Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 13, August 2006

Françoise Lionnet and Shu-mei Shih (editors)

Minor Transnationalism

Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2005.
$US24.50, ISBN 0 8223 3490 9

reviewed by Vijay Mishra

  1. Françoise Lionnet and Shu-mei Shih's edited Minor Transnationalism is an exceptional collection of new essays which takes up the often elided cultural experiences in many generalist works on transnationalism – hence the importance of the qualifier 'minor' in this volume. The starting point, elegantly stated in the introduction, is the failure of theories of globalisation and transnationality to give intrinsic legitimacy to minority subjects. Even in those models that emphasise lateral and nonhierarchical networks (the rhizomatic model of Deleuze and Guattari is exemplary here) the centre still holds magnetic force and creates a binary in terms of which the minor is studied. So, in what has become the seminal work on 'minor literature' (Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature) Deleuze and Guattari continue to read 'minor' literary productions as works written by minorities in the dominant language. And even if one were to critique the centre – a not uncommon strategy in much of postcolonial studies – the very act of critiquing it re-establishes the centre's pre-eminence, its rather special place in all aspects of cultural production. Minorities are, however, very much part of the centre, they are not erratic and unassimilable groups somehow extraneous to the nation; they are indeed part of the national imaginary with their own legitimate perspectives. The transnational (diaspora, multicultural polity) is part of globalisation but requires analysis (as transnationals) neither through a utopian/dystopian reading from the liberal high-ground of globalisation nor from the romantised counter-critical model of the local and the global where the local is the subaltern heroic figure stubbornly resisting the advance of global capital. Write Lionnet and Shu-Mei Shih, 'The transnational, therefore, is not bound by the binary of the local and the global and can occur in national, local, or global spaces across different and multiple spatialities and temporalities (p. 6).
  2. Minority cultures are clearly part of the transnational moment. Their 'productive relationship' with both major and minor networks requires detailed analysis and critique. This kind of analysis, which the essays in the volume offer, would locate the minor as permanent fixtures in nations, people who suffer from anxieties and duress, and who may be profoundly unhappy. To look at them as nomadic citizens celebrating a new, unmoored form of citizenship is to trivialise their uneasy location in national cultures. Theirs is then a question of struggle and re-definition, a struggle towards acceptance that would see their labour as transforming history and hence the collective consciousness of the nation itself. How do minor transnationals gain recognition as full citizens, how do they transform a 'token' culture (represented in multicultural bazaars as repositories of ethnic food and dress) into a national culture? These questions have embedded in them the principle of creolisation and forcefully remind us that there was never a time when cultures were pure. The Lionnet and Shu-mei Shih volume, however, is conscious of the fact that to acknowledge cultural contamination does not mean that one ignores the current trend towards a 'hardening of minority identity' (p. 10). But one then has to work transversally or horizontally, connecting minorities across nation-states, examining transdiasporic or transcolonial lives, and be aware of the new global multiculturalism.
  3. There are fourteen excellent essays in this volume. These are grouped under four headings: (1) theorising, (2) historicising, (3) reading, writing, performing, and (4) spatialising. The essays range from Suzanne Gearhart's establishing piece on the ambivalent structuring of subjectivity in the West as the European simultaneously excludes (Etienne Balibar had called it a case of interior exclusion) the Other and is yet defined by it to David Palumbo-Liu's return to aesthetics as a site for judgment of an emotional order often ignored when matters of ethical responsibility are raised. These and other essays are significant and require serious attention. To do so adequately would be beyond the scope of a short review. To demonstrate the value of this collection, though, it may be best to select two essays that may stand in for the collection as a whole. Two such essays are Françoise Lionnet's quite remarkable account of translating Shakespeare in Mauritius and Ali Behdad's take on postcolonial theory through a return to a text that he may have purposefully 'misread'.
  4. Transcultural dimensions of literary production require a rather different interpretative model once we break away from the binaries of culture and knowledge (the latter, as the European argument goes, something that great works of the West produce, the former no more than an anthropological archive from the periphery), high and low, metropolitan centre and the postcolonial, and so on. What is critical knowledge/pedagogy like when a minor text connects with other subaltern texts from postcolonial peripheries without the necessity of passing through a metropolitan centre? Hence one shifts from matters of intertextual control, the power of the canon and hierarchy to a more lateral postcolonial reading where other minor literatures and their modes of cultural productions become decisive. Lionnet takes up the case of the Indo-Mauritian Creole writer Dev Virahsawmy. At a time when the Mauritian state is busy compartmentalising its heterogeneous population – Indian vernaculars are being re-introduced even when for an entire century Creole and Bhojpuri-Hindi were the only functional plantation languages – and paranoid about French as a language of settler hegemony, Virahsawmy uses Creole as the inalienable Mauritian language in which Mauritian emotions are best expressed.
  5. Focusing on Virahsawmy's Creole play Toufann (premiered in Mauritius in 1995 and then again, in the English version, in London in December 1999) Lionnet (to whom the play is in part dedicated) examines how a 'minor' literature, with its clear indebtedness to Shakespeare ('toufann' is the Hindi-Urdu word for 'tempest'), written in the undeclared lingua franca of the country (somewhat absurdly English, which is hardly anyone's mother tongue in Mauritius, is the declared lingua franca) breaks away from hierarchical and centre-oriented post colonial theory to expose a more lateral, quotidian (that is everyday) life-worlds. Although Lionnet is emphatic on the title of the play and its performance as indicative of Virahsawmy's insistence on the here and now against a diasporic nostalgia by drawing attention to Virahsawmy's Tamil and not North Indian (and therefore Hindi-speaking) background, it is equally true that 'Toufann', the word, does impart an indenture ethos against the settler French ethos and this is because the moment of multiple Indian vernaculars is a post-independence phenomenon as the newly independent nation tried to give every subject a past and a language. In the process, of course, Creole itself became marginalised because it had no origin in a high culture outside of Mauritius. The Indian-dominated post-independence governments too were uneasy about the links between Creole and French in as much as the language grew out of an unequal plantation-slave and French-planter social relationship. Lionnet's point, however, is not based on this qualification though, for what she advances is the fact that Creole is the language most widely spoken in Mauritius, it is the subaltern language (with no real high culture origins elsewhere) and it opens up the possibility of a '"transcolonial" form of solidarity' (p. 206). The latter is a key feature of the volume as a whole as the general thesis of all the essays is the importance of making lateral connections between postcolonial texts and not a hierarchical or vertical search for the anxiety of influence vis à vis the centre where the critical approach remains ultimately 'reactive' and caught up with the idea of a prior canon (p. 207). Hence for Lionnet regional similarities between one text and another is a rather more important concern.
  6. Virahsawmy's play unsettles not only the idea of a canon as fixed but also, through the use of Creole, demonstrates the remarkable resilience and openness of the language. As the language of hybrid identities, Creole may be seen as the subaltern language without equal since it has no cultural history outside of itself. Moreover, the title of the play – Toufann – with its dual Hindi and Creole semantic ('tou fan' or 'tou fané' in Creole means 'it's a mess' (p. 213) and in the play Prospero asks Aryel to 'create chaos' (Virahsawmy, Toufann, (p. 228)) tells the target audience that the immediate meaning of the play is to be located in local culture and politics and not in its suggestive Shakespearian intertext, which, again, becomes meaningful only though a certain kind of high cultural knowledge. In naming one of the characters, the junkie, Dammarro, Virahsawmy again connects with the growing cultural pull of Bollywood cinema on Indo-Mauritian culture. High on ganja, Dammarro relapses into 'Dam marro dam! Hare Krishna, hare Ram' (Virahsawmy, Toufann, p. 225). What he recalls are lines from a song in a well known Bollywood film titled Hare Rama Hare Krishna (1971). In this respect the play is located less in the politics of postcolonial self-righteous condemnation of Shakespeare's racist representation of the native Caliban than in the reconstructions of newer characters whose moral agenda insinuates something rotten in the local state (of Mauritius) itself.
  7. In Ali Behdad's essay on the predicament of 'minor' literature, the points made by Lionnet are given a more generalist theoretical turn. To Behdad, the current language of postcolonial theory – power, opposition, hegemony, resistance, exile, strategies of resistance, and so on – imply a grammar of opposition that can be replicated in all imperial and post-imperial situations. In other words, opposition to a dominant culture unifies all such post-colonial relations. What such readings overlook – as is clear from Lionnet's own situated example – is that the specific historical contexts of cultural capital get short shrift. Indeed, Behdad points out that the very idea of exile and displacement – again key terms in postcolonial/diaspora/multicultural studies used to show how displacement creates an unusually cosmopolitan vision and rare critical insight – is fraught with difficulties as it valorises an experience that is primarily painful and hardly ever redemptive. Exilic consciousness as somehow being intrinsically creative and transformative falsely celebrates an experience and writes out individual experiences in a discourse that pays little attention to 'specific manifestations of transnational formations' (p. 226 after Grewal and Kaplan). Returning to his own earlier reading of the Maghrebi immigrant Driss Chra´bi's second novel Les boucs, Behdad points out that unlike his earlier largely ahistorical and non-localised postcolonial reading of the text he now wants to draw on the work of historians and sociologists. In doing so he is able to see how the lives of Maghrebi migrants need to be examined in the context of the specific historical context of North Africa and France. Writes Behdad, 'In privileging theories of displacement over location, postcolonial critics have failed to address the contingent and uneven nature of transnational flows of capital, commodities, and people' (pp. 231-32).
  8. Lionnet and Behdad's essays do not give us the whole picture of this impressive volume. Isolating them, however, does a little more justice to this remarkable collection of essays than two-line summaries of all the essays would have done. The volume's contributors finesse the argument for transnational cultures presented by Lionnet and Behdad and turn the volume itself into an accomplished exploration of the dynamic nature of minority lives in nation-states. This is one volume that readers will find especially persuasive and astoundingly informative.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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