Post-World War II
Britain’s loss of empire in the wake of World War II is arguably the single largest defining factor in the shaping of world politics in the last fifty years. Between 1945 and 1985, Britain lost almost all of its fifty formal dependencies in Africa, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, the Pacific, South- East Asia, and the Far East and withdrew from a number of countries in the Persian Gulf over which it exerted considerable influence. In the preceding three centuries, Britain had colonized numerous countries and lands, while competing for resources and markets with Holland, Spain, and France, each of which had its own colonies and territories. In the seventeenth century, Britain had gained control over the eastern coast of North America, eastern Canada, the Caribbean Islands, and parts of Africa, which it used to acquire slaves, and had developed markets in India. The colonization of Ireland was also undertaken in earnest during this century. After the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, Britain became the leading industrial power in Europe, whose world economic strength was supported by its superior military, especially its navy.
During the nineteenth century, the British Empire tottered. The abolition of slavery by Britain and its empire in the early part of the century and the emphasis on free trade created an unfavorable economic climate for Britain, and its dependencies became more and more of a burden to manage. However, Britain also viewed its imperialistic expansion as a moral responsibility, using Darwin’s theories of evolution as a rationale for exerting greater control over...
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Point of View
Point of view refers to the eyes and sensibility through which a story is told or information is presented. Postcolonial literature challenges status quo Western points of view through using narrators who represent previously silenced or oppressed people. Since much literature from colonized countries was written from the colonizers’—usually male—point of view, it’s not surprising that much postcolonial literature employs narrators who themselves are doubly oppressed, being both colonized by “outsiders” and being women. Silko, Danticat, Boland, and numerous other postcolonial writers express the particular difficulties women from colonized countries face, as they battle patriarchal attitudes and institutions of their oppressors as well as from their own people.
Narration refers to how a series of events is told. The mode of narration is deeply intertwined with an author’s style and subject matter. Some postcolonial novels are narrated in a relatively straightforward manner in which events are recounted chronologically. However, many postcolonial works adopt a postmodern approach to storytelling. Postmodern narration, in this sense, refers to the use of different points of view, multiple narrators, and blending of styles and genres to describe events and action. Rushdie employs a kind of postmodern narration in Midnight’s Children, as does Danticat in Breath, Eyes, Memory and...
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Postcolonial theorists critically study both colonial texts and texts written after colonialism. One of the primary reasons postcolonial literature has become as popular as it has is due in large part to theorists such as Said, Spivak, Fanon, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Homi Bhabha, and others, who explain the significance of the literature in relation to history, politics, philosophy, and literary traditions and discuss its place in contemporary society. Many of these theorists and critics are themselves from postcolonial countries and so speak with the authority of experience. Said, for example, is Palestinian; Spivak is from Calcutta, India; Fanon is from Martinique, a French colony. In challenging how writers and others have represented colonial subjects, these theorists seek to empower themselves and the literary projects of postcolonialists in their attempts to reshape perceptions and thinking about formerly colonized people and countries. The emergence of postcolonial studies as a field of academic inquiry and the popularity of postcolonial literature in the last thirty years or so is due in no small part to these theorists. The institutionalization of postcolonial studies has also come about at the same historical moment as poststructuralist theory, which challenges fundamental assumptions as to the nature of human identity, history, language, and truth itself.
As countries gained their independence from colonial powers, filmmakers sought to describe the experience of the new countries and the changes wrought by independence upon individuals and their respective states. Deepa Mehta, for example, a Canadian-based Indian director, challenges Indian traditions in films such as Fire, Earth, and Water,...
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Compare and Contrast
1940s–1960s: Numerous European colonies in Africa gain their independence including Egypt, Sudan, Tunisia, Morocco, Ghana, Guinea, Chad, Benin, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Madagascar, Central African Republic, Mali, Niger, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Togo, Zaire, Somalia, Congo, Gabon, Cameroon, Sierra Leone, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, and Gambia.
Today: Although these countries have declared their political independence from European powers, many of them are still virtually economic colonies of Western powers such as the United States. The Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC), for example, derives almost 14 percent of its production from Nigeria, which is dependent on oil for 80 percent of government revenue. However, Nigeria’s dependence on Western money for its oil has also contributed to corruption, environmental degradation, and social unrest from tribes such as the Ogoni, who claim Shell’s operations are polluting their land.
1940s–1960s: Numerous colonies in Asia and the Middle East gain their independence, including Yemen, Malaysia, Myanmar, India, Pakistan, Kuwait, Israel, and Jordan.
Today: Many of these countries continue to feud over land. India and Pakistan, for example, fight over the ownership of the Kashmir region, and the Palestinian people remain locked in a bloody battle with Israel for their own state.
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Topics for Further Study
In groups, list of all the countries that were colonies or territories of another country (e.g., Great Britain, Portugal, France, United States, etc.) in 1900, 1939, and today, and then note the date each achieved independence. Which territories or colonies have not yet achieved independence or have achieved only partial independence? Each group member research the independence movement(s) in one of those countries and report to the class.
The principal overseas dependencies of the United States include the territories of Guam, the United States Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the Commonwealths of Puerto Rico and the Northern Mariana Islands. After researching the history of United States control of these territories, argue for or against their right to independence.
Pretend that Fidel Castro’s government has been overthrown and that you have been named as a member of the committee charged with drafting a constitution for the new government. What declarations or articles will you argue should be included in the new constitution? Read the constitutions of other countries including the United States as part of your research.
Some theorists of Postcolonialism are known for their notoriously dense and often unreadable prose. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak is one of them. In groups, read her essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” included in Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg’s Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (1988),...
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Breath, Eyes, Memory
In her 1994 novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, Haitian-born Edwidge Danticat examines themes of migration, gender, sexuality, and history, common themes of postcolonial literature. The novel follows the exploits of Sophie in her battles to carve an identity out of disparate languages and cultures, such as Creole, French, and English and to adapt to American ways in the Haitian diaspora after she arrives in Brooklyn, New York. Danticat’s emphasis on women’s experience makes her a leading younger voice of postcolonial feminism. Breath, Eyes, Memory was an Oprah Book Club selection and helped Danticat to be named one of the Best Young American Novelists by Granta magazine in...
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British director Isaac Julien’s adapted Algerian revolutionary Frantz Fanon’s classic text, Black Skin, White Mask, into a film of the same name in 1996. It has been released by California Newsreel. The film features interviews with family members and friends, documentary footage, readings from Fanon’s work, and dramatizations of crucial moments in Fanon’s life.
Michael Ondaatje’s novel, The English Patient, was adapted into a film in 1996, directed by Anthony Minghella. It was winner of nine Oscars, including best picture.
Director Mira Nair’s film Mississippi Masala (1991), explores the racial tensions between immigrant Indians from Uganda and resident African-Americans in...
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What Do I Read Next?
Mark Crinson’s Empire Building: Orientalism and Victorian Architecture (1996) examines how racial theory, as well as political and religious agendas, informed British architects and how Eastern ideas came to influence the West.
In The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa 1945–1994 (2001), Okwui Enwezor has edited a collection of writing and images, including essays, studies, speeches, manifestos, and photographs, which document the cultural and political record of Africa from 1945 to 1994 and offer a glimpse into the ideologies that shaped the continent’s history and life during the period.
Andrew Gurr’s Writers in Exile: The Identity of Home in Modern...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Achebe, Chinua, Things Fall Apart, William Heinemann, 1958.
Allende, Isabelle, The House of the Spirits, Bantam Books, 1986.
Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, eds., The Empire Writes Back, Routledge Kegan & Paul, 1990.
—, eds., The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, Routledge, 1995.
Bhabha, Homi K., The Location of Culture, Routledge, 1994.
—, ed., Nation and Narration, Routledge, 1990.
Boland, Eavan, Outside History: Selected Poems, 1980– 1990, Norton, 1990.
Coetzee, J. M., Disgrace, Viking Penguin, 1999.
—, Waiting for the Barbarians, Penguin Books,...
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