By Yi Wang and Mariah Toset
ACLALS is the abbreviation for the Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies. To discuss the issues of “Commonwealth Literature”, Professor A. N. Jeffares organized a conference at the University of Leeds in 1964, at which the Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies (ACLALS) was formed. Since then, ACLALS has devoted to the study of Commonwealth and post-colonial literature, bringing together scholars, authors and readers from Canada, Australia, South Africa, the South Pacific and other places at its triennial conferences. In between there have been also numerous local gatherings, which often attract as distinguished participants as the main events.
“Commonwealth” may perhaps be “the earliest incarnation of post-colonial studies” (Boehmer and Moore-Gilbert 9). The first institutional use of the term “Commonwealth Literature” was at the inaugural conference of ACLALS in 1964. However, with the development of the organization, there gradually emerged some disputes about the term “Commonwealth.” Some of the chapters began questioning and “proposing tentative plans to swap it for alternatives such as ‘postcolonial,’” arguing that it is “indicative of a critical scrutiny in which the old metropoles are continually decentred, geographical imaginaries disorientated, settler colonies unsettled and intercontinental configurations rewired” (Davies 585). Furthermore, “[f]ifty-three countries, from Antigua to New Zealand to Zambia— all with some colonial connection to Britain – are part of the Commonwealth, which begs the question of writers whose home nations are not part of this collective” (Rampure 3). Although there are some problems with the use of the word “Commonwealth,” the term “Post-colonial” does not cover the whole spectrum of discussion either: “While the term ‘Commonwealth’ has drawn the most disapprobation, many of the criticisms aimed at it might be applied to the term “Postcolonial” with equal justice” (Rampure 4).
The Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies focuses on commonwealth literature and post-colonial literature. It includes both literature from the former British colonies and literature written in English, as well as literature on colonial issues. “At one time Commonwealth Literature was defined by exclusion: it excluded literatures written in English in the United Kingdom, Ireland, and the United States. Today it is more inclusive: literatures in English from the former British colonies remain the predominant focus; postcolonial writing now interrogates literatures in English from any part of the world; it includes translations and texts not originally written in English and lacking any direct connection with England” (Nandan 95). Indeed, ACLALS’s goal to draw attention to literature from various cultural groups is evident in their topics and paper presentations throughout ACLALS triennial conferences as well as branch conferences. Topics discussed at the conferences include Language and Culture, Identity and Nationality, relationships between author and audience, the role of writers, as well as woman’s issues, ethics, poverty, war, etc.
By supporting post-colonial writing, ACLALS has helped to break the limits of nationalism and cross the boundaries of group and individual identities, enabling dialogue between people of different nationalities and identities. As The Journal of Postcolonial Writing states, “these all have colonialism in common, and…networks of postcolonial writing continue to be an essential tool with which to resist and alleviate them” (Davies 588). Through the scholarship and discussion that ACLALS nurtures, participants try to reconfigure understandings of history, heal the past and regain hope: “It is this that gives ACLALS its inner energy, purpose, fellowship and activity” (Nandan 97).
The center of the Commonwealth was undoubtedly in Britain, but the centers for study of Commonwealth literature gradually moved to other parts of the world, especially the former British colonies. The development of Commonwealth and post-colonial literature had a great influence on Australian literature and, to a certain extent, on British literature. “The historical position of Britain as the centre of the Commonwealth, the location in London of the secretariats of many pan-Commonwealth institutions and of the Commonwealth itself” (Niven 517) is unsurprising. But there’s a paradox that Commonwealth literature as a discipline was not fully pursued in cities that have sources suited to Commonwealth studies. “Gradually recognition and legitimacy has been won——to such an extent that it is commonplace now to read of how modern English literature has been colonized by the empire writing back”(Niven 520). As for the influence in Australia, Dixon says, “It is perhaps significant that all of these early signs of postcolonial influence in Australian Literary Studies came from staff who were then at the University of Queensland, which had hosted the ACLALS conference in 1968” (Dixon 113).
ACLALS has great influence in the Commonwealth and continental Europe, with 10 branches in these regions and more than 10 000 memberships. It has played an irreplaceable role in promoting the discussion and study of Commonwealth and post-colonial literature. ACLALS focused attention on the life of Indigenous peoples in the former colonies, and promoted the dissemination of the works of writers within these regions as well. “The authenticity of writers whose choice of English, or incapacity to write in any other language, must render them historically in some kind of thrall to Europe and to the British literary tradition, however much they seek to disown it” (Niven 521). By focusing on the status of English as an international language in literary creation, ACLALS draws attention to the relationship between English-language writing and works conceived in mother tongues and vernaculars. In its unique way, ACLALS has contributed to raising awareness of these areas and encouraging theory-based action.
ACLALS has created multiple publications to highlight the work of its members, tackle contemporary issues, and to provide members with information about upcoming events. For instance, ACLALS had a newsletter that provided information on ACLALS itself, and important content from its branches. Many branches have produced their own publications as well, such as Canadian ACLAL’s Chimo newsletter, an Indian ACLALS journal, as well as disciplinary journals including Phoenix (Sri Lanka). ACLALS members also play prominent editorial and leadership roles in a wide variety of journals including Current Writing and The European Journal of English Studies.
ACLALS was financially supported through the Commonwealth Foundation Grants for a number of years, but that support ceased during the 2010s. The association is currently supported through diverse local grants and membership fees. Regional branches continue to hold conferences and produce publications; ACLALS itself continues to hold triennial conferences. A full account of all past conferences can be found here.
With the loss of Commonwealth Foundation funding, and the loss of several of the organization’s founders, ACLALS has found itself at a transitional moment. The project of narrating and preserving the organization’s history was started by Russell McDougall and Geoffrey Davis in 2016, before Geoff, a long-time champion of the association, passed away in 2018. Geoff is profiled, along with many prominent members, here.
There is far more that has yet to be written about the history, impact and future potential of this organization. To support further scholarship, we have compiled a list of resources, and an archive of original ACLALS documents. Funding for this project was provided by the MITACS Globalink Research Internship Program, by the Work-Integrated Learning Digital Program (part of the Government of Canada’s Student Work Placement Program)