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How to deal with English and literature today?

  • Published at 06:59 pm November 17th, 2021

Book review 

We were in our sophomore year at the Department of English at Dhaka University in 1995. During a lecture, a young Professor introduced Edward Said’s Orientalism in the classroom while teaching Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. At that time, English departments in Bangladesh did not offer a course on literary theories, nor did we have any orientation with the ideological representation of the “Other” in literary texts produced in the west. It took quite some time for us to understand what our teacher, who’d just returned from a US university, tried to communicate to us by referring to Said. Perhaps the best we could understand was that a contrapuntal reading of western texts was necessary; as the “third-world” students of English literature we must not let any western ideology pass unquestioned. All these reminiscences are part of the necessary preamble to introduce a new book by Fakrul Alam titled Reading Literature in English and English Studies in Bangladesh: Postcolonial Perspectives (henceforth, RLE) that has recently been published and that reminds once again of his preoccupation with Said and post-colonialism that we came across in the early 1990s. 

This book, dedicated to Professor Serajul Islam Chowdhury, truly “a mentor for all seasons”, is a sequel to Alam’s earlier volume of essays Imperial Entanglements and Literature in English, in which he focused on the impact of British colonial ventures through English writings. It is rather impossible to summarise the ideas the book of a mammoth volume (518 pages) has to convey; the best one can do is only traverse its outlines. 

In this new volume, Alam has gone back to some of his older preoccupations. For example, he has included two chapters on Defoe that leaves the imprint of a long-term engagement with an author Alam has termed “colonial propagandist”. However, in the twenty-five chapters of the book he has referred to several other writers from both the East and the West. RK Narayan and writers from the South Asian countries including Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka appear in his discussion in chapter eight that culminated in a volume of South Asian Writers in English in the Dictionary of Literary Biography series; it provides an illuminating background to the earliest thoughts about English literary trends in South Asia. This chapter is an answer to many of the questions we ask today. Indeed, one may wonder why we did not have as many good numbers of Bangladeshi litterateurs writing in English as we see in West Bengal. He draws a logical connection between the lack of English writings and the linguistic nationalism that Bangladesh has had since its independence. The other South Asian countries like India that “suffered” the impact of such nationalism always retained the importance of English as a “link” language. Alam’s insight into higher education policies in these countries will obviously make us rethink how we created an “elite” class with a handful of English educated graduates, and consequently, how the emergence of a category called “South Asian Writings in English” was deferred. It does not mean that we resisted colonization; it rather suggests that we lagged behind in western academia and thus opened doors for recolonisation; since English has become the language of globalisation. 

What I find most inspiring about this chapter is that Alam has employed ideas and concepts used by South Asian scholars like Ashish Nandi and Ramchandra Guha to accumulate his dispersed thoughts on South Asian writings. The doubt we often have about South Asia or South Asian writings as a whole, is unravelled to some extent. A South Asia that has been constructed in the western academia as a convenient outpouring of the Cold War concerns, or a South Asia that was upheld by the expatriate scholars from the Indian subcontinent as an existential stratagem, surely becomes a concern when Alam asks, “is there anything of lasting importance in the term for someone working in the region itself as well as in the western academy, especially if he or she is from a country that is in the periphery of South Asia?” However, he restores his faith in the South Asian scholars like Guha or Nandi who, going beyond their Indian identity, worked relentlessly for a subcontinental self. Such emphasis on the larger and wholesome South Asian identity is echoed in the poetry of Kaiser Haq from Bangladesh, a fact that surfaces in the chapter. The inclusion of Lascar, a novel by Shahida Rahman is an interesting addition to this trajectory that Alam discusses in chapter four of the book. Thus, through this book we learn of the background to English literary writings in this region that gradually opened up the corridor for Bangladeshi writers working in English. 

In the four sections of the book Alam shows how one can read literature post-colonially, exemplifying through his own interpretation of some postcolonial writers who were fed by English literary canon and could write back to the empire. Finally, he sojourns at the juncture of the emergence of south Asian writings in English in which Bangladeshi writers come as a major factor. Another chapter that is a must read for any English department student is chapter twelve that calls for a contrapuntal negotiation with the western canon. The vital question that has been in the offing, comes to the fore here—“How should English departments in a postcolonial world confront canonical English texts in our time?” Alam tries to answer this and other related questions regarding the designing of curricula in the English departments with assistance from his theoretical mentor, Edward Said. He supports Said’s idea that a curriculum should be the site of “creative interaction” between the English canonical texts and writings from new literatures in English, and thus a student will become a “traveller” through time, space and culture. This “joint discovery of the self and the other” is necessary, as, according to Alam, “cultural works of the colonial era can be of continuing relevance and can vitalize our current pedagogical concerns”; as after all, canonical texts are always reinterpreted in every age and culture in their immediate contexts. 

To give his arguments a stronger basis, he keeps three chapters on western writers (Shakespeare, Marx and Ibsen) to prove that they have not remained western, they have rather become ours.

Reading Literature in English and English Studies in Bangladesh: Postcolonial Perspectives
Published by Writers.ink
Page number: 518
ISBN: 978-984-8715029-1

Sabiha Huq teaches English literature at Khulna University.

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