Postcolonialism is a complex phenomenon that has generated many interpretations. From a historical perspective, it refers to literature and cultures that have redefined themselves following the experience of Western colonization. It most commonly applies to the cultures of South Asia,
Africa, and the Caribbean that have gained their independence since the Second World War (1939-45). Postcolonialism in Latin America has a longer history, going back to the 19th century. It also refers to a body of theory written primarily by diasporic academics—from the Caribbean, the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa—who now reside in Europe and the United States. Edward Said’s seminal work Orientalism (1978) casts a postcolonial eye on the discourse of the “Orient” generated by colonialism. This work has inspired many revisions and reinterpretations of colonial discourse. Similarly groundbreaking are Hohmi Bahba’s Dislocations of Culture (1994), which looks at the ways in which writers formed under colonialism turn the language of the colonizer into new forms of identity and resistance; and Gayatri Spivak’s In Other Worlds (1987), which applies postmodern, poststructuralist, and feminist theories to the reading of postcolonial discourse and literature.
Although most colonized countries won their independence during the 20th century, Latin America has a unique postcolonial history. Colonized in the 16th century primarily by Spain and Portugal, it experienced postcolonial movements in the 19th century when many of its countries won their independence and sought to define their cultural specificity. This was achieved by, for example, incorporating elements that had been rejected or marginalized by the colonizers, such as indigenous and African cultures, or else by turning to northern Europe and North America, instead of Spain or Portugal, for cultural models and ideals. However, especially toward the end of the century, Latin America experienced forms of economic and cultural colonization that were imported from Great Britain, France, and the United States that posed new challenges to national definition and visions of independence. During the 20th century, many Latin-American liberation movements and many prominent writers and intellectuals were inspired by Communist responses, especially that of Cuba, to colonialism and its aftermath.
After the Second World War, the European empires that had dominated a large part of the world during the 19th century, exporting their cultures and their literary forms, began their retreat. Independence movements led not only to political and national redefinitions but to creative responses to Western influences and oppression. Since the independence of India in 1947, inspired by the writings of Mohandas K. gandhi, South Asia has seen an extraordinary renaissance of writers from different religions and regions, exploring South Asian and diasporic identity. Many of these writers are internationally known. V. S. naipaul, for example, was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2002. Since independence, African literature has also found an international audience and includes Nobel Prize winners such as Nadine gordimer and Wole soyinka. Books by writers from many different parts of the world are being published at an ever-increasing speed; many different voices are being heard, including those of women and the politically disenfranchised.
The negritude movement in France of the 1940s and 1950s, led by Aime cesaire and Leopold senghor, valorized African identity and revitalized African and Caribbean poetry. When he became president of independent Senegal in 1960, Senghor used the concept of negritude as part of his political agenda, creating debate and controversy among other African and Caribbean writers about the meaning of being African.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the Civil Rights movement in the United States added impetus to the revival of African culture, long suppressed by slavery and its aftermath, and encouraged or inspired liberation movements throughout the world. In South Africa, often at the cost of imprisonment or death, black and white writers increasingly dared to oppose apartheid. Also, since the 1970s, liberation movements by indigenous peoples in Australasia and Latin American have transformed dying oral cultures, based on myth and ritual, and created new genres, such as the oral testimonial. I Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala by Rigoberta menchu is one of many such testimonials that have brought to international attention the plight of indigenous cultures. Similarly, since the 1970s, the outcast Dalits of India have begun to reinvent their own culture and dalit literature.
The question of language is crucial to postcolonial writers who were forced to learn the language of the colonizers, most often English, Spanish, or French. (In some cases, there are competing colonial languages, for example French and English in Canada, and Afrikaans and English in South Africa). After independence, for whom were these writers writing and in what language should they write? Some followed the example of the Martini-can novelist Raphael Confiant (1951- ), who chose to write in his native Creole and then changed to French. For most writers, it was a question of finding a wider audience. Chinua achebe, considered to be the first African novelist, chose to write in English to reach not only Western readers but also many African readers who speak hundreds of different languages but whose lingua franca is English. Addressing different constituencies, the Kenyan ngugi wa thiong’o writes in both English and Kikuyu.
Postcolonial writers have shown to what extent thay have been able to use their colonial languages in new and liberating ways. Their styles vary according to their specific cultural and historical circumstances. Drawing on oral and spiritual traditions alien to the modern, secular West, some writers, such as the Colombian Gabriel garcJa mArquez and the Indian-born Salman rushdie have combined myth and modernity, the sacred and the profane to create what has been called magic realism, a popular postcolonial genre. Magic realism acknowledges the overlapping of cultures and the often absurd and ironic juxtapositions of competing beliefs, economic systems, and voices in the fragmented discourse of the postmodern and postcolonial world.
Postcolonialism has produced a strong immigrant and diasporic literature. For economic and political reasons, South Asians, Indonesians, Africans, Turks, and Caribbeans have established themselves in the West and have produced a new definition of what constitutes, for example, English or French or German or Dutch literature. Writers cannot easily be pinned down to a national identity. Dual nationality is common. Salman Rushdie wanders from Bombay to London to New York, always redefining the urban ground beneath his feet through the prism of his changing cultural experiences, including an India long left behind. The Trinidadian-born V. S. Naipaul re-imagines the India, Africa, and Caribbean of his parents’ diasporic past and chooses to live in England. Michael ondaatje moves from Sri Lanka to England to Canada. Other Indian, African, and Caribbean writers situate themselves within a tradition that includes, but is not reduced to, the colonial experience. Some of them emulate Arundhati roy, a recipient of the Booker Prize, who has resisted the path of literary celebrity in the Indian diaspora and has remained in India, using her influence to support oppressed minorities—including tribal women—in their local cultural and political struggles.
Beginning with the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the disintegration of the empire of the Soviet Union, established since the Second World War, has produced its own, European form of postcolonial experience and literature. The fall of the Soviet Union has meant the reconfiguration of social and national identities in Eastern and Central Europe. Economic disorder and political unrest, especially due to the war in the former Yugoslavia and neighboring states, have also changed forms of literary expression and have increased the immigration of writers to Western Europe and the United States.
Electronic communications, the expansion of capitalism after the fall of the Soviet Union, and the economic liberalization of China have globalized the economy. For some peoples of the former colonial world, especially those opposed to Western forms of modernization, globalization, often interpreted as Americanization, is perceived as a threat to local cultures, religions, and forms of expression. For others, globalized forms of communication and dissemination of ideas are sources of new kinds of agency and self-determination. Because of their colonial histories, postcolonial writers remain especially alert to the dangers as well as the possibilities of globalization.
Works about Postcolonialism
Appiah, Kwame Anthony. In My Father’s House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Williams, and Helen Tiffin. The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-colonial Literatures. New York: Routledge, 2002.
Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Translated by Charles Markmann. New York: Grove Press, 1991.
The Wretched of the Earth. Translated by Constance Farrington. New York: Grove Press, 1996.
Glissant, Edouard. Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays. Translated by J. Michael Dash. Char-lottesville, Va.: Caraf Books (University of Virginia Press), 1992.
Gugelberger, Georg M., ed. The Real Thing: Testimonial Discourse and Latin America. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997.
King, Anthony D., ed. Culture, Globalization, and the World-System: Contemporary Conditions for the Representation of Identity. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.
Lazarus, Neil. Resistance in Postcolonial African Fiction. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1990.
Ngugi Wa Thiong’o. Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1986.
Stratton, John. Writing Sites: A Genealogy of the Post-colonial World. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990.
Viswanathan, Gauri. Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.