Nadja Hekal (Osnabrück)
Tobias Döring (2008): Postcolonial Literatures in English. Stuttgart: Klett.
As the back cover states, Postcolonial Literatures in English was written "to help readers to find their way into this field and through the critical debates that frame it". With his new book in the well-established Uni-Wissen series, Tobias Döring sets out to explain this wide field of literary studies to students who are looking for a "useful, stimulating and enriching" (back cover) introduction to Postcolonial Literatures in English. But can the book live up to its promise?
To begin with, the structure of the book is straightforward and well ordered. Döring only approaches specific examples after having built up a solid foundation of basic knowledge. He easily covers the most important terms like "power", "diaspora" or "hybridity" (3) and introduces central ideas like the relation between "assimilation, abrogation and appropriation" (17) or cultural translatability in the first chapter. His rather accessible style of writing and the choice of canonical examples make for a tangible text that is not only easily understandable but also remains captivating and interesting throughout.
In the 2nd chapter Döring explores historical, cultural, critical and textual backgrounds, each in a separate subchapter. Beginning with the development of postcolonial studies and literatures, he offers an understanding of necessary cultural fundamentals such as "Writing Culture" and "Literacy vs. Orality" before introducing some critics and discussing theories that are essential for postcolonial studies. Briefly but adeptly summarised are the keynotes of Frantz Fanon's "strong words to describe the rigid structures set up by colonialism" (52), Edward W. Said's "new ways to approach cultural productions, such as novels" (54), Homi K. Bhabha's critical highlighting of "the interstices, the cracks or fissures in the system" (56) and their subversive effects, Gayatri C. Spivak's ideas with a focus on her famous essay "Can the Subaltern Speak?" (59) and last but not least Stuart Hall's critical re-examinations of "Cultural Identity and Diaspora" (61). Of course, all these complex ideas cannot be be presented in depth in just one subchapter. However, this is not the aim of Döring at any rate and his explanations, bearing in mind the scope of an introductory work, are admirably concise and to the point. Additionally, he includes the "circumstances historical, cultural, biographical " (51) under which the work of the five critical writers presented emerged and thus enables the reader to not only see an argument but to be able to re-think and re-evaluate it by putting it in its necessary context.
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Nevertheless readers might miss references to other important figures that influenced the writers presented as well as postcolonial theory in general; to name just a few, there is no mentioning of Derrida, who strongly influenced not only Bhabha but also Spivak and Said, and no hint at Althusser's importance for postcolonial theory, while Marx is only referred to in passing.
After exploring the wider backgrounds of postcolonial literary studies, Döring exemplifies the findings of the previous chapter in chapter three, thus providing "historical and literary substance [for] the strategies discussed in more abstract terms in Chapter 2" (172). Focusing on Irish, African, Indian, Australian, Caribbean and Black British literature, he first offers preparatory paragraphs on the more specific background of the literature discussed before giving a brief historical overview of the region or culture concerned. The latter is summarised in a well arranged chart for each subchapter that allows recapitulating the historical background at a glance. Only after this careful preparation is the reader presented with examples of writers and their works. These also are supplemented by a chart, showing selected writers of the respective subchapter and a range of their works. Bearing in mind the unacquainted reader who is the addressee of this book, though, it might have been helpful to point out that the titles mentioned are not exhaustive but only chosen samples.
The reader who might have missed some important "Differentiations" like "Sex and Gender" or "Text and Performance" is mollified when reading the ultimate chapter of Döring's introduction which contains a subchapter each on gender studies and performance studies (with a main focus on carnivalizations and theatre). Here, the importance of these for the study of postcolonial literature is pointed out explicitly. Unfortunately, he ignores other media; issues such as the role and impact of film and television are wholly left aside.
Finally, in an attempt to come full circle, Döring goes back to the title of his work. After all, to offer an introduction to postcolonial literatures in English indeed implies a rather inclusive claim to a category of texts in need of a clear definition. But regrettably the author does not fully manage to come to terms with the essential question of what the term of his title embraces and what it excludes. Throughout the book Döring thus struggles to stay with his title Postcolonial Literatures in English, blending its implicit definition with a more general definition of postcolonial literature while not really establishing a clear and distinctive contour for his central category. In the beginning, his definition of postcolonial literatures in English focuses on language: "[E]ven if many writers work with a cultural and often linguistic background that is not English, their writing uses a variety of English as its main code" (29). But later on, he confuses the reader somewhat when suddenly Thomas Molofo's Chaka, "[t]he first African novel written by an African in an African language, Sesotho" is brought up as a "case in point" for "postcolonial narratives of some historical event or figure". (77) Hence, Döring's central concept of postcolonial literatures in English is at least hybrid, if not potentially contradictory does it now include works that emerged from a postcolonial background but have not originally been written in a variety of English?
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Or is Molofo's novel just an example for the wider background (or concept) of postcolonial literature? But why then would Döring emphasize its availability in an English translation? The question then is what makes the novel exemplary and representative for Döring's category of postcolonial literatures in English: Just because it is postcolonial (which would make the language it is written in irrelevant)? Or the fact that is also available in English (which would indeed much more strongly revise the conventional grounds for the categorization of literature in terms of linguistic nationalism)?
The particular underlying definition of the field explained, explored and exemplified in this introduction to Postcolonial Literatures in English raises yet another question of exclusion that regrettably remains unsettled in the book. Döring frequently refers to the New World and literature from settler colonies such as Australia but never talks about literature from the USA. Aware of the controversial question whether (and why) U.S.-American literature should or should not be included in postcolonial literature, he unfortunately choses to get around this problem simply by not mentioning it rather than posing the question and briefly explaining the controversies connected to it. In this respect, one is especially missing at least a passing mention of Chicano and Chicana as well as Native American literatures and their particular postcoloniality.
All things considered, though, Döring's book offers an admiringly thorough and thoughtful introduction to postcolonial literatures in English. Its clear and concise explanations of key-terms and concepts, the well arranged overview, the useful tips for further reading, its smooth readability and compactness make this a very useful, enriching and comprehensive student introduction which is also entertaining to read.