Postcolonial literature, postcolonial theory

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Postcolonial literature, postcolonial theory

Postcolonial literature, postcolonial theory: Postcolonial literature refers to a body of literature written by authors with roots in countries that were once colonies of European nations, whereas postcolonial theory refers to a field of intellectual inquiry that explores and interrogates the situation of colonized peoples both during and after colonization. Postcolonial literature and theory are often, but not always, anti-imperialist in character.

The prefix post- in postcolonial implies opposition as well as chronological sequence; that is, postcolonial not only denotes the period after a former colony becomes independent but also typically connotes political and moral opposition to colonization. Thus, the term may cover works produced during the colonial period, such as Claude McKay’s Banjo (1929) (Jamaica) and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958) (Nigeria), if they express resistance to colonialism and project the potential for independence, as well as works produced in the wake of independence. Moreover, the term is sometimes extended to refer to materially similar situations that do not actually involve former colonies, such as the enslavement of African Americans and English domination of the Irish. Thus, works about slavery or its aftermath, whether by African Americans or others, may express postcolonial perspectives and invite postcolonial interpretations, as may accounts addressing Ireland’s status and relationship vis-à-vis England.

As a literary category, postcolonial literature has displaced narrower rubrics such as “Commonwealth literature” and “literature of the Third World” (which is usually subdivided into anglophone literature, francophone literature, and so forth). Postcolonial literature includes works by authors with cultural roots in South Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, and other places in which colonial independence movements arose and colonized peoples achieved autonomy, particularly within the twentieth century. Works by authors from so-called settler colonies with large white populations of European ancestry — such as Australia, Canada, and New Zealand — are sometimes also included. Twentieth-century examples of postcolonial literature include George Lamming’s In the Castle of My Skin (1953), Kushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan (1956), Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), Gabriel García Márquez’s Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude) (1967), V. S. Naipaul’s The Mimic Men (1967), Wole Soyinka’s play Death and the King’s Horsemen (1975), Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood (1979), Mariama Bâ’s Une si longue lettre (So Long a Letter) (1980), J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People (1981), Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981), Isabel Allende’s La casa de los espiritus (The House of the Spirits) (1982), Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions (1988), Derek Walcott’s epic poem Omeros (1990), Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (1992; adapted to film 1996), David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon (1993), Doris Pilkington Garimara’s Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence (1996; adapted to film 2002), and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (1997). Twenty-first century examples include Steven Frears’s film Dirty Pretty Things (2002), Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt (2003), Edwidge Danticat’s The Dew Breaker (2004), Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss (2006), Zoë Wicomb’s Playing in the Light (2006), Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun (2006; adapted to film 2013), Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names (2013), and David Joiner’s Lotusland (2015).

Critical readings of postcolonial literature regularly proceed under the overt influence of postcolonial theory, which raises historical, cultural, political, and moral issues surrounding the establishment and disintegration of colonies and the empires they fueled. As an interdisciplinary field, postcolonial theory routinely crosses perceived boundaries between literary criticism, history, anthropology, and other subjects, in part because postcolonial theorists themselves analyze such a wide range of issues and in part because they believe that the strict division of knowledge into academic disciplines contributes to colonizing mindsets.

Postcolonial theory has been influenced strongly by thinkers primarily concerned with the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent, particularly Edward Said, a Palestinian-American scholar, and the Indian scholars Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Homi K. Bhabha. Said laid the groundwork for the development of postcolonial theory in Orientalism (1978), a study of the process by which Westerners constructed false images and myths about the “Oriental” world. Such stereotyping, he argued, contributed to establishing European domination and exploitation through colonization.

Spivak highlighted the ways in which factors such as gender and class complicate our understanding of colonial and postcolonial situations. In essays such as “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (1988), Spivak challenged postcolonial theory to address the silencing of women and other subaltern subjects, not only by and in colonial discourses but also in postcolonial responses to those discourses. In so doing, she expanded the meaning of subaltern — a British military term referring to a low-ranking, subordinate officer — to include voiceless groups within colonies or former colonies, such as women, migrants, and the subproletariat.

Bhabha examined how colonized peoples have co-opted and transformed various elements of the colonizing culture, a process he referred to as hybridity. For instance, in his essay “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse” (1987), he argued that colonized peoples turn the tables on colonizing cultures through imitation that produces a difference. Subsequently, in “DissemiNation: Time, narrative and the margins of the modern nation” (1990), he both mimicked and transformed the title of poststructuralist theorist Jacques Derrida’s Dissemination (1972).

Important antecedents of postcolonial theorists include several writers from former colonies, particularly Achebe, Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, and Edward Kamau Brathwaite. For example, in “An Image of Africa” (1977), Achebe, a Nigerian writer, characterized Joseph Conrad’s representation of the Belgian Congo in Heart of Darkness (1899) as racist. Césaire, who experienced colonial life in the Caribbean and who founded the pan-national “Negritude” movement, described the barbarism of the colonizer in Discours sur le colonialisme (Discourse on Colonialism) (1950). Fanon, a West Indian psychiatrist from French Martinique who took up the cause of Algerian independence from France, analyzed the dynamics of racism and colonialism and advocated revolutionary independence movements in a series of essays. Of particular importance is his collection Les damnés de la terre (The Wretched of the Earth) (1961), including “Spontaneity,” which addresses spontaneous violence and national consciousness, and “On National Culture,” which describes the native intellectual’s role in the development of a postcolonial national identity. Brathwaite, a Caribbean writer from Barbados, discussed creolization, which he defined in The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica 1770—1820 (1971), as a “two-way process,” “a way of seeing the society, not in terms of white and black, master and slave, in separate nuclear units, but as contributory parts of a whole.”

Postcolonial literature and postcolonial theory continue to develop today. Neither looks the same as it did around 1990, when the terms first gained wide currency. Newer areas of study include the character and effects of diaspora — the dispersion of peoples from their homelands — and the differences among various postcolonial experiences. Notably, concepts and insights applicable to the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent often do not apply to African, Caribbean, and Hispanic or Latino contexts. Moreover, postcolonial theorists have also recognized that a given writer’s angle of vision varies (as does the reader’s) depending on factors such as gender, class, cultural roots, and location.

For further reading on postcolonial literature and theory, see Leela Gandhi’s Postcolonial Theory: A Critical Introduction (1998) and Literature for Our Times: Postcolonial Studies in the Twenty-First Century (2012), edited by Bill Ashcroft, Ranjini Mendis, Julie McGonagal, and Arun Mukherjee.