The Empire Writes Back book cover

The Empire Writes Back

The field of Postcolonial Studies has been gaining prominence since the 1970s. Some would date its rise in the Western academy from the publication of Edward Said’s influential critique of Western constructions of the Orient in his 1978 book, Orientalism. The growing currency within the academy of the term “postcolonial” (sometimes hyphenated) was consolidated by the appearance in 1989 of The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures by Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. Since then, the use of cognate terms “Commonwealth” and “Third World” that were used to describe the literature of Europe’s former colonies has become rarer. Although there is considerable debate over the precise parameters of the field and the definition of the term “postcolonial,” in a very general sense, it is the study of the interactions between European nations and the societies they colonized in the modern period. The European empire is said to have held sway over more than 85% of the rest of the globe by the time of the First World War, having consolidated its control over several centuries. The sheer extent and duration of the European empire and its disintegration after the Second World War have led to widespread interest in postcolonial literature and criticism in our own times.

The list of former colonies of European powers is a long one. They are divided into settler (eg. Australia, Canada) and non-settler countries (India, Jamaica, Nigeria, Senegal, Sri Lanka). Countries such as South Africa and Zimbabwe which were partially settled by colonial populations complicate even this simple division between settler and non-settler. The widely divergent experiences of these countries suggest that “postcolonial” is a very loose term. In strictly definitional terms, for instance, the United States might also be described as a postcolonial country, but it is not perceived as such because of its position of power in world politics in the present, its displacement of native American populations, and its annexation of other parts of the world in what may be seen as a form of colonization. For that matter, other settler countries such as Canada and Australia are sometimes omitted from the category “postcolonial” because of their relatively shorter struggle for independence, their loyalist tendencies toward the mother country which colonized them, and the absence of problems of racism or of the imposition of a foreign language. It could, however, be argued that the relationship between these countries to the mother country is often one of margin to center, making their experience relevant to a better understanding of colonialism.

The debate surrounding the status of settler countries as postcolonial suggests that issues in Postcolonial Studies often transcend the boundaries of strict definition. In a literal sense, “postcolonial” is that which has been preceded by colonization. The second college edition of The American Heritage Dictionary defines it as “of, relating to, or being the time following the establishment of independence in a colony.” In practice, however, the term is used much more loosely. While the denotative definition suggests otherwise, it is not only the period after the departure of the imperial powers that concerns those in the field, but that before independence as well.

The formation of the colony through various mechanisms of control and the various stages in the development of anti-colonial nationalism interest many scholars in the field. By extension, sometimes temporal considerations give way to spatial ones (i.e. in an interest in the postcolony as a geographical space with a history prior or even external to the experience of colonization rather than in the postcolonial as a particular period) in that the cultural productions and social formations of the colony long before colonization are used to better understand the experience of colonization. Moreover, the “postcolonial” sometimes includes countries that have yet to achieve independence, or people in First World countries who are minorities, or even independent colonies that now contend with “neocolonial” forms of subjugation through expanding capitalism and globalization. In all of these senses, the “postcolonial,” rather than indicating only a specific and materially historical event, seems to describe the second half of the twentieth-century in general as a period in the aftermath of the heyday of colonialism. Even more generically, the “postcolonial” is used to signify a position against imperialism and Eurocentrism. Western ways of knowledge production and dissemination in the past and present then become objects of study for those seeking alternative means of expression. As the foregoing discussion suggests, the term thus yokes a diverse range of experiences, cultures, and problems; the resultant confusion is perhaps predictable.

The expansiveness of the “postcolonial” has given rise to lively debates. Even as some deplore its imprecision and lack of historical and material particularity, others argue that most former colonies are far from free of colonial influence or domination and so cannot be postcolonial in any genuine sense. In other words, the overhasty celebration of independence masks the march of neocolonialism in the guise of modernization and development in an age of increasing globalization and transnationalism; meanwhile, there are colonized countries that are still under foreign control. The emphasis on colonizer/colonized relations, moreover, obscures the operation of internal oppression within the colonies. Still others berate the tendency in the Western academy to be more receptive to postcolonial literature and theory that is compatible with postmodern formulations of hybridity, syncretization, and pastiche while ignoring the critical realism of writers more interested in the specifics of social and racial oppression. The lionization of diasporic writers like Salman Rushdie, for instance, might be seen as a privileging of the transnational, migrant sensibility at the expense of more local struggles in the postcolony. Further, the rise of Postcolonial Studies at a time of growing transnational movements of capital, labor, and culture is viewed by some with suspicion in that it is thought to deflect attention away from the material realities of exploitation both in the First and the Third World.

Major Issues

Despite the reservations and debates, research in Postcolonial Studies has continued to grow because postcolonial critique allows for a wide-ranging investigation into power relations in various contexts. The formation of empire, the impact of colonization on postcolonial history, economy, science, and culture, the cultural productions of colonized societies, feminism and postcolonialism, agency for marginalized people, and the state of the postcolony in contemporary economic and cultural contexts, capitalism and the market, environmental concerns, and the relationship between aesthetics and politics in literature  are some of the more prominent topics in the field.

The following questions suggest some of the major issues in the field:

How did the experience of colonization affect those who were colonized while also influencing the colonizers? How were colonial powers able to gain control over so large a portion of the non-Western world? What traces have been left by colonial education, science and technology in postcolonial societies? How do these traces affect decisions about development and modernization in postcolonies? What were the forms of resistance against colonial control? How did colonial education and language influence the culture and identity of the colonized? How did Western science, technology, and medicine change existing knowledge systems? What are the emergent forms of postcolonial identity after the departure of the colonizers? To what extent has decolonization (a reconstruction free from colonial influence) been possible? Are Western formulations of postcolonialism overemphasizing hybridity at the expense of material realities? Should decolonization proceed through an aggressive return to the pre-colonial past (related topic: Essentialism)? How do gender, race, and class function in colonial and postcolonial discourse? Are new forms of imperialism replacing colonization and how?

Along with these questions, there are some more that are particularly pertinent to postcolonial literature: Should the writer use a colonial language to reach a wider audience or return to a native language more relevant to groups in the postcolony? Which writers should be included in the postcolonial canon? How can texts in translation from non-colonial languages enrich our understanding of postcolonial issues? Has the preponderance of the postcolonial novel led to a neglect of other genres?  In light of the material and political context of postcolonial production, how should postcolonial literature be approached in a way that honors its aesthetic dimensions?

Major Figures

Some of the best known names in Postcolonial literature and theory are those of Chinua Achebe, Homi Bhabha, Edward Said, Buchi EmechetaFrantz FanonJamaica KincaidSalman RushdieWole Soyinka, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. A more comprehensive although by no means exhaustive list may be found under the distinct categories listed in the menu at the top of this page .

LITERATURE: Chinua Achebe, Ama Ata Aidoo, Peter Abrahams, Ayi Kwei Armah, Aimé Cesaire, John Pepper Clark, Michelle CliffJill Ker ConwayTsitsi Dangarembga, Anita Desai, Assia Djebar, Marguerite Duras, Buchi Emecheta, Nuruddin Farah, Amitav Ghosh, Nadine Gordimer, Bessie HeadMerle Hodge, C.L.R. James, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Farida Karodia, Jamaica KincaidHanif KureishiGeorge Lamming, Dambudzo Marechera, Rohinton Mistry, Ezekiel Mphahlele, V.S. NaipaulTaslima NasrinNgugi wa Thiong’oFlora Nwapa, Grace Ogot, Molara Ogundipe-Leslie, Gabriel Okara, Ben Okri, Michael OndaatjeArundhati RoySalman RushdieSimone Schwarz-Bart, Allan Sealy, Shyam Selvadurai, Leopold Senghor, Vikram SethBapsi SidhwaWole Soyinka, Sara Suleri, M.G.VassanjiDerek Walcott, etc.

FILM: Shyam Benegal, Gurinder Chadha, Claire Denis, Shekhar Kapoor, Srinivas Krishna, Farida Ben Lyazid, Ken Loach, Deepa Mehta, Ketan Mehta, Mira Nair, Peter Ormrod, Horace Ove, Pratibha Parmar, Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Ousmane Sembene, etc.

THEORY: Aijaz Ahmad, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Bill Ashcroft, Homi Bhabha, Amilcar Cabral, Partha ChatterjeeRey ChowFrantz Fanon, Gareth Griffiths, Ranajit Guha, Bob Hodge, Abdul Jan Mohamed, Ania Loomba, Trinh T. Minh-ha, Vijay Mishra, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Arun Mukherjee, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Benita Parry, Edward Said, Kumkum Sangari, Jenny Sharpe, Stephen Slemon, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Aruna Srivastava, Sara Suleri, Gauri Viswanathan, Helen Tiffin, etc.

Author: Deepika Bahri, Fall 1996