Report on Research Presentations

Postcolonial Print Cultures Workshop
April 7-8, 2017

There were 11 papers and a concluding roundtable discussion. The papers covered a variety of topics related to postcolonial print cultures. The papers were all rich, nuanced, historically wide-ranging accounts, and the discussions that followed each panel raised many interesting and thought-provoking questions for the network.

Some common themes emerged across the papers and discussions:

  1. The sociality of literature, literature as social experience
  2. Economies/economics of print culture: questions of materiality, commerce, capitalism
  3. The relationship between audiences and class
  4. Literary internationalism and Third World literatures
  5. Literary magazines and modernism
  6. How do political institutions (e.g. the colonial state) read literature? Censorship questions
  7. Short format: radio programmes, short stories, journal/magazine articles
  8. The emergence of the visual aspect as a key feature of postcolonial print cultures
  9. The need for a comparative theorizing across different print cultures
  10. How do print cultures fit into a literary history of colonial/postcolonial formations? The emergence of key moments: the 1930s, the 1960s
  11. The relationship between ephemerality, periodicity, and canonicity in print cultures

First panel, April 7

Sarah spoke from a perspective of “renewed cultural materialism” on the literary text and of literary culture as a social experience. Sarah observed that there is an “unevenness” in literary relations, expressed by the thickening of cultural capital in the literary centres. There is an influx of writers to the metropole, and a correlation between literary centres and advanced economies. More broadly, literature has an integral relationship to elites and leisure, and literature has always been the expression of a class position, linked to Raymond Williams’s idea of “the aesthetic disposition”. The literary novel is a key cultural feature of what Joshua Clover calls “absorptive capitalism”. Integral to this is the highlighting of writers marked as “others”. Sarah gave two close reading examples of how uneven development is not just a theme in literature, it is literature itself. These were Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions and No-violet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names. In her close readings, she linked the production of novels to “the age of development” and under-developed economies.

Supriya’s paper also emphasized the sociality of literature by focusing on the case of Parichay, a modernist literary magazine active in Calcutta in the 20th century. She observed how the name of the magazine, Parichay, means acquaintance, and connected its practices to the Bengali adda, which becomes the site of a modernist literary community. She also likened Parichay to the word “literature” in Hindi/Bengali = sahitya, which comes from the word “sahit”, together. Literature as an act of community. The print medium is a shared space. Her history of the journal highlighted its Communist orientation and internationalism. She also highlighted its role in founding the field of modern comparative literature in India, and its relationship with Tagore, who played a foundational role in Indian print culture, founding his own printing press at Shantiniketan.

Anjali Nerlekar’s paper also focused on local press initiatives, namely the journal Pras Prakashan and small presses in Bombay, examining the multi-lingual nature of these productions. She discussed Ashok Shahane, the conduit between literary modernism in Calcutta and Marathi literary culture, and how his genealogy is both international and inter-regional.

Second panel, April 7

Rossen Djagalov and Neelam Srivastava’s papers were linked by their focus on internationalism in literature—in its prefiguring of the postcolonial moment—and by a historical approach. Rossen’s paper gave a historical account of the Afro-Asian Writers’ Association, whose literary relationship produced a culture of exchange which he dubbed “premature postcolonialism”. The 1955 Asian Writers’ Conference in New Delhi, the Afro-Asian Writers’ Conference in 1958 in Tashkent, were all key moments of these literary encounters that mediated Third-World literature via Second-World cultural initiatives. Rossen emphasized that contemporary scholars in the world-literary field have neglected to focus on the world literature initiatives promoted by the Soviet Union, though there was a profound ambivalence in its involvement, given the ulterior political agenda behind it.

Neelam’s paper looked at various anti-colonial journals and journalists who wrote around the time of the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. She discussed African American newspapers’ reporting of the war, George Padmore’s publication International African Opinion, and Sylvia Pankhurst’s New Times and Ethiopia News, a broadsheet dedicated to highlighting Italian war crimes in Ethiopia. She looked at how these radical print cultures emphasized the connections between colonialism and fascism for metropolitan audiences, and how the invasion helped to unravel/question the investment in empire in the interwar period.

First panel, April 8

Ruvani Ranasinha and Abhijit Gupta’s papers examined various aspects of the development of South Asian writing in relationship to publishing, print and readerships. Ruvani’s paper focused on Sri Lankan writing, drawing a distinction between resident and diasporic works. These differences emerge in terms of themes, content, and form. The development of a stronger “resident” Sri Lankan writing culture has been helped by the establishment of new presses and literary prizes. Sri Lankan resident writing is characterized by a more self-referential style, a more insistent focus on the fraught politics of the civil war, and also by a use of the short story to convey the fragmented and traumatic nature of the civil war. A stronger body of resident writing helps to shift away from the centre-periphery model of analyzing Sri Lankan literature.

Abhijit’s paper gave an overview of the publishing history of the Indian Anglophone novel in the 20th century. He identified three distinct modes of production:

  1. 1950s-late 1970s, characterized by writers’ decidedly local access to networks of print production. This often meant direct relationships with British publishers such as Allen and Unwin, who published Mulk Raj Anand’s novel Untouchable. Rupa and Jaico were the two most prominent Indian publishers of Anglophone fiction. The paperback first made its appearance in India in these years, with Hind Pocketbooks selling works in Hindi, Urdu, Bengali. The print runs were much higher for bhasha texts than for Anglophone ones, and the prices were also lower for the former.
  2. 1980s-1990s rise of the metropolitan author. Rushdie, Booker Prize culture, emergence of Penguin India as a major player in English-language fiction, but circulation numbers were still very low (5,000 copies were considered a great print run for fiction). Ravi Dayal published Amitav Ghosh and Vikram Seth, who were to become global bestsellers.
  3. Contemporary context: the rise of genre fiction, Chetan Bhagat, enormous print runs for Anglophone writing

Second panel, April 8

Emily Sibley and Paulo Horta’s papers focused on print culture in the Arab/Arabic context. Emily’s paper examined Al-Muwaihili’s A Period of Time and more broadly, periodical, reading and print cultures in turn of the century Cairo. She discussed the notion of Adab which simultaneously means literature, education, manners, the social being in the world formed through the literary. She emphasized how reading in Egypt at the time was a social activity, often done out loud in coffee shops. Almost all of the readers were male. She discussed the role of journalism and censorship in Arabic in relationship to the British colonial authorities. She linked the call for a “clear, modern Arabic” to the development of journalism in the modern era in Egypt.

Paulo’s paper focused on two of his projects: his published book on the translations of the Arabian nights, Marvellous Thieves (Harvard UP, 2016), and his new project on literary markets and the global south. Paulo discussed the various translation projects by English officials and the hidden help they received from local scholars and informants in producing the translations. His new project examines publishers’ archives, especially those of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and the marketing of South Asian authors (e.g. G.V. Desani) and Latin American authors (e.g. Gabriel Garcia Marquez). He noted the difficulty publishers initially had in marketing “magical realism” and Indian fiction to American/metropolitan audiences. He noted that publishers don’t find a “natural audience” for literature from the global South.

Third panel, April 8

Isabel Hofmeyr and James Procter gave papers that looked at less conventional/straightforward aspects of print cultures, focusing on the colonial period. Isabel discussed copyright and customs with reference to the circulation of books and printed matter in colonial South Africa. She examined the shaping of colonial intellectual property law, and the sets of understandings and practices that determined whether a text could be passed. Copyright law also determined that only British-produced books could be let in, thus implicitly marking the “acceptable” book as white, stamped with a mark of racial origin. The question of copyright more broadly connects to the question of sovereignty, border-marking economies, and censorship in the South African colonial context. The bigger issue raised by copyright and customs is “how does the state read”, a mode of reading where the reader is looking to be offended.

James’s paper looked at the BBC and the role played by Black Atlantic authors (West Indian and African) in shaping cultural programmes, and more broadly the relationship between radio and print cultures. Radio as a mass medium coincided with a mass migration to the metropole. He looked at the role of Una Marson in shaping broadcasting, whose target audiences were especially the West Indian troops involved in the war effort. He discussed radio as a form of transnational connectivity and mentioned the development of “an inclusive acoustic Black Atlantic community”. He argued that the indirect mode of address in poetry is transmuted into the “radio address” when poetry is recited on air. He linked radio to the idea of the “short space”; the airborne work of Black Atlantic writers connects to their work in serial print formats, e.g. Sam Selvon’s short stories in magazines.

Roundtable Discussion

Hala Halim, Francesca Orsini, and Krupa Shandilya all discussed some aspects of their own work in relationship to the theme of print cultures and then drew some broader conclusions from the papers of the workshop. Hala emphasized the plasticity, intermediality and ephemerality of print culture, also drawing attention to the inherent multi-lingualism of South-South connections, as represented by Lotus, the journal of the Afro-Asian Writers’ Association. Hala mentioned that the journal generated postcolonial critiques in a comparative dimension, albeit with limited connections to tricontinentalism.

Francesca discussed how her current project examines world literature as dialogic rather than derivative, and made some very helpful points about the relationship between print and audiences. Genres in literature only emerge with print. She emphasized the emergence of a sustained commercial print market in India before the advent of mass literacy, and raised the question of the relationship between class and readers. Print culture in India points to different uses of nationalism as well, and a wider range of politics than what is normally considered in standard historical accounts of Indian nationalism. Francesca pointed to the need for a comparative theorizing across print cultures of different global regions.

Finally Krupa introduced the relationship between print culture and cinema by focusing on the circulation of poetry and ghazals in Hindi cinema. She posed some questions that she had formulated in relationship to the workshop:

  1. What kinds of publics are being produced by postcolonial print cultures?
  2. How do South-South connections disrupt North-South hegemony?
  3. How do we understand print cultures in relationship to the ephemerality of the digital age?
  4. How do print cultures relate to other media such as radio?


Report prepared by Neelam Srivastava

April 2017