The Institutionalization of Postcolonial Literature.

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1373

The adoption of postcolonial literature in the English curriculum of British and American schools in the last few decades has coincided with changes in how and why literature is studied. These changes include ideas about what texts should be included in class syllabi, issues of literary taste, and the purpose(s) of studying literature. The writing studied in literature classrooms in the United States and Great Britain is often referred to as belonging to the canon. The term derives from the Greek word “kanon” and originally denoted the list of books in the New Testament and Hebrew Bible that came to comprise the Holy Scriptures. More recently, the phrase “literary canon” has been used to denote the “major authors,” critics, and historians considered to be the most important for students to read. Surveys of the great works of Western civilization, for example, traditionally would include works by Plato, Aristotle, John Milton, William Shakespeare, and so forth, in short, works by men of European descent. However, in the second half of the twentieth century, a number of events has challenged the assumptions embodied in the literary canon. These events include the Civil Rights movement in the United States, the Women’s Liberation movement, and the accelerated unraveling of the British Empire in the wake of World War II. As more and different people began to assert their own rights to explore their heritage and express their identities, critics began to expose the ideological underpinnings of the literary canon and how those underpinnings served one group of people while excluding another. Since the 1960s, a number of critics have argued for the revision, or even the abolition, of the literary canons.

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In The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-colonial Literatures, Bill Ashcroft, Careth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin point to “the development of English as a privileged academic subject in the nineteenth century,” arguing that its study “has always been a densely political and cultural phenomenon . . . called into the service of a profound and embracing nationalism.” Nationalism refers to a favoring of the traditions, practices, language, myths, and rituals of a group of people who believe their way of life superior to that of others. By instituting its own school system into its colonies, the British used education as a primary means of controlling colonized people. Walcott, for example, a writer of African, Dutch, and English descent, grew up in St. Lucia of the West Indies reading Milton, Spenser, Shakespeare, and other British writers. He was taught to think like a British person and to develop British tastes. His notion of what made “good” literature, then, was in large part defined by his British education. Indigenous people were “other,” defined by and through their difference from the colonizers. The idea of “otherness” has helped to foster the notion that Third World countries are backward, inferior, and uncivilized. The editors of The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism summarize the insidiousness of colonial literary education as follows:

As it inculcates Western Eurocentric values, literary education supports a kind of “cultural colonization,” creating a class of colonial subjects often burdened by a double consciousness and by divided loyalties. It helps Western colonizers rule by consent rather than violence.

In many cases, however, colonized countries had no national literature of their own, no literary tradition, no concept of literature itself, and so there was no basis of comparison for colonized people, many of whom could neither read nor write. Some of these colonies had strictly oral storytelling traditions and no history of written language. The British, in their attempts to “educate” the inhabitants of their colonies, used their own language and literature as models of civilized and superior thinking and behavior.

During the independence movements of British colonies and after colonies declared their independence, natives of former colonies attempted to establish their own literary traditions. The writing produced by postcolonial natives is often a literature of resistance that integrates Western modes of writing and narrative with local traditions and ways of knowing. Walcott’s plays such as The Sea at Dauphin (1954), for example, mixes West Indian language and customs with elements of Greek drama. And Walcott’s establishment of the Little Carib Theatre Workshop, later renamed the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, was an attempt to provide native West Indian writers with a place to develop and produce plays about their own history and culture.

However, writing about one’s own history and culture after centuries of colonization, for Walcott as well as for other postcolonialists, has proved a difficult, virtually impossible task. Representing the relationships between precolonial cultures and imperial cultures necessarily includes the acknowledgement of culture’s hybrid nature and the futility of ever recovering a “pure” past. The idea that all cultures are representations and the result of political forces at work shows up in the postmodern forms and styles that postcolonial writers such as Walcott, Coetzee, Rushdie, and so forth have chosen to “depict” the postcolonial condition. Although the meaning of the term “postmodern” is as hotly debated as the term “postcolonial,” in reference to postcolonial writing it denotes writing that mixes genres and, often, languages, integrates traditional Western forms with indigenous materials, and foregrounds how identities are social constructions rather than essential features of people, countries, or cultures.

As style, the postmodern is most often embodied in the novels of postcolonial writers rather than, say, poetry or drama, and it is the novel to which postcolonial critics pay most attention. The novel, as a kind of writing that attempts to create and people its own world with elaborate characterizations, plots, and detailed setting, is apropos for writers motivated to reshape public as well as personal history. Coetzee’s novels, for example, especially Waiting for the Barbarians (1982), which is set in an imaginary empire not unlike South Africa, employs postmodern strategies and devices to foreground their status as works of fiction, while at the same time suggesting a political stance towards a real place and policy, that is, South African apartheid. Postcolonial literature that overtly uses postmodern compositional strategies is not without its detractors; however, critics often claim that it can send the message that oppression and colonialism are a part of the human condition and will always be here. In his review of Coetzee’s novel, Irving Howe comments on Coetzee’s universalizing approach towards describing South Africa’s predicament:

That ‘a heart of darkness’ is present in all societies and a beast ‘lurks within each one of us’ may well be true. But such invocations of universal evil can deflect attention from the particular and at least partly remediable social wrongs Mr. Coetzee portrays. Not only deflect attention, but encourage readers, as they search for their inner beasts, to a mood of conservative acquiescence and social passivity.

The inclusion of postcolonial literature in English departments in the United States, Great Britain, and Australia in the last few decades has also been part of the move away from the study of literature per se and towards the study of culture broadly conceived. Some colleges and universities are even abandoning literature departments altogether and replacing them with cultural studies departments, whose courses include literature, heavy doses of theory of various stripes—literary and other—historical documents, movies, and texts not traditionally studied in literature classrooms. Some of the questions raised by the study of postcolonial literature include the following: Which writers speak best for the postcolonial nation? How does postcolonial literature ask readers to reexamine their own notions of history and “otherness?” In what language should the postcolonial writer write? Is America itself a postcolonial country, and if so, what does that say about Americans’ authority to theorize about the postcolonial condition?

The shift in focus in Western schools away from the study of English and American literature and towards curricula that embrace an international worldview using a variety of texts has been for the good. Such curricula allow people whose voices have previously been stifled to speak out and allow artifacts previously ignored to be studied. This inclusion of new texts and writers can (potentially) make English departments agents of social change, rather than simply arbiters of literary taste.

Source: Chris Semansky, Critical Essay on Postcolonialism, in Literary Movements for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.

Postcolonialism, Ideology, and Native American Literature

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In the current climate of literary studies, it is tempting to think of contemporary Native American literatures as among the postcolonial literatures of the world. Certainly they share with other postcolonial texts the fact of having, in the words of A statue of Daniel O’Connell who symbolized the fight for Irish independence in the nineteenth century the authors of The Empire Writes Back, “emerged in their present form out of the experience of colonization and asserted themselves by foregrounding the tension with the imperial power, and by emphasizing their differences from the assumptions of the imperial Centre.” Yet contemporary Native American literatures cannot quite be classed among the postcolonial literatures of the world for the simple reason that there is not yet a “post-” to the colonial status of Native Americans. Call it domestic imperialism or internal colonialism; in either case, a considerable number of Native people exist in conditions of politically sustained subalternity. I have remarked on the academic effects of this condition in the first chapter; here I note the more worldly effects of this condition: Indians experience twelve times the U.S. national rate of malnutrition, nine times the rate of alcoholism, and seven times the rate of infant mortality; as of the early 1990s, the life expectancy of reservation-based men was just over forty-four years, with reservation- based women enjoying, on average, a lifeexpectancy of just under forty-seven years. “Sovereignty,” whatever its ultimate meaning in the complex sociopolitical situation of Native nations in the United States, remains to be both adequately theorized and practically achieved, and “independence,” the great desideratum of colonized nations, is not, here, a particularly useful concept.

Arif Dirlik lists three current meanings of the term postcolonial. Postcolonial may intend “a literal description of conditions in formerly colonial societies,” it may claim to offer “a description of a global condition after the period of colonialism”— what Dirlik refers to as “global capitalism,” marked by the “transnationalization of production”— and it may, most commonly in the academy, claim to provide “a description of a discourse on the above-named conditions that is informed by the epistemological and psychic orientations that are products of those conditions.” Is any one of these meanings useful to describe contemporary Native American literature? Dirlik’s first sense of the postcolonial will not work because, as already noted, the material condition of contemporary Native “societies” is not a postcolonial one. His second sense might perhaps come a bit nearer, inasmuch as Native societies, although still in a colonial situation, nonetheless participate in the global economy of a world “after the period of colonialism.” To give a fairly undramatic anecdote, in Santa Fe, Native Americans sell traditional ceramic work and jewelry (including “traditional” golf tees) across the street from where non-Native people offer the “same” wares made in Hong Kong. In something of a parallel fashion, Lakota people travel to Germany and Switzerland to promote tourism at Pine Ridge. As for the last of Dirlik’s definitions, little discourse surrounding Native American literature, to the best of my knowledge, has been selfconsciously aware of having been formed “by the epistemological and psychic orientations that are products” of the postcolonial. (And the “nationalist” Native critic seeks to reject any formation whatever according to these “orientations.”) Perhaps, then, it may not be particularly useful to conceptualize contemporary Native American literature as postcolonial.

But even though contemporary Native American fiction is produced in a condition of ongoing colonialism, some of that fiction not only has the look of postcolonial fiction but also, as I will try to show in the second part of this chapter, performs ideological work that parallels that of postcolonial fiction elsewhere. Here, however, I want to suggest a category—the category of anti-imperial translation— for conceptualizing the tensions and differences between contemporary Native American fiction and “the imperial center.” Because historically specifiable acts of translative violence marked the European colonization of the Americas from Columbus to the present, it seems to me particularly important to reappropriate the concept of translation for contemporary Native American literature.

To do so is not to deny the relationship of this literature to the postcolonial literatures of the Sign in South Africa before the end of apartheid world but, rather, to attempt to specify a particular modality for that relationship. To say that the people indigenous to the Americas entered European consciousness only by means of a variety of complex acts of translation is to think of such things as Columbus’s giving the name of San Salvador to an island he knows is called Guanahani by the natives—and then giving to each further island he encounters, as he wrote in his journals, “a new name.” Columbus also materially “translated” (trans-latio, “to carry across”) some of the Natives he encountered, taking “six of them from here,” as he remarked in another wellknown passage, “in order that they may learn to speak.” Columbus gave the one who was best at learning his own surname and the first name of his firstborn son, translating this otherwise anonymous person into Don Diego Colon.

Now, any people who are perceived as somehow unable to speak when they speak their own languages, are not very likely to be perceived as having a literature—especially when they do not write, a point to which we shall return. Thus, initially, the very “idea of a [Native American] literature was inherently ludicrous,” as Brian Swann has noted, because Indian “languages themselves were primitive.” If Indians spoke at all, they spoke very badly (and, again, they did not write). In 1851, John De Forest, in his History of the Indians of Connecticut, observed, “It is evident from the enormous length of many of the words, sometimes occupying a whole line, that there was something about the structure of these languages which made them cumbersome and difficult to manage.”

Difficult for whom, one might ask, especially in view of the fact that De Forest himself had not achieved even minimal competence in any Native language. Further, inasmuch as these were spoken languages, not alphabetically written languages, any estimate that single words occupied the length of “a whole line” could only depend on De Forest’s decision to write them that way. De Forest’s sense of the “cumbersome and difficult” nature of Indian languages, as I have noted, implies that any literature the Natives might produce in these languages would also be “cumbersome and difficult.” Perhaps the Natives would do better to translate themselves or be translated, to “learn to speak”— in this case, to speak English—in order to have a literature. De Forest was wrong, of course, although what most people know as Native American literature today consists of texts originally written in English.

Almost half a century after DeForest, as late as 1894, Daniel Brinton—a man who actually did a great deal to make what he called the “production” of “aboriginal authors” visible to the dominant culture— nonetheless declared, “Those peoples who are born to the modes of thought and expression enforced by some languages can never forge to the front in the struggle for supremacy; they are fatally handicapped in the race for the highest life.” The winners in the “race for the highest life,” therefore, would be the race with the “highest” language; and it was not the Indians but rather, as Brinton wrote, “our Aryan forefathers” who were the ones fortunate enough to be endowed “with a richly inflected speech.” As Kwame Anthony Appiah explained in reference to Johann Gottfried von Herder, the Sprachgeist, “the ‘spirit’ of the language, is not merely the medium through which speakers communicate but the sacred essence of a nationality. [And] Herder himself identified the highest point of the nation’s language in its poetry,” in its literature. “Whoever writes about the literature of a country,” as Appiah elsewhere cited Herder, “must not neglect its language.” For those like the Indians with “primitive” languages, there would seem to be little hope, short of translation, for the prospects of literary achievement. Thus, by the end of the nineteenth century, the linguistic determinism expressed by Brinton— and, of course, by many others—worked against the possibility of seeing Native Americans as having an estimable literature at exactly the moment when the texts for that literature were, for the first time, being more or less accurately translated and published.

But here one must return to the other dimension of the translation issue as it affects Native American literatures. For the problem in recognizing the existence of Native literatures was not only that Natives could not speak or, when they did speak, that their languages were judged deficient or “primitive” but also that they did not write.

Here I will only quickly review what I and others have discussed elsewhere. Because littera-ture in its earliest uses meant the cultivation of letters (from Latin littera, “letter”), just as agriculture meant the cultivation of fields, peoples who did not inscribe alphabetic characters on the page could not, by definition, produce a literature. (They were also thought to be only minimally capable of agriculture in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, but that is another story.) It was the alteration in European consciousness generally referred to as “romanticism” that changed the emphasis in constituting the category of literature from the medium of expression, writing—literature as culture preserved in letters—to the kind of expression preserved, literature as imaginative and affective utterance, spoken or written. It is only at this point that an oral literature can be conceived as other than a contradiction in terms and the unlettered Indians recognized as people capable of producing a “literature.”

For all of this, it remains the case that an oral literature, in order to become the subject of analysis, must indeed first become an object. It must, that is, be textualized; and here we encounter a translation dilemma of another kind, one in which the “source language” itself has to be carried across—trans-latio—from one medium to another, involving something more than just a change of names. This translative project requires that temporal speech acts addressed to the ear be turned into visual objects in space, black marks on the page, addressed to the eye. Words that had once existed only for the tongue to pronounce now were to be entrusted to the apprehension of the eye. Mythography, in a term of Anthony Mattina’s, or ethnopoetics has been devoted for many years to the problems and possibilities involved in this particular form of media translation.

Translation as a change of names—as a more or less exclusively linguistic shift from “source” to “target” language—may, historically, be traced in relation to the poles of identity and difference, as these are articulated within the disciplinary boundaries of what the West distinguishes as the domains of art and social science. Translators with attachments to the arts or humanities have rendered Native verbal expression in such a way as to make it appear attractively literary by Western standards of literariness, thereby obscuring the very different standards pertaining in various Native American cultures. Conversely, translators with attachments to the social sciences have rendered Native verbal expression in as literal a manner as possible, illuminating the differences between that expression and our own but thereby obscuring its claims to literary status. I have elaborated on these matters elsewhere, and so I will here turn from considerations of the formal implications of translation practices to their ideological implications. I want to explain what I mean by anti-imperial translation and why it seems to me that a great many texts by Native American writers, though written in English, may nonetheless be taken as types of anti-imperial translation.

I base my sense of anti-imperial translation on a well-known, indeed classic text, one that I have myself quoted on a prior occasion. The text is from Rudolph Pannwitz, who is cited in Walter Benjamin’s important essay “The Task of the Translator.” Pannwitz wrote, “Our translations, even the best ones, proceed from a wrong premise. They want to turn Hindi, Greek, English into German instead of turning German into Hindi, Greek, English. Our translators have far greater reverence for the usage of their own language than for the spirit of the foreign works . . . The basic error of the translator is that he preserves the state in which his own language happens to be instead of allowing his language to be powerfully affected by the foreign tongue.” My use of Pannwitz was influenced by Talal Asad’s paper, “The Concept of Cultural Translation in British Social Anthropology,” originally presented at the School for American Research in 1984 and published in James Clifford and George Marcus’s important collection Writing Culture in 1986. As will be apparent, I am much indebted to Asad’s work.

Asad’s subject, like mine, is not translation in the narrow sense but rather translation as cultural translation. The “good translator,” Asad wrote, “does not immediately assume that unusual difficulty in conveying the sense of an alien discourse denotes a fault in the latter, but instead critically examines the normal state of his or her own language.” Asad notes the fact that languages, if expressively equal, are nonetheless politically “unequal,” those of the Third World that are typically studied by anthropologists being “weaker” in relation to Western languages (and today especially in relation to English). Asad remarks that the weaker, or colonized, languages “are more likely to submit to forcible transformation in the translation process than the other way around.” Asad cites with approval Godfrey Lienhardt’s essay “Modes of Thought” and quotes Lienhardt’s exemplary explanation of anthropological translation: “We mediate between their habits of thought, which we have acquired with them, and those of our own society; in doing so, it is not finally some mysterious ‘primitive philosophy’ that we are exploring, but the further potentialities of our thought and language.” This sort of translation, Asad affirms, should alter the usual relationship between the anthropological audience and the anthropological text, in that it seeks to disrupt the habitual desire of that audience to use the text as an occasion to know about the Other, a matter of “different writings and readings (meanings)” in order to instantiate the possibility that translation, as a matter “of different uses (practices),” can be a force moving us toward “learning to live another form of life.”

My claim is that Native American writers today are engaged in some version of the translation project along the broad lines sketched by Asad. Even though contemporary Native writers write in English and configure their texts in apparent consonance with Western or Euramerican literary forms—that is, they give us texts that look like novels, short stories, poems, and autobiographies— they do so in ways that present an “English” nonetheless “powerfully affected by the foreign tongue,” not by Hindi, Greek, or German, of course, and not actually by a “foreign” language, inasmuch as the “tongue” and “tongues” in question are indigenous to America. The language they offer, in Asad’s terms, derives at least in part from other forms of practice, and to comprehend it might just require, however briefly, that we attempt to imagine living other forms of life.

This is true of contemporary Native American writers in both literal and figurative ways. In the case of those for whom English is a second language (Luci Tapahonso, Ray Young Bear, Michael Kabotie, Ofelia Zepeda, and Simon Ortiz are some of the writers who come immediately to mind), it is altogether likely that their English will show traces of the structure and idioms of their “native” language, as well as a variety of linguistic habits and narrative and performative practices of traditional expressive forms in Navajo, Mesquakie, Hopi, Tohono O’odham, and Acoma. Their English, then, is indeed an English, in Pannwitz’s words, “powerfully affected by the foreign tongue,” a tongue (to repeat) not “foreign” at all to the Americas. Here the Native author quite literally tests “the tolerance of [English) for assuming unaccustomed forms,” and an adequate commentary on the work of these writers will require of the critic if not bilingualism then at least what Dell Hymes has called some “control” of the Native language.

Most Native writers today are not, however, fluent speakers of one or another of the indigenous languages of the Americas, although their experiences with these languages are so different that it would be impossible to generalize. (E.g., Leslie Marmon Silko certainly heard a good deal of Laguna as she was growing up, just as N. Scott Momaday heard a good deal of Jemez, whereas many of the Native American writers raised in the cities did not hear indigenous languages on a very regular basis.) Yet all of them have indicated their strong sense of indebtedness or allegiance to the oral tradition. Even the mixed-blood Anishinaabe—Chippewa— writer Gerald Vizenor, someone who uses quotations from a whole range of comtemporary European theorists and whose own texts are full of ironic effects possible only to a text-based literature, has insisted on the centrality of “tribal stories” and storytelling to his writing. This is the position of every other contemporary Native American writer I can think of—all of them insist on the storytelling of the oral tradition as providing a context, as bearing on and influencing the writing of their novels, poems, stories, or autobiographies.

In view of this fact, it needs to be said that “the oral tradition,” as it is invoked by these writers, is an “invented tradition.” It can be seen, as John Tomlinson has remarked, “as a phenomenon of modernity. There is a sense in which simply recognizing a practice as ‘traditional’ marks it off from the routine practices of proper [sic] traditional societies.” This is not, of course, to deny that there were and continue to be a number of oral traditions that “really” existed and continue to exist among the indigenous cultures of the Americas. Nor is it to deny that some contemporary Native American writers have considerable experience of “real” forms of oral performance. I am simply noting that “the oral tradition” as usually invoked in these contexts is a kind of catchall phrase whose function is broadly to name the source of the difference between the English of Native writers and that of Euramerican writers. This “tradition” is not based on historically and culturally specific instances.

A quick glance at some of the blurbs on the covers or book jackets of work by contemporary Indian writers makes this readily apparent. When these blurbs are written by non-Indians (and most are, for obvious reasons, written by non-Indians), reference to “the oral tradition” usually represents a loose and vague way of expressing nostalgia for some aboriginal authenticity or wisdom, a golden age of wholeness and harmony. When these blurbs are written by Native Americans—this generalization I venture more tentatively—they are (to recall the discussion I offered in the first chapter of this book) a rhetorical device, a strategic invocation of what David Murray has called the discourse of Indianness, a discourse that has currency in both the economic and the political sense in the United States. Once more, to say this is in no way to deny that the narrative modalities and practices of a range of Native oral literatures, as well as the worldviews of various Native cultures, are important to many of the texts constituting a contemporary Native American literature, and not merely honorifically, sentimentally, or rhetorically.

Anyone who would make the claim that a particular Native text in English should be read as an instance of cultural translation must offer a specific demonstration of how that text incorporates alternate strategies, indigenous perspectives, or language usages that, literally or figuratively, make its “English” on the page a translation in which traces of the “foreign tongue,” the “Indian,” can be discerned. If one then wants to claim that this translation is indeed an anti-imperial translation, it becomes necessary to show how those traces operate in tension with or in a manner resistant to an English in the interest of colonialism.

Source: Arnold Krupat, “Postcolonialism, Ideology, and Native American Literature,” in Postcolonial Theory and the United States: Race, Ethnicity, and Literature, edited by Amritjit Singh and Peter Schmidt, University of Mississippi Press, 2000, pp. 73–94.

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Critical Overview