What is postcolonial literature?

by Professor Ato Quayson FBA

2 Jan 2020

A good way to start any definition of postcolonial literature is to think about the origins of the term postcolonialism and how it has been used in literary criticism, from roughly the late 1980s to present times. The term is sometimes written with a hyphen, sometimes left unhyphenated, with the two forms used to designate the same areas of interest by different critics. The hyphenated version was first used by political scientists and economists to denote the period after colonialism, but from about the late seventies it was turned into a more wide-ranging culturalist analysis in the hands of literary critics and others. The unhyphenated version is conventionally used to distinguish it from the earlier iteration that referred only to specific time period and to indicate a tendency toward literary criticism and the analysis of various discourses at the intersection of race, gender and diaspora, among others.

Postcolonialism... involves a studied engagement with the experience of colonialism and its past and present effects

A possible working definition for postcolonialism is that it involves a studied engagement with the experience of colonialism and its past and present effects, both at the local level of ex-colonial societies and at the level of more general global developments thought to be the after-effects of empire. Postcolonialism often also involves the discussion of experiences such as slavery, migration, suppression and resistance, difference, race, gender and place as well as responses to the discourses of imperial Europe such as history, philosophy, anthropology and linguistics. The term is as much about conditions under imperialism and colonialism proper, as about conditions coming after the historical end of colonialism. A growing concern among postcolonial critics has also been with racial minorities in the west, embracing Native and African Americans in the US, British Asians and African Caribbeans in the UK and Aborigines in Australia and Canada, among others. Because of these features, postcolonialism allows for a wide range of applications, designating a constant interplay and slippage between the sense of a historical transition, a socio-cultural location and an epochal configuration. Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) is considered as pivotal in the shaping of postcolonial studies. In Orientalism, Said argued for seeing a direct correlation between the knowledges that oriental scholars produced and how these were redeployed in the constitution of colonial rule.

Fisayo Akinade as Caliban in William Shakespeare's ‘The Tempest’, at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in London. Photo by Robbie Jack / Corbis via Getty Images.

It should be acknowledged, however, that whatever the developments were that led to the formation of the field of postcolonial studies, it has to be seen more in terms of a long process rather than a series of events, with the central impulses of this process coming from a variety of sources, sometimes outside any concern with colonialism. These may be traced in a variety of directions, such as in the changing face of global politics with the emergence of newly independent states; in the wide-ranging re-evaluation begun in the 1980s of the exclusionary forms of western reason and in the perception of their complicity with imperial expansion and colonialist rule; in the debates that raged about empiricism and culturalism in the social sciences from the 1960s; and in the challenges to dominant discourses of representation from feminist, gay, lesbian and ethnic studies in the 1970s and 1980s.

Postcolonial literature represents all these conditions and comes from various sources and inspiration. It includes works such as Samuel Beckett’s Murphy, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, and Ingolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers, among many others. Shakespeare’s Othello, Antony and Cleopatra and The Tempest have been taken as key texts for the application of postcolonial modes of analysis. This suggests that postcolonial literature is a broad term that encompasses literatures by people from the erstwhile colonial world, as well as from the various minority diasporas that live in the west. Postcolonialism has also been a term used to reinterpret western canonical literature from a variety of fresh and diverse perspectives.

Ato Quayson is Professor of English at Stanford University. He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2019. 

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