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Bruce King. The Oxford English Literary History: 1948-2000 - The Internationalization of English Literature

Xavier PONS
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Declan KIBERD, The Irish Writer and the World. Oxford University Press, 2004, 386 pp., €29.23, ISBN 0–19-928836-4

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1This book is about Britain’s ethnic literature – ethnic in the sense of non-white, otherwise the label would have to include Irish, Welsh and Scottish literatures, as well as the purely English, if such an improbable creature existed.

2Bruce King’s The Internationalization of English Literature is the concluding volume of the Oxford English Literary History thirteen-volume series, a fitting conclusion that shows how black and Asian writers, whether immigrants themselves or the sons and daughters of immigrants, reshaped and revitalized English literature, rescuing it from the trap of Little Englandism and navel-gazing. The title sounds paradoxical – how can a literature be both English (not just “in English”) and international? – but the paradox is appropriate. While much postcolonial theory deals with the dialectics of centre and periphery, King’s book is evidence that the periphery has come to the centre. It is not so much that the Empire writes back – it has, in a sense, joined the imperial centre and made itself at home there.

3This has created difficulties for the literary historian, as conventional national labels become increasingly ambiguous or even meaningless. King – a well-respected expert on the New Literatures in English – deals here with a huge diversity of writers many of whom, such as Salman Rushdie, V. S. Naipaul, Wilson Harris or Ben Okri, are often regarded as Indian, West Indian, Guyanese or Nigerian rather than English. They are here regarded as part of English literature by virtue of having lived, written and published in England but there is nothing compelling about the label “English” when applied to such people. King notes, in respect of those Nigerians who settled in England in the 1990s, that “England had its own African literature” (262), and this oxymoronic phrase encapsulates the fact that, as the author acknowledges, the people he’s talking about are actually international writers:

Increasingly writers from elsewhere were using England as a base either because of its publishing and literary worlds, or because easy communications made an international life possible, or because their own place of origins had become threatening or undesirable. London had become an international city with a large community of resident writers from elsewhere who were either employed in England or used it as a home while being part of the literary scene. Neither immigrants nor birds of passage, such resident migrants had similarities to those at the end of the colonial period in the 1940s and 1950s who were at home in England while retaining homes elsewhere. Instead of being part of the Empire they were the products of internationalization (235-6).

4The point of King’s book is to trace the origins of this internationalization and its development from 1948 to 2000 – from Sam Selvon and E. A. Markham to Hanif Kureishi and Zadie Smith, one might say. It began, of course, with the collapse of the Empire after WWII and with Britain’s need to import immigrant labourers from the West Indies in the late 1940s. Traumatic developments in the former Empire, such as the Partition of India, the Nigerian civil war or anti-Asian movements in East Africa turned Britain into a refuge for many ex-colonial subjects, and globalization accelerated the flow of people, ideas – and literary practices – from far-flung corners of the globe to London and then, quite often, on to North America. This very instability makes it awkward to try and impose national definitions on the writers who were part of this ceaseless flow. What point is there in labelling Rushdie “English” when he was born in Bombay, lives in New York, and writes about the world? Fluidity is the norm, and this sits uneasily with the fixity inherent in labels. King is all too aware of the difficulty there is in gathering widely different writers under the single umbrella of a national or ethnic label. Thus, in respect of Pakistanis:

Writers of Pakistani origins in England range from those, such as Attia Hossain and Rushdie, who were left homeless by the Partition of India, to those such as Rukhsana Ahmad and Tariq Ali who came to England as wives or students, and those who, like Kamila Shamsie, use London as a place to write. Their work differs from those with one Pakistani parent such as Hanif Kureishi and the dramatist Ayub Khan-Din who were born in England […] For some who left India for Pakistan where they felt or found themselves regarded as alien, England is a further stage of migration, part of what has become an international life (147).

5The task, then, is to find some kind of order in this bewildering diversity, and King acquits himself very well. He proceeds in chronological order, and points out how, with the passing of time, ethnic writers evolved along with the host society, changing their outlook and their writing in the process. “The historical outline,” King says, “is from immigrant lives and memories, to claims of being British and protest against discrimination, to nuanced stories telling of black and Asian lives which show that areas of England have a rich and diverse history, society, and culture made by immigrants and their children. As much of the English-speaking world became better-educated, better qualified, and more financially comfortable, the stories told by immigrants and their children changed from representative hardships to writing about the personal, domestic, and imaginative” (8-9).

6In the early days, racism and discrimination forced coloured migrants to stick together for protection and comfort, and the writers tended to focus mostly on their own community, searching for answers as to what their destiny might be in the former imperial centre. In the 1990s this was no longer the case, and the ethnic fiction of the period “map[s] ethnic and ethnically mixed areas of London and […] redefine[s] Britishness to include people of colour, colonial history, and recent immigration as seen by those colonized. Many of the writers were born in England and while their main characters may be from minority groups they are more interested in the lives of the characters than in ethnic assertion or protest. They are, however, interested in the history that created them” (291). The crimson thread running through all their works (to the extent that there is one) is no doubt the search for a usable past.

7King is emphatic that the new blood that flowed to Britain revitalized the country’s literature as well as the society. “The literature I discuss,” he notes, “has helped England to reimagine itself; it has contributed to the making of a new England (9). British writing became more international, incorporating preoccupations that had seemed merely exotic until they were eventually seen as thoroughly home-grown, inescapably a part of the new Britain :

The majority [of English people] learned that they could not withdraw into a dream of a racially and culturally homogeneous England; England would need to be understood as multicultural and multiracial even if such notions ranged in meaning from a coalition of separate cultures to a melting pot of hybridity. The writers who appeared during the 1990s, if periods can be simplified, recognized that individuals carry within them more than one culture and often belong to more than one ethnicity or class or, in some cases, more than one nation (139).

8King also recognizes how futile it is to try and impose some necessarily artificial order on such a diverse community of writers: “By the late 1970s it is difficult to generalize about, say, Dhondy, Emecheta, Chand, Mo, and Savarin beyond their being English writers who are radically different from each other” (103). The one thing they all have in common is the English language: try though they might to hybridise it, the language resists and continues to proclaim its Englishness. King contends that England’s ethnic writers have changed the preoccupations of English literature but hardly at all its forms: “The internationalization of the literature of English is mostly a change in subject matter and themes. Seeming changes in form, such as the attempt to create an oral poetry supposedly rooted in African traditions, are superficial […] the forms of black and white poetry were not significantly different from each other. Often only the kinds of dialect differ” (323-4). This is a contention with which many will disagree as it seems to belittle the efforts the writers (or some of them at any rate) made to develop new forms (such as Linton Kwesi Johnson’s black English) to express their preoccupations.

9King’s survey of England’s ethnic literature – fiction, poetry and drama – is quite comprehensive, and covering so much ground must have required a fair amount of labour. King is not content with simply cataloguing the literature, noting names, titles and dates – he is not afraid of making value judgments (cf. his scathing assessment of the literary merits of Tariq Ali’s novels). Errors are very few (King might note that the imprint set up by Anna Rutherford is “Dangaroo” – not “Dangeroo” – Press (cf. p. 133). The book concludes with biographical and bibliographical notes concerning over sixty writers and substantial “suggestions for further reading”. It is a well-written and well-produced volume that will prove invaluable to students of the contemporary English literary scene and students of postcolonial literatures alike.

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Référence électronique

Xavier PONS, « Bruce King. The Oxford English Literary History: 1948-2000 - The Internationalization of English Literature », E-rea [En ligne], 4.2 | 2006, document 7, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2006, consulté le 23 mai 2017. URL : http://erea.revues.org/713

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