Course Description for English 386 – Lehigh University
Instructor: Amardeep Singh
Literature in English
Postcolonial literature refers to writing from regions of the world that were once colonies of European powers. The term refers to a very broad swath of writing in many languages, but the emphasis in this class (in an English department) is on writing in English. The writers in this course come from quite different backgrounds, including Africa, South Asia, and the Caribbean, but they struggle with some similar issues, chief among them being the legacy of colonialism – of European dominance. Postcolonial literature is of particular importance partly because much of it is stylistically original and different from earlier European literature, (one thinks of the number of postcolonial writers who have received prestigious literary prizes in recent years). But postcolonial writing is also important because the texts – as literature – have the potential provide perspectives on the world that are unavailable from textbooks and the newsmedia. The best postcolonial literature aims to tell good, entertaining stories while seriously attempting to represent some of the most troubling conflicts and injustices imaginable.
Postcolonial writers attempt to develop their own literary voices in regions of the world that may have been described in the colonial era as “primitive” or “savage” – where literature and culture were considered absent or somehow illegitimate. The larger project of moving past this colonial legacy, what we might call the “decolonization” of writing, brings up a wide array of themes, each of which we will address in turn. To begin with, there are issues that affect writing itself, such as choice of language. Many postcolonial writers choose to write in the languages of the former colonial power (i.e., English, French, Spanish, Portuguese), though this can be a source of serious disagreement. Moreover, much postcolonial writing is highly sensitive to how language is used, and by whom. There is a serious consideration of the role of dialects, patois – the intentional, potentially liberatory use of what one African writer calls “rotten English.”
Relatedly, postcolonial writers are compelled to find suitable and original shapes in which to represent their particular cultural experiences and historical perspectives. The novel-form is a European construct – is it malleable enough to tell the story of villagers in Zimbabwe, Punjab, or Trinidad? One answer to this problem, a mode of writing known as magical realism, blends traditional storytelling practices (some of which may be oral) with western modes of narration. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, which we will read, is one of the best examples of the deployment of the magical realist style. We will discuss each of these issues of form as we progress; we will also refer to some critical and theoretical texts that map out these and other formal concerns.
In this course literature, politics, and social theory will be inextricable for the simple reason that the texts themselves are intensely concerned with social and political problems. The postcolonial experience has been extremely violent and complex, with new forms of oppression and violence often replacing the old structures. The past 50 odd years have seen innumerable conflicts around the definition of the nation in the postcolonial world. Other conflicts have circulated around issues such as ethnicity, race, religion, and cultural difference. And nearly everywhere are negotiations of gender and sexuality, which are in the foreground in virtually everything we will read. Responding to these problems requires a good deal of particular historical and cultural knowledge relevant to given issues or struggles, and I will encourage members of the class to pursue and develop knowledge related to given texts (for example, Sara Suleri’s Meatless Days might provoke research on the history of Pakistan).
Finally, we will talk quite often about diasporization and displacement. Because they often express ideas that are controversial in their home countries, many postcolonial writers find themselves in exile, sometimes in the capitals of the former Imperial regime (a surprising number of the writers in this course currently live in London). Others are members of immigrant populations who have moved from postcolonial locales to European and American metropolitan centers, in search of economic opportunity. Yet others (especially Caribbean writers like Naipaul and Phillips) are descendents of people who were displaced against their will – slaves and indentured laborers. As a result of all of these factors, displacement and exile are central themes in postcolonial writing.
V.S. Naipaul, “Prologue to an Autobiography.”
Naipaul grew up in Trinidad and now lives in England; he recently won the Nobel Prize for literature. The “Prologue” is about how Naipaul came to become a writer.
Online resources on Naipaul and other Caribbean writers
J.M. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians
J.M. Coetzee is a South African writer whose works explore the nature of violence in a stratified postcolonial society.
Handout on Coetzee (NEW)
Online resources on Coetzee and other South African writers
Tsitsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions
Tsitsi Dangarembga is a Zimbabwean woman novelist. This novel tells the story of a young girl’s struggle to get an education and stay sane in an environment where education for women often produces anxiety, loneliness, and deracination.
Online resources on Dangarembga and other African writers
Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children
Salman Rushdie grew up in India and now lives in England. This is his first novel; it tells a playful, idiosyncratic version of Indian independence through a “magic realist” lens.
Online resources on Rushdie
Khushwant Singh, Train to Pakistan
Khushwant Singh lives in India. This is an early narrative of the South Asian “partition,” and foregrounds the theme of religious conflict in the Indian subcontinent through an inter-religious romance.
Online resources on Singh and other partition novelists
Amitav Ghosh, The Shadow Lines
Amitav Ghosh grew up in India and now lives in New York. This novel is a romance in a time of war; set in England and India in the 1970s.
Online resources on Ghosh
Sara Suleri Meatless Days (a memoir)
Sara Suleri was born in Pakistan and now lives in New Haven, CT. This is her memoir of growing up the daughter of a prominent journalist in Pakistan, during a period of political instability.
Online resources on Suleri
Zadie Smith, White Teeth
Zadie Smith is a very young writer who lives in England. This is novel about immigrant histories in England.
Online resources on Smith
Caryl Phillips, The Atlantic Sound (a memoir)
Caryl Phillips was born in St. Kitts in the West Indies (Caribbean). This is a memoir of travels to Africa, England, and Israel.
Online resources on Phillips and other Caribbean writers
(Note: the symbol (@) refers to materials available or due online)
January 16: Introduction; Read and discuss Agha Shahid Ali's "Blessed Word"
January 18: Newspaper articles on Michael Hardt (@); excerpts from Empire (@)
January 22: Scholar Michael Hardt visits campus (afternoon lecture required).
January 25: Coetzee, 115-End of book (response to Coetzee)
January 28: Suleri 1-72
January 30: Suleri, 73-130
February 1: Suleri, 131-end of book; (response to Suleri)
February 4: Suleri; Naipaul on Pakistan (@)
February 8: Naipaul’s “Prelude”; (response to Naipaul)
February 11: No class (Pacing Break)
February 13: The Shadow Lines 3-112
February 15: The Shadow Lines 114-154
February 18: The Shadow Lines 154-end of book
February 22: Sri Lankan Short stories (Arasanayagam, Gunesekera) (@)
February 25: The Atlantic Sound
February 27: The Atlantic Sound
March 1: First Paper Due (5-7 pages) (on The Shadow Lines, Meatless Days, or Waiting for the Barbarians)
March 4-8: No class (spring break)
March 11: The Atlantic Sound
March 13: Finish The Atlantic Sound; Response to The Atlantic Sound due
March 15: Nervous Conditions 1-57
March 20: Nervous Conditions 103-148
March 22: Nervous Conditions 149-end of book; Response to Nervous Conditions due
March: 25: Midnight’s Children
March 27: Midnight’s Children
March 29: No classes (?)
April 1-5: Midnight’s Children
April 8-12: Midnight’s Children
April 15-19: White Teeth
April 22-26: White Teeth (response to Zadie Smith)
Hanif Kureishi essay, "The Rainbow Sign" (@)
Screen My Beautiful Laundrette
April 29-May 3: Train To Pakistan
May 6: Last Day of Classes.
àMay 10: Final paper on a concept in Post-colonial literature/theory; complete response papers re-submitted