John Clement Ball, Imagining London: Postcolonial Fiction and the Transnational Metropolis (Toronto, Buffalo and London: University of Toronto Press, 2004). 295 pp., Index and Bibliography. ISBN 0802044964 £28.00, $45.00
Susan Alice Fischer
John Clement Ball begins and ends Imagining London: Postcolonial Fiction and the Transnational Metropolis with an apt image from Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (1997). A child from England brings gifts from London to her cousins in India: ‘two ballpoint pens-the top halves filled with water in which a cut-out collage of a London streetscape was suspended’ (p. 3). Ball adopts this aquatic icon of the city in flux-replete with floating Buckingham Palace, Big Ben and a red double-decker bus-to evoke the waterways that lead to and from London. Pen and ink conjure up both the imposition of hegemonic culture and the empire writing back, reinscribing and redefining the imperial metropolis.
In between these opening and closing images, Ball writes knowledgeably about Canadian, Caribbean and Indian post-war literary interaction with London before homing in on ‘London Centre’ in the final chapter on contemporary black British writing. London becomes a starting point for authors who leave Canada to define Canada and Canadianness and find in London a launching pad into the greater world. Similarly, Indian fictions of London reinterpret London spaces through their own cultural lenses. Caribbean Voices, the BBC Overseas Service programme broadcast to the British West Indies on Sundays in the forties and fifties, is emblematic of the interconnectedness of London to the Caribbean, at times mediated by paternalistic hegemonic culture, at others defined by (post)colonial subjects. In recent black British writing, family history is an important part of a preoccupation with intersecting histories in which the local and global combine to form hybrid identities. Among those discussed are the Canadians writers Susan Swan, Robertson Davies, Margaret Atwood and Mordecai Richler, the Asian authors Anita Desai, Salman Rushdie and Kamala Markandaya, the Caribbean writers George Lamming, Jean Rhys and Samuel Selvon, and contemporary black British writers Zadie Smith and Hanif Kureishi.
Ball offers a comprehensive theoretical framework for examining this writing in terms of the rhetorical strategies used to resist imperial culture by envisaging ‘a downsized London’. The author argues that writers can thus ‘appropriate’ and ‘reterritorialize’ London ‘by reinscrib[ing]the metropolis against their backgrounds and identities as formerly colonized subjects’ (pp. 8-9). In this way, they ‘reinvent’ London as they redefine Englishness. Ball draws effectively on ideas from key theorists of urban space and global cities, such as Michel de Certeau, Henri Lefebvre, Doreen Massey, Jane M. Jacobs, as well as on the work of such postcolonial theorists as Homi Bhabha, Giyatri Spivak, Avtar Brah and Stuart Hall. The study looks at the ways the postcolonial subject contemporaneously inhabits different times and spaces, each one reflecting and defining the other. In particular, Ball uses the concept of interstitial space, seeing in the waterways — oceans, rivers — and in what Marc Augé calls ‘non-places’, such as airport lounges, the sorts of ‘in-between, transnational space[s]’ (pp. 79, 219) that allow novelists to explore notions of home, nation, history and, conversely, diasporic unbelonging, exclusion and cultural erasure.
Throughout the book, Ball reminds us of his theoretical premises by blending discussions of individual primary texts with theoretical considerations which are productive not only of understanding those texts, but also of raising ideas about other postcolonial writing. The author also reminds us of key historical events which shape and reshape the notion of Englishness and Britishness, such as the narrowing definitions of citizenship in the Nationality Acts, culminating in Margaret Thatcher’s predictably restrictive 1981 contribution with its notion of ‘patriality’ as the new measure, making ‘blood’ or racial lines, rather than place of birth, the determining factor (p. 161).
Among the many good things about this book is that it brings together texts by black and white authors in one volume, and Ball does a better job than many at balancing female and male authors. Ball’s analysis is perhaps most compelling when he focuses directly on the ways that space is constructed in the novels he examines. For instance, his discussion of interior spaces, such as rooms, connects with broader issues of ‘home’ and ‘belonging’ in the work of Sam Selvon, Joan Riley and Beryl Gilroy. Perhaps more might be made of the varied power relations authors or protagonists are likely to find in their encounters with London. While Ball points out that London represents ‘the place where the (post)colonial subject becomes aware that her [or his] identity is enmeshed in and constructed by imperial power relations’ (p. 49), such relations differ significantly depending on place of departure or ethnicity. This thoroughly researched book provides a useful bibliography of both primary sources and recent theoretical work on urban space. Those interested in contemporary literary representations of London or postcolonial literature would do well to read this book.
To Cite This Article:
Susan Alice Fischer, ‘Review of John Clement Ball, Imagining London: Postcolonial Fiction and the Transnational Metropolis (Toronto, Buffalo and London: University of Toronto Press, 2004). 295 pp., Index and Bibliography. ISBN 0802044964 £28.00, $45.00’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 3 Number 1 (March 2005). Online at http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/march2005/fischer.html. Accessed on [date of access].