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 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.