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literature and postcolonial discourse

Updated on October 13, 2010

literature and postcolonial discourse


A modernist poet, W.B. Yeats, once said that things had fallen apart and the centre could not hold. This assertion was true not only for the contemporary western  society, whose existence had been badly ruptured with the events of the First World War and Second World War, but also for all post-colonial states across the globe whose lives had been shaped by the effects of colonialism and its aftermath.

These experiences of man and his society have been represented in all works of art. Among these works of art is literature, which tends to capture the aesthetic traditions of a given people. Human existence has undergone various metamorphosis through contacts with other cultures, science, language and has had to redefine its present existence to the contemporary and prevailing issues at hand. It is in this light that literature comes to mirror the society by using language which is its medium of expression. The words of Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark succinctly captures literatures roles that ‘the purpose is to hold as it were, the mirror up to the nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure” 689). Literature could therefore be described as a bundle of materials, written or oral that employs language ornamentally to achieve a desired effect of reflecting the socio-cultural outlook of a people. This shows that there cannot be any society without literature as against the claims of western scholars that Africa for instance, had no literature, history or even language. The idea of literature, these Europeans claim, was bequeathed to Africa as a result of their contact with the Western World. “How can the illiterate African read and write when they have no written document”? the Europeans asked. Gabriel Maquez in One Hundred Years of Solitude is quick in responding to the above claims of these Europeans that:

It was in that way that the boys ended up learning that in the southern extremes of Africa there were men so intelligent and peaceful that their only pastime was to sit and think (24).

These men in Africa and other colonized societies handed down to succeeding generations after them through words of mouth and in their writing what was to become significant in post-colonial discourse. Literature espouses such intervention and tries to document the lived experiences of a people. Through this, various national literatures sprung up as a response to the dehumanizing effect of colonialism which has its insignia of authority on the psyche of the colonized. This is replicated on what today is known as African literatures. Caribbean literatures, Canadian literatures, Australian literatures and equally regional literatures like Indian literature to mention but a few. These literatures are often engaged in showing the legacies of colonial conquest and equally rewriting the histories of their societies that have been tainted through such dominance. This is because colonialism affected their societies economically, socially and politically. These changes therefore manifested themselves in literatures produced from these regions. It is as a result of this that post-colonial discourse came up as a literary practice and ideology to question Western epistemology about the post-colonial world.

The dismantling of colonialism in the twentieth century has raised some critical questions within various academic fields like anthropology, sociology, history and cultural studies. The questions raised include why marginal and subordinated races are grouped as ‘Other’ in relation to a privileged centre. It also includes why and how colonialism and its aftermath has permeated all spheres of life of the colonized. The emergence of post-colonial discourse has forced Western readers and academics to re-negotiate the relationship of the history of colonialism – and to re-examine the continuities between the colonial and post-colonial eras. This is because colonialism deals with destroying a person’s culture, language, history and his total humanity such that when victims of colonialism fight, they fight to humanize themselves in the light of imperial uprootment.  The publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism became a major landmark in the discourse of power relations between the West and countries perceived to be its other.

Using Michel Foucault’s analysis of power, Said in his Orientalism suggests that every discourse, particularly discourses about ‘Other’ countries, is inherently ideological. Edward Said contends that Europe dominated Asia politically, that even the most outwardly objective Western texts on the East were permeated with a bias. An example is E.M. Forsters Passage to India and D.H. Lawrence’s The Plummed Serpent. Edward Said’s book thus serves as a text through which the post-colonial world analyses the evils of colonialism. The level of analyses to Said must first start from the consciousness:

The starting point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is knowing thyself as a product of the historical process to date, which has deposited in you an affinity of traces without leaving an inventory… therefore, it is imperative at the outset to take an inventory (25).

Post-colonialism in its bearest description refers to a set of theories in philosophy, film, architecture, music, and literature that grapple with the legacy of colonial rule. As regards film, for instance, Amanda Mitra in India through Western Lens: Creating National Images in Film looks at filmic components from a postcolonial point of view and elaborates how Indians have been portrayed from the gaze of Western colonial perspective. Analyzing some of James Bond’s movies like Octopussy , Amanda espouses how the movie is couched in a European hegemonic ideology of orientalizing the Asian continent. In Bond’s movies the most outrageous perils would not deter the hero and the fact that Bond personalizes a British ideology and dominant world view that is constantly struggling with its lost position as a colonial power and in Bond Britain is able to idealized a position of power that it lost to America after the Second World War (121). The Indians in Bond’s movies are imaged as people who cannot speak English and lack military intelligence to remove an autocratic leader such that Bond comes to their rescue and things return to normal. Bond is worshipped as a messiah of some sort thereby promoting British presence in South Asia. This shows how encompassing postcolonial discourse has taken through the infiltration of Western civilization or norm via the internet, satellite, television and other means of representation through the electronic media.

Postcolonial discourse has also gained its enquiry into architectural designs. Colonial architecture shares many of the characteristics found in the after-effects of colonialism. Thomas Metcalf and Gwendolyn Wright have shown that the history of architecture and urbanism in colonial settings develops into a narrative of adaptative strategies that were closely related to the changing policies of colonial rule. Drawing instances from both French and British colonies, these writers opine that there was a gradual more from building in styles imported directly from the metropole to the adoption of elements from the local architectures. This is not different from most buildings noticed in Lagos Island, Nigeria that were built during the colonial period and of course most skyscrapers found there are an instance of colonial contact. Gwendolyn Wright says:

Administrators hoped that preserving traditional status-hierarchies would buttress their own superimposed colonial order. Architects, in turn acknowledging that resistance to new forms is often based on affections for familiar places, tried to evoke a sense of continuity with the local past in their designs (9).

Chukwuemeka Ike’s The Naked God portrays such colonial architectural designs in which Ezeonuku III, the traditional ruler of Onuku, lives. The designs were drawn by his American friends and every material used in the building is imported from America. The history of colonial architectural is what Mark Crimson has termed “informal imperialism” whereby control was established through the ostensibly peaceful means of free trade and economic integration of power” (2). Based on this, one could say that most Catholic churches designs are equally postcolonial in nature. In the nineteenth century, the architectural and urbanistic enterprise being undertaken in the colonies was also closely related to the general phenomenon of orientalism that was emerging in Europe. Edward Said defines Orientation as a form of colonial discourse, or a “western style for domination, restructuring, and having control over the Orient” (3). Orientalism conventional describes those academic disciplines like history and comparative philosophy which specialize in the study of the ‘Orient’ usually taken to mean Asia and the Middle East. The orients and orientals are stereotyped and denied history while its agencies and are represented in ways that reflect the continuity interest of the West in the East.

In postcolonial times, architecture has continued to play an important role in the enforcement of political control which is often under the guise of national styles. Lawrence Vale explores the complexities of post-independence architectural production in his book Architectural Power and National Identity. He questions the manufacture of national style in the newly created post-independence nation-states and ponders if it could lead to national identity. International architectural firms based in the United States and in Europe have found in the former colonies an already made market through which transactions take place.

Postcolonial discourse has also been felt in the area of music. This is referred to as ethnomusicology, which is “a comparative study of musical systems and cultures. Bruno Nettl, a music and anthropology professor states that all musicologists “at some level of conceptualization, regard all music as equal. Each music, they believe, is equally an expression of culture, and while cultures may differ in quality, they are bound to believe in the fundamental humanity, hence goodness, of all peoples” (The Study of Ethnomusicology, 10). Through colonialism various musical elements were drawn together producing what Homi Bhabha, a postcolonial critic terms hybridization. The result of the hybrids in music demonstrates a new world sound one that cannot be compartmentalized according to land, language, and political borders. In most post colonial societies there is the fusion of indigenous musical forms with the Western either in terms of it sound, rap, rhyme or rhythm. Netti cites three types of this musical forms in non-Western societies in an article titled “Cultural Grey-Out”. The first he calls “the desire to leave traditional culture intact, survival without change” (347). The second is complete Westernization, “that is, simple incorporation of a society into the Western cultural system” (347). Finally, the third is compared to the first two and is the motivation of what he terms “modernization” which is defined as “the adoption and adaptation of Western technology and other products of Western culture, as needed simultaneously with an insistence that the core of cultural values will not change greatly and does not match those of the West” (348). This is why Nigerian musicians like two-face Idibia and Rugged Man for instance are marketable outside the shores of Africa as producing something post-colonial and postmodernist in their songs.

However, the colonies have also affected Western Musical culture. Stokes states that the band Yothu-Yindi derives its moniker from Aboriginal Australian identity as expressed by the mother-child or yothu-yindi link… which is an organizational feature of traditional ritual songs and popular music (36). The band he posits was formed in the 1970’s and it accommodated western music styles by playing a mixture of country and Western and Gospel Songs/Strokes (146). The restructuring of song texts by incorporating a mixture of ritual symbolism and concern with colonial hegemony builds further resistance to European musical values. An Indian musician Ravi Shankar has been pivotal in mixing classical Indian music with Western sounds through his collaboration with the Beatles.

Postcolonial discourse has a wide range in critical discourse that touches on power relation and is not limited to music and architectural alone.

Now, post colonialism, like other ‘post-isms’ (post-structuralism, postmodernism etc) does not signal a closing off of colonialism or even a rejection of the legacies of imperial dominance. Whatever definition critics of post colonialism offer, there is a large recourse to the history of colonialism. History, to Samir Amin, is a weapon in the ideological battle between those who want to change society and those who want to change its basic feature. It is from this position that post-colonial writers seek to reconstruct their history from the encased shell of European hegemonic ideology. The concept of hegemony is crucial to every discourse that touches on power relations because all forms of human activity are subsumed under one ideological block or the other. Ideological hegemony in Gramscian thought is the process whereby a dominant class contrives to retain power by manipulating popular opinion through its exploitation of religion, education and elements of popular culture.

In order to avoid the complexities posed by the prefix ‘post’, Bill Ashcroft et al in The Empire Writes Back  comments thus on the subject:

We use the term ‘post-colonial’, however to cover all the culture affected by the imperial process from the moment of colonization to the present day. This is because there is a continuity of pre-occupation throughout the historical process of European imperial aggression (2).

The term post-colonial has equally been applied to commonwealth literature which was developed in the 1960’s. Although commonwealth literature is used to describe all the national literatures of erstwhile British colonies, it has a somewhat geographical and political limitation just like post-colonial literature. The independence of previously colonized societies did not really lead to true freedom from imperial dominance, as the colonizers only left trappings of political power to the natives. This could be seen in the new elite that assumed political office which according to Fanon were manufactured in the laboratory of the European elite. Thus all colonial interactions are all effect of power relations inscribed within cultural and linguistic forms. It is in language that post-colonial and writers seek to deconstruct and decolonize the mind of their society because language is a carrier of culture which wields a large influence over its users.

Language becomes the medium through which a hierarchical structure of power is perpetuated, and the medium through which such conceptions of ‘truth’, and ‘reality’ become established (Bill Ashcroft, 7). Pierre Fonsin, a founder of the Alliance Francaise commenting on how totalizing the French language is says “it is necessary to attach the colonies to the metropole by a very psychological bond against the day when progressive emancipation ends in a form of federation as is probable  - that they remain FRENCH in language, thought and spirit(cited in Rodney,317). Some of the texts written on the effects of colonialism includes Ngugi Wa Thiong O’s : Decolonizing the Mind, Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, Black Skin White Mask, Edward Said’s Orientation, Chinweizu et al’s Towards the Decolonization of African Literature. Chinua Achebe’s Morning Yet on Creation Day to mention but a few. The Writers of The Empire Writers Back have pointed out that it is either through appropriation or abrogation of the language that a distinctively post-colonial voice could be heard. Abrogation is defined as the process of denial of English as a mean of communication while appropriate refers to the reconstitution, remoulding and capturing of the language to new usages (38). Ngugi has vouched for a true return to indigenous languages. While Achebe and Soyinka agree to a domestication of the language to bear one’s own burden and spirit.

Apart from language which has been widely debated upon because of its psychological nature in imprisoning the human mind, there is yet the economic and political dominance which the mother country exercises over the daughter country. Previously colonizing states and other powerful economic states continue in the buying of raw materials from these colonies which they manufacture into finished goods which they later resell to the colonies at exorbitant prices. Walter Rodney in How Europe Under-developed Africa comments on how Belgium through the Societe Generale de Belgique controls roughly 70% percent of the Congolese economy following the decolonization process. Critics of post-colonialism portray the choice to grant loans especially by international institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, as a drastic measure to further exploit and impoverish the colonies, Using Marxist theories, critics argue that investment by multinational corporations enrich few in marginal societies.

Consequently, it is in literature or literary texts that post colonialism/peripheral interrogations have been widely felt. Literature’s ability to function as a signifier of national interest is instrumental in liberating the colonized people from cultural imperialism. This will lead us to seeing texts as necessarily originating from historical forces or account. It is here that peripheral interrogations in Vikram Chandra’s Red Earth and Pouring Rain come up as an enquiry to bridge the gap between events in the outside world and the literary text. Post colonial literature has made literature inescapably tied to history. Going by its definition that postcolonial literature deals with writings from people formerly colonized by the European powers of Britain, France, Portugal and Spain, much emphasis is tied to history and ideology. Literature can be analysed in terms of the culture and ideology that implicates the production of the text. Such a move to identify the textual and narrative qualities of literature is particularly critical since the representation of human existence in post-colonial societies dwell on history, myth, cultural and religious practices of the people. In reading texts as emanating from history, Terry Eagleton in Criticism and Ideology contends that literature signify history indirectly via the ways in which they signify ideologies which mediate their relations to history. He sees texts

In postcolonial literature, history functions as an interpretative device for deciphering the meaning of literary text-individually and in the order of succession. The text is foregrounded in the history of colonialism which started right from the eighteenth century and has taken a subtle form in the present day. The literature of the colonizer like Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe D.H. Lawrence’s The Plummed Serpent and  Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness are anchored on the theme of British and European colonialism as a mode of ‘discovering’, ‘rescuing’ and ‘civilizing’ the outpost. The institution of literature in the empire did further work of colonizing the people by giving a false representation of their humanity. Amanda Mitra quotes Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and says the West have the power of description and we succumb to the pictures they construct (13). The problem of the postcolonial critics and writers is to re-inscribe the place of their people in history by rejecting the Manichean division of modernity/tradition, centre/margin from a poststructuralist position. David Spur’s position on writing and colonialism is quoted extensively by Jyotsma Singh that:

The problem of the colonizer is in some sense the problem of the writer: in the face of what may appear as a vast cultural and geographical blankness. Colonization is a form of self inscriptions onto the lives of a people who are conceived of as an extension of the landscape (4).

It is based on this that the once muted and dissonant voice of the periphery now assumes an ideological position through which the peripheries return to rewrite their history and fictionalize it. To do this effectively, they must seize the language through its metaphoric and metonymic influence to reconstruct their identity. A list of texts that try to defend the cultural memory of the outpost in the wake of cultural imperialism include Jamaica Kincad’s Annie John, Braithwaite’s The Arrivants, George Lamming’s In the Castle of my Skin, Samuel Selvon’s A Brighter Sun, Michael Anthony’s The Year in San Fernando, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Vikram Chandra’s Red Earth and Pouring Rain, R.K. Narayan’s The Man-Eater of Malgudi , Assia Djebar’s A Sister to Scheherazade and Far From Medina, Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North, Ngugi’s A Grain of Wheat and The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, Okot Bitek’s Song of Lawino and Ocol, Peter Abraham’s Wild Conquest and Tell Freedom, La Guma’s A Walk in the Night, Ferdinand Oyono’s Houseboy and Old Man and the Medal, Sembene Ousmane’s God’s Bits of Wood, Ama Ata Aidoo’s Our Sister Kill Joy, Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Wole Soyinka’s Ogun Abibinman and Niyi Odunsi’s No Time for tears and In the Eye of the Storm I and II. These texts take from history and produce meaning in a way that the voice of the periphery is heard by interrogating the colonial structures, which impinge on the consciousness of their society. This relationship between text and history in postcolonial literature has generated a new perception and way of reading. Eagleton corroborates this:

The text is a tissue of meaning, perception in responses which where in the first place in that imaginary product of the real which is ideology. The ‘textual real’ is related to the historical real not as imaginary transportation of it, but as the product of certain signifying practices whose sources and referent is in the last instance, history itself.

History to use Seldan Ramans word’s “supply the means through which literary analysis hits bottom’’. This assertion has been justified based on the number of text produced from the periphery. In other words, history is literatures signified. The history of the text in post-colonial society is one in which an older tradition has been in place before the European came with the idea of ‘literature’. Orature or oral literature which includes story passed by words of mouth from one generation to the other merged with the imported form to give us a new brand of literature known as the post-colonial literature. In India, for instance, the Sanskrit, an earlier tradition of orature had been extensively used in the works of Rushdie and Chandra while elements of folk culture or narrative in Africa like the epic, performance, poetry, proverb etc gained their way into literature. Akeem Lasisi’s Night of my Flight is a good example. These new literatures are sites of authenticity that mark the cultural difference of the periphery to the centre. Ideas about new kinds of literature were part of the optimistic progression to nationhood because it seemed that this was one of the most potent areas to express difference from Britain (Bill Ashcroft, 16).

The text therefore has the ability to function as a signifier of national interest, identity and heritage. This signification as Eagleton notes is an ideology on its own if we appropriate it to postcolonial literature, looking at how the text marries history to give us the place of signification in Derridean philosophy of deconstruction. This signification in writing is prompted by the condition of ‘otherness’ through which postcolonial text assert the problem of intersecting peripheries as the actual substance of experience. In chapter three of The Empire Writes Back, the text is replaced and foregrounded in ideological discourse found in the power relations that favours the centre. Taking texts as necessarily historical, the writers advocate for a true authentic literature in which the centre is displaced and the margins brought to the fore of writing. In Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North, we see this marginality been appropriated:

She knelt and kissed my feet. “You are Mustapha my master and lord”. She said “and I am Susan your slave girl. “And in silence, each one of us choose his role. She to act the part of the slave girl and I that of master…. Come hence”. I said to her imperiously. To hear is to obey O master! She answered me in a subdued voice (146).

The margins are constantly appropriating the position of centre which they were once denied during the imperial process and control of means of communication, history and education. In a way postcolonial texts are pushing back the frontiers of not having history, civilization and literature which the imperialist acceded to it in various text cited. It is in text that the voice of ‘Caliban’ speaks to the colonized world through subversive mechanics. Marginality thus becomes a catalyst and a source of creative energy through which such psychological construct of master /servant relationship is dismantled.

Thematic preoccupation of text in postcolonial literature varies due to the subject matter of the writer. There is the theme of place and displacement, nepotism, corruption, hybridity and syncreticism, language, colonialism, capitalism and exploitation, resistance, alienation and uprootment etc. The crisis of identity which deals with the recovery of the post-colonial state after a hundred years of suppression is one of the themes in post colonial literature. Bill Ashcroft et al posit that a valid sense of place may have been eroded by dislocation resulting from migration, the experience of slavery, transformation or voluntary removal of indenture labour as in the case of the Caribbean Island. It could also take the form of suppression of indigenous culture and an imposition of a superior cultural model. Postcolonial writers write with a new ‘english’ as against the English of the centre in order to bridge the gap created by such suppression and uprooting of indigenous art forms. Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is a good example. The struggle for freedom and resistance to imperial domination is another theme of postcolonial literatures. Ngugi’s A Grain in Wheat demonstrates this through the protagonist Kihika’s struggle to free the Kenyan masses of British Rule. Resistance also takes place in contemporary post colonial states through the rejection of autocratic government.

The recent field of critical discourse – postcolonial feminism is gradually challenging the phallocentric nature of postcolonial text and discourse. Women, notes, Gayatri Spivak are ‘othered’ in a male dominated society. She therefore seeks to articulate her unpriviledge position in texts by rejecting the position of other. Again there is the attempt to rewrite the history of colonialism from a feminist point of view like Jamaica Kincaid in her Annie John. Other texts that vouch for women emancipation include. Assia Djebar’s A Sister to Scheherazade and Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood.

        In the next chapter, we shall be reviewing Red Earth and Pouring Rain. Chapter three will b e a textual analysis looking at postcolonial articulations in the novel while chapter four deals with gender by analyzing specific cultural practices in India that is anti-woman. Finally chapter five is a summary of all that has been discovered during the course of this research.




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  • evansyah20 profile image

    evansyah20 5 years ago from Lagos, Nigeria

    @sen.sush23 actually it was a five chapter work which I did in my B.A thesis but just decided to post just the introductory aspect of that research. Thanks for ur comment though

  • sen.sush23 profile image

    Sushmita 5 years ago from Kolkata, India

    The post colonial and the Commonwealth Literature has been my obsession a few days now- for the same reason as you mention, purpose of academic research. I found this hub rather painstakingly done, and very helpful, with an interesting perspective on the matter discussed. Thank you for taking the trouble to post this here, which is otherwise a site for non-academic writing mostly.

  • evansyah20 profile image

    evansyah20 7 years ago from Lagos, Nigeria

    My first chapter on my thesis Red Earth and Pouring Rain. It is a well researched work on postcolonial discourse and how 'other' cultures are mirrored in western empiricism and literary readings