Book launched at UOW Library

Postcolonial Past & Present for Paul Sharrad

"Postcolonial Past & Present" is a festschrift (a collection of writing published in honour of a scholar), a tribute to University Fellow Paul Sharrad who was one of the early pioneers of postcolonial literary studies.

The book, edited by past and present UOW academic staff Anne Collett and Leigh Dale, brings together new work by 12 notable scholars of postcolonial history, literature and creative arts.

"Postcolonial Past & Present" acknowledges Sharrad's outstanding contribution to the field, and its official launch was held on Wednesday 6 March 2019 in the Wollongong Campus Library.

We're pleased to share this abridged version of the engaging address provided by Emeritus Professor Gareth Griffiths.

Author and academic Paul Sharrad speaking at his book launch
A smiling group beside author and academic Paul Sharrad and his new book

Pictured above: (Left) University Fellow Paul Sharrad, (Right) Professor Leigh Dale, Emeritus Professor Gareth Griffiths, Associate Professor Anne Collett and University Fellow Paul Sharrad.

Emeritus Professor Gareth Griffiths's address:

We have met here today to launch a book but more crucially to celebrate the life and work of Paul Sharrad. When you get to a certain age friends seem to have been in your life so long they are permanent fixtures.

When did we actually meet? Possibly New Delhi ACLALS 1975. Or possibly later. But whenever, it seems that Paul has been there as long as I can remember.

The editors of this book, Anne Collett and Leigh Dale, have done a great job. Festschrifts are not always rewarding. It is sometimes said that the only things in a Festschrift are things that can't be published elsewhere. But this volume is the exception that proves the general rule wrong.

The editors have managed to get a range of contributors and contributions that not only include many really valuable and original essays but which also give a true sense of Paul's huge and lifelong contribution to postcolonial culture and literatures.

Lydia Wevers's exemplary Afterword does a far better job than I can in this brief talk of giving a sense of the range and variety of the essays collected here.

Though ironically, I am reminded of the fact that in 1997 Paul and I collaborated on the Report on Postcolonial Studies for the Australian Academy of the Humanities. I very much doubt that postcolonialism was any easier to define then than now nor that what mattered then as much as now was less what people felt it defined than that all agreed that it insisted on us embracing the full range of creative work that has made us ALL part of the diverse human condition, embracing not only nominal diversity but also the active promotion of a shared and equal humanity in and through the recognition of difference.

Thus Lydia Wevers’s Afterword also properly draws attention to the diversity of the material in the collection including Anne's essay on Jamaican Claude McKay and Diana Brydon's comparative study of the indigenous Canadian writer Tomson Highway and Australian indigenous writer Alexis Wright.

The collection also notes, with contributions from Diana Wood Conroy and others, that postcolonial societies embrace art forms beyond the verbal, notably dance, music and graphic art, but also in a way that our world often forgets material art forms such as textiles, weaving etc. Again this opens up our world in new ways.

But as the main spread of these essays focuses on literary texts and suggests there have been two primary areas of regional focus for Paul during his long and diverse career. The first is his unequalled criticism of Pacific culture and writing. The fact that one of Pacifica's greatest writers, Albert Wendt, had written so eloquently in the Foreword of how:

"From the late 1970s to now [Paul] has observed, studied, added to and promoted the growth, development and understanding of [Pacific] literature and through it out understanding of Oceania…"

is a testament to the unrivalled role he has played in our understanding of that region, so vital to our own place in the world when viewed through lenses not distorted by shortsighted ideas of economic and political advantage.

Sadly, as we are all too aware, it is such limited perspectives that too often justify the award of support in the academy and in the world it is suppose to lead and instruct.

I need make no mention of the most recent and blatant example of such unjustified and unscrupulous intervention into the processes of peer review that has been so broadly and widely condemned in recent months.

Paul's other great and continuing area of expertise and passion represented here is India. He continues to promote the literature and culture of that immense country, and especially his many connections with his beloved Calcutta and Bengal, connections that he has continued to actively pursue since his retirement to the great benefit of the University of which he remains a Senior Fellow.

Paul was awarded this [Senior Fellow] rank at a special event by the University he served so well and so long just after his retirement in 2017. Well deserved as this was it was also, dare one say, a little late given the range of his service and achievement.

But Paul, who remains an amazingly modest fella, no doubt is as aware as many of us that promotion is not always the mark of achievement as much as the mark of being noticed and, dare I say, too often of toeing the line.

One thing that came out of that late moment of recognition was that when I came down to help Paul celebrate it, I found my only surviving post-retirement suit had come down with the moth-hole syndrome. So I had to get one from David Jones...hence my present sartorial splendour, which, by a very diverse and winding route, brings me to the last of Paul's main areas of expertise...Australian literature.

As many of you know, as I speak he is finishing a major critical biography of the novelist and historian Tom Keneally. This will undoubtedly attract great public interest when it comes out and, like all of you, I am waiting for that moment eagerly.

Gareth Griffiths speaking at the book launch of Paul Sharrad
A crowd listening to Gareth Griffiths speak at Paul Sharrad's book launch

Pictured above: (Left) Emeritus Professor Gareth Griffiths.

Paul and I are of the same generation. Interestingly, although both of us have been seen as working primarily in postcolonial cultures it is vital to note that for those of us who began the long struggle to get these literatures recognised and taught in our courses, we ourselves were never set in opposition to the broader world literatures of which these postcolonial literatures were part.

Many of you may not realise that Paul's first degree was a joint degree in English and Spanish and that he completed a coursework MA in Spanish with a thesis on the Spanish novel since 1840. In a similar vein, when I got my first job at the University of East Anglia it was to teach English and German Romantic poetry in both languages.

For our generation, the task of literature was to open and broaden our sense of what makes human civilisation the complex, diverse and problematic concept it has always been. As Homi Bhabha has remarked recently, referring to the problematic use of and definition of human rights:

"If postcolonial thought has a singular lesson to teach, it is this. We have never been 'enlightened' although we repeatedly aspire to it. The dialectical force that binds civility and barbarism is at the very heart of the ceaseless labour to strive for human rights in the fight against human wrongs." - Homi Bhabha

Paul and I are of the generation that came to maturity in the late 60s and early 70s. I was reminded forcibly of this recently when, while presenting a paper at the Caribbean Studies Conference at U Western Sydney, we were housed in the Female Orphan's School, later a lunatic asylum; not a place, as my friend Russell McDougall remarked, you would want to wander around late at night given the ghosts whose presence those bricks may have retained.

But in the building is also housed the Gough and Margaret Whitlam museum and archives.

So under my David Jones splendour, as I now display, I am wearing the T-shirt I obtained there with the slogan of that era changing election of the early 70s. IT'S TIME.

Some elements of this time must also have been present recently in Paul's mind as his 2015 paper: ‘Gough Who? Memory and Legend from Australia’s Coup’ Memory F(r)ictions conference, University of Zaragoza, would suggest.

In tribute to the work of someone like Paul, this might involve thinking about spaces such as India not only as places of economic opportunity or recruitment grounds for fee-paying student places, nor even as places of the remarkable growth in its wealthy and middle classes, but also as spaces where writers, artists and activists continue to remind us that inequality, discrimination of class, caste and gender and reckless environmental degradation remain perennial issues that need to be resisted.

All of these, and perhaps most crucially the last, environmental damage, are crucial issues too for the whole of Oceania.

As a rich and resource-driven, neighbouring state, Australia may need to say, "It's Time" again; time to recognise that many of these nations are threatened by extinction as global warming raises the levels of the sea in which they exist.

It may be time, too, to wonder whether or not these island nations are to be thought of just as places to dump our concerns for human rights through the appalling policies of offshore detention that both major parties support.

As humanities scholars we might need to remind people that the tropical holiday resort of Nauru, as one of our many recent prime ministers referred to it, is not only a dumping ground for so-called illegal migrants but that its economy was devastated in the last century when it was strip-mined by Australian commercial interests to provide us with the super-phosphate that in its turn, as we now recognise, caused more damage to Australian land than its temporary advantage in increasing crop yield. Those who neglect the lessons of history etc... but in order to neglect or not to neglect history we need to have struggled to learn it.

But is it just history that is under threat? Or is it more broadly the analytic and exegetic skills of a humanistic education?

Most of us here and no-one more than Paul, whose lifework we are celebrating today, have spent our working lives insisting that imaginative literature and the telling of the stories it embodies is crucial to human identity and to our understanding of the world.

Yet for so many of those in power, history, literature and such narratives are frivolities, icing on the cake of what they regard as real knowledge, science, technology and economics.

But is this so? Almost 30 years ago in 1990 a report was published that sought to address the issue of how hunger might be tackled in Africa. The contributors were from many disciplines, physical sciences, social sciences and one or two scholars of the humanities, notably the great recently deceased Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe.

In his introduction to the report, the chairman, A.L. Mabobunge, a social scientist, made the point that when we look back over the period since the 1890s the future predictions of what he called "conventional wisdom", by which he meant the attempts of scientists and social scientists to predict what the future would look like, was far less successful than those of speculative fiction writers.

Later in the report the same point is made when the authors note that in the decade following independence in Africa (i.e. the 1960s) international financial institutions had predicted that "Africa was the 'easy' continent to develop” and in ranking continents with what they called "large peasant economies" the likely predicted order of successful development would be Africa first followed by Latin America and lastly Asia.

Well, time has shown how inaccurate that prediction proved to be. The lesson perhaps is for a degree of humility to be exercised by the experts and to be aware that factors that might not be so easily "quantifiable" as science and social science requires may be of equal importance and that it is the cultural life of societies that these less quantifiable values are most clearly displayed.

To conclude...

...being human and its meaning is at the core of what the work of Paul Sharrad has been about. Not simply a praise of humanity but a critique of it too.

Literature and its study has, as its heart, an unremitting attention to the problem of what the human represents, for good and for evil.

Imagination allows human beings to imagine their world as part of a changeable reality, to reimagine both the past and the future. The exercise of this power to imagine allows human beings to manipulate their world in a unique way.

This is why we, as a species, can and have caused such devastation to ourselves, to other species and to the world we share. But it may also be the way in which we can take control of our future in positive ways.

The imagination and its power, harnessed through story and memory, may be the most important aspect of our lives and the most neglected. "It's Time" to recognize that again in our lives, in our universities and in our politics.

It is because literature and art is central to this process that its study is so vital, so immensely practical and so necessary to the future. It is to this vital process, Paul, that I know you have dedicated your life and done so with such energy and with so little ego.

I honour you for it and I am privileged to have been asked to launch this tribute to your life and work.


 

We would like to thank Emeritus Professor Gareth Griffiths for providing us with an abridged version of his address.