Spring 2002

ISSN 1473-219X





J S Scott and P Simpson-Housley (ed.): with an afterword by Gareth Griffiths: Mapping the Sacred: Religion, Geography and Postcolonial Literatures, Amsterdam and Atlanta: Rodopi, ISBN 90-420-1544-6, 486pp, paperback $35.00.

This collection of essays has intentionally expanded the focus of the field of religion and literature to include the cultural geography of religion. In attempting to do so, the authors have succeeded in demonstrating the importance and relevance of cross-disciplinary work. Two touchstones are regarded as inspirational in their quest to expand religion and literature in this way. Firstly, they recognise the increasing interest towards the ‘other’ in religious traditions in the 1970s. Secondly, they are sympathetic to Eric Ziolkowski’s recent proposal for potentially merging scholarly work in the areas of the history of religions with religion and literature. Geography as the focal point of this merging creates what Ziolkowski calls a ‘comparative studies’ in literature and religions. What the editors of this volume have accomplished in calling for this change is to create an awareness of ‘the precariousness of our own sacred contexts, the historical accident of our own religious locations.’

From a religious perspective within the academy, this point of view is refreshing since it does not try to ascribe dominance to any religious tradition. In fact, the authors are careful to include in this excellent range of collected essays a generous representation of religious traditions in the literature discussed. What binds the traditions is the postcolonial reaction towards Christianity as the religion of the Empire – dominating indigenous religions in different locales. As Gareth Griffiths reminds readers in the afterword, indigenous ideas of the land ‘are so deeply imbued with ideas of the sacral that they have proved a powerful ally in the reassertion of the urgent need to preserve and nurture the material environment.’ If the appreciation of indigenous religions can be considered a prejudice, the reader will find this to be the only religious bias that carries throughout the collected essays.
What the work succeeds in doing is to dissuade scholars from studying culture within a religious context as an element of the profane. In their selection of essays, the editors have consciously follow Eliade in distinguishing religion not from the secular but from the profane. As such, the notion posited of sacred space is productively expansive. As Scott mentions in the book’s introduction, Eliade applies the concept to sites or locales where ‘ritual sensibilities’ are expressed, including, for instance, sporting venues. Readers further encounter this point of view in Fiona Coyle’s insightful essay ‘A Third Space?: Postcolonial Australian and the Fractal Landscape in The Last Magician and the Oyster in which she discusses Homi Bhabha’s concept of the ‘third space’ in relation to the sacred space of Coyle’s Australia. In relation to Janette Turner’s The Last Magician and Oyster', Coyle uses the example of literature rather than topography to demonstrate the complexities involved in describing the religious and cultural contours of Australia. The map of Australia is not helpful because the boundaries from a Western perspective are too well defined. Aboriginal territories are not confined to the Outback. The boundaries do not allow for the third space, the place where – for Bhabha – necessary tensions do exist. Here is not a merging of cultures but an acceptance of difference: the third way. In this remapping through the third way, literature allows readers to determine whether they prefer the claims of the colonisers or the indigenous sacred perspectives of the Aborigine.

This collection is divided into two parts: Part I, devoted to Land, Religion and Literature After Britain, contains further breakdowns in its sixteen diverse and authoritative essays devoted to writing whose origins are respectively in Ireland, Canada, Australia/New Zealand, The Caribbean, Africa, and India/South East Asia. These essays include such highlights as Trevor James on Ngugi, Brian Robinson on Heaney, and a fascinating remapping of fictional terrains in an essay by Chelva Kanaganayakam called ‘Charting a Secular Ganges: Revisiting R K Narayan’s Malgudi and 'Little India' in the Malaysian Fiction of K S Maniam and Lee Kok Liang.’

Part II is titled Sacred Landscapes and Postcoloniality Across International Literatures. The five essays in this section expand the literature to include, for example, French postcolonial studies. Scott and Simpson-Housley increase the range of interest and specific examples of the global nature of postcolonial influence and reactions in literature by not relegating this writing to the former colonies of the British Empire. Readers of the collection as a whole may well finish by concurring with the assessment of Brenda Cooper (in her essay ‘Landscapes, Forests and Borders within the West African Global Village’) that globalisation only intensifies the local. One wonders who really is the ‘other.’ In her interpretation of three West African novels, Cooper notes that in the Western mind the African becomes the other instead of the ‘Bush’ in an anthropomorphised form that typically defines colonial images of Africa. In this way, Africans become the other’s other, for in their own indigenous traditions the Bush is full of mystery and does not feel like home but a place to be feared.. To combat this colonial idea, postcolonial writers may choose to fictionalise the landscape. It shifts. This ideological shifting of landscape is forefronted throughout the collection.

Another motif connecting many of the essays in this collection is the presence of apocalypticism. Often apocalyptic literature is conceived of as consisting of images, codes and teleological phraseology that points to the coming of the end of history. Yvette Christanisë’s essay on Walcott’s poetry states that, ‘Colonialism assumes what apocalypticism demands. It also believes in the modern to forget all that is to come.’ This perspective represents the entire project of this volume. By incorporating religion into the context of geography and literature, Scott and Simpson-Housley have stymied the binary thinking of colonial writing and its interpretation. Postcolonial literature confronts the colonial absence of dialogue with the past and reflects the tensions among the multiplicity of voices from past and present. In recapturing the past, postcolonial authors reject the apocalypticism of colonial framing. For Walcott the city of St. Lucia, as Christiansë points out, is not transcended with the coming of the colonial period. It is split. This appears again to reaffirm Bhabha’s notion of the third way. It also provides a framework that appears to be an accurate depiction of the experience of indigenous populations in many postcolonial settings. The past is made alive.

The insistence on landscape as embodying the past is essential to appreciating the book. Mary Harvan’s essay ‘The Gods of the Delta: Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Literature of the Ogoni Struggle’ is yet another example of the importance of the past in postcolonial literature as way of reminding the reader that cultural understanding is not erased by the coming of the colonial period. In this essay, we read of the example of The Ogoni in Nigeria whose former leader, Ken Saro-Wiwa, further illustrates the past’s importance by including the older folk tale ‘Madula’ in his children’s books. Harvan’s view is that Saro-Wiwa inserts this older folk tale to represent the important relationship between land and culture. In the folk tale, the main character is helped by the fairies of the forest to build a successful agricultural empire. But he forgets to remember their help and is punished. Harvan’s reading is illuminating in describing this forgetfulness as representing a belief that newcomers to Nigeria would have been tolerated by the indigenous society if they had not taken all the credit for their accomplishments.

This harking back to the past repeatedly demonstrates that culture is tied to landscape in the cultural makeup of postcolonial societies. In the afterword, Griffiths articulates a major theme of the text: ‘Nations are profoundly tied to ideas of land and space in terms of ideologies through which they are constructed.’ The entire history of postcolonial societies is significant. The cultural historian’s record must reach beyond the first landings of settlers in order to understand the cultural dynamics at work in a postcolonial society.

For those who are interested in ecology, the book will not disappoint. In an essay on the cultural landscape of the North by Joe Sheridan, the book rejects postcolonialism’s urban ethos. The oral tradition found in Grey Wolf (Archibald Belaney) ties the land to culture. The close relationship between nature and human history is restored. Given modern concerns about the spoilage that we encounter in the balance of nature tampered with by human negligence, the essay is another reminder that at least some pre-colonial perspectives of land and culture are more fond memories of a distant past. The relationship between land and culture in the oral tradition of native North Amnericans may be more accurate in pointing to a more sensitive and fruitful future for our own contemporary situation.

Mapping the Sacred is an important resource for academicians in a range of fields. It embraces a range of geographical locations and its expansive overview is likely to address some material that is unfamiliar, and to create a wider readership for the works cited and discussed. The book could also be of interest to a well-read general public hoping to remain at the cutting edge of fields engaging society and culture. The collection should succeed in generating further interest in a topic that it delineates persuasively, advancing the important message that inter-disciplinary work of this kind is essential and has contemporary relevance.

Martin Ramey.

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