Postcolonial poetics: 21st-century critical readings by Elleke Boehmer: a review

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Postcolonial poetics: 21st-century critical readings
Elleke Boehmer
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
ISBN: 9783319903408

It is nearly impossible to know where to start when writing about postcolonial studies. This vast field of inquiry has influenced diverse schools of thought and disciplines all over the world. One of its leading scholars in the literature corner is Elleke Boehmer, the author of such seminal works as Colonial and postcolonial literature: Migrant metaphors (1995; expanded edition, 2005), Empire, the national, and the postcolonial, 1890–1920: Resistance in interaction (2002) and Stories of women: Gender and narrative in the postcolonial nation (2005). What sets Boehmer’s work apart from many other academic writers’ is its readability. She is also an acclaimed novelist and short story writer. These two facts are most likely related. They also allow the author to view the topic of her latest book, Postcolonial poetics: 21st-century critical readings, from a rare perspective, as a theorist and practitioner of the art of creative writing.

The central question Boehmer addresses in Postcolonial poetics is “whether there was a kind of reading that postcolonial texts in particular solicited” and, if yes, what its main characteristics were. In eight concise chapters, the book offers an intriguing approach to understanding our relationship to postcolonial literature as readers. Boehmer examines how the structures of postcolonial writing in English – with focus on southern and West Africa, black and Asian Britain, as well as India – “shape our reading”, and how this literature “interacts with our imaginative understanding of the world”. The emphasis moves from the text and its author, to the recipient in front of the page: Boehmer believes that literature “has the capacity to keep re-imagining and refreshing how we understand ourselves in relation to the world and to some of the most pressing questions of our time, including cultural reconciliation, survival after terror, and migration”, and shows “that literary writing itself lays down structures and protocols to shape and guide our reading”.

Most readers of South African fiction and non-fiction will recognise the need to comprehend the complexities of our socio-political everyday and the destabilising tensions of our local and global reality through engagement with the books that tackle these issues. How these reflect in the formal composition of postcolonial literatures and mould our reading experience is fascinating: “This approach … asks how writing as writing, and as received by readers, gives insight into aspects of our postcolonial world. It is something of a radical departure for a field in which the literary has often been read in terms of other orders of reality: social, political, or ethical.” The focus is on the pragmatics of the poetics of a text, on what it “can do, rather than … what it shows”. In other words, the way we interpret postcolonial literature and make the texts work for us takes centre stage, sidelining the texts’ representative function. Naturally, empathy, or “sympathetic identification”, becomes a key concept in understanding the dynamics of such readings.

Starting with the Oxford English Dictionary definition of the term “poetics” – “the creative principles informing any literary, social or cultural construction, or the theoretical study of these; a theory of form” – Boehmer proceeds by asking whether postcolonial literature exhibits clear signs of its own poetics, and how these relate to the ever-present questions of relevance. She devotes one chapter of Postcolonial poetics to resistance literature and “the role of the reader in relation to the resistant text”, drawing our attention to the function of “juxtaposition” in creating “meanings which cannot yet be articulated in so many words [but] might be subtly and also subversively inferred”. It is the kind of writing that challenges us as readers to think beyond the accepted norms. One of the most famous of such readers, “a resistant reader”, as Boehmer calls him, was Nelson Mandela. She suggests that “his ability to draw … differences and correspondences into sympathetic play in relation to one another, arguably pointed to how he might draw polarized positions into dialogue around the negotiating table”.

Looking at selected works by Ben Okri, Fred D’Aguiar, Warsan Shire and M NourbeSe Philip, Boehmer explores “how postcolonial texts deal with terror events, and takes this writing as offering fruitful instances of a poetics that confronts, yet also moves beyond such events, where the writing is itself a medium of continuation and renewal”. As the world is continually confronted with acts of unspeakable (and I use the word very consciously) terror, it is often the text that recreates a disrupted narrative and affords us the possibility of comprehension and healing beyond it. The act of writing can enact survival, as Boehmer shows. Postcolonial writing also explores other forms of violence, such that are slow and take place over longer periods of time, like “human affliction brought by colonial and capitalist development, such as the prolonged violence of mass labour exploitation that was slavery, and the exclusion, killing and displacement of whole populations in situations of xenophobia, genocide, and civil war”.

South African novels by Damon Galgut, Imraan Coovadia and Sifiso Mzobe dominate the chapter on crisis writing or “trauma writing”, especially after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Boehmer recalls the optimism with which the new dawn in postapartheid writing was anticipated, but soberly points out that South African literature in the first decade after the first democratic elections, perhaps unsurprisingly after all, “apparently staggered, punch-drunk, from one crisis and cry of pain to another, from one classic manifestation of trauma or inner wounding to the next”. While this assessment feels right in general, an alternative focus could bring a significant number of texts to the fore which definitely defy it. Here, in contrast, I am specifically thinking of women authors such as Finuala Dowling, Henrietta Rose-Innes, Liesl Jobson and Emma van der Vliet. There is no doubt, however, that the poetics of the majority of postapartheid writing “is marked by hesitations, breaks, and repetitions, not only compelling the reader to relieve the traumatic experience along with the speaker or writer, but also drawing them into the difficulty of its articulation”.

What can also not be denied is Chinua Achebe’s lasting influence on postcolonial literature, and Boehmer dedicates a chapter to how he “offered a way of writing Africa that was modern and transnational, yet also vernacular and idiomatic”. He believed “that a postcolonial poetics might be shaped by energies at once verbal and mythic drawn from African oral literatures and from a mix of African and European languages”. Many followed in his footsteps, writing an Africa into being that is “a primary centre of meaning, a core of the world”.

In the last two chapters of Postcolonial poetics, Boehmer turns to the concepts of “world literature” and protest writing. Discussing the former, she outlines the often hard to pinpoint differences between postcolonial and world or global literature and world system studies, and shows how the disciplines could profit from paradigm shifts inspired by their diverse outlooks. In the latter, she looks to poetry and the short story as forms that require readers’ “involvement”, “stimulating specific responses … even when the desired response paradoxically embraces the reader’s apparent exclusion from the scene”. In particular, Boehmer concentrates on Koleka Putuma’s ground-breaking debut poetry volume, Collective amnesia.

Throughout Postcolonial poetics, Boehmer’s careful examination of “reading” practices allows for not only a deeper understanding of the formal, aesthetic dimension of postcolonial writing, but our role as readers in decoding and experiencing a text. It constitutes an invigorating relocation of attention in postcolonial studies.

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