Volume XIV, Number 2, Fall 2018


"Review of Postcolonial Poetics by Elleke Boehmer" by Daniel Nyikos

Daniel Nyikos received a PhD in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln in 2014. He currently teaches as a junior assistant professor at the University of Szeged, where he is also working on a second PhD. His research interests include creative writing, Victorian and early 20th century literature, and the weird tale. Email:

Postcolonial Poetics. 21st-century Citical Readings
Elleke Boehmer
Oxford: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018
220 pages
ISBN: 978-3319903408

 

As a new book by Elleke Boehmer, internationally recognized as one of the foremost authorities in colonial and postcolonial literature, Postcolonial Poetics will be greeted with enthusiasm by the scholarly community. Boehmer contextualizes her book by writing that studies of postcolonial literature so far have looked at the historical and cultural situatedness of these texts, reading them against global questions about postcolonial identity in the wake of colonial empires and the rise of neoimperialism, and seeking the often fragmented and hybrid identities of the former colonized. These readings have neglected to look at postcolonial literature as art, examining the reading strategies that postcolonial texts lend themselves to: “my often troubled question was whether there was a kind of reading that postcolonial texts in particular solicited—a reading that could be seen as both border-crossing and yet culturally specific” (vii). This is the void this book fills. By doing so, Boehmer does a huge service to postcolonial literature, raising its study from that of a cultural artifact to one befitting separate and distinct literary works of art: “writing as writing” (2), to borrow Boehmer’s emphasis.

Boehmer uses primary texts to demonstrate the signifying practices of postcolonial writers These take the majority of her spotlight, but she also thoroughly grounds her research in familiar postcolonial terms, including mimicry, hybridity, orality, and border crossing, using these to build a rhetoric of paradox that both engages the reader and questions the possibility of transmission. Among the postcolonial scholars she cites are indispensable names such as Fanon, Said, Chakrabarty, Spivak, and Bhabha. Boehmer separates her book into eight chapters. Because the book is pieced together from various articles and presentations she gave over the roughly twenty years before the publication of the book, her focus shifts from one writer or group of writers to the next in each chapter.

The first chapter, “Postcolonial Poetics—A Score for Reading” is also the shortest. It lays the groundwork for the rest of the book, delineating the readings of previous postcolonial studies from this one, which argues that postcolonial writing “lays down structures and protocols to shape and guide our reading” (1), encouraging a reading invested in “reimagining and refreshing how we understand ourselves in relation to the world and some of the most pressing questions of our time, including cultural reconciliation, survival after terror, and migration” (1). Following the practices of Terence Cave’s Thinking with Literature (2016), Boehmer explicitly seeks a critical cognitive reading, demonstrating that in postcolonial texts subversion and resistance are not only contained in the text but practiced by the text itself.

The second chapter, “Questions of Postcolonial Poetics,” provides the heart of the analytical approach of the book. It not only defines its framework for analyzing poetics, but it also explicitly separates the features of postcolonial texts, calling on essays by Ben Okri and the fiction of Manju Kapur, Achmat Dangor, and Yvonne Vera. Finally, it asks a provocative question, wondering whether one can identify postcolonial literature not by its content but rather by its structural, generic, and metaphoric features. She reiterates what she identifies as the two primary effects of postcolonial literature, which simultaneously challenge the reader to a communication and also point towards “the final unknowability of other human beings” (35, her emphasis). This bold and far-reaching claim underlies the rest of the book.

In the third chapter, “Revisiting Resistance Literature,” Boehmer follows the footsteps of Barbara Harlow’s Resistance Literature (1986) and two texts it influenced, The Empire Writes Back (1989) and The Postcolonial Unconscious (2011). She uses these to establish a theory of juxtaposition as a means of creating new possibilities in reading, applying this theory to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958) and the writings of Nelson Mandela. Meaning in postcolonial texts, according to Boehmer, comes from simultaneous breakage in and need for contact that is the legacy of the colonial trauma, and meaning is made from the unresolvable tension between them. The subject of the fourth chapter, “Postcolonial Writing, Terror, and Continuity,” demonstrates this paradox by looking specifically at how terror is used in postcolonial writing. Terror is both the site of breakage and resilience, collapse of meaning and transcendence. Boehmer consciously uses Ben Okri’s “In the City of Red Dust” (1988), Fred D’Aguiar’s Feeding the Ghosts (1997), M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! (2008), and Warsan Shire’s “Home” (2014) to explore the contexts and spaces of terror across a continuity of time. She identifies each of these texts as a site of disruption and confrontation that simultaneously seeks to heal gaps and accept the permanence of trauma.

The fifth chapter, “Repetitive Poetics—When Crisis Defines a Nation’s Writing” looks specifically at South Africa after the end of apartheid, looking at the way literary works of art compel the reader to relive trauma over and over, even while engaging with the impossibility of the full representation of that shock. In a praiseworthy move, Boehmer also addresses the problematic nature of the self-identification of South African literature with trauma, examining the way each text points to a literature beyond the borders of that dialectic.

Building on this idea of moving beyond, the sixth chapter, “Poetics and Persistence,” begins with Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958) and examines the writers it influenced. By tracing the way motifs taken from Igbo tradition, such as the ogbanje/abiku/returning baby and the cursed twins, she demonstrates the way these elements have taken on a metanarrative function reflecting on the creative process and the reception and transmission of ideas as a nation seeks a self-identity beyond the colonial binary. The seventh chapter, “Concepts of Exchange—Poetics in Postcolonial, World, and World-System Literature,” caught the attention of this reader with a remarkable premise, asking whether the field of postcolonial literary study and that of world-literature study challenge or complement each other. The chapter ultimately arrives at embracing a heterogeneity of approaches. It uses a reading of Nadifa Mohamed’s Black Mamba Bay (2010) as a case study for demonstrating the productive tensions of a simultaneously world-literature and postcolonial reading.

“The Transformative Force of the Postcolonial Line” is the final chapter of this volume, showing that one of the roles of postcolonial poetics in the world is to involve with inferential patterns as experiencing its themes from within. Departing from the universalizing approach of world literature, this poetics instead seeks to shape the reader and cause them to internalize the postcolonial experience through its communicative strategies.

Though a familiarity with contemporary postcolonial literature is important to fully digest its discourse, this volume is a provocative and rewarding text. By discovering a challenging poetics unique to postcolonial literature, Boehmer not only provides a new and exciting tool to scholars but also takes a meaningful step towards social change. If there is anything to be criticized in this text, it is that the poetics Boehmer identifies are all in the service of effects familiar from previous studies: there is no new what, only new how. But then, that was her purpose all along. Just as she concludes that the function of postcolonial poetics is paradoxical, welcoming as it rejects and problematizing connections as it builds them, she finds in the “dark and opaque” spaces “beyond imagination” (189) a voice that cannot be ignored.