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What is postcolonial literature?

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Postcolonial literature, which includes literary criticism, is any literature that depicts or interprets colonialism and imperialism from the point of view of the colonized. It is also characterized as the view-from-below or the subaltern view.

For too long, many contend, the story of colonized, displaced, or oppressed peoples was told from the point of view of the conqueror. Notorious examples are Rudyard Kipling's poem "The White Man's Burden," which praises white colonizers for all they put up with trying to "civilize" ungrateful "savages" and the genre of "happy plantation" literature, including Gone with the Wind, that portrays black people as contented and joyful in slavery.

Post-colonial literature tells a far different story. Most often, it is written by a member of a colonized or subaltern group. Writers with knowledge of what it is like to be colonized or oppressed, such as Chinua Achebe, or, in the non-fiction world, Franz Fanon or Edward Said, often can give an authentic and corrective view of what that experience feels like and how it has been misconstrued by the ruling classes.

Post-colonial critics take the perspective of the oppressed and colonized in works of literature. Many critics, for example, have come to the defense of Shakespeare's Caliban in The Tempest, who teaches Prospero how to survive and then is enslaved by him and called a monster.

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As the term indicates, the idea of postcolonial literature is reflective of life after colonial rule in nations that were controlled by parent nations.  The idea of how life and identity is constructed after colonialism is rich with ideas, and is a basic element of postcolonial literature.  The genre seeks to examine how the past influences the present and the future, or, in a more postmodern sense, how there is not such a clear distinction of time.  The issues of racial identity plays a large role in postcolonial literature.  At the same time, postcolonial literature seeks to assess how the identity of nations that are controlled and how the identity of people in colonized nations could parallel one another.  At the same time, postcolonial literature is intensely constructed on the idea of what constitutes purity in one's identity.  For example, in postcolonial literature, the idea of how much of one's national or individual identity is contingent on the parent nation or the freed one is extremely important to the genre.

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Colonialism is the act of taking partial or total political control over another country through the establishment of a colony or colonies and then exploiting said country for its resources, including labor and economics. The prevailing justifications for colonialism were the moral, intellectual, and religious superiority of the colonizers. Nearly every major first world country has at one time been a colonial power. The colonial era has continued even into the 21st century, although in an attenuated way.

As the Latin prefix intimates then, post-colonialism is the time after the colonial power has been removed or destabilized to the point of inefficacy, and post-colonial literature is that which has been written during or about this time. It is also writing that has been ‘affected by the imperial process from the moment of colonization to the present day’ (Ashcroft, Griffiths, Tiffin, 1989, p. 2). Post-colonial literature is almost always written from the perspective or includes the perspective of the colonized ‘subaltern’ and so attempts to respond to the experience of being colonized. It is often characterized by attempts to re-establish cultural, social, intellectual, political, and linguistic autonomy, a difficult task given that so much of the subalterns’ identity is molded and influenced by their colonizers.

Post-colonial literature has given rise to post-colonial studies, including theory and linguistics foci that study these literatures produced by writers from countries that were once colonized by European powers. By far, post-colonial literature from India is the most abundant, although narrative voices from colonized peoples in Africa are beginning to assert themselves. Trailing, but heard, are voices from America’s native peoples, as well.

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