Postcolonial Print Cultures International Research Network

This inter-disciplinary, international research network aims to bring together scholars who have an interest in the materiality of colonial and postcolonial print cultures of the twentieth century, with a specific focus on South-South connections.  Building on recent major scholarship on African, Caribbean and South Asian print cultures–e.g. Stephanie Newell’s pioneering work on readership and subjectivity in West African newspapers, Isabel Hofmeyr’s research on the circulation of James Bunyan in Africa and on Gandhi’s printing press in South Africa, Anjali Nerlekar’s study of Bombay poet Arun Kolatkar’s literary corpus, Alison Donnell’s diasporic archives project, and James Procter’s Leverhulme-funded project, “Scripting Empire”, focusing on the BBC and the “Caribbean Voices” programme–it proposes to recover or rediscover, via more ephemeral forms of media such as magazines, radio, publications of small and independent presses, and “non-literary” genres such as textbooks and children’s books, the ways in which they promoted a literature with an activist agenda fully committed to political and cultural autonomy.

Prevailing models of “world literature” are marked by a privileging of the literary over the political. Pascale Casanova, for instance, has influentially argued that “the autonomy enjoyed by the most literary countries is marked chiefly by the depoliticization of literature; the almost complete disappearance of popular or national themes, the appearance of ‘pure’ writing—texts that, freed from the obligation to help to develop a particular national identity, have no social or political ‘function’—and as an aspect of this, the emergence of formal experimentation, which is to say of forms detached from political purpose and unencumbered by non-literary conceptions of literature” (Casanova 2004: 199-200). Such an analysis seems remarkably oblivious to the commercial pressures placed on contemporary literary writing by the hegemony of Anglophone, global publishing conglomerates. In contrast, this project trains its gaze on a different temporality, namely on short-lived, topical, and politically oriented literature, often produced with little to no infrastructure. By eschewing a fixation with formal and “universal” literary values, we aim to revalue the contingent and political imperatives of the historical ‘moment’.

Such an emphasis would offer a riposte to the center-periphery model, shifting it instead to the vital South-South alliances that permitted the formation of a “literary international” in the interwar and immediate postwar period of the twentieth century—alliances which appear to have been largely forgotten in contemporary theorizations of the world-literary field. As Aamir Mufti reminds us, “This mode of disappearance of literatures of the Global South in the literary sphere of the North is thus linked to the disappearance of those varieties of internationalism that had sought in various ways to bypass the circuits of interaction, transmission, and exchange of the emergent global bourgeois order in the postwar and early postcolonial decades in the interest of the decolonizing societies of the South” (2016: 91). Central to this idea of a postcolonial literary international is the role of translation and multilingualism, which helps us move beyond the dominant Anglophone examples of postcolonial writing.

In the era of high nationalism between the two wars, new forms of aesthetic consumption and the assertion of an autonomous black and Asian cultural domain were becoming increasingly popular with both black and white audiences. At the same time, the development of an interwar black and anti-colonial press and the emergence of radical writers such as Nancy Cunard, George Padmore, and Sylvia Pankhurst worked to create a cosmopolitan counterpublic for anti-imperialist ideas among metropolitan audiences, using the medium of print to construct new political subjectivities for the cause of African, Asian and Caribbean decolonization.

To take another example, in post-independence India the emergence of radical and small presses and “little magazines”—even in English– fostered the development of a decolonized literary canon for a new postcolonial public across different Indian languages. The conjuncture of decolonization and the Cold War also fostered alliances and cultural exchanges with the Soviet bloc that led to interesting initiatives such as the diffusion of low-cost Soviet publications in India in the 1960s and 70s, as Sarah Brouillette’s work has explored (see her recent “US-Soviet Antagonism and the “Indirect Propaganda” of Book Schemes in India in the 1950s” University of Toronto Quarterly 84.4 (Fall 2015)). While intended to serve propagandistic ends by issuing cheap editions of the Communist canon, texts by Marx-Engels and Lenin, the publications also included large numbers of children’s folk stories, fairy tales, the Russian classics and so on. Of even greater significance was the founding of the literary magazine Lotus (which included Faiz Ahmed Faiz among its distinguished editors), the most tangible product of the African-Asian Peoples’ Solidarity Organisation, set up in the mid-1950s with support from Soviet Russia.  

Outputs and Dissemination Goals

This aims to be a three-year project, culminating in a large international conference bringing together key resource scholars from across the world. In addition we hope to meet at workshops once or twice a year. Dissemination will be via a dedicated web-site. We also expect to produce a special journal issue and/or an edited collection coming out of the research conducted through the workshops.