J. M. Coetzee (1940–) John Michael Coetzee was born on February 9, 1940, in South Africa. His father, a government worker who lost his job because he disagreed with South Africa’s apartheid policies, was an early influence in the writer’s life. Coetzee took a bachelor of arts degree in 1960 from the University of Cape Town and a master of fine arts degree in 1963. In 1969, he received his Ph.D. in English from the University of Texas at Austin. He has worked in academia for most of his adult life, holding teaching positions at the University of Cape Town, the State University of New York in Buffalo, Johns Hopkins University, and Harvard University. Coetzee is currently professor of general literature at the University of Cape Town.
As a white writer living in South Africa during apartheid, Coetzee developed powerful anti-imperialist feelings. His novels, deeply influenced by postmodern ideas of representation and language, illustrate the insidious ways in which dominant groups seek to impose their culture and thinking on conquered peoples. For example, his first novel, Dusklands (1974), tells two distinct but parallel stories: one of the workings of the United States State Department during the Vietnam war and the other Jacobus Coetzee’s conquest of South Africa in the 1760s. Coetzee’s own alienation from his fellow Afrikaners is evident in his novels, most of which focus on the thoughts and actions of a single character put in an untenable situation. Coetzee’s Booker Prize-winning novel, The Life and Times of Michael K (1984), set in racially divided Cape Town, tells the story of gardener Michael K who, after taking his dying mother to the farm on which she was raised, lives happily until he is accused by the government of aiding guerillas. Coetzee’s early novels, however, are not polemical. Rather, they are allegorical, underscoring the timeless nature of human cruelty.
Coetzee’s other novels include From the Heart of the Country (1977), Waiting for the Barbarians (1982), Foe (1987), Age of Iron (1990), The Master of Petersburg (1994), and Disgrace (1999), for which he received his second Booker Prize. In addition to the Booker Prizes, Coetzee has been awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Faber Memorial Award in 1980, the Jerusalem Prize in 1987, and the Mondello Prize in 1994. Coetzee is also a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. In addition to his novels, Coetzee has written collections of essays and edited and translated a number of other books. His memoir, Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life was published in 1997.
Frantz Fanon (1925–1961) Frantz Fanon was born July 20, 1925, in the French colony of Martinique and left in 1943 to fight with the Free French in World War II. A psychiatrist, Fanon was interested in the emotional effects of racism and colonization on blacks. Fanon considered himself French, but his experience as a black man in France caused him to rethink his ideas about culture and identity. In 1952, he published Black Skin, White Masks, originally titled “An Essay for the Disalienation of Blacks.” With the publication of The Wretched of the Earth in 1961, Fanon established himself as a leading critic of colonial power and a voice for violent revolution. As head of the psychiatry department at Blida-Joinville Hospital in Algeria in 1953, Fanon saw firsthand the kind of psychological damage done to the tortured and the torturers during the Algerian war for independence. Fanon resigned his post and worked openly with the Algerian independence movement in Tunisia. He was an important influence on thinkers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Homi Bhabha, and Edward Said. Fanon...
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died December 6, 1961, of leukemia at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, where he had sought treatment.
Jamaica Kincaid (1949–) Born Elaine Potter Richardson on the island of Antigua, May 25, 1949, Jamaica Kincaid was educated in the British school system of the colony. In 1967, Antigua achieved self-governance, and in 1981 it became an independent country of the Commonwealth. Kincaid moved to New York City, where she studied photography at the New York School for Social Research and began writing for magazines including Ingenue and The New Yorker. Much of her writing displays her disdain for all things English and the inability of native Antiguans to resist British cultural imperialism. In her book about Antigua, A Small Place (1988), Kincaid describes the island as follows:
Antigua is a small place, a small island . . . . It was settled by Christopher Columbus in 1493. Not too long after, it was settled by human rubbish from Europe, who used enslaved but noble and exalted human beings from Africa . . . . to satisfy their desire for wealth and power, to feel better about their own miserable existence, so that they could be less lonely and empty—a European disease.
In addition to A Small Place, Kincaid has published a number of novels including Annie John (1986); At the Bottom of the River (1992); The Autobiography of My Mother (1996); Lucy; (1990); My Brother (1997); and, with Eric Fischl, Annie, Gwen, Lilly, Pam and Tulip (1986). Invariably, Kincaid writes about women’s experiences with other women and the effects of colonialism and patriarchy on women’s self-image.
Li-Young Lee (1957–) Li-Young Lee is one of the leading poetic voices of the Chinese diaspora writing in America. A profound sense of loss and nostalgia and a questing for and questioning of one’s national or ethnic identity often characterize diasporic writing. Lee was born August 19, 1957, in Jakarta, Indonesia, to Richard K. Y. Lee and Joice Yuan Jiaying, the granddaughter of China’s provisional president, Yuan Shikai, elected in 1912 during the country’s transition from monarchy to republic. Before moving to Indonesia, Lee’s father was China communist leader Mao Zedong’s personal physician. In 1959, the Lees left Indonesia after President Sukarno, for whom Lee’s father had been a medical advisor, began openly persecuting the country’s Chinese population. After wandering through the Far East for five years, the family immigrated to the United States, settling in Pennsylvania. With publication of his first collection of poems, Rose, in 1986, Lee garnered widespread attention from critics, who were moved by the mix of tenderness, fear, and longing in his portraits of his family, especially his father. Rose, for which Lee received New York University’s Delmore Schwartz Memorial Poetry Award, was followed in 1990 by The City in Which I Love You, which was the 1990 Lamont poetry selection of the Academy of American Poets. In addition to the two titles mentioned above, Lee has written a critically acclaimed memoir, The Winged Seed (1995), which reads like an extended pRose poem. His most recent collection of poems is The Book of My Nights (2001).
Michael Ondaatje (1943–) Born on September 12, 1943, in Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), to Mervyn Ondaatje and Doris Gratiaen, Michael Ondaatje was educated at St. Thomas College in Colombo and Dulwich College in London, where he moved with his mother. Between 1962 and 1964, Ondaatje attended Bishop’s University in Lennoxville, Quebec, and eventually took his bachelor of arts degree at the University of Toronto in 1965. In 1967, he received an master of fine arts degree from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Ondaatje taught at the University of Western Ontario, London, between 1967 and 1971, and has been on the English faculty at Glendon College, York University in Toronto, Ontario, since 1971.
A novelist, critic, and poet, Ondaatje is best known for his 1992 novel, The English Patient, which details the interactions of characters of various nationalities during the last days of World War II. The novel explores the relationships between past and present, individual and national identity, and how those relationships shape a person’s idea of “home.” The novel was adapted into an internationally acclaimed film in 1996. Ondaatje has received a number of awards for his writing, including the Ralph Gustafson Award, 1965; the Epstein Award, 1966; and the President’s Medal from the University of Ontario in 1967; and the Canadian Governor-General’s Award for Literature in 1971 and again in 1980. In 1980, he was awarded the Canada-Australia Prize, and in 1992 he was presented with the Booker Prize for The English Patient. Ondaatje’s most recent work is the novel Anil’s Ghost, which is set in Sri Lanka, in the middle of the island country’s violent civil war.
Salman Rushdie (1947–) Born into a prosperous Muslim family in Bombay, India, on June 19, 1947, Ahmed Salman Rushdie was raised in a liberal atmosphere in which education was valued. His parents, Anis Ahmed Rushdie, a Cambridge-educated businessman, and his mother, Negin, a teacher from Aligarh, India, migrated from Kashmir before Rushdie was born. Rushdie grew up reading Western comic books and watching Disney movies as well as films made in Bombay. By his tenth birthday, he knew he wanted to be a writer. Rushdie attended Rugby in England at age thirteen and in 1965 enrolled in King’s College, Cambridge. In 1968, he graduated with a master of fine arts degree in history. After graduation, Rushdie moved to Karachi, Pakistan, to join his family, who had moved there in 1964.
In Karachi, Rushdie wrote advertising copy by day and worked on his fiction at night. His first major success as a writer was his novel, Midnight’s Children, which won the prestigious Booker Prize in 1981 and brought Rushdie international fame. Weaving personal experience with history, Rushdie traces Indian history from 1910 until 1976. His 1983 novel, Shame, a satire of the Pakistani elite, was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1984. In 1988, Rushdie published his most well-known work, The Satanic Verses. Calling the book “blasphemous,” many governments banned the novel, and Muslims throughout the world protested. Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s spiritual leader, declared a judicial decree, known as a fatwa, sentencing Rushdie to death. Rushdie immediately went into hiding. In 1998, the Iranian government withdrew the fatwa against Rushdie.
Rushdie has continued to write, exploring the intersections of history, culture, religion, and identity. In 1990, he published Haroun and the Sea of Stories and, in 1994, East, West, a collection of his short stories. His most recent fiction includes The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1991) and the novel Fury (2000).
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (1942–) Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak is one of the leading theorists of postcolonial literary theory. Born February 24, 1942, in Calcutta, West Bengal, Spivak took a bachelor of arts degree in English from the University of Calcutta and then left India for graduate work at Cornell University, from which she received both her master’s degree and Ph.D. in comparative literature. Spivak’s dissertation director was Paul de Man, one of the leading scholars of deconstructionist theory. Spivak’s academic career was launched after she translated Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology (1976) into English and wrote its preface. In addition to her work on Derrida, Spivak has authored a number of critical texts and edited numerous collections of essays including In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics (1987); Outside in the Teaching Machine (1993); and, most recently, A Critique of Post-Colonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present (1999). Spivak has given numerous interviews on her thinking about Postcolonialism and teaching. These interviews are more accessible than her own writing, which her critics often call “unreadable.”
Derek Walcott (1930–) Born January 23, 1930, on St. Lucia, a former British colony of the Windward Islands in the Lesser Antilles, Derek Walcott was educated in the British school system but lived the life of an impoverished colonial. The son of an English father and an African mother, Walcott’s mixed racial heritage provides him with a unique understanding of postcolonial culture. Already a practicing poet, Walcott began writing drama after graduating from the University College of the West Indies. Walcott’s writing grafts Caribbean, African, and Latino sources onto European traditions of poetry and drama to elegantly express the complexities of the postcolonial condition. Indeed, critics have sometimes faulted him for relying too much on Western literary traditions. Walcott’s themes include the injustices of racism, colonial oppression, and the search for a coherent and stable identity and past. More recently, Walcott, who has held a teaching appointment at Boston University since 1981, has begun to explore the theme of exile in his writing. When the Swedish Academy awarded him the Nobel Prize in 1992, it noted Walcott’s contributions to Caribbean theater and praised his book-length poem, Omeros (1990), which retells Homer’s Odyssey from a Caribbean perspective, using native characters to explore events in colonial history. Walcott’s numerous collections of poetry include The Castaway, and Other Poems (1965), The Bounty (1997), and Tiepolo’s Hound (2000). A few of his best-known plays include Henri Christophe: A Chronicle in Seven Scenes (1950), Dream on Monkey Mountain (1967), and Viva Detroit (1990).
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