What are some issues that Postcolonialism addresses?

Postcolonialism is concerned with reckoning with the legacy of colonialism and with looking at the literature of the colonial period through this lens. After World War II, many of the colonized countries, including India, Algeria, and Nigeria, clamored for independence. As they gained independence, writers and critics from these countries took a new look at the Western works that had depicted them.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Postcolonialism (or postcolonial theory) can be a slippery beast. In its most literal sense, it can refer to books written after the colonial period. As European countries lost most of their territories in Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere, a new generation emerged to tell the stories that had...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Postcolonialism (or postcolonial theory) can be a slippery beast. In its most literal sense, it can refer to books written after the colonial period. As European countries lost most of their territories in Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere, a new generation emerged to tell the stories that had been ignored or repressed. An excellent example of this is Achebe's Things Fall Apart, which functioned both as a critique of English imperialism and the story of the native people of Nigeria who were victims of this imperialism.

As a critical tool, postcolonialism is often used to examine Western texts that wrote about the people and countries they colonized. Until the end of colonization, the people of these countries were represented but rarely could they represent themselves, which means that Europeans projected what they wanted to on them and frequently used stereotypical or racist language. Although Conrad's Heart of Darkness is seen as an indictment of colonialism and exploitation in the Belgian Congo, some critics, including Achebe, see Conrad's depiction of the Africans as, at best, insensitive and, at worst, racist. The goal is to look at these works from a different perspective, that of the people depicted. According to Edward Said in his groundbreaking study Orientialism, the Eastern character in literature is always "other" and always measured against the Western character. The key is that the Eastern character, while they may be a source of exoticism, is rarely allowed their own voice. A further concern of this school of thought is the way that Western biases and hegemony are inscribed in culture.

Some other works to look at are the essays of Salman Rushdie, the essay "Can the Subaltern Speak?," and the anthology The Empire Writes Back.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Postcolonialism deals on some level with all the issues that people have faced since the breakup of the large colonial empires. For England-oriented writers, this era is often marked as beginning with the independence of the South Asian nations after World War II, especially the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan. For the Americas, however, postcolonial theory has been applied much earlier, as independence from Spain began to be achieved in the early nineteenth century.

Three key areas that this body of theory addresses, often through analysis of literary works, are race, hybridity, and self-determination.

Because European colonial expansion and control went hand in hand with the development of theories of race and racial hierarchy, the imposition of white superiority as a concept was accompanied by white supremacy in action. When nonwhite persons were judged mentally inferior, they were considered incompetent to administer themselves and constituted the majority of the subaltern. The end of colonial rule either returned control to the former rulers or established a new hierarchy in which descendants of the former colonizers assumed control. Race as an internally experienced and outwardly expressed identity category played large roles in determining people's social position and cultural affiliation. Frantz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks eloquently expresses this situation.

Hybridity also characterized colonialism, both physically through race and in every area of culture. A rigidly defined caste system located every person. Due to early encounters between white male colonizers and indigenous female residents, often through rape, "mixed-race" peoples, often called mestizos, soon came to constitute a large segment of the colony's population. In the Americas, where enslaved Africans were taken to do much of the labor, the term mulatto was often applied to people of mixed white and black ancestry. Cultural hybridity can be applied to products drawing on two different traditions, especially to works by formerly colonized people writing in the colonizer's language. As this applies to women, who many argue were doubly subjugated, Gayatri Spivak's work can be useful.

Self-determination refers both to post-independence autonomous political control and to the identity issues that sustain formerly colonized people in identifying and following governmental systems that authentically represent the people's interests rather than copy the colonizers' failed models. Works by African independence-era leaders, such as Jomo Kenyatta's Facing Mount Kenya, address these dilemmas.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Postcolonialism is the process by which non-Western nations try to search for their own identities in the aftermath of imperial control. Postcolonial literature is an answer to the problem of people searching for their own identity and rethinking their history after the struggle to break away from the empires that had controlled them. Postcolonial literature is also an attempt to reckon with the experience of colonialism and explain its effect on people.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe is an example of a literary work that attempts to explain how native people have dealt with colonialism. In this Nigerian novel, published in 1958, the protagonist, Okonkwo, is eventually driven to kill himself by his attempt to reconcile the new European, Christian imperial culture with his own traditional Igbo beliefs. Postcolonialism captures the psychological and cultural trauma of having Western culture imposed on non-Western people.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

One of the primary issues that Postcolonialism addresses is how individuals go about constructing identity in the face of massive change. For Postcolonial literature, identity was an external construct.  "Western" nations had colonized indigenous people for so long that identity was seen through the lens of this external group.  With the removal of colonial powers, Postcolonialism strives to examine how identity changed as a result of this removal and how individual voice can exist independent of and sometimes remain dependent on this form of "the other."  Postcolonial literature seeks to address how individuals see themselves and their world, how individuals can live a sort of "double life" in terms of their own notion of self.  The examination of this duality becomes one of the critical issues in Postcolonial literature and is something that Postcolonalism strives to address.

I think that another issue that Postcolonialism addresses is how individuals navigate their present and future in a world where so much has changed.  Envisioning one's life under Colonial rule and then seeing it outside of Colonial rule causes a significant alteration in reality.  One of the issues that Postcolonialism addresses is the change in this reality.  How individuals and societies navigate it in their present and in the construction of the future is a significant issue in Postcolonialism.  It helps to define much of Postcolonial thought because it recognizes that the past casts an influence on both present and future.  Exploring this dynamic is an issue that is integral to understanding Postcolonialism.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team