A discussion of postcolonial literature must first acknowledge the scope and complexity of the term “postcolonial.” Temporally, the term designates any national literature written after the nation gained independence from a colonizing power. According to this definition, all literature written in the United States after 1776 could qualify as postcolonial. Because the United States has occupied the position of an economic and political world power since the nineteenth century, however, it is today regarded more as a historically colonizing force than as a former colony of Great Britain. Within this field of literary studies, “postcolonial” refers to those nations that gained independence between the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the 1960’s.
Geographically, “postcolonial” is a global term: It designates nations of the Caribbean, Central and South America, Africa, the South Pacific islands, and Malaysia. It applies equally to India, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the Philippines. The colonizing powers to which these countries were subjected and with which they have continued to contend after gaining independence are Great Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Germany, and the United States.
Postcolonial studies are not limited by geography or time, however. They treat a broad span of concerns: the functioning of different empires during the colonial period and varying administrative systems left as legacies to the former colonies; the specific conditions under which independence was gained in each case; cultural, economic, and linguistic imperialism that persists after independence; and the local concerns of education, government, citizenship, and identity. Postcolonial literature tends to address opposition to imperial forces as it seeks to define autonomous national identity. In that quest, postcolonial literature explores issues of cultural alienation, and it struggles to express the specificity and particularities of indigenous cultures in languages that are not generally the original languages of the indigenous peoples but rather the languages of the former colonizers. The Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o decided in 1981, after his imprisonment and exile for coauthoring and producing two Kikuyu-language plays that criticized the postcolonial Kenyan government, to switch from English to Kikuyu as the language for his writing. Similarly, the Irishman Samuel Beckett...
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