Inter/National Identities


Suzie Suriam

Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana

Copyright © 2003 by Suzie Suriam, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

Review of:

Singh, Amritjit, and Peter Schmidt (eds). Postcolonial Theory and the United States: Race, Ethnicity and Literature. Jackson MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2000. ISBN 1578062519 & 1578062527. 471 pp.

  1. This collection of nineteen essays, edited and with an introduction by Amritjit Singh and Peter Schmidt, addresses the emerging and exciting field of U.S. border studies. Most of these probing essays by well-established and up-and-coming scholars have already been published, during the 1990s, in referred postcolonial, literary or historical studies journals (Amerasia journal, American Literature, American Literature History, Callaloo, Modern Language Quarterly, etc.), and revised for inclusion here. Others have been written especially for this anthology. That produces an interesting mix of previously tested and recognized works alongside newly developed theories, about critical issues surrounding the United States' ever-expanding international cultural identity in the postcolonial era.

  2. The book is divided into three parts: "Identities, Margins, and Borders I & II," "Historical Configurations," "Contemporary Contestations," and the articles examine a wide scope of postcolonial and U.S. ethnic works. Postcolonial theorists should be familiar with most of the material covered in this anthology. As the essays are written in a clear, precise and yet elegant language, postcolonialists should however enjoy delving into subjects more or less directly related to their fields of specialty. While they closely examine each literary tradition associated with major racial or ethnic communities within the United States, the essays display both historical depth and theoretical finesse, and should provide college students as well as other non-specialists of postcolonial studies with well-focused resources.

  3. The volume opens on two essays by the editors, both extremely well-published in the fields of U.S. history and ethnic literature. The first essay is pretty much a survey of the theories developed in the individual pieces; the second one, "On Borders Between U.S. Studies and Postcolonial Theory," written especially for this anthology, is a 60-page long, insightful document contending that recent U.S. race and ethnicity studies are in fact divided into two groups with rather different premises: the "borders" school and the "postethnicity" school. Therefore, any theoretical discussion on the subject can be fully understood only when replaced in two different historical contexts: the early modern period of the 1890s through the 1920s, when "American Studies" was first being constituted as an academic field, and the present state of postcolonial studies. Singh and Schmidt survey recent developments in these fields in order to show that an analysis of new trends in U.S. studies "has great relevance for understanding the contradictions in current theories of 'globalization'" (xi), and to bring forth the main challenges facing the emerging "borders" paradigm in U.S. studies. The essay is supported by a very extensive bibliography on U.S. Studies and Postcolonial Theory, which should prove an essential academic tool.

  4. Most of the following pieces offer complementary and often competing viewpoints on a variety of topical subjects in the discipline. For instance, in "Postcolonialism, Ideology and Native American Literature," Arnold Krupat looks at how representations of so-called authentic Native American voices have become fashionable inside and outside of the academy in the 1990s, despite the fact that "contemporary Native fiction is produced in a condition of ongoing colonialism" (74). He vigorously argues for placing what he terms "anti-imperial translation" at the center of Native American fiction, "because historically specifiable acts of translative violence marked the colonization of the Americas from Christopher Colombus to the present [...]" (idem). Even though the parallelism he draws with Anthony Appiah's account of the postcolonial African novel seems at time ill exploited, Krupat's essay benefits from scholarly precision and stylistic elegance, while making a strong case for "anti-imperial translation". In her insightful essay, "Where, by the way, is this train going? A Case for Black (Cultural) Studies," May Henderson suggests that "many, if not most, of the central concerns of black cultural studies have been anticipated by the Black Studies project and the challenge it brought to the academy two decades ago" (95) through a multi-disciplinary and cross-cultural focus. As a scholarly and political enterprise, it has transformed the university into "a place of contestation and negotiation over the production of knowledge" (idem), and paved the way for feminist, ethnic, postcolonial, gay and lesbian studies.

  5. Other essays in Postcolonial Theory and the United States analyze key issues in Native American and Black studies, but also in Arab American, Asian American, Indian, Chicano/a and Latin American studies. Hence, they sometimes emphasize the prevalent link, in these fields, between community-building and scholarship. For instance, in "Denationalization Reconsidered: Asian American Criticism at a Theoretical Crossroads," Sau-Ling C. Wong convincingly argues that "multiple strategies are needed in both community-building and scholarship to emphasize both the unities and the differences of Asian American experiences of culture" (xiii). In doing so, she looks at Feminist and Hybridity theories. Rhonda Cobham, in "Revisioning Our Kumblas: Transforming Feminist and Nationalist agendas in Three Caribbean Women's Texts," and Inés Salazar, in "Can You Go Home Again? Transgression and Transformation in African-American Women's and Chicana Literary Practices," look at the fact that women experience diaspora differently from men: both pieces vow to uncover the many challenges faced by the modern feminist writer in the Caribbean and in an American society still bent on subjugating women of color economically, socially, and politically. Cobham and Salazar invoke a long legacy of activism by women of color, which often preceded white feminism.

  6. In her compelling essay, "Arab-Americans and the Meanings of Race," Lisa Suhair Majaj thoroughly investigates the privileges of whiteness in American culture:
    Like other immigrant groups at various historical junctures, Arab Americans occupy a contested and unclear space within American racial and cultural discourse. Although classified as "white" by current government definitions, they are conspicuously absent from discussions of white ethnicity, and are popularly perceived as non-white . (320)
    She thus leads us into an interesting, necessary, and extremely topical discussion. Bruce Simon's "Hybridity in the Americas: Reading Condé, Mukherjee, and Hawthorne" also focuses on issues pertaining to hybridity: he uses the work of these three novelists to demonstrate the advantages of cross-cultural migrations and reconfigurations, while bringing the anthology to an appropriate close.

  7. Most of the pieces in this collection offer rich and interesting material for an in-depth look into postcolonial and U.S. ethnic studies. As a well-researched anthology, providing us with a wide array of challenging yet accessible essays, Postcolonial Theory and the United States has the potential to become an important personal tool for the study of global interdependence and hybrid identities within nation-states and across national boundaries.

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