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English Professor’s Book Probes How Cold War Policies Helped Create Post-Colonial Literature

LEXINGTON, Ky, -- A new book by Peter Kalliney, William J. and Nina B. Tuggle chair in English in the University of Kentucky's College of Arts & Sciences, looks at ways in which rival superpowers used cultural diplomacy and the political police to influence writers.

The book, "The Aesthetic Cold War: Decolonization and Global Literature," examines how the United States and the Soviet Union, in an effort to entice writers, funded international conferences, arts centers, book and magazine publishing (including the Paris Review), literary prizes and radio programming. Their international spy networks, however, subjected these same writers to surveillance and intimidation by tracking their movements, tapping their phones, reading their mail and censoring or banning their work.

Readers can find out more about the book through a podcast found here

Although conventional wisdom suggests that cold war pressures stunted the development of postcolonial literature, Kalliney’s extensive archival research shows that evenly balanced superpower competition allowed savvy writers to accept patronage without pledging loyalty to specific political blocs. Likewise, writers exploited rivalries and the emerging discourse of human rights to contest the attentions of the political police.

“In the sphere of arts and letters, the cold war exerted two opposing pressures on intellectuals from decolonizing regions: new opportunities for global circulation through cultural diplomacy programs, on the one hand, and increasingly severe sanctions, including surveillance, censorship, and imprisonment, on the other hand.  Large states made an unprecedented effort to court writers from the decolonizing parts of the world.  Yet these very same writers faced significant political pressures both at home and as they traveled.”

In response to this influence, many writers from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, including Chinua Achebe, Mulk Raj Anand, Eileen Chang, CLR James, Alex La Guma, Doris Lessing, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Wole Soyinka, carved out a conceptual space of aesthetic nonalignment, imagining a different and freer future for their work. The book was published in 2022 by Princeton University Press.