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ACLALS Conference 2019 in New Zealand: The Uncommon Commonwealth

Updated: May 5, 2019

The job of holding the center . . .  is often done by the men from the provinces, from the outskirts. Contrary to popular belief, the outskirts are not where the world ends—they are precisely where it begins to unfurl. Joseph Brodsky

Is heaven also made in Taiwan? And does Jesus really know how to speak Samoan?

Sia Figiel, The Girl in the Moon Circle

In its modern history, the Commonwealth has provided an uncommonly flexible set of social, political, legal and economic forms of association. Founded in British colonialism, it conducts its business in a more or less common language, English and, arguably, shares core cultural values.  But the Commonwealth is marked by the distinct topographies, histories, ethnicities and indigenous languages of its member states, variously confronting post-independence, the legacy of Britain’s “masks of conquest”.

It is uncommon in that it survives — albeit haphazardly — as its members are drawn into new strategic alliances and loyalties. But how successful is this survival? Does this new Commonwealth matter, and how long will it last? How important are the traditional commonalities of language, legal systems and political values among countries of such different experiences and concerns? How does literature figure in this mix?  Is it less or more truly the case that, as Rushdie asserted thirty years ago, “Commonwealth literature does not exist”?  If so, does it not-exist differently?  Has Commonwealth culture, including its literatures, been overtaken by new forms of transnational association driven by globalising forces? The Commonwealth now looks unfixed, in ways that mesh with notions of postcoloniality, yet it refuses to accommodate strictly to postcolonial theory. This Commonwealth, no longer dominated or unified by the traditional metropole, increasingly seems structured by rhizomatic connections, converting traditional passages of migration and commerce into reversals and redirections, speaking sideways or talking back.

How does this work out for language and literature? In particular, acknowledging the venue for this conference, how does this work out within the South Pacific?  How does the South Pacific, including the settler societies of New Zealand and Australia, now relate to major continental Commonwealth neighbours like Canada, South Africa and India?  Is the cultural orientation of India and Canada intra-continental, rather than intra-Commonwealth?

Within this re-shaping of Commonwealth identities lies another uncommonality:  the various dismantlings of British colonies have resulted in new modes of regional alliance; paradoxically, perhaps, they also prompt efforts to articulate a new cosmopolitanism. Who is our neighbour? In an age of mass travel and unbounded popular culture, Commonwealth countries are inevitably engaged in globally current issues; new technologies give a place in popular consciousness to crises of famine, population displacement and massive inequality. Does contemporary literature work this way?  Correlatively, it might be argued that cosmopolitanism, a new order of universal sympathy – including its claimed association with the novel – has emerged from the patched up history of this uncommon Commonwealth.

What we share may no longer be our unifying factor:  commonly, now, we seek instead to restore, document, celebrate and develop our differences. To be uncommon in this fashion, however, may still be to participate in the unfurling of the world, with the peculiar support of Commonwealth histories of dismantling and re-formation.  Or to be uncommon may be to speak with our own voices and to determine our own trajectories, to do “unheard of things” with English, our uncommonly common tongue.

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