Literary Devotional: Postcolonialism

Postcolonial literature refers to the body of works written by authors from formerly colonized areas of the world, as well as works written about people from those areas.  The bulk of this literature has been written since the 1950s and 1960s, when the last major European colonies in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean gained independence.

During the height of European imperialism in the late 1800s, European authors tended to celebrate their countries’ world dominace, extolling the alleged “white man’s burden” of civilizing the uncivilized.  British writer Rudyard Kipling led this charage with often overtly racist poems and novels.  Gradually, however, works such as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) and E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India (1924) cast a more critical eye on Europe’s colonial involvement.

After decolonization swept through Asia and Africa following World War II, authors in newly independent areas began to chronicle the cultural, social, and psychological fallout.  Many dwelled on questions of race, ethnicity, and national identity.  They also examined the political and religious tensions created when Europe imposed artificial national boundaries on native peoples.  Critics have noted that postcolonial works often focus on the concept of otherness—an idea that theorist Edward Said famously articulated in Orientalism (1978) his landmark treatise about the Western tendency to exoticize the East.

Postcolonialism is a sprawling movement, encompassing many regions and authors.  Notable works from Africa include Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country (1948) and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958); from Asia, Graham Greene’s The Quiet American (1955), Anita Desai’s Games at Twilight (1978), and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981); and from the Caribbean, V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas (1961), Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) and Jamaica Kincaid’s Annie John (1985).

Since the late 1980s, a new generation of postcolonial writers has taken the reins, applying a fresh perspective to many of the same themes.  A significant number of these works, such as Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia (1990) and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000), focus on non-Western immigrants living in Britain or the United States.  In general, they are more optimistic than their often anguished postcolonial predecessors, accepting the uprooted migrant condition as a reality of the modern world and exploring its positive and even comic aspects.

Note: This excerpt is taken from The Intellectual Devotional by David S. Kidder and Noah D. Oppenheim. ©2006 Rodale


One thought on “Literary Devotional: Postcolonialism

  1. Pingback: Gayatri Spivak and the Subaltern « Bahia Portfolio

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