Resolve to Read: Colonial or Postcolonial Literature

As we mentioned here previously, we here at the Library are Resolving to Read (more…different….) in 2018, and tackling both Book Riot’s and Scholastic’s 2018 Reading Challenges.  In the hopes of encouraging you to broader your literary horizons along with us, here are some suggestions for books that fall within the categories of the various challenges.

Today’s Challenge: Book Riot 2018 Read Harder Challenge
Category: A Work of Colonial or Postcolonial Literature

A British cartoon showing imperial officers sitting atop a throne of biscuit boxes, forcing native African to bow before them–an image that largely sums up the history of imperialism in Africa

First off, what precisely does “colonial literature” or “postcolonial literature” mean?  Book Riot tackled this question in their post on the subject, but I think we could get a little more nuanced in our discussion.  Typically, “colonial literature” refers to a work written during a period of time when one country was actively participating in the colonization or imperialistic exploitation of another geographic area.  For the record, colonization means that the imperial power sent its people to live in a different place (such as the British sending British people to live in South Africa or parts of what is now the United States), but there are many sites that experienced colonialism even if they were not formal colonies.  These include places like Puerto Rico, which is governed by the United States but not granted statehood, or Nigeria, which was largely ruled without British inhabitants, but was instead a site of palm oil extraction and cash-cropping.  Colonial literature is traditionally written by the colonizers–that is, the Europeans or Americans who held the power and engaged in the practice of colonizing or exploiting another geographic area.

To use an example: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a stunning, disturbing piece of Colonial Literature, because  it A) Takes place within a site of empire (Africa) B) Discusses the practices of imperialism (in this case, both the economic and the social aspects) and C) Does not discuss a world without empire.  Conrad isn’t making an argument that everyone would be better off without empire.  He is critiquing the process and commenting on its results, but his world is one where empires exist, without question.

It is in their definition of “Postcolonial Literature” that I really want to complicate things.  Typically, Postcolonial Literature is literature written after the period of direct colonization or imperialism ends, typically by a member of the colonized people.  That is, after a country has been declared independent by their imperial rulers–for example, Uganda was declared independent of Britain in 1962, while Algeria was declared independent of France in the same year.   But that doesn’t mean that any book written in Uganda or Algeria after 1962 (or any other site of empire) is a work of post-colonial literature.  Because, in fact, “postcolonial” refers not only to a moment in history, but to a way of thinking.  Postcolonial thinking is able to understand the abusive power relationship between the colonizer and the colonized and harm it does to both peoples within a historic context.

There are two big problems with the phrase “post-colonial”.  The first is that it implies to many that the “colonial” period ended.  While this may be true in practice, many sites around the world are still grappling with the trauma, the structural inequalities, the cultural ruptures, and social stigmas that colonialism and imperialism imposed on them.  The second problem with “post-colonial” is that is that it insists on a “colonial period.”  This phrase, first, subtly reinforcing that harmful power relationship by invoking it constantly.  A number of books written by authors from countries that were once colonies or sites of empire get labeled as “post-colonial” when they have nothing to do with the imperial relationship.  They get that label based on their country’s and people’s history.  For example, R. K. Narayan‘s novels set in South India deal very little at all with issues of empire or imperialism, yet are often put forward as “postcolonial works.”  And that is a unjust as the imperial project itself.  Second, a number of books that are considered “postcolonial” in their arguments and insight, were written during the actual period of empire, like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.  So we need to be careful with our use of the term “post-colonial” and make sure it applies to works that specifically address the problems and effects of imperialism.  These problems can be structural, political, personal, economic, cultural, or social.  But just because a book was written in India doesn’t make it a work of post-colonial literature.

As all these words might imply, fulfilling this part of the Book Riot challenge might not be easy, but it’s an incredibly impactful and eye-opening one.  The complex  issues of imperialism a very much still a part of our world and our lives, and literature allows us to access these issues in a deeply personal and meaningful way.  And, on top of that, there are some darned good books in these categories to be read!  So let’s get started…here are just a few recommendations to get you started on your exploration of colonial and post-colonial literature!

 Half a Yellow Sun : Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s multiple-award-winning book is set in Nigeria years after independence, and deals with the conflict and violence that resulted from years of British interference in Nigeria, the struggle that many of the colonized people in Nigeria endured trying to relate to each other, and the way education systems in colonized sites isolate, differentiate, and, yet, offer the potential for colonized people to escape the hardship of their lives.  It’s a difficult, beautiful, intelligent, and eye-opening book that makes really big, political issues both understandably and movingly human.

Nervous Conditions:  Tsitsi Dangarembga’s novel about two cousins growing up in Zimbabwe highlights the bizarre disparity between people depending on their relationship to imperial power, as well as the implicit misogyny inherent in imperial spaces.  In post-colonial Rhodesia (the name of the nation now known as Zimbabwe), Tambu, whose family is reeling from the death of her brother, is invited to her uncle house to attend school with her cousin, Nyasha.  The opportunity is a life-changing one, but, as Tambu will discover, is a dangerous one–especially for Nyasha, whose experience within the colonial school system is one of the most heartbreaking depictions of imperialism I can remember reading.

Passage to India: E.M. Forster’s novel is one that was, for years, considered a very early work of postcolonial fiction because it discusses the Indian independence movement, but recently, a number of readers and scholars have argued that Forester’s inability to escape his own European viewpoint makes it much more a colonial novel (which shows just how tricky this category can be!).  The story focuses on around four characters: Dr. Aziz, his British friend Mr. Cyril Fielding, Mrs. Moore, and Miss Adela Quested, and the alleged assault of Miss Quested by Dr. Aziz.  Dr. Aziz’s trial brings the racial tensions in India to a boil, and leaves all the characters forever changed.  This is a challenging book that, as mentioned, is still a hot topic of literary discussion today, making it all the more worth the read.

The Man Who Would Be King: Rudyard Kipling was an imperial supporter throughout his life, even if his support was a bit ambiguous and laced with criticism in some places.  Though Kim is probably his best known work of colonial fiction, this story really drives the hubris and absurdities of imperialism home in a story that is still exciting and unsettling to this day.  Told by an unnamed narrator (Kipling himself for all intents and purposes), the story focuses on two British adventurers,  Daniel Dravot and Peachey Carnehan, who decide that India isn’t big enough for them, and set off to cheat and wheedle their way into becoming Kings of a remote area of Afghanistan (at that point a British protectorate).  Two years later, the narrator encounters Carnehan again, alone, and burdened not only with an incredible story, but with the crown that Dravot once wore on his head.  There is nothing very heroic at all about the two protagonists of this story, so don’t expect a heroic narrative here.  But it is emblematic, first of the kind of violence and arrogance that imperialism could inspire, and second of the kind of audacious, grand-narrative style fiction that was popular back home in England, that both made people frightened of natives while dreaming of conquering their land.

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