By definition, postcolonialism is a period of time after colonialism, and postcolonial literature is typically characterized by its opposition to the colonial. However, some critics have argued that any literature that expresses an opposition to colonialism, even if it is produced during a colonial period, may be defined as postcolonial, primarily due to its oppositional nature. Postcolonial literature often focuses on race relations and the effects of racism and usually indicts white and/or colonial societies. Despite a basic consensus on the general themes of postcolonial writing, however, there is ongoing debate regarding the meaning of postcolonialism. Many critics now propose that the term should be expanded to include the literatures of Canada, the United States, and Australia. In his essay discussing the nature and boundaries of postcolonialism, Simon During argues for a more inclusive definition, calling it “the need, in nations, or groups which have been victims of imperialism to achieve an identity uncontaminated by universalist or Eurocentric concepts or images.” The scale and scope of modern European imperialism, as well as its extraordinarily organized character, including the cultural licensing of racial domination, has sometimes led to the perception of colonization as a modern phenomenon. In fact, many critics propose that modern colonialism was not a discrete occurrence and that an examination of premodern colonial activities will allow for a greater and more complex understanding of modern structures of power and domination, serving to illuminate the operation of older histories in the context of both modern colonialism and contemporary race and global political relations.

Works of literature that are defined as postcolonial often record racism or a history of genocide, including slavery, apartheid, and the mass extinction of peoples, such as the Aborigines in Australia. Critical response to these texts is often seen as an important way to articulate and negotiate communication between writers who define themselves as postcolonial and critics who are not part of that experience. In her introduction to Post-Colonial and African American Women's Writing, published in 2000, Gina Wisker notes that the indictment present in many postcolonial texts tends to produce guilt or feelings of inherited complicity in many readers. Also, although writing about these texts may raise the level of awareness of both the texts and their writers, some postcolonial writers see reflected in this activity an arrogant assumption about the need for noncolonial cultures to recognize postcolonial writers. Similarly, other critics have noted that critical response that focuses entirely on the essential nature of black or Asian writers may also serve to marginalize their writing by supposing their experiences as largely a product of being “other” than European.

Postcolonialism includes a vast array of writers and subjects. In fact, the very different geographical, historical, social, religious, and economic concerns of the different ex-colonies dictate a wide variety in the nature and subject of most postcolonial writing. Wisker has noted in her book that it is even simplistic to theorize that all postcolonial writing is resistance writing. In fact, many postcolonial writers themselves will argue that their countries are still very much colonial countries, both in terms of their values and behaviors, and that these issues are reflected in their work. In her essay on postcolonialism, Deepika Bahri agrees, noting that while the definition of postcolonialism may be fairly boundaried, the actual use of the term is very subjective, allowing for a yoking together of a very diverse range of experiences, cultures, and problems. This diversity of definitions exists, notes Bahri, because the term postcolonialism is used both as a literal description of formerly colonial societies and as a description of global conditions after a period of colonialism. In this regard, according to Bahri, the notion of the “postcolonial” as a literary genre and an academic construct may have meanings that are completely separate from a historical moment or time period.

Some women colonial writers draw a relationship between postcolonialism and feminism. For many of these writers, who live in strong patriarchal cultures, language and the ability to write and communicate represent power. Some of these writers, for example, have noted that since the language of British-ruled colonies is English, literature written in English has often been used to marginalize and constrain female points of view. In the postcolonial period, however, language, and the ability to speak, write, and publish, has become an enabling tool for postcolonial authors.

Representative Works

Chinua Achebe
A Man of the People (novel) 1962

Ayi Kwei Armah
Why Are We So Blest? (novel) 1974

J. M. Coetzee
Dusklands (novel) 1974
In the Heart of the Country (novel) 1977

Anita Desai
The Clear Light of Day (novel) 1980
In Custody (novel) 1984
Baumgartner's Bombay (novel) 1988

Jamaica Kincaid
Annie John (novel) 1985

Maxine Hong Kingston
The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts (memoir) 1976
Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book (novel) 1989

N. Scott Momaday
House Made of Dawn (novel) 1968
The Ancient Child (novel) 1989

Bharati Mukerjee
The Tiger's Daughter (novel) 1972
Wife (novel) 1979

Salman Rushdie
Midnight's Children (novel) 1980
Shame (novel) 1984
The Satanic Verses (novel) 1989
Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism, 1981-1991 (nonfiction) 1991

Leslie Marmon Silko
Ceremony (novel) 1977
Almanac of the Dead (novel) 1991

Wole Soyinka
Season of Anomy (novel) 1973
Poems of Black Africa (poetry) 1975

N'gugi wa Thiong'o
Weep Not, Child (novel) 1964
I Will Marry When I Want (novel) 1982

Lettie Viljoen
Klaaglied vir Koos [Lament for Koos] (novel) 1984

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Deepika Bahri (essay date January 1995)

SOURCE: “Once More with Feeling: What Is Postcolonialism?” in Ariel, Vol. 26, No. 1, January, 1995, pp. 51-82.

[In the following essay, Bahri provides an overview of the concept of postcolonialism, including a brief survey of various definitions of the subject.]

Defining the parameters and boundaries of the postcolonial territory is a task not without its challenges. Much of the work done under the label “postcolonial” is content to assume a general understanding of its limits and possibilities. A sufficiently thoughtful definitional and conceptual framework, however, continues to elude us. As Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak writes, in postcoloniality, “every...

(The entire section is 11595 words.)

Shaobo Xie (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “Rethinking the Problem of Postcolonialism,” in New Literary History, Vol. 28, No. 1, 1997, pp. 7-19.

[In the following essay, Xie presents a review of theories surrounding postcolonialism, making a distinction between postcolonial literatures and Third World writing.]

Like all other “post”-marked terms, “postcolonialism” has caused no end of debate among its protagonists and antagonists. While the authors of The Empire Writes Back champion a loose use of the term “postcolonial” in expanding it to the literatures of Canada, Australia, and the United States, Simon During defines “postcolonialism” as “the need, in nations or groups...

(The entire section is 5123 words.)