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Postcolonial Literary Theory

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Postcolonial Literary Theory

It's important to acknowledge the colonial past of our global history. Even though imperial empires no longer exist in the way they did one-hundred-and-fifty years ago, narratives of colonialism are still present in old and new literature. Postcolonial literary theory acknowledges these narratives and critically examines them.

Colonial past refers to the European colonisation of countries within the continents of Africa, the Americas, and Asia, from the 15th to mid-20th centuries. Colonialism is the practice of economically exploiting, obtaining and maintaining political control over a nation and its people.

Postcolonial refers to the period after European colonialism. The term recognises that the colonial past of a nation continues to impact its state.

Postcolonial literary theory conceptual meaning

Postcolonial literary theory is a school of thought that acknowledges and critically examines the political, economic, social, and historical impact of European colonisation through literature. This theory addresses the role literature plays in challenging and perpetuating cultural imperialism, taking into consideration the power struggle between the historically colonising powers and the countries and communities that have been historically colonised.

Cultural imperialism refers to how the colonisation of nations has impacted their culture and traditions. Cultural imperialism includes formal actions to oppress different cultural activities and social discourses which look down on different cultures and classify them as 'uncivilised'.

The theory is based on the idea that 'the world we inhabit is impossible to understand except in relationship to the history of imperialism and colonial rule'.1

The concept of colonialism is closely associated with the European colonial period. This period began in the 15th century, with the Portuguese conquest of Ceuta, Morocco, in 1415.

By 1800, at least 35% of the globe was controlled by European nations. By 1914 this has increased to 84%.2

Colonial rule had a damaging effect on colonies. Imperial European powers drained countries' economic and natural resources for their own financial gain, leaving the citizens of those countries worse off.

Postcolonial literary theory purpose

Postcolonial literary theory first emerged as a school of thought in the 1980s as a re-evaluation of narratives of European colonial rule and imperial expansion in literature. This school of thought became particularly concerned with how the Global South and people of colour are presented in European literature and how that presentation influences societal perception.

The Global South refers to the regions of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Many countries within these regions are LICs (low-income countries) due to their colonial past and mistreatment by the Global North (Europe and North America).

Postcolonial theory considers how our world's colonial past still influences literature today. As noted by Robert Young in the introduction of Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction (2001), postcolonialism

is concerned with colonial history only to the extent that that history has determined the configurations and power structures of the present.

The purpose of postcolonial literary theory is to address and critically examine literature produced in countries which were previously colonised. Through critically examining such literature, postcolonialism seeks to deconstruct the Western literary canon, which has traditionally favoured white voices.

The overriding narrative behind colonisation was that European nations represented the pinnacle of civilisation and culture. Colonisation was justified based on this idea, being framed as a 'civilising mission' by European nations. This narrative was spread and maintained through non-fiction and fiction literary works.

Postcolonial literary theory and critical approaches

Postcolonial literary theorists work to re-examine colonial and postcolonial literature, particularly the relationship between the colonised and the coloniser. We will take a look at some notable critical approaches to examining how this relationship between the colonised and the coloniser has shaped literature.

Let's take a look at the critical approaches of some important theorists attached to postcolonial literary theory.

Edward Said's Orientalism (1978)

In his text Orientalism, Said critiqued the study of the 'Orient', arguing that the purpose of this study was to certify the identity of Europeans rather than to be an objective form of academic study. European scholars certified their identity by 'othering' the peoples of colonised countries. The concept of the 'Other' argues that the identity of every culture is dependent on the existence of a different 'other' culture'. Therefore, to assure their own sense of culture and self, Western / European scholars constructed those in the Middle East and their culture as 'other'.

The Orient refers to the people of the Middle East. The term Orientalism in academic circles refers to Western beliefs and teachings on the Orient.

Said also explored how Europe and the West often portrayed the Middle East through false, romanticised images. Through this exploration, Said discussed the interaction between knowledge and power, arguing that a correlation exists between misrepresentations of the Middle East in literature and art and the justification of colonialism and imperial policies. These misrepresentations infantilised the colonial subaltern, justifying the narrative that colonised peoples needed to be 'cared for' and 'civilised' by a paternal, colonial body.

Subaltern is a term from postcolonial studies which refers to colonial populations ruled and controlled by an imperial body.

Edward Said was a literary critic and professor who lived from 1935 to 2003.

Chinua Achebe's 'An Image of Africa' (1975)

In his essay 'An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness', Achebe provides a critical analysis of Joseph Conrad's 1899 novella Heart of Darkness, written during the colonial period.

Achebe argued that Conrad presented Africa as 'the other world', 'a foil to Europe'. This argument was based on how Conrad dehumanised the African characters in the novella by portraying them without 'human expression' or dialogue.

Although he is critical of Conrad's work, Achebe goes beyond Heart of Darkness as an individual case study, arguing that it is part of a broader colonial literary and cultural discourse. Conrad's 'image of Africa' in Heart of Darkness may be steeped in racist and xenophobic biases and stereotypes. However, Conrad's perspective of Africa would have been developed by over a century of colonial narratives.

Therefore, the othering of Africa in Conrad's Heart of Darkness underpins how literature reflected and maintained the colonial narratives which justified imperial policies by presenting colonised nations and peoples as inferior.

Chinua Achebe was a Nigerian writer and literary critic who lived from 1930 to 2013.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's 'Can the Subaltern Speak?' (1988)

In her essay 'Can the Subaltern Speak?' Spivak provided a commentary on how the practice of Sati (or Suttee) is often not documented in literature. This essay took an intersectional approach, considering both postcolonial and feminist theories by examining the presentation and representation of women in previously colonised countries.

Sati refers to the practice in which a widow sacrifices herself by sitting on her dead husband's funeral pyre.

An intersectional approach takes into account people's overlapping identities to understand the interconnected systems of oppression they face.

Spivak attributed this lack of documentation to the fact that Western and male authors controlled the documentation of cultural practices. The lack of voice held by the subaltern is a form of cultural imperialism, which threatens to erase the history and cultures of certain peoples who are considered 'less' than the majority (in this case, Westerners and men).

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak is an Indian-American literary theorist born in 1942.

Characteristics and themes of postcolonial literary theory

Now that we understand the meaning of and approaches to postcolonial literary theory let's take a look at its characteristics and themes.

Characteristics of postcolonial literary theory

Postcolonial literary theory can be characterised as a revisionist theory. Revisionist theories or schools of thought typically challenge established or traditional views held by academics. In the case of postcolonial literary theory, theorists challenge traditional colonial perceptions and presentations of colonised nations, re-interpreting narratives that 'other' those from colonised nations.

Themes of postcolonial literary theory

Two notable themes present in postcolonial literary theory are conquest and anti-conquest and national identity.

Concepts covered by these themes include;

  • Othering
  • Diaspora
  • Double consciousness
  • Mimicry

Diaspora refers to how people have moved from their homelands to different locations around the world. Despite being located in different areas of the world, these peoples share a collective memory of their ancestral home, which shapes part of their personal identity. However, this ancestral home is not a literal place which one can visit.

Double consciousness is a concept coined by American academic and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963). This concept suggests that a black person will perceive themselves in two ways; from their own perspective and through the eyes of white people. In the context of postcolonial studies, double consciousness argues that colonised peoples and people of colour across the world perceive themselves through these two different lenses.

Mimicry argues that colonised peoples often mimic their colonisers by adopting their language and culture. This mimicry can be both voluntary and forced. However, as stated in Homi Bhabha's essay 'Of Minicry and Man' (1984), the colonised reproduce the culture of the colonisers in a way that is 'almost the same, but not quite'. This subverts the idea that colonial powers held total control and authority over the colonised.

Conquest and anti-conquest

A key narrative in postcolonial literary theory is one that reframes the story of the conquest of colonised nations. Traditionally, natives were framed as the enemies of the coloniser for defending their homes and fighting back against colonisation. This discourse justified colonialism by portraying colonisation as a moral battle which 'good' Christian Europeans were on the right side of. In reality, natives were the victims of colonisation. Postcolonialism explores the way in which Europeans justified conquest and acknowledges that natives were justified in defending their homes.

In Imperial Eyes (2007) Mary Louise Pratt explores the writing of European explorers from the 18th century onward in relation to European colonialism. Pratt argues that the travel writing of European colonisers justifies colonialism through an 'anti-conquest' narrative that presents the narrators of these accounts as brave adventurers trying to survive in the unknown and 'uncivilised' worlds inhabited by a non-European Other.

Even though these narrators are 'exploring' these lands as part of the act of colonisation, and often perceiving the natives of these areas as lesser, their narrative creates a sense of naive innocence. This element of innocence discourages the reader from placing blame on the narrator for the crimes of colonisation, legitimising the process.

National identity

Postcolonial literary theory often considers how national identity has been impacted by colonial rule in order to reclaim it. Postcolonial literature published during and after the period of decolonisation, written by authors from or with heritage from colonised countries, often focused on presenting the cultures and peoples of their nations in a realistic way. This realistic portrayal opposed the way in which European literature 'othered' the cultures of colonised nations.

In his 1958 novel Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe portrays the Igbo tribe in Nigeria before and during colonisation. Achebe presents the Igbo tribe, and the novel's protagonist Okonkwo, in a realistic light. Allowing the societies and characters in his work to have both positive aspects and flaws. By doing so, Achebe attempts to capture an accurate sense of the Igbo culture before European colonisation.

Postcolonial literary theory, key works

Some significant colonial fiction works written during the period of European Colonialism which make up the postcolonial literary discourse are:

Did you know? Before the term postcolonial literature existed, works which discussed or were written in British colonies were referred to as commonwealth literature. The British Commonwealth is a group of 56 member states which were once colonies of the British Empire.

Some significant postcolonial fiction works, written after the period of European Colonialism, which make up the postcolonial literary discourse are:

Postcolonialism - Key takeaways

  • Postcolonial literary theory considers the power struggle between the historically colonising powers (European countries) and historically colonised nations.
  • The purpose of postcolonial literary theory is to address and critically examine literature produced in countries which were previously colonised and deconstruct the Western literary canon, which has traditionally favoured white voices.
  • Notable postcolonial literary theorists are Edward Said, Chinua Achebe, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.
  • Postcolonial literary theory can be characterised as a revisionist theory as it challenges established or traditional views held by academics.
  • Notable themes present in postcolonial literary theory are: conquest and anti-conquest, national identity, othering, diaspora, and mimicry.

References

  1. J Daniel Elam, 'Postcolonial Theory', in Oxford Bibliographies, 2019.
  2. Philip Hoffman, Why Did Europe Conquer the World?, 2015.

Frequently Asked Questions about Postcolonial Literary Theory

Postcolonial literary theory can be characterised as a revisionist theory as it challenges established or traditional views held by academics.  

The recurring themes of postcolonial literary theory are: conquest and anti-conquest, national identity, othering, diaspora, and mimicry.

Texts considered part of the postcolonial literary discourse can be texts written during or after colonial rule. These texts are commonly set in colonised nations. Examples of significant fiction works part of postcolonial literature include; Heart of Darkness (1899), Things Fall Apart (1958), and The God of Small Things (1997).

Three notable theorists who have contributed their interpretations to the postcolonial discourse are Edward Said, Chinua Achebe, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.

Postcolonial literary theory considers the power struggle between the historically colonising powers (European countries) and historically colonised nations.

Final Postcolonial Literary Theory Quiz

Question

When was Edward Said born?

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Answer

1935

Show question

Question

Edward Said is best known as a founder of ______ studies.

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Answer

Postcolonial

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Question

True or false: Edward spent his early childhood in Jerusalem, Mandatory Palestine.

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Answer

True. Said grew up and studied in Jerusalem up until 1951 when he moved to a boarding school in Massachusetts.

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Question

Which important text did Said publish in 1978?

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Answer

Orientalism

Show question

Question

Which U.S. invasion did Said heavily critique?

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Answer

The U.S invasion of Iraq in 2003.

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Question

What was Said's first published work?

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Answer

Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography (1966).

Show question

Question

Which of these is not a work by Edward Said?

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Answer

'An Image of Africa' (1978)

Show question

Question

What did Said explore in Orientalism?

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Answer

How the Western world has represented Middle Eastern culture and society in their academic study, art, and literature. 

Show question

Question

Fill in the gaps to this quote from Orientalism (1978):


'Subtle and persistent ____  prejudice against ____ peoples and their culture.'

Show answer

Answer

Eurocentric and Arabo-Islamic

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Question

What is this quote defining?


'a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between ‘the Orient’ and (most of the time) ‘the Occident.'

Show answer

Answer

Orientalism 

Show question

Question

Define orientalism.

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Answer

Orientalism in academic circles is a term used for Western beliefs and teachings on the orient.  


Show question

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What is an orientalist?

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Answer

An orientalist, is a person who studies the orient.

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Question

True or false: Said argued that cultural representations of the East by Oriental scholars could not be considered as true or accurate.

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Answer

True.

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Question

What did Said say about the 'Other'?

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Answer

Said argued that the identity and existence of every culture relies on the existence of a different 'other' culture. 

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Question

Where is this quote from?


'Every empire, however, tells itself and the world that it is unlike all other empires, that its mission is not to plunder and control but to educate and liberate.'

Show answer

Answer

Said's Los Angeles Times article titled 'Blind Imperial Arrogance' (2003).

Show question

Question

What term does this definition refer to:


'The European colonisation of countries within the continents of Africa, the Americas, and Asia, from the 15th to mid-20th centuries.'

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Answer

Colonial past

Show question

Question

What term does this definition refer to: 


'The practice of economically exploiting and obtaining and maintaining political control over a nation and its people.'

Show answer

Answer

Colonialism

Show question

Question

What term does this definition refer to:


'The period after European colonialism. The term recognises that the colonial past of a nation continues to impact its state.'

Show answer

Answer

Postcolonial

Show question

Question

Complete the sentence:


This theory addresses the role literature plays in challenging and perpetuating _____.

Show answer

Answer

cultural imperialism.

Show question

Question

Define cultural imperialism.

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Answer

Cultural imperialism refers to how the colonisation of nations has impacted their culture and traditions. Cultural imperialism includes formal actions to oppress different cultural activities and social discourses which look down on different cultures and classify them as 'uncivilised'.

Show question

Question

True or false: by 1914 35% of the globe was controlled by European nations.

Show answer

Answer

False! By 1914 84% of the globe was controlled by European nations. 

Show question

Question

Why did colonial rule have a damaging effect on colonies?

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Answer

European powers drained countries' economic and natural resources for their own financial gain.

Show question

Question

In which decade did postcolonial literary theory emerge as a school of thought?

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Answer

1980s

Show question

Question

Complete the sentence:


'As noted by ___ ___ in ______, postcolonialism '

is concerned with colonial history only to the extent that that history has determined the configurations and power structures of the present.'

Show answer

Answer

Robert Young, Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction (2001).

Show question

Question

Which literary canon does postcolonialism seek to deconstruct?

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Answer

The Western literary canon

Show question

Question

True or false: The concept of the 'Other' argues that the identity of every culture is dependent on the existence of a different 'other' culture'.

Show answer

Answer

True! Edward Said argued this in his work Orientalism (1978).

Show question

Question

Which work did Chinua Achebe critique in his essay 'An Image of Africa' (1975)? 

Show answer

Answer

Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1899) 

Show question

Question

True or false: postcolonial literary theory can be characterised as a revisionist theory.

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Answer

True! Revisionist theories or schools of thought typically challenge established or traditional views held by academics. 

Show question

Question

Which of these is not a concept covered in postcolonial literary theory?

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Answer

The natural world vs Industrialisation 

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Question

When was Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe published?

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Answer

1958

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Question

Where was Declan Kiberd born?

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Answer

Dublin.

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What is postcolonialism?

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Answer

Postcolonialism explores the cultural, social, and economic legacies left behind in a formerly colonised country.

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When did Ireland become a republic?

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1949.

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What university did Kiberd attend?

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Trinity College Dublin.

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What did Kiberd study in university?

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English and Irish.

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Where is Kiberd currently teaching?

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In the University of Notre Dame.

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Why was Kiberd's defining of Ireland as a postcolonial country revolutionary?

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Answer

Because Ireland has such a complex and intertwined relationship with Britain.

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Question

What is considered one of the worst atrocities committed during the British occupation of Ireland?

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Answer

The Potato Famine.

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What has been more recently discovered about the Famine?

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Answer

That Irish-grown food was being exported to Britain.

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Why did many Irish people move to Britain during the twentieth century?

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Answer

Because they were in search of work.

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What does postcolonial literary criticism entail?

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Looking at works by authors from postcolonial countries with their colonial past and its consequences kept in mind.

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Why is defining 'Irishness' an act of postcolonial rebellion?

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Answer

Because for many years Irish people were inaccurately stereotyped by British media.

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What kind of act is writing in Irish for Kiberd?

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Answer

An act of reclamation.

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What does Kiberd say about Irish national identity?

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Answer

That there is no one definition of 'Irishness'.

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Question

Can you name Kiberd's book that summarises his postcolonial theories?

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Answer

Inventing IrelandThe Literature of the Modern Nation.

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Question

Who was Homi K. Bhabha

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Answer

Homi K. Bhabha was a literary theorist who made significant contributions to postcolonial theory.

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Where was Homi K. Bhabha born?

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Answer

Mumbai, India

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Where did Homi K. Bhabha attend university?

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Answer

University of Mumbai and Oxford University

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What is Homi K. Babha most famous for?

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Answer

Homi K. Bhabha is the most famous for the theory of hybridity.

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Question

Who wrote The Location of Culture (1994)?

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Answer

Homi K. Bhabha

Show question

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