Review: Wenche Ommundsenon Sneja Gunew

Worlds at Home: on Sneja Gunew

One of my first memories of Sneja Gunew is running into her in one of the narrow corridors of what was then Deakin University’s School of Humanities in Geelong. It was the late 1980s, I was a newly minted PhD in my first, insecure, academic position and Sneja was a rising star whose work on multicultural literature and theory had caught the attention of the literary academy, earning her much admiration, along with a fair dose of hostility from the more conservative parts of the establishment. I had just that week received in my pigeon-hole – remember the time before email? – no fewer than three invitations to launches of her various publications. ‘Well, aren’t you being launched,’ I said, perhaps not without a hint of jealousy. ‘Yes, I’m just about to take off into the stratosphere,’ she quipped. And for a while, it seemed she was.

Then came the backlash against multiculturalism in the 1990s. Invective against multicultural criticism and theory of the kind Gunew promoted, underpinned by theories dismissed as ‘French’ or ‘foreign’, turned nasty, and sometimes personal. It wasn’t ‘entirely coincidental,’ she writes in the conclusion to her new book, ‘that I seized the opportunity shortly afterwards to continue my work in Canada for the next 23 years.’ Fortunately for us, however, she never completely abandoned Australia. Not only has Gunew regularly returned  to contribute to debates surrounding the national culture, but her intellectual trajectory has continued to locate Australia, and Australian literature, centrally within evolving discussions of relationships between multiculturalism, postcolonialism, diaspora, cosmopolitanism, globalisation, transnationalism, and so on.

Gunew’s interest in, or, as she puts it, ‘obsession with marginalized texts and writers’, has been a constant in an academic career spanning over four decades. In Framing Marginality (1994) she reads work by multicultural Australian writers in light of Derridean deconstruction and its ‘underlying logic […] which posits that the elements excluded in the analytical process form the conditions of its possibilities’. In this sense, she argues, the excluded ‘ethnic minority writing’ could be said to frame a national literary tradition, defining its conditions of existence. A careful examination of what is excluded or marginalised thus opens up different perspectives and possibilities for reading analytical categories such as Australian literature. In Haunted Nations (2004) she puts the concept of multiculturalism under further scrutiny, comparing its deployment in different national settings, distinguishing multiculturalism as a state mechanism for managing diversity from her preferred notion of critical multiculturalism, ‘used by minorities as leverage to argue for participation grounded in their differences.’ Reading multiculturalism in the context of postcolonial theory and its emphasis on race and indigeneity, she argues that in settler nations such as Australia and Canada, haunted by their colonial past, state policies of multiculturalism have largely failed to undo the legacy of white supremacy and can thus be seen to be complicit with ongoing racism against indigenous and immigrant groups.

In her latest book, Post-Multicultural Writers as Neo-Cosmopolitan Mediators (2017), Gunew continues her investigation into multiculturalism by going, as she puts it, ‘back to the future’. The ‘post’ in ‘post-multiculturalism ’is used in Lyotard’s sense of going back to salvage elements forgotten in later debates and definitions. One such forgotten element is multilingualism, another, closely related, is cosmopolitanism:

My argument is that what was left out of multiculturalism was the cosmopolitan element, something that draws us into the world via the perspectives (combining languages and histories) of those ‘minority ethnics.’ My contention is that post-multicultural writers offer a cosmopolitan mediation and translation between the nation-state and the planetary.

Cosmopolitanism, like multiculturalism, is a term that comes with considerable definitional baggage and requires careful unpicking. Gunew distances herself (as other theorists have done) from the common equation of cosmopolitanism with elitist, predominantly Western, practices associated with phrases such as ‘citizen of the world.’ Her understanding of ‘neo-cosmopolitanism’ is related to concepts such as ‘critical’, ‘vernacular,’ ‘everyday,’ ‘peripheral,’ ‘visceral,’ and ‘indigenous’ cosmopolitanism, or ‘cosmopolitanism from below,’ all aimed at bringing into the debates the perspectives of people and knowledge systems which have been marginalised as a consequence of colonialism and globalisation. She echoes Gerard Delanty’s broad definition of contemporary cosmopolitanism as ‘a condition of openness to the world’ with a ‘post-Western’ orientation located at the interface of the local and the global and entailing ‘self and societal transformation in light of the encounter with the Other.’

It is, then, at the interface of the post-multicultural and the neo-cosmopolitan that Gunew locates her project, aimed at opening up a different engagement with a world in which older models for imagining the relationship between the local, the national and the global have lost currency. In calling her project pedagogical she clearly indicates its ambition: to teach new ways of looking at cross-cultural and global relations. However, she also insists that she has no intention of telling readers what to think. Hers is a ‘stammering pedagogy’, a tentative process ‘suggesting differences without providing comprehensive answers’. Her method involves forms of denaturalisation or estrangement as means to ‘enable receptivity to other ways of “being at home in the world”’.

‘[I]magining the stranger differs from imagining oneself as stranger and from being interpellated as stranger in the place one considers home’, she writes, suggesting that claims of universality are not universally available, and that adopting a minoritarian perspective, that of the stranger, opens up possibilities for glimpsing alternative cosmopolitan worlds. And, as she has done in earlier work, she turns to literary texts by ‘post-multicultural writers’ in order to explore the multiple ways in which these ‘strangers’ unsettle commonly held notions of time, space, nation, home and language. The Anglophone literary sphere has undergone major change over recent decades, reaching out across cultures, languages and nations to the point where it is ‘no longer recognizable as a monolingual paradigm without considerable effort and obfuscation’. The role of literature ‘as a proactive force within globalization’ is not so much to offer alternative and fully formed models for reading global relations as it is to interrogate, complicate and make strange the many taken-for-granted notions which underpin prevailing views of the world. The value of literature lies precisely in the fact that it is not theory, or dogma, but that it can deal with theory and dogma in imaginative, new and surprising ways.

In this book Gunew casts her net even more widely than in earlier work, moving between writers from the former Soviet Union to literature from Asian diasporas, but retaining a focus on the settler colonies of Canada and Australia and their particular locations within local/global debates. Australian writers figuring in her discussion include Antigone Kefala, Yasmine Gooneratne, Kim Scott, Ouyang Yu, Christos Tsiolkas, Brian Castro and Maxine Beneba Clarke, usefully juxtaposed with writers from other cultures and nations to illustrate their highly idiosyncratic approach to issues within cosmopolitan debates. This comparative methodology, still far too rare in academic literary studies, is in itself noteworthy: the tendency (reinforced by institutions such as university departments, courses and research associations) to read Australian literature, even multicultural Australian literature, in isolation from other literary traditions has proved hard to shake .

The central part of this book is devoted to an analysis of how writers as neo-cosmopolitan mediators unsettle the conceptual ideologies of familiar and dominant world views. Time and space are offered as key illustrations. Gunew cites Pheng Cheah on colonial temporality:

The subordination of all regions of the globe to Greenwich Mean Time as the point zero for the synchronization of clocks is a synecdoche for European colonial domination of the rest of the world because it enables a mapping that places Europe at the world’s centre.

Temporal dimensions as conceived through indigenous cosmologies present alternatives that are not only postcolonial, but in many cases posthuman in reach. Reading texts by Kim Scott and Canadian Cree writer Tomson Highway, Gunew identifies a cosmopolitanism that is planetary rather than global, and in which conceptions of time as well as space offer ‘a blueprint for survival’ that could be harnessed as an alternative vision to underpin a sustainable global future.

Spatial or geographical concepts also function regularly as ideological categories: as postcolonial theory has shown, ‘the East’, or the Orient’ are terms loaded with values that served to validate colonial exploitation, though Gunew argues that ‘the West’ has too often, even in postcolonial criticism, been taken for granted, and needs to be subjected to similar scrutiny. In particular, she finds that ‘Europe’ and ‘European’ are floating signifiers, meaning different things in different national contexts. In Australia, ‘Europe’ and ‘the West’ are often conflated with the Anglophone world, with the consequence that the cultures, languages and peoples of continental Europe are still perceived as marginal to the national culture.

In one of Gunew’s case studies, the meaning of ‘Eastern Europe’ in today’s geopolitical discourse is examined through the juxtaposition of work by writers such as Olivia Manning and Rose Tremain writing about Eastern Europeans from the outside with Dubravka Ugresic and Herta Müller whose double or multiple cultural perspectives enable them to act as translators and at the same time adopt the role of stranger. While the former, for all their nuanced views of characters and cultures, cannot entirely escape the generalisations and stereotypes that have attached themselves to Eastern Europe in the Western European imagination, writers hailing from these countries know that ‘Eastern Europe’ as such does not really exist but is made up of people, and nations, of vastly different histories, all undergoing major change. Writing about the often conflicted lives of former denizens of the Soviet Union in their encounter with the economic, social and cultural realities of the capitalist West, Dubravka Ugresic even suggests that rather than identifying with a nation it may be more accurate these days to ‘refer to oneself as hailing from Ikea or Microsoft’. The cosmopolitan outlook encountered in the work of such writers is one in which the highly localised struggles of daily life are set against supra-national forces of which they are variously figured as both willing participants and victims.

Language, and more precisely the relationship between monolingualism and multilingualism, is key to Gunew’s analysis:

This book’s guiding principle is that we need to move beyond the (often unacknowledged) monolingual paradigm (an assumed model) that dominates Anglophone literary studies, particularly within settler colonies such as Australia.

But what does multilingualism mean within literatures in English (and all the texts Gunew has selected for analysis are in English or English translation)? How is what she calls ‘the multilingual within the monolingual’ manifested? Her answers to these questions, continuing on from the discussion in Haunted Nations of how Australian English is ‘haunted by the accents of other languages’, make up the final chapters of her book. Arguing, via Jacques Derrida and Rey Chow, for our alienation both within language and between languages, she posits the linguistic stranger, the non-native speaker, as a greater guide to the cultural and ideological nature of all language use than monolingual speakers who are more inclined to imagine their language as a ‘natural’ articulation of our inner or outer world.

What, then, does ‘English’ signify to the foreign speaker, what metonymic burden does it carry, and what does it mean to ‘reside precariously in another language’, especially when this language is English, often designated as a passport to global mobility and cosmopolitan lifestyles? Reading literary texts by diasporic Chinese writers, all of whom thematise English in their work, Gunew discerns a ‘path to an alternative functioning of globalization’, an ongoing scrutiny of the values represented by English and Chinese respectively and their effects, and affects, on language learners. For example, in The English Class by Chinese Australian writer Ouyang Yu, learning English for the protagonist initially means escape from the constraints of his life under the Cultural Revolution. The students in his university English class all have different motivations for learning English: one believes it will lead him to a place where his gay identity can be openly explored; one sees it as a path to the good life of capitalist consumerism and one sees it as a threat to the much superior Chinese language and civilisation. English is considered subversive and potentially dangerous by the political authorities, which is perhaps why it is so attractive to the students, but ironically, the more English they learn, the more they learn to appreciate their own language and culture. Jing, the protagonist, eventually finds himself in Australia, where he is diagnosed as suffering from the debilitating physical and psychological symptoms of ‘A Chinese-English linguistic and cultural conflict’, an illness that makes him a misfit in both languages: ‘I hated China and ran away from it but the language I ran into never accepts me. It’s not the people. It’s the language’. Liberation or alienation, global passport or instrument of oppression, the English language, to Ouyang and the other authors discussed here, is invested with the burden of their aspirations, frustrations and disillusionment. As language aliens who nevertheless live and write (often quite brilliantly) within the foreign tongue, they also point the way to alternative conceptions of cosmopolitanism animated by different linguistic sensibilities.

Another way in which ‘the multilingual within the monolingual’ finds its expression is through the many small-e englishes, inflected by other languages, which increasingly challenge the hegemony of the dominant form. Having an ‘accent in writing’ could mean writing in ‘broken English’, but rather than sliding into caricatures of the ‘stage migrant’, Gunew shows writers who display their ‘acoustic palimpsest’ through a heightened awareness of the sound, meaning and resonance of words.

She offers, among others, the example of Brian Castro’s novel The Garden Book, in which the protagonist Swan writes poems in Chinese on leaves which she hides between the pages of other books. Although of Chinese origin, Chinese is not her first language, and when asked why she writes in Chinese, Swan answers that she has ‘no interest in communication’. The refusal to communicate, the evanescent nature of the poems, together with Swan’s own exclusion from early twentieth-century Australian society, indicate different meanings for language such as the failure of communication, alienation, and silence. Interestingly, when some of the poems are found and translated by her American lover, they receive international acclaim, but readers refuse to believe in Swan’s authorship, instead attributing the poems to her translator and casting her as his invention. Gunew’s examples of ‘acoustic palimpsests’ within English language texts carry widely different meanings, but common to many is the suggestion that other languages may convey different world views, and that a true openness to the world requires linguistic reciprocity – curiosity about, and willingness to learn, languages other than English.

Like all of Sneja Gunew’s work to date, Post-Multicultural Writers as Neo-Cosmopolitan Mediators offers an outstanding example of literary scholarship, informed by a remarkable range of reading, from cultural theory to literary traditions across the world. But reading this book also makes it clear that her work is animated by personal experience as well as academic enquiry. Arriving in Australia at the age of four with German as her first language and Bulgarian as part of her father’s inheritance, she developed a complex relationship with English, always informed by other languages, always aware of the hostility towards foreign languages which regularly surfaced in mainstream attitudes towards post-war migrants. Living through the transition from assimilation to multiculturalism and embracing the latter, she nevertheless had a strong sense of its limitations: the failure to fully embrace the cosmopolitan outlook brought to Australia with the languages and cultures of successive waves of immigrants, the focus on management, under mainstream control, rather than mutual openness and communication.

This is not a phenomenon unique to Australia, or to a particular moment in the history of migration. Similar attitudes in Europe, Canada, and one might add Trump’s America, make it clear that the battle against monocultural and monolingual nationalism, or against versions of cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism which exclude the views and experiences of ethnic minorities, is if anything of greater relevance today than at any other times in history. Gunew’s suggestion is that cosmopolitanism of an inclusive nature starts at home, with the cultures, languages and literatures of indigenous and migrant minorities. It is summed up in her preferred title for this book, Worlds at Home – the rather long-winded title it ended up with was, presumably, imposed by the publisher, keen to capitalise on the work’s ‘discoverability’ within electronic word searches. The words ‘home’ and ‘world’, and what it means to be, and not to be, ‘at home in the world’ are issues that motivate not just Gunew herself, but all the writers discussed in her book. The ultimate aim, she writes, is to chart a course through the minefields of our transnational existence, illustrating new and flexible subjectivities that are surely our best chance for ethical and proximate survival amidst unequal global mobilities.

Works cited

Brian Castro, The Garden Book. Sydney: Giramondo, 2005.
Pheng Cheah, What Is a World? Postcolonial Literature as World Literature. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016.
Gerard Delanty, The Cosmopolitan Imagination: The Renewal of Critical Social Theory, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Sneja Gunew, Framing Marginality: Multicultural Literary Studies. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 1994.
—, Haunted Nations:The Colonial Dimensions of Multiculturalisms. London and New York: Routledge, 2004.
—, Post-Multicultural Writers as Neo-Cosmopolitan Mediators. London and New York: Anthem Press, 2017.
Yu Ouyang, The English Class. Yarraville, Vic.: Transit Lounge, 2010.