How to Read Provincially: On Sumana Roy’s “Provincials”

Sameer Pandya reviews Sumana Roy’s “Provincials: Postcards from the Peripheries.”

How to Read Provincially: On Sumana Roy’s “Provincials”

Provincials: Postcards from the Peripheries by Sumana Roy. Yale University Press. 352 pages.

YEARS AGO, in a grad-school seminar devoted entirely to the Brontë sisters, we were having a spirited discussion about Charlotte’s Jane Eyre (1847). Given that it was my second year and we were talking about a novel that demanded to be read postcolonially, I was going on and on about empire and the differences between the two men vying for Jane’s attention—the brooding Rochester and the ambitious St. John Rivers. As I rounded some theoretical corner, I could sense a twinkle in the eye of a classmate sitting across the table from me, surely readying to tell me all the ways I was wrong.

“It’s pronounced Sinjin,” she said, with deep satisfaction. “Not Saint John.”

Writer and poet Sumana Roy, in her excellent new book Provincials: Postcards from the Peripheries, articulates what I felt at that moment: “I almost froze. It was as if someone had pointed out my bad breath. For that is the thing about grammar and pronunciation—they are the body odor and bad breath of socioeconomic class.”

What I also remember about that long-ago moment is that the student pointing out the stink of my pronunciation—i.e., my provinciality—had herself arrived from the provinces to the fancy graduate school we were both attending. The provincial, it seems, needs to feel that there are others who are more provincial so they might feel less so.

But before we deconstruct the meaning and affect of the term, we need to know just how Roy defines and redefines it.

And here, starting with her own memories of growing up in the Indian provinces, then moving to the everyday practice of writing postcards and finally across literary traditions and writers as varied (and provincial, according to Roy) as the Brontës, the philosopher Jacques Derrida, the New Critic Cleanth Brooks, the Indian Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, and many, many others, Roy is clear, wide-ranging, self-aware, and delightful: “As I’ve groped and gathered, collected and scavenged through cultures and continents looking for provincials, those with whom I shared something invisible, I have wondered about the form of this emotional and intellectual history—what genre is it?”

We might call it a work of mixed genre, bringing together memoir, essay, literary criticism, and cultural theory—all working together toward moving the provincial beyond its negative connotations as the merely local, the quaint, the unsophisticated. And in doing so, Roy places the term in direct conversation with two theoretically adjacent ideas: the cosmopolitan and the national.

For the past several decades, one sector of literary and cultural studies has been interested in the idea of the cosmopolitan, a worldview that tries to think past the confines of the nation as a cultural and political ideal. From the mid-1980s to the aughts, there was a small cottage industry of books that examined the pleasures and limits of the cosmopolitan. Think Martha Nussbaum’s For Love of Country? A New Democracy Forum on the Limits of Patriotism (2002), in which her opening essay, celebrating the values of cosmopolitanism in Western antiquity and in Tagore’s 1916 novel The Home and the World, invited a series of responses from Kwame Anthony Appiah, Judith Butler, and Charles Taylor, among many other prominent thinkers. Or consider anthropologist James Clifford’s The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art (1988), which decenters the West in conversations about the global. These books were both responding to the persistence of nationalism as a political ideal and engaging in conversation with another cottage industry of books about nationalism, such as Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1983) or Partha Chatterjee’s Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World (1986).

At the same time, Roy is also living in and writing through a current political moment in India that has seen nationalism make a blistering comeback, this time in a narrower, more ethno- and religio-centric, more fascist, and more dangerous form.

In this theoretical and political context, Roy tries to carve out a space for the provincial that is some distance from both the cosmopolitan and the national, while aware that both these traditions cast long shadows. “I do not believe that cosmopolitanism and provincialism are antithetical,” she writes. “The forest, which is the most cosmopolitan space I know, one perhaps even more accommodative than the human heart, is also, by virtue of being tied to a place, genetically provincial.”

How might we value the provincial as much as we value the cosmopolitan? What would it take for the phrase “he is so provincial” to have the same affect as “he is so worldly”? Roy is trying to show how cosmopolitan the provincial can be—that the local has embedded within it a world, and that provinciality is a better alternative to nationalist fervor.


In this book, Roy is both theorist and poet—“When a leaf begins to dry, it is the edges that start curling first. This book is a history of those curls.” But she also provides a mode of reading, a way to read provincially. Among many examples to choose from, let me point to two.

Roy recalls being an 18-year-old freshman at a college in Bengal, finding herself in a spartan college library where she discovers the literary critic Cleanth Brooks and the tradition of New Criticism. And what she discovers about it—essentially, the idea that a text should be understood within the confines of the language used, with no attention paid to history or biography or social context—is that the mode of reading practiced by New Critics is one that she has already practiced by necessity. Growing up in a place where the libraries were not filled with books about other books, she had learned to read novels and poems and plays solely in terms of the work itself: “Our teachers practiced New Criticism in the classroom,” she writes, “though none of us, including perhaps the teachers, were conscious of it.” Provinciality is its own reading practice, with or without a fancy name attached to it.

She also writes about Derrida, about how his first 19 years spent in Algeria may have shaped the philosophical system of deconstruction that he is now known for. This point has been made before, but Roy develops it not as a mere biographical fact, suggesting that his sense of difference may have been shaped by his experience of being on the outside: “It was the ‘obscurity’ of a nonmetropolitan tradition—perhaps not comprehensible to a solidified, arrogant French tradition, that Jackie would import naturally to his writing and reading.” The most prominent philosophical figure of the past 50 years, who helped remake most humanities fields in the metropole, was a provincial at heart.

Once you start reading provincially along with Roy, you begin to see this phenomenon everywhere. My time in that graduate seminar now feels like a point of pride. Why do so many coming of age stories require the young person to go out into the world to find themselves? Can’t that equally be done by staying at home? Eudora Welty, D. H. Lawrence, V. S. Naipaul—all three were great provincial writers.


I can’t say there are many lines written by historians that ring in my ear, but this one, written by Dipesh Chakrabarty over three decades ago, has stuck: “Third-world historians feel a need to refer to works in European history; historians of Europe do not feel any need to reciprocate.” Chakrabarty’s project in his 2000 book Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference was to decenter Europe from how we tell our histories. But our histories are what they are, and decentering Europe has proven a difficult enterprise.

And yet, Roy makes a go of it in this book, giving equal weight to lesser-known Indian poets and novelists (and to herself) as to better-known writers from across the world. And as she moves between genres, the experience of reading the book feels a little like listening to a fusion of musical styles. Sometimes I wasn’t sure how all the pieces fit together. But I liked it. It sounded great. And I am here for Roy to create a new tune out of this home-versus-the-world impasse we all find ourselves in.

LARB Contributor

Sameer Pandya is the author of the novel Members Only, a finalist for the California Book Award and an NPR “Book We Love” of 2020, and the story collection The Blind Writer (2015), long-listed for the PEN/Open Book Award. His forthcoming novel will be published in 2025 by Ballantine/Random House in the United States and Bloomsbury in the United Kingdom. His cultural criticism has appeared in a range of publications, including The Atlantic, Salon, Sports Illustrated, and ESPN. He is an associate professor of Asian American studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.


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