The term “Postcolonialism” refers broadly to the ways in which race, ethnicity, culture, and human identity itself are represented in the modern era, after many colonized countries gained their independence. However, some critics use the term to refer to all culture and cultural products influenced by imperialism from the moment of colonization until today. Postcolonial literature seeks to describe the interactions between European nations and the peoples they colonized. By the middle of the twentieth century, the vast majority of the world was under the control of European countries. At one time, Great Britain, for example, ruled almost 50 percent of the world. During the twentieth century, countries such as India, Jamaica, Nigeria, Senegal, Sri Lanka, Canada, and Australia won independence from their European colonizers. The literature and art produced in these countries after independence has become the object of “Postcolonial Studies,” a term coined in and for academia, initially in British universities. This field gained prominence in the 1970s and has been developing ever since. Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said’s critique of Western representations of the Eastern culture in his 1978 book, Orientalism, is a seminal text for postcolonial studies and has spawned a host of theories on the subject. However, as the currency of the term “postcolonial” has gained wider use, its meaning has also expanded. Some consider the United States itself a postcolonial country because of its former status as a territory of Great Britain, but it is generally studied for its colonizing rather than its colonized attributes. In another vein, Canada and Australia, though former colonies of Britain, are often placed in a separate category because of their status as “settler” countries and because of their continuing loyalty to their colonizer. Some of the major voices and works of postcolonial literature include Salman Rushdie’s novel Midnight’s Children (1981), Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart (1958), Michael Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient (1992), Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1961), Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place (1988), Isabelle Allende’s The House of the Spirits (1982), J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians and Disgrace (1990), Derek Walcott’s Omeros (1990), and Eavan Boland’s Outside History: Selected Poems, 1980–1990.
J. M. Coetzee (1940–)
John Michael Coetzee was born on February 9, 1940, in South Africa. His father, a government worker who lost his job because he disagreed with South Africa’s apartheid policies, was an early influence in the writer’s life. Coetzee took a bachelor of arts degree in 1960 from the University of Cape Town and a master of fine arts degree in 1963. In 1969, he received his Ph.D. in English from the University of Texas at Austin. He has worked in academia for most of his adult life, holding teaching positions at the University of Cape Town, the State University of New York in Buffalo, Johns Hopkins University, and Harvard University. Coetzee is currently professor of general literature at the University of Cape Town.
As a white writer living in South Africa during apartheid, Coetzee developed powerful anti-imperialist feelings. His novels, deeply influenced by postmodern ideas of representation and language, illustrate the insidious ways in which dominant groups seek to impose their culture and thinking on conquered peoples. For example, his first novel, Dusklands (1974), tells two distinct but parallel stories: one of the workings of the United States State Department during the Vietnam war and the other Jacobus Coetzee’s conquest of South Africa in the 1760s. Coetzee’s own alienation from his fellow Afrikaners is evident in his novels, most of which focus on the thoughts and actions of a single character put in an untenable situation. Coetzee’s Booker Prize-winning novel, The Life and Times of Michael K (1984), set in racially divided Cape Town, tells the story of gardener Michael K who, after taking his dying mother to the farm on which she was raised, lives happily until he is accused by the government of aiding guerillas. Coetzee’s early novels, however, are not polemical. Rather, they are allegorical, underscoring the timeless nature of human cruelty.
Coetzee’s other novels include From the Heart of the Country (1977), Waiting for the Barbarians (1982), Foe (1987), Age of Iron (1990), The Master of Petersburg (1994), and Disgrace (1999), for which he received his second Booker Prize. In addition to the Booker Prizes, Coetzee has been awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Faber Memorial Award in 1980, the Jerusalem Prize in 1987, and the Mondello Prize in 1994. Coetzee is also a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. In addition to his novels, Coetzee has written collections of essays and edited and translated a number of other books. His memoir, Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life was published in 1997.
Frantz Fanon (1925–1961)
Frantz Fanon was born July 20, 1925, in the French colony of Martinique and left in 1943 to fight with the Free French in World War II. A psychiatrist, Fanon was interested in the emotional effects of racism and colonization on blacks. Fanon considered himself French, but his experience as a black man in France caused him to rethink his ideas about culture and identity. In 1952, he published Black Skin, White Masks, originally titled “An Essay for the Disalienation of Blacks.” With the publication of The Wretched of the Earth in 1961, Fanon established himself as a leading critic of colonial power and a voice for violent revolution. As head of the psychiatry department at Blida-Joinville Hospital in Algeria in 1953, Fanon saw firsthand the kind of psychological damage done to the tortured and the torturers during the Algerian war for independence. Fanon resigned his post and worked openly with the Algerian independence movement in Tunisia. He was an important influence on thinkers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Homi Bhabha, and Edward Said. Fanon died December 6, 1961, of leukemia at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, where he had sought treatment.
Jamaica Kincaid (1949–)
Born Elaine Potter Richardson on the island of Antigua, May 25, 1949, Jamaica Kincaid was educated in the British school system of the colony. In 1967, Antigua achieved self-governance, and in 1981 it became an independent country of the Commonwealth. Kincaid moved to New York City, where she studied photography at the New York School for Social Research and began writing for magazines including Ingenue and The New Yorker. Much of her writing displays her disdain for all things English and the inability of native Antiguans to resist British cultural imperialism. In her book about Antigua, A Small Place (1988), Kincaid describes the island as follows:
Antigua is a small place, a small island . . . . It was settled by Christopher Columbus in 1493. Not too long after, it was settled by human rubbish from Europe, who used enslaved but noble and exalted human beings from Africa . . . . to satisfy their desire for wealth and power, to feel better about their own miserable existence, so that they could be less lonely and empty—a European disease....
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