Towards a paradigm shift

Print edition : January 28, 2005

Interview with Paul Sharrad.

In the area of postcolonial studies, Australian researchers play a major role next only to South Asians. If the paradigm of the 1980s limited itself to the study of literary texts and the 1990s moved towards culture studies, the post-1990s demanded a move towards material culture.


As the Editor of the postcolonial journal New Literatures Review, Paul Sharrad, Associate Professor of English Studies at the University of Wollongong, Australia, was aware of these changing paradigms and actively participated in the debates on colonial and postcolonial studies in the past few decades.

Born to an Australian father and a mother of English origin, Paul Sharrad identifies himself within this problematic of postcolonial studies. In his project `Text, Textiles and Colonialism', he accommodated the insights offered by the recent turn towards material culture. He is currently working on Indo-Australian relations with particular reference to eucalyptus trees.

The writings of Raja Rao, Christopher Koch and Wilson Harris formed the basis of his doctoral thesis. He has also published a book on the South Pacific writer Albert Wendt. His mixed origin and his interest in the literatures of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Caribbean and other Pacific countries helped him to respond to new and old imperialisms within and beyond the sphere of literature and culture. He is on the board of editors of the journal Postcolonial Writing and is instrumental in promoting Australian studies in some Indian universities, including University of Madras. His books include Raja Rao and Cultural Tradition (Sterling Publishers, New Delhi, 1987) and Albert Wendt and Pacific Literature: Circling the Void (Manchester University Press/Auckland University Press, 2003).

Dr. R Azhagarasan, Lecturer in English, University of Madras, interviewed him for the Tamil literary journal Dalit when he came to attend the Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Society ( ACLALS) Conference held recently in Hyderabad. Excerpts:

As a scholar who has worked on Indian writing in English for the past few decades, do you find any aesthetic challenge in such writings apart from its historical, anti-colonial significance?

As somebody coming from the sphere of teaching postcolonialism, the first thing that I have to clarify is that you cannot separate aesthetic value from social value. For example, Raja Rao. One of the things I find in him, which I stated as part of my conclusion in my book, was that he was a good writer though I did not approve of his implied cultural politics within the wider postcolonial frame. He is good at the medium symbolist stream of consciousness incorporating Hindu philosophical discussions to produce a different kind of modernist text. One can admire the artistic achievement and appreciate the subtle delineation of a troubled and complex character while seeing the overall romanticising of a classical and rather conservative vision of India that allows an ongoing colonialist Orientalism of the mystic East to both Western and nationalist Indian readers.

But within the tradition of Indian writing in English, if you compare the writings of people like Raja Rao and R.K. Narayan with that of Arundhati Roy and Salman Rushdie, I think, there is definitely a greater concern for form in the latter than in the former. Is it because the latter, apart from articulating their ideology, wanted to work on form?

Yes (although I would not deny an engagement with form to either Raja Rao or R.K. Narayan). I guess the turn to form is a correction of the perceived emphasis in earlier writing on social realism documenting the nation and its problems. Definitely, the work of Rushdie is interesting, because he is working at so many levels language, fictional genres, history and so on. So he has become important not only in the Indian context, but also in the international context. Raja Rao's spiritual India that was typical of much Indian writing in English now (for example, Vikram Chandra) includes other aspects as well, like computer programming, divorce, class and ethnic difference and homosexuality.

How would you compare the regional writings in translation, which gains importance in the present-day intellectual market, with the Indian writing in English?

The value of these writings depends on their engagement with the literary traditions of the cultures from which they emerge. Take for example, Kamala Das [Suraiyya]. She is not worried about which language she is writing in, since her poetry is in English and her stories are in Malayalam. Both are her tongues, but perhaps she can do more interesting things in prose in her regional language since the tradition of formal structures and classical themes is not as strongly established as it is in poetry. In poetry she needs the freedom of English to be able to work with self-revelation and frank discussion of sexuality. If you translate some material from regional languages the work it does in relation to that culture is not seen, and in the Anglophone context, it looks plain and old-fashioned. Only when we read it in its culture proper, we can read it differently and see its importance. Of course, there are problems in translations as well. So, when Rushdie makes a comment in his anthology of Indian writers about the inadequacy of regional fiction, it is not directed against the regional writings themselves so much as at the poor quality of the translations. Again, translation itself cannot be judged from purely an aesthetic point of view. There is a power play in who gets to be translated (without translation Tagore would never have got his Nobel Prize); globalisation means that there is an increasing market for writers from everywhere, but only those who find a translator will get increased sales and international attention. And it may be that only the works closest to dominant cultural taste will be selected for translation, and genuine regional voices remain marginalised. This is why it is increasingly desirable for the postcolonial scholar to be multilingual, and for the regional writer (like Ngugi Wa Thiango of Kenya) to persist in local production but push for national and global reach via translation.

How did you land in the project on textiles within the postcolonial theory?

My entry into the textile project came out of a specific context. Every year there are catalogues from charity organisations for Christmas, which sell traditional handicrafts and textiles from `the Third World'. The politics that surrounds this is interesting at two levels: (a) the meanings put into circulation about the nature of `tradition' and `authenticity' and the power relations of global consumerism (b) the relation to postcolonial theory in which the strong textual focus is moved towards material culture. For example, if you bring these textiles, which are endowed with meaning within their Asia Pacific communities, into white middle-class Australian homes, they take on entirely different sets of meaning and value. Conversely, in Australia, textile work outside of the few remaining factories means a middle-class, largely female hobby, infused with a feminist claim on full artistic status for the work. Postcolonial theory can inform this work and its critical writings, showing wider implications and its complicity with Western/global exploitation of other cultures and sweatshop labour.

How could you relate the textile project to the contemporary debates in postcolonial theory, especially Indian writing in English, which is of your interest?

Texts like Kanthapura were explicitly modelled on the promotion of emerging national culture with khadi as a predominant metaphor. The romantic vision of khadi is translated into the fabrication of the Indian national identity, and Raja Rao posits a glorified and unified cultural tradition, which survives despite political setbacks and caste difference. If you look at the book from a material culture perspective, however, you see the model of India as a traditional village with Sanskritic culture as fragmented by many forces, even before the fight with the British begins. The village potters have already started moving to the city to supply tiles for the housing boom. The charka distributed to support swadeshi self-determination is manufactured in the city. So, change is more than a simple romance of village standing for nation and nation achieving autonomy and unity through Gandhian reform and noble resistance. The Kanthapura farm plots are taken over by urban industrialising Indians and Indian economics, irrespective of colonial rule, is already part of global circuits of capital and labour.

You seem to view Ngugi as representing the local tradition in opposition to the global. But Ngugi's rejection of the English language and his turn to African languages, apart from political reasons, may deprive the possibility for marginals to have a dialogue with the oppressors in `their' language.

I am of two minds about Ngugi's project. I applaud his attempt to keep his native tongue alive and to give it a place within modern written culture. At the same time, what happened in the African Writers Conference when he was advocating the abolition of English departments was also interesting. Lewis Nkosi, a South African writer, posed him a counter-question in either Xhosa or Zulu language, which Ngugi did not know. Thereby, he suggested the need for a lingua franca for transnational African dialogue.

What I mean to say is that even during the peak of the anti-colonial struggle, the English language proved to be a useful means for communication, not only with the oppressors but also among the people of different regions within the nation. Freedom fighters of South India could interact with Gandhi only in English. Even now, if you want to be read at the national level, if your country has different ethnic and linguistic groups, you need a common language. If you want to be read globally, then the predominant contemporary medium is English. Within the ethnic context a writer might work in his or her own tongue, but beyond that some other language is called for. Translation becomes important here, because it means that you do not need to give up your regional language.

So, English can have a positive dimension. Here comes the theoretical side of the issue, I suppose. How much political culture is carried by a language? Is it a neutral tool that can be a vehicle for any end? This is one theory. The other argument is that language carries an inherent epistemology in its vocabulary and structure - the more you find yourself using it, the less and less you find you are able to think within the concepts and values of your own cultural tradition. (An example would be the emphasis in English on the individual subject, as opposed to a `tribal' collectivity - every time you say `I' you lose the habit of thinking `we'.) So yes, Ngugi is right in this case, that it is important to preserve your own tongue in order to resist being imprisoned in the language of the coloniser. But reconstructing your own language in modern times will not automatically restore the original culture it once evolved with. It will have to work with new ideas and in new social contexts. In this sense, a hybridity theory is unavoidable. You do need to give language use an activist's edge because there is a link between language and identity, but it is not a simple and pure connection; language and culture are always dynamic constructs and our identities are always formed out of multiple interactions.

Here, I think, the issue is not simply an act of privileging the regional language over some other alien language. In the case of the marginals, the native language itself functions as a mode of oppression. [Dr. B.R.] Ambedkar once pointed out how a Dalit in Malabar in Kerala was punished for using the standard expression for `salt' in the native language because that usage was forbidden to him.

Yes, there are different levels to this issue. Again, it is the double-politics of claiming the right to use the `official' language prohibited to oneself while at the same time preserving the ideolect, which expresses who you are. So to maintain an identity, you have to deconstruct the dominant and reconstruct the difference within the dominant.

The language issue gets related to religion as well. For example, Gauri Viswanathan sees the growth of English only as part of a colonial project of the missionaries. But, the mass education introduced by them empowered the lower castes and challenged the gurukula system of pre-Independent India.

This, I think, is an instance of [Gayatri Chakraborty] Spivak's ethical singularity, where you have to look in detail at the specific dynamics of a situation to determine its different ratios of good and bad effects.

But in Spivak there is still a strong anti-colonial sentiment contrary to the position taken by Dalit intellectuals like Ambedkar, Iyothee Thass and Chandraban Prasad who valorise the colonial policies for being able to liberate the lower castes from upper caste Hindu oppression. It is in this context that Ngugi's warning against neo-colonial dangers is more useful than the anti-colonial rhetoric. How are we to engage postcolonialism, taking into account the neo-colonial danger?

One of the problems that postcolonial theory began with was a need to account for the fact that winning independence did not turn out to solve all issues of social justice. When the new nation is formed, there is a possibility of neo-imperialism. For example, plantation as an industry is still there in colonies after their independence. If you are going to destroy colonialism, you have also to attack the structures carried over into the national era, which either continue or imitate those of the past.

I think some such issues were raised by the aboriginals of Australia in independent Australia as well. The Australian government is also forced to adopt policies responding to their demands. Could you please tell us about such affirmative policies in your country?

Every country has different modes of affirmative action. In Australia, you do not find the Indian reservation system, although there is an equal opportunity policy across education access and employment. Jobs are usually advertised with clear eligibility criteria needed for such positions. As long as candidates meet the criteria relevant for the job they will have to be considered (and can take court action if there is evidence of race, gender, disability, etc. being used to exclude them). If there is more than one applicant who equally satisfies all eligibility criteria, an employer may apply `positive discrimination' to achieve a more balanced representation of minority groups in the workplace.

But when their standard and percentage of education itself is low, you cannot expect aboriginal competitors for such jobs. What are the measures taken up by the government at the school level to increase the number of educated among the aboriginals and avoid school dropouts?

At the school level, the government has introduced a number of schemes. There are scholarships and hostels to encourage students to continue with education. Most universities also have a special entry scheme. If you have not finished primary school or have missed out on schooling for at least three years, then there is a bridging course to fill this gap and a series of tests and interviews that substitute for the exam score at the end of high school by which entrance is usually determined. There are also special schools designed to work according to aboriginal cultural practices and, within universities, mentoring programmes to reduce the dropout rate.

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