Postcolonial Literature Themes

What are themes of Postcolonial literature?

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Postcolonial literature addresses the problems and promises of decolonization, the process of non-western countries in Asia, the Pacific, Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and the Caribbean becoming independent from western control. It is the literature of people trying to reclaim their freedom and their new identities after struggling for independence.

Some of the themes of postcolonial literature include re-asserting the identity of the indigenous culture, revisiting and revising colonial history, and providing fuller descriptions of the people created by colonialism and the way in which their lives reflect both cultures. Many postcolonial authors also use hybrid dialects to reflect the intertwining of western and non-western languages.

Jean Rhys's 1966 novel Wide Saragasso Sea is an example of postcolonial literature. Rhys, who was born in Dominica, imagines the earlier marriage of Mr. Rochester of Jane Eyre. The main character, Antoinette Cosway, is torn between her identity as a white creole in Jamaica and her married life in England. The author writes about the confusion of having a mixed identity. Antoinette is declared mad, a comment on the tendency of western cultures to identify what they don't understand as mental illness and the tendency of colonialism to produced fissured and conflicting identities. Things Fall Apart by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe is another example of a postcolonial work in which the main character, Okonkwo, witnesses the dissolution of the traditional Igbo culture with the introduction of Christian missionaries. In both novels, the protagonists are raised in the non-western cultures and are exposed to the confusion of dealing with a western culture that does not recognize their values or identities.

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The term postcolonial simply refers to a period immediately after a nation has attained independence from colonial powers. Although that would include such countries as Australia, New Zealand, and the United States, which were originally British colonies, and even England after the Norman conquest, from a certain point of view, the term is most often restricted to the literatures of Asian, African, and South American nations that have attained independence from European colonial powers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The works normally studied under the rubric of postcolonial literature often are read through the lens of postcolonial literary theory, a framework that emphasizes race, class, and cultural oppression.

Common set of themes addressed are:

  • Assimilation: The colonized attempting to "pass" or assimilate to the colonial culture.
  • Appropriation: The colonizers taking on features of the colonized.
  • Hybridity: The blending of cultures occurring at the intersection of colonizer and colonized.
  • Diaspora: Colonial citizens who have emigrated from their own native countries or been displaced.
  • Alterity: The definition of the colonized as "other" than the dominant colonizing culture, a phenomenon also addressed under the theme of "orientalism" or exoticizing.
  • Subaltern: The subordination of the native population in a way that deprives them of both power and voice.
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As with any literary movement that is so focused on the relationship between individuals and their social order in the development of the identity of both, there are many themes in Postcolonial literature.  I think that one particular theme resides in the construction of individual identity.  Much of the literature that comes out of Postcolonialism is very concerned with being able to assess the full effect of the role that social orders play in how individuals perceive themselves and their world.  Of particular importance to the work of Postcolonial literature is how indigenous and external societies clash with one another, oftentimes with the result left upon the psyche of the individual.  Within this arena, the effect of race and ethnicity becomes examined, as consciousness becomes products of a Colonial and Postcolonial setting.  Finally, I think that another theme is how individuals have to endure a level of struggle in trying to articulate their own sense of understanding of the shift that happens during the Colonial period as well as the realities that exist after it.

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