Global Matters: The Transnational Turn in Literary Studies by Paul Jay

Danielle Lamb


Jay, Paul. Global Matters: The Transnational Turn in Literary Studies. London: Cornell UP, 2010. 231 pp. Print. 


Paul Jay’s Global Matters: The Transnational Turn in Literary Studies draws attention to contemporary literary debates surrounding globalization. Born out of a paper written for the MLA at Stanford more than ten years earlier and an essay that was published in PMLA in 2001, the book is separated into two parts: “Globalization and the Study of Literature” and “Globalization in Contemporary Literature.” The first part is a critical and theoretical discussion of globalization, while the second part is a transnational analysis of contemporary literary texts which introduces readers to transnational writers engaging with globalization as a cultural, social, economic and political force. By weaving together a methodology for studying diverse literatures, Jay challenges readers to reflect upon the role that transnationalism has played in reshaping literary and cultural studies in the last few decades.

The first part of Global Matters is divided into four separate but interrelated chapters in which Jay provides an analysis of the transnationalization of literary studies, with a particular emphasis on English literature. In chapter one, focusing on the relationship between historical forces and globalization, Jay discusses Bill Reading’s The University in Ruins (1996), which looks at the impact of globalization on North American universities in the late twentieth century. Jay also references Edward Said alongside Masao Miyoshi in order to draw attention to fragmentation within literary studies and cautions how diversity and difference should be approached with prudence (27). This chapter provides a better understanding as to the ways that transnationalism and globalization are experienced differently throughout the globe.

In chapter two, Jay asks “What is globalization?” and claims that the answer “depends on how we historicize globalization” (33). He traces the evolution of globalization from a study dominated by the field of economics, political science and sociology to its present impact on literature and cultural studies. To illustrate its controversial history, Jay presents and analyzes two conflicting definitions of globalization: Roland Robertson and Malcom Waters argue that it is a historical phenomenon dating back to the sixteenth century; whereas, Anthony Giddens, David Harvey and Arjun Appadurai link globalization to modernity and contend that it is a contemporary phenomenon (37). Regardless, for Jay, globalization cannot be separated from histories of imperialism, colonialism, decolonialism and postcolonialism.

In chapter three, “Economies, Cultures, and the Politics of Globalization,” Jay divides the study of globalization into two groups: major differences exist between materialists, those who see globalization as a political and economical phenomenon, and cultural theorists who view globalization as a cultural phenomenon. Miyoshi and H.D. Harootunian claim that globalization is related purely to economics; whereas, Appadurai, Kwame Anthony Appiah and James Clifford argue for a more syncretic mode of analysis. Jay reconciles the differences between materialists and cultural theorists by arguing that “we cannot neatly separate economic from cultural commodities; when commodities travel, culture travels, and when culture travels, commodities travel” (3). According to Jay, the transnational turn in literary studies is rooted in the inability to separate economic flow from cultural production.             

In chapter four, “Border Studies: Remapping the Locations of Literary Studies,” Jay moves from defining globalization to advocating for texts to be studied in transnational context. This being said, he is adamant that this does not mean that one should “abandon older national models, but [rather] that they be supplemented, complicated, and challenged by new approaches” (73). Place and location are no long fixed spaces but are instead fluid, ambiguous and contested. In order to illustrate the relationship between the transnational shift in literary studies and globalization Jay draws attention to U.S. border studies. He compares Mary Louise Pratt’s “contact zone” (76-77) to Gloria Anzaldúa’s “borderland” ‘la frontera’ (77) in order to emphasize how “identities, cultures, and nations are produced, fractured, and continually reproduced within spaces or locations […]” (76). He then further complicates space and place alongside Paul Gilroy’s work on the black Atlantic, which leaves the reader rethinking how location in literary and cultural studies can be approached as places marked by the long history of globalization (89). 

In part two, “Globalization in Contemporary Literature,” divided into five chapters, Jay analyzes the work of seven contemporary authors from Asia, Africa, the Americas and Europe writing in English. The novels Jay discusses depict how histories of globalization, colonization and decolonization intersect and paint a composite picture of the transnational turn in literary studies. Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, Vikram Chandra’s Red Earth and Pouring Rain and Moshin Hamid’s Moth Smoke illustrate that postcolonialism and globalization are expressed differently. Roy and Chandra link globalization to colonialism; whereas, Hamid draws readers’ attention to globalization as a post-postcolonial concept. Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss, on the other hand, depicts the relationship between globalization and nationalism through the story of an illegal immigrant from India living in the United States. Zakes Mda’s post-apartheid novel The Heart of Redness complicates economic, cultural, environmental and gender politics. Mda’s novel moves from the disparities present in nineteenth-century colonialism to twentieth-century economic development and brings to the forefront debates between tradition and modernization. Zadie Smith’s White Teeth is centered in London and takes a different approach to analyze the politics of multiculturalism and “complex forms of ‘Englishness’” (93). Smith’s novel shows how historical globalization cannot be separated from the present and Jay suggests that Smith draws on Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic to consider “roots/routes” of identity in her characters (158). The Dominican novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz provides the final example of how history cannot be separated from globalization. Díaz problematizes the politics of migration and gender in the life of the protagonist Oscar to point out the interconnectedness between history and globalization.

While Jay is concerned with how migration, cross-cultural experience and histories of displacement shape this transnational shift in literary studies, he unfortunately does not spend much time going into the specifics of these three issues. Instead, he provides a close reading of seven contemporary transnational texts, examining how these works engage with globalization. At the same time, he also points out how political movements such as the civil rights movement, the Chicana/o movement, gay and lesbian rights movements and the women’s movement have informed shifts in literary studies, claiming that each has revolutionized texts and scholarship. While I agree that social movements have played a significant role in developments toward a shift in literary studies, this is one argument that I feel could have been elaborated upon. For instance, detailed examples of how departments have embraced or rejected what Jay deems the transnational turn in literary studies would be of interest.

One of the greatest strengths of this work for comparatists is Jay’s ability to provide not only a comprehensive overview of transnational literary and cultural theories, but also an in-depth reading of several significant contemporary novels. While these novels provide powerful examples of the transnational turn in literary studies as described by Jay, it would be interesting to compare them with earlier novels such as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958), Jean Rhys’s Dominican Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions (1988) or Through the Arc of the Rain Forest (1990) by Karen Tei Yamashita to illustrate the history of globalization. However, overall, Global Matters provides a sound analysis of the transnational turn in literary studies. Further, it is a great tool for students and professors interested in transnationalism and looking for a text that combines theory and literary analysis.


Works Cited


Chandra, Vikram. Red Earth and Pouring Rain. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1995. Print.

Desai, Kiran. The Inheritance of Loss. New York: Grove P, 2006. Print.

Díaz, Junot. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. New York: Riverhead Books, 2007. Print.

Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993. Print.

Hamid, Moshin. Moth Smoke. New York: Picador, 2000. Print.

Mda, Zakes. The Heart of Redness. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000. Print.  

Reading, Bill. The University in Ruins. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1996. Print.

Roy, Arundhati. The God of Small Things. New York: Random House, 1997. Print.

Smith, Zadie. White Teeth. London: Hamish Hamilton, 2000. Print.




Danielle Lamb is a PhD student in the Comparative Literature Program at the University of Alberta. She returned to the University of Alberta after completing a Master of Arts in Education at the University of British Columbia and teaching English in Japan. Her primary research interests include Chicano/a and Métis literature.



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