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LITERATURE: What is Commonwealth Literature?

Alecia McKenzie *

BRUSSELS, Apr 1 1997 (IPS) - Commonwealth Literature, Post-Colonial Literature in English, New Literature in English, World Writing in English – these are just some of the terms being used to describe the writings of ‘members’ of the former British Empire.

The number of titles, however, reflects the growing international importance of such writings as evidenced this month at the London Festival of Commonwealth Literature, with writers coming from around the globe. They tentatively include Michael Ondaatje, the Sri Lankan- Canadian author of ‘The English Patient’, the book that inspired the movie that swept the board at the latest Acadaemy Awards ceremony.

The nine-day festival, sponsored by the Commonwealth Foundation and the University of London among others, will celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Commonwealth Writers Prize and mark the Year of the Commonwealth in Britain.

It is an important milestone because many universities around the world now have courses in Commonwealth Literature, or some similar nomenclature, and academics are churning out books seemingly at the same pace as the fiction writers, poets and dramatists. Professors who teach the subject say that students who want to study English Literature are increasingly interested in the works coming from the English-speaking Caribbean, Africa, Canada and South-East Asia.

But what IS Commonwealth Literature? Many years after the term came into being, it still causes disagreement, according to Professor Hena Maes-Jelinek, a Belgian expert on the writing from Britain’s former colonies.

In a recent lecture at the Free University of Brussels, Maes- Jelinek said that writers often find the term limiting since it implies a uniform kind of literature and also tends to categorise this writing as outside the British mainstream.

In a famous and scathing essay, the Indian-born writer Salman Rushdie, author of the Satanic Verses and Midnight’s Children, once asserted that “Commonwealth Literature Does Not Exist”, and he has been supported in this view by other authors.

“Isn’t this the very oddest of beasts… a school of literature whose supposed members deny vehemently that they belong to it? Worse these denials are simply disregarded! It seems the creature has taken on a life of its own,” Rushdie has written.

He added that the nearest definition of Commonwealth literature he could get sounded patronising because it appeared to be “that body of writing created … in the English language, by persons who are not themselves white Britons, or Irish, or citizens of the United States of America.”

The creation of this “phantom category obscure what was really going on and worth talking about”, Rushdie said, explaining that some so-called Commonwealth Writers had more in common with the ‘magical realism’ of Latin American authors than with other ex- British colonies.

But even if Commonwealth Literature does not exist, the Commonwealth itself certainly does. The (British) Commonwealth of Nations, to give it its original name, is an association of states comprising Britain and its former colonies, along with their dependencies.

The original grouping in 1931 and comprised Australia, Canada, South Africa and New Zealand who, while self-governing, pledged allegiance to the British Crown. The association was expanded and restructured in 1949, when participants agreed to drop both the ‘British’ and the concept of allegiance. Today the Commonwealth is a loose alliance of 53 countries, with a combined population of more than one billion.

‘Commonwealth Literature’ is thus used to cover the literary works from territories that were once part of the British Empire, but it usually excludes books from the United Kingdom unless these are produced by resident writers who originate from a former colony. The great irony, however, is that much of the best literature that has emerged from Britain in the last years has been produced by writers from or with roots in colonies.

These writers include V.S. Naipaul (Trinidad), Salman Rushdie (India), Ben Okri (Nigeria), Timothy Mo (Hong Kong), and the late Jean Rhys (Dominica). Their excellence has led to articles and even books being titled ‘The Empire Writes Back’.

‘Commonwealth Literature’ is sometimes used interchangeably with ‘post-colonial literatures’ although the latter could include literatures in other languages as well, such as French or Portuguese.

Most critics agree that ‘post-colonial’ in the English context covers the literatures of African countries, Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, Caribbean countries, India, Malaysia, Malta, New Zealand, Pakistan, Singapore, South Pacific Island countries, and Sri Lanka, to quote from one recent analysis.

A similar roster of nations would fit under ‘Commonwealth’. But while some post-colonial theorists would also place the United States in their category, those who favour the term Commonwealth would definitely exclude America, while including countries such as South Africa for ‘reasons of completeness’. South Africa left the Commonwealth in 1961 but rejoined it in 1994.

‘Commonwealth Literature’ is really an academic label which means little to the public at large. Ask anyone to name five famous Commonwealth authors, and you’ll probably receive a look of blankness.

Does Jamaica Kincaid, who is originally from Antigua but who has lived in the United States for years, fit within the category? What about Bharati Mukherjee, an Indian who has opted for U.S. citizenship and who considers herself an ‘American’ writer (whatever that means)?

One important aspect of so-called Commonwealth literature may be that it is written in one place by people from another place. Whereas an earlier generation of writers settled in Britain, many contemporary authors have chosen to live in Canada or the United States. A significant part of the West Indian, or Caribbean, diaspora (itself part of the African diaspora) has found itself in Canada, alongside the Indian/Asian diaspora.

Some internationally known writers in Canada who originate from elsewhere include Rohinton Mistry, Cyril Dabydeen, Michael Ondaatje, Olive Senior and Neil Bissoondath, just to name a few.

Many of these writers’ parents were themselves descendants of migrants from still other colonies. Thus a feature of their writing concerns displacement. But this feature is not unique to the literature of Commonwealth countries; African-American and native American authors also speak of displacement.

Perhaps the only thing that is common to Commonwealth Literature is the English language, yet it is English with a difference. In a Caribbean short story, for instance, the narrative may be in the ‘Queen’s English’, while the dialogue may be in Creole. The same goes for African as well as Indian literature where indigenous words are incorporated without translation.

Complicating things, however, is the fact that there are many writers in Commonwealth countries who have chosen not to write in English, either to make a political statement or to reach those who don’t speak the language.

Perhaps in the end, the only benefit of the term ‘Commonwealth Literature’ is to promote the writing of those who might not otherwise get attention. Part of the Festival in London will be devoted to awarding prizes to writers from four regions: Africa, the Caribbean/Canada, Eurasia and Southeast Asia/South Pacific.

The prize is called the ‘Commonwealth Writers Prize and it is a sure bet that no author — whether Indian, Caribbean, British or African — will quarrel about the term when he or she receives the cheque.

 
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