By definition, postcolonialism is a period of time after colonialism, and postcolonial literature is typically characterized by its opposition to the colonial. However, some critics have argued that any literature that expresses an opposition to colonialism, even if it is produced during a colonial period, may be defined as postcolonial, primarily due to its oppositional nature. Postcolonial literature often focuses on race relations and the effects of racism and usually indicts white and/or colonial societies. Despite a basic consensus on the general themes of postcolonial writing, however, there is ongoing debate regarding the meaning of postcolonialism. Many critics now propose that the term should be expanded to include the literatures of Canada, the United States, and Australia. In his essay discussing the nature and boundaries of postcolonialism, Simon During argues for a more inclusive definition, calling it “the need, in nations, or groups which have been victims of imperialism to achieve an identity uncontaminated by universalist or Eurocentric concepts or images.” The scale and scope of modern European imperialism, as well as its extraordinarily organized character, including the cultural licensing of racial domination, has sometimes led to the perception of colonization as a modern phenomenon. In fact, many critics propose that modern colonialism was not a discrete occurrence and that an examination of premodern colonial activities will allow for a greater and more complex understanding of modern structures of power and domination, serving to illuminate the operation of older histories in the context of both modern colonialism and contemporary race and global political relations.
Works of literature that are defined as postcolonial often record racism or a history of genocide, including slavery, apartheid, and the mass extinction of peoples, such as the Aborigines in Australia. Critical response to these texts is often seen as an important way to articulate and negotiate communication between writers who define themselves as postcolonial and critics who are not part of that experience. In her introduction to Post-Colonial and African American Women's Writing, published in 2000, Gina Wisker notes that the indictment present in many postcolonial texts tends to produce guilt or feelings of inherited complicity in many readers. Also, although writing about these texts may raise the level of awareness of both the texts and their writers, some postcolonial writers see reflected in this activity an arrogant assumption about the need for noncolonial cultures to recognize postcolonial writers. Similarly, other critics have noted that critical response that focuses entirely on the essential nature of black or Asian writers may also serve to marginalize their writing by supposing their experiences as largely a product of being “other” than European.
Postcolonialism includes a vast array of writers and subjects. In fact, the very different geographical, historical, social, religious, and economic concerns of the different ex-colonies dictate a wide variety in the nature and subject of most postcolonial writing. Wisker has noted in her book that it is even simplistic to theorize that all postcolonial writing is resistance writing. In fact, many postcolonial writers themselves will argue that their countries are still very much colonial countries, both in terms of their values and behaviors, and that these issues are reflected in their work. In her essay on postcolonialism, Deepika Bahri agrees, noting that while the definition of postcolonialism may be fairly boundaried, the actual use of the term is very subjective, allowing for a yoking together of a very diverse range of experiences, cultures, and problems. This diversity of definitions exists, notes Bahri, because the term postcolonialism is used both as a literal description of formerly colonial societies and as a description of global conditions after a period of colonialism. In this regard, according to Bahri, the notion of the “postcolonial” as a literary genre and an academic construct may have meanings that are completely separate from a historical moment or time period.
Some women colonial writers draw a relationship between postcolonialism and feminism. For many of these writers, who live in strong patriarchal cultures, language and the ability to write and communicate represent power. Some of these writers, for example, have noted that since the language of British-ruled colonies is English, literature written in English has often been used to marginalize and constrain female points of view. In the postcolonial period, however, language, and the ability to speak, write, and publish, has become an enabling tool for postcolonial authors.
LITR 5734: Colonial & Postcolonial Literature
Sample Student Final Exam 2005
December 6, 2005
Timed Essay 1: 1.5 Hours (8 – 9:30pm)
Colonial and Postcolonial Identity
Upon registering for a course in colonial and postcolonial literature the first thought one has is that to study colonial literature is to experience the lives of others. It was this multicultural aspect of the course that first drew my attention. The idea that the cultures of the world would be discovered through the reading of each novel was exciting. It is the search to understand other cultures, to know their struggles, and to acknowledge their suffering that makes the study of colonial and postcolonial literature interesting.
To understand another culture one must first acknowledge the struggles of others. It is this aspect of postcolonial literature that as an American and a colonial power one finds difficult. As Americans, hundreds of years past our colonial prime, the idea of struggling for a postcolonial identity is incomprehensible. Even as a conqueror, that won overwhelmingly against our native peoples, the idea that they still struggle is a very remote concept. The American way of individuality and independence does not leave much room for the struggles of an oppressed people. It leaves even less room for the struggle for identity inherent in postcolonial studies. As Walcott states so clearly in his online interview, the postcolonial struggle is for the “whole creation and exploration of an identity” (Walcott). It is this struggle that drives the exploration for the creation of an identity in the postcolonial societies.
It was only by reading such works as Jasmine and Lucy that the possibility of an identity crisis for postcolonial people came into view. The idea that people would not simply assimilate easily into society after a lifetime or two seemed impossible. It was in Jasmine that the postcolonial identity crisis really came into focus. Jasmine never really grows into any set identity; she remains a woman without a home and without a self. At first one might consider the struggle for identity to simply be the standard struggles of youth. It is only after further reading that one realizes that the identity search is not for an identity yet formed, but for an identity once known quite well. It is this loss of a past that creates the struggle for identity in the postcolonial psyche of the colonized peoples of the world.
Identity is never very important in a life until the identity is lost. It is this concept of loss that runs deep in colonial and postcolonial literature. The loss of a past, a culture, a way of life is the tragedy that marks the lives of the colonized people. It is also this loss that leads to the loss of an identity for the postcolonial people of the novels. The loss can either make one malleable like Jasmine or make one ridged like Lucy. In the novel Lucy, the character of Lucy is a postcolonial figure who has lost her identity. She suffers from a certain duality that often afflicts those who have no true identity. Lucy seems to be getting along well in life but she still maintains a constant inner struggle for her true identity.
This constant struggle for identity in colonial and postcolonial literature leads to many twists and turns in the novels. While it is true that the struggle for identity is a universal struggle, the postcolonial identity is certainly a struggle with extenuating circumstances. If it was not for the colonial powers of the world the postcolonial struggle for identity would not be as severe. It must also be remembered that while it is easy to dwell on the struggle perhaps the results of the struggle for identity will be more positive than negative. The key is to never stop trying to learn and never stop trying to understand the plights of others, only then can one really grasp the differences in others.
----Break 9:30 –10:50pm----
December 6, 2005
Timed Essay 2: 1.5 Hours (10:50 – 12:34am)
The study of colonial and postcolonial literature inherently involves the study of identity. Identity becomes the fulcrum upon which the postcolonial character revolves. Each character that is created suffers from a certain lack of direction in their lives. They all seem to “suffer a crisis of identity in the absence of a strong traditional culture” (Davis). This crisis of identity, while not uncommon in other literature, is most severe when viewed in postcolonial literature. It is the idea that the identity of an individual is so malleable that postcolonial literature focuses on. The identities of the postcolonial characters are mired in the struggle to form an emotional, cultural, and societal identity that reflects the experiences of a distant past they cannot recall.
Identity becomes an overwhelming emotional force in the character’s lives that begins to drive every action that the characters take. This search for a true identity forces their decisions and guides their lives in directions that seem almost irrelevant. The struggle for an identity apart from the colonial power becomes paramount. In the works of Walcott, Mukherjee, and Kincaid one can view this struggle for a cultural, societal, and emotional identity through each of the characters portrayed in the novels. As a postcolonial writer, Walcott’s poems reflect a struggle to find a cultural and societal identity that once existed. It is the struggle to find “your heaven” in the past that he relates in his poem The Divided Child(Walcott, 145). This struggle with the past for an identity is further deepened in Mukherjee’s novel Jasmine. It is in the novel that the main character Jasmine avows to the belief that one should “Let the past make you wary, by all means. But do not let it deform you” (Mukherjee, 131). Jasmine is a postcolonial character who does not dwell on the past like so many others. It is her belief that one should acknowledge the past but more forward into life. Both Walcott and Mukherjee agree that the past is a force in the lives of their characters. They differ, however, in the function that the past will serve in their character’s lives.
Each of the authors allows their characters to struggle for a place in a cultural world they feel is alien to them. Some characters struggle with the past they know and the future they hope for, as Jasmine states she “wanted to become the person they thought they saw” (Mukherjee, 171). Other characters struggle to make a mark in a world they feel left out of, such as Lucy who wanted “to have a powerful odor and would not care if it gave offense” (Kincaid, 18). Even Walcott’s poetry expresses the belief that we live in “the clear glaze of another life, a landscape locked in amber”(Walcott, 145). The struggle to invent an identity in a culture where they feel left out and slighted creates characters whose lives are difficult and random. The struggle for a place in a culture where they truly have no place, unless they create their own, is a common struggle in postcolonial literature. It is the struggle to reconcile the cultural past they lost through colonization and the cultural future they intend to make. It is this struggle that becomes a matter of releasing a distant and cultural past they only know from stories of the past before colonization.
Postcolonial literature also relates the struggle to find a place in society apart from the colonial influences of the past. Lucy dreams of “finding the place you are born in an unbearable prison and wanting something completely different from what you are familiar with, knowing it represents a haven” (Kincaid, 95). The idea of a place separate from a society created by the colonial power is the goal of all postcolonial characters. It is the search for separateness, for liberation from the constraints of a postcolonial society, which pushes Lucy forward in life. It is also this search for another life that Walcott alludes to in his poem when he compares the postcolonial existence to “a book left open by an absent master in the middle of another life” (Walcott, 145). The colonists have created society and it is something completely foreign to the colonized. It is this strange societal foreignness in a place they once knew so well that creates the struggle for identity. The recreation of an identity they once had that is now lost forever in the forward momentum of society.
Colonial and postcolonial literature relates to the world the struggle of those who have been colonized by others. It clearly articulates the struggle of postcolonial individuals to create a place in the world. To find a place in a society where your past before colonization is completely forgotten is a difficult task indeed. This task can leave you bitter, like Lucy, malleable like Jasmine, or reflective like so many of Walcott’s poems. It is this difference in ultimate experience and ultimate results that leads to such diversity in postcolonial outcomes. While the belief that life is difficult is an axiom to be lived by, there are lives that are more difficult than others are. This distinction is important and should be remembered by all those that attempt to study colonial and postcolonial literature. The past once remembered is a glorious thing, but one cannot live in the past and expect to survive in the future.