Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

Crossing Borderlands: Composition and Postcolonial Studies

reviewed by Nina Asher - 2005

coverTitle: Crossing Borderlands: Composition and Postcolonial Studies
Author(s): Andrea A. Lunsford & Lahoucine Ouzgane (Editors)
Publisher: University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA
ISBN: 0822958376, Pages: 288, Year: 2004
Search for book at Amazon.com

As the title indicates, the chapters in this edited volume engage postcolonial theory to inform composition studies and pedagogy in the U.S. academy. In the volume’s introduction, the editors assert—and I agree—that although postcolonial theory is characterized by the diversity of its (inter)disciplinary intersections, it also coheres around “an exploration of power relations between Western and Third World countries” (p. 1) in order to expose systems of oppression and othering. Indeed, according to Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin (1995), “post-colonial studies are based in the ‘historical fact’ of European colonialism, and the diverse material effects to which this phenomenon gave rise” (p. 2). Postcolonial theory, they argue, interrogates the “material effects of colonisation” as well as the “wide range of activities including conceptions and actions which are, or appear to be, complicit with the imperial enterprise” (p. 3). Collectively, the essays in Crossing Borderlands bring critical analyses to bear on the need to rethink the construct of “the student writer” (p. 2) and the ethnocentrism implied in the assumption of a generic “American” identity. The essays engage students’ multiplex voices to inform postcolonial theory, critique the hegemonic power and regulatory structures of the English language, and foster a “dialogic reciprocity” (p. 3) between postcolonial theory and the practice of teaching composition. The work of such key postcolonialists as Gloria Anzaldúa, Edward Said, and Trinh T. Minh-ha forms the backdrop for the vision of the volume’s authors for developing the “liberatory potential of teaching and practicing writing” (p. 4). The book’s authors engage the concept of “borderlands” to emphasize the importance of dynamic, hybrid, in-between, and contradictory movements of writers and their writings. In concluding the introductory chapter, the editors assert that the volume responds to the call of one of the contributors (C. Jan Swearingen) to “search for a middle way” between celebrating difference and adhering to homogeneity and “commit ourselves to its construction” (p. 254). They posit that through an “ongoing constructive exchange between composition and postcolonial studies” (p. 8), we may find ways of comprehending both the differences and the commonalities of human culture.

Indeed, overall, the book’s remaining 13 chapters respond to this call by interrogating issues pertaining to the field of composition studies in a comprehensive, complex, and cogent manner. Not only do they engage postcolonial theory to present critical, thought-provoking analyses, but they also represent contributors’ dialogues with each other and their students. Such “border crossings” within this volume constitute a form of praxis, realizing the call for writing that represents dialogue across difference. The chapters are quite diverse in their approach and style. Min-Zhan Lu’s essay builds on the introductory chapter with a synthesis of key issues discussed throughout the book. Lu interrogates the “complicity” (p. 10) of the field of English studies in “global and internal domination” (p. 10) and othering “minority” students. She urges us to pay attention to the contributions of composition studies itself to the larger field; problematize the “developmental plot” (p. 17) in terms of teachers’ views of the ability of students, particularly students from “other” cultural and linguistic backgrounds, to write; and acknowledge the material conditions of writing, including engaging the affective and physical self. Such an approach, she argues, enables a critical, reflexive dialogue between postcolonial studies and composition studies and also opens up composition studies to representing students’ perspectives and voices on teachers’ locations.

Some of the contributors rethink composition studies by drawing on the work of prominent critical writers. For instance, Andrea Lunsford engages Gloria Anzaldúa, via her writings and an interview, to make a case for a “mestiza rhetoric” that disrupts the Eurocentric frame of writing and opens up new ways of theorizing. Such work entails “recommit[ting]” oneself every day (p. 45), intellectually and emotionally, to writing that engages in cultural “code-switching” so that it “jerks readers out of their world and makes each think” (p. 59). Such writing and theorizing offers one way of healing the wounds of oppression. R. Mark Hall and Mary Rosner re-vision writing and composition via the lens of Mary Louise Pratt’s concept of the “contact zone” as a social space in which cultural clashes occur in contexts of “asymmetrical” power relations (p. 97). Specifically, they argue that multicultural university classrooms that serve as contact zones can engage the voices of both students and teachers and offer “rich opportunity for critical reflection” (p. 108). Indeed, Pamela Gay’s essay presents one such example. Gay foregrounds student voice as a site of struggle by analyzing the “computer-mediated dialogue” (p. 218) that unfolded on the listserv for her course “Teaching Writing from a Postcolonial Perspective.” She argues that a reflexive dialogue, which “requires critical listening” (p. 237) and a temporary “suspension of ‘I’” (p. 237), can allow “all of us to re-see and re-accent, not just re-produce, the word and the world” (p. 237).

A number of chapters “unpack” complex webs of theoretical constructs to interrogate the reciprocally productive intersections of postcolonial and composition studies. Deepika Bahri’s essay examines the slippages between postcolonialism and multiculturalism, emphasizing that the former focuses on “uncovering the dynamics of [power] relations” (p. 74) that shape such apparent binaries as oppressor and oppressed, whereas the latter has come to serve as “a generic name for other by virtue of race, gender, sexuality,” invoking a sense of marginality in relation to the “mainstream” (p. 77). She argues that the strength of postcolonial discourse lies in its very engagement with “ambiguities and contradictions” (p. 73), which allows for a critical, self-reflexive, context-specific interrogation of “fissures within the theoretical constructs” (p. 73) as well as the representation (or lack thereof) of various border crossers (for instance, underclass immigrants and racial hybrids). Gary Olson develops the discussion regarding postcolonial theory and composition scholarship by arguing that “the responsibility for ethical behavior falls squarely upon the shoulders of each individual” (p. 85). For instance, he argues that this entails active participation in interrogating the structures that position the teacher as the voice of authority and the student as the other. Individual responsibility for action also requires “determining the availability of agency in discourse” and “examining the role of ideology in the construction of self” (p. 93). Susan Jarratt’s essay on rhetoric and representation interrogates the “problem of speaking for others” (p. 110) via an analysis of the writings of three influential postcolonial feminists (Gayatri Spivak, Trinh T. Minh-ha, and Rigoberta Menchú). She notes that Spivak and Trinh write “beside themselves” (p. 110) in order to balance the multiplex tensions of representation inherent in their particular locations. As immigrant, postcolonial academics (Spivak is of Indian origin and Trinh of Vietnamese) now situated in the “metropolitan academic scene” in the First World, each generates a “complex construction of subjectivity” to rupture “conventional assumptions about ethos and audience” (p. 121). Menchú, who is Guatemalan Indian, offers testimony on the situation of her people. However, Jarratt notes, hers is not a totalizing representation; rather, “her singularity achieves its identity as an extension of the collective” (p. 125). Such postcolonial feminist writings offer ways of writing and teaching writing with a consciousness of partial and located identities that evolve in different geopolitical contexts. And Louise Rodriguez Connal argues for hybridity—“a metaphor for conflict and synthesis” (p. 207)—as a lens for understanding how mestiza/mestizo writers resist and transform colonial models of language and writing.

Several contributors write from or in relation to specific “marginal” locations and identifications, such as being racial, ethnic, sexual, or linguistic “minorities” or immigrants. In other words, they write about and as border crossers. Martin Behr interrogates the dynamic “social action” (p. 137) of such genres as testimonial writing and ethnography via the example of Canadian Inuit testimonio to argue for new, hybrid forms of writing and representing difference. He states:

New genre theories consider how and why features of Western genres such as autobiography and ethnography are used by native and other subaltern subjects in ways that help them transform their postcolonial realities. Testimonio is clearly a genre within postcolonial inquiry that epitomizes how these subjects use features of Western genres to relate collective experiences of colonization and marginalization. (p. 142)

This sense of activism through writing is realized in the essays of Aneil Rallin and David Dzaka, as both write about their experiences as academics and immigrants from former British colonies. Rallin, originally from India, writes in the form of notes—fragments of his own reflective writings—as a way to “pit ideas and thoughts against each other to question what it means to be an academic and a ‘citizen’ in this country” (p. 150). Dzaka, originally from Ghana, reflects on his early years in school to interrogate how writing and the teaching of writing are shaped by the colonizer. He also discusses the need to rethink process-oriented, “interactionist” (p. 168) approaches to teaching writing in relation to the social and historical contexts of “postcolonial student writers” (p. 168). And Jaime Armin Mejia foregrounds the transformative practices of resistance among “borderland bilinguals,” located at the U.S.-Mexico border, who have “worked to create households where collaboration is fostered” (p. 172) amidst struggle and poverty. Mejia argues that such a nuanced engagement with the lives of “ethnic minorities” (p. 180) has implications for the teaching of “critical literacy” (p. 180).

In the volume’s concluding chapter, C. Jan Swearingen interrogates the intersections of the debates around Ebonics, literacy and orality studies, and multiculturalism and reminds us of the importance of considering “economic, political, social, and cultural conditions that influence and constrain literacy” as well as “the complex interrelationships between the spoken and the written word” (p. 250). She argues for committing ourselves to constructing a middle ground between the local and the global, the “mindless celebration of difference for its own sake” and the yearning for a return to “some monochrome homogeneity” (p. 254), to craft a “civic culture that respects both differences and commonalities” (p. 254).

Overall, Crossing Borderlands presents thoughtful, stimulating theoretical essays that inform both composition studies and postcolonial theory as well. Clearly, the scholars who have contributed to this volume are also committed to the praxis of disrupting extant hegemonic structures that shape writing and of fostering transformative, dialogical practices that represent multiplex voices, cultures, and locations in the composition classroom. Although this book focuses on composition studies, I find that the analyses it offers have implications for a participatory democracy that consciously engages both differences and commonalities as well in a global context of diversity. It follows then that such work is also critically relevant to multicultural education scholarship and practice.


Ashcroft, B., Griffiths, G., & Tiffin, H. (1995). General introduction. In B. Ashcroft, G. Griffiths, & H. Tiffin (Eds.), The post-colonial studies reader (pp. 1–4). New York: Routledge.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 107 Number 11, 2005, p. 2517-2521
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11830, Date Accessed: 1/28/2022 3:41:17 AM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Article Tools
Related Articles

Related Discussion
Post a Comment | Read All

About the Author
  • Nina Asher
    Louisiana State University
    E-mail Author
    NINA ASHER, Ed.D., is an assistant professor in Curriculum and Instruction and Women’s and Gender Studies at Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge. She has written in the areas of postcolonialism and feminism in education, critical perspectives on multicultural education, and Asian American education. Her work has appeared in such journals as the International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, Urban Education, Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, and Teaching Education. Her article, “At the interstices: Engaging Postcolonial and Feminist Perspectives for a Multicultural Education Pedagogy in “the South,” will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Teachers College Record.
Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue