(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


By definition, postcolonialism is a period of time after colonialism, and postcolonial literature is typically characterized by its opposition to the colonial. However, some critics have argued that any literature that expresses an opposition to colonialism, even if it is produced during a colonial period, may be defined as postcolonial, primarily due to its oppositional nature. Postcolonial literature often focuses on race relations and the effects of racism and usually indicts white and/or colonial societies. Despite a basic consensus on the general themes of postcolonial writing, however, there is ongoing debate regarding the meaning of postcolonialism. Many critics now propose that the term should be expanded to include the literatures of Canada, the United States, and Australia. In his essay discussing the nature and boundaries of postcolonialism, Simon During argues for a more inclusive definition, calling it “the need, in nations, or groups which have been victims of imperialism to achieve an identity uncontaminated by universalist or Eurocentric concepts or images.” The scale and scope of modern European imperialism, as well as its extraordinarily organized character, including the cultural licensing of racial domination, has sometimes led to the perception of colonization as a modern phenomenon. In fact, many critics propose that modern colonialism was not a discrete occurrence and that an examination of premodern colonial activities will allow for a greater and more complex understanding of modern structures of power and domination, serving to illuminate the operation of older histories in the context of both modern colonialism and contemporary race and global political relations.

Works of literature that are defined as postcolonial often record racism or a history of genocide, including slavery, apartheid, and the mass extinction of peoples, such as the Aborigines in Australia. Critical response to these texts is often seen as an important way to articulate and negotiate communication between writers who define themselves as postcolonial and critics who are not part of that experience. In her introduction to Post-Colonial and African American Women's Writing, published in 2000, Gina Wisker notes that the indictment present in many postcolonial texts tends to produce guilt or feelings of inherited complicity in many readers. Also, although writing about these texts may raise the level of awareness of both the texts and their writers, some postcolonial writers see reflected in this activity an arrogant assumption about the need for noncolonial cultures to recognize postcolonial writers. Similarly, other critics have noted that critical response that focuses entirely on the essential nature of black or Asian writers may also serve to marginalize their writing by supposing their experiences as largely a product of being “other” than European.

Postcolonialism includes a vast array of writers and subjects. In fact, the very different geographical, historical, social, religious, and economic concerns of the different ex-colonies dictate a wide variety in the nature and subject of most postcolonial writing. Wisker has noted in her book that it is even simplistic to theorize that all postcolonial writing is resistance writing. In fact, many postcolonial writers themselves will argue that their countries are still very much colonial countries, both in terms of their values and behaviors, and that these issues are reflected in their work. In her essay on postcolonialism, Deepika Bahri agrees, noting that while the definition of postcolonialism may be fairly boundaried, the actual use of the term is very subjective, allowing for a yoking together of a very diverse range of experiences, cultures, and problems. This diversity of definitions exists, notes Bahri, because the term postcolonialism is used both as a literal description of formerly colonial societies and as a description of global conditions after a period of colonialism. In this regard, according to Bahri, the notion of the “postcolonial” as a literary genre and an academic construct may have meanings that are completely separate from a historical moment or time period.

Some women colonial writers draw a relationship between postcolonialism and feminism. For many of these writers, who live in strong patriarchal cultures, language and the ability to write and communicate represent power. Some of these writers, for example, have noted that since the language of British-ruled colonies is English, literature written in English has often been used to marginalize and constrain female points of view. In the postcolonial period, however, language, and the ability to speak, write, and publish, has become an enabling tool for postcolonial authors.

Representative Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Chinua Achebe
A Man of the People (novel) 1962

Ayi Kwei Armah
Why Are We So Blest? (novel) 1974

J. M. Coetzee
Dusklands (novel) 1974
In the Heart of the Country (novel) 1977

Anita Desai
The Clear Light of Day (novel) 1980
In Custody (novel) 1984
Baumgartner's Bombay (novel) 1988

Jamaica Kincaid
Annie John (novel) 1985

Maxine Hong Kingston
The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts (memoir) 1976
Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book (novel) 1989

N. Scott Momaday
House Made of Dawn (novel) 1968
The Ancient Child (novel) 1989

Bharati Mukerjee
The Tiger's Daughter (novel) 1972
Wife (novel) 1979

Salman Rushdie
Midnight's Children (novel) 1980
Shame (novel) 1984
The Satanic Verses (novel) 1989
Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism, 1981-1991 (nonfiction) 1991

Leslie Marmon Silko
Ceremony (novel) 1977
Almanac of the Dead (novel) 1991

Wole Soyinka
Season of Anomy (novel) 1973
Poems of Black Africa (poetry) 1975

N'gugi wa Thiong'o
Weep Not, Child (novel) 1964
I Will Marry When I Want (novel) 1982

Lettie Viljoen
Klaaglied vir Koos [Lament for Koos] (novel) 1984

Deepika Bahri (essay date January 1995)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Once More with Feeling: What Is Postcolonialism?” in Ariel, Vol. 26, No. 1, January, 1995, pp. 51-82.

[In the following essay, Bahri provides an overview of the concept of postcolonialism, including a brief survey of various definitions of the subject.]

Defining the parameters and boundaries of the postcolonial territory is a task not without its challenges. Much of the work done under the label “postcolonial” is content to assume a general understanding of its limits and possibilities. A sufficiently thoughtful definitional and conceptual framework, however, continues to elude us. As Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak writes, in postcoloniality, “every...

(The entire section is 11595 words.)

Shaobo Xie (essay date 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Rethinking the Problem of Postcolonialism,” in New Literary History, Vol. 28, No. 1, 1997, pp. 7-19.

[In the following essay, Xie presents a review of theories surrounding postcolonialism, making a distinction between postcolonial literatures and Third World writing.]

Like all other “post”-marked terms, “postcolonialism” has caused no end of debate among its protagonists and antagonists. While the authors of The Empire Writes Back champion a loose use of the term “postcolonial” in expanding it to the literatures of Canada, Australia, and the United States, Simon During defines “postcolonialism” as “the need, in nations or groups...

(The entire section is 5123 words.)

Abdul-Rasheed Na'Allah (essay date September/December 1995)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “African Literatures and Postcolonialism: Projections into the Twenty-First Century,” in Canadian Review of Literature, Vol. 22, No. 3-4, September/December, 1995, pp. 569-85.

[In the following essay, Na'Allah examines the themes permeating African postcolonial writing, noting that in addition to its continued focus on issues of protest on maintaining African values, recent African postcolonial literature also indicts native people perceived as perpetrators of African's own imperialism.]

What the [African] writers see around them as they survive their political and social environment since independence is a recurring cycle of misrule,...

(The entire section is 7527 words.)

Clive Barnett (essay date June 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Constructions of Apartheid in the International Reception of the Novels of J. M. Coetzee,” in Journal of South African Studies, Vol. 25, No. 2, June, 1999, pp. 287-301.

[In the following essay, Barnett discusses critical reception of South African literature in the context of novelist J. M. Coetzee's works, noting that South African writing has often been reviewed with an abstract and moralized understanding of the nature of apartheid.]

I sometimes wonder if it isn't simply that vast and wholly ideological superstructure constituted by publishing, reviewing and criticism that is forcing on me the fate of being a ‘South African...

(The entire section is 8912 words.)

Criticism: Asian/Pacific Postcolonial Literature

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Postcolonialism, Nationalism, and the Emergence of Asian/Pacific American Literatures,” in An Interethnic Companion to Asian American Literature, edited by King-Kok Cheung, Cambridge University Press, 1997, pp. 274-88.

[In the following essay, Sumida examines the emergence of Hawaii's literatures as a postcolonial and cultural phenomenon.]

When I was drafting this chapter, I had the opportunity to discuss with Davianna Pomaika‘i McGregor, a historian of Native Hawaiian and ethnic studies, my questions about examining the emergence of Hawaii's literatures as a postcolonial historical and cultural phenomenon. “Post-colonial?” she said. Her...

(The entire section is 5833 words.)

Revathi Krishnaswamy (essay date January 1995)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Mythologies of Migrancy: Postcolonialism, Postmodernism and the Politics of (Dis)Location,” in Ariel, Vol. 26, No. 1, January, 1995, pp. 125-46.

[In the following essay, Krishnaswamy traces the ideological lineage of postcolonial theory, noting that postcolonial celebratory novels that focused on nationalism have given way to works of delegitimation.]

A new type of “Third World”1 intellectual, cross-pollinated by postmodernism and postcolonialism, has arrived: a migrant who, having dispensed with territorial affiliations, travels unencumbered through the cultures of the world bearing only the burden of a unique yet representative sensibility...

(The entire section is 7178 words.)

Arnold Krupat (essay date 1996)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “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 Press of Mississippi, 2000, pp. 73-94.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1996, Krupat presents an overview of literary theory defining postcolonialism, placing Native American writing in this context.]

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...

(The entire section is 12284 words.)

Arif Dirlik (essay date Spring 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Is There History after Eurocentrism: Globalism, Postcolonialism, and the Disavowal of History,” Cultural Critique, Vol. 42, Spring, 1999, pp. 1-34.

[In the following essay, Dirlik discusses Eurocentrism as a modern historical phenomenon that has influenced many postmodern movements, including postcolonialism.]

Ours would seem to be another age of paradoxes. Localization accompanies globalization, cultural homogenization is challenged by insistence on cultural heterogeneity, denationalization is more than matched by ethnicization. Capitalism at its moment of victory over socialism finds itself wondering about different cultures of capitalism at odds with...

(The entire section is 12989 words.)

Louise Viljoen (essay date Winter 1996)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Postcolonialism and Recent Women's Writing in Afrikaans: South African Literature in Transition,” in World Literature Today, Vol. 70, No. 1, Winter, 1996, pp. 63-72.

[In the following essay, Viljoen theorizes that postcolonial literature produced by Afrikaans women has evolved to address issues of apartheid as well as those of class and gender.]


Although cynical words have been spoken about the current popularity and academic marketability of postcolonial theory, it cannot be denied that it has provided valuable new perspectives on the world's so-called marginal literatures. One's...

(The entire section is 8905 words.)

Gina Wisker (essay date 2000)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Caribbean Women's Writing,” in Post-Colonial African American Women's Writing: A Critical Introduction, St. Martin's, 2000, pp. 93-129.

[In the following essay, Wisker provides a brief history of Caribbean culture and writing, focusing on women's role and writing in the context of Caribbean culture.]

[T]here exists among the women of the Caribbean a need for a naming of experience and a need for communal support in that process. In the past silence has surrounded this experience.

(Sistren, 1986, p. xv)

We never saw ourselves in a...

(The entire section is 13102 words.)

Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Adam, Ian, and Helen Tiffin. Past the Last Post: Theorizing Post-Colonialism and Post-Modernism. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 1990, 214 p.

Collection of essays on postcolonial literary theory and several works of postcolonial literature.

Baker, Charles. William Faulkner's Postcolonial South. New York: Peter Lang, 2000, 156 p.

An analysis of postcolonial literature of the United States, focusing on the works of William Faulkner in particular.

Bennett, Donna. “English Canada's Postcolonial Complexities.” Essays on Canadian Writing 51-52 (Winter-Spring 1994): 164-210....

(The entire section is 281 words.)