a form of literary hybridity. Cesaire, Rhys, and Salih take the basic plot and form of British narratives that invoke Africa or the Caribbean, but write them from an African or Caribbean point of view.

Another, slightly different example of literary hybridity might be Agha Shahid Ali’s concept of an English-language ghazal (which I talked about here). In conceiving of this, Shahid Ali, as a Kashmiri poet writing in English and living in the United States, wanted to legitimize his own efforts at composing Ghazals in English. But he also clearly had in mind the idea that American poets with no connection to South Asia or the Middle East might start to think of the Ghazal as an English-language form they might adapt for themselves, like a Villanelle or a Sonnet.

4. Cultural hybridity. Culture, defined in terms of art, music, fashion, cuisine, and so on, might be the broadest and perhaps also the easiest place to think about hybridity. Cultural hybridity is also extremely widespread today, as one sees a proliferation of fusion cuisine, fusion cuisine, and fusion musical forms. For most readers cultural hybridity is a given -– something we might encounter without even giving a second thought, when we see an Indian-influenced design in a blouse on sale at the Gap, or when we hear about Japanese (or Arab or German) hip hop.

However, historically, cultural hybridity has not always been quite as easy, nor has it been uncontroversial. In colonial writing, hybridity was clearly less important in many ways than mimicry. Late Victorian writers like Kipling, for instance, saw Indians who seemed to be a mix of east and west as absurd, and mocked them in his stories as well as personal letters. For Kipling and some of his peers, the English-educated “Babus” were engaged in crude mimicry rather than a more intelligent kind of hybridity. For instance, on the occasion of the inauguration of Punjab University in 1882, Kipling wrote the following in a letter to George Willes:

Just imagine a brown legged son of the east in the red and black gown of an M.A. as I saw him. The effect is killing. I had an irreverent vision of the Common room in a Muhammedan get up. At the end of the proceeding an excited bard began some Urdu verses composed in honour of the occasion. It was a tour de force of his own—but I am sorry to say he was suppressed, that is to say, they took him by the shoulders and sat him down again in his chair. Imagine that at Oxford!

For Kipling, the sight of a “brown legged son of the east” in formal British academic regalia is mis-match that is, for him, inherently funny. (As a side note, biographers have pointed out that part of Kipling’s tendency to mock highly educated Indians may have been motivated by his anxiety about his own lack of a college education.) Interestingly, as Kipling continues in his description he seems to grow more sympathetic to the speaker, who has chosen to present verses in Urdu rather than English. Kipling seems to admire the verses (or at least, the choice to present them in Urdu), and yet the speaker's presumably British peers “suppress” what he has to say all the same, by forcing him, rather rudely, to sit down rather than complete his recitation.

By contrast to Kipling, E.M. Forster, in A Passage to India, clearly admires the way many ambitious Indians in the latter days of the British Raj were able to use the English language and make it their own. To continue the example of dress, Forster’s protagonist Dr. Aziz dresses quite easily like an Englishman, without being perceived as anomalous by fair-minded people. Though Ronny Heaslop is ready to mock Aziz for missing a collar stud in a famous early scene in the novel, in actuality Aziz had given his collar-stud to Fielding. Still, Forster’s novel also shows the sharp limits placed on the cultural interaction between Indians and sympathetic Englishmen at the time he was writing.

As a general rule then, cultural hybridity under colonialism seems to be a close cousin of mimicry. It is very difficult for an Indian or African, subjected to British rule, to adopt manners or cultural values from the British without in some sense suppressing his or her own way of being. Something similar might be said of a new immigrant in England or the United States: there is strong pressure to quickly acculturate to the norms of the place where one lives, which sometimes entails curbing a thick accent or changing one’s dress styles or habits. Books like Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, and Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, all address the problem of acculturation, and tackle the fine line between adapting as an immigrant to a new environment, and transforming so radically that one risks giving up an essential part of who one is.

Once colonialism ends, however, cultural hybridity in major metropolitan centers, in the west as Well as in Africa and Asia, becomes somewhat more neutral –- possibly a creative way of expressing cosmopolitanism or eclecticism. Many people celebrate cultural hybridity as a way of creating new artistic forms and developing new ideas. Cultures that stay still too long, many artists and musicians would argue, ossify and die.

5. Religious hybridity. This final sub-category of hybridity I’ll mention seems important, in part because religion (specifically, religious conversion) is such a widespread theme in colonial and postcolonial literature. It also seems like a fitting place to end, since Homi Bhabha’s example of hybridity in “Signs Taken For Wonders,” specifically invokes the imposition of the Christian Bible in India. Bhabha notes that despite the fact that local Indians “under a tree, outside Delhi,” readily accept the authority of the Missionary’s Book. And yet, despite that clear Authority, they can only understand the Christianity they are being exposed to through their own cultural filters. Perhaps, instead of becoming simple Christians, the local Hindus are simply adding the reference point of Jesus to a very crowded Hindu pantheon. In thinking about religious hybridity, the question is usually not whether or not someone converts to a foreign or imposed religious belief system, but how different belief systems interact with traditional and local cultural-religious frameworks.

The goal in invoking "religious hybridity," is not to pose people who practice a local religion as "pure," while those who may have converted might be seen as hybrids. In fact, religious traditions like Hinduism were heavily influenced by the encounter with British missionaries under colonialism. Hindu leaders formed societies such as the Brahmo Samaj and the Arya Samaj (and, in the Sikh tradition, the Singh Sabha movement), which instituted reforms and in many ways aimed to recast the Hindu tradition in a way that made it more legible, and perhaps more acceptable, to British missionaries as well as western scholars of religion. In short, by the beginning of the twentieth century, the way Hinduism is practiced and interpreted by many Hindus themselves reflects a certain amount of "religious hybridity."

Major works, such as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, or more recently, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus, centrally feature the issue of religious conversion. For Achebe’s Okonkwo, his son Nwoye’s conversion to Christianity is seen as a loss and as a form of subservience to foreign cultural values. Analogously, Kambili’s father, in Purple Hibiscus, is seen as imposing a rigid kind of Christianity on his family, at the expense of personal loyalty or familial love. But the novel argues that it is possible to be a “religious hybrid,” that is to say, an African Christian, without giving up entirely on what makes one uniquely African, or in this case, Nigerian.

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Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Fareed Zakaria's Latest: "The Post-American World"

Though I've often disagreed with Fareed Zakaria on specific policy questions, I've always been challenged and interested by his way of thinking about big issues. I found Zakaria's earlier book The Future of Freedom stimulating, if imperfect. Zakaria seems to be especially good at synthesizing complex issues under the umbrella of a signature "big idea," without choking off qualifications or complexities. He still may a little too close to the buzzword-philia of Thomas Friedman for some readers, but in my view Zakaria's book-length arguments are a cut above Friedman's "gee whiz" bromides. (Zakaria's weekly Newsweek columns do not always rise to this bar.)

Zakaria's latest big concept is The Post-American World, a just-released book whose argument he summarizes in a substantial essay in this week's Newsweek. The basic idea is, the world is becoming a place where the U.S. is not a solo superpower, but rather a complex competitive environment with multiple sites of power and influence. Even as China and India ("Chindia"?) rise, it's not clear that the U.S. or Europe will fall; rather, everyone can, potentially, rise together -- or at least, compete together. Zakaria argues that despite hysterical anxieties figured in the mass media regarding the threat of terrorism and economic crisis, the world has rarely been more peaceful -- and that relative peace and stability has created the opportunity for the unprecedented emergence of independent and rapidly expanding market economies in formerly impoverished "Chindia."

There's more to it (read the article), but perhaps that is enough summary for now. There are a couple of passages I thought particularly interesting, which I might put out for discussion. First, on India:

During the 1980s, when I would visit India—where I grew up—most Indians were fascinated by the United States. Their interest, I have to confess, was not in the important power players in Washington or the great intellectuals in Cambridge.

People would often ask me about … Donald Trump. He was the very symbol of the United States—brassy, rich, and modern. He symbolized the feeling that if you wanted to find the biggest and largest anything, you had to look to America. Today, outside of entertainment figures, there is no comparable interest in American personalities. If you wonder why, read India's newspapers or watch its television. There are dozens of Indian businessmen who are now wealthier than the Donald. Indians are obsessed by their own vulgar real estate billionaires. And that newfound interest in their own story is being replicated across much of the world. (link)

This last insight seems dead-on to me, and it's the kind of thing I think Zakaria appreciates precisely because he was raised in India (no matter how many times he says "we" when talking about American foreign policy, he still carries that with him). This is one of the spaces where Zakaria's status as an "Indian-American" is a real asset, as it gives him a simultaneous insider-outsider "double consciousness" -- he has the ability to see things from the American/European point of view, but also know (remembers?) how the man on the street in Bombay or Shanghai is likely to see the world. [Note: I did an earlier post on Zakaria's complex perspective here]

(As a side note -- for the academics in the house, isn't the narrative Zakaria is promoting in the passage above a "pop" version of what postcolonial theorists have been talking about for years -- what Ngugi called "The Decolonization of the Mind"?)

Secondly, another passage, which I think addresses what might be the biggest hindrance to the multi-nodal global society Zakaria is interested in:

The rise of China and India is really just the most obvious manifestation of a rising world. In dozens of big countries, one can see the same set of forces at work—a growing economy, a resurgent society, a vibrant culture, and a rising sense of national pride. That pride can morph into something uglier. For me, this was vividly illustrated a few years ago when I was chatting with a young Chinese executive in an Internet café in Shanghai. He wore Western clothes, spoke fluent English, and was immersed in global pop culture. He was a product of globalization and spoke its language of bridge building and cosmopolitan values. At least, he did so until we began talking about Taiwan, Japan, and even the United States. (We did not discuss Tibet, but I'm sure had we done so, I could have added it to this list.) His responses were filled with passion, bellicosity, and intolerance. I felt as if I were in Germany in 1910, speaking to a young German professional, who would have been equally modern and yet also a staunch nationalist.

As economic fortunes rise, so inevitably does nationalism. Imagine that your country has been poor and marginal for centuries. Finally, things turn around and it becomes a symbol of economic progress and success. You would be proud, and anxious that your people win recognition and respect throughout the world. (link)

Will resurgent nationalism turn out to be the biggest hindrance to the "smooth" globalization Zakaria is talking about? How might this play out? Will there be a new generation of wars, or will it be expressed in subtler ways (like, for instance, what happened with the nuclear deal within the Indian political system). In the Newsweek article at least, Zakaria doesn't really explore the downside of emergent (insurgent?) Chindian nationalisms in depth; perhaps he explores that further in the book.

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Saturday, February 23, 2008

A Little on "Rotten English"

I've had Dora Ahmad's anthology, Rotten English on the shelf for some months, but didn't get around to reading the introduction and sampling some of the stories and poems it contains until now. The introduction is in fact posted in its entirety at Amitava Kumar's "Politics & Culture" online journal here. Also, a brief review of the anthology, by Mandakini Dubey, is here.

The introduction is quite strong -- it's a helpful foray into the issues one has to contend with when thinking about "vernacular literatures" from around the post-colonial world. Ahmad brings together everything from Macaulay's "Minute on Education" to the responses by postcolonial writers like Chinua Achebe, who were at first somewhat ambivalent about writing in English (though Achebe more than adequately defended the idea of African fiction in English in his essay "The African Writer and the English Language," also included in this volume).

Ahmad also makes the intriguing choice to include African-American vernacular writers (Charles Chesnutt, Langston Hughes) as well as writing by Scottish (Robert Burns, Irvine Welsh) and Irish (Roddy Doyle) vernacular writers in the anthology. The great advantage of this is the way it suggests that "Rotten English" is not necessarily a new movement, per se, or strictly limited to "postcolonial" concerns. But such inclusiveness also raises a question of historical relevance: what does it really mean to link a poet like Robert Burns to, say, Louise Bennett?

[UPDATED in DECEMBER 2009: In fact, the historical circumstances that lead Bennett to emphatically proclaim her affinity for Jamaican patois ("Dah language weh yuh proud o’,/Weh yu honour and respeck,” but, at the same time, the truth is “Dat it it spring from dialect!”) are actually similar, even across a significant historical divide, to the aesthetic and political framework that produced Burns.

In fact, one could very well use this anthology while focusing specifically on the strictly "postcolonial" authors -- Oonya Kempadoo, Derek Walcott, and Louise Bennett. Or it could be used with a broader historical lens. Some of the passionate feelings about language experienced felt by today's postcolonial writers were also alive for Irish writers 100 years ago, and for Scottish writers like Burns more than 200 years ago!]


I've been very interested to learn about some of the authors I was previously unfamiliar with in Ahmad's anthology, like the Northern Irish writer Frances Molloy, or the Papaua New Guinean John Kasaipwalova.

Rereading the excerpt of Gautam Malkani's Londonstani Ahmad has included reminded me just why I disliked that novel -- I can't really sympathize with, or even be very interested in, Malkani's Brit-Punjabi thugs. But I'm also not really convinced by the particular vernacular spoken by Malkani's characters; they seem to be trying too hard. One of the worst moments for me is this paragraph:

All a this shit was just academic a course. Firstly, Hardjit's thesis, though it was what Mr Ashwood's call internally coherent, failed to recognize the universality a the word Nigga compared with the word Paki. De-poncified, this means many Hindus an Sikhs'd spit blood if they ever got linked to any thing to do with Pakistan. Indians are just too racist to use the word Paki.

Here, as elsewhere in his novel, Malkani is pursuing some interesting lines of thought regarding problems of self-naming within the Desi diaspora. But it's simply not realistic that Malkani's characters would work through these questions in a vernacular idiom; I would rather expect them to code-switch between academic (sociological) terms in standard English, and their Punjabi and Jamaican patois-inflected street language, when lusting after Nike Air Force Ones and beating up "goras" who use the word "Paki."

Much better than Malkani is Rohinton Mistry, whose "The Ghost of Firozsha Baag" is one of my favorite short stories from Mistry's earlier work:

All the fault is of old bai who died ten years ago. She was in charge till her son brought a wife, the new bai of the house. Old bai took English words and made them from Parsi words. Easy chair was igeechur, French beans was ferach beech and Jacqueline became Jaakaylee. Later I found out that all old Parsis did this, it was like they made their own private language.

So then new bai called me Jaakaylee also, and children do the same. I don't care about it now. If someone asks my name I say Jaakaylee. And I talk Parsi-Gujarati all the time instead of Konkani, even with other ayah.s Sometimes also little bits of English.


While I'm being critical, I might also point readers to Evelyn Ch'ien's "Weird English" (also at "Politics & Culture"), which runs along the same lines as her recent book of the same title. I may have my issues with the rather broad scope of "Rotten English," but at least it has a very strong historical and intellectual justification in Ken Saro-Wiwa's novel (Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English). By contrast, calling the same body of writing (with some variations) "Weird English" doesn't do much for me -- largely because I don't like the word "weird." "Rotten English" can work as a subversive rallying cry for accented and vernacular speakers of English all over the world (though I think "Global English" is more denotatively accurate, if blander). "Weird English," by contrast, really doesn't have the same purchase.

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Friday, June 29, 2007

Coolies -- How Britain Re-Invented Slavery

On, the BBC has itself posted a complete one-hour documentary, exposing the 19th-century British practice of Indentured Labour, through which more than 1 million Indian workers were transported all over the world -- only to be told there was no provision to return. They were effectively only slightly better off than the African slave laborers they were brought in to replace. The latter had been emancipated in 1833, when the British government decided to end slavery and the slave trade throughout the Empire.

The documentary is brought to you by... who else? The BBC!

Some of the speakers include Brij Lal, an Indo-Fijian who now teaches in Australia, and David Dabydeen, an Indo-Guyanan novelist who now teaches in Warwick, UK. I've watched about 25 minutes of it so far, and it seems to be pretty well designed -- some historical overview, but not too much. Most of the focus is on the descendents of Indian indentured laborers, who are now trying to work out the implications of their history.

Incidentally, it looks like this video can be downloaded for free to your PC -- in case you're going to be sitting in a train or an airport for an hour sometime this weekend, and wanted a little "light" entertainment. (You will also need to download Google's Video Player application.)

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Wednesday, April 04, 2007

History Lessons: From the Sepoy Mutiny (1857) to Iraq (Today)

I'm sorry I've been a slack blogger of late -- I was finishing up another article for a journal, this time on blogging, anonymity, and the changing concept of "authorship." It would be a shame to neglect this blog just as I'm starting to write professionally about blogging!


At any rate, here's one recommendation: last week's Radio Open Source conversation with William Dalrymple. Many of the points Dalrymple makes will be familiar to people who have been following the reviews of his new book, The Last Mughal. (I blogged about it here)

What is new in this conversation is the attempt to make a direct parallel between the changing behavior of the British in the months and years leading up to the Mutiny, and the attitude of today's neo-conservative Hawks on the policy of "regime change" and "spreading democracy" around the Middle East.

The show was inspired by Ram Manikkalingam's excellent review of the book (along with Imperial Life in the Emerald City) up at 3 Quarks Daily.

Manan Ahmed, ("Sepoy" of Chapati Mystery -- highly appropriate to this topic) also makes an appearance in the last 20 minutes, talking about the work postcolonial historians have been trying to do to bring forward the kinds of stories Dalrymple's book focuses on.

The entire show is available for downloading as an MP3; if you are into downloading podcasts, this might be a good one. Otherwise, if you have 40 minutes, you might just want to listen to it right on the web.

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Thursday, February 08, 2007

Wizard of the Crow @ LBC

Ngugi's new novel, Wizard of the Crow, is the winter selection at the Lit Blog Co-op, and they have an interview with Ngugi up.

But even better is the post with a chronological list of quotes from Ngugi regarding the status of art in postcolonial Africa. The best one is probably the quote from 2003, where Ngugi talks about the evolution of his own name:

I wrote Weep Not, Child; A River Between; and A Grain of Wheat and published the three novels under the name James Ngugi. James is the name which I acquired when I was baptized into Christianity in primary school, but later I came to reject the name because I Saw it as part of the colonial naming system when Africans were taken as slaves to America and were given the names of the plantation owners. Say, when a slave was bought by Smith, that slave was renamed Smith. This meant that they were the property of Smith or Brown and the same thing was later transferred to the colony. It meant that if an African was baptized, as evidence of his new self or the new identity he was given an English name. Not just a biblical, but a biblical and English name. It was a symbolical replacing of one identity with another. So the person who was once Ngugi is now James Ngugi, the one who was once owned by his people is now owned by the English, the one who was owned by an African naming system is now owned by an English naming system. So when I realized that, I began to reject the name James and to reconnect myself to my African name which was given at birth, and that's Ngugi wa Thiong'o, meaning Ngugi, son of Thiong'o.

I knew that he had been baptized early in his life, but for some reason I was unaware that his first three novels were published under the name, "James Ngugi."

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Friday, January 26, 2007

Postcolonial Journals

(This post is mainly for the academics in the audience)

Following is a short list of "Postcolonial" oriented journals. Now that my book is out, I'm planning to focus on writing some articles, which means, to begin with, getting a better sense of what's actually out there.

There is a useful feature in the MLA Bibliography search, where you can search by "Periodical Subject." If you search for "postcolonial," 34 journals show up, and I've been exploring them. (I don't know why I never tried this before; one of my colleagues showed me how). On the individual entries for the journals, MLA actually gives very specific information as to how long articles should be, what the turn-around rate is, and what the submission/acceptance ratio is.

Journal of Postcolonial Writing

Hybridity: Journal of Cultures, Texts, and Identities does not seem to have a website. It is published in Singapore.

Journal of Commonwealth and Postcolonial Studies. I published a review with them some time ago.

New Literatures Review is published in Australia.

Textual Practice is not a specifically postcolonial journal, though it does list "postcolonial" as one of its keywords.

Journal of Commonwealth Literature

Ariel: A Review of International Literature; it is published in Calgary. This is one of the preeminent postcolonial journals; they are highly selective.

Wasafiri. I've published an essay with them; they are good (also preeminent, if I can say so myself).

Kunapipi. Another Australian poco journal.

Postcolonial Text. It's online-only, but it is peer-reviewed.

Postcolonial Studies.

Jouvert is defunct -- I'm curious to know what happened there.

South Asian Review. I'm editing a special issue for them this year; I'm also on the Advisory Board.

* * *
Paul Brians has a list that includes a few other journals on his site at Washington State University.

And there's another list here.

Can anyone think of other journals they would recommend?

Secondly, do readers have experiences with these journals they would like to share? (feel free to comment anonymously, if you prefer)

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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

In the Washington Post: Vikram Chandra, and a little from me

I'm quoted in an article in this past Monday's Washington Post, on Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games:

The seminal event of Chandra's 45 years, by contrast, has been the transformation, beginning in the early 1990s, of India's sleepy socialist economy into a dynamic engine of internationalization and growth.

"We're living through this precarious time when great changes are happening," Chandra says. The India he grew up in felt like "a little bubble at a far distance from the rest of the world." But in the India his 7-year-old nephew has inherited, "the West as a presence is completely available every day -- and his expectations of his place in the world are very changed."

This new India is a place where the middle class is growing in size and confidence. It's also a place, as Chandra points out, where there's still "this huge mass of people who have nothing" but who can now see what they lack.

And it's a place, according to Lehigh University professor Amardeep Singh, where "the stories people want to tell" aren't so much about colonialism anymore.

Singh teaches courses with titles such as "Post-Colonial Literature in English," using texts from regions as diverse as Africa, South Asia and the Caribbean. He notes that Chandra's first novel was replete with colonial themes, but he sees "Sacred Games" as something quite different.

"I would use the phrase 'novel of globalization,' " Singh says. In "Sacred Games," he points out, the English language Chandra's upwardly mobile gangster struggles to learn is associated less with India's former colonizers than with the broader international economy that dictates its use.

Not surprisingly, the notion of a globalized Indian literature has sparked a backlash. Indian authors writing in English, especially those living overseas, have been charged by some critics with distorting Indian reality to cater to Western audiences. Chandra took some hits on this front himself, even before "Sacred Games," and was irritated enough to lash back in a Boston Review essay titled "The Cult of Authenticity."

His advice to any writer similarly attacked: "Do what it takes to get the job done. Use whatever you need. Swagger confidently through all the world, because it all belongs to you."

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Friday, September 24, 2004

An Introduction to Edward Said, Orientalism, and Postcolonial Literary Studies

REQUEST: If you were assigned this post on Edward Said's "Orientalism" as part of a course, or if you're a teacher who is assigning the below, I would greatly appreciate it if you would leave a comment stating which class and which school below. Or, email me at amardeep [AT] gmail [DOT] com.

It's been about a year since Edward Said passed away.

Recently, there was a panel at Lehigh to talk about his legacy, specifically in the spheres of his contribution to literary studies, the representation of Islam, as well as his political advocacy. I was on the panel to talk about literary studies, especially his books Orientalism (1978) and Culture and Imperialism (1993).

Preparing a presentation gave me an opportunity to look at some Said essays on literature I hadn't ever read (see for instance this at LRB; or this at Al-Ahram). I was also particularly impressed by the Said resources at There are dozens and dozens of essays by Said linked there, as well as a great many "tribute" essays written by critics all around the world, immediately after his passing. I highly recommend it.

The presentation was a challenging one to write. I include a modified (for the web) version of it below because 1) I haven't really found a simple, straightforward introduction to Said's argument in Orientalism on the web, and 2) I can't imagine publishing even a revised version of this, since my colleagues in postcolonial studies will know these arguments very, very well.

An Introduction to Edward Said, Orientalism, and Postcolonial Literary Studies
(For a very general audience; notes for a presentation given at Lehigh University on 9/23/04)

Basic Bio: "Edward Said was born in Jerusalem in 1935 and was for many years America’s foremost spokesman for the Palestinian cause. His writings have been translated into 26 languages, including his most influential book, Orientalism (1978), an examination of the way the West perceives the Islamic world. Much of his writing beyond literary and cultural criticism is inspired by his passionate advocacy of the Palestinian cause, including The Question of Palestine, (1979), Covering Islam (1981), After the Last Sky (1986) and Blaming the Victims (1988). . . . He went to a New England boarding school, undergraduate years at Princeton and graduate study at Harvard." (from the Columbia University website)

Edward Said's signature contribution to academic life is the book Orientalism. It has been influential in about half a dozen established disciplines, especially literary studies (English, comparative literature), history, anthropology, sociology, area studies (especially middle east studies), and comparative religion. However, as big as Orientalism was to academia, Said’s thoughts on literature and art continued to evolve over time, and were encapsulated in Culture and Imperialism (1993), a book which appeared nearly 15 years after Orientalism (1978). Put highly reductively, the development of his thought can be understood as follows: Said’s early work began with a gesture of refusal and rejection, and ended with a kind of ambivalent acceptance. If Orientalism questioned a pattern of misrepresentation of the non-western world, Culture and Imperialism explored with a less confrontational tone the complex and ongoing relationships between east and west, colonizer and colonized, white and black, and metropolitan and colonial societies.

Said directly challenged what Euro-American scholars traditionally referred to as "Orientalism." Orientalism is an entrenched structure of thought, a pattern of making certain generalizations about the part of the world known as the 'East'. As Said puts it:

“Orientalism was ultimately a political vision of reality whose structure promoted the difference between the familiar (Europe, West, "us") and the strange (the Orient, the East, "them").”

Just to be clear, Said didn't invent the term 'Orientalism'; it was a term used especially by middle east specialists, Arabists, as well as many who studied both East Asia and the Indian subcontinent. The vastness alone of the part of the world that European and American scholars thought of as the "East" should, one imagines, have caused some one to think twice. But for the most part, that self-criticism didn’t happen, and Said argues that the failure there –- the blind spot of orientalist thinking –- is a structural one.

The stereotypes assigned to Oriental cultures and "Orientals" as individuals are pretty specific: Orientals are despotic and clannish. They are despotic when placed in positions of power, and sly and obsequious when in subservient positions. Orientals, so the stereotype goes, are impossible to trust. They are capable of sophisticated abstractions, but not of concrete, practical organization or rigorous, detail-oriented analysis. Their men are sexually incontinent, while their women are locked up behind bars. Orientals are, by definition, strange. The best summary of the Orientalist mindset would probably be: “East is east and west is west, and never the twain shall meet” (Rudyard Kipling).

In his book, Said asks: but where is this sly, devious, despotic, mystical Oriental? Has anyone ever met anyone who meets this description in all particulars? In fact, this idea of the Oriental is a particular kind of myth produced by European thought, especially in and after the 18th century. In some sense his book Orientalism aims to dismantle this myth, but more than that Said's goal is to identify Orientalism as a discourse.

From Myth to Discourse. The oriental is a myth or a stereotype, but Said shows that the myth had, over the course of two centuries of European thought, come to be thought of as a kind of systematic knowledge about the East. Because the myth masqueraded as fact, the results of studies into eastern cultures and literature were often self-fulfilling. It was accepted as a common fact that Asians, Arabs, and Indians were mystical religious devotees incapable of rigorous rationality. It is unsurprising, therefore that so many early European studies into, for instance, Persian poetry, discovered nothing more or less than the terms of their inquiry were able to allow: mystical religious devotion and an absence of rationality.

Political Dominance. Said showed that the myth of the Oriental was possible because of European political dominance of the Middle East and Asia. In this aspect of his thought he was strongly influenced by the French philosopher Michel Foucault. The influence from Foucault is wide-ranging and thorough, but it is perhaps most pronounced when Said argues that Orientalism is a full-fledged discourse, not just a simple idea, and when he suggests that all knowledge is produced in situations of unequal relations of power. In short, a person who dominates another is the only one in a position to write a book about it, to establish it, to define it. It’s not a particular moral failing that the stereotypical failing defined as Orientalism emerged in western thinking, and not somewhere else.

Post-colonial Criticism
Orientalism was a book about a particular pattern in western thought. It was not, in and of itself, an evaluation of the importance of that thought. It was written before the peak of the academic ‘culture wars’, when key words like relativism, pluralism, and multiculturalism would be the order of the day. Said has often been lumped in with relativists and pluralists, but in fact he doesn’t belong there.

In his later literary and cultural work, especially in Culture and Imperialism Said generally avoided the language of confrontation. Where others have angrily rejected the literary heritage of the Western Canon, Said, has instead embraced it, albeit ambivalently. Where others denounced Joseph Conrad and Rudyard Kipling as racist dead white men, Said wrote careful reappraisals of their works, focusing on their representations of India and Africa respectively. Said did not apologize for, for instance, Joseph Conrad’s image of the Congo as an essentially corrupting place inhabited by ruthless cannibals. But Said did acknowledge Conrad’s gift for style, and explored its implications: Conrad was sophisticated enough to sense that he did indeed have a blind spot. Conrad recognized that the idea of imperialism was an illusion, built entirely on a very fragile mythic rhetoric. You see some of this in the famous quote from Heart of Darkness:

The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea -- something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to. . . ."

The lines are spoken by the sailor Marlowe, who was in effect an observer-participant to the scene of Kurtz’s fatal breakdown in the upper Congo. He is a veteran, of the colonial system, and this is the first place where his views become apparent. Like many others in his trade, Marlowe was in fact ambivalent about what was, in effect, his job. He knows the violence of it and the potential evil of it, but he still tries to justify it through recourse to the "idea at the back of it." But even more puzzling: that "idea at the back of it" is not an idea of reason, or human rights, or technology (or the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction). The idea is something to "bow down before, offer a sacrifice to..." The desire to conquer the earth, in short, is as irrational a desire as any.

Said refers to this passage a few times in his essays. One such response is as follows, where Said sketches an account of the political conditions that made imperialism possible in England and France, as well as general readings of several works of literature. I quote at length because this is a perfect example of Said’s ability to blend political/historical analysis with literary criticism:

But there's more than that to imperialism. There was a commitment to imperialism over and above profit, a commitment in constant circulation and recirculation which on the one hand allowed decent men and women from England or France, from London or Paris, to accept the notion that distant territories and their native peoples should be subjugated and, on the other hand, replenished metropolitan energies so that these decent people could think of the empire as a protracted, almost metaphysical obligation to rule subordinate, inferior or less advanced peoples. We mustn't forget, and this is a very important aspect of my topic, that there was very little domestic resistance inside Britain and France. There was a kind of tremendous unanimity on the question of having an empire. There was very little domestic resistance to imperial expansion during the nineteenth century, although these empires were very frequently established and maintained under adverse and even disadvantageous conditions. Not only were immense hardships in the African wilds or wastes, the "dark continent," as it was called in the latter part of the nineteenth century, endured by the white colonizers, but there was always the tremendously risky physical disparity between a small number of Europeans at a very great distance from home and a much larger number of natives on their home territory. In India, for instance, by the 1930s, a mere 4,000 British civil servants, assisted by 60,000 soldiers and 90,000 civilians, had billeted themselves upon a country of 300,000,000 people. The will, self-confidence, even arrogance necessary to maintain such a state of affairs could only be guessed at. But as one can see in the texts of novels like Forster's Passage to India or Kipling's Kim, these attitudes are at least as significant as the number of people in the army or civil service or the millions of pounds that England derived from India.

For the enterprise of empire depends upon the idea of having an empire, as Joseph Conrad so powerfully seems to have realized in Heart of Darkness. He says that the difference between us in the modern period, the modern imperialists, and the Romans is that the Romans were there just for the loot. They were just stealing. But we go there with an idea. He was thinking, obviously, of the idea, for instance in Africa, of the French and the Belgians that when you go to these continents you're not just robbing the people of their ivory and slaves and so on. You are improving them in some way. I'm really quite serious. The idea, for example, of the French empire was that France had a "mission civilisatrice," that it was there to civilize the natives. It was a very powerful idea. Obviously, not so many of the natives believed it, but the French believed that that was what they were doing.

The idea of having an empire is very important, and that is the central feature that I am interested in. All kinds of preparations are made for this idea within a culture and then, in turn and in time, imperialism acquires a kind of coherence, a set of experiences and a presence of ruler and ruled alike within the culture. (see

A final point, about postcolonial studies. The development of Said’s ideas about literature and art paralleled those of the field of post-colonial criticism as a whole. It began in anger – Frantz Fanon, Aime Cesaire, Malcolm X. And it has ended up in a rather different place, embraced in the very academic settings that once might have laughed at the very notion of a canonical body of, say, African Literature.

Post-colonial criticism, which began under the combative spiritual aegis of [Frantz] Fanon and [Aime] Césaire, went further than either of them in showing the existence of what in Culture and Imperialism I called 'overlapping territories' and 'intertwined histories'. Many of us who grew up in the colonial era were struck by the fact that even though a hard and fast line separated colonizer from colonized in matters of rule and authority (a native could never aspire to the condition of the white man), the experiences of ruler and ruled were not so easily disentangled. (from the London Review of Books:

That means that nativism cannot be an effective answer to western hegemony (later he gets more specific: "Afrocentrism is as flawed as Eurocentrism"). There’s no simple way to achieve decolonization, just as (in the more limited context of the United States), there’s no simple way for anyone to disentangle him or herself from the effects of racism.

But it also means that, in many respects, colonialism is still with us. It was through the colonial system that most of the national borders in Africa and Asia were drawn up, in many cases arbitrarily. But more than that are the effects of colonial language, the colonial state bureaucracy, and especially colonial attitudes to things like economic development.

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