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.