Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Not (Yet) Speaking to Each Other - the Politics of Speech in Jamaica Kincaid's Postcolonialism

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Not (Yet) Speaking to Each Other - the Politics of Speech in Jamaica Kincaid's Postcolonialism

Article excerpt

CRITICS AND ANTHOLOGISTS OFTEN FILE JAMAICA KINCAID'S OEUVRE under the rubric of postcolonial literature, even when they acknowledge that Kincaid herself would reject that descriptor, or any other conventional taxonomy, as overly confining. Not all of Kincaid's critics, however, take her political demurral seriously. Moira Ferguson, for example, who has written extensively on Kincaid, interprets the early novel Annie John (1985) as a prelude to "the mature, radical politic"1 of Kincaid's subsequent long essay A Small Place (1988). "Incontestable denunciation in A Small Place," Ferguson asserts, "has replaced the implicit jabs of Annie John"2 In arguing that the later work decodes and politicizes what she calls "the repressed subtexts"3 of the earlier novel, Ferguson's overly telelogical suggestion is that the early trajectory of Kincaid's writing, from immature naturalism to a mature politics, establishes her status as a postcolonial writer. The insightful Diane Simmons has more circumspectly noted the difficulty of categorizing Kincaid's work. "Although Kincaid sees writing as an act of liberation, she [has] refused to claim membership in any literary 'army'," Simmons writes, using a military metaphor apparently of Kincaid's own devising.4 Simmons recalls Derek Walcott's admiring observation that the psychological "temperature" of a Kincaid sentence is that it "heads toward its own contradiction."5 This contradictory quality at the level of the sentence, Simmons implies, extends to the body of Kincaid's works, which therefore tend to thwart literary or sociological classification.6 Kincaid's open refusal to join the camp of postcolonial writers, however, does not mean that she dismisses as unimportant the history of colonization in the Caribbean, nor that her writing lacks a profoundly postcolonial dimension. In what follows, I wish to explore the question of why the postcolonial politics of Kincaid's oeuvre deserves particular attention, and how Kincaid's writing helps to reconceprualize postcoloniality as a performative rhetorical mode. I want to argue that Kincaid's work construes postcolonialism anew in a globalized context as a discourse whose task is to theorize the political and aesthetic tensions that threaten, but may also unexpectedly preserve, the possibility of an autonomous ethical agency within a profoundly inequitable economic and cultural order.

I choose to address the ethico-political philosophy of Kincaid's writing at a time when the relevance of postcolonial discourse, according to some, is in greater doubt than it has ever been, as David Jefferess et al., Diana Brydon, and Kalpana Sheshadri-Crooks among others have argued, or, as Aijaz Ahmad, Arif Dirlik, Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri, and E. San Juan, Jr., claim, is already a dead letter. The most salient recent arguments against the relevance of postcolonial discourse in the present suggest that it has become a field suffused with melancholia and discouragement, and that the field's putatively perverse attachment to the past eclipses its practitioners' ability to theorize new political realities and cultural reformulations in the present. My argument is an attempt to intervene in this discussion by showing how Kincaid's writing recovers and reframes the mediating gesture through which literature, and the literary itself, enables an ethical engagement with history that neither brackets it as a dead letter in the present, nor simply elides the distinction between the concerns of the present and the alterity of the past. Kincaid's oeuvre, in my reading of it, compellingly albeit indirectly addresses both poststructuralist critics, who accuse postcolonialism of reinstating a new totalizing narrative, and Marxist detractors, who loudly denounce the absence of a materialist historical account in postcolonial studies. This is particularly evident, as I want to show in this essay, when one reads the autobiographical in her texts - both the fictionalized and the nonfictional - as Kincaid's attempt to displace, but emphatically not to deny, the constraints imposed in speaking of and for an historically constituted but politically disenfranchised Other. …

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