post-colonial writing

post-colonial writing
   As a starting-point, post-colonial studies is about the critique of and the resistance to colonialism. Post-colonial literature is a term which has come to replace the older labels ‘world literature written in English’, ‘Third World literature’ or ‘Commonwealth literature’. Though ‘post-colonial’ has its detractors, the latter three have been objected to because of their tendency to ghettoize and to suggest the centrality of Britain or the West. The meaning of the term ‘post-colonial’ is open to debate. It can refer just to previously colonized countries, which are now independent: this makes it simply a historical phase after colonialism. Expanding from this, some critics say that colonizing and ex-colonizing countries should also be included: Britain is a post-colonial country as much as Nigeria, because Britain is also greatly affected and even defined by its heritage of colonialism— and this will be as much reflected in the writing of Martin Amis or Angela Carter as Derek Walcott or Anita Desai. (On the other hand, Britain is still a colonizing country: Northern Ireland is one example, and many Pacific islands could offer others.) The problem with this definition is it elides the difference between colonized and colonizer. On the other hand, this is also its strength: it does not duplicate the colonial binary through designating the West on the one hand and ‘Third World’ countries on the other. A third argument is that post-colonialism is a term that should apply from the start of colonization, not the end. This is the argument of Ashcroft et al. in The Empire Writes Back. This construction is needed because, they argue, there is a continuity of preoccupations from the moment of European imperial aggression onwards. To create a break at the moment of independence, they argue, creates a false idea of the way culture develops: it is the inception of colonialism that crucially alters writing and identity, while independence just complicates it. However, this is not widely accepted, partly because it seems reductive of the importance and effects of independence, and partly because it becomes such a blanket term that it loses almost all specificity. Most commonly, however, ‘post-colonial’ refers to an approach rather than a historical period. Some critics use the absence or the presence of the hyphen to signal the two meanings. In terms of an approach, it is one that is consciously aware of and positioned against the ideology of colonialism and neocolonialism. By neo-colonialism, it is generally meant the way in which the West continues to maintain maximum indirect control over ex-colonies through economic, cultural, and political mechanisms.
   The term ‘post-colonial’ has other difficulties because it stresses the importance of European influence in a country’s development and in the contemporary World. Some critics resent the term ‘post-colonial’ in the same way that they reject ‘Third World’: because it defines the world in terms of the major colonial powers. To say that Pakistan is a post-colonial country implicitly defines it in terms of Britain. Lastly, the term ‘post-colonial’ seems to lump together widely varying experiences: if India, Rhodesia, Australia and Brazil are all postcolonial countries, their differences are lost in this blanket term.
   Additionally, the second half of the twentieth century has been marked by huge demographic shifts. The dismantling of the European empires is one major reason for this, together with the economic, military, nationalist and cultural pressures that have followed on from colonialism. Collective identities along lines of nation or ethnicity are both more forcefully asserted and more complex: dual or multiple affiliations are common and terms such as black British and Indian English are needed to express many people’s selfidentifications. Many contemporary ‘British’ writers are displaced or repatriated, born in one country and now living in another: Salman Rushdie (Bombay), Caryl Phillips (St Kitts), Lauretta Ngcobo (South Africa), Grace Nichols (Guyana) and so on. Other prominent writers have far more complex histories: the novelist and playwright Nuruddin Farah was born in Somalia, educated in Ogaden, the Punjab, London and Essex, lived in Somalia until 1973 and has since migrated between Nigeria, Gambia, Sudan, France, Germany, Italy, the USA and Uganda. Again, the national and ethnic make-up of V.S. Naipaul is complex as he was born in Trinidad to parents of Indian descent but lived most of his life in England. His novels and essays repeatedly probe Indian (An Area of Darkness), Caribbean (Miguel Street) and British (The Engima of Arrival) identity, just as Salman Rushdie’s novels dissect Indian (Midnight’s Children), Pakistani (Shame) and multicultural British (The Satanic Verses) colonial legacies. As Elleke Boehmer (1995:233) has argued, cultural expatriation is also a key theme in novels like V.S. Naipaul’s Guerillas (1975), Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow-Lines (1988) and Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah (1987).
   The importance of post-colonial issues to contemporary British writing can be gauged by the Booker Prize. Novels set in India, and linked with the Raj, won the Booker in 1973 (J.G.Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur), 1975 (Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s Heat and Dust), 1977 (Paul Scott’s Staying On) and 1981 (Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children). Other winners often discussed in post-colonial studies have been Keri Hulme, Ben Okri, Kazuo Ishiguro, Michael Ondaatje, Arundhati Roy and J.M.Coetzee. Indeed, there is hardly a winner who could easily fall outside the limits of post-colonial writing, a fact which emphasizes both its power as a discursive category and its in some ways disabling pervasiveness.
   Further reading
    Ashcroft, B., Griffiths, G. and Tiffin, H. (1989) The Empire Writes Back, London: Routledge.
    Boehmer, E. (1995) Colonial and Postcolonial Literature, Oxford: Opus.
    Childs, P. (ed.) (1999) Post-Colonial Theory and English Literature, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
   PETER CHILDS

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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