Issue 162, February 2021: Postcolonial world literature

The Rebellion of the Dead, Nalini Malani, (2017) CC Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

Guest editors: Dirk Wiemann, Shaswati Mazumdar, Ira Raja, Christel Devadawson and Haris Qadeer


Postcolonial world literature: Narration, translation, imagination

Dirk Wiemann, Shaswati Mazumdar, Ira Raja

Postcolonial criticism has repeatedly debunked the ostensible neutrality of the ‘world’ of world literature by pointing out that and how the contemporary world – whether conceived in terms of cosmopolitan conviviality or neoliberal globalization – cannot be understood without recourse to the worldly event of Europe’s colonial expansion. While we deem this critical perspective indispensable, we simultaneously maintain that to reduce ‘the world’ to the world-making impact of capital, colonialism, and patriarchy paints an overly deterministic picture that runs the risk of unwittingly reproducing precisely that dominant ‘oneworldness’ that it aims to critique. Moreover, the mere potentiality of alternative modes of world-making tends to disappear in such a perspective so that the only remaining option to think beyond oneworldness resides in the singularity claim. This insistence on singularity, however, leaves the relatedness of the single units massively underdetermined or denies it altogether. By contrast, we locate world literature in the conflicted space between the imperial imposition of a hierarchically stratified world (to which, as hegemonic forces tell us, ‘there is no alternative’) and the unrealized ‘undivided world’ that multiple minor cosmopolitan projects yet have to win. It is precisely the tension between these ‘two worlds’ that brings into view the crucial centrality not of the nodes in their alleged singularity but their specific relatedness to each other, that both impedes and energizes world literature today and renders it ineluctably postcolonial.


Mutant worlds, migrant words: Rabindranath Tagore, Mahasweta Devi and Amitav Ghosh

Radha Chakravarty

Drawing upon the insights of Rabindranath Tagore, who coined the term viswasahitya to express his own understanding of comparative literature, this essay resituates translation as the cornerstone for new directions in world literature. While conventional understandings of world literature tend to reconfirm existing power structures and hierarchies, translation opens up the possibility of thinking beyond the national/global binary by interrogating the lines along which such binaries are conceptualized. Translation operates at the borders that are seen to divide cultures, languages, worldviews and geographies. This essay explores the dynamic relationship between translation and world literature within contemporary South Asian writing, through an analysis of heteroglossia, multilingualism and ‘translatedness’ in selected texts by Mahasweta Devi and Amitav Ghosh, opening up larger questions about multilingualism and also about the very discipline of comparative literature. Highlighting the role that translation has historically played in shaping power relations in the world, this paper projects the transformative potential of translation as the key to a radical reconceptualization of a world literature for the future.

Layer after layer: Aerial roots and routes of translation

Dirk Wiemann

When the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in South London were opened to the general public in the 1840s, they were presented as a ‘world text’: a collection of flora from all over the world, with the spectacular tropical (read: colonial) specimens taking centre stage as indexes of Britain’s imperial supremacy. However, the one exotic plant species that preoccupied the British cultural imagination more than any other remained conspicuously absent from the collection: the banyan tree, whose non-transferability left a significant gap in the ‘text’ of the garden, thereby effectively puncturing the illusion of comprehensive global command that underpins the biopolitical designs of what Richard Grove has aptly dubbed ‘green imperialism’. This article demonstrates how, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the banyan tree became an object of fascination and admiration for British scientists, painters, writers and photographers precisely because of its obstinate non-availability to colonial control and visual or even conceptual representability.

Teaching Indo-Islamic poetry: Sexuality in the global classroom

Shad Naved

The article argues that a critical encounter with pre-modern literatures from the national past is long overdue under the impact of a globalized discourse of sexuality. Its effects are already felt at the level of both pedagogy and literary reading, one reconstituting the other, in the ‘global classroom’, a self-conscious pedagogical space imagined by the new educational policy to bring about a globally accredited cultural homogeneity. The case study comes from teaching erotic poetry at an Indian university, from the joint literary complex of Hindi and Urdu in South Asia, a theme uncomfortably located in national culture not just because of its sexuality but its association with non-national linguistic elements which the article terms ‘Indo-Islamic’. The overlapping of the sexual modern with the Indo-Islamic resurfaces a tension in the nationalized body of literary writing in Hindi/Urdu, the major ‘national’ languages of South Asia. This encounter of erotic poetry in old Hindi and Urdu with globalized sexuality, the article shows, offers a chance to reflect on how literary studies are being reshaped by the assumptions of a monolingual, monocultural global sexuality in our nationalist times.

Theorizing untranslatability: Temporalities and ambivalence in colonial literature of Taiwan and Korea

Pei Jean Chen

This paper theorizes and historicizes the ideas of modern language and translation and challenges the imperialist and nationalistic mode of worlding with the notion of ‘untranslatability’ that is embedded in the linguistic and cultural practices of colonial Taiwan and Korea. I redefine the notion of translation as a bordering system – the knowledge-production of boundaries, discrimination, and classification – that simultaneously creates the translatable and the untranslatable (i.e. the equivalence and incommensurability) in asymmetrical power relations. With this, I discuss how this ambivalence is embodied in the experiences of colonial writers Wu Yung-fu and Pak T’aewŏn and their novellas ‘Head and Body’ (1933) and ‘A Day in the life of Kubo the Novelist’ (1934). I illustrate two characteristics of the ambivalent untranslatability embedded in their novellas: the linguistic untranslatability and the experience of ‘unhomeness’. The linguistic untranslatability and unhomeness, I argue, result in the colonized’s dislocation in homogeneous time-space relationships, resulting to the incompletion of the modernization project through colonialism. At the same time untranslatability offers a site to explore the transnational space that crosses linguistic boundaries, and to caution against the legacy of colonialism.

Which world, whose literature?

Supriya Chaudhuri

This essay argues that the ‘thought figure’ of world literature has been under incalculable strain from its inception, given the diversity of linguistic and cultural contexts within which it must be understood. After a brief introductory discussion of Rabindranath Tagore’s talk on world literature (1907), the essay goes on to connect world literature debates with those in global modernism, especially modernism in the colony. Looking at the networks of modernism, and the role of little magazines in India, particularly Bengal, in creating a sense of world literature through reviews and translations, it stresses the importance of location, language, and perspective in the wake of decolonization. However, in the present time of ecological and planetary crisis, with a global upsurge of xenophobia, insularity, and ethnic, racist, or communal violence, the notion of a world, or of a world literature, is hard to sustain.

Remembering (to forget) English: The crises of world literature in Jotirao Phule’s slavery

Rahee Punyashloka

Discursive history of the English language has been vital to analysing ‘the postcolonial condition’ in the Indian subcontinent, with a broadly overarching emphasis on how English is a ‘usurper language’. Simultaneous to this, however, there exists a hitherto understudied history featuring subaltern, ‘organic intellectuals’ from the lower castes. Not only does this ‘subaltern history of English’ exhibit a more positive affect toward the English language – by invoking its emancipatory potential in an economy of deeply casteist vernacular languages – but it also complicates multiple assertions that the postcolonial apparatus has so far held as a priori. Jotirao Phule’s Slavery/Gulamgiri (1873) is one of the foremost examples of such a position; its preface, which lucidly announces this seemingly unique position, is quite possibly the first explicitly political treatise written in the English language in the history of the subcontinent. This paper highlights the enormous shifts that take place in our understanding of the history of English – and (post)colonial modernity – if we were to (aptly) classify Phule’s preface as a key text in the history of ‘Indian writing in English’. Subsequently, it is argued that Phule’s work crystallizes into a radically alternate – and far more egalitarian – conception of ‘world literature’ contra Tagore’s well-known idea of visva sahitya.

Making worlds from literature: W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Quest of the Silver Fleece and Dark Princess

Verena Adamik

While W.E.B. Du Bois’s first novel, The Quest of the Silver Fleece (1911), is set squarely in the USA, his second work of fiction, Dark Princess: A Romance (1928), abandons this national framework, depicting the treatment of African Americans in the USA as embedded into an international system of economic exploitation based on racial categories. Ultimately, the political visions offered in the novels differ starkly, but both employ a Western literary canon – so-called ‘classics’ from Greek, German, English, French, and US American literature. With this, Du Bois attempts to create a new space for African Americans in the world (literature) of the 20th century. Weary of the traditions of this ‘world literature’, the novels complicate and begin to decenter the canon that they draw on. This reading traces what I interpret as subtle signs of frustration over the limits set by the literature that underlies Dark Princess, while its predecessor had been more optimistic in its appropriation of Eurocentric fiction for its propagandist aims.

Fin du globe: Oscar Wilde’s romance with decadence and the idea of world literature

Harald Pittel

This essay argues that Oscar Wilde noticeably contributed to the emerging discourse about world literature, even though his views in this regard have to be unearthed from the margins of his works, from his early and unpublished American lectures and ‘between the lines’ of his major critical essays. Wilde’s implicit ideas around world literature can be understood as being closely related to his broader endeavour of redirecting and revaluing the pejorative discourse around ‘decadence’ in art and literature. More specifically, the arch-aesthete preferred to use the word ‘romance’ rather than ‘decadence’ (a term he hardly used at all in his writings), signalling a sensitivity attuned to what he called the ‘love of things impossible’. This reconceptualization of the decadent outlook was to inspire a critical ideal of literature which relied on creatively activating the other as Other, culminating in a vision of intersubjective, transcultural and unlimited literary communication. Wilde’s thought can be more specifically understood as anticipating central tenets of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s evocations of the planetary, thus preparing the way for an alterity-oriented understanding of literary cosmopolitanism.

An ‘international author, but in a different sense’: J.M. Coetzee and ‘Literatures of the South’

Meg Samuelson

J.M. Coetzee has unquestionably achieved the status of ‘international author’ within dominant conceptions of world literature: his works circulate widely in both English and translation and have been legitimated by the principal arbitrators of the global cultural industry. He has, however, recently positioned himself as ‘an international author, but in a different sense’; that is, as a writer whose internationalism is achieved through his location in ‘the South’. This article considers how Coetzee’s narratives thematize being ‘international’ in this ‘different sense’. It focuses on the pivotal works of Youth: Scenes from Provincial Life (2002) and the opening chapters of Elizabeth Costello: Eight Lessons (2003) while tracking an orientation southward across his oeuvre in allusions to Joseph Conrad, Jorge Luis Borges and, in particular, Pablo Neruda as well as in Coetzee’s repeated turn to littoral settings. These settings open to what the article describes as the ‘blue southern hemisphere’, implicating narrative world-making in the geophysical properties and ‘troubled histories’ that constitute the South and recasting the act of writing from ‘the far edges’ into a planetary perspective that contends with the uncanny nature of settler societies in the southern temperate zone

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