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Literary theories: Novels on Postcolonialism and Multiculturalism

Updated on November 6, 2016
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Erwin Cabucos writes from Brisbane, Australia. He has Masters in English Education from the University of New England.

Postcolonial Studies
Postcolonial Studies | Source

Annotated list of postcolonial and multicultural texts


By Erwin Cabucos

The following corpus of texts has been selected in terms of their relevance to the theories of Postcolonialism and Multiculturalism. Their selection has taken into account elements of their content, composition or production and readership or audience interpretation to examine ways through which they could be used for classroom activities in the frameworks of the two theories. The new Australian curriculum: English and the Senior English Syllabus with their emphases on using texts from a variety of cultures particularly the Indigenous Australians and the neighbouring Asian cultures have also been consulted.

Dickens, C. (1993). Great expectations. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

This Dickens classic explores the social problems of the British industrial system as well as England’s engagements as a colonial and an imperial power in the early 19th century. The character Magwitch represents London’s criminals convicted and transported to the colonies. Magwitch is shipped to Australia, and considers the colony as a least favourable prerogative for his future. He returns to England to be caught up in more serious problems that beset the so-called powerful empire. This narrative serves as a social, cultural, historical and geographical background for students to trace the beginnings of Postcolonialism, particularly in Australian context that lead to the contacts of the white settlers with the African and Asia-Pacific natives. The characters and setting in Great Expectations allow students to trace the beginnings and movements of people who comprise early white settlers. They can explore the notion of the colony as the dumping ground of the unwanted and the rejected subjects of the empire. This novel can also be a site for inspecting the absence of natives’ agenda and perspectives from the lives and daily conducts of the mother country.

Conrad, J. (2005). Heart of darkness. London: W.W. Norton

Conrad’s novella exemplifies stories of slavery and cruelty by Europeans to African or Asian peoples. This time, the European masters are the Dutch traders and the African people are the overworked Congo ivory workers. The plot narrates the journey of Marlow and his meeting with Kurtz, a European man with a reputation of having great abilities. Marlow encounters inefficiencies in the running of the enterprise, including the ill treatment and squalor of the natives at the hands of the managers. His final meeting with Kurtz reveals the coloniser’s brutality towards the natives - the uncivilised savages. Kurtz’s dossier with a strong message to ‘exterminate the brutes’ and his last words ‘the horror, the horror’ reveal the atrocities and the dark intention of the colonisers to the colonised. Polarities between the blacks and the whites, particularly the white’s affirmation of its identity as the opposite of the blacks, can be thoroughly explored in this text. Racial relations between the two factions, particularly the highlighting of the differences in physical features between the two races, causing the distancing and the dividing factor between the two factions are worthy of exploring. The silencing of the blacks in the narrative, largely to language barriers is another question for examination. Which linguistic practice should be imposed in a coloniser-colonised relationship? Often the language of the dominating race overpowers which results to misunderstanding, fear, xenophobia, violence and death. The non-white race is alienated and seen as grotesque and the evil ‘other’. Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is best intertextualized with Achebe’s Things Fall Apart where the narrative is told from the eyes of the colonised African natives. They are shown as people with customs, traditions, beliefs, laws and ways to negotiate and transact affairs in society. In Achebe’s text, the whites are the ‘other evil’; the blacks have a civilised culture, language and identity.

Achebe, C. (c2001). Things fall apart. London: Penguin (to intertextualized Conrad’s Novella)

Achebe’s novel of a Nigerian tribe presents the anti-thesis of Conrad’s maltreated Congo workers. In Achebe’s work, the natives are socially and culturally dynamic. In Achebe’s blacks, the characters live in a society where aspects of a civilised culture are at work: justice, spirituality, beliefs, marriage, family, education and defence. Okonkwo, his family, his tribe and society, has officially agreed customs and traditions. They regard the white as the ‘opposite disruptive others’ who meddle with their social and cultural affairs. In studying this text, students can re-examine the validity of the polarities between the blacks and the whites, now, that the narrative of the novel positions the readers to see the situation from the eyes of the blacks. In Achebe’s Things fall apart, students are given opportunity to investigate aspects of ethnicity, particularly the interplay of customs, beliefs, laws and language to achieve a collective notion of identity. How significant is language in the attainment of social or national identity? It is also worth exploring the natives’ emphasis on the ‘communal’ as opposed to the whites’ emphasis on the ‘individual’. Furthermore, this text also offers opportunity to analyse the role of religion in colonisation. The arrival of the missionaries in Mbanta signals the destruction of the authentic culture and the commencement of upheaval and subversive acts by the natives, such the Egwugwu’s burning of the church. The white’s cultural imposition to the natives causes disenfranchisement and civil war - a basic premise that is often illustrated in the texts within the framework of Postcolonialism.

Prichard, K. S. (1929). Coonardoo. Sydney: Angus and Robertson

Prichard’s Coonardoo situates this difficult relationship between the white colonisers and the black colonised in the harsh, arid landscape of the Australian outback. This time, the natives are not only the enslaved and turned into servants of the white settlers, they are also raped to serve the sexual needs of the whites. From Sam Geary’s sexual slaves to Hugh Watt’s sexual encounters with his house Aboriginal servant Coonardoo come the complication of the half-caste who is viewed as a race to be cleaned and nurtured properly within the jurisdiction of the white’s care. Prichard’s 1929 novel portrays not only the undesirable interaction between the British convicts and first settlers in the colony of Australia, it also demonstrates the acts of naming and mapping of the native lands, plants and animals from the perspectives and cognizance of the whites. Students can survey examples of native flora and fauna that have been given English names – their common names, but common to whose culture? Significance of various places and spaces are altered according to the ideas and imagination of the white settlers. In this text, postcolonial elements of dispossession, cultural destruction and servitude become detectable in an Australian setting.

Davis, J. (1986). No sugar. Sydney: Currency Press.

Davis’ play No Sugar depicts the racist white Australian policies and authorities. This text is written from the point of view of an Aboriginal family who has had to endure disrespect and maltreatment from the Australian government in the 1920s and 1930s. In this text, students will be given opportunity to examine the stereotypes on Aboriginal identity and culture. Examples of which include alcoholism, crimes, vices, poverty, illiteracy, dole dependence and the general misconception that ‘they are a burden in the white man’s shoulders’. In this text, the notion of positioning is exercised; audience is invited to sympathise with the Aboriginal characters who are victims of institutional racism in Australian society.

Luhrmann, B. (Director). (1992). Strictly ballroom. [Motion picture]. Sydney: Australian Film Finance Corporation.

Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom portrays multiculturalism as an innovative capital that Australia as a globalising nation should invest in. It sees migrants as sources of authentic culture and talents who contribute significantly to the attainment of excitement and spectacle in the world of competition and enterprise. Scott Hasting’s subscription of the Spanish family’s authentic steps of Paso Doble becomes the driving force to subvert the bland and tired steps of Barry Fife. Scott’s choice to utilise and respect the language, identity and culture of the migrants lead to the spectacular display of brilliant expertise witnessed by all in the finale. Furthermore, the dichotomy between the ‘different’ (migrants) and the ‘familiar’ (Anglo-Celtic, English-speaking Australians) is worth exploring in this text. Although the two factions are different, the commonality of human emotion and passion are apparent. Also, it is worth exploring the students’ affiliation with migrants in terms of family backgrounds and heritage.

Abdel-Fattah, R. (2005). Does my head look big in this? Sydney: Pan Macmillan Australia.

Migrant’s language, culture and identity and their uneasy encounters with the Anglo-Celtic, English-speaking Australians’ cultural domination are the roots of drama in Abdel-Fattah’s Does my head look big in this. Amal, the Palestinian protagonist is torn between the two cultures. She is indecisive and afraid to wear her hijab because of her fear of losing her friends, particularly her Australian friends. Multiculturalism’s conflicting narratives between the subservient culture and the dominant culture, the human drama of struggle, persistence and identity and the teenagers’ issues of peer pressure, friendship and identity become intense. This cultural conflict, anxiety and fear of other cultures, particularly the Islamic culture and their associations with terrorism can be a site for burning and confronting discussion among learners. This topic can be intertextualized with everyday and media texts to heighten the focus on stereotypes and cultural assumptions on different social and cultural groups in Australian society. Students can examine the implications of xenophobia, racial prejudice and discrimination. Concepts of ideology, perpetuation, myths, ethnicity, ethnocentrism, immigration, refugees and citizenship as well as under- or mis-representations of peoples can be explored debated and challenged.

Gwynne, P. (1998). Deadly unna?. Sydney: Penguin.

In Gwynne’s novel, racism against the Aboriginal people is explicit. The plot and characters of the novel is a reminder that racial prejudice exists in the local community, including the local sports club. Racism in the text may be investigated through the divided settings of the two cultures. Two friends, Blacky and Dumby, live in two different locations of the same town. A study of the setting as the place for creating and perpetuating ignorance and fear between cultures is worth pursuing. Furthermore, the uses of naming, labelling in graffiti and in conversations against the cultural background of another person, particularly towards the Aboriginal people, such as ‘Boongs’ and ‘Abos’, can be explored and discussed.

Grenville, K. (2008). The secret river. Melbourne: Text Publishing

Grenville’s The secret river offers readers the chance what it would be like to live as a new English settler in the colony where they were transported for petty crimes from their mother country. In exploring this text, Grenville makes apparent the problematic relationship of the settlers with the Aboriginal people. Based, on the factual research of Grenville of her great grandfather’s experience as a convict shipped over to Australia, the narrative reflects the brutal racial prejudice that the early English settlers had inflicted upon the Aboriginal people. Through this text, students can explore the historical context of the coloniser/colonised relationship in the Australian context. It offers learners the opportunity to vicariously experience the story of the difficult encounters between the settlers and the natives. It allows students to realise the competing narratives of two cultures: the whites’ valorisation of the explorers and colonisers versus the blacks’ oppression, dispossession and death at the hands of the whites. The silencing of the natives in the narrative and its implications in the audience positioning and sympathy are an area for analysis. One way to interpret the ‘silencing‘ technique is to look at it as a secret likened to Marlow in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness where he has to go upstream to uncover the true horror. This text can serve as an area where students can consolidate their learning from Geography, History, Civics and Citizenship as well as Indigenous Studies into English.

Noyce, P. (2002). Rabbit proof fence [Motion picture]. Sydney: Rumbalara Films

Rabbit proof fence narrates the plight of three Aboriginal children who were victims of the government policy which resulted to the events of the Stolen Generation. Drawing from the black and white relationship in Australian history, the film’s point-of-view rests in the eyes of the Aboriginal people. This offers opportunities for the audience to vicariously experience the emotions and drama undergone by the indigenous Australians from the brutal and maltreatments of their white counterparts. This movie is a good way for students to revisit a specific example of the competing narratives between the black and white Australians. Furthermore, the topic of the half-caste, the race in between, is an area for students to deal with the cases and implications of racial prejudice, i.e. what happens if the physical features, which are the source of racism, becomes moulded and mixed with its opposite. The topic of the blurring and confusion of racial identity is an interesting site for discussion.

Cabucos, E. (2008). Green Blood and Other Stories. Sydney/Manila: Manila Prints.

Cabucos’ short stories explore the cultural practices and beliefs of the Filipino people, including those Filipinos who have migrated to Australia, hence Filipino-Australians. The themes of growing-up, family, food, religion and superior/inferior culture are significant aspects of multiculturalism through which elements of cultural diversity and harmony could be examined. Comparing and contrasting those themes between the Australian and the Filipino cultures is a site of valuable multicultural investigation and learning. Analysis and evaluation of the narratives of the stories reveal incidents and occurrences of suppression of the Filipino culture and privileging of the white English speaking Australians. This power relation between Australia and the Philippines becomes a specimen for studying concepts and implications of racial prejudice, post/colonialism, stereotypes and assumptions. Exploration of this text allows opportunities to study an Asian culture as encouraged by the new Australian English syllabuses.

postcolonial literature
postcolonial literature | Source

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