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Postcolonial literature

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Postcolonial literature is a category of writing produced by authors born in countries which were formerly colonized and which, in most cases, gained their independence in the post-World War II era.

The study of postcolonial literature was spurred almost entirely by the publication of Edward Said's critical work Orientalism in 1978. Said, an Egyptian writer and critic, was one of the first writers of non-European descent living in a former colonial nation to examine the impact of European empire in a scholarly way. Said's work dissected the linked phenomena of European colonization of Africa and Asia and its attendant oppression and racism and the simultaneous tendency of Europeans to romanticise "the East". His work sparked an interest in literary criticism about how the legacy of colonialism and imperialism was portrayed in the writings and artistic works of residents of former colonies.

The vast majority of postcolonial writers hail from the British Commonwealth. Writers from India, Africa, Australia, Canada, and the West Indies all fall under the aegis of postcolonial literature. Postcolonial literature is sometimes inaccurately classified as writing from the "Third World."

The major themes of postcolonial literature are varied but tend to consist of the struggles of indigenous peoples in the face of poverty and social and financial instability and cultural upheaval. Though the countries they inhabit are considered independent of their former European rulers, the educational systems and social structures in which the various characters operate tend to be the remains of the old European-dominated systems. Thus, what it means to be a person of non-European descent in a country recently ruled by a non-native elite minority is another major theme. Postcolonial writers also portray the uncertain national and cultural identities of peoples who are trying to build young nations out from under colonial rule. Very often, semi-autobiographical works of fiction portray their authors' very real struggles as they try to balance their lives between the Europeanized 20th Century schools and cities that are now open to them as citizens of independent and self-ruled nations and the primitive conditions of their family lives in the undeveloped areas where their parents still reside.

The study of postcolonial literature is one of problems and questions. When studying a work that may be called postcolonial a reader or critic must take into consideration:

  • What does it mean to be a postcolonial writer of European descent as opposed to those of native descent?
  • How should we view the fact that postcolonial literature takes the form of traditional European literature rather than some indigenous storytelling tradition?
  • What the is the difference in experience between an Indian writer compared with a writer from Kenya, South Africa, or Canada and how does that influence the content of their work?
  • What does it mean that most postcolonial literature is written in the language of the European former colonizer?
  • What is the difference in experience and opportunity between women and men in a postcolonial nation?
  • The writers generally possess a level of education and wealth far above the average citizens of their nation. If their lives are not typical for their country, what role do they play in portraying the experience of their country?

The above are only a small sample of the kinds of questions that a study of postcolonial literature can include. Other themes to be considered might be intergenerational conflicts and the experience of the immigrant within the former empire. Postcolonial writings can also use traits, tools, and techniques from other genres to tell stories. So, it is not uncommon to have a satirical novel or a magical realist novel also fall into the category of postcolonial literature.

This is a highly political field of literary study, as many of the works themselves are political in nature and are fraught with issues of race and nationalism and history. As such, study and criticism of the content and the form of postcolonial works -- or even what constitutes a postcolonial work -- can become contentious.

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