Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Homi Bhabha reviews Postcolonial Poetics

Elleke BoehmerPostcolonial Poetics: 21st-Century Critical Readings. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018. 220 pp.

Review by Homi Bhabha

8 April 2020

It is difficult to do justice, in a brief review, to a book as detailed and deliberative as Postcolonial Poetics. Elleke Boehmer’s literary readings range across diverse literatures, many identified with the global south, but almost all of them breaking the bounds of cultural containment while crossing the limits of sovereign territorial borders. Cultural trajectories, not national territories, shape the critical landscapes of this fine study. Boehmer is intolerant of preconstituted disciplinary categories such as “diasporic literature” or “postcolonial fiction,” while attempting to work in liminal spaces negotiated between approaches as distinct as “world literature” and “world -systems theory.” Genre, for Boehmer, is the marker of geo-political contradictions and convergences. The score of a work––its range of voices, its tonal transformations, its mediations of mobility, its orchestration of cultural signs and political dissonances––far exceeds its adherence to any ideological or political core.

Poetics, in Boehmer’s hands, is not a textual formalism, it does not follow the laws of genres. Her readings––across novels, poems and criticism itself––are led by the movement of language as a process of introjection. The mimetic or epistemological relation to the world is sharply turned within, to provide an affective and phenomenological “reading” that works through poetic norms to create an inward vision of world-systems that are marked by social formations and political structures.

Boehmer often uses the word “inward” to describe the efficacy of poetic formation and figuration. To know a “work” or a “character” is to inhabit a poetic intimacy that constructs worldly relations, word for word, verse by verse, line by line. Boehmer’s philological practice is juxtapositional, keeping open edges and layers of meaning that face each other, leaving a space for the reader’s right to interpret. The energy of Postcolonial Ethics is kinetic; it activates the reader to make a creative intervention into the critical categories and methodologies that custom and convention hands down to her.  Boehmer uses the art of poetics to bridge a range of schools of critical thought and make them speak beside each other, in different voices, across the same score.

The virtue of ‘juxtapositional poetics” lies in the freedom it gives Boehmer to construct literary genealogies across generations of writers who participate in processes of formal and thematic transmissions. Most effective is her description of Chinua Achebe’s work as an inaugural site of inspiration and interlocution. Boehmer traces Achebe’s literary lineage through two motifs that recur in his novels and have become archival resources for writers who have followed in his wake. Boehmer writes:

The two strands of powerfully generative figures through which his influence has moved—figures that take the shape either of twins (forbidden in traditional Igbo society), or of the ogbanje, abiku, or fatefully returning child, forms of reproduction that are traditionally cursed or tabooed. As we have already begun to see, these generative images dealing in interesting forms of anomalous generation—generation that is either as it were over-productive (as we find with multiple births) or impaired (as with failed births)—carry out a distinct role in the work of interlocutors who have addressed subjects that have also preoccupied Achebe. [p. 126]

Boehmer traces Achebe’s influence through writers like Ben Okri and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and provides the reader with an active sense of the circulation and translation of literary influence by placing texts in relations of juxtaposition, rather than in linear narratives of evolution. Writing in juxtaposition––Boehmer’s phrase for her method––provides an insightful account of the novel in contemporary South Africa grounded in comparative reading of fictions of political and psychic trauma placed side-by-side with fictions of survival and everyday life. Juxtaposition works better in the analysis of literary form than it does in Boehmer’s reflections on critical and literary history that tend, in general, to be illustrative accounts of agreement and disagreement without the interventionist edge of theoretical development.

Boehmer is a distinguished novelist and poet. From her subtle writing we learn the virtue of waiting and watching for the story to appear in its own time. Boehmer’s poetics generate their own warmth and weather, and her gift  lies in her ability to allow works of literature to bear fruit in the seasons of their becoming.