Monday, May 10, 2004

Postcolonial FAQ

On the comment board from over the weekend there were many interesting questions (thanks to everyone who participated). They were so interesting, in fact, that I decided to hold off on replying to them until I could do so adequately. The following is not meant to be a definitive statement. It's really a rough draft...

What is (was) postcolonial literature'?

The idea of 'postcolonial literature' was initially conceived to describe writing from the former British Empire. It was in many ways a substitute for 'Commonwealth literature' (referring to the loose political entity created after the British empire ended), though it basically maintained the same shape. Most of the literature that was included was written in English.

Though critics have contested it, there are strong thematic and formal similarities between Anglophone African, British Caribbean, and South Asian literatures from the 1950s-1980s. The central question was of the identity of new nation-states, which authors directly addressed in their work. The vast majority of this literature was also directly and explicitly political (though it was never only political). None of the writers wanted to be pigeon-holed or regionally delimited -- they all had an interest in being read outside of their own national borders. But most postcolonial writers were explicitly political in the sense that they were writing about the development of local political power and the end of empire. In that they are thinking about this specific issue, Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka (both Nigerian) have much in common with Ngugi wa Thiongo (Kenyan), as well as Edward Kamau Brathwaite (Jamaican), and early Salman Rushdie (Indian). For this generation of writers, national identity and location were less important than the historical ties produced by colonialism.

Many of the writers named above lived abroad during the writing of their major works. This is not a problem, since their novels, plays, and poems were still involved with the question of national identity and the theme of decolonization. The fact that so many of them went to England to be educated strengthens the connections amongst them; there was a sense of community.

Writers from former French colonies, Dutch colonies, and Portuguese colonies were also dealing with these exact questions, though in slightly different registers owing to different colonial histories and different experiences of decolonization. It makes sense to include Francophone and Lusophone writers in 'postcolonial literature', but carefully.

More recent writing from Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean has focused less on the problem of new nation-states, and has delved into other issues. It's an open question as to whether the newer generation of writing should continue to be called 'postcolonial'. In my own teaching, I have begun to deemphasize that term, especially when teaching recent books by writers like Jhumpa Lahiri. Her novel The Namesake is much more concerned with the development of the Indian diaspora in the United States than it is with the advent or progress of India. Similarly, I feel Rushdie's The Satanic Verses (and the novels he has written since then) is less about India than it is about economic and cultural globalization.

What about writers from these parts of the world who were never interested in politics, national identity, or decolonization?

Jorge Luis Borges has often been mentioned as a writer who aimed to define himself as at once Argentinian and fully of the world -- beyond politics. Another example might be Rabindranath Tagore, who worked very hard to overlook the damage caused by colonialism to his society, in order to cultivate an idea of a borderless world. (But there is a different story there too, in the nationalism evident in his journalistic writings and even much of his creative work before 1920, when he distanced himself from Gandhian nationalism and the non-cooperation movement.) Of course, Tagore is properly understood as a colonial writer rather than a postcolonial one; I mention him strictly as an example of someone who aimed to disown politics or social identity from his goals as a writer.

Finally, V.S. Naipaul is a writer who has expressed a determined wish not to be seen as Trinidadian, Caribbean, or 'postcolonial'. But his writings, even including some of his very recent works, are obsessively preoccupied with his Trinidadian origins, and his idiosyncratic emergence as a writer. He's not postcolonial in the sense that he's never taken much affirmative interest in Trinidad after independence. Perhaps it is correct to respect his wish. But that doesn't stop critics from seeing his autobiographical preoccupations as a symptom of, for instance, diasporic literature. (See the question on “alternatives” below)

Can regions of the world be defined as 'postcolonial'? What is western and non-western?

I resist using the term 'postcolonial' outside of literature. Each of the political terms that have been used have rather particular histories. “Third world” was coined by non-aligned nations at Bandung in the 1950s as a way of describing countries that wished to remain free of strong influence (proxy rule) either by the USA or the USSR. In time its meaning became more associative and it lost its specific political definition. It became a hobbyhorse for the left and a stigmatized, dismissive term by everyone else (“this poor neighborhood of [this American city] is practically third world”). After 1990, it lost any meaning at all. The same kind of thing can easily happen with 'postcolonial', which is why it should be used precisely rather than associatively, even by supporters.

There are plenty of other political terms floating around. 'Non-western' doesn't really make any sense. What do you do with Latin America? What do you do with all of the African nations that are as far west as Italy? “Global South” is perhaps a little more accurate, though there are also plenty of Asian states (especially from the former Soviet Empire) that are themselves pretty far north geographically.

I worry about any neat categorizations. High tech workers in in Bangalore have much more in common with high-tech workers in Silicon Valley than they do with Indians who live in rural areas, are illiterate, and have few options for getting out. Air-conditioned/non air-conditioned is as precise a socio-political marker as north/south or east/west. There are multiple centers of power and privilege in the world, and today many of them are to be found in places like India and China. To try and lump all of the rich, highly mobile people in the world together with a single term is lazy.

I try hard to avoid using terms like “western” and “non-western” connotatively, but I know that I slip on occasion, and use the terms for convenience, or out of habit. I don't think this is the end of the world...

Why isn't the literature from countries like the United States or Australia postcolonial?

A commentor writes:

"Post-colonial" is an offensive and lazy category. Why isn't American literature within this umbrella, since the US used to be an English colony? This is peculiar context. If I were to write a book (no need for alarm, I won't), I would be studied by the post-colonial people. Now I find that a most peculiar perspective to examine me from.

The United States and Australia were settler colonies. The people who ruled them after the end of British rule were ethnically and linguistically British. They didn't experience the kind of institutional subjugation experienced by others, and upon the end of British rule they didn't experience the spiritual crisis that occurred in the new nations of Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean. Thus in my view their literatures are not postcolonial. As I said above, I believe 'postcolonial' should be used in a very narrow historical sense.

What are alternatives to 'postcolonial', especially in recent literature of diasporization, globalization, and sub-national ethnic conflict?

As I mentioned, there are good reasons to reconsider the term 'postcolonial' when dealing with writers who are not concerned primarily with national allegory. In my teaching, I've been using the term 'postcolonial' less often in the past two years, and have started teaching courses with much more specific agendas: “Contemporary South Asian Literature,” “Black Diaspora Literature.” I would like to teach a course on “Diasporas” (including Jewish and some others) and maybe also a theory course on “Hybridity.” I could also see myself teaching a course on Blacks and Asians in England... There are many possible organizing rubrics.

This doesn't mean that the large number of writers from Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean who fit my definition of 'postcolonial' somehow decline in importance. Many of these writers (postcolonial in the narrow sense) will continue to be read and researched for years to come. But it is just one problem among many to investigate.

[Comments from this post]

Postcolonial FAQ


On : 5/10/2004 11:57:35 AM Brey (www) said:

I agree that diasporic and hybridic might be good ideas for new categories. But, postcolonial themes continue to arise. And, much of the globalization literature and scholarship tends to refer to the postcolonial present.


On : 5/10/2004 12:33:43 PM ESPN Kumar (www) said:

Why this constant [brown nosing] by Brey? Some grade at stake?


On : 5/10/2004 12:48:09 PM Brey (www) said:

Just liked the post. Not in school at the moment. Mostly, t's because I enjoy discussing these kinds of things with others. Living where I do, I don't have a lot of opportunity to do that. Blogs like this are my chance. Also, Amardeep happens to approach these topics in a way that encourages discussion. He's wililng to put his thoughts out for all (theoretically) to see. It's gutsy - especially if he's not tenured yet. And, he's willing to take criticism and digest it without spewing hate and hysteria when he disagrees. Call it as*-licking if you like. I think it's courteous to let people know when you appreciate their efforts.


On : 5/10/2004 3:39:10 PM Brey (www) said:

It's important to note that the US and Australia are not entirely European settler colonies though. I think Aboriginal and Native American literature sometimes enters into the postcolonial discourse. More often it is in refrence to the more local colonizer - European Americans or Australians - and not Europeans properly.


Anonymous said...

This is a great FAQ. And the kind of writing for non-specialists that is, I think, woefully absent from academia. Thank you for creating it. LiL

10:53 PM  
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