Key Concepts in Postcolonial literature/Postcolonial Literature: A Reader's Guide to Essential criticism/A Historical Companion to Postcolonial Literatures in English

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Key concepts in postcolonial literature (Palgrave Key Concepts), by Gina Wisker. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007, xvi + 248 pp. ISBN 13: 978-1-4039-4448-1. ?13.99

Postcolonial Literature: a reader's guide to essential criticism, by Justin Edwards (Reader's Guides to Essential Criticism). Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, xii + 172 pp. ISBN 13: 978-0-230-50674-9. ?14.99

A Historical Companion to Postcolonial Literatures in English; edited by Prem Poddar and David Johnson. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, (hardback) 2005, (paperback) 2008, xxxiii, 574 pp. ISBN (hardbk) 04-861-855-4. £150, (pbk) 978-0-7468-3602-0. £29.99

As one whose literary tastes and critical habits were formed by excellent but old-fashioned teaching and syllabuses, I have frequently struggled in the thickets of postmodern and postcolonial theory. I turned to these books, designed for undergraduates, in the hope of finding some guidance.

Key Concepts was a disappointing start. It is suffused with indignation by hindsight and I looked in vain for any suggestion that reading novels might be a pleasurable experience. After a general introduction there are three sections with dictionary /encyclopaedia type entries:

Contexts: History, Politics, Culture

(Aboriginal /indigenous people ...Fanon, Frantz....Tricontinentalism)

Texts: Themes, Issues, Concepts

(Aboriginal Literature; Aboriginal writing: testimony, tale-telling and women's experience.... Myths of adapting and replaying... .Semifictionalised autobiography, The last outpost of colonisation: rewriting the coloniser's homeland from inside.

Criticism: Approaches, Theory, Practice

Carnival... Fanon, Frantz... Speaking about or for others.

The rationale for this threefold division escaped me. I found it confusing and repetitive with some loose ends. However there is a competent general index, also an index of works cited and a chronology (1492 - 2005 or Columbus sailing the ocean blue to the latest Salman Rushdie). Jargon was to be expected but too much of the prose is clumsy and apparently hastily-written without the attentions of a proof reader. Sentences meander along through excessive parentheses for many lines. There are careless mistakes. J.M. Coetzee has won the Booker prize twice, not the Nobel Prize twice as stated on p. 81.

The section on the Commonwealth is both inadequate and inaccurate. Wisker perpetuates the misconception that it is the British Commonwealth. It is not just "some" but almost all former British colonies that are members and of whom is she thinking when she writes of "many which have now left retain contacts with Britain and the Commonwealth"? More could be said about the Commonwealth Literature Prize which gets only passing mention and no index entry. There is no coverage of the influence and treatment of religion (Christianity, Islam or "traditional") or missions.

It was a relief to turn to Justin Edwards, whose introduction promised better things:

This guide... presents new access routes into critical debates and literary works and offers new ways of thinking critically about postcolonial literature... organized in a thematic and conceptual way, provides 15 clear, accessible and succinct chapters, each of which focuses on a key word that has generated significant debate in postcolonial criticism: postcoloniality, difference, language, orality, rewriting, violence, travel, maps, gender, queer, haunting, memory, hybridity, diaspora and globalization. . .1 seek to refrain from reducing the complex debates in this field to easy polemic.

Edwards' treatment was less irritating and occasionally I even made a mental note of a work I might like to read. …