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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...

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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

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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)

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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 metropolitan definition is dislodged. The general mode for the postcolonial is citation, reinscription, rerouting the historical” (Outside 217). In a very fundamental sense, of course, “postcolonial” is that which has been preceded by colonization. The second edition of the American Heritage Dictionary defines it as “of, relating to, or being the time following the establishment of independence in a colony” (968). Even this minimally descriptive definition, to no one's surprise, is not empty of ideological content or the power to encapsulate and transfix a “thing” simply by naming it; it is no revelation that one can become a function of what one is called. Rather than contend with definition when it fails, postcolonial theorists are apt to multiply its connotative possibilities to suit their various needs. Despite problems and limitations in terminology, the description “postcolonial,” in a certain abstract sense, obtains and is used with relative impunity by scholars, publishers, journalists, and so on. While the definitional “postcolonial” might be considered a fairly bounded creature, the actual usages of the term make it a very Protean, indeed, often Procrustean sort of being, which allows us to yoke together, sometimes arbitrarily, a very diverse range of experiences, cultures, and problems (see McClintock). Thus is it used not merely to characterize that which succeeds the colonial, but also the chapter of history following the Second World War, whether or not such a period accommodates the still-colonized, the neo-colonized, or the always colonized. In their introduction to Orientalism and the Postcolonial Predicament, Carol Breckenridge and Peter van der Veer suggest that “‘Post’ implies that which is behind us and the past implies periodization. We can therefore speak of the postcolonial period as a framing device to characterize the second half of the twentieth century. The term ‘postcolonial’ displaces the focus on ‘postwar’ as a historical marker for the last fifty years” (1). Meanwhile, Gauri Viswanathan concedes that while “postcolonial” can be defined broadly “as a study of the cultural interaction between colonizing powers and the societies they colonized, and the traces that this interaction left on the literature, arts, and human sciences of both societies,” its more popular usage is “to signify more or less an attitude or position from which the decentering of Eurocentrism may ensue (“Issues”).” Viewed as an attitude or framing device, the “postcolonial” becomes a surprisingly elusive and slippery configuration. The denotative and usually fairly restricted aspects of the term co-exist with connotative features so diverse that we are now beginning to use the more diffuse and ubiquitous word “postcolonialisms” to indicate the spectrum/spectral range of its usages. The confusions inherent in these multiple deployments deserve study not only because the term offers interesting opportunities for specular deconstruction (which it does) but because terminology itself can lead to cognitive erasures, displacements, and suppressions. Further, the more liberal and ranging usages that generously encompass much of the nonwhite world regardless of local socio-political contexts and that divide history into manageable and isolated segments based on the experience of modern colonialism while at the same time arguing against the false homogenization of Orientalist projects, point us to certain lacunae in our explanations about the world when we use the term. These gaps, in turn, have consequences of material and ethical import.1

Perhaps part of the confusion, as Arif Dirlik observes, stems from the use of “postcolonial” both as a literal description of formerly colonial societies and as a description of global conditions after the period of colonialism or, as Dirlik goes on to explain, “as 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” (332). The multiplicity of meanings obliges us to confront two discomfiting propositions: not only that the map is not the territory but that it is possible, as Baudrillard reminds us, that the map no longer precedes the territory. In this sense, the notion of the “postcolonial” as a literary genre and an academic construct may have meaning(s) completely separate from historical moment(s). Dirlik, in fact, suggests that “one does not have to be post colonial in any strict sense of the term to share” in the themes common in much postcolonial discourse (336). Yet a foundationally historical construct cannot be freed from its connections or obligations to history, both past and present. Nor, I would insist, can we afford ethical blind spots in what certainly was meant to be an enterprise growing from a need for moral accountability.

To critique random and multiple usages is not to suggest that serious criticism does not acknowledge and contend with the above-mentioned dissonances and problems but to indicate that despite scholarly efforts to contain inconsistencies, there is little evidence in postcolonial discourse that it has made a concerted effort to examine its foundation in an essentialist and dichotomous binary, or to question the bases and conditions of its very existence, or to measure the gap between enlightened high theory and academically material practices such as hiring, curricular design, and pedagogical method, or to address the material conditions of those inhabiting “postcolonial” societies. Theoretical “advances” in understanding postcolonialism better—evident in the work of a whole range of critics, many of whom are used extensively in this essay and have prompted these reflections—tend to remain theoretical and removed from academic praxis, although their impact cannot be deferred for long. Interestingly, the academy at large has supported and encouraged, even eulogized, the field for various reasons and under circumstances that cannot be left unexplored. The net impact of not engaging in such an examination, even at the risk of being accused of cannibalizing the self in a performative gesture, might very well be the loss not only of integrity but of any genuine agency in and connection with the actual conditions of the world. If the field has been permitted to gain momentum—and we are assisting in this—let us reason why. If the field is outgrowing what might be considered its initial mandate, let us examine that mandate and how it is changing. If we are now beginning to concede that “the United States is not outside the postcolonial globe” (Spivak, Outside 217) and that the term might be “prematurely celebratory” (McClintock 87), let us consider the possibilities that: a) it can no longer be used in conventional ways if it is to be used responsibly; and b) based on implicit definitional grounds, the term itself may obscure a more complete understanding of the issues attached to it.2

The condition of “postcolonial” studies (if one may reduce it to the singular) might be described as “aporetic,” in Nicholas Rescher's terms, characterized by having to contend with a cluster of “otherwise congenial propositions” that are “mutually inconsistent” since they cannot all be right (21). We cannot claim exemption on the grounds that reason and logic are and have been used oppressively against certain segments of the world's population because our efforts to explain and examine the “postcolonial” are nothing if not rational projects. My concern, however, is not merely with logical but with ethical consistency, since our enterprise, like any other worth its salt, is value-driven. Currently in the field, definitional and terminological problems collude with a fundamental reliance on binary thinking even as the discipline argues vehemently against it, leading to both under-and over-determinative claims. The currency and respectability of the category “postcolonial,” despite the limitations repeatedly addressed in much “postcolonial” discourse, must be reconsidered at a time when the field is becoming rapidly entrenched in the academy as a discipline, and postcolonial theory begins to assume, incrementally, larger proportions.3 Theory, Spivak has taught us, “worlds” the world, and language is part of this worlding.

One might begin, then, with the word. We can attempt to flesh out the complexity of postcolonialism by hypertextualizing key terms in the dictionary definition—time, establishment, independence, colony—and by asking the following questions: How long does this “condition” last? Is every experience that follows from the colonial encounter susceptible to a characterization homogeneous enough to bear the label? (The latter, incidentally, is a crucial question for those studying the “texts” of the areas/spaces called postcolonial.) In a bid to situate it in more specific geo-political terms, postcolonialism recently has been justifiably accused by Anne McClintock of a “panoptic tendency to view the globe within generic abstractions voided of political nuance” (86). One might argue, however, that it can also be charged with a failure to locate itself within a more comprehensive historical framework that accounts for continuities along with ruptures. If postcolonialism were to locate itself in this way, a different set of questions would emerge. Within the larger conspectus of historical movements, one might then ask, given that the history of humankind is one of exploitation and colonization of various kinds, is not much of the inhabited world in some stage or the other of postcoloniality? All over the world, people identifying with nations or communities have participated in some kind of colonialist manoeuvre.4 History books describe the first settlements of colonists in the fifth millennium, while there is ample evidence of Hindu colonization of far eastern Asia as early as the second century Bc (see Mazumdar). It is customary but misleading to fix on colonization as a “Western” preserve, although the term itself may have its roots in Western language.

To suggest that colonization is not unique to modern times is not to deny the importance of European imperialism—its scale and scope, its extraordinarily organized character, its ideological and cultural licensing of racist dominion, or, most significantly (since the previous features may characterize other empires of the past as well), its longevity and survival into the present. Rather, these observations are registered to speculate on the possible impact of focusing only on modern colonialism as if it were a discrete phenomenon, instead of one in a series of colonialist moves, as if the most recent move was the only one visible, as if this selective focus would allow us to explain satisfactorily contemporary situations.5 An examination of pre-modern colonial activities, in fact, may give us a more complex understanding of structures of power and domination and may illuminate the operations of older histories in the context of both modern colonialism and contemporary global relations. Singular focus on dualistic characterizations of the Western colonizer and Eastern colonized, although more tidy as a configuration, effectively erases realities that lie, even if partially, outside the experience of modern colonization. One might include among them “native” breeds of colonization and oppression—a feature of “Third World” nations that feminists, in particular, have been quick to identify. To attribute a complex variety of problems to one teleological source is not only logically impaired but, more importantly, it is less useful. In recovering ancient history and placing it alongside the present, one is not asking for a reduction of disparate geo-political experiences to one generic framework of human motivation and behaviour stripped of historical and material contexts, but rather for a sensitivity to the relationships between them in order to better understand both in ways that relate to the here and now. Notwithstanding that human memory may be short, and the list of immediate concerns long, how do those early experiences, one might then wonder, inform later historical phenomena such as religious fundamentalism and the present-day discourse of colonialism/postcolonialism? The questions raised here seem unnatural because the phrase “establishment of independence,” provided in the definitional, exerts a kind of field force, often obliging us to operate within a paradigm that compels us to date our examination from the development of the modernist discourse of nationhood, thus blunting our ability to see the history that precedes or succeeds it.

Admittedly, it is difficult to escape a conception of postcoloniality as integrally tied to European imperialism. As the term is defined and used at the moment, it discourages us from transcending the temporal in two ways: in the first place, it prevents an understanding of colonialism outside the modern period, and in the second place, the “post” in “postcolonial” is in fact a temporal fiction, as several others before me have suggested. To return to a related issue raised earlier but deferred, let us explore the constraints of the definitional. The phrase “establishment of independence,” employed in the American Heritage Dictionary and implicit in our general understanding of post-coloniality, is a description so embedded in the ideology of nationalism and nation-making that it leaves on the gesture of independence the unmistakable, and perhaps forever indelible, trace of the imperial nation—a product, theorists argue, of decidedly European manufacture resulting from the industrial and capitalist movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.6 Such a view occludes the possibility that “the idea of a nation is to be found as far back as the ancient world, although it is not clear that there was then what we understand as nation today,” thus preventing us from conceiving of pre- or non-European “nations” as colonizers (Kellas 22). Further, it obscures the temporaneity of “nation” as construct,7 and the prevalence of dual, even multiple loyalties based on ethnicity, language, and other factors.8 As a matter of fact, the characterization of “postcolonial” reliant on this vehemently national sense obscures both the unnational character of many independence struggles in their early stages and the dangers that lurk in an insistence on national identity in the face of heterogeneous micro-nationalist and sectarian groups thrust into one national space. Thus not only can the European wave of colonialism be accused of suppressing local cultures in finding them “peoples” but leaving them a “nation,” but that postcolonial status, dependent on nationhood for definition and recognition, itself implies rejection of the people's pre-national past and the proliferation of atavistic manifestations of these local cultures in the present. Narrower communal identities (Kikuyu in Kenya, Ibo in Nigeria, Sikhs in India, to name but a few) challenge the idea of nation based on citizenship and passports. As Benedict Anderson's poignant phrase, “imagined communities,” suggests, and as James Kellas argues in The Politics of Nationalism and Ethnicity, there may be no true communities larger than face-to-face village groups (15). Critics such as Homi Bhabha alert us to the fact that “despite the certainty with which historians speak of the ‘origins’ of nation as a sign of the ‘modernity’ of society, the cultural temporality of the nation inscribes a much more transitional social reality” (“Introduction” 1). Narratives of glorious nationalism, moreover, completely gloss over the fact that independent nations emerged not only because of heroic struggles but also because the empire was becoming an increasingly expensive proposition. Furthermore, while on the one hand the nation is seen as a European construct, on the other, the erasure of the European ancestry of nationalism and the current explosion of discourse on “nationalism” in the context of Third World ethnic insurgence eliminates consideration of the fact that “the two greatest wars of the twentieth century, engulfing as they did virtually every part of the globe, were brought about by Europe's failure to manage its own ethnic nationalisms” (Chatterjee 4). Having furnished the formula for their existence, colonial scripts continue to inscribe the experiences of turbulent “postcolonial” states in vocabulary designed to match what can only be described as a neo-orientalist narrative—a symptom, Partha Chatterjee would say, of the persistent anxiety of the script-writers. The connection between the globalization of the world economy and the rise of local nationalisms is further obscured in master narratives of the nation.9

Postcolonial discourse has addressed some of these issues better than others. It has been successful in shifting attention “from national origin to subject-position” in its relentless assaults on the narratives of the nation (Dirlik 335). I would like, however, to suggest that these critiques usually are centred on the modernist ideology of nationhood rather than on pre-colonial or contemporary manifestations of nationalisms, which ought to be equally significant in any discussion of the crises of the moment. Transnationality and hybridity figure prominently in postcolonial discourse, but they tend to describe more the condition of postcolonial theorists in metropolitan locations than that of those in the Third World who are facing, with material consequences, the persistence of nationalist ideology that is informed both by colonial and atavistic notions of identity. In this sense, one might argue that attention to the colonial moment and an aftermath defined by it continues to characterize the moiety of postcolonial discourse that, to be fair, often acknowledges disarmingly its address to the West.

I have tried to argue that it may be misleading and, worse, unhelpful to think of “postcolonial” issues as only those marked by European imperialism; nor is it always useful to conceive of the “postcolonial” as an adequate descriptor for the diverse experiences of the many nations/cultures thus described. Nor, alas, as Spivak, among others, has observed, is the present moment in these nations “post” the colonial in any genuine, or even cursory, sense, as covert mercantile neo-colonialism, potent successor to modern colonialism, continues its virtually unchallenged march across the face of the earth, ensuring that the wretched will remain so, colluding in, as they did before, but now also embracing, the process of economic and cultural annexation, this time well disguised under the name of modernization (Spivak, “Neocolonialism” 221). The continuing and, in fact, increasing economic and cultural dependence of these nations in the new world order makes a mockery of the assumption that, by a certain political rubric, independent status has been achieved (this may be debated even on political grounds as we witness the “puppetry” of ersatz independent rulers) on the basis of a signed document. So, too, as discussed above, do the growing tribalism and communal sectarianism in the many trouble spots around the world mock the very idea of the nation. That the economic and ideological characteristics of neo-colonialism make it rather a different brand of phenomenon than old-style colonialism is cause for more, rather than less, concern, since the enemy is now less visible and appears in the benevolent trimmings of “progress.”10 Anne McClintock objects that “metaphorically, the term ‘post-colonialism’ marks history as a series of stages along an epochal road from the ‘pre-colonial,’ to the ‘colonial,’ to the ‘post-colonial’—an unbidden, if disavowed, commitment to linear time and the idea of ‘development’” (85). Notwithstanding its other limitations, however, “postcolonial” criticism is committed entirely to a repudiation of both Reason and Progress, the twin ideological mainstays of colonialism; effectively, as Bhabha asserts, “postcolonial time questions the teleological traditions of past and present, and the polarized historicist sensibility of the archaic and the modern” (“DissemiNation” 304). Yet none of the elements of the “objective” definition provided by the American Heritage Dictionary avails in light of these disturbing observations, nor does the “definition” account for the realities of internal colonization or the role multinationals play in conquering and “annexing” international “territories” and “markets.” It is tempting to concede that abstract shorthand definitions are useful as points of departure or we would discourse ourselves into stasis before we even began, but the point of departure ultimately may determine not only where we might go but also how far. Analysis of this variety, one is aware, may not only be a vertiginous task but has the potential to paralyze—one might be tempted to dismiss semantic quibbling and academic versions of digging holes only to fill them again and to settle for the satisfaction that a rose by another name would smell the same and a proboscis by the name of a nose would still smell a rose—but let us indulge this genre of analysis for a moment and suggest that, bearing both the seeming indulgence and dangerous potential for total stasis in mind, one might say a little discomfiture is not entirely out of place at a time when the term has gained acceptance and currency in the academy with altogether too-suspicious ease.

However unsatisfactory the definitional and literal might be for the purposes of postcolonial discourse, they have continued to influence, for the most part, the content of what can and cannot be included within the “postcolonial” frame. In much usage that relies on static definitions, the terms “colonial” and “postcolonial” both occlude all but a certain variety of exploitation dating from the marauding and appropriative enterprises of European mercantile expansion; this is because the definitional leads us to a nationalistic conception of colonial enterprise and nation-making, which we have learned, historically is located in European movements. Colonialism, thus, is “modern” colonialism,11 a totalizing term used for the last wave of imperial expansion.12 Moreover, combining temporal selectivity with what might be seen as conceptual and moral binaries, the term almost exclusively connotes the oppression of indigenous peoples by European invaders, usually without acknowledgment of the following: opposition within the mother country to owning colonies (see Nadel and Curtis 3); refinement of the proposition that the European civilization was uniformly imperially racist;13 recognition of the violence wrought by colonialism on and by both colonizer and colonized;14 acknowledgment of possible benefits resulting from the encounter; investigation into the very different role played by “memsahib” women in colonial situations and the challenge posed by their textual productions to a purely masculinist vision of imperialism; admission of native complicity15 and internal modes of colonization;16 serious challenges to romanticized views of the colonized;17 consideration of the implication in the colonial project of pre-European societal and production models in the colonial project; or discussion of “precolonial” colonialism. At the same time, the term “postcolonial” customarily is used to apply to a recent phenomenon that has now passed (which is why it is “post”), to a time that usually indicates British and French departure from Africa, India, the Caribbean, etc., during the last 100 years. Of course, the term can be and is used in reference to the United States and other settler colonies as well, often to the annoyance of those who see these as colonizing nations in their own right. One might note that critiques of such appropriation of “postcolonial” status can only be levied under the comfortable umbrella of the essential binarism that characterizes much postcolonial discourse: critics in Western metropolitan universities can thus pretend that they are outside the economic and political structures of the countries in which they reside, while those in more “legitimate” postcolonial locales can ignore internal modes of colonialism in their own countries, or relegate them to a “different” system of exploitation, or even position them on a continuum with and as a result of European occupation.

The split between colonizer/colonized, vehemently and repeatedly rejected by many postcolonial critics, already problematizes the conventional divisory formulations that characterize our discipline. Nevertheless, this stale split continues to be the basis of postcolonial studies and to characterize many responses to postcolonial writers who venture to critique their native culture and challenge, thus violating, the static principle of “colonizer bad—colonized good.” V. S. Naipaul's refusal to romanticize colonized peoples and exalt their values on this principle, for instance, has been very ill received by many postcolonial critics. While it may be useful to criticize his failure to depict the ongoing depredations of neo-colonial mercantile manoeuvres as he touts the importance of responsibility in the developing world, far too little attention has been paid to the fact that decolonization generally has failed. Moreover, there has been no development of a genuinely decolonized discourse that might resonate at a more fundamentally material, even economic, level. Thus, for instance, while one may read the recent Forbes magazine article entitled “Now We Are Our Own Masters” as a classic example of India's capitulation to capitalist multinational neo-colonial overtures—symptomatized in particular by the launching, by “Dosa King,” of a traditionally Indian item under the fast-food model, announced in an accompanying banner by a figure bearing an uncanny resemblance to Abe Lincoln(!)—the same issue might also fruitfully be investigated in a general frame of collective responsibility and historical understanding.

It is now necessary to ask, but what is the “diabolical” MNC (multinational corporation, often synonymous with American MNC) replacing, and how effective were earlier economic models? Who, apart from the faceless MNC, celebrates the demise of the small producer—individual farmers and farm labour (many of them women and children), indigenous and small industry—implicit in this new model, and why? The sobering fact that “for 95% of the population of underdeveloped countries, independence brings no immediate change” and very little thereafter, and the reality of persistent class-based discrepancies tell us not only about the nature of multinational capitalism (now assuming a faceless, originless, denational aspect) but also about those who embrace it (Fanon 75). In a divisive discourse of “Us and Them,” the former is not an issue that can be engaged usefully since it would implicate “Us” in the undeniable plight of the people. These questions, for the most part, are addressed selectively in fiery speeches by Third World Opposition leaders, and very rarely in ethical debates.18 To continue to hold the “colonizer” responsible for superior moral behaviour without engaging the question of one's own ethical complicity is to deny one's own agency and to admit to powerlessness—the latter will guarantee that no efforts to change the situation will occur. The dualism apart, this traffic in victimage can have serious consequences for any legitimate efforts to produce a discourse free from colonial reminiscing or, more importantly, to develop an indigenous economic and political model that is able to address local concerns. Most egregiously, moreover, the failure to move beyond perpetrator/victim models seriously belittles the efforts of those who are resisting effectively transnational capitalism and maldevelopment projects in the Third World.19

Any developing hegemony of a postcolonial method that relies on the colonizer/colonized dichotomy should give us pause, particularly if it casts the “postcolonial” as passive victim and encourages a culture of blame and self-pity—the celebration of self as victim is really to victimize the self anew—at a time when it may be a great deal more useful to examine more carefully one's own practices. The ease with which European imperialism gained hold in the colonies certainly was due to its superior resources, but it was also a function of the willingness of subjects to be colonized. The question here is not whether native complicity makes colonialism more or less right or wrong, but what does it mean for us today? Until this unpalatable question is examined, it may not be possible to recognize the ways in which previous subjects of the empire are now willing to be neo-colonized. In this context, the “neo-colonized” might benefit from the reminder that the “multinational” is not only “them” but also “us.” This observation is rendered more poignant if we consider that virulent critiques of MNCs come not only from erstwhile colonies such as India but often are generated by “postcolonial” critics resident in the putative home countries of MNCs and fully implicated in their economies (see Spivak, “Transnationality”). The metalepsis involved in anchoring the present moment (usually redolent in this context with suggestions of crises) to a selective past and suturing seamlessly the history of the present with the experience of colonial imperialism will only ensure that no genuine understanding of either will ever ensue.

In the academy and the associated publishing industry the term “postcolonial,” hyphenated or not, has been used largely to describe the literatures of former colonies, although increasingly this restriction does not apply. The cognate terms “Commonwealth” and “Third World” have all but disappeared as prefixes from the body of literature now largely designated “postcolonial,” succumbing, on occasion, to the appellation, “new literature in English”: the “new” differentiates the writing from “old and established,” while the Anglophonic character of the term gives it continuity and position with the old and established. Needless to say, non-English literatures produced in these parts are either still subsumed under the category “postcolonial” or designated by national origin or ethnic markers. “Postcolonial,” then, would seem to be the term du jour. In the interim, let us also note the rise and fall and resurgence of “minority,” “resistance,” and “multicultural” literature, all of them betraying significant overlaps with the term “postcolonial.” Salman Rushdie's objections to “Commonwealth” and Aijaz Ahmad's to “Third World” as descriptive categories are being registered here to suggest the flavour of criticism against these terms and to salvage relevant materials for a fuller discussion of the deployment of the term “postcolonial.” In his 1983 essay “Commonwealth Literature Does Not Exist,” Rushdie, after confessing that the seductive environment provided by conferences and cultural forums on “commonwealth literature” might lead one to imagine such a subject actually exists, roundly berates the “new and badly made umbrella” under which disparate non-British literatures are forced to huddle without any regard for their differences. Rushdie concludes that non-Western literature is being ghettoized, contained, and relegated to the margins, in what might even be considered a racially segregationist move. Such naming, he argues, necessarily leads to the literature being read in nationalist terms, often exclusively so, and to a resurgence of exoticism in the guise of authenticity. Moreover, at the same time that the term erases the differences between the various “new” literatures, it confines similarity to the experience of occupation by a foreign nation. Nevertheless, you could call this chimeric creature into existence, he warns, “if you set up enough faculties, if you write enough books and appoint enough research students” (70). “Amen,” we might say, as we observe the rapid development in the area of postcolonial studies.

In his rejoinder to Fredric Jameson's much-publicized 1986 essay, “Third World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capital,” which contends that inclusive heterogeneity should be the principle in organizing educational curricula in the West, and that an aesthetics of Third World literature must rest upon its being read as national allegory on the strength of this world being defined by its experience of colonialism and imperialism, Ahmad's remarks often are uncannily reminiscent of Rushdie's objections to the category “Commonwealth.” Ahmad bemoans the “suppression of the multiplicity of significant differences among and within both the advanced capitalist countries on the one hand and the imperialized formations on the other” (285), an objection registered against all such terms that deploy simplistic binary bifurcations between colonizer/colonized by a diverse array of critics including Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Sara Suleri, Diana Brydon, Homi Bhabha, Abdul JanMohamed, and Kumkum Sangari. Ahmad goes on to reject coherent theories that achieve their tenuous unity through obfuscatory and specious generalities. Ahmad's critique of the Three-Worlds theory in general and of Jameson in particular is a complex one and not particularly receptive to hasty paraphrase; suffice it to say that Ahmad alerts us to the limitations of theoretically unified categories and exhorts us to fix our eyes on the need for “greater clarity about the theoretical methods and political purposes of our reading” rather than on the need for more coherent narratives of textual production in this or that part of the world (285).

The use of the categories “Commonwealth” and “Third World” appears to be waning, although it is necessary to note a reconsideration of the utility of the term “Third World” by some critics.20 The growing currency within the academy of the term “postcolonial” (hyphenated in early usages and some recent ones) was consolidated by the appearance in 1989 of The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures by Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin. The compound word, which first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1959, is used to indicate, as does the unhyphenated word in the American Heritage Dictionary, a period that follows colonization. In the introduction to their book, Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin use the term “postcolonial” to “cover all the cultures affected by the imperial process from the moment of colonization to the present day” (2). They suggest this term is to be preferred over others “because it points a way towards a possible study of the effects of colonialism in and between writing in english [sic] and writing in indigenous languages … as well as writing in other language diasporas” (24). The term “Commonwealth” is rejected because it rests “purely on the fact of a shared history and the resulting political grouping,” while “Third World Literature” is seen as pejorative; “New Literatures in English” is considered Eurocentric and condescending towards the new in comparison with the old, even if it de-emphasizes the colonial past, a desirable feature for some (23). The term “Terranglia” is mentioned without comment, but it would seem to carry territorial and proprietary connotations, not to mention Anglocentric ones.21 Welcoming the term “postcolonial,” Vijay Mishra and Bob Hodge advocate its use on the grounds that it “foregrounds a politics of opposition and struggle, and problematizes the key relationship between centre and periphery” (399). They also laud its challenge to the canon. Having said this, however, they call into question the catechrestic reduction by Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin of postcoloniality to no more than textuality, and the further diminution of textual gestures to either/or categories: the appropriation or abrogation of English. The exclusivist focus on English, and the insistence on reading culturally syncretic texts without attention to their culture-specific details, are also criticized as features of a post- or neo-orientalist version of critical exercise. Plus ça change, in other words, plus c'est la même chose. It is useful to recall here Ahmad's caveat against unified theories that simply dismiss as inessential those parts that do not fit their schematic plan. In the matrix provided by Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin, the relegation of non-Western textual productions to a realm not so much peripheral as invisible—because, barring some translations, they are unavailable to the majority of Western scholars—is an astute strategy if one is going about the business of attempting a coherent theory, but the very presence of these productions poses the most potent threat to any theory from which they are absent. Ultimately, it is not simply that theory is gray, as Goethe puts it, but that if it does not work in practice, it does not work in theory. Mishra and Hodge suggest that we might talk about not one but several postcolonialisms. The dropping of the hyphen would permit us to recognize one version of postcolonialism as implicit in colonial discourse, thus emphasizing continuity rather than rupture. They also exhort a greater distinction between settler and non-settler countries and a celebration of many small narratives of postcolonialisms, themselves configurations susceptible to change. Their careful consideration of the ramifications of terminological and definitional usage is a heartening effort to disrupt what is often a totalizing tendency in the paradiscourses of postcolonialism.

In more recent years, “postcolonial” has been deployed as an apposite adjective for “theory,” “space,” and “condition,” a distinction not commonly accorded to “Commonwealth” or “Minority” discourse; it has also spawned other impressive neologisms: “postcoloniality” and “postcolonialism.” Its evolution from its humble beginnings as a descriptor for literature into the status of theoretical apparatus and a disciplinary entity is a transmutation not unworthy of note. I will argue that among the many reasons for this are some that raise questions about our own complicity, the dubious stakes and standards of the academy itself, and the imbrication of both in our willingness to maintain a discourse system that is diffuse at times and conflicted at its worst.

The growth in the size and stature of postcolonial studies—its validation, in fact, as a disciplinary subject—is coeval with the growing interest in multiculturalism, itself a somewhat diffuse and embattled project. The claim to the label of “postcoloniality” by, or its conferral on, a horde of “multicultural others” recently has become more common. More on this later. The changing ethnic and racial demographics of Anglo-America (already evident for some years in the United Kingdom); the increasing numbers and influence of immigrant South Asians in general and in the academy in particular (postcolonial theories certainly have been furthered more by this group than any other); the development and reception of programs devoted to the study of other ethnic groups, chief among them African Americans, as well as associated political and economic gains;22 and the increasing availability of texts in English by non-Western authors who are often resident in the West—all these are factors that have contributed to the development of postcolonial studies as a discipline. The concomitant growth of women's studies and the impetus to conceive of global feminisms also should be acknowledged as related and influential, as should the mounting theory in support of representation and identity affirmation. The twin bogies of essentialism and authenticity conjured by the latter have been under much discussion as unstable, performative, and often counter-productive, but a certain strategic essentialism, a “generalizing” of the self to engage a question of some importance while knowing that “one is not just one thing” is accepted by most postcolonial critics as a necessary stage in the developing discourse (Spivak, Postcolonial 60). The tenuous relationship of this position, however qualified and mediated, with other related movements of our times bears examination.

Perhaps one of the most significant reasons for the exponential expansion of postcolonial discourse is the host climate generated by the development of postmodern theory and the postmodern critic's suspicion of an objective historical consciousness (Ashcroft et al. 162). Ahmad suggests that the influence on Western thinkers of the colonial encounter and the disintegration of the empire produced an examination of their “place in the world” and much of the mistrust of the text as a hermetic construct; an incidental result of this, Ahmad contends, was that “[l]iterature was pressed to disclose the strategic complicities whereby it had traditionally represented races—and genders—and empires” (58). The postmodern method that ensued allowed a reopening of closed and demarcated territories. Sara Suleri's disarticulation of the Third World woman and denaturalization of the category of woman, the claim, indeed, that “[t]here are no women in the Third World,” is a gesture very much in keeping with postmodern disavowal of essentialist productions of meaning (20), as is Chandra Talpade Mohanty's rejection of Western feminism's treatment of women as an “already constituted, coherent group” and of Third World woman as stereotypical victim, which results in the “suppression—often violent—of the heterogeneity of the subject(s) in question” (333).

It would be entirely appropriate to contend that postcolonial discourse has profited enormously from “the politics of post-structuralism [which] forces the recognition that all knowledge may be variously contaminated” (Young 11). Arif Dirlik has gone so far as to say that “crucial premises of postcolonial criticism, such as the repudiation of post-Englightenment metanarratives, were enunciated first in post-structuralist thinking and the various postmodernisms it has informed” (336). Postcolonialism's truck with postmodernism, however, demonstrates a strategic mobilization of some of its principles and a conscious abjuration of others. Drawing upon Linda Hutcheon's notion of intertextual parody in postmodernist discourse, Stephen Slemon argues that “a ‘parodic’ repetition of imperial ‘textuality’” that “sets itself specifically in opposition to the interpellative power of colonialism” is the “key beginning point” of postcolonial criticism (7). But, according to Slemon, “an interested post-colonial critical practice” differs from postmodernist criticism in that it would want to allow for “the positive production of oppositional truth-claims.” In his words, this

referential assumption would appear to make … a post-colonial criticism radically fractured and contradictory, for such a criticism would draw on post-structuralism's suspension of the referent in order to read the social “text” of colonialist power and at the same time would reinstall the referent in the service of colonized and post-colonial societies.


Much of the postcolonial critique of postmodernism, in fact, quarrels with its denial of subjectivity, a luxury not available to cultures still contending for some modicum of expression. Moreover, as Kumkum Sangari puts it, “the postmodern preoccupation with the crisis of meaning is not everyone's crisis,” nor is postmodern skepticism conducive to culturally grounded modes of de-essentialization; worse yet, it “denies to all the truth of or the desire of totalizing narratives” (243). Nevertheless, metropolitan postcolonial theory is replete with poststructuralist methods and the writings of Foucault, Derrida, and Deleuze and Guattari because deconstruction allows for the critique of what Spivak refers to as “founded political programs” (Outside 121). The serviceability of poststructuralism for postcolonial criticism aside, the connection between the two, one might speculate, is partly responsible for the latter's status in the academy, a completely indigenous “postcolonial” discourse being either considered or rendered an impossibility for various reasons: the lingering influence of colonial texts in Third World curricula and universities, the continuing need for legitimation of the marginal by the central, and the persistent disregard for any productions that might be de-linked from the metropole or Western modular constructs of postcoloniality.23

The preceding discussion details one symptomatic instance of two interrelated problems: first, that postcolonial discourse betrays its inability to free itself from the colonial in the same way that the postcolonial nation is unavoidably, and often counter-productively, tethered to its founding “parent”; second, while an incipient discourse may be permitted some conceptual licence and flexibility in using conflicting models, sooner or later, the failure to theorize its own contradictions may limit considerably its potential for useful discussion.24

In light of the comment above, I ask the reader to observe that also significant in the march of “postcoloniality” through Western universities is the mobilization of the term “postcolonial” in the service of displacing, and perhaps erasing, various other unmentionables. A range of critics have articulated their uneasiness about this misuse of the term and the field. Ella Shohat comments on the relief evidenced in a multicultural international studies committee, of which she was a member at CUNY, at the sight of the term “postcolonial” in place of such threatening terms as “imperialism” and “neocolonialism.” It has thus become a “safer bet,” yet another word to name the margin and a way of managing and containing what might be too explosive and incendiary by another name; as Spivak explains, “when a cultural identity is thrust upon one because the center wants an identifiable margin, claims for marginality assure validation from the center” (Outside 55). This validation works as a surprisingly efficient clamp on the subversive potential of a marginal movement. Gauri Viswanathan suggests that

the co-optation of certain literature can in some ways diffuse the oppositional nature of the literature. Another negative might be the recent spate of positions in postcolonial literature in the academy in the absence of discussion about what the term means—this could be a way of neutralizing this other presence by including it. A bigger danger—when one speaks about postcolonial literature, one has to be very clear about what it means—is that the term becomes a kind of replacement for other literatures, like Asian [or] African American, without really dealing with the political challenges imposed by the other constituencies or other literatures.

The suppression of these literatures and the recruitment of metropolitan imports from the elite ranks of erstwhile colonies—intrinsically sanctioned and approved by their British education—in the name of affirmative hiring should be matters of greater concern than they seem to be. The hiring and promotion of these individuals in “postcolonial studies” as alibis for real social change circumvent the need to acknowledge the marginalization and exploitation that continues unheeded while the aca demy produces “highly commodified distinguished professors” such as Spivak and racks up points on the score-card of cultural diversity. The erasure of considerations of class or the realities of the disenfranchisement of native Americans or second- and third-generation African Americans and Asian Americans are masked by academic gestures of acceptance of the visible difference presented by displaced Third World postcolonials.

Lest these characterizations of the reception of “postcoloniality” in the academy seem to smack of paranoia and sinister conspiracy, let us also acknowledge what might be more benevolent, if no less questionable, reasons for its acceptance. Julia V. Emberley suggests that

[p]ostcolonial is neither another stage in the developmental logic of colonial history nor part of an evolutionary model signalling the demise of the historical effects of colonialism. Postcolonialism is a contemporary configuration which implies a new direction in the analysis of ideological relations which constitute the ‘First World's’ symbolic debt to the so-called ‘Third World.’


In this context, one might say that “postcolonialism” has flowered under the pressure on the West to be understood and forgiven, thus assuaging, at least symbolically, real or imagined guilt provoked by such texts as Said's Orientalism and embraced within the framework of evolutionary and moral progress. Emberley reminds us that the readership for this work, which “circulates as a consuming virus, feeding off ills perpetuated by the epistemic violence … of imperialism in an effort to heal the dislocation and alienation that has ruptured the ties between a ‘homeland’ and academic privilege,” is primarily, if not exclusively, North American and British (5).

Effectively, then, we are faced with a market for postcolonial wares in this part of the world; I do not use the economic term lightly, for herein might lie another clue to its ambiguous but deceptively welcome usage.25 I mentioned earlier the partially shared origins of “postcolonial” and “multicultural” studies. While it is true that the American education system is now servicing an increasingly diverse student body, the promotion of these fields in an era of globalization must also be acknowledged and reported. The role of the “multicultural” text in this economy is not only ostensibly to instil tolerance and acceptance for diversity but also, one might speculate, to develop a student body mobilized for a global economy, the latter being a role entirely commensurate with a multinationalist corporate perspective (see, for example, Connelly, and also “Shifting Demographics Make Diversity Training Boom”). Success in both areas is yet to be proven or demonstrated; in fact, these texts, while they may legitimately provoke interest in “marginal” cultures for some students, have the potential to further reinforce stereotypical attitudes and may function as rationalizations for a lack of genuine investigation into other cultures. Spivak would argue that “liberal multiculturalism is interested, basically, in bottom line national origin validation” (“Transnationality”); this, in turn, conceivably could have the highly deleterious effect of fostering rather than erasing divisions. It would be pointless to repeat here the argument fleshed out in Arif Dirlik's “The Postcolonial Aura: Third World Criticism in the Age of Global Capitalism,” explaining the currency of the postcolonial in an age of late capitalism, characterized by simultaneous globalization and fragmentation, except to add that it would be misleading, however, to conflate the “postcolonial” with the “multicultural.” The “postcolonial,” as it turns out, can be used as a sanitized “multicultural” text that is located outside the immediate frame of reference and therefore poses a limited threat, if any, while still meeting the requirements of cultural diversity. In coming months it will be interesting to take stock of the respective losses and gains on the multicultural and postcolonial “sides.” With the advent of the “angry white male”—a construct that conceals similar anger among many non-white groups—on the scene of the culture wars in Anglo-America, one might speculate that the more abstract and less politically grounded metropolitan postcolonial discourse is more likely to survive if one believes, as Dirlik does, that “postcoloniality … is appealing because it disguises the power relations that shape a seemingly shapeless world and contributes to a conceptualization of that world that both consolidates and subverts possibilities of resistance” (356).

Meanwhile, in programmatic terms, the selection and teaching of both multicultural and postcolonial texts are also areas of some concern. The issue, on the one hand, is one of representation; on the other, it is one of a particular type of representation. The contract is a fairly simple one: a) minoritized subjects are encouraged to represent themselves and their communities, in art, literature, etc., and; b) their productions are to be accepted and disseminated, usually by “multiculturals” and primarily through educational institutions, in a spirit of learning, tolerance, and respect. Neither is inherently damaging. The problem is that such subjects are to speak as minorities; they are to represent their communities and the victimization suffered by them in individual voices; and their texts are to be used, often solo, to “inform” students. The burden on such subjects is great indeed. Moreover, regardless of their own socio-economic status, they are to assume the persona of victim in proxy for the truly silenced others who do not have access to the means for cultural production. So great is the confusion that ensues from such assumptions that hapless students who read Bharati Mukherjee's Jasmine as a realistic novel ask if the author is an illegal immigrant who is a fugitive under the law for murdering her rapist and wonder how she has escaped the immigration authorities thus far. While the students make these naive correlations between author and character, fiction and reality, one might ask what the academy is about when it encourages students to learn about the world, often exclusively, from token fictional texts. The odd anthologized short story by Amy Tan or Mukherjee's paperback novel, we are to assume, will educate our students in other cultures. The assumption being made is that fiction can do the job that history, geography, economics, sociology, etc., are supposed to. None of this suggests that students cannot learn from literary genres, but that this sort of emphasis on representative and proxy status is not demanded from or imposed on texts in the more traditional canon. Meanwhile, while it is not necessary to read the novel as only novel, a poem only as poem, it is certainly important to also read it as a novel, a poem, and so on. One might then read it for its aesthetic as well as “socially responsible” messages and use it to raise questions that should be central to the multiculturalist project, among them representation and the benevolent tokenization that replaces previous erasure.26 I would ask that the basic assumption that there is a need for representation of previous unknowns be prefaced by or attached to an explanation of why there is a need, who demands this of us, to whom are we representing, and why is it that some representations are okay and some are not. Here I will spare readers a tedious catalogue of reviews in the popular press that claim such texts will make Americans “better acquainted” with the various Others represented within (see, for example, Johnson). The danger is that the external Other thus produced is always subject to the observer's deadening gaze: “In framing more and more images of the hitherto under-represented other, contemporary culture finds a way to name and thus to arrest and fix the image of the other” (Phelan 2). To collude in such a project without reflection is to wish for paternalism and infantilization—the problem is that one may get exactly what one wishes for.

Another pedagogic issue, this time a curricular one, pertains to the selection of materials for such courses: the choice of metropolitan texts that capitalize on the status of postcoloniality and neglect other candidates (postcolonial as a label is too often used for the “highbrow” migrant, the successful professional) or of “national” texts that will match the composite profile necessary to maintain the self/other model. On the one hand, one can only welcome the inclusion of “newer” literature, even if only in English; on the other, it might be prudent to remember that: a) often a precondition for inclusion into the postcolonial curricula is accessibility in the colonizer's language; thus any text picked is “marked” by the colonial encounter, even if only by language; b) it is careless to describe and include texts written in English as representatively “postcolonial” at the expense of rich and perhaps more telling tales in the vernacular, which may or may not deal with “colonialism” as such; and c) what may be selected for “translation” into the metropolitan academy might be chosen for similarly limited considerations. If the purpose of postcolonial studies professedly and explicitly were to study the impact of European colonization on certain cultures, most of the preceding observations would be superfluous; but, in the first place, this field has ranged beyond such parameters—including, for instance, the consideration of ancient texts such as Ramayana and Mahabharata, albeit often in the context of their technologized transmission in contemporary India. Moreover, it is purposefully blind to read experience in terms of selective stimuli and causes and impossible to study the present without all of the past that precedes it.

Of perhaps even greater concern is the fact that such texts have been introduced into the curriculum on the basis of a forged link—that of a colonial past—which certainly may be a starting point, but there is little effort in the classroom to then examine and problematize that link. Such an approach precludes “a serious study of the specific histories of these other societies: all postcolonial societies, be they of India, Africa, or the Caribbean, are assumed to have a parallel history” (Viswanathan). While difference thus can be reduced to sameness, however, any commonalities with dominant cultural texts can be ignored in favour of difference by ghettoizing these texts and segregating them in their enclosed space. Both would appear to be deficient reading strategies. The opposite of reading only in terms of difference is not necessarily reading in terms of homogenization; good reading should always be about noting the particular—problems arise only when difference is produced as a totalizing framework. The quest for “sameness,” in fact, might offer surprisingly rich yields. For instance, Gauri Viswanathan recommends as a strategy the advancement of a “postcolonial” method of reading that might productively be employed in the reading of canonical texts: “to really try out something like a postcolonial reading of canonical texts so that what appear to be exclusive concerns to the postcolonial situation—fundamentalism, sectarianism etc.—could be read in relation to nineteenth-century novels—Barnaby Rudge for instance.” This could make us

rethink the problems of the Third World, and to consider that these difficulties have become part of an international, global history. … Postcolonialism as a method of reading would be a healthy way to counterbalance the ahistorical functions that postcolonial literatures have acquired over the past years.

Viswanathan's “Tao” of postcolonialism is a useful response to an already-growing trend within the field to subsume other “minority” experiences or to analogize them, although its adoption alone does not obviate the messiness of terminology itself, or absolve us of the need to reconceptualize the bases of our discipline.

In seeking to explore the ambiguities and dissonances that plague “postcoloniality,” I have succeeded only at producing a further list of problems and suggesting that the “postcolonial” turns out to be both in excess of and less than “postcolonial.” The irritable quibbling with definition and usage, theory and practice, that I have asked the reader to endure has been written in the hope that acknowledgment of discrepancies in these areas might prompt a reconsideration of our slippery uses of the term “postcolonial,” in theoretic, pedagogic, and material terms—a project already initiated by critics such as Spivak, McClintock, and Shohat, among others.

The many issues and questions raised here might be seen as springboards for reflection, as well as a useful reminder: if circumstances are complex, let us not be tempted to simplify them for a facile coherence. One might force closure (even deconstruction allows us this academic luxury) to this discussion with the rhetorical and postmodern gesture of placing “postcolonial” under erasure and by concluding that when a postcolonial looks in the mirror s/he sees the ultimate postmodern construct without referent, but it might be more productive to investigate the systematicity of this discursively produced category and to be alert to the incipient formation of another, “global studies,” within the larger framework of what remain abiding but still useful, and certainly responsible, questions: What is the impact, in popular and populist as well as material terms, of generating academic formations that rely on static binaries? How can we teach our students the contradictions and conflicts inherent in our curricular programs? How can we discuss marginalization—certainly it exists—without reducing these experiences in managed and misleading categories? How can we prevent discussions of oppression and colonization from absolving individuals and groups of responsibility? Can we acknowledge that academic “speaking for” minoritized subjects may not only often be a criminal usurpation but an effective smoke screen that diverts attention from more pertinent issues? That we are complicitous in the same exploitative modes of production we are so privileged as to be able to academically criticize? That a certain sort of academic “postcolonial” has prospered by assuming, catachrestically, the identity of “postcolonials,” disenfranchised lower-class immigrants and those in our countries of origin who will never be able to escape their material conditions? That ultimately our concerns with terminology and theory may be but need not be idle indulgences if we are able to acknowledge and accommodate the materiality of the world in which they arise? If this list is as tedious as some others I have used, it is to give due credit to the enormity and complexity of the tasks that await us. It is too early to be satisfied with the condition of postcolonial studies and too late to dismiss its impact.


  1. I am grateful to Mary Vasudeva for stimulating comments and conversation during the planning stages of this essay and many valuable suggestions while it was being written. A revised and collaborative version of this paper appears in our collection of interviews, “Between the Lines: South Asians on Postcolonial Identity and Culture,” forthcoming from Temple UP. Thanks are also due to Joseph Petraglia-Bahri. Without his careful and sensitive reading of several drafts and many useful suggestions, this essay would have been completed in half the time.

  2. Consider, in “Notes on the Post-Colonial,” Ella Shohat's injunctions for using the term:

    the concept of the “post-colonial” must be interrogated and contextualized historically, geographically, and culturally. My argument is not necessarily that one conceptual frame is “wrong” and the other is “right,” but that each frame illuminates only partial aspects of systemic modes of domination, of overlapping collective identities, and of contemporary global relations.


  3. See Spivak in “Neocolonialism and the Secret Agent of Knowledge”: “I find the word postcolonialism totally bogus” (224). In “Notes on the Post-Colonial,” Ella Shohat calls for a systematic interrogation of the term because of its susceptibility “to a blurring of perspectives” (110). See also Graham Huggan's “Postcolonialism and its Discontents.”

  4. I follow John Tomlinson in defining “colonializing” as “the invasion of an indigenous culture by a foreign one” (23). Tomlinson addresses this issue in some depth in his introduction to Cultural Imperialism.

  5. For a fuller discussion of the “radically different” nature of modern European imperialism in comparison to earlier forms of overseas domination, see Edward Said's “Yeats and Decolonization.”

  6. Though not Marxist, Ernest Gellner, in Nations and Nationalism, proposed economic reasons for the rise of nationalism, that is, the development of industrialist society that took place in certain parts of Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and in the twentieth century in other parts of the world. Particular forms of polity and culture, he suggests, are necessary for industrial economic growth, thus illustrating the nexus between nationalism and industrialization. With industrialization, old states had to change cultural life and social structure to maximize advantages and profits. Gellner does not believe that it happened because European thinkers invented it, but since it was appropriate to the needs of the time. In Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Benedict Anderson explores the psychic and economic dimensions of nationalism. He cites print-capitalism as the principal material condition that spreads the idea of nation and the ideology of nationalism, not only within one nation, but throughout the world. Printing standardizes language and aids the development of capitalism and the centralized state. Scientific discoveries and exploration of the world also contribute to this process. Anderson also explores the emotional appeal of nationalism contained in the belief of some sort of perpetuity through membership of a continuing nation.

  7. “A nation,” wrote Rabindranath Tagore, “in the sense of the political and economic union of a people is that aspect which a whole population assumes when organized for a mechanical purpose” (19).

  8. A 1986 survey in Scotland, for instance, found that 53 per cent of the people questioned expressed a degree of dual nationality (Kellas 19). The proliferation of terms such as Asian-American, African-American, etc., in the United States, and factionalist moves in many other parts of the world indicate the crisis of the national construct.

  9. Vandana Shiva suggests that, in the Indian context, “fundamentalists fail to relate the current erosion of freedom and autonomy to the Indian state's subservience to global capitalism” (“Masculinization” 110).

  10. Chamberlain suggests that while the colonizers needed to keep the colonies reasonably prosperous for economic and moral reasons, “multinational companies have no such automatic check upon their operations. In some areas, at least, it would seem that neo-colonialism has proved worse than colonialism” (77).

  11. The distinction between “ancient” and “modern” is seldom noted in use of the term “colonialism.”

  12. “Last” would be seen by many postcolonial critics as a debatable adjective in the context of ongoing and new colonialisms in many parts of the world.

  13. O. Mannoni suggests in Prospero and Caliban: The Psychology of Colonization that “European civilization and its best representatives are not, for instance, responsible for colonial racialism; that is the work of petty officials, small traders, and colonials who have toiled much without great success” (24).

  14. Ashis Nandy argues in The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self under Colonialism that colonization emphasized dehumanization of people, institutionalized violence, and social Darwinism both in India and in England; it created a false sense of homogeneity in Britain, which froze any quest for social change; it reinforced Britain's view of itself as benevolent Christian entity, and finally, it reinforced the misguided belief in its omnipotence.

  15. “Imperialism after all is a cooperative venture. Both the master and the slave participate in it” (Said 74).

  16. As Gayatri Spivak explains in “Transnationality and Multiculturalist Ideology,”

    in the context of Calcuttan middle class or upper-middle class backgrounds, I've heard young Calcuttan women, anthropologists, talking about how, as advantaged people, they should “relate” to, let's say, for example, the women in the tea gardens. And I asked the particular young woman the question, how do you deal with servants in your house in Calcutta? Why doesn't that question arise? What is the construction, constitution, political feelings, history, relationship to the female servants in our households? I think that's the most important question, autobiographical if you like, we can ask ourselves. … You see what I'm saying—that's a post-colonial topic. Simple, but completely undealt with.

  17. The failure of Indian and Pakistani critics to theorize the embarrassing events of the Partition, for instance, might be cited as a symptom of such blindness.

  18. See Mies's and Shiva's Ecofeminism for a serious discussion on the ethical and ecological impact of MNC-dominated economics.

  19. See, for instance, the catalog of peasant, tribal, and other resistance movements in Claude Alvares's Science, Development, and Violence: The Revolt against Modernity or discussion of powerful grass-roots ecofeminism in Vandana Shiva's Staying Alive: Women, Ecology, and Survival in India.

  20. Ella Shohat, for instance, suggests that “the term ‘Third World’ does still retain heuristic value as a convenient label for the imperialized formations, including those within the First World” (111). Others have commented on its power when used subversively by those usually described by it.

  21. As Helen Tiffin notes in “Commonwealth Literature: Comparison and Judgement,” the term “connotes an English proprietorship over land and would make all post-colonial Commonwealth nations a little uncomfortable” (23).

  22. See Ahmad for an extensive discussion on the conditions in which Third World literature as a field has been shaped, and on the role of black studies in its inception and development.

  23. As Spivak remarks, “the work that is being done on Indian linguistic theory, Indian ethical theory, that stuff is not given any acknowledgement because that is being done in the bosom of Sanskrit departments” (“Neocolonialism” 237).

  24. Of course, it can be quickly, and accurately, noted that this essay is prone to many of the limitations it seeks to identify.

  25. I am indebted to Spivak for pointing out this connection in an interview in November 1994 and for thus stimulating the ensuing reflections. Arif Dirlik's essay, “The Postcolonial Aura: Third World Criticism in the Age of Global Capitalism,” which I encountered as I was revising this essay, has also seemed to me an interesting engagement, however debatable, with the useful question, “Why is now the Postcolonial moment?” It is a question that Mary Vasudeva and I posed to several interviewees for our collection, and one that Spivak, in turn, asked us.

  26. The question of aesthetics is a good bit more complex than my off-hand remark would suggest. In the interest of containing this already-unwieldy essay, I will defer further discussion.

Works Cited

Ahmad, Aijaz. In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures. London: Verso, 1992.

Alvares, Claude. Science, Development, and Violence: The Revolt against Modernity. Delhi: Oxford UP, 1992.

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 1983.

Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures. London: Routledge, 1989.

Bahri, Deepika, and Mary Vasudeva, eds. “Between the Lines: South Asians on Postcolonial Identity and Culture.” Forthcoming from Temple UP.

Bhabha, Homi. “DissemiNation: Time, Narrative, and the Margins of the Modern Nation.” Nation and Narration. Ed. Homi K. Bhabha. London: Routledge, 1990. 291-322.

———. “Introduction: Narrating the Nation.” Nation and Narration. Ed. Homi K. Bhabha. London: Routledge, 1990. 1-7.

Breckenridge, Carol A., and Peter van der Veer. “Orientalism and the Postcolonial Predicament.” Orientalism and the Postcolonial Predicament: Perspectives on South Asia. Ed. Carol A. Breckenridge and Peter van der Veer. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1993. 1-19.

Chamberlain, M. E. Decolonization: The Fall of the European Empires. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985.

Chatterjee, Partha. The Nation and its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial aHistories. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1993.

Connelly, Mary. “Ford Wants Work Force to Represent all its Publics.” Automotive News 13 March 1995: 1.

Dirlik, Arif. “The Postcolonial Aura: Third World Criticism in the Age of Global Capitalism.” Critical Inquiry 20 (Winter 1994): 328-56.

Emberley, Julia V. Thresholds of Difference: Feminist Critique, Native Women's Writings. Postcolonial Theory. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1993.

Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Trans. Constance Farrington. New York: Grove, 1963.

Fuhrman, Peter, and Michael Shuman. “Now We Are Our Own Masters.” Forbes 23 (Mar. 1994): 128-38.

Gellner, Ernest. Nations and Nationalism. Oxford: Blackwell, 1983.

Huggan, Graham. “Postcolonialism and its Discontents.” Transition: An International Review 62 (1993): 130-35.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. New York: Routledge, 1988.

Johnson, Diane. “A Sari Predicament.” Rev. of Wife, by Bharati Mukherjee. The Washington Post 18 May 1975: 3.

Kellas, James. The Politics of Nationalism and Ethnicity. New York: St. Martin's, 1991.

Mannoni, O. Prospero and Caliban: The Psychology of Colonization. Trans. Pamela Powesland. 2nd ed. New York: Praeger, 1964.

Mazumdar, R. C. Hindu Colonies in the Far East. 2nd ed. Calcutta: Firma K. L. Mukhopadhyay, 1963.

McClintock, Anne. “The Angel of Progress: Pitfalls of the Term ‘Post-Colonialism.’” Social Text 10.2-3 (1992): 84-98.

Mies, Maria, and Vandana Shiva. Ecofeminism. Halifax, Nova Scotia: Firewood, 1993.

Mishra, Vijay, and Bob Hodge. “What is Post(-)colonialism?” Textual Practice 5 (1991): 399-414.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses.” Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism. Ed. Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Ann Russo, and Lourdes Torres. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991. 51-80.

Nadel, George H., and Perry Curtis, eds. Imperialism and Colonialism. New York: Macmillan, 1964.

Nandy, Ashis. The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self under Colonialism. New Delhi: Oxford UP, 1983.

Phelan, Peggy. Unmarked: The Politics of Performance. London: Routledge, 1993.

Rescher, Nicholas. The Strife of Systems: An Essay on the Grounds and Implications of Philosophical Diversity. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1985.

Rushdie, Salman. “Commonwealth Literature Does Not Exist.” 1983. Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism, 1981-1991. New York: Penguin, 1991. 61-70.

Said, Edward. “Yeats and Decolonization.” Nationalism, Colonialism and Literature. By Terry Eagleton, Fredric Jameson, and Edward W. Said. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1990. 69-95.

Sangari, Kumkum. “The Politics of the Possible.” The Nature and Context of Minority Discourse. Ed. Abdul R. JanMohamed and David Lloyd. New York: Oxford UP, 1990. 216-45.

“Shifting Demographics Make Diversity Training Boom.” Morning Edition. Natl. Public Radio. Program no. 1548. 22 Feb. 1995.

Shiva, Vandana. “Masculinization of the Motherland.” Mies and Shiva. 108-15.

———. Staying Alive: Women, Ecology, and Survival in India. New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1988.

Shohat, Ella. “Notes on the Post-Colonial.” Social Text 31/32 (1992): 99-113.

Slemon, Stephen. “Modernism's Last Post.” ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature 20 (1989): 3-17.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Neocolonialism and the Secret Agent of Knowledge.” Interview with Robert Young. Oxford Literary Review (1991): 220-51.

———. Outside in the Teaching Machine. New York: Routledge, 1993.

———. The Post-colonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues. Ed. Sarah Harasym. New York: Routledge, 1990.

———. “Transnationality and Multiculturalist Ideology.” Interview with Bahri and Vasudeva.

Suleri, Sara. Meatless Days. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989.

Tagore, Rabindranath. Nationalism. New York: Macmillan, 1917.

Tiffin, Helen. “Commonwealth Literature: Comparison and Judgement.” The History and Historiography of Commonwealth Literature. Ed. Dieter Riemenschneider. Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag, 1983. 19-35.

Tomlinson, John. Cultural Imperialism: A Critical Introduction. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1991.

Viswanathan, Gauri. “Issues in Postcolonial Studies.” Interview with Bahri and Vasudeva.

Young, Robert. White Mythologies: Writing History and the West. London: Routledge, 1990.

Shaobo Xie (essay date 1997)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5123

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 which have been victims of imperialism, to achieve an identity uncontaminated by universalist or Eurocentric concepts and images.”1 However, critics like Linda Hutcheon, Gayatri Spivak, and Homi Bhabha are unmistakably skeptical of the possibility of an “uncontaminated” or “indigenous” postcolonial theory. Hutcheon argues that “the entire post-colonial project usually posits precisely the impossibility of that identity ever being ‘uncontaminated,’”2 for postcolonialism designates a subversive discourse within the dominant Eurocentric culture rather than outside it. Spivak advocates the catachrestic strategy of “reversing, displacing, and seizing the apparatus of value-coding”3 instead of constructing indigenous theories by ignoring the last few centuries of historical involvement.4 Differing from other postcolonial critics, Bhabha shifts focus from the colonized/colonizer confrontation to a third space beyond the binary structure. In relaunching Derridean différance on postcolonial terrain, he provides a narrative scheme for analyzing the hitherto neglected grey, ambiguous space of culture, renaming the colonial subject and colonial discourse in terms of the in-between, and more importantly, turning the indeterminacy of colonial discourse into an agency of counterhegemonic resistance.5

While these critics, despite their divergences, all agree to use the term “postcolonial” for designating the subaltern consciousness and praxis, critics such as Ella Shohat, Anne McClintock, and Arif Dirlik fault the term for glossing over contemporary global power relations. McClintock objects to the term “postcolonial” for its premature celebration of the pastness of colonialism,6 and to her, part of the reason for the curious ubiquity of the term is its academic marketability, for it sounds more palatable to the authorities of universities than “third-world studies,” or “studies in neo-colonialism” (AP 93). In Dirlik's estimate, postcolonialism is a progeny of postmodernism, and postcolonial critics' most original contributions consist in their rephrasing of older problems of Third-Worldism in the language of poststructuralism, but they have deliberately avoided examining the relationship between postcolonialism and global capitalism. While giving postcolonial critics full credit for engaging “in valid criticism of past forms of ideological hegemony,” Dirlik takes them to task for their complicity in covering up “contemporary problems of social, political, and cultural domination.”7 Shohat takes issue with the term “post-colonial” for its implication that “colonialism is now a matter of the past,” which inadvertently conceals the fact that global hegemony persists in forms other than overt colonial rule.8 In her rigorous interrogation of postcolonialism both as a term and as an emergent discourse, Shohat addresses the problems of its origin, contradictions, and political failures. From her point of view, the term “postcolonial” fails to address the issue of contemporary power relations; it lacks a political content which can account for U.S. imperialism in the eighties and nineties (NP 105). Despite differences and contradictions among and within Third-World countries, Shohat prefers the term “Third World,” for it contains a common project of allied resistances to neocolonialisms, “usefully evoking structural commonalities of struggles among diverse peoples” (NP 111). In her assessment, the term “postcolonial” would be more precise if it were “articulated as a ‘post-First/Third Worlds theory’ or ‘post-anti-colonial critique,’ as a movement beyond a relatively binaristic fixed and stable mapping of power relations between ‘colonized/colonizer’ and ‘center/periphery’” (NP 107-8).

These critics reject the term “postcolonial” primarily for its dismaying implication of “after the demise of colonialism.” Their objections to the concept of postcoloniality arise from the recognition of the increasing presence of neocolonialism. To these critics, it is a logical impossibility to assign postcolonialism and neocolonialism to the same temporality. But, ironically, their arguments contain a boomeranging consequence that will ultimately undermine their own positions, for they fail to see that neocolonialism, as I will demonstrate, is the condition of possibility of postcolonialism, which can be articulated as a neo-Gramscian counterdiscourse in the age of hegemonic imperialism. Postcolonial criticism, as Gyan Prakash points out, “force[s] a radical rethinking and re-formulation of forms of knowledge and social identities authored and authorized by colonialism and western domination.”9 In this sense, the postcolonial “exists as an aftermath, an after—after being worked over by colonialism” (PC 8). Emerging in a world embedded in colonial forms of knowledge, the postcolonial designates a moment within colonialism and beyond it. Postcoloniality points to a world that has done with what Abdul JanMohamed terms the “dominant phase of colonialism” and yet is caught up in what he calls the “hegemonic phase of colonialism.”10 It is the historical need to deconstruct residues of older colonialism and withstand neocolonialism that, I will argue, gives rise to postcolonialism, which shifts the battlefield from the political and military onto the cultural terrain. In response to those objections to the legitimacy of postcolonialism, I will also argue that postcolonialism designates an anxiety to move beyond Eurocentric ideology, beyond colonialist binary structures of self/Other, and ultimately beyond any form of racism. The postcolonial shares some of postmodernism's fundamental assumptions, but it is misleading to reduce postcolonialism to a mere function of postmodernism. If the contemporary neocolonialist hegemony is, as JanMohamed succinctly points out, based on the active direct consent of the dominated, then it is also arguable that the neocolonized are guilty of complicity in consolidating neocolonialism. Therefore, the postcolonial counterhegemonic project urges the postcolonial intellectuals of neocolonized countries to interrogate and dismantle thoroughly imperialist forms of knowledge ingrained in their own political and cultural unconscious as well as inscribed in Western representations of the non-Western.

As Prakash notes, postcolonial discourse benefits tremendously from Derrida's and Foucault's deconstructive readings of Western thought, which provide “a powerful critique of the rule of modernity that the colonies experienced in a peculiar form” (PC 10). This is true and partly explains why critics like Dirlik share the assumption that postcolonialism is a progeny of postmodernism. But, despite postcolonialism's indebtedness to postmodernism, it is dangerous to regard postcolonialism as a mere figure of postmodernism. For this position represents a general tendency to turn postcolonialism into a West-centered discourse against West-centered universalism and rationalism. True, postcolonialism owes much of its sophisticated conceptual language to postmodernism, but it emerges as a distinct discourse with a set of problematics different from those of postmodernism. Postcolonialism is first of all a counterdiscourse of the formerly colonized Others against the cultural hegemony of the modern West with all its imperial structures of feeling and knowledge, whereas postmodernism is primarily a counterdiscourse against modernism that emerges within modernism itself. Postmodernism, while rigorously challenging the fundamental assumptions of Truth, Order, sign, and subjectivity institutionalized since Plato and sublimated by modernism, tends to universalize its own problematics. Postcolonialism historicizes postmodern thematics, deploying postmodern arguments in the service of decentering world history as well as vindicating and asserting the identities of the formerly colonized. Therefore, to identify postcolonialism as a function of postmodernism is to cancel the difference between postcolonialism and postmodernism, to universalize the problematics of postmodernism, and ultimately to ignore the uneven development of history. As Kumkum Sangari points out, “the postmodern preoccupation with the crisis of meaning is not everyone's crisis” and different peoples have different “modes of de-essentialization.”11 There are “a wide variety of subjects today” including the postcolonial or postcolonized that “do not fit the postmodern categories.”12 It is urgent to reconstruct subjectivity for a postcolonial cultural politics in a historical situation in which both subjects and objects have been dissolved. It is also pertinent to ask how to recuperate and respect postcolonial subject positions in the formerly colonized and semicolonized spaces. In order to undo the colonial contamination, those marginalized Others need to have “distinct political agendas and a theory of agency,” which postmodernism threatens to cancel (CD 168). In this sense, postcolonialism signifies an attempt by the formerly colonized to reevaluate, rediscover, and reconstruct their own cultures. It is also an act of rethinking the history of the world against the inadequacy of the terms and conceptual frames invented by the West.

The term “postcolonial” began to be used to replace “Third World” in the 1980s, but it is not justifiable to reverse this trend. For the term “postcolonial” has been used to supersede “Third World” at a time of crisis for the three-world theory. The replacement of “Third World” by “postcolonial” seems to be justified not only by the fact that there is “no such thing as Third World [culture] as an internally coherent object of theoretical knowledge,”13 but also by a radical reconfiguration of global power relations and the need for a radically different narrativization of history. There is no doubt that the use of “Third World” recalls the anticolonialist decades when the colonized, “gun in hand,” struggled with the colonizers for freedom.14 After the term “Third World” was used for the first time at the 1955 Bandung Conference, it quickly gained international currency in both academic and political realms, and particularly in reference to anticolonial nationalist movements of the fifties through the seventies. However, the Third-World nationalist struggle as such no longer provides an effective framework for analyzing the confrontation between the colonized and the colonizer of the eighties and nineties. Anticolonialism was primarily a nationalist movement for political and economic independence. Since the heyday of anticolonialism, nation-states have emerged in former colonized spaces, and “the imperial structure has been dismantled in political terms.”15 But, as many critics have pointed out, “formal independence for colonized countries has rarely meant the end of the First World's hegemony” (NP 104); rather, Westerners, after their withdrawal from these countries, “continued to rule [there] morally and intellectually.”16 In other words, these formerly colonized countries are confronting neocolonialist invasions. Neocolonialism emerges as a regeneration of colonialism through hegemonizing Western economy, technology, and ideology. With its economic and technological superiority, Western culture is penetrating the Third World or precapitalist spaces with its “entire system of values, attitudes, morality, institutions, and more important, mode of production” (EM 62). If European colonialists have destroyed the native mode of production in these precapitalist areas, disrupting their native social relations of production with capitalist social relations and values, then neocolonialist invasions are likewise creating new, unforeseen sociopolitical chaos and unrest there. This fact well accounts for the general sense of disillusionment in nationalism in those countries.

Furthermore, there is no longer a “Second World” because of the disintegration of the socialist bloc of Eastern Europe. If the Western capital and technology are colonizing the world on a global scale, then the colonized should include the former Second World as well. Actually, because of the increasing influx of immigrants into the Western countries and the invasion of multinational capital into the former Third-World countries, we can now simultaneously witness the local Third-Worlding of the First World and the local First-Worlding of the Third World. Indeed, global power relations have recently undergone fundamental changes: namely, the disintegration of the former Soviet Union as a political and military superpower; the rise of Japan as an economic superpower; the emergence of the four tigers of East and Southeast Asia; the economic invasion of the previous Third-World countries and areas in the form of multinational capital from the U.S., Japan, and Western Europe.

This is the moment of neocolonialism, which is the cultural logic of multinational capital. As Fredric Jameson points out, multinational capitalism, characterized by the International Monetary Fund in development and the Green Revolution in agriculture, designates a neocolonialism which “transforms its relationship to its colonies from an old-fashioned imperialist control to market penetration, destroying the older village communities and creating a whole new wage-labor pool and lumpenproletariat.”17 Jameson's “neocolonialism” finds a different name in JanMohamed's “hegemonic phase of colonialism,” which begins at the end of what he calls the “dominant phase” of colonialism. “Throughout the dominant phase,” JanMohamed remarks, “which spans the period from the earliest European conquest to the moment at which a colony is granted ‘independence,’ European colonizers exercise direct and continuous bureaucratic control and military coercion of the natives” (EM 61). In contrast, imperialism in its hegemonic phase depends largely on the “active and direct ‘consent’ of the dominated, though, of course, the threat of military coercion is always in the background” (EM 62). If JanMohamed's theory of the two phases of imperialism holds true historically, then subaltern resistance to hegemonic imperialism must be different from resistance to dominant imperialism. Without question the former Third-World nationalist political agenda no longer obtains when newly emergent nation-states are being subjugated with their own consent, and it is in this sense that we cannot replace “postcolonial” again with “Third World.” Moreover, to the same extent to which late capitalism has invented more sophisticated strategies of containment to repress oppositional culture, neocolonialism in the form of economic and technological revolution possesses unprecedented capacity to conquer the precapitalist space more easily and thoroughly. Never before has Western imperialism been so successful in infiltrating and consolidating European-American master narratives of history; never before has the majority of Western society been so unanimously bound together by the structure of feeling that, to borrow terms from Said, “we are number one, we are bound to lead, we stand for freedom and order, and so on” (CI xvii); and never before have the non-Western countries been so awe-stricken by the sense of the Western world's superiority in technology and economy. Hegemonic neocolonialism is reproducing Eurocentric ideology both through multinational capital and through the complicity of the non-Western in their uncritical acceptance of Western culture.

Perhaps this neocolonialism can be best seen through the lens of the Chinese 1980s and 1990s. Since the beginning of the eighties, multinational capital and postmodernist culture have made significant headway into the forbidden combined space of the Asiatic mode of production and communist ideology. The economic structure and cultural production in China are increasingly commodified; the Green Revolution is taking place, and new ideas and social relations are reaching into the farthest rural areas. American dollars, televisions, refrigerators, and video machines enter rural as well as urban households. With fresh memories of material poverty and political sufferings in the past, people are vying with one another for oblivious immersion in the immediate present of hedonistic materialism—the Chinese version of what Jameson calls reversed millenarianism. At the same time, postmodernism finds lugubrious expression in popular culture: saturating the market of mass culture are Rock-n-Roll, Karaoke, gongfu movies or videotapes, mysteries and best-sellers, and various forms of pastiche, parasitical on previous and Western cultures. For a few years, terms of cybernetics, structuralism, Freudianism, Nietzsche, psychoanalysis, and deconstruction almost became the signs of intellectual marketability. The recent disengagement from the traditional ideology and the crisis in traditional values prompts people to accept blindly “Western” ideas and values without second thought, as if everything Western were superior. All this neocolonialist penetration of China cannot be properly grasped except in historical context. This is the second time the Chinese have experienced a general crisis of national identity in the twentieth century.

China became part of Western power relations in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Since then the issue of modernization has kept coming back to every responsible Chinese intellectual. With a complex feeling of fear of and admiration for the Western Other, the Chinese started to learn from their Western masters with a view to appropriating Western cultural, technological, and ideological forms. The May Fourth intellectuals, following their predecessors like Tan Citong and Sun Yat-sen, became the most radical vanguards against feudalism; they relentlessly critiqued their traditional culture, believing that a thorough revolution in culture was necessary in order to modernize China to equal Western powers. To this generation of intellectuals, Europe was the exemplar of modern civilization, and “to be modern,” to borrow terms from Albert Hourani, “was to have a political and social life similar to those of the countries of western Europe.”18 Such Eurocentric anxieties for modernization are best reflected in the attempted wholesale repudiation of Confucianism and in the belief in Western science and democracy (Sai and De) as the surest way to a rejuvenated and reconstructed China that would someday rank among the great powers of the world. That was a time of utopian creativity, a time of anxieties and enthusiasm for revolution, but also a time of naivete and confusion, a time of unthinkingly making causal connections between historical events and aspects of social life. Despite their divergent political ideals and strategies, those earlier progressive Chinese intellectuals all had for their ultimate goal national independence and prosperity against the threat of Western powers. But, ironically, most of them uncritically subscribed to Eurocentric historicism and Western ideas of modernity. Such premature celebration of Western modernity finds a distant but unmistakable echo in the eighties, the time of the “River Elegy Phenomenon.” Su Xiaokan, the author of River Elegy, and his modernist or modernizationist colleagues, declare, in the disturbing historical narrative River Elegy, that the Yellow Civilization (the Asiatic mode of production) has been defeated and must be superseded by the Blue or Oceanic Civilization (the Western industrial revolution). This is not the voice of a few individuals, but a collective manifesto of modernization. The River Elegy phenomenon shows the world how decidedly Chinese intellectuals today remain imprisoned in Eurocentric ideology and the Western master narrative of history. To the River Elegy authors as well as their May Fourth predecessors, the world has only one history, one version of modernity.

My point is not merely that the Western master narrative of modernity retains its grip on the world, but also that non-Western peoples including the Chinese, to a large extent, remain ideologically and culturally colonized without political and military coercion by imperialists. Nationalist struggles seem to have failed to redeem the natives from imperialist clutches; the passage of the last few centuries has not shattered the Eurocentric historicism that was initially established in the Enlightenment and consolidated by Europe's technological and military superiority through the nineteenth century. As Dipesh Chakrabarty in-sightfully points out, the Western world today “remains the sovereign, theoretical subject of all histories” including those of Third-World countries.19 It is such formidably sustained dominance of Eurocentric historicism that compels Chakrabarty to pose the pungent question: “The everyday paradox of third-world social science is that we find these theories, in spite of their inherent ignorance of ‘us,’ eminently useful in understanding our societies. What allowed the modern European sages to develop such clairvoyance with regard to societies of which they were empirically ignorant? Why cannot we, once again, return the gaze?” (PA 3). There is an obvious self-critical tone in these remarks, which urge us to address the problem of non-Western peoples' complicity in the propagation of neocolonialist values and ideas. In a 1985 panel discussion on the intellectual in the postcolonial world, Conor Cruise O'Brien and Edward Said complained about their African and Middle East colleagues' passivity and indifference to counterhegemonic struggle. O'Brien says that in the African countries he has visited, his academic colleagues seem to show no interest in interrogating colonial residues and neocolonialism.20 Said recalls that, while visiting a national university in one of the Persian Gulf states in 1985, he was “flabbergasted” to discover that English literature courses were rigorously orthodox, and that young Arabs in Arab universities were dutifully reading Milton, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Austen, and Dickens as if there were no connection between English and the colonial processes that brought the language and its literature to the Arab world (CI 305). All this indicates that many Third-World intellectuals do not seem to be willing to return the gaze, and that they do not appear to be concerned with transcending or going beyond coloniality. It also indicates that orientals' occidentalism contributes to Eurocentrism as much as Westerners' orientalism.

This is the historical context for the emergence of postcolonialism with its counterhegemonic task. Its purpose is to critique and dismantle Eurocentric forms of knowledge and structures of feeling located on both sides of the neocolonialist divide. It can be articulated as the agency of counterhegemonic resistance where older forms of anticolonialism have failed. For postcolonialism represents an urgent need and determination to dismantle imperial structures in the realm of culture. The postcolonial does not signify the demise or pastness of coloniality; rather, it points to a colonial past that remains to be interrogated and critiqued. It admits an indebtedness to the past and a responsibility to the future; it intends to clear the ground of older colonialism in order to resist neocolonialism. It is more formal and symbolic yet more thorough and subversive in addressing colonialism than anticolonialism has been. Cultural forms, as Said says, “were immensely important in the formation of imperial attitudes, references, and experiences” (CI xii), and it takes a much more arduous and protracted project to investigate and undo the imperial structures underpinning cultural productions. For colonialism has been an inherent, enabling part of Western civilization, and many Western masters of thought and many masterpieces of literature have been guilty of being instrumental to colonialism and racism. As Richard Waswo points out, European colonialism owes its very origin to the Aeneid, a work that has been recited throughout history to justify Western maneuvers to displace or destroy primitive and savage populations in the name of civilization, which has always been believed to come from the West.21 Over the last few centuries, “the racist taxonomy of humankind came to play a major role in the ways in which Europeans came to view the world.”22 It is no exaggeration to say that the emergence of modernity in Europe has been the emergence of colonialism and imperialism. For example, the Manichaean distinction between whites and blacks disconcertingly informs the works of such representatives of Enlightenment as Voltaire and Kant; imperialism has been dedicatedly acclaimed and sublimated by such influential intellectuals as Carlyle, Ruskin, and Mill; global expansions of the imperialist venture have met with euphoric celebrations and justifications in literary works of such widely read writers as Jane Austen, Dickens, Kipling, and Conrad. The most dismaying irony is that all these writers have been and are still enthusiastically studied as canonical figures in the disciplines of philosophy, history, and literature in non-Western as well as Western countries.

If the history of the world has been a colonialist process of the dissemination of Western civilization, and if the non-Western world is still ruled by the Western world morally and intellectually, then postcolonial discourse has to assume the form of a neo-Gramscian Long March in the realm of culture. This is not merely because culture has always been a field of anticolonial struggle, but more importantly, in the age of hegemonic imperialism, culture has become the privileged and even the only field of counterhegemonic struggle. What Richard Terdiman writes about the contestation of hegemony in a different context will shed light on the point I am trying to make here, although he is primarily concerned with the discourse and counterdiscourse in Europe. The social control exercised by the dominant class, Terdiman declares in Discourse/Counter-Discourse, has passed from the stage of rule to that of hegemony (Gramsci), or from repressive to ideological apparatuses (Althusser).23 Accordingly, the discourse of contestation nowadays has become more formal or symbolic. What Terdiman writes about the cultural counterhegemony in the nineteenth century is pertinent to the present discussion: “The blockage of energy directed to structural change of the social formation is an important condition of possibility for the textual revolution in which the intelligentsia reinvested some of the dynamism of that sociohistorical revolution which never occurred” (DC 80). The “textual revolution” as defined by Terdiman can be taken to prefigure the postcolonial cultural revolution as well. Just as the blocked energy directed toward social transformation in nineteenth-century Europe gave rise to a textual revolution, so the neocolonial hegemony emerging upon the fall of older colonialism calls postcolonial counterhegemony into being. The postcolonialist “textual revolution” is not yet a full-fledged discourse; it is still in its incipient phase. It cannot hope to stop multinational capital from invading former Third-World countries, nor is it able to stop the United States' political and military as well as economic interventions in Latin America and the Persian Gulf, but it can go a long way toward dismantling the Eurocentric ideology underpinning the past and contemporary work of culture.

The postcolonial textual revolution urges a relentless interrogating of the underside of Western culture, undertaking to investigate Eurocentric imperialist forms of knowledge and perceptions on both sides of the imperialist divide. On the one hand, the postcolonial critic should rigorously critique the unabashedly Eurocentric views of the non-Western world featured in the texts of Conrad, Kipling, Graham Greene, and Robert Stone, and the ideas about colonial expansion and inferior races embraced by writers such as Carlyle, Ruskin, Austen, Dickens, and Thackeray. On the other hand, the postcolonial critic must expose and dismantle the Eurocentric ideas ingrained in the minds of indigenous peoples. “The post- in postcolonial,” to quote Kwame Anthony Appiah, “is the post- of space-clearing gesture.”24 To clear the cultural space of the world after it has been worked over by colonialism is to move beyond Eurocentric historicism, beyond imperialist polarities of self/Other, center/periphery, metropolis/country, and modern/traditional. In this sense, postcolonialism is the exemplary counterhegemonic discourse at a time when imperialism and colonialism are displaced from their earlier, crude political and military coercion to cultural and economic hegemony. In a world burdened by a few centuries of coloniality, it is impossible to construct identities and forms of knowledge uncontaminated by universalist or Eurocentric concepts and images, but it is possible and necessary to take up a third space of revision, as Homi Bhabha says, to dwell in a “beyond” that is neither the indigenous past nor the colonized present. Bhabha argues in his recent book, The Location of Culture, that “Being in the ‘beyond,’ then, is to inhabit an intervening space, as any dictionary will tell you. But to dwell ‘in the beyond’ is also … to be part of a revisionary time, a return to the present to redescribe our cultural contemporaneity; to reinscribe our human, historic commonality; to touch the future on its hither side” (LC 7). Given the past few centuries of modernity and colonialism, it is out of the question to think and write outside the dominant discourse. The system of modernity with all its ideological trappings has penetrated every space of the world's culture. Thus it may be argued that Bhabha's conception of a revisionary “beyond” provides an effective alternative to the ubiquitous reality of Eurocentric modernity. What happens at the point of contact between the colonizer and the colonized is the emergence of the Third Space of enunciation, the hybrid, ambivalent, in-between space of signification. Just as Derrida adds a third term, the temporal dimension, to the Saussurean sign, so Bhabha constructs a third space, an interstitial locus of meaning, between the indigenous and the European, the colonizer and the colonized. This newly emergent cultural space proves subversive to both the Western and the indigenous, allowing neither of them cultural and discursive continuity. The hegemonic discourse of modernity tends to subjugate all its subjects to its historicist syntax of narrative, molding their consciousness, structuring their feelings and sensory data accordingly. However, the subject of cultural revision, postcolonial and counterhegemonic in nature, threatens to subvert the hierarchical syntax of modernity. For the postcolonial subject to dwell in the colonizing space of modernity is to be positioned on the boundary of modernity, at once within and outside the syntax of hegemonic culture. Bhabha's theory of postcolonial counterhegemony with its revisionary strategy opens up new spaces of reinscription and negotiation not only for resistance to present forms of imperialism, but for struggle against future forms of imperialism as well. Indeed, the world has witnessed many racisms and ethnocentrisms other than Eurocentric racism, although this has been the most dominant. If the history of the world is a rich documentation of empires and imperialisms, if ethnocentrism is a closet monster in every ethnic community and individual, and if there is racial confrontation within indigenous nations as well as between the indigenous and the Western colonizer, the postcolonial counterhegemonic project will indeed go a long way toward interrogating and disintegrating any form of imperialism.


  1. Simon During, “Postmodernism or Post-Colonialism Today,” in Postmodern Conditions, ed. Andrew Milner, Philip Thompson, and Chris Worth (New York, 1990), pp. 113-31.

  2. Linda Hutcheon, “Circling the Downspout of Empire,” in Past the Last Post: Theorizing Postcolonialism and Postmodernism, ed. Ian Adam and Helen Tiffin (Calgary, 1990), p. 183; hereafter cited in text as CD.

  3. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Poststructuralism, Marginality, Postcoloniality and Value,” in Literary Theory Today, ed. Peter Collier and Helga Greyer-Ryan (London, 1990), p. 228.

  4. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “The Post-Colonial Critic,” in The Post-Colonial Critic, ed. Sarah Harasym (New York, 1990), p. 69.

  5. Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London, 1994), pp. 171-97; hereafter cited in text as LC.

  6. Anne McClintock, “The Angel of Progress: Pitfalls of the Term ‘Postcolonialism,’” Social Text, 31/32 (1992), 88; hereafter cited in text as AP.

  7. Arif Dirlik, “The Postcolonial Aura: Third World Criticism in the Age of Global Capitalism,” Critical Inquiry, 20 (1994), 331.

  8. Ella Shohat, “Notes on the ‘Postcolonial,’” Social Text, 31/32 (1992), 105; hereafter cited in text as NP.

  9. Gyan Prakash, “Postcolonial Criticism and Indian Historiography,” Social Text, 31/32 (1992), 8; hereafter cited in text as PC.

  10. Abdul R. JanMohamed, “The Economy of Manichean Allegory: The Function of Racial Difference in Colonialist Literature,” Critical Inquiry, 12 (1985), 61; hereafter cited in text as EM.

  11. Kumkum Sangari, “The Politics of the Possible,” Cultural Critique, 7 (1987), 184.

  12. Steven Best, “Jameson, Totality, and the Poststructuralist Critique,” in Postmodernism/Jameson/Critique, ed. Douglas Kellner (Washington, D.C., 1989), p. 364.

  13. Aijaz Ahad, In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures (London, 1992), pp. 96-97.

  14. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, tr. Constance Farrington (New York, 1963), p. 46.

  15. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back (London, 1989), pp. 6-7.

  16. Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York, 1993), p. 25; hereafter cited in text as CI.

  17. Fredric Jameson, Syntax of History (Minneapolis, 1988), p. 206, vol. 2 of The Ideologies of Theory; hereafter cited in text as SH.

  18. Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples (New York, 1991), p. 344.

  19. Dipesh Chakrabarty, “Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks for ‘Indian’ Pasts?” Representations, 37 (Winter 1992), 1; hereafter cited in text as PA.

  20. See Edward W. Said, “Intellectuals in the Post-Colonial World,” Salmagundi, 70/71 (1986), 44-64.

  21. Richard Waswo, “The History that Literature Makes,” New Literary History, 19 (1988), 557.

  22. Robert Ross, “Introduction,” Racism and Colonialism: Essays on Ideology and Social Structure, ed. Robert Ross (Boston, 1982), p. 7.

  23. Richard Terdiman, Discourse/Counter-Discourse (Ithaca, 1985), p. 52; hereafter cited in text as DC.

  24. Kwame Anthony Appiah, “Is the Post- in Postmodernism the Post- in Postcolonial?” Critical Inquiry, 17 (Winter 1991), 348.

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

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Last Updated on February 3, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7527

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, mismanagement, corruption, violent upheaval and general misery.

(Jones, “Myth and Modernity: African Writers and Their Roots” 6)

Postcolonial criticism bears witness to the unequal and uneven forces of cultural representation involved in the contest for political and social authority within the modern world order. Postcolonial perspectives emerge from the colonial testimony of Third World countries and the discourses of “minorities” within the geopolitical divisions of East and West, North and South.

(Bhabha, The Location of Culture 171)

This essay does not intend to lock horns with postcolonial theorists, whatever colour their critical garments, however complex their flowering intellectual gowns.1 Every vein of my discourse here derives from the above two quotations that have simplified what postcolonial African writers conceive as the whirlpool of their literary outpourings. For more than half a century of literary writing, postcolonial experiences dualized an aesthetic-thematic inclination of African literary art: the crisis within and the negotiation without. African works, oral or written, in the past seven decades (and especially in these last five), have battled to survive and to maintain African values, identities, and equality in the new world order. The summation of Jones's and Bhabha's polemics above clearly suggests that issues of protest and commitment never ceased to dominate African literature even after independence.2 This is analogous to the Yoruba proverb, “If the louse does not leave one's body, the blood will not disappear from one's fingernail.” The lice of oppression, mismanagement, and neocolonization are still sucking the blood of Africans. African writing cannot but continue to object to and protest against the injustice. A major difference in the postcolonial protest, however, is that it is primarily against those whom T.M. Aluko identifies as “black white men” (Na' Allah 1991, 14), of whom Armah's minister Koomson is an example. These are perpetrators of African's own imperialism after the end of colonial administration: what Jones calls a “recurring circle of misrule, mismanagement, corruption, violent upheaval and general misery” (6). Perhaps Egharevba captures this even better:

The euphoria of independence gives way to the frustration of the people due to the perpetuation of the exploitation of the masses by the priviledged class. The focus shifts from cultural assertion to the question of economic survival. As a result, the essence of cultural values gives way to a demand for an end to exploitation, an end to the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots, an end to the crass governmental neglect of the masses, an end to oppression and mismanagement by governmental functionaries. Such social vices cannot but create in a sensitive and committed writer, a radical spirit different from the age when the essential issue was cultural.


However, the foreign contribution to African misery and Africa's own misrule obfuscate the nature of the postindependence protest of African writing. In the last decade of the twentieth century, Africa is left with the same story. It drags the same misery, poverty, oppression, misrule, misdirection, and injustice right into the new century. Is it not time to raise a periscope into the twenty-first century and search into the future of African literary commitment? Will African literature continue to swim in the politics of internal and external misendeavours? Will the issues of poverty, autarchy, injustice, sexism, racism, neocolonialism, colonial vs. indigenous languages, African/Western theories and criticism of African literature, etc. which inform contemporary polemics in African writing continue to dominate in the twenty-first century? Or will African literature emerge with a new strength that can finally turn Africa's fortune around? This is the time to launch a debate on “African Literature in the Twenty-First Century: What Role, Which Direction?” African literature is the vehicle that can transport the continent into an era of peace, progress, and prosperity. The artists have the ignition key. They have the sword and the power to finally redeem African integrity and “force” the imperialist nations to recognize and respect African countries as equal partners in the global community.

This essay debates the various options that are available to African literature in the next century. It identifies important roles for African intellectuals in the diaspora and writers resident on the continent in the march towards a new future. Drawing examples from an African oral performance, the paper highlights the strengths and the threats to traditional oral art in Africa, especially modern writers' negative attitude to oral literature. It strongly argues for a working relationship between modern African writers and traditional oral artists, insisting that only when this is in place can African literature lead the continent into socioeconomic emancipation in the twenty-first century.


The dialectics of African literature today supersede riddles of “art for art's sake” and questions of canonization that pervade discussions in Western literature. In “The Dynamics of Domination: Levi's Survival in Auschwitz, Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago, and Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale,” Glasberg, referring to Richard Rubenstein, offers insight into what he calls the “contemporary malaise” in Western civilization:

Richard Rubenstein is on the right track when he endeavors to link the epic horrors of our century with trends deeply rooted in our civilization's heritage. A separation from the sacred seems to allow for humanity's ability to act with a total lack of restraint in the treatment of those deemed superfluous, and that separation began with the Hebrews envisaging a God beyond all conception. The rise of science and technology within the last few centuries not only rendered the idea of God obsolete, but also made human possibilities of freedom problematic. As Jacques Ellul points out, in a technological society human choice is limited to that which technology offers and one is effectively precluded from choosing to accept or reject the technological system itself.


The so-called “separation from the sacred,” the opportunities offered by science and technology and a buoyant economy have a direct impact on contemporary Western polemics. Conversely, the failures of the twentieth century stare African writers in the face and challenge them to move forward with greater urgency and determination for a new birth in the twenty-first century. Françoise Lionnet adequately captures the predicament of the Third World writer when she submits:

For us who are natives of the so-called Third World, it has become imperative to understand and to participate fully in the process of re-vision begun by our contemporary writers and theorists. The latter are engaged in an enterprise which converges toward other efforts at economic and political survival but which is unique in its focus on memory—the oral trace of the past—as the instrument for giving us access to our histories.


The pragmatics of African experience firmly roots African literature in the continent's sociocultural life. Expectations are that, by the end of the twentieth century, colonial and neocolonial demons would finally commit themselves to earth. Then, the twenty-first century will surface with a new strength to forge ahead. Alas, Africa is emerging into a new century with a backlog of inadequacies and complaints. Writers, who are “surgeons of the heart and souls of a community” (Ngugi ix), must confront these realities with vigor. The continent still produces the most indebted nations of the world. Political instability, militocracy, bad leadership and ineptitude, all still prevail.3

In the twenty-first century, African literature may not claim a more beneficial function than a political one. It is of course problematic to insist on a unified focus. Because of the enormous failures of Africa's past (some of them are actually traceable to the doorstep of a brand of African writing), the next century has no room for artistic escapism and stereotyping. The twenty-first century must not be another experiment. The success of South African independence confirms that with commitment, determination and fervent raising of conscience and mobilization of people, art can open widely the door to greater glories. Lindfors, referring to the middle-of-the-road writers and formalist critics, succinctly explains that:

The books and articles we write tend to be text-bound, seldom venturing beyond the novel, play, poem or essay we are scrutinising, seldom striving to capture the essence of the unique individual behind the work. We are content to analyse the words and images on a page without reference to the peculiarities of the personality that produced them. We write as if the literary work has its own autonomous existence, a life entirely independent of its creator. We sometimes pride ourselves on our formalistic rigour, our attention to details and patterns that have no relevance to real life.


The point is that in African literature, the eras of text-bound criticism and formalist's “art for art's sake” creativity are long gone with the wind. The magnitude of Africa's problems toward the end of the twentieth century does not allow conscientious writers to become insensitive, and to extend elitism to the new century. This issue is not about authorial scrutiny alone, but also, and more important, about thematic relevance. The socio-historicity of Africa for the past two centuries culminates in a current situation in which African authors can no longer afford the luxury of playful aesthetics. The literary work certainly has no existence outside society. Criticism has the same blood that flows in a human being.

The politics of language in African literature will definitely resurface in the twenty-first century. The dominance of colonial languages, such as English, French, and Portuguese as media of African written literature in the past two centuries has attracted highly controversial views. This explosive postcolonial discourse has sharply divided African scholars into two camps: the pro-European languages camp led by Sédar Senghor, Chinua Achebe, and Wole Soyinka; and its opposition camp led by Obi Wali, David Diop and Ngugi wa Thiong'o. In The Theory of African Literature, Chidi Amuta clearly describes how the issue has divided African writers:

The issue, which has been articulated mainly at the emotional level, has also managed to attract to itself the most heated controversies. Two dominant positions have emerged, each drawing advocates from writers and critics alike. There are those … who insist that African literature written in European languages to communicate African experiencies enriches both the languages in question and the literature itself. These writers also recognize the legitimacy of literature in African languages. Squarely opposed to this accommodationist/assimilationist position are others … who insist on linguistic indigenization as a minimum condition for the existence of African literature. … This side of the argument has tried to find ideological mooring in the fact that the European languages were a crucial part of the arsenal of colonialism while African languages still hold the reservoir of values and institutions that stand in antithetical opposition to imperialism.


African writers must control their emotions and summon their patriotism to resolve this problem. Since Africans want sustained interaction with the outside world, nobody can subdue the growth and importance of colonial languages in Africa, even in the twenty-first century. It is not an overstatement that English is today the most popular language of international communication. French is obviously the second. Nevertheless, nobody can conveniently deny Ngugi's castigatory perspective on the continued use of European languages in African literary creativity. He has placed his position in context:

On the contrary I am lamenting a neo-colonial situation which meant the European bourgeoisie once again stealing our talents and geniuses as they have stolen our economics. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Europe stole art and treasures from Africa to decorate their houses and museums; in the twentieth century Europe is stealing the treasures of the mind to enrich their languages and cultures. Africa needs back its economy, its politics, its cultures, its languages and all its patriotic writers.


The same Ngugi, who thenceforth vowed to write his future works in either Gikuyu or Kiswahili, declaring a “farewell to English as a vehicle for any of my writings,” turned round to say: “However, I hope that through the age-old medium of translation I shall be able to continue dialogue with all” (xiv). Granted, if one prides oneself on having superior dance moves, let him first display them at home. What claim to success can African writers make if they remain unknown in their villages, countries, continent, but are glittering stars abroad? Works such as Songs of Lawino, Village Songs, Moonsongs with their strong sociopolitical messages (even in the so-called “language of the marketplace”), and despite heavy exploration of traditional myths and history as in Kinjeketile, Morountodun, and Kondo le requin, have they had any impact all these years among the downtrodden populations of the African continent? Have the authors not been just ivory tower writers and critics in all these decades? I asked these questions at the British Council/University of Ibadan International Conference on “Communicative Competence and the Role of English as a Second Language”4 of a distinguished panel of writers chaired by the poet of the marketplace himself, Niyi Osundare, but no one seemed willing to give me a critical explication of this issue. I strongly feel, like Ngugi, that we have to attack the language question with greater vigor, especially in the next century. Ngugi is alone in trying to convince modern African writers to adopt African languages. To change the situation of past indifference, African writers using a colonial language should endeavor to pick at least one other language (African indigenous) of comfortable expertise for creativity. If every modern African writer learns to write in his/her mother tongue or whatever language of his/her immediate village, the next century shall be a great success for African literature. They can also have their works translated into and from the colonial languages, and reach both local and international audiences. Even writers who traditionally operate within local linguistic media could be encouraged to write in colonial languages pari passu. This will afford them more audiences outside their language group(s), including of course an international audience. The “plurilingual” nature of Africa and lack of political will of most Africans to institutionalize indigenous national languages for African countries make colonial languages common media for interethnic communication. Nigeria, for example, has about 400 languages. The three major language groups are always suspicious of each other (Gérard 55). The experimentation by Ken Saro Wiwa and Tunde Fatunde with rotten and pidgin English respectively have been minimally successful. Such writers will have greater effect if they also adopt their indigenous languages. Let every writer go bilingual. This will do Africa well.

To me, the idea of discarding foreign languages in literary creativity is synonymous with the unrealistic thinking that only Africans can constructively and efficiently evaluate African writing. I shall take up these constructs one by one. First, Africa itself is heavily heterogeneous. It is not an island unto itself: no nation is. Improved communication has made the world a global village, and Africans have to interact with other peoples. Much as African masses are primarily vital to their nations' emancipation, they require the good will, support and understanding of other peoples to realize a lasting success, especially in today's world order. The peoples of the world need education about each other, especially in this post-cold-war era, to engender human intermingling. We realized the liberation of South Africa, despite the internal struggle of South Africans themselves, only with the solidarity of the world community. Again, the question of foreign language is a complex postcolonial discourse. We cannot answer it simply by abandoning the colonial languages. Will Africans also abandon brothers and sisters in diaspora? Or are we already disclaiming them? They certainly have lost their African languages and can only get to their roots through these “foreign” tongues. All Africans abroad, whether occasionally resident in other countries or permanently diasporic, have a right to maintain their links to Africa. More so, all African intellectuals overseas (especially occasionally resident ones) are intellectual traders in academe, and are bridges between Africa and the First World. Their primary duty is to negotiate for Africa. Gayatri Spivak's theory of negotiation is highly pertinent here. Her theory demonstrates an articulate political program for Third World diasporic intellectuals. She contends: “As far as I can understand, in order to intervene one must negotiate. If there is anything I have learnt in and through the last 23 years of teaching, it is that the more vulnerable your position, the more you have to negotiate” (qtd. in Harasym 72). Spivak defines scholars as academics in the business of ideological production. She submits that Third World diasporic academics' most constructive duty is to “negotiate with structures of violence” (101) and the “structures of oppression within postcolonial space” (157). Like diasporic Israelis have negotiated for the Jewish state, African intellectuals must, in the twenty-first century, collaborate in their teachings and critical polemics so as to achieve meaningful negotiation. They can only mobilize the First World in its own languages, just like the Africans at home in their own languages. That is the only remedy to imperialistic mansuetude and ultimate neocolonial dismantling of Africa. Yoruba, Xhosa or Amharic cannot do the trick with the West. We need Western language(s), with sound skills in Western maneuvering. I will return to the issue of negotiation.

The maxim that European scholars lack loci standi to criticize African works demands quick scrutiny. Claiming this to be so because of sins of colonization and racism is a reverse discrimination. We cannot, of course, dismiss some of the contentions of the trio of Chinweizu, Jemie, and Madubuike, who are the most fervent of these anti-European critics, with a wave of a hand. But they have exceeded genuine constraints in their reductionist polemics. The only argument that I find acceptable is in their rejection of the eurocentric thrust of primitivist critics:

There is a long list of charges usually leveled against the African novel by the Western critics … Where these charges do not emanate from the importation into the African literary scene of problems and pseudo-problems within the Western tradition, they are either the expression of a literary tourist mentality addicted to a nouveaumania whose easily jaded sensibilities cry out for new supplies of exotica or they are underhanded efforts to defend the Western imperialist … For instance with respect to technique, some African novels are said to suffer from inadequate description or inadequate characterization … and awkward dialogue, or from alleged problems in the conception and handling of time and space. Others are faulted for being too short … With respect to their themes, some novels are denounced as “situational” … With respect to ideological matters, some critics claim that there is too much didactism, or not enough of the right kind.


We can easily educate such Eurocentric antagonists that African realities and culture differ from their myopic perspectives. We can tell them that African creativity, though in European languages, is not an extension of European national literature and it cannot be subjected to Eurocentric conventions. However, to sweepingly disqualify even European Africanists who labor hard to comprehend African traditional culture and its contemporary backgrounds, and genuinely critique African works with and for greater understanding, is to be guilty of negritudic fundamentalism. The success and liberation of African literature as a discipline in American and European academia today are consequent upon both African and European Africanists' decades of struggles and sacrifices (see Arnold). Unfortunately, fundamentalism is becoming epidemic as evidenced by Mazrui and Ogundipe-Leslie's outpourings (Mazrui 1993a, 1993b; Ogundipe-Leslie). A further conservative trend can be found in the discussion of the gender issue in African literary criticism. The issue has been reduced to sexist arguments, i.e., can a man discuss women's issues? Can a woman discuss men's issues? These two giants in African studies, Mazrui and Ogundipe-Leslie, exchange literary venom, even calling each other's scholarly credentials into question. Yet both of them seem to agree that “there are many ways in which precolonial Africa treated women better than postcolonial Africa has done. But that was because women in precolonial Africa were less marginalized” (Mazrui 1993b, 160).

While African scholars as cultural producers must move our continent to greater heights, we must be cautious in our penchant to problematize cultural constructs. African metanarratives cannot be subjected to a fanatical disconstruction by fundamentalist postindustrialists.5 Postcolonial discourse must continue to strive to develop within the cultural dynamism of an African/Third World reality. Africans need to participate in the postmodern discourse only as a platform for negotiation with the West. The Yorubas have a saying that whoever wishes to apprehend a monkey must behave like a monkey.

Relativist African scholars have already lost their rights to polemical justification in the African idiomatics. One cannot “disconstruct” a premise and then turn around to seek its guidance. Postcolonial critics, whether diasporic or resident, must not lose sight of their cultural origin in the intoxication of poststructuralist parlance. Especially if they still look for an audience in Africa and are persons who cannot manage without running to African proverbs6 for theoretical authority and linguistic embellishment. They must not succumb to postcolonial tension, which Irele identifies as the result of conflicting cultures. Irele further contends: “The present focus of African reflection, as dictated by the realities of the postcolonial era, has been the immediate and practical issues of ‘development,’ understood as a process of the accommodation of African lives to the demands of modernity” (9). Modern demands on Africa are postcolonial demands. The rubrics of postindustrial philosophy are antithetical to modernism (Botwinick 17). Alex Callinicos, quoting Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition, defines “postmodern”:

By contrast, I define postmodern as “incredulity toward metanarratives.” The denial which Lyotard holds to be characteristic of postmodernism—namely of the existence of any general pattern on which to base our conception of a true theory or a just society—are clearly related to the pluralism and anti-realism championed by poststructuralism.


The African drums shall continue to be drummed in proverbs. Only those who have ears will hear them. Only the intelligent will decode them. Recently when the people of the republic of Benin protested against President Nicephore Soglo for gorging his cabinet with his relatives, they easily found endorsement in the traditional Beninese proverb: “We cannot adore the horse, and adore its excrement and its anus.”7 African proverbs are laws and code of conduct even in contemporary predicaments.

A denial of Africa's metanarratives is a denial of African essence and identity. They epitomize African religion, ethics, laws, philosophy and cosmological view. As Ong observes: “the law itself in oral cultures is enshrined in formulaic sayings, proverbs, which are not mere jurisprudential decorations, but themselves constitute the law” (35). These are still dear to an African's pragmatics of life even as a postcolonial personality. That is why African written narratives are rooted in strong oral elements, from Soyinka to Ngugi, Beti to Armah. African drama has also explored oral narrative technics as depicted in the emergent dramaturgy of Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Femi Osofisan, Ebrahim Hussein, and Olu Obafemi. Conteh-Morgan perhaps best summarizes this point:

The oral tradition—in the sense of a stock of oral narratives and their performance traditions on the one hand, and a body of beliefs, customs and practices on the other—constitutes the single most important source of inspiration for the African dramatist writing in French. Even when he seems farthest from its concerns, like when he is making an artistic statement on issues of contemporary relevance, or of general human significance, he still remains firmly tethered to it, borrowing from its resources of legend, heroic song, myth and folktale not only characters (human, animal and mythical) but also subjects, situations and formal procedures.


The concept of total theater that is the hallmark of modern African drama emanates from oral performances. The unity of dialogue, song, dance, mime and costume as elements of total theater are rooted in African orature (see Ogunbiyi; Rotimi 329). Most modern African poets are heavily indebted to traditional orature. Scholars familiar with the rhythm of oral poetry on a village square will marvel at the weaving skill of our modern poets. If colonial languages had a flavour of African linguistic contour, our talking drums and musical flutes would give fulfilment to the foreign language African poetry. The negritudist poetry of Senghor, the Ogunian poetry of Soyinka, the Acolic poetry of p'Bitek, the folkloric poetry of Niyi Osundare, and the Ewenian melody of Kofi Awoonor are case-vapours of the fertility in the African literary forests. It is certain that the twenty-first-century African written literature will develop towards greater orality.

And now we are back to the postcolonial negotiation discourse. The aim of the negotiation must be for total emancipation of the Third World. The March 1995 United Nations Social Summit's historic War on Poverty plan is clearly in this realm. The Copenhagen8 declaration for an end to poverty and social injustice in the world is definitely feasible for Africa. African diasporic intelligentsia must, however, not leave the struggle to African politicians alone. Decades of experience have shown that the only game African politicians have perfected is corruption. Ayi Kwei Armah's The Beautyful [sic] Ones Are Not Yet Born is still the correct metaphor for African politicians, military or civilian. Achebe's Anthills of the Savanna clearly shows that nothing has changed in Nigeria (and Africa) since his A Man of the People. Military dictatorship still strives; coup and counter-coup are still the order of the day. The post-Cold War syndrome has further pushed Third World nations into the background. Hunger, depression, and parasitism that Sembene Ousmane depicts in his God's Bits of Wood and The Money Order, are worsening among the African poor from coast to coast, desert to desert. The twenty-first century can bring the rain of life, energy and happiness to wretched Africans.


Modern writers have failed in their struggle to make an extensive impact on Africa because of their complete negligence of oral artists. Anyidoho laments the lack of consideration of what he calls “the world of the earwitness” (12) in modern studies in African literature. He emphasizes that “our writers are the minority representatives of African poetic potential,” (13) and that “this domain of the earwitness [oral art] is the dominant poetic world of Africa” (13).

My preoccupation this time is not even in oral literature research. Since Anyindoho's paper, great strides have been made in oral literature scholarship and research within and without African academia. More books have been published on oral literature. Journals on African literature, national and international, have devoted several special editions to scholarship on African oral literature. The real problem lies in modern African writers' misconception of a contemporary artist. Most of them condemn oral art to the periphery. They see themselves as intellectuals and qualify oral artists as stark illiterates, lacking the awareness of modern literary polemics. They perceive oral literature as belonging to the past. Many African writers always impose on the word “tradition” connotations of archaism. This situation is very dangerous to the African writer's struggle for emancipation of the African continent.

Oral artists are intellectuals in their own right. They may not occupy formal academic positions in schools and universities, but that is a pitfall of Western education and colonialism. Oral artists have greater calling in the larger world of Africa and are professors of culture. Ong rightly recognizes the measure of their literary production and delivery and describes their experience as intellectual (36). Oral artists are highly current. They are polydisciplinarians: religion and culture, politics, economics, history, etc. They know their communities inside out. Anyidoho describes the oral artist in the practice of his profession: “A great deal of the vitality of oral literature in performances is due to its ability to update the past, to make the past alive and relevant to the present, and to its ability to project the present into the future” (5).

African writers need to involve oral artists in the enlightenment and mobilization of the African people. There is a necessity for a pact between the “earwitness” and the “eyewitness” for society to move forward. There should be an association of African artists in all African towns and cities, which should eventually spread to the villages and hamlets. The African Literature Association, the African Studies Association, and all other international intellectual bodies should establish contact with traditional oral artists and start useful exchanges. The result of this practical exploration of literature and oral artists would be magnificent. Such cooperation will benefit professional African oral artists and they would provide a better understanding of the effects of postcolonialism on art. The greatest enemy of oral literature, mostly in African urban areas, is Western influence. Luckily, unlike the new societal bourgeoisie, the villages and hamlets are free of this craze for Western taste. It is a wave that will destroy African society if it is not arrested.

I shall draw my examples for this process from Dadakuada, a traditional oral genre in Ilorin, capital city of Kwara State, Nigeria. Ilorin was founded in the early seventeenth century. Many immigrants—Yoruba, Hausa, Nupe, Fulani, Gobir, Baruba, Kemberi, and Beriberi—later settled in Ilorin. It thus became a multilingual, multicultural community. Islam eventually gained the upper hand and the community now has a very strong Islamic presence. There are numerous Arabic and Islamic educational and cultural institutions with an Emir, the traditional head, regarded as the custodian of Islamic values. There are many Ilorin indigenes who have spent several years in Arab cities and countries, especially in Cairo, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Iran.9 The foreign-educated are mostly teachers and Islamic preachers. Ilorin is also highly Westernized; as the capital city of Kwara State since 1967, it has witnessed tremendous developments in infra- and suprastructures: Western schools (which far outnumber the Islamic schools), the governor's house, ministry headquarters, government board and council headquarters, a few industries, companies (local and international), and private businesses. It also houses military and police schools and bases. It has an international airport and a federal government university. Apart from the traditional and Islamic leaders, it has some strong Western trained bourgeois lords. Very many of them are state and national politicians. A few of the rich lords are, however, illiterate in their own languages let alone in a Western language. There are a few as well who cannot function in English but are literate in Arabic. The very few people who speak French are not bourgeois, they are teachers and civil servants. Most of the Ilorin population, which is around three million, are peasant farmers. Some are traditional cloth weavers, pot makers, professional drivers, and civil servants.

The Dadakuada poets are professional oral artists. They also farm on a subsistence basis to feed themselves and their families. They are at the lowest level of the social ladder; however, some of them, as public singers, do accumulate wealth. They perform for anybody, sometimes even without invitation, mostly in the afternoons and early evenings.

As a traditional genre which took root in an Egungun cultic performance, Dadakuada's basic musical tools were gangan drums. Today, two new drum tools, Pakeke and Akuba, have been added to Dadakuada performance, all of Hausa origin, the most widely spoken language in Nigeria. Some Hausa/Fulani who migrated to Ilorin, first in the mid-eighteenth century and again in the nineteenth century, eventually converted most of the Ilorin people to Islam. They actually inaugurated the first ruling dynasty in Ilorin. To date, the traditional leader of Ilorin, the Emir, is Hausa/Fulani. It is therefore significant that the first impact on Dadakuada came from Hausa.10 A postcolonial threat to Dadakuada was also Western technology. Microphones and loudspeakers were first introduced in 1957 by poet Omoekee Amao to modernize the performance, and they were eventually adopted by many others in urban Ilorin around 1964. Amao said when he first used the equipment, many of his fans stopped coming to hear him. It soon circulated within the community that he was bastardizing Dadakuada with a dòn gbùrù, an oversize thing. It took seven years for other poets and the community to accept this “innovation.” And even today the use of a microphone is limited to urban Ilorin poets, who obviously lay greater claim to “civilization.”

Many poets in the town sing more for the bourgeoisie and the feudal lords than for the peasants. These poets need to compete in the sophisticated social life of the urban town and need heavy capital to survive. They submit to bourgeois dictates in exchange for money. Almost every member of the dominant group has a poet identified as his/her singer. For example, Ajibaye was the singer to the late Emir of Ilorin, Zulu Gambari. Some bourgeois even import Western gadgets from abroad for the poets to force them to abandon traditional tools. Jaibade Alao, Oba olorin, king of Ilorin poets, identifies one Ilorin millionaire, Saaro Aminu, as having imported some instruments for him:

Saaro omo Aminu ni'le Olokonla
Olowo n lanla, owo to tobi!
Olowo to ko se n kan to tobi fun mi
Ayinla to lo Londonu to ra irinse mi bo wa'le bansikan
Ayinla owo re loo ‘lu Oba
Ayinla ‘gun omo Jaji n sale aluko.
Saaro, the offspring of Aminu in the Olokonla household
The highly rich, a great wealth indeed!
The rich who first (among others) offered me a great thing
Ayinla who went to London, bought home instruments in bulk for me
Ayinla, your money goes to the Queen's land!
Ayinla'gun, the child of Jaji in Isale-Aluko.(11)

This extremely rich man could have bought the same Western implements in Nigeria; after all, the country has become a dumping ground for all such petty Western gadgets. This pattern renders Africans redundant at work and make people impotent even in usual traditional performances such as oral singing. Aminu would rather go to London to buy the items to fully prove his taste and to show that he has London connections. The bourgeoisie in Africa are always at haste to project neocolonial links. It is a special pride for them. Even when a rich African does not attend Western schools and cannot speak the colonial language, English for instance, he adopts the bourgeois form of the indigenous language. He frequently peppers his speech with English words he has memorized. He imports his shoes and his laces. He almost imports the air he breathes! The postcolonial bourgeoisie in Africa is behaving according to Dolgov's contention that the bourgeoisie and the ruling class will always do all they can to make it difficult for the working people, the peasants, to gain access to cultural values. They “make them [the poor] captives of false ideas and concepts” (9). Colonial lords adopted the same technics to program their victims to perpetual dependency.

The Dadakuada oral singers also employ some English words in their performances. Examine the following song rendered during a particular performance that I personally recorded. It was a launching ceremony of a local elitist association:12

Alabi: Omoluabi a won okunrin,
Fine, fine gbajuma ti n wu yan.
E ba n pe won o o, awon oko mi gbogbo
How now?
Boto: Carry on my dear!
Alabi: Decent gentlemen,
Fine, fine, the famous people after my hearts.
Please, beseech them for me, they're all my husbands.
How now?
Boto: Carry on my dear!

(Performance Idiape, Ilorin, 20 July 1991)

There is no doubt that they have used English to please the elitist group they are performing for. None of the members of the group can converse in English. They are local business men whom we describe as “local heroes” because they have attained a nouveau riche status. The poets thus used English here in acknowledgement of the petty bourgeois status of their patrons.

Another artist, Odolaye Aremu, in another instance sings the following:

Sani-aba, omo durowoju,
The masita, our masita,
Fura oo, ifura lagba ogun
Sani-aba, the offspring of Durowoju
The master, our master.
Keep vigilant, vigilance is the greatest medicine.

(Field Performance Abayawo, Ilorin, 9 August 1987)

Here, Aremu is praising one Sani Aba, a bourgeois. He describes him as “the masita, our masita.” We realize that in the original song, the poet's indigenous linguistic reality affects his pronunciation of the English word master. Yoruba, his native language, does not allow for a consonant cluster: there is always a vowel after every consonant. So, master which has / s / and / t / clustering is declustered through the insertion of the vowel / i / between them. Even his pronunciation of “our”—/ aup / sounds more like / awa /. What is important in this code-switching situation is that the oral poet's adoption of English in this song is to satisfy the tastes of his postcolonial bourgeois patron.

My last example is a song performed for a feudal ruler of an Ilorin ward, the present Balogun Gambari, Laaro Balogun. The poet, Odolaye Aremu, declares:

Jeki won o gan o oo
Iran baba n la baba ti won ni n gan ni
Awon a benu yagua yagua bi ese sokoto
Awon a bi namba n waju bi oko ti n r'onisa
Awon abi furo janjan bi a n soda Ilumata.
Let them talk ill of you,
It is the lineage of their great-grand fathers that speaks ill of people:
Those ones with wide mouths like the legs of trousers
Those ones with bold marks on their fore-heads like the lorry that heads for Onicha
Those ones with big bottoms like the cross of Ilumata.

The oral poet uses many similes here to condemn his patron's “imaginary enemies.” This kind of song definitely abuses the privilege of a poet whose primary duty has always been to speak for the community. That Laaro Balogun is a feudal lord in Ilorin is beyond contention. He is, in this capitalist setup, likely to step on the toes of the poor whom he rules. The poor masses are also bound to complain about him and sometime even condemn him publicly. The poet who should show solidarity with the poor masses, implies that such people do not even have a right to complain. This is what is becoming of the duty of a traditional oral poet in the face of bourgeois aesthetics. These same poets' major preoccupation in ancient times (precolonial Africa), according to Dolgov, was with the welfare of people (14). These are the same African poets who, Amuta says, “as [men] of culture devote their art and lives to the pursuit of justice and freedom.” (177)

There is no doubt that many issues confront African literatures today. I must restate, however, that there is a need for the African intellectuals, the writers, the oral artists and the entire peoples of Africa to approach the twenty-first century with renewed vigor and hope. It is clear that joint efforts of creative minds in and outside Africa can reduce such impediments like the bourgeois aesthetic influence on oral artists. Modern African writers should also stop their neglect of traditional oral performers. It is with fingers, together, that we beat the chest. Strength, according to this adage, lies in a collective struggle.


  1. I am grateful to my friends Bayo Toyo, Marianne Herzog, and Nicole Morgan Slipp for their useful criticism.

  2. The Negritudists are such writers who still thrive today. Moore, quoting Fanon, describes the Negritude school as “these two metaphysics” (28) meaning their protest against the white primitivist and their efforts to “liberate” the black person from his/her inferiority complex.

  3. These are the dominant themes of African writing from the 1960s: Achebe's A Man of the People (1962), Anthills of the Savannah (1987); Armah's The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968), Why Are We So Blest? (1974); Soyinka's Season of Anomy (1973), Poems of Black Africa (1975); Ngugi's Weep Not, Child (1964), I Will Marry When I Want (1982); Ousmane's Les Bouts de bois de Dieu (1962), Xala (1980); Osofisan's Once Upon Four Robbers (1980); Osundare's Village Voices (1984); p'Bitek's Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol (1984); Awoonor's Rediscovery … (1964). There are far too many works by these and other writers to offer a more elaborate and representative list.

  4. I was a participant and a rapporteur at the conference that took place at IITA Ibadan, Nigeria from December 13 to 19, 1993. It was jointly organized by the British Council and the University of Ibadan.

  5. It is acceptable to deconstruct in order to understand the cultural hegemony and existentialism in the Third World. One could even deconstruct the metanarratives for clearer perceptions of the intrisic tendencies of the African people. It will, however, become disconstructive the moment that the theorist begins to disregard the value and cultural system of a people, especially where these people respect such culture and are proud to be identified with it. In this line of my argument, to deconstruct is to conduct a search, to open up a closed form, substance, matter, like an anatomist will open up one's body. It becomes disconstruction, after discovering that the elements therein suit the form, when one insists on castigating it, on harming its cherished order—the surgeon turning the organs that keep the patient alive upside down. An intelligent anatomist will only see, learn and leave.

  6. For more on African proverbs and poetry, see Na'Allah 1994, 500-15.

  7. A news item on the internet, naijanews@obitaiwan.iig “UN Summit Agrees ‘Historic’ War on Poverty” Wire Service: RTna (Reuters North America), Friday March 10, 1995.

  8. The UN Social Summit (1995) was held in Copenhagen, Denmark. The conference Chairman, Juan Somavia, declared that developing countries are home to the world's 1.3 billion poor (NAIJANEWS, 10 March 1995).

  9. We have three sets of intellectuals in Ilorin: Western educated, mainly Arabic/Islamic educated, and a mixture of Arabic and Western educated. They all form the educated elite class.

  10. For the History of Ilorin and a deeper discussion on the Dadakuada oral genre see Na'Allah 1988 and 1992.

  11. Jaigbade Alao, “Kole ba wa lo gigi” Chief Records, LPCRL 001A, 1987. I have also attended a field performance where Jaigbade performed Saro's song, which I recorded (15 September 1987). All the Dadakuada songs I discuss here were originally rendered in Yoruba. All translations into English are mine. The poet can neither read nor write in Roman script; even in Arabic, he performs only what he has memorized as a practicing Muslim. All the songs cited here have been used in Na'Allah 1991.

  12. The English words are emphasized.

Works Cited

Amuta, Chidi. The Theory of African Literature. London: Zed Books, 1989.

Anyidoho, Kofi. “Mythmaker and Mythbreaker: The Oral Poet as Earwitness.” African Literature in its Social and Political Dimentions. Ed. Eileen Julien et al. Washington, DC: Three Continent P, 1986. 5-14.

Arnold, Stephen, ed. African Literature Studies: The Present State. Washinton, DC: Three Continent P/ALA; Edmonton: U of Alberta, Research Institite for Comparative Literature, 1985.

Bhabha, Homi. The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Botwinick, Aryeh. Postmodernism and Democratic Theory. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1993.

Callinicos, Alex. Against Postmodernism: A Marxist Critic. Cambridge: Polity, 1989.

Chinweizu, et al. Toward the Decolonization of African Literature. Washington, DC: Howard UP, 1983.

Conteh-Morgan, John. “French-Language African Drama and the Oral Tradition: Trends and Issues.” African Literature Today 18 (1992): 115-31.

Dolgov, K.M. “Culture and Social Progress.” Marxist-Leninist Aesthetics and the Arts. Moscow: Progress, 1980. 10-25.

Egharevba, Chris. “The Carrier Ritual as Medium of Vision in Nigerian Drama: The Examples of Soyinka and Osofisan.” Calabar Studies in African Literature: Critical Theory and African Literature. Ibadan: Heinemann Educational Books, 1987. 25-36.

Gérard, Albert. Contexts of African Literature. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1990.

Glasberg, Ronald P. “The Dynamics of Domination: Levi's Survival in Auschwitz, Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago, and Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.Canadian Review of Comparative Literature/Revue Canadienne de Littérature Comparée 21.4 (1994): 679-94.

Harasym, Sarah, ed. The Postcolonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues: Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Irele, Abiola. “Introduction.” African Philosophy: Myth and Reality. Paul J. Hountondji. London: Hutchinson, 1983. 7-30.

Jones, Eldred D. “Myth and Modernity: African Writers and Their Roots.” African Literature Today 18 (1992): 1-8.

Lindfors, Bernth. “The Future of African Literary Studies.” Calabar Studies in African Literature: Critical Theory and African Literature. Ibadan: Heinemann Educational Books, 1987. 13-21.

Lionnet, Françoise. Autobiographical Voices: Race, Gender, Self-Portraiture. Itahaca: Cornell UP, 1989.

Mazrui, Ali A. “The Black Woman and the Problem of Gender: An African Perspective.” Research in African Literature. 24.1 (1993a): 87-104.

———. “Forum.” Research in African Literature 24.3 (1993b): 157-61.

Moore, Gerald. “The Politics of Negritude.” Protest, Conflict and African Literature. Eds. Cosmo Pietest and Donald Munro. London: Heinemann, 1969. 26-42.

Na'Allah, Abdul-Rasheed. “Dadakuada: Origin, Artists and Performance Technigues of Ilorin Oral Art.” Nigeria Magazine 56.1-2 (1988): 26-36.

———. Ilorin Traditional Poetry in the Context of Bourgeois Aesthetics. M.A. Thesis, U of Ilorin, Nigeria, 1991.

———. “Dadakuada: The Crisis of a Traditional Oral Genre in a Modern Islamic Setting.” Journal of Religion in Africa 22.4 (1992): 318-30.

———. “Oral Tradition, Islamic Culture and Topicality in the Songs of Mamman Shata Katsina and Omoekee Amao Ilorin.” Canadian Journal of African Studies 28.3 (1994): 500-15.

Ngugi, wa Thiong'o. Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language. Nairobi: Heinemann, 1986.

Ogunbiyi, Yemi, ed. Drama and Theatre in Nigeria. Lagos: Nigeria Magazine, 1981.

Ogundipe-Leslie, Molara. “Beyond Hearsay and Academic Journalism: The Black Woman and Ali Mazrui.” Research in African Literature 24.1 (1993): 105-12.

Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy. New York: Methuen, 1982.

Rotimi, Ola. “The Drama in African Ritual Display.” Nigeria Magazine 99 (1968): 329-30.

Clive Barnett (essay date June 1999)

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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 novelist’.

J. M. Coetzee1


South Africa has been made available as an object of knowledge in particular ways. The presentation of apartheid on an international stage was culturally mediated through various discourses and institutions. This process of mediation solicited specific forms of political commitment and moral approbation that were crucial to the maintenance of the anti-apartheid struggle at the international scale. Laura Chrisman has recently argued that the sense that South Africa is an immediately and transparently knowable society continues to support a particular relation of ‘sanctioned ignorance’ amongst commentators in the West.2 Remedying this situation requires that attention be paid to critically questioning the discourses which secure the representativeness of particular accounts of South African culture and politics. In this paper I want to examine the cultural mediation of apartheid through the international reception of South African literary fiction. The particular focus of my discussion will be the different contexts of reception for the work of J. M. Coetzee.

Rob Nixon argues that the mobilisation of opposition to apartheid in the West had to negotiate fundamental incompatibilities between the political radicalism of organised opposition in South Africa, where liberalism was at best a beleaguered tradition, and the need to mobilise an essentially liberal constituency in the West.3 Campaigns to mobilise international opposition to apartheid therefore required a certain degree of ‘cross-cultural flexibility’ in terms of what was politically serviceable.4 The successful internationalisation of anti-apartheid movements was dependent on the discursive transformation of apartheid into an essentially moral issue: ‘The successful conversion of the anti-apartheid cause into a world movement was in large part proportionate to the Manichean clarity of the issues at stake, as a showdown between good and evil, victims and villains, black and white, oppressed and oppressors, the masses and a racist minority’.5

Literature acquired a peculiar importance in shaping international understandings of the nature of apartheid. From the late 1940s through to the 1990s, South Africa acquired ‘a notorious centrality in the contemporary political and ethical imagination which [gave] its writers a special claim on the world's attention’.6 Literary writing by white South Africans was inserted into a moralised frame through which apartheid was constructed as an international issue. White South African writers were received into an international circuit of literary celebrity according to particular imperatives which determined the selection and evaluation of different texts and authors.7 The work of white writers such as Alan Paton, Nadine Gordimer, André Brink, Breyten Breytenbach and J. M. Coetzee, came to hold a central place in defining an international canon of respectable, morally robust and liberal oppositional literature. Writing by white South African authors was grafted into particular circuits of international literary evaluation shaped by liberal humanist values. The regular identification of apartheid with Eastern European communism was based upon the fact that the success of anti-apartheid movements in the West rested on the construction of a cause of apparently ‘epic moral clarity’.8

This paper aims to draw into focus the frames of reference into which literary works were translated in the course of constructing literature itself as part of a struggle for liberal, non-racial values. Lewis Nkosi has developed the notion of the ‘cross-border reader’ in order to understand the ways in which South African literary writing has been shaped by the necessity to address dispersed, divided and fragmented audiences.9 The cross-border reader is constitutive of the very form of South African writing. The fractured and multiple audiences for South African writing imposes limitation as both the condition and subject of much of that literature, and produces writing characterised by an uncertain address to ‘virtual audiences’.10 This is exemplified by the frequent recourse to epistolary forms such as letters, journals or diaries, forms which make visible the act of writing for a fictionalised audience.11 Fiction by South African writers has, then, in no small part been constituted from the outside in, shaped by the international audiences upon which it depended as the consequence of its own marginalisation from the everyday life and from the political and cultural struggles of the majority of South Africans.

As a result of the need to negotiate multiple audiences and different political arenas, the meanings of South African literature were produced through a series of translations or transcodings, as the same texts moved from one context into others characterised by alternative ideological, political, and aesthetic imperatives. As a consequence, differences in geographical location become crucial in shaping the readings made of South African literary fiction.12 This process can be understood with reference to the notion of ‘reading-formation’, understood as a set of material and discursive practices which ‘connect texts and readers in specific relations to one another in constituting readers as reading subjects of particular types and texts as objects as objects-to-be-read in particular ways’.13 South African literature has been differently constructed by dispersed and divided reading-formations. In the rest of this paper, I want to focus attention upon the reading-formations through which the fiction of J. M. Coetzee has been read. Coetzee's novels have been constructed in different ways by different audiences, and have thus been subjected to alternative and shifting aesthetic and political evaluations. These different audiences alight upon different features of Coetzee's texts, and in turn they construct the ‘context’ of his writings in different ways. And Coetzee is of interest not least because his fiction is marked by a highly developed reflexivity regarding practices of canonisation.14 For this reason, we might suppose that the reception of Coetzee's fiction would tend to make visible the norms of canonisation through which his work has been constructed as exemplary of a certain form of ‘South African literature’, and through which certain moralised understandings of apartheid and the struggle against it were reproduced on an international stage.


Coetzee's novels are internationally acclaimed within the mainstream English-speaking literary world, having won major literary awards in his native South Africa, in Britain and Europe, and beyond. Amongst this audience, his fiction has been received as embodying a ‘powerful moral critique of apartheid’.15 Nkosi has suggested that the metropolitan journalistic review has been constitutive of a particular notion of ‘South African literature’ as the product of white writers working in the English language.16 The arena of non-academic literary reviewing has considerable cultural authority in determining the selection and transmission of particular texts and authors.17 This section traces the discursive dimensions of this non-academic reading-formation, into which Coetzee's novels have been inscribed and through which they have been made available for consumption by a more general international literary public. I want to examine the specific terms of reference which have shaped the reception of Coetzee's fiction in this sphere in Britain and North America, and how in turn certain understandings of South African society and of apartheid were put into circulation through this process of ‘translation’. Given the dominant notion of literature as a repository of universal humanistic moral values that underwrites this genre of criticism, we might expect literature to be understood as a privileged medium for the articulation of critiques of apartheid in a moral register.

My argument, in tracing the moral construction of apartheid as it is registered in the reception of Coetzee's novels, is that this moralisation is a way of negotiating the space between the West and South Africa during apartheid, rendering it intelligible in universal terms but simultaneously keeping it at a safe distance. This is dependent upon representations of the relations between a distant enclosed territory (South Africa) and its outside (the international arena). I shall discuss three recurring themes: that of South African writers being trapped in a stifling and overly-politicised situation; the theme of allegory; and the specific burden of representation imposed upon South African literature and writers by this reading-formation.


A recurring theme in reviews of literary writing by white South African authors during the years of apartheid is that of South African writers being ‘trapped’ by their location into dealing repeatedly with the same themes of living in an oppressive society. This theme frames the commentary on the first of Coetzee's novels to receive widespread attention in metropolitan literary circles, In the Heart of the Country,18 published in Britain and USA in 1977: ‘One of the tragedies facing all serious South African authors still living in that country is that they are trapped into dealing with human beings who are almost exclusively afflicted by racialism’.19 South African society is presented here as a singularly and uniquely racist society, such that race is identified as the only axis of power of significance. In turn, racism is routinely understood as an historical anachronism, the result of irrational belief systems. The figure of Magda in this novel is understood as ‘a powerful image of outdated conventions and the struggle to erode them’.20 This same theme of writers being constrained to write about the politics of apartheid, and of this being an intrusion upon the proper tasks of the novelist's vocation, reappear in commentaries on Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians. One review describes South Africa as a culturally isolated society, and concludes that writers therefore find it difficult to ‘address themselves to themes of any wider significance than those represented by the tragic dilemma of their country’.21

The political nature of South African fiction is at one and the same time the source of its attraction for international audiences, yet also the source of disappointment amongst reader-reviewers who prefer individual characterisations rather than typological characterisations. According to this perspective, then, South African writing suffers from being forced into being overtly political. The space for the proper subject-matter of the novel, for private inter-personal relationships, is squeezed in a society understood to be uniquely saturated with public, political significance.22 Coetzee's novels are often valued to the extent that they escape the received conventions of politically committed literature. This judgement is in turn often made through comparison with other white South African writers, and most often with Nadine Gordimer.23 The sense that the politics of South African society is too imposing a subject to make for truly great literature is found, for example, in one review of Coetzee's Age of Iron and Gordimer's My Son's Story. The allusive qualities of Coetzee's allegory of illness, death and decay considered to be the qualities that ‘raises it above the level of a political novel or a roman a thése’.24 On the other hand, Gordimer's novel is judged to be too weighed down by its author's urge to write explicitly about politics in South Africa: ‘it's a good read and good journalism. It informs and explains. But it's too banal and too explicit to be good art.’ Gordimer's political urges are seen to impinge upon the quality of the novel's writing. A dualism is set up in this sort of evaluation, between the novels which escape the murky traps of a society saturated with political significance, and novels which apparently succeed in rendering political reality but are, by this very token, condemned to a lesser aesthetic judgement. This same economy of judgement is used to compare Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians with André Brink's A Chain of Voices. Coetzee's work, it is argued, is infused with ‘artistic purpose’, Brink's merely with ‘moral purpose’, a distinction which, it is argued, is reflected in the relative qualities of their respective writing styles. Coetzee's writing is judged to be the product of slow, skilled, meticulous deliberation, whereas Brink is condemned by the judgement that he ‘writes fast’.25 In reviews, Coetzee is positioned both as part of a tradition of committed anti-apartheid writing, but also as a writer whose work succeeds in escaping the conventions of politically committed fiction and thus elevating itself to the status of ‘art’.

Irving Howe's review of Life and Times of Michael K reiterates the theme of the dilemma facing South African writers trapped by their location:

A great commanding subject haunts the South African imagination, yet this subject can also turn into a kind of tyranny, close, oppressive, even destructive. Imagine what it must be like to live as a serious writer in South Africa: an endless clamour of news about racial injustice, the feeling that one's life is mortgaged to a society gone rotten with hatred, an indignation that exhausts itself into depression, the fear that one's anger may overwhelm and destroy one's fiction. And except for silence or emigration, there can be no relief.26

Howe goes on to question whether the real significance of Coetzee's writing lies in an apparent move beyond politics to universal themes of art or morality. As he observes, one of the effects of this sort of understanding is the implication that the realities of apartheid society lay beyond a political solution.


The notion of South Africa as an enclosed, isolated society underwrites a very particular understanding of the allegorical qualities of Coetzee's fiction. For Bernard Levin, Waiting for the Barbarians Coetzee escapes the ‘trap’ imposed upon South African literary writing of having to deal with immediate political realities by literally ‘dis-locating’ his narrative. The novel contains no specific reference to South Africa as such, and so Levin takes the narrative to be ‘timeless, spaceless, nameless and universal’.27 Allegory is understood here as a trope that uses the particular situation as a way of rendering general or universal themes. This understanding of allegory often allows writers like Coetzee or Gordimer to be salvaged for the humanist literary tradition, by arguing that they do not write exclusively about a South African situation but rather about the general human condition: ‘Mr. Coetzee sees the heart of darkness in all societies, and gradually it becomes clear that he is not dealing in politics at all, but inquiring into the nature of the beast that lurks within each of us, and needs no collective stimulus to turn and rend us’.28 Any significance beyond South Africa is ascribed not to the realm of politics but to the realm of morality. For Levin, the universal qualities of this novel lie in this move beyond politics, a move that is taken to be the proper task of literature. The same sort of judgement is routinely made in those commentaries on Coetzee's fictions that alight upon their qualities as ‘allegories’ or ‘parables’ of essentially moral principles. Coetzee's novels ‘have a suggestion of parable about them. Sometimes they imagine further forms of man's inhumanity to man … and sometimes we are allowed to interpret them more specifically, their moral brought nearer to home’.29 This interpretation of the allegorical qualities of Coetzee's novels allows any particular reference that they contain about culture or politics in South Africa to be re-written as simply another lesson of general moral significance. If universal moral significance is registered in and through a reading of ‘South African literature’ in this way, then in turn ‘South Africa’ is discursively transformed into just a particular example of a more general, universal moralised theme of tyranny, suffering and individual artistic conscience.

Coetzee has himself observed that there is a persistent tendency to approach literature produced under conditions of state censorship as if it were necessarily allegorical. The observation is true for the reading of South Africa under apartheid. Conceptions of ‘allegory’ are central to the readings undertaken of Coetzee's writing. And as Parry argues, the self-reflexive theoretical sophistication of Coetzee's fiction suggests that readings of his novels as simple political allegories are probably wide of the mark, and might be better read as commentaries on the impossibility of this form.30 The genre of non-academic literary review shares the same conception of allegory with much of the left-leaning academic criticism of Coetzee's novels. According to this conception, texts are approached in order to measure their distance from a pre-existing conception of the dimensions of an essentially extra-textual reality. In non-academic reviews, Coetzee's allegorising is understood either as a politically duplicitious escape from historical reality, as in the case of Gordimer's discussion of Coetzee's early novels,31 or alternatively, as with Levin, as a successful elevation of the narrative to a universal, moral level. In both cases, allegory is understood in terms of the relation of the text to a historical reality that is already intelligible.

Amongst academic critics, Coetzee's writing becomes the ground for competing conceptions of allegory, different conceptions which sustain different political evaluations of that writing. Abdul JanMohammed, for whom allegory is understood mimetically in terms of the relation between text and reality, finds that Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians repeats the defining allegorical manoeuvres of classical colonial discourse.32 The recent re-evaluation of the political significance of Coetzee's fiction in no small part revolves around an alternative conceptualisation of allegory, one which follows the re-evaluation of allegory in post-modern and post-structuralist literary theory. Accordingly, Slemon reads Waiting for the Barbarians as a post-colonial recuperation of allegory, understood as a relation between texts, thematising the inextricable entwinement of history and fiction.33 On this post-structuralist reading, allegory is not a means of escaping history, but rather the trope where the place of language in history becomes the subject of narration itself. This alternative conception of allegory does not enter into consideration in the genre of the literary review, in which Coetzee's inter-textual inscriptions of other canonical works is met with suspicion. Each of Coetzee's novels can be read as a meta-fictional commentary on particular sub-genres of ‘white writing’, whether fiction or non-fiction—the pastoral novel, colonial travel writing, historiography or various canonical novels. This intertextuality is recognised by reviewers, who locate Coetzee on the margins of a tradition of European and North American avant-garde modernism through frequent references to the similarities of his work and that of writers such as Kafka, Conrad or Nabakov. And yet the challenge that his fiction presents to this tradition is barely registered in this genre of reviewing. Rather, when his fiction presents the conventions of the Western novel with its formal, ethical or political limits, one sees the emergence of an impatience with formalistic licence. In particular, Coetzee's re-writing of classic, canonical works (of Defoe's Robinson Crusoe in Foe, and Dostoevsky's The Devils in The Master of Petersburg) is met with a certain degree of unease. One reviewer regrets that Coetzee chooses to sexualise the Robinson Crusoe story in Foe,34 another considered his revision ‘a static and anaemic affair, despite the elegance of the writing’.35 Likewise, The Master of Petersburg is considered a mere ‘literary pastiche’ of Dostoevsky's novel, is called to task for juggling with the known historical facts, and is finally dismissed as an ‘act of literary terrorism’.36

The mimetic conception of allegory at work in the non-academic review allows Coetzee's novels to be located as ‘South African’ in relation to a stable, extra-textual referent synonymous with racism. ‘Allegorical’ readings, in this reading formation, re-anchor the novels to a familiar model of South Africa as an enclosed terrain, but at the same time, and conversely, once so located they can be read as having a universal moral significance, rather than a specific political one either with reference to alternative understandings of South Africa or to the politics of writing. This double movement is recognisable in commentaries on those novels in which South Africa is an indirect referent, such as Life and Times of Michael K, where ‘there is a certain fictional haze between the events and their local reference’,37 but also on those novels in which the narrative is not located in any specific time or place, or in a non-South African location, such as Foe, Waiting for the Barbarians, and most recently The Master of Petersburg. In reviews of his latest novel, Coetzee's re-writing of Dostoevsky's The Devils is routinely re-attached to ‘South Africa’, a re-attachment that allows the incorporation of apartheid into a general paradigm of tyrannical regimes in decline: ‘The relevance of this political allegory to apartheid-era South Africa, and the increasingly vicious response of a doomed regime to what it perceives as the enemy at its gates, is clear at once’.38 South Africa under apartheid and nineteenth-century Russia are both taken to be emblematic of a general form of ‘historical tyranny’.39 Apartheid is constructed as simply a variant of an a historical form of totalitarianism. Waiting for the Barbarians, for example, is inserted into a sub-genre of ‘the political allegory or fable dealing with modern totalitarianism’.40 An ‘allegorical’ reading enables South Africa to be understood as the referent of the novel, but a South Africa which is already constructed in terms of tyranny and totalitarianism, allowing a more general and de-politicised significance to be drawn from the novel. In the discourse of the general literary review, South Africa is concretised and named as the context and referent of Coetzee's novels, but at the same time and in the same move, it is idealised as a stage for more general moral dramas of human suffering and violence.


The ‘allegorical’ re-anchoring of Coetzee's novels enables them to be assimilated to familiar paradigms for understanding apartheid. One of the features of reception of South African fiction amongst metropolitan reading publics has been the routine treatment of literature as a source of knowledge about South African reality. South African writers have been expected, and in turn were read, to provide information about a particular reality at specific conjunctures. In particular, South African literature is regularly read in terms of a pre-existing set of understandings of a society polarised along stark lines of racialised division. Being able to place characters into a racialised drama is essential to the reading of South African fiction in this genre of criticism. Reviews of Life and Times of Michael K and Age of Iron are characterised by a desire to be able to place both Michael K and Vercueil into a manageable frame of radicalised reference. Thus, Vercueil is reported to be a ‘white down-and-out’41 or ‘a white vagrant’.42 Alternatively, another reviewer admits that ‘I thought he was meant to be a Coloured’,43 admitting that Coetzee might be engaging in an intentional ruse in this respect. If characters are expected to accord to a racialised understanding of South African society, then in turn this racialised lens is understood in strictly polarised, binary terms. Accordingly, Age of Iron is understood to be a novel treating ‘the effects of apartheid on the psyches of both the oppressor and the oppressed’.44 Such an understanding fails to register the ways in which the protagonists of Coetzee's novels rarely belong to this sort of easy binary division. Rather, they tend to be figures on the margin of the defining axis of racialised conflict which defined apartheid in the Western imagination. This exploration of the multiplicity of positions and identities in South Africa is one of the features that recommends Coetzee's novels as distinctively ‘post-apartheid’ narratives.45

The inscription of literary writing by white South Africans into an international framework involved the imposition of a peculiar ‘burden of representation’ upon those writers. They are positioned on the margins of Western literary canons as representatives who can speak of and against a racist system, in the name of universal values of justice and equality. They are asked to represent life under apartheid, and present a principled resistance or refusal to it, yet they do not and cannot represent its principal targets and victims, the majority of black South Africans. Black South African writers were much more effectively silenced or severed from their main audience, and have never been accorded the same degree of critical acclaim amongst the mainstream literary establishment in North America or Europe. On an international stage, white South African writers were invited to serve as proxies for the black South African majority. Yet, at the same time as South African literary writing was inserted into this regime of value, white novelists increasingly come to focus upon, in the content and form of their writing, their own marginalisation from the main sites of conflict and struggle in South African society. In so doing, writers such as Coetzee and Gordimer interrogated in their novels the representative status that continued to be unproblematically ascribed to them on an international stage.

From the late 1970s onwards, the cultural work that such fiction is made to do on this international stage is therefore increasingly at odds with the domestic concerns which shape it. The emergence of black consciousness movements and the upsurge of all forms of resistance from black communities after 1976, precipitated a terminal crisis of liberalism as both political ideology and literary aesthetic. This accounts for the characteristic introspection of white South African writing in the 1980s:

It is an obsessional literature, haunted and introspective, urgent and compulsive. It tracks relentlessly and more or less pitilessly over the ever more restricted terrain to which, by virtue of its situation, it is condemned. It is a literature of parsimony and narrow depiction, in which the motions of generosity and expansiveness have had to be stilled, as unaffordable luxuries.46

Forced to concede the limits that bound their writing and its relevance, white South African writers took on the task of imagining the contours of post-apartheid identities. The resulting deconstruction of white subjectivity in the novels of Gordimer and Coetzee has been hailed as a ‘post-liberal’ project that parallels the ‘post-nationalist’ writings of Njabulo Ndebele.47 As white South African writing becomes acutely self-reflexive about its own marginalisation and the problem of its own authority during the 1980s, one might expect that it becomes more difficult to contain within the frame of reference through which it was mediated for mainstream international literary publics. This is likely to be particularly the case with Coetzee's texts, in which this interrogation of white authority is articulated through a rigorous textual experimentation with generic and narrative forms. This formal radicalism is met with increasing impatience in literary journalism.

We can see this tension emerging in responses to Life and Times of Michael K. This novel makes visible the specific horizon of meaning through which South African writing is made intelligible. Michael K's social position is carefully delineated in the course of the narrative, but without recourse to the signifiers of race that are a standard feature of most South African writing. Michael K remains unclassified by racialised signifiers throughout the novel. The only occasions when the routine vocabulary of racial classification appears is when Michael K is addressed by figures of authority. Racialisation is presented in the novel as a process of interpellation into institutionally supported discourses of hierarchical differentiation. Furthermore, not only is race the absent signifier in the novel, but the eponymous ‘hero’ of this novel is a singularly passive figure. One commentator suggested that, if the theme of Coetzee's novel was passive suffering, then this was an inadequate theme for a novel.48 Compared both to standard figures of black resistance in South African literature, and to the heroes in the work of Kafka, with whom Coetzee is routinely related in literary reviews, Michael K is thoght to be simply not heroic enough. The charge that Coetzee fails to adequately represent black South African political struggle is most forcibly articulated in Gordimer's review of the novel. For her, Coetzee's novel represents a retreat from a commitment to political solutions and is marked by a refusal to see an active black presence in South African society. The oppositional thrust of the novel is diluted by fashioning an account around such an ambivalent central character, and Gordimer concludes that Coetzee fails to acknowledge the agency of black South Africans in resisting apartheid, the novel being marked by a ‘revulsion against all political and revolutionary solutions’.49 This same charge is echoed in other reviews of the novel. As soon as Michael K is read as a figure for black South Africa, a reading that effaces the ambiguous non-inscription of race in the narrative, then he appears as a model of passive suffering rather than active struggle and resistance, a representation that causes a certain degree of bewilderment: ‘Surely he does not represent the spirit of Africa? I see no point in this prolonged tale of woe’.50 In failing to accord to the ‘burden of representation’ imposed upon South African literary writing, the novel brings in to the open the conventions which framed the reading of such writing around an expectation of clear, binary protagonists who fell into simple categories of good and evil.

If the burden of representation imposed upon white South African writers by international audiences is more and more at odds with their own self-conscious reflection on questions of marginality and authority, then this accounts for the frustration and impatience felt towards the formal experiments undertaken in Coetzee's novels. While the reading of Coetzee's novels as allegories and parables allows a particular moral universalisation of South Africa, nonetheless for many reviewers the allegorical qualities of Coetzee's writing do not accord with notions of what good literary writing should be and of what South African writing in particular should deliver. The notion that Coetzee's persistent allegorising gets in the way of what should be clearly identifiable realities is a recurring theme: ‘Coetzee's urge to allegorise intrudes upon his narrative gifts’.51 This genre of criticism is somewhat intolerant of Coetzee's stylistic and narrative experimentation, ascribing these to a certain ‘academicism’ that intrudes into his writing. Age of Iron, with ‘its didactic urges everywhere apparent’, is found to be ‘formulaic’ and ‘obvious’ in its allegorising about death and illness.52 What is most important in this arena of judgement is, above all, the quality of the narrative, and Coetzee's fiction is often found to be too ‘contrived’ to support what are often considered to be thin stories. The aversion to Coetzee's formal radicalism is a recurrent theme—one reviewer invoking the same remark in two separate reviews to express his discomfort: ‘We are repelled by any sort of writing that, in Keats' phrase, “has a palpable design on us”’.53 The same discomfort and impatience with the formal features of Coetzee's novels is evident in Cynthia Ozick's commentary on Life and Times of Michael K. Hers is just one review which is unhappy with the intrusion into the narrative of Michael K's adventures of the reflections of the Doctor, who provides a second-order commentary on the difficulty of placing Michael K in any system of meaning. This section of the novel serves as the point at which the novel stages the necessity of its own (mis)reading. The temptation to make Michael K speak, to read him as symbolic of something, even as a figure of non-meaning, is made explicit within the narrative through the Doctor's account. This section of the novel is regarded by Ozick as an unnecessary and ‘self-indulgent’ intrusion into Michael K's otherwise ‘authentic’ inner dialogue: ‘the doctor's commentary is superfluous; he thickens the clear tongue of the novel by naming its “message” and thumping out ironies’.54 This intolerance of a stylistic ‘flaw’ succeeds in neutralising that part of the novel in which the question of interpretative authority is made most explicit. For Ozick, this self-reflexivity is judged ‘redundant’, a judgement which neatly enables her to place the rest of the novel, understood simply as the rendition of Michael K's story, within an established system of moral interpretations of apartheid.


In addition to general literary journalism, there is another reading-formation through which South African literature has circulated. This is the realm of professional academic literary criticism. In this reading-formation, it is the political value of literary fiction that is emphasised. Within the dominant frameworks for assessing the political credentials of South African fiction during the 1970s and much of the 1980s, radical academic critics found it difficult to ascribe an unambiguously positive political evaluation to Coetzee's work.55 His novels have been the subject of charges that they do not deal adequately with the urgent demands of representing the reality of life under apartheid and articulating an appropriate political response to it. Coetzee's novels de-familiarise common representations of South Africa by re-inscribing this ‘place’ into diffuse networks of overlapping geographical linkages and historical layers. As a consequence, they do not easily fit into the dominant realist aesthetic characteristic of much post-war South Africa literature. This difficulty in pinning down the political perspective of Coetzee's novels is in no small part a deliberate effect. Political and ethical ambivalence is a theme of all of his fiction. Coetzee steadfastly refuses to provide authoritative interpretations of his novels or to reduce them to political statements. In interviews, he cultivates a careful resistance to the standard gestures of the writer's political responsibility. In his critical essays he has explicitly marked his distance from instrumentalist conceptions of writing, and from understandings of the subordinate relation of fiction to history which have shaped the realist aesthetics of mainstream oppositional South African literature.56 And in his most recent collection of essays, Coetzee directly affirms the responsibility of writers to try and push beyond the aesthetic constraints imposed by existing political antagonisms.57

If Coetzee's novels have in the past been met with some suspicion amongst South African critics, then it is nonetheless important to emphasise that there is no simple division to be drawn between the reception of his fiction inside and outside of South Africa. The evaluations of Coetzee's work have been significantly revised within South Africa more recently.58 His fiction has been re-evaluated by academic critics in large part because of their interrogation of the dominant realist aesthetic previously characteristic of so much South African literature. Novels previously found to be lacking in an appropriate political agenda are now found to indeed have political significance. This positive re-evaluation coincides with the ascendancy of post-structuralist theories of interpretation. In particular, it rests on a recognition of the value of formal radicalism, which had previously been overlooked or disdained by critics of his early work. There is now an increasing acknowledgement of the value of formal pluralism in current cultural debates in South Africa.59 Furthermore, this process of re-evaluation is not merely a feature of European and North American discussions, but has been pioneered in South Africa. David Atwell identifies Teresa Dovey's The Novels of J. M. Coetzee, published in 1988, as marking a clear break with previous readings. Dovey reads Coetzee's early novels as allegories of psychoanalytic processes of identity formation.60 Her work also calls into question the frames of evaluation through which Coetzee's writing has been ascribed political value by South African critics. She has gone so far as to argue that Coetzee's novels effectively cut the ground from under those critics who have found his fiction lacking sufficient signs of appropriate political commitment. Dovey's intervention and responses to it have fostered increasingly divergent evaluations of Coetzee's novels amongst South African critics.61

These increasingly contested evaluations of the ‘political’ significance of Coetzee's fiction in South Africa are wrapped up in a more widespread transformation during the 1990s which has destabilised anti-apartheid discourses which were previously hegemonic. In the field of cultural politics, a thorough-going revision of previous paradigms was first triggered by the controversial intervention of ANC activist Albie Sachs.62 Sachs called for the revision of received notions of the relationship between culture and the struggle against apartheid that had become normalised during the 1970s and 1980s. The ensuing debates about the relation between culture and politics must be considered as one of the main ‘contexts’ from which Coetzee's fiction departs.63 South African cultural debates in the 1990s are characterised by an attempt to find a new ‘settlement’ between domestic and international discourses.64

The re-thinking of the relationships between South African cultural production and international theoretical and aesthetic paradigms has opened a space for the positive re-evaluation of Coetzee's fiction in political terms. This process of revision is shared between metropolitan and local academic critics who orient themselves towards post-structuralist theoretical perspectives. In particular, the most recent phase of the international reception of Coetzee's fiction is intimately connected to the emergence of post-colonial theories of culture, difference and identity. Like all literary theory, post-colonial theory is characterised by a tendency to select certain texts, genres, authors, and formalistic or stylistic features and elevate these to the status of defining features of a singular ‘tradition’ of ‘post-colonial writing’.65 For example, Slemon's discussion of the inscription of resistance in post-colonial literature explicitly privileges writings from what he calls the ‘second world’, by predominantly white writers from former settler colonies like Australia, New Zealand and Canada.66 In turn, the textual inscription of ambivalence and ambiguity is identified as the exemplary feature of post-colonial literature. It is this sort of construction of literary ‘post-coloniality’ which elevates the writing of Coetzee, characterised as it is by its overt inter-textual references to canonical novels, by tropes of allegory and mimicry, and by a studied ambivalence of narration, into the canon of post-colonial literature.

The relevance of post-colonialism to South African society and culture has been widely discussed.67 These discussions are of interest here not least because of the place that Coetzee's fiction has come to hold in the working up of an international canon of post-colonial literary writing.68 Coetzee's writing exemplifies the increasing convergence between post-structuralist theories of language and post-colonial literary genres,69 and his fiction has been easily fitted into academic discussions of post-colonialism, not least because of his position as both a novelist as well as a professional theorist and critic. Coetzee's novels are frequently approached as if they were essentially allegories of certain theoretical principles drawn from post-structuralism or deconstruction.70 The clearest example of this sort of appropriation is in the work of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, one of the central theorists of contemporary post-colonialism. Spivak has used Coetzee's re-writing of Robinson Crusoe in Foe as an exemplar of her theoretical concerns. For her, in the figure of the tongue-less Friday who resists all attempts to make him tell his story, the novel thematises processes of colonial inscription and silencing.71 Benita Parry's commentaries on Coetzee's novels can be read in turn as an oblique response to Spivak's position. From Parry's more sceptical perspective, Coetzee's fiction tends to reproduce effects of silencing by refusing to represent the voices of resistance. Coetzee's novels have thus become the ground for theoretical exposition in colonial discourse and post-colonial theory, and not least the basis for a continuation of debates sparked by Spivak's much contested statement that ‘the subaltern cannot speak’.72

Atwell suggests that Coetzee's concentration on issues of race and colonialism to the exclusion of other themes is the mark of his being primarily ‘a regional writer within South Africa’.73 Coetzee's novels are therefore particularly accommodating to incorporation by contemporary theories of colonial discourse, in so far as they address the colonial traces not so much of South Africa as a whole, but of the Cape in particular.74 Furthermore, in the post-colonial reading of Coetzee's novels, a quite distinctive understanding of colonialism is privileged as the framework for understanding contemporary South African society. In readings of Coetzee's work framed by contemporary theories of colonial discourse and post-colonialism, South Africa is not only constructed as a particular variant of colonialism, but of colonialism theorised primarily as a set of discursive practices for the construction of colonial subjectivities. The coloniser/colonised dyad, which is central to contemporary theories of colonial discourse and post-colonialism, easily reproduces a representation of South African society in terms of a Manichean struggle between the forces of good and evil. South Africa thus becomes just one example of a generic colonialism, one which ‘cannot be historicised modally, and that ends up tilted towards a description of all kinds of social oppression and discursive control’.75 The historical specificity of apartheid as a regime of governance and accumulation is thus elided, as apartheid is assimilated to an essentially de-historicised model of oppression.76


I have tried to identify some of the ways in which the meaning and referent of ‘South African literature’ has been dependent upon the cultural mediation of texts through institutionalised discourses of criticism and theory. I have done so by looking in detail at the contexts of reception for the work of J. M. Coetzee. I have argued that Coetzee's fiction has been inserted into dominant moral representations of apartheid, but also that the reception of such a rigorously self-reflexive body of fiction makes visible the norms of these mediating discourses. In the genre of the journalistic literary review, the context of Coetzee's novels is understood according to a particular, stabilised model of South African reality under apartheid. On the other hand, within the emergent post-colonial paradigm of academic literary criticism and theory, the contexts of the novels is understood to be an array of other texts and discourses. In this reading-formation, the formal dimensions of Coetzee's fiction have been acknowledged and accorded more positive value as the locus of the political significance of the novels.

Focussing upon the mediating channels of discourse through which ‘South African literature’ has been worked-up on an international stage enables the reformulation of the problem of the ‘politics of representation’ as it applies to the interpretation of South African cultural production. On the one hand, I have suggested that there is no simple distinction between a domestic inside and an international outside which might allow appeals to an enclosed South African context as the basis for providing final judgement on the value of Coetzee's fiction. The entanglement of inside and outside thus renders problematic any judgement that appeals to the ‘authenticity’ of acts of representation understood either mimetically or as the act of speaking on behalf of others. On the other hand, nor do I want to suggest that questions of political judgement can simply be dissolved into an indeterminate mass of individual acts of endlessly creative reception. Rather, attention should be directed towards evaluating the relative influence and force of different interests and institutions in shaping the discourses of mediation through which cultural products are produced, circulated and made available for consumption. The review, as a form of literary journalism, is distinct from academic literary criticism: the two practices are regulated by different imperatives and have a different relationship to their object of analysis, even when this is the same work.77 Metropolitan literary journalism has been highly influential, not only in pre-selecting authors and texts who are subsequently made the subject of academic canonisation, but also as part of an array of discourses where the persistent representation of South African society as a racial allegory is worked-up and maintained. The moral framing of literary fiction succeeded in keeping South Africa at a distance by assimilating apartheid into a stark moral drama of good and evil which made it readily available as an object of clear cut moral judgement. And, since this moralised staging of apartheid continues in accounts of the transformation of post-apartheid South Africa, which focus upon the activities of select individuals acting out an epic moral drama of reconciliation, it remains an important task to critically question the channels of discourse through which particular representations of South African society are reproduced.


  1. T. Morphet, ‘Two Interviews with J. M. Coetzee, 1983 and 1987’, in D. Bunn and J. Taylor (eds), From South Africa: Writing, Photography and Art (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1988).

  2. L. Chrisman, ‘Questioning Robert Young's Post-Colonial Criticism’, Textual Practice, 11, 1 (1997), pp. 39-45.

  3. R. Nixon, Homelands, Harlem and Hollywood: South African Culture and the World Beyond (London, Routledge, 1994), p. 78.

  4. Nixon, Homelands, p. 94.

  5. Nixon, Homelands, p. 204.

  6. D. Attridge, ‘Oppressive Silence: J. M. Coetzee's Foe and the Politics of the Canon’, in K. R. Lawrence (ed), Decolonising Tradition: New Views of Twentieth-Century ‘British’ Literary Canons (Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1992), p. 216.

  7. On the canonisation of ‘third world’ literary celebrities, see T. Brennan, ‘Cosmopolitans and Celebrities’, Race and Class, 31, 1 (1989), pp. 1-19.

  8. Nixon, Homelands, p. 205.

  9. L. Nkosi, ‘A Country of Borders’, Southern African Review of Books (June/July 1990), pp. 19-20; and L. Nkosi, ‘Constructing the “Cross-Border” Reader’, in E. Boehmer, L. Chrisman and K. Parker (eds), Altered State? Writing and South Africa (Sydney, Dangaroo Press, 1994), pp. 37-50. For further considerations of the centrality of borders and boundaries as emblems of social differentiation in South African culture and politics, see J. A. Stotesbury, ‘The Function of Borders in the Popular Novel in South Africa’, English In Africa, 17, 2 (1990), pp. 71-89, and R. Thornton, ‘The Potentials of Boundaries in South Africa: Steps Towards a Theory of the Social Edge’, in R. Werbner and T. Ranger (eds), Postcolonial Encounters in Africa (London, Zed Press, 1996), pp. 136-161.

  10. S. Clingman, The Novels of Nadine Gordimer (London, Allen and Unwin, 1986).

  11. W. Ong, ‘The Writer's Audience is Always a Fiction’, Publications of the Modern Languages Association, 90, 1 (1975), pp. 9-21.

  12. L. Engle, ‘Differences of Location’, Southern African Review of Books (July/August 1995).

  13. T. Bennett, ‘Texts in History: the Determinations of Readings and their Texts’, in D. Attridge, G. Bennington and R. Young (eds), Post-structuralism and the Question of History (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 70.

  14. Attridge, ‘Oppressive Silence’.

  15. B. Parry, ‘Speech and Silence in the Fiction of J. M. Coetzee’, New Formations, 21 (1993), p. 19. For a discussion of Coetzee's fiction with respect to British literary awards, see R. Todd, Consuming Fictions: the Booker Prize and Fiction in Britain Today (London, Bloomsbury, 1996).

  16. Nkosi, ‘A Country of Borders’, p. 20.

  17. M. Berubé, Marginal Forces/Cultural Centers: Tolson, Pynchon, and the Politics of the Canon (Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1992).

  18. Coetzee's first novel, Dusklands, was published in South Africa in 1974, but only published in Britain in 1982, and in the USA in 1985.

  19. R. Harwood, ‘An Astonishing First Novel’, Sunday Times, 12 June 1977, p. 41.

  20. B. Morrison, ‘Veldschmerz’, Times Literary Supplement, 22 July 1977, p. 900.

  21. B. Levin, ‘On the Edge of the Empire’, Sunday Times, 23 November 1980, p. 44.

  22. P. J. Parrinder, ‘What his Father Got up to’, London Review of Books, 13 September 1990, pp. 17-18.

  23. Gordimer and Coetzee are routinely coupled in both academic and non-academic criticism, often being taken as exemplars for different models of principled literary opposition to apartheid. On this pattern of interpretation, see K. Hewson, ‘Making the “Revolutionary Gesture”: Nadine Gordimer, J. M. Coetzee and Some Variations on the writer's responsibility’, Ariel, 19, 4 (1988), pp. 55-72; and I. Glenn, ‘Nadine Gordimer, J. M. Coetzee, and the Politics of Interpretation’, South Atlantic Quarterly, 93, 1 (1994), pp. 11-32.

  24. G. Annan, ‘Love and Death in South Africa,’ The New York Review of Books, 8 November 1990, pp. 8-10.

  25. J. Kramer, ‘In the Garrison’, New York Review of Books, 2 December 1982, pp. 8-12.

  26. I. Howe, ‘A Stark Political Fable of South Africa’, The New York Times Book Review, 18 April 1982, pp. 35-36.

  27. Levin, ‘On the Edge of the Empire’.

  28. Ibid.

  29. D. Donoghue, ‘Her Man Friday’, The New York Times Book Review, 22 February 1987, pp. 1 and 26-27.

  30. See J. M. Coetzee, Giving Offense (Chicago, University of Chicago Press), p. 151; and B. Parry. ‘Thanatophany for South Africa: Death With/out Transfiguration’, Southern African Review of Books (January/February 1991), pp. 10-11.

  31. N. Gordimer, ‘The Idea of Gardening’, The New York Review of Books, 2 February 1984, pp. 3-6.

  32. A. R. JanMohamed, ‘The Economy of Manichean Allegory: the Function of Racial Difference in Colonialist Literature’, Critical Inquiry, 12 (1985), pp. 59-87.

  33. S. Slemon, ‘Post-Colonial Allegory and the Transformation of History’, Journal of Commonwealth Literature, 22, 1 (1988), pp. 157-168; see also T. Dovey, ‘Allegory vs Allegory: the Divorce of Different Modes of Allegorical Perception in Coetzee's “Waiting for the Barbarians”’, Journal of Literary Studies, 4, 2, (1988), pp. 133-143.

  34. P. N. Furbank, ‘Mistress, Muse and Begetter’, Times Literary Supplement, 12 September 1986, p. 995.

  35. D. J. Enright, ‘Visions and Revisions’, The New York Review of Books, 28 May 1987, pp. 18-20.

  36. Z. Zinik, ‘The Master of Petersburg’, Times Literary Supplement, 4 March 1994, p. 19.

  37. Donoghue, ‘Her Man Friday’.

  38. P. McGrath, ‘To be Conscious is to Suffer’, The New York Times Book Review, 20 November 1994, p. 9.

  39. J. Bayley, ‘Doubles’, The New York Review of Books, 17 November 1994, pp. 35-36.

  40. P. Lewis, ‘Types of Tyranny’, Times Literary Supplement, 7 November 1980, p. 1270.

  41. P. Parrinder ‘What his Father Gets up to’, London Review of Books, 13 September 1990, pp. 17-18.

  42. S. French, ‘Writing and Action’, New Statesman, 21 September 1990, p. 40.

  43. Annan, ‘Love and Death in South Africa’.

  44. L. Thornton, ‘Apartheid's Last Vicious Gasps’, The New York Review of Books, September 1990, p. 7.

  45. See T. Kai Norris Easton, ‘Text and Hinterland: J. M. Coetzee and the South African Novel’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 21, 4 (1995), pp. 585-599.

  46. N. Lazarus, ‘Modernism and Modernity: T. W. Adorno and Contemporary White South African Literature’, Cultural Critique, 5 (1987), p. 131.

  47. G. Pechey, ‘Introduction’, in N. Ndebele, South African Literature and Culture: Rediscovery of the Ordinary (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1994), pp. 1-16; and G.Pechey, ‘Post-Apartheid Narratives’, in F. Barker, P. Hulme and M. Iverson (eds), Colonial Discourse/Postcolonial Theory (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1994), pp. 151-171.

  48. D. J. Enright, ‘The Thing Itself’, Times Literary Supplement, 30 September 1983, p. 1037.

  49. Gordimer, ‘The Idea of Gardening’.

  50. D. A. N. Jones, ‘Saint Jane’, London Review of Books, 20 October 1983, pp. 17-18.

  51. N. Shrimpton, Sunday Times, 25 September 1983, p. 43.

  52. D. J. Taylor, ‘Death of a Nation’, Sunday Times, 16 September 1990.

  53. Enright, ‘The Thing Itself’, and ‘Visions and Revisions’.

  54. C. Ozick, ‘A Tale of Heroic Anonymity’, The New York Times Book Review, 11 December 1983, pp. 1, 26, 28.

  55. For example, M. Vaughan, ‘Literature and Politics: Currents in South African Writing in the Seventies’, Journal of South African Studies, 9 (1982), pp. 118-138.

  56. J. M. Coetzee, ‘A Note on Writing’, in Doubling the Point, pp. 94-95; and ‘The Novel Today’, Upstream, 6 (1988), pp. 2-5.

  57. Coetzee, Giving Offense.

  58. See D. Atwell, J. M. Coetzee: South Africa and the Politics of Writing (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1993); and M. Chapman, 1996, South African Literatures (London, Longman, 1996), pp. 385-391.

  59. B. Parry, ‘Some Provisional Speculations on the Critique of “Resistance” Literature’, in Boehmer, Chrisman and Parker (eds), Altered State?, pp. 11-24.

  60. T. Dovey, The Novels of J. M. Coetzee: Lacanian Allegories (Johannesburg, Ad Donker, 1998).

  61. See T. Dovey, ‘Coetzee and his Critics: the case of Dusklands’, English in Africa, 14, 2 (1987), pp. 15-30. For responses to Dovey's reading of Coetzee, see B. Parry, ‘The Hole in the Narrative: Coetzee's Fiction’, Southern African Review of Books, April/May 1989, pp. 18-20; M. Chapman ‘The Writing of Politics and the Politics of Writing: on Reading Dovey on Reading Lacan on Reading Coetzee on Reading … (?)’, Journal of Literary Studies, 4, 3 (1988), pp. 327-341.

  62. See I. de Kok and K. Press (eds), Spring is Rebellious: Arguments about Cultural Freedom (Cape Town, Buchu Books, 1990).

  63. Atwell, J. M. Coetzee; and Atwell, ‘The Problem of History in the Fiction of J. M. Coetzee’, in M. Trump (ed), Rendering Things Visible: Essays on South African Literary Culture (Johannesburg, Ravan Press, 1990), pp. 94-132.

  64. T. Morphet, ‘Cultural Imagination and Cultural Settlement: Albie Sachs and Njabulo Ndebele’, in de Kok and Press (eds), Spring is Rebellious, pp. 131-144.

  65. For further discussion of the structure of exemplarity characteristic of all literary theory, see J. H. Miller, Topographies (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1995), pp. 316-337.

  66. S. Slemon, ‘Unsettling the Empire: Resistance Theory for the Second World’, World Literature Written in English, 30, 2 (1990), pp. 30-41.

  67. A. Carusi, ‘Post, Post and Post: Or, Where is South African Literature in All This?’ Ariel, 20, 4 (1989), pp. 79-95; K. Parker, ‘J. M. Coetzee: “White Writing”’, New Formations, 21 (1993), pp. 21-34; C. Clayton, ‘White Writing and Postcolonial Politics’, Ariel, 25, 4 (1994), pp. 153-167; R. Jolly, ‘Rehearsals of Liberation: Contemporary Postcolonial Discourse and the New South Africa’, Publications of the Modern Language Association, 110, 1 (1995), pp. 17-29; N. Visser, ‘Postcoloniality of a Special Type: Theory and its Appropriation in South Africa’, The Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 27 (1997), pp. 79-94.

  68. For example, see J. Thieme (ed), The Arnold Anthology of Post-Colonial Literatures in English (London, Arnold, 1996); and E. Benson and L. W. Connolly (eds), The Encyclopaedia of Post-Colonial Literatures in English (London, Routledge, 1994). For the use of Coetzee's work in theorising post-colonial literature, see H. Tiffin, ‘Post-Colonial Literatures and Counter-Discourse’, Kunapipi, 9, 3 (1987), pp. 17-33; and B. Ashcroft, G. Griffiths and H. Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literature (London, Routledge, 1989).

  69. E. Boehmer, Colonial and Postcolonial Literature (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 223.

  70. See Atwell's comments in Coetzee, Doubling the Point, p. 245.

  71. G. C. Spivak, ‘Theory in the Margin: Coetzee's Foe Reading Defoe's Crusoe/Roxana’, in J. Arac and B. Johnson (eds), Consequences of Theory (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), pp. 154-180.

  72. G. C. Spivak, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, in C. Nelson and L. Grossberg (eds), Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (London, Macmillan, 1988), pp. 271-313; Parry, ‘Speech and Silence in the Fictions of J. M. Coetzee’. For further discussion of theoretical issues at stake in the differing positions of Spivak and Parry with respect to Coetzee's fiction, see C. Barnett, ‘Sing Along with the Common People: Politics, Postcolonialism and Other Figures’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 15 (1997), pp. 137-154.

  73. Atwell, J. M. Coetzee, p. 25.

  74. For examples, see S. Watson, ‘Colonialism and the Novels of J. M. Coetzee’, Research in African Literatures, 17 (1986), pp. 370-392; and S. Roberts, ‘Post-Colonialism, or the House of Friday’, World Literature Written in English, 31, 1 (1991), pp. 87-92.

  75. S. Slemon, ‘The Scramble for Post-Colonialism’, in C. Tiffin and A. Lawson (eds), De-Scribing Empire: Post-colonialism and Textuality (London, Routledge, 1994), pp. 15-32.

  76. For a critique of the ‘colonialist paradigm’ of oppression in cultural theory, see H. L. Gates, Jr., ‘Trading on the Margin: Notes on the Culture of Criticism’, in Loose Canons (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. 173-194.

  77. On the distinctive qualities of reviewing and criticism, see M. Morris, ‘Indigestion: a Rhetoric of Reviewing’, in The Pirate's Fiancée (London, Verso, 1988), pp. 105-121.

Criticism: Asian/Pacific Postcolonial Literature

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Last Updated on February 3, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5833

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 eyebrows leaped up. “Since when?”1

Applied to American literary histories, the term “postcolonial” makes an imperfect but, in some ways, useful lens. In “minority” American literatures generally—and because they are often still considered “minority” ones, continuing to struggle for equality—an incongruity of “postcolonial” models arises from this: for peoples of racial minority groups of the United States there has not been a point of “liberation” from colonialism in the political, international sense that the British colonies became “liberated,” gained independence and nationhood, whether in North America or, say, in South Asia. It is arguable that in minority American literatures generally, political and cultural issues are being played out in ways that resemble dynamics of race, class, and gender in postcolonial nations engaged in processes of creating new national narratives out of their old and their recent indigenous, colonial, and current postcolonial histories and languages. Rather than establishing a similarly, however, a comparison between postcolonial literary phenomena and various ways in which Asian/Pacific American literatures have been “emerging” brings into view, as well as into question, certain distinctions among Asian/Pacific American and other “minority” literatures of the United States.2

From the point of view of indigenous peoples of the United States, colonialism did not end in 1776 and with the Declaration of Independence. The colonizers remained in charge under the new dispensation. The language in which a national literature of the United States emerged was primarily English. The transition from British colony to independent nation did not result in a rejection of English—for the most part the rebels' native tongue, after all—and a return to an indigenous language and culture predating the arrival of colonists, though such a construct (and adoption of a Native American language) for the new nation was once and again proposed by colonizers. The colonization of the indigenous peoples—and the notion that they are subjects (namely, subjected to) rather than agents of changes—continues despite the fact that, importantly, American culture has been and is alive with changes effected not only by the arrivals of peoples, ideas, and arts from around the world but by influences of indigenous cultures, and with changes necessitated or inspired by the very lands, waters, and skies that comprise the United States.3 Agents of American cultural changes are not exclusively European colonizers; but these changes are not exactly “postcolonial” because they are still largely claimed and owned by the colonizers themselves.

In Asian/Pacific American literary history, questions regarding postcolonialism ought first of all to be applied thus to Hawai‘i, a state of the union that has, however, capitalized on an exceptionalism which aims to give the impression that Hawai‘i and its cultures are, in appeal to some recess of the yearner's desire, most naturally untouched by whatever colonialist grip the rest of the United States may have on the Islands. I find it important to begin this discussion with thoughts about Native Hawaiian history, because of how it simultaneously affects the development and characteristics of the Asian American literature of Hawai‘i and exposes some assumptions about class and national values in the Asian American literature of immigration, whether of Hawai‘i or of the continental United States.4 In a colonialist view, 1778 and the first arrival of the British Captain James Cook signify the beginning of the colonization of Hawai‘i by Europeans. But a different view, a view from the shore, though recognizing the fact that Cook interacted with changes historically under way in his time, would place 1778 within a long struggle waged by and among native Hawaiians to unify and gain political control over the entire chain of islands of Hawai‘i (Sumida 1991, 7-19, 160-2). This warfare culminated, not in some kind of Native Hawaiian defeat at the hands and brains of superior Europeans led by one who arrived by accident in Hawai‘i, but in the successful conquest and unification of the Islands, completed in the mid-1790s, by Kamehameha I, first monarch of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i. Hawaiian sovereignty under a unified monarchy lasted almost a full century, during which many Europeans and Americans, with their colonialist views of taking over the realm, might have thought and acted as if Hawai‘i were their “colony” and did fight over whose it was. But it was Native Hawaiians who ruled. When, in the late twentieth century, assertions of and opposition against Hawaiian sovereignty are voiced, it is to this history that the partisans allude—indeed to this already powerfully mythical time when Native Hawaiians consolidated political, national agency for themselves, among themselves, and by themselves.

Nonetheless, outside would-be colonialist influences were certainly strong enough that Hawai‘i, even under the monarchy, struggled with such forces. Hawaiian arts such as the mele (poetry) and hula (dances), including mele ma‘i celebrating the genitals of royal ones and other honored persons, were suppressed by Christian missionaries and some of their converts (Elbert and Mahoe 1970, 6). Although genital chants may seem an extreme form of art in our (postmissionary) minds, the genre had not been extreme in pre-Christian Hawai‘i; and the suppression of arts and culture extended to historical chants, for Hawaiian history was pagan history, to be wrested from the convert entering the new life of Christianity.5 Whatever his own strategies of sometimes opposing, sometimes courting the support of Americans in the realm, in the 1870s and 1880s the elected king, David Kalākaua, instituted what became known as a “Hawaiian Renaissance” of native arts and sciences. The fact that there was a recognized “renaissance” clearly suggests that Kalākaua sought through it to supply something he felt lacking but needed for the life of the land. The “reborn” Hawaiian culture emerged in opposition to the European imports and influences in eclectic and sometimes secret ways. Here was an assertion of Hawaiian nationalism even while in principle as well as in practical rule it was the Native Hawaiians themselves who were still in power.

The need for the sovereign nation to proclaim a renaissance and a cultural nationhood in Kalākaua's reign foretold the change that soon followed. His successor, Queen Lili‘uokalani, who has the reputation of being one of the greatest Native Hawaiian poets and songwriters and is still widely known for her lyrics today, was overthrown by American businessmen, backed by U.S. naval power, in January 1893.6 President Grover Cleveland declared this takeover illegal when the businessmen offered the United States the opportunity to annex Hawai‘i immediately. The illegal takeover is the occasion that marks in Hawaiian history the beginning—not the end—of the American colonial period. Immediately after the overthrow of the queen and monarchy, Ellen Wright Prendergast, an attendant of Lili‘uokalani, composed the mele, “Kaulana nā Pua.” Though its words, in the Hawaiian language, were little understood through much of the next century, this song has become one of the most familiar-sounding expressions today of protest against colonization (Elbert and Mahoe 1970, 62-4; Sumida 1991, 62-3, 109, 1992, 218-19). This mele was at first considered sacred, not to be accompanied by a hula. It was a document in an underground movement. The very music of the song seems happy (as in the former vice president Dan Quayle's saluting American Samoans by calling them “happy campers”) to anyone who does not understand its language. Merely hearing the tune, who would suspect “Kaulana nā Pua” of being subversive?

Kaulana nā pua a‘o
Kūpa‘a mahope o ka ‘āina
Hiki mai ka ‘elele o ka loko
Palapala ‘ānunu me ka
Famous are the children of
Ever loyal to the land
When the evil-hearted messenger
With his greedy document of

The song's statement of protest and its invocation of indigenous, heroic traditions and values springing directly from a precontact history of self-sufficiency of the island culture—an experience centered on the cultivation of the land and of families, the work and the rule of sustaining the life of the land—became “masked” from the ignorant. This already, in about February 1893, was assuredly a colonized Hawai‘i with a poetry and discourse crafted for that new status. This too is the colonial period some of the two hundred thousand indigenous Hawaiians see themselves living in today, as evidenced by sovereignty movements currently under way.8

Simultaneously energizing and confusing arguments over cultural and historical relations in Hawai‘i, however, is the convergence today of the Native Hawaiian renaissance with a “Local” cultural upwelling that includes a large measure of diversely Asian American participation. Whether of indigenous or immigrant descent, most “Locals” of Hawai‘i are quick to note the irony when a tourist refers to the “States” and implies that Hawai‘i is not one. Asian Americans in this Local society also generally assume identification with the national, political, and economic label “American,” as well as their specific ethnicities within Local, heterogeneous culture. Historically, these Asian American peoples were imported under contract, amounting to indentured servitude, to work on the sugar plantations in Hawai‘i. As laborers, and in particular as non-white laborers, they were at best promoted to the ranks of subalterns, not colonialists like the sugar planters, missionaries, big capitalists, and military leaders. Today when those who are Asian American Locals—people like myself, third- or fourth-generation descendants of imported laborers—voice ethnically specific and collectively Local identities and unity through a recognized body of fiction, poetry, and drama, it appears in a sense that a postcolonial, nationalist movement is under way, under an implicit assumption that we have been liberated (supposedly by American opportunities) from colonialist and class oppression and are in the process of forging a new national identity through politics, economic strides, and the raising of our own voices. But this construct, based as it is on assumptions about immigrant histories and dreams, again leaves out the Native Hawaiian. Further, the idea that the emergence of a Local culture in Hawai‘i is evidence of a kind of nationalism, not primarily Native Hawaiian but heterogeneous, obscures the fact that the Asian American Locals, too, despite their numbers in the population, are still inheritors of a colonial history they have not escaped, a history shaped greatly by nineteenth-century notions of white superiority and therefore white rule. The nation of Hawaii's peoples is still the United States, where Asian Americans are assuredly not the majority.

In Hawaii's Local literature today there is, however, a language of agency, of self-determination. It is Hawai‘i Creole English, or what Locals popularly call “pidgin.” If there were an emergence of a postcolonial literature of Hawai‘i today, one of its languages would be this pidgin. Here is a sample from Lois-Ann Yamanakas, a poem called “Parts” (that is, body parts):


Stop muttering
under your breath
before I pound
your face.
Want me
to punch
your face in?
You cannot run away
from me.
I catch you
and give you
double lickens.
Now get
your ass
in your room
and fold
all the laundry.
Then I'm gonna
teach you
how to iron
your father's shirts.
Go. The laundry
is on your bed.
Hurry up.



found this letter
in you panty drawer.
Did you write
all these evil things?
Looks like your
Like me read this
to Joy and her mother?
Like me call them up
come over for lunch
right now?
What you mean,
no, wait?
So you did
write it.


cannot believe
that so much evil
can live
in one person.
You are a evil child.
You are filthy.
You are a hypocrite.
Stay in your room.

[Sister Stew (1991), 27-28]

If Hawai‘i were a postcolonial site, how apt would Yamanaka's poem be, with its blunt and nuanced, parodic verbal assaults against the daughter's body and her sexuality? This treatment courses through the mother from a history of being virtually owned, bodily, by the plantation boss and of being suppressed by fears of sinning and looking bad, where an individual's looks and behavior could have consequences for the entire community if the boss decided so.9 The poem would aptly be postcolonialist, too, because it exposes how we inherit colonialism even when we may think we are and should be free of it, and the poem critiques what it exposes: the pecking order, the downhill course of the sewage ditch, or the abuse of the subordinate runs headlong down the hierarchies exposed in Ota's Upon Their Shoulders (1951), Lum's “Primo Doesn't Take Back Bottles Anymore” (1972) and “Beer Can Hat,” Murayama's “I'll Crack Your Head Kotsun” and all throughout his All I Asking for Is My Body (1975) to Yamanaka's “Parts.” In this lineage Yamanaka's speaker also inherits an identification with a social class, a labor class. It is an identification which in this case opposes and transcends colonial standards, gendered constructs of how boys and men might talk pidgin, “bad English,” whereas girls and women are supposed to “talk nice” and become schoolteachers, middle-class, haolefied (whitewashed), and accepting of being colonized.

Yamanaka's “pidgin” language is Local identity in one of its many forms, whether in daily life or in the poem, and therefore in its treatments of otherwise widespread themes. The primacy of the voice of one person speaking to others, in Hawaii's Local literature, is expressed through the poem's genre: it is a dramatic monologue, a valuable device among Hawaii's contemporary poets, including Cathy Song, who, writing in so-called standard English, may be said moreover to demonstrate that poetic traditions of Hawai‘i are by no means confined to Hawai‘i Creole.

Another language of a postcolonial Hawai‘i, if there were ever to be such a place, would be Native Hawaiian, the prime language of Hawai‘i. Put Hawai‘i Creole and Hawaiian together in the linguistic identity of a hypothetical postcolonial nation, and we have the tongues native to Hawai‘i. If in an instant you could take away all other languages, including English, that native speakers have brought from outside Hawai‘i, then certain Local writers and most of the population would still have their own tongues of Hawai‘i to exercise cultural agency in the literary arts and talking story.

The same may not yet be said of Asian American cultures of the American continent. Frank Chin grumbles about the failure thus far of West Coast Asian Americans to create a language that can be sustained and put to every conceivable linguistic use even if the speaking of English, Spanish, Black English, and a variety of Asian tongues were to vanish.10 Beyond the immigrant generation, Asian Americans of the mainland generally write in English. Native Hawaiian and pidgin being quite different matters, in Hawai‘i and elsewhere in the Pacific a similar phenomenon is occurring in the emergence of a new growth in “traditional” indigenous literatures, this outgrowth being Pacific Island literatures written by indigenous peoples but in the languages of the colonizers.11 On some of these islands, now nations, we can truly speak of the emergence of a postcolonial literature in English, just as there is a strong Anglophone, postcolonial literature in India. Regarding Chin's observation about the confinement of Asian American writers to the language that has dominated them, there is something to be learned from African American literature and the arts of subversion or of strategic, ostensible accommodations to domination through artistry in the English language. And as Chin has been insisting for some years now, verbal strategies and the creation of Asian American discourses of agency as resistance can be derived from abundant methods found in “heroic” Chinese and Japanese stories about social, sometimes interethnic, oppression and social justice, as well as from the early history of the Chinese American laborer and adventurer classes.

But whereas in Hawai‘i the literary uses of pidgin and native Hawaiian languages may allow a writer to be expressive in what are perceived to be his or her own terms, in virtually monolingual Asian American literature of the continent assertions of cultural identity, I think, tend to be made by way of opposition or resistance that in a sense depends upon, and unavoidably reifies, the racial, cultural, and nationalistic constructs of a perceived “majority” American culture, the adversary when it assumes and asserts domination. Thus, in any number of works we find a central conflict or tension addressed, though in significantly different ways, between what it is to be “Asian” and what it is to be “American,” or what it is to be stereotyped as one or the other or both.12 This occurs, for instance, in works by Frank Chin, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Amy Tan, to name only three out of a century-long history of Asian American writers. Some, like Tan, simply assume an intercultural conflict and the opposing sides to be “real.” This is a well-established, highly problematic tradition in continental Asian American literatures. Others, like Chin and Kingston, in their different ways deconstruct the sides, and therefore the conflict, and show them to be profoundly “unreal” yet a virulent basis for racist actions. Still, in Kingston's Woman Warrior and Tripmaster Monkey, and in Chin's Donald Duk, the protagonists have to approach a radically different understanding by first exhausting old, ultimately pointless questions about their identities as supposedly being alien, in contrast or opposition to the identities of others by race, culture, and language—pointless in part because, except for immigrants among them, the protagonists do not possess or own any Asian “race,” “culture,” or “language” apart from American orientalist constructs of these concepts, and in part because their questions of ethnic and racial identity are “American,” ones asked in distinctly twentieth-century American contemporary and historical contexts. “Asian” cultural elements that immigrants transmit to younger Asian American generations are selectively remembered, reduced to serve the needs and purposes of the immigrant trying to deal with life, security, and the upbringing of Asian American youngsters in a land that lacks the full support of the culture the immigrant has left. Yet both the immigrants and the American-born characters have to deal with the construct of the former as supposedly a full-blown representation of an Asian land, culture, and people. By comparison, in Yamanaka's “Parts,” the poem's speaker and daughter have other concerns than cultural identity on their minds, and they have these concerns with no need for self-consciousness about the language they speak and its difference from “standard” English (except that Yamanaka is highly conscious of her linguistic choices in writing the poem).

This is to suggest that Asian American literature of the continental United States, too, has been emerging not exactly as a postcolonial phenomenon. It is indeed a “minority” literature in a troubling sense, sometimes and perhaps at its best an oppositional literature in an American culture that “colonizes” Asian Americans within America's own borders. When Asian American literature is postcolonial, it is about another nation and is written in languages taken from those of the former colonizers. Thus Jessica Hagedorn's Dogeaters and Ninotchka Rosca's State of War are novels about the Philippines, the setting also for parts of Peter Bacho's Cebu and of Michele Cruz Skinner's Balikbayan, after the nation was granted independence from the United States in 1946. N. V. M. Gonzalez's works (for instance, his short story “The Popcorn Man,” about a Filipino who teaches English composition to American soldiers on an installation resembling the former Clark United States Air Force Base) are “postcolonial,” drenched in references to things, ideas, and terms of a combined four centuries of Spanish and American rule and the author's consciousness of taking part in the creation of a national literature. A similar observation may be made of Meena Alexander's novel, Nampally Road, sparked by the rape of a woman by police in a station house in Hyderabad during the Emergency of the 1970s in India.

Indeed, about the immigrant's refusal to see that in America he is no longer in Asia, no longer of a national majority group, George Leong recites a poem with the refrain, “Are you a Chinese? Or are you a Chinaman?”13 A Chinese American speaker (a “Chinaman”) addresses an immigrant who still considers himself “Chinese”:

Do you have a flag? Do you have an army?
Are you a Chinese? Or are you a Chinaman?
Do you have one billion people? Are you a nation?
Are you a Chinese? Or are you a Chinaman?

In other words, the immigrant is now a “Chinaman” like the poem's speaker, a subject of a nation in which he is not of a majority that matters in ways he might wish. This awareness is seen, in Leong's poem, to be a necessary first step toward any possibility of the Chinaman's becoming empowered, not fractured from a meaningful historical identity and not rendered bone by bone into one more soul exploited, an “individual” who emerges from divisiveness rather than a fulfilled selfhood.

Some writers seem to me to be most aware that Asian America is not a “nation” and that the nation they are most determined to affect, indeed transform, is the United States, in a vision which includes Asian America, in order that fresh immigrants and nativists of long standing alike might perhaps understand that being “American” ought not be restricted by race. That is, even sometimes-so-called Asian American cultural nationalists seek not sovereignty but recognition of Asian Americans' historical rights in America.

Whether or not it, like a movement for Native Hawaiian sovereignty, can also be called “nationalist,” this continental Asian American drive for recognition of these voices in American literature signifies the emergence of a literature out from under an Anglo-American colonialism. It is a burgeoning literature full of self-consciousness about individual and collective identities, still bearing marks of exploitation by and through inequalities of gender and race, even after class and class differences seem to have ceased to be an issue for now because of a predominance in it of middle-class assumptions and dreams. This would mean that the “nation” assumed in Asian American literature is an ideal of “America”—precisely as in Carlos Bulosan's classic Filipino American, migrant-labor novel of exile, America Is in the Heart—and it is an “America” where power or potentiality, citizenship, and equality are democratic rights not determined by race, gender, age, and other attributes that are ordinarily outside anyone's choice. I do not think Asian American literature is alone among “minority” literatures in assuming this cluster of ideals, a yet unrealized postcolonial “nation” to which, with their visions, certain authors of this and other literatures already belong.

But this affirmation of “America,” occurring even in works of Asian American literature most critical of acts of the United States, such as John Okada's No-No Boy, when combined with historical circumstances, also tends to set Asian American literature and communities apart from other “minority” literatures and communities in a way that has been divisive and should not be: among America's peoples of color, it is mainly Asian Americans who are generally distinguished by their having come to the United States by choosing to subject themselves to American rule and by passing the legacies of this choice down to the American-born generations. In this context, the idea that Asian American literature is emerging as a “postcolonial,” revolutionary or postrevolutionary phenomenon is inconceivable, for given a (mis)reading of the evidence, is it not the Asian's will and nature to be colonized, as the immigrant American by choice, despite the fact that David Henry Hwang tries to destroy this idea of the naturally yielding Asian in his M. Butterfly? All the more, then, to counteract this misreading, we have to understand how the “America” envisioned in some works of Asian American literature is not America as it is, but a utopian “postcolonial America” that may be seen, through fictions, as emerging from an actual, still colonial America. It used to be a prevalent stereotype about Asians in America that the opposite was the case—that Asians came willingly, but only to return home to Asia rich. That stereotype was used to condemn Asian immigrants, settlers, for not truly being committed and responsible to this land and for being unassimilable in any case. Now, however, the settlement of Asians in America and the growing awareness that these peoples are here to stay are sometimes taken as signs that they are sellouts, mimicking Europeans, the other racial group who supposedly followed the myth of the American Dream to these shores.

Even while opposing such generalizations, Asian American literature has gone quite far to promote identification with America, or with a better America. And this brings me back to particulars of the beginning of this chapter, to the questions that need to be addressed concerning indigenous peoples, expressly in connection with constructs of Asian American literature. How can the ideas of a “better America” be reconciled with concepts of postcolonial agency and its foundation—as I have been treating it in this instance—upon a liberation from colonization? In the main, whether in Hawai‘i or on the continent, is Asian American literature of the coming decades to support or perhaps improve the nation, the United States, at the expense of others colonized? Occasionally I have received responses to my comments about Asian American and Native Hawaiian relations that isolate these concerns out there in the middle of the Pacific—literally isolated incidents peripheral to Asian American concerns. My point, however, is that these concerns apply throughout America when the question asked of me and my colleagues about postcolonialism stir up questions about the nation or nations implicit or assumed in Asian American and other ethnic literary studies nationwide. The inquiry prompting this discussion of postcolonialism and ethnic literatures brings certain bases and contours of Asian American literature into prominence, and I find myself repeating a question. What liberation from colonialism—for anyone, from whatever sites of oppression—is there when indigenous peoples of these lands are still colonized?


  1. Conversation with McGregor, October 1992. The original version of this chapter was presented at the annual convention of the American Studies Association, Costa Mesa, California, November 1992, in the session titled “American Literary History as a Postcolonial Phenomenon.” For a critique of the ongoing colonization of Hawai‘i by the United States, see Trask 1993.

  2. The term “Asian/Pacific American” configures many differing ethnic groups into a political entity, a conceptualized coalition. Political agendas of constituent groups in the category continually merge and diverge, changing the category, so that currently, what two decades ago was envisioned—hopefully—to be an alliance of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders does not hold. My discussion reflects this divergence and certain comparisons it opens among Native Hawaiian, Hawaii's Asian American, and continental Asian American literatures. For a treatment of the development of the panethnic concept “Asian American,” see Espiritu 1992.

  3. These changes, both distinctive to and resulting from the social and natural environments of American settings (of time, place, history) have often been considered central to defining and promoting America and the United States' strength and position in the world, under theories and practices of “American exceptionalism” especially in the four decades of the Cold War. The concept of “exceptionalism” in this sense, although not for purposes of promoting the power of the American nation in the world, may be basic to current images of Hawai‘i and of Asian Americans, the former promoted as a special destination and the latter characterized as a model minority.

  4. For another case where the category of an Asian American “literature of immigration” is critiqued, see Campomanes (1992), who, against the predominance of this category, contrasts a Filipino American “literature of exile.” Also, Rafael (1993) details some of the colonial cultural and hegemonic strategies the United States employed in taking over the Philippines from which the “old-timers” departed.

  5. Hawaiian historical and genealogical chants narrate and record some aspects of culture that pass on the empowering knowledge of descent, which both identifies particular individuals, each standing in unique relation to others, and narrates those relationships tieing individuals, by acts and events, to one another. In the twentieth century, it was a genre of seemingly ahistorical love lyric that selectively came to symbolize Hawai‘i in a tourist's ears. This is one of the aspects of what I call a suppression of narrative, historical chants.

  6. See Lili‘uokalani, Hawaii's Story by Hawaii's Queen. See also John Dominis Holt's drama, Kaulana Na Pua (1974), and his historically based long poem, Hanai (1986); and Aldyth Morris's drama, Lili‘uokalani (1993), for treatments of the life and illegal overthrow of Hawaii's last monarch.

  7. When orally delivering this paper, I presented “Kaulana nā Pua” by first playing some stanzas of Genoa Keawe's singing of it with her group at the Waimea Music Festival. Her performance, its vocal exuberance, its pitches, instrumentals, tempo, and style (called “chalangalang” in echo of the lively strumming of the ukulele) epitomize the presentation of “Kaulana nā Pua” in the subversive guise of a party song. I next read translated stanzas, one of which I quote here, of lyrics that many in my audience found quite unexpected.

  8. The United States Census Bureau recorded 211,014 Native Hawaiians in 1990. The figure includes “pure Hawaiians” and “part Hawaiians” who identified themselves as Hawaiian in the census. In that census the total population of Hawai‘i was 1,108,229.

  9. In her novel, Ota narrates the plantation owner's rape of a Japanese housemaid, chosen for her duties and victimization because of her looks (46). Theories and rationalizations of physique and physical abilities in connection with race supported the selection of laborers imported to Hawai‘i and its plantations.

  10. Chin's comments about the value of Hawaii's pidgin and Creole occur for me in a long-standing conversation with him, speaking with Hawai‘i Creole writers such as Milton Murayama and Darrell H. Y. Lum in mind, going back to 1976.

  11. See Hamasaki, whose thesis and literary activities offer materials and analyses related to postcolonial studies of Pacific Island literatures, distinct from immigrant-based approaches.

  12. For comparisons that highlight, by contrast, a concern with this dual “Asian American” identity, consider the popular novel, Kitchen, by Banana Yoshimoto, a Japanese woman—that is, a member of the racial and ethnic majority group in her nation. In Kitchen here is no emphasis on matters of racial and ethnic hierarchies or resistance against them. The fact that the characters cook and eat foods of different international derivations does not signify that their identities are fragmented. See, too, Sara Suleri's autobiography, Meatless Days (1989), for what is simultaneously a high degree of consciousness of constructs of race and ethnicity and a high awareness and questioning of how her multiplicity of identities relates to the postcolonial forging of a new nation, Pakistan.

  13. I have never been able to find the poem in print, so I paraphrase it from where I have heard it, on the soundtrack of Dupont Guy: The Schiz of Grant Avenue, a film by Curtis Choy about Chinatown in San Francisco.

Works Cited

Alexander, Meena. 1991. Nampally Road. San Francisco: Mercury House.

Bacho, Peter. 1991. Cebu. Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press.

Bulosan, Carlos. 1946/1973. America Is in the Heart. Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press.

Campomanes, Oscar V. 1992. “Filipinos in the United States and Their Literature of Exile.” In Reading the Literatures of Asian America, ed. Shirley Geok-lin Lim and Amy Ling, 49-78. Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press.

Chin, Frank. 1991. Donald Duk. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press.

Choy, Curtis. 1976. Dupont Guy: The Schiz of Grant Avenue. Film. Oakland: Chonk Moonhunter.

Elbert, Samuel H., and Noelani Mahoe, eds. 1970. Nā Mele o Hawai‘i Nei: 101 Hawaiian Songs. Honolulu: Univ. Hawai‘i Press.

Espiritu, Yen Le. 1992. Asian American Panethnicity: Bridging Institutions and Identities. Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press.

Gonzalez, N. V. M. 1993. “The Popcorn Man.” In The Bread of Salt and Other Stories, 136-50. Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press.

Hagedorn, Jessica. 1990. Dogeaters. New York: Pantheon Books.

Hamasaki, Richard. 1989. “Singing in Their Genealogical Trees: The Emergence of Contemporary Hawaiian Poetry in English—Dana Naone Hall, Wayne Kaumuali‘i Westlake, Joseph P. Balaz.” M. A. thesis, Univ. of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.

Holt, John Dominis. 1974. Kaulana Na Pua, Famous Are the Flowers: Queen Liliuokalani and the Throne of Hawaii: A Play in Three Acts. Honolulu: Topgallant Publishing.

———. 1986. Hanai: A Poem for Queen Liliuokalani. Honolulu: Topgallant Publishing.

Hwang, David Henry. 1988. M. Butterfly. New York: Penguin.

Kingston, Maxine Hong. 1976. The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts. New York: Knopf.

———. 1989. Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book. New York: Knopf.

Leong, George. 1976. [“Are You a Chinese, or Are You a Chinaman?”] Text from film by Curtis Choy, Dupont Guy: The Schiz of Grant Avenue. Oakland, CA: Chonk Moonhunter.

Lili‘uokalani. 1898/1986. Hawaii's Story by Hawaii's Queen. Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle.

Lum, Darrell H. Y. 1972/1986. “Primo Doesn't Take Back Bottles Anymore.” Reprinted in The Best of Bamboo Ridge: The Hawaii Writers' Quarterly, ed. Eric Chock and Darrell H. Y. Lum, 184-8. Honolulu: Bamboo Ridge Press.

———. 1980/1986. “Beer Can Hat.” Reprinted in The Best of Bamboo Ridge: The Hawaii Writers' Quarterly, ed. Eric Chock and Darrell H. Y. Lum, 175-83. Honolulu: Bamboo Ridge Press.

Morris, Aldyth. 1993. Lili‘uokalani. Honolulu: Univ. of Hawai‘i Press.

Murayama, Milton. 1975/1988. All I Asking for Is My Body. Honolulu: Univ. of Hawai‘i Press.

Okada, John. 1957/1979. No-No Boy. Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press.

Ota, Shelley Ayame Nishimura. 1951. Upon Their Shoulders. New York: Exposition Press.

Rafael, Vicente L. 1993. “White Love: Surveillance and Nationalist Resistance in the U.S. Colonization of the Philippines.” In Cultures of United States Imperialism, ed. Amy Kaplan and Donald E. Pease, 185-218. Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press.

Rosca, Ninotchka. 1988. State of War. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Prendergast, Helen Wright. 1893/1970. “Kaulana na Pua.” In Nā Mele o Hawai‘i Nei: 101 Hawaiian Songs, ed. Samuel H. Elbert and Noelani Mahoe, 62-4. Honolulu: Univ. of Hawai‘i Press.

Skinner, Michelle Cruz. 1988. Balikbayan: A Filipino Homecoming. Honolulu: Bess Press.

Song, Cathy. 1983. Picture Bride. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

Suleri, Sara. 1989. Meatless Days. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

Sumida, Stephen H. 1991. And the View from the Shore: Literary Traditions of Hawai‘i. Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press.

———. 1992. “Sense of Place, History, and the Concept of the ‘Local’ in Hawaii's Asian/Pacific Literatures.” In Reading the Literatures of Asian America, ed. Shirley Geok-lin Lim and Amy Ling, 215-37. Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press.

Tan, Amy. 1989. The Joy Luck Club. New York: Putnam.

Trask, Haunani-Kay. 1993. From a Native Daughter: Colonialism and Sovereignty in Hawai‘i. Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press.

Yamanaka, Lois-Ann. 1991. “Parts.” In Sister Stew: Fiction and Poetry by Women, ed. Juliet S. Kono and Cathy Song, 26-33. Honolulu: Bamboo Ridge Press.

Yoshimoto, Banana. 1988/1994. Kitchen. Trans. Megan Backus. New York: Washington Square Press.

Revathi Krishnaswamy (essay date January 1995)

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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 that refracts the fragmented and contingent condition of both postmodernity and postcoloniality. Journeying from the “peripheries” to the metropolitan “centre,” this itinerant intellectual becomes an international figure who at once feels at home nowhere and everywhere. No longer disempowered by cultural schizophrenia or confined within collectivities such as race, class, or nation, the nomadic postcolonial intellectual is said to “write back” to the empire in the name of all displaced and dispossessed peoples, denouncing both colonialism and nationalism as equally coercive constructs.

The ideological lineage of this itinerant postcolonial intellectual is typically hybrid because postcoloniality, as Kwame Anthony Appiah observes, “is the condition of what we might ungenerously call a comprador intelligentsia: a relatively small, Western-style, Western-trained group of writers and thinkers, who mediate the trade in cultural commodities of world capitalism at the periphery” (348). These cultural mediators are invariably dependent on and inevitably influenced by Euro-American publishers and readers, Western universities, and Westernized élite educational institutions in Asia or Africa. Not surprisingly, then, the first generation of postcolonial novels largely reflected the belief held by both “Third World” intellectuals and the high culture of Europe—that new literatures in new nations should be anti-colonial and nationalistic. For instance, Indian subcontinental as well as African novels of the 1950s and 1960s frequently are represented as the imaginative re-creations of a common historical/cultural past crafted into a shared tradition by the writer in the manner of Walter Scott: “they are thus realist legitimations of nationalism: they authorize a ‘return to traditions’ while at the same time recognizing the demands of a Weberian rationalized modernity” (Appiah 349).

Since the late 1960s, however, such celebratory novels have gradually faded away.2 Their place was taken by novels that aimed to expose corrupt national bourgeoisies that had championed the causes of rationalization, industrialization, and bureaucratization in the name of nationalism and nativism, only to keep the national bourgeoisies of other nations in check. In addition to stridently opposing nationalism and nativism, the novels of the 1970s and 1980s strongly repudiated the realist novel because it naturalized a failed nationalism. Appiah observes:

Far from being a celebration of the nation, the novels of the second postcolonial stage are novels of delegitimation: they reject not only the Western imperium but also the nationalist project of the national bourgeoisie. The basis for that delegitimation does not derive from a postmodernist relativism; rather it is grounded in an appeal to an ethical universal, a fundamental revolt against oppression and human suffering.


It is precisely as spokespersons for the dislocated and the disenfranchised that postcolonial immigrant intellectuals have gained legitimacy in the international media-market.

Thus, from his distinct (dis)location within the metropolis, Salman Rushdie declares, “to be a migrant is, perhaps, to be the only species of human being free of the shackles of nationalism (to say nothing of its ugly sister, patriotism). It is a burdensome freedom” (“The Location” 124). A whole mythology of migrancy and a concomitant oppositional politics, of course, has been formulated by Rushdie, who sees the development of the “migrant sensibility” to be “one of the central themes of this century of displaced persons” (124). Not only does Rushdie endow the migrant sensibility with the freedom and facility to construct its own (contingent) truths, he makes it a singular repository of experience and resistance as well. Like the Afghan refugee in Bharati Mukherjee's story “Orbiting” (in her collection The Middleman and Other Stories) who is forced to circle the world, camping only in airport transit lounges, Rushdie's migrant is a fractured yet autonomous individual, segregated from the collective sites of history.

By focusing attention on Rushdie, I do not mean to imply that he is somehow unproblematically paradigmatic of the postcolonial (exile) writer. However, it cannot be denied that he stands foremost among those “spokespersons for a kind of permanent immigration” (Brennan 33) who have been elevated by global media-markets and metropolitan academies as the preeminent interpreters of postcolonial realities to postmodern audiences. With the cultural productions of “cosmopolitan celebrities” (Brennan 26) such as Rushdie increasingly forming the critical archival material of alternative canons in the metropolitan academy, the language of migrancy has gained wide currency among today's theorists of identity and authority. Thus, for instance, Edward Said's essay “Third World Intellectuals and Metropolitan Culture” foregrounds the “exile figure” as the most authentic embodiment of the postcolonial intellectual. In a more recent essay entitled “Identity, Authority and Freedom: The Potentate and the Traveller,” Said has suggested that “our model for academic freedom” should be “the migrant or traveller” (17). James Clifford's travelling theory goes a step further, metaphorizing postcoloniality into a restructured relationship between anthropologist and informant and casting the theorist in the role of “traveller.”

The critical centrality migrancy has acquired in contemporary cultural discourse raises important questions about the nature of postcolonial “diaspora,” the role of “Third World” immigrants, and the function of metropolitan academic institutions. How has the uprooting of postcolonial populations helped to generate a vocabulary of migrancy? What part has the “cosmopolitan,” “Third World” intellectual played in the manufacture of “diasporic consciousness”? How have metropolitan discourses framed contemporary conceptions of hybridity and migrancy? Has the mythology of migrancy provided a productive site for postcolonial resistance or has it willy-nilly become complicit with hegemonic postmodern theorizations of power and identity? To answer these questions, we must consider the nexus of historical, political, economic, cultural, and ideological forces affecting the construction and consumption of postcolonial realities and representations.

The figure of migrancy indeed has proved quite useful in drawing attention to the marginalized, in problematizing conceptions of borders, and in critiquing the politics of power. However, it also appears to have acquired an excessive figurative flexibility that threatens to undermine severely the oppositional force of postcolonial politics. The metaphorization of postcolonial migrancy is becoming so overblown, overdetermined, and amorphous as to repudiate any meaningful specificity of historical location or interpretation. Politically charged words such as “diaspora” and “exile” are being emptied of their histories of pain and suffering and are being deployed promiscuously to designate a wide array of cross-cultural phenomena. For instance, the editor of a recent collection of essays subtitled “The literature of the Indian diaspora” argues that the term “diaspora” can be used legitimately to describe not only “those Indian indentured workers who braved long voyages on ill-equipped ships to Mauritius, Trinidad, and Fiji during the nineteenth century” but also “young subcontinental scientists, professors, surgeons, and architects who now emigrate” to the West as part of the brain-drain (Nelson x). Refugees of any brand take the wind out of the sails of even those intellectuals who have been forced to become real political exiles; what then can be said for the inflated claims of upper-class professionals whose emigration fundamentally has been a voluntary and personal choice?

The compulsions behind such claims are not only enormous but actually symptomatic of the discursive space in which many “Third World” intellectuals who choose to live in the “First World” function. The entry of postcolonialism into the metropolitan academy under the hegemonic theoretical rubric of postmodernism obviously has been a powerful factor in determining how the “Third World” is conceived and consumed. All too frequently, the postcolonial text is approached as a localized embellishment of a universal narrative, an object of knowledge that may be known through a postmodern critical discourse. Analytical attention is focused primarily on the formal similarities between postmodern and postcolonial texts, while the radical historical and political differences between the two are erased (see Sangari 264-69). The complex “local” histories and culture-specific knowledges inscribed in postcolonial narratives get neutralized into versions of postmodern diversity, allowing “others” to be seen, but shorn of their dense specificity. Class, gender, and intellectual hierarchies within other cultures, which happen to be at least as elaborate as those in the West, frequently are ignored. Thus Fredric Jameson's paradigm of postcolonial literature as national allegory uniformly constitutes all “Third World” intellectuals, regardless of their gender or class, as marginalized insurgents or as nationalists struggling against a monolithic Western imperialism. Difference is reduced to equivalence, interchangeability, syncretism, and diversity, while a levelling subversive subalternity is indiscriminately attributed to any and all.

Given that metropolitan attitudes towards the postcolonial are caught between Orientalism and nativism, between unmitigated condemnation and uncritical celebration of Otherness, identification with subalternity and commodification of the “Third World” often seem the only assured means to authority for many “Third World” intellectuals. The very modes of access to power are thus rife with the risk of reification and subordination under such currently popular theoretical categories as cultural diversity, hybridity, syncretism, and migrancy. However, if postcolonial politics is to retain its radical cutting edge, what “Third World” intellectuals must confront is not our “subalternity” or even our “subalternity-in-solidarity-with-the-oppressed,” but the comparative power and privilege that ironically accumulate from our “oppositional” stance, and the upward mobility we gain from our semantics of subalternity. As Arif Dirlik points out, to challenge successfully culturalist hegemony, it is not enough to concentrate exclusively on the unequal relations between nations, such as those between the “First” and the “Third” worlds, but to include an investigation of the unequal relations within societies as well (37). We therefore must face up to the fact that any mythology of migrancy that fails to differentiate rigorously between diverse modalities of postcolonial diaspora, such as migrant intellectuals, migrant labour, economic refugees, political exiles, and self-exiles, exploits the subordinate position of the “Third World,” suppresses the class/gender differentiated histories of immigration, robs the oppressed of the vocabulary of protest, and blunts the edges of much-needed oppositional discourse.

A myopic focus on migrancy also may potentially shut out alternative figurations of postcoloniality by marginalizing the visions of those who may not be (dis)located within the metropolis or who may be dislocated in ways not recognized in metropolitan circles. Thus to argue that “the ability to see at once from inside and out is a great thing, a piece of good fortune which the indigenous writer cannot enjoy” (Rushdie, “A Dangerous Art Form” 4) or to declare that “the contest over decolonization has moved from the peripheries to the center” (Said, “Third World Intellectuals” 30) seems to militate against postcolonial struggles for greater inclusiveness by reinscribing the binary opposition between centre and periphery in the very discourse that seeks to contest such a dichotomy.

The problematic discourse of diaspora and exile in contemporary critical discourse clearly calls for a systematic examination of the material conditions and ideological contexts within which migrancy has emerged as the privileged paradigmatic trope of postcolonialism in the metropolis. Attempting such an examination, this essay considers such factors as the circulation of “Third World” populations, the peripheral position of the “Third World,” the pedagogic presence of the metropolitan academy, and the influence of its poststructuralist/postmodern theories. The first section traces the historical patterns of immigration from the Indian subcontinent in order to bring out the heterogeneous and uneven nature of that “diaspora”—a fact that, as I try to show, is strategically marginalized or neutralized by Salman Rushdie. Based on a critical review of Rushdie's formulation of migrancy, the second section explores the ideological intersection between postcolonialism and postmodernism. My discussion reveals that the rhetoric of migrancy in postcolonial discourse is not only accessible and acceptable but also assimilable to dominant postmodernist theories. The irony of this exchange becomes evident in the simultaneous elevation and subordination of the immigrant intellectual in the metropolis. Throughout the discussion, I draw very selectively from Rushdie's writings, for I intend my comments less as exhaustive interpretations of this individual author's works and more as symptomatic pointers towards a larger ideological field. The essay concludes by arguing that the overblown rhetoric of diaspora and exile in vogue today calls for a vigilance over the excesses marginal discourses accrue in the very process of theorizing the obsolescence of marginality. In addressing the issue of migrancy from a location within the circuits of metropolitan power and knowledge, I take up Gayatri Spivak's contention that “even as we join in the struggle to establish the institutional study of marginality we must still go on saying ‘And yet …’” (154).


The rhetoric of migrancy, exile, and diaspora in contemporary postcolonial discourse owes much of its credibility to the massive and uneven uprooting of “Third World” peoples in recent decades, particularly after large-scale decolonization in the 1960s. As the euphoria of independence and the great expectations of nationalism gave way to disillusionment and oppression, emigration increasingly became the supreme reward for citizens of impoverished or repressive ex-colonies. Millions of people dream of becoming exiles at any cost, and many government officials make a living helping or hindering the fulfilment of this mass fantasy.

The rhetoric of migrancy in contemporary postcolonial discourse, however, does not stress the economic and political forces behind immigration. Salman Rushdie thus observes:

the effect of mass migrations has been the creation of radically new types of human being: people who root themselves in ideas rather than places, in memories as much as in material things; people who have been obliged to define themselves—because they are so defined by others—by their otherness; people in whose deepest selves strange fusions occur, unprecedented unions between what they were and where they find themselves.

(“The Location” 124)

This passage employs an almost spiritual or mystic vocabulary to describe the formation of the “migrant sensibility.” By emphasizing mental or psychological processes over sociological or political forces, Rushdie de-materializes the migrant into an abstract idea. The insistent and pervasive use of such terminology tends to obscure or at least minimize the material and historical contexts of “Third World” immigration. It fails to account for two fundamental factors that fracture immigrant experience: the exigencies of neo-colonial global capitalism determining the dispersal of “Third World” peoples, and the distinctly class- and gender-differentiated nature of immigrant experience.

The historic pattern of Indian emigration since the 1960s alone is quite revealing. Until the last decade, women formed but a small percentage of immigrant populations and often subsisted in conditions of complete dependency if not abuse and exploitation.3 In addition, there is a distinct class character to the current pattern of Indian emigration. The vast majority of Indians emigrating to the United States and, secondarily, to Britain are members of the commercial or professional bourgeoisie and typically have little to do with the working-class inside or outside India. By contrast, the oil-rich countries of the Persian Gulf, and to a lesser degree Britain, attract a predominantly working-class population (the trade to the Gulf being as much a traffic in female flesh as in cheap labour). Lured by unscrupulous job-recruitment agencies and victimized by greedy travel agents, these working-class immigrants frequently end up as little more than indentured labourers subsisting on the margins of alien (ating) societies. Their dehumanized condition casts an inescapable shadow upon the exuberance that characterizes metropolitan perceptions of migrancy. Clearly, the grim realities of migrant labour inflect the notion of migrancy in ways that make it difficult to link consistently freedom and liberation with movement and displacement.

By contrast, what takes place for many postcolonial intellectuals is a transition to an industrially advanced capitalist society with the latest word on individual liberty on its lips. Taking this route, in many ways, is like going home because it brings one closer to a world that one had imagined all along. As Rushdie observes, “[i]n common with many Bombay-raised middle-class children of my generation, I grew up with an intimate knowledge of, and even sense of friendship with, a certain kind of England: a dream-England. … I wanted to come to England. I couldn't wait” (“Imaginary Homelands” 18). Edward Said therefore is quite correct in describing the migration of the superior scholar from the non-Western “periphery” to the Western “centre” as a “voyage in” (“Third World Intellectuals” 31).

Once they find themselves within the belly of the metropolitan beast, immigrant intellectuals indeed do face the grim facts of racism and Eurocentrism. For most, however, what Bharati Mukherjee calls “loss-of-face meltdown” (“Prophet and Loss” 11) rarely involves floundering around among disempowered minorities. In fact, Mukherjee's fiction typically casts immigrant aspirations in terms of class expectations: “Great privilege had been conferred upon me; my struggle was to work hard enough to deserve it. And I did. This bred confidence, but not conceit. … Calcutta equipped me to survive theft or even assault; it did not equip me to accept proof of my unworthiness” (“An Invisible Woman” 36, 38). Indeed, class origins and professional affiliations open up an adversarial kind of assimilation into metropolitan institutions. Thus Rushdie is able actually to use his class privilege as a platform to chastise English society for failing to live up to its promise of “tolerance and fair play”:

England has done all right by me; but I find it difficult to be properly grateful. I can't escape the view that my relatively easy ride is not the result of the dream—England's famous sense of tolerance and fair play, but of my social class, my freak fair skin and my “English” English accent. Take away any of these, and the story would have been very different. Because of course the dream-England is no more than a dream.

(“Imaginary Homelands” 18)

In this passage, an acknowledgment of class privilege is countered neatly by an indictment of England's racist/classist attitudes. The author's refusal to be “properly grateful” for the advantages he has derived from his class position rhetorically aligns him with the less privileged members of the immigrant population and thereby helps to legitimize him as an authentic spokesman for whole groups of dispossessed migrants.

Self-conscious contextualizations of class privilege through parody or irony are not difficult to find in the writings of such astute writers as Mukherjee and Rushdie. However, these rhetorical gestures rarely add up to anything more than momentary indulgences in self-pleasuring destabilization. Ultimately, they offer little radical challenge to metropolitan methods of the-matizing diversity in ways that make “difference” a mere matter of adding new labels or categories to an ever-expanding pluralist horizon. As such, they can neither form a firm basis for historical awareness nor constitute an adequate confrontation of the heterogeneity of postcolonial/immigrant experience.

Rushdie's self-fashioned public persona, of course, is inter-twined inextricably with his own ambiguous status as migrant postcolonial intellectual writing for a predominantly metropolitan readership. It therefore may be necessary to remind ourselves that, like Rushdie, most immigrant intellectuals, especially those from the Indian subcontinent, are not forced exiles but voluntary self-exiles. (Rushdie's status, of course, has been transformed into a grimly real exile by the Ayatollah Khomeini's ominous fatwa). Unlike the prolonged pain of exile, the anguish of self-exile is usually more accommodating. Often no more than a longing for the imaginary homeland's sensuous characteristics, it is easy to summon up, especially if emigration has turned out to be a financial and professional success. Words such as “exile” or “diaspora” barely describe the moment of departure; what follows is both too comfortable and too autonomous to be called by these names, which suggest so strongly a comprehensible and sustained grief.

It is not my intention to question the motives of any “Third World” immigrant—motives that are always heterogeneous and personal, ranging from political persecution and economic desperation to professional ambition and cultural preference. Nor do I mean to imply that class privilege alone necessarily delegitimizes one's testimony against the injustices of bourgeois racism, colonialism, or nationalism. What I wish to do, however, is to draw attention to the complex historical and material context within which a highly charged mythology of migrancy is being fabricated to legitimize a particular public (literary) persona. Clearly, if “diasporic consciousness” is fundamentally “an intellectualization of [the] existential condition” of dispersal from the homeland (Safran 87), then we must acknowledge the fact that this consciousness has been shaped not so much by the haphazard accidents of history as by the material and ideological realities of immigrant intellectuals.


The image of the postcolonial writer as migrant, of course, is central to Salman Rushdie's politico-aesthetics, which regard the experience of multiple dislocation—temporal, spatial, and linguistic—to be crucial, even necessary, for artistic development:

It may be argued that the past is a country from which we have all emigrated, that its loss is part of our common humanity. Which seems to me self-evidently true; but I suggest that the writer who is out-of-country and even out-of-language may experience this loss in an intensified form. It is made more concrete for him by the physical fact of discontinuity, of his present being in a different place from his past, of his being “elsewhere.” This may enable him to speak properly and concretely on a subject of universal significance and appeal.

(“Imaginary Homelands” 12)

The passage, which begins by presenting immigration as a metaphor for a common human experience, quickly proceeds to privilege the geographically/culturally displaced writer as someone uniquely equipped at once to reclaim the faded contours of a specific lost homeland and to speak of things that have “universal” significance. In contemporary corporate parlance, we might say the migrant writer combines “local touch with global reach.”

The experience of dislocation apparently gives the writer an enhanced ability to self-consciously reflect on the constructedness of reality: “The migrant suspects reality: having experienced several ways of being, he understands their illusory nature” (Rushdie, “The Location” 125). Yet, if “to see things plainly, you have to cross a frontier” (125), for Rushdie, the frontier seems to be a movable line going wherever the writer goes:

I mean there're all kinds of dislocations. … First of all as you say, I live in England and I've written about India. That's one dislocation. Secondly, my family went to Pakistan so that's three countries anyway. … Then Bombay is not like the rest of India. People who come from Bombay anyway feel different from the rest of India and quite rightly. On top of that, my family comes from Kashmir and Kashmir is not like the rest of India. So that's four or five separate dislocations.

(“An Interview” 353)

Moving geographic borders around with dexterity, Rushdie makes his dislocation from the Indian subcontinent appear to be a mere extension of his many dislocations within the subcontinent itself. What he erases with one hand, he redraws with the other, for the notion of border, after all, is critical to Rushdie's literary persona/project.

Indeed, it is precisely along the border that Rushdie, in an explicit gesture of exclusion, opposes the migrant to the nonmigrant, privileging the former over the latter: “the ability to see at once from inside and out is a great thing, a piece of good fortune which the indigenous writer cannot enjoy” (“A Dangerous Art Form” 4). Surely, however, such a binary distinction between “migrant” and “indigenous” is quite obsolete unless we allow for an excessively literal recuperation of the opposition between “inside” and “outside.” If, on the other hand, we read the frontier as a metaphor for the margin, as Rushdie does when he wants to present migrancy as a shared existential condition, we could include “internal exiles” such as women living within patriarchy, minorities living on the margins of hegemonic cultures, or oppressed majorities living under occupation, thereby undermining the migrant's claim to an exclusive uniqueness. This discursive “contradiction” may be seen as a result of a strategic process of exclusion-inclusion through which Rushdie represents the migrant writer as atypical as well as representative, unique yet universal.

The proliferating and shifting definition of borders in Rushdie's writing is linked intimately to the ideological issue of control:

It may be that writers in my position, exiles or emigrants or expatriates, are haunted by some sense of loss, some urge to reclaim, to look back, even at the risk of being mutated into pillars of salt. But if we do look back, we must also do so in the knowledge—which gives rise to profound uncertainties—that our physical alienation from India almost inevitably means that we will not be capable of reclaiming precisely the thing that was lost; that we will, in short, create fictions, not actual cities or villages, but invisible ones, imaginary homelands, Indias of the mind.

(“Imaginary Homelands” 10)

Inscribed in this passage is a notion of margins waiting to be destroyed, replaced, expanded, and incorporated as new territorial acquisitions, as novel “fields” of inquiry. The migrant writer's project is defined as one of drawing new or imaginary borders, of re-creating and reclaiming new or imaginary territories. Although fractured, the migrant imagination is an imperializing consciousness imposing itself upon the world. As the narrator of Shame declares, “I too, like all migrants, am a fantasist. I build imaginary countries and try to impose them on the ones that exist” (92).

From this brief overview of Rushdie's formulation of migrancy, two variations on the theme may be detected: one invokes an existential condition of homelessness with a concomitant attitude of autonomy and detachment as the privileged locus of imaginative experience; the other validates multiplicity and hybridity of subject positions, generating a feeling of belonging to several, even too many, homes. These conceptions of migrancy, Aijaz Ahmad has pointed out, have much in common with the philosophical positions of poststructuralism/postmodernism and the literary traditions of modernism. The overlap is hardly surprising, since the discourses of European bourgeois humanism and anti-humanism are available to (and perhaps even constitutive of) the postcolonial writer. The image of the intellectual as an embattled figure of exile is not new; all the major icons of modernism—Conrad, Joyce, James, Pound, T. S. Eliot—embody and represent exile as a painful yet exquisitely enabling experience for the artistic consciousness (Ahmad 134). What is novel and decidedly postmodern, however, is the de-linking of distress from dislocation and the attendant idea of belonging everywhere by belonging nowhere:

What is new in the contemporary metropolitan philosophies and the literary ideologies which have arisen since the 1960s, in tandem with vastly novel restructurings of global capitalist investments, communication systems and information networks—not to speak of actual travelling facilities—is that the idea of belonging is itself being abandoned as antiquated false consciousness. The terrors of High Modernism at the prospect of inner fragmentation and social disconnection have now been stripped, in Derridean strands of postmodernism, of their tragic edge, pushing that experience of loss, instead, in a celebratory direction. …

(Ahmad 129)

In modernism, exile is an inexorable double-bind, signifying both loss and gain, deprivation and surplus, alienation and unity. Fragmentation is never quite disjoined from pain and terror. Postmodernism, rather than being terrorized by the fragment, celebrates the impossibility of totality and valorizes the partial, plural nature of human consciousness. De-legitimizing the self-privileging affirmations of bourgeois humanism through its ironic negations, postmodernism has transformed the world into a vast playful text and legitimized the pleasures of non-attachment and non-commitment.

The change from a comparatively modernist to a more post-modernist interpretation of exile may account, in part, for some of the differences between writers such as Salman Rushdie and V. S. Naipaul—a point implied in Bharati Mukherjee's assessment of the two authors: “one of Rushdie's most appealing notions (which I hope is not an unfounded flattery) is that immigration, despite losses and confusions, its sheer absurdities, is a net gain, a form of levitation, as opposed to Naipaul's loss and mimicry” (“Prophet and Loss” 11). Although it is the creative impulse of exile that generates novels such as The Mimic Men and Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion, exile, especially in Naipaul's early works, is often an experience of division and defilement, alienation and isolation, frustration and futility. Instead of discovering new and exciting worlds in the mode of the imperial explorer, Naipaul's postcolonial traveller frequently ends up in the same arid place from which he has been physically but not quite psychologically unmoored. In the end, Naipaul's apparently “objective” eye tends to leave the observer as maimed as the observed. A markedly different view is evident in The Satanic Verses, which offers a whole typology of postcolonial migrancy. Rushdie's narrative divides the postcolonial into two basic identities: the migrant and the national, as polarized most sharply in the figures of Saladin Chamcha and the Imam, respectively. While Saladin as postcolonial migrant seeks to assimilate into the metropolis, the Imam lives segregated from the metropolis within the metropolis. Although Saladin's definition of migrant as metropolitan is not endorsed unequivocally by the text, its condemnation of the Imam's view of migrant as (fanatic) national is far more stinging and forthright: “Exile is a soulless country” (The Satanic Verses 208).

If Naipaul's position may be characterized as one of eternal exile, Rushdie's may be defined as one of permanent migrancy. Unlike the painful condition of eternal exile, the state of permanent migrancy emanates an exuberance that dissipates the pain of multiple dislocation and translates migrancy into a positive and prolific idiom. Instead of disempowering the self, dislocation actually opens up an abundance of alternative locations, allowing the individual to own several different homes by first becoming homeless. Notwithstanding these differences, however, there is one feature shared by both paradigms: a deterritorialized consciousness freed from such collectivities as race, class, gender, or nation, an unattached imagination that conveniently can become cosmopolitan and subaltern, alternately or simultaneously.

In emphasizing a de-territorialized postcolonial consciousness, the views of Indian immigrant writers such as Naipaul and Rushdie depart from the positions taken by many African writers who, in the wake of colonialism, have sought to re-territorialize rather than de-territorialize themselves. Comparing African with Indian postcolonial writing, Meenakshi Mukherjee observes:

All the major writers in Africa today who write in English—including Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, and Ngugi wa Thiong'o—have powerfully articulated their critical norms and defined their positions regarding life and literature, assuming the centrality of Africa to their experience. This is very different from the situation in India, where there is generally much more cultural acquiescence, a greater acceptance of literary and critical fiats issued from the western metropolis and a wider separation between political engagement and literary or critical pursuits.


The obdurate presence of the “local” seems to have made the territorialized narratives of African writers comparatively less compatible with hegemonic postmodern theories. Thus, for instance, the authors of The Empire Writes Back conclude that “nationalist and Black criticisms” fail to offer “a way out of the historical and philosophical impasse” of imperialism because they continue to assert a localized postcolonial identity based on essentialist notions of purity and difference (20-22, 36). Obviously, the practice of challenging imperialism by asserting and affirming a denied or alienated subjectivity does not accord with the postmodernist project of deconstructing the coherent, autonomous subject.

Notwithstanding the authors' avowed intention to avoid collapsing the postcolonial into the postmodern, the preferred model of postcolonialism in The Empire Writes Back is a decidedly postmodernist one: it provides “a framework of ‘difference on equal terms’ within which multi-cultural theories, both within and between societies, may continue to be fruitfully explored” and offers a “hybridized and syncretic view of the modern world” (36-37; emphasis added).4 Bracketed thus, the polyglot, multiracial world envisioned by a writer such as Salman Rushdie becomes increasingly visible as a veritable supermarket of identities in which difference, instead of being a complex codification of power, manifests itself as a plethora of alternatives jostling one another in entrancing fluidity. Such a postcoloniality indeed can seem seamlessly postmodernist.

The possibility of locking postcolonial practices into postmodern positions has made postcolonialism aesthetically and formally accessible to postmodern audiences. For instance, the fact that the postcolonial novel is in a way “post-realist,” allowing the author to borrow, when needed, the techniques of modernism, which are often the techniques of postmodernism as well, frequently elides the very different motivations behind postcolonial post-realism and postmodernist post-realism (Appiah 350). In addition to such aesthetic or formal assimilation, postcolonial practices are ideologically and politically domesticated to dominant postmodernist theories. Postcolonial repudiations of fixity and purity, for instance, cease to be potent political strategies of subversion within specific historical contexts by being bracketed as playful postmodernist rejections of transcendental unities. Thus, many postmodernist defenses of The Satanic Verses minimize, if not ignore, the destabilizing political arguments and culture-specific allusions in the text (such as the “420” reference) by invoking notions of postmodern parody, alterity, and multiplicity.5

Varying conceptions of marginality, lack, victimization, and subalternity are assimilated indiscriminately into the figure of migrancy without regard to the elaborate socio-political (class, gender, intellectual) hierarchies of postcolonial cultures. As a result, metropolitan readers continue to view Salman Rushdie primarily in monochromatic tones as a champion of the oppressed “Third World” (especially of “Third World” women), while the classist and sexist biases of his fictions remain inadequately problematized.6 Thus Timothy Brennan accepts the overtly textualized “feminist” intent of Shame at face value, proclaiming women to be “Shame's only rebels” (Brennan 126). What Brennan's study overlooks, however, is the demeaning and offensive manner in which women are sexualized systematically in the text. Even in the comparatively more generous novel about India, Midnight's Children, Rushdie almost always links in overdetermined ways the women and the working class to sexual prowess, while connecting upper-class male impotence (as embodied in Saleem) to intellectual capability. Further, in The Satanic Verses, in which so much else is challenged or subverted, an unquestioned gendered sexual code continues to serve as the ground on which postcolonial male desire is played out. Ironically, the highly charged erotic register employed by Rushdie ultimately undermines his anxiety to write woman into postcolonial history.

Metropolitan perceptions of Rushdie are complicated further by the commodification of the immigrant writer as the ultimate authentic representor of subcontinental affairs. Of course, Rushdie himself has played an active role in promoting his public image as the itinerant insider-outsider endowed with a unique, although splintered, sensibility. Thus the narrator of Shame confesses he has “learned Pakistan in slices” and must therefore reconcile himself to “the inevitability of the missing bits” (70-71). What exactly are these “missing bits” to which the immigrant must reconcile himself? On what basis does a writer decide to include/exclude a particular “bit”? These questions do not trouble us when we frame Rushdie's reclamation project within the postmodernist epistemology of the fragment. We can then see the migrant's fractured vision as an affirmation of the partial nature of all perception, conveniently overlooking the ideological choices that determine what “bits” get included or excluded. Calling attention to dangers underlying such critical omissions, Aijaz Ahmad has pointed out that the “missing bits” in Rushdie's narratives are precisely those aspects of life that the immigrant's absence inevitably shuts out: the resilient texture of everyday life, the healing quality of ordinary friendships, and those commonly shared experiences that provide people with secret spaces of refuge or even subterranean sites of resistance (139).

Rushdie's novels are most astute and insightful when the author uncovers the delusions and distortions of the paternal ruling class with which he is closely acquainted. Combined with the candid observations of an immigrant, his intimate knowledge of bourgeois society enables Rushdie to write alternative histories that offer many moving accounts of the frustrations and failures on the Indian subcontinent. Yet this field of vision inevitably is circumscribed by the material facts and ideological lures of migrancy. As a result, Rushdie's “imaginary homelands” almost always are wrapped in a miasmic atmosphere of guilt, complicity and folly in which individual resistance seems futile, and collective resistance practically inconceivable. Belying the exorbitance of their fictional forms, India and Pakistan thus collapse with a frighteningly predictable finality at the end of Midnight's Children and Shame.

Immigrant writers gazing back at their “imaginary homelands” often seem unable to recognize or accept the healing balm from within that gradually fills up the wound left by their departure. I am reminded here of another immigrant writing in another context—of Milan Kundera, who, upon deciding not to return to Prague, wrote an article in which he attempted to attract the attention of the West to the predicament of Czech culture in general and that of the Czech intellectual in particular. The article, which appeared in Le Monde, described Czechoslovakia as a cultural desert where everything had died and everyone was stifled. Kundera had only recently emigrated and was full of good intentions in writing such an article, but the response he got from Czechoslovakia horrified him. He was taken to task for presuming to think that everybody had died just because he had left the country!


Immigrant postcolonial writers indeed have offered us some profound insights into culture and society, but unless we alert ourselves to the specific realities within which their works are manufactured and marketed, we are likely to grant their formulations much more than they can, or should, rightfully claim. The embarrassingly absolute, even exclusive, centrality currently commanded by “cosmopolitan celebrities” such as Rushdie in the emerging metropolitan counter-canon of postcolonial literature often obscures the material conditions and ideological contexts of their cultural production/consumption. Consequently, the public persona of the postcolonial writer as an autonomous and exuberant exile uniquely equipped to mediate “Third World” realities to “First World” readers has remained inadequately problematized.

Resisting the lures of “diaspora,” we must recognize that the mythology of migrancy decontextualizes “Third World” immigration in order to minimize or obscure differences of class and gender. The mythology also exploits the peripheral position of the “Third World” to conflate falsely personal convenience with political persecution. Moreover, by decontaminating the migrant of all territorial affiliations and social affinities, the mythology of migrancy ironically re-invents, in the very process of destabilizing subjectivity, a postmodernist avatar of the free-floating bourgeois subject. Once this autonomous and unattached individual, this migrant, exiled, or nomadic consciousness, is legitimized as the only true site of postcolonial resistance, all other forms of collective commitment automatically get devalued as coercive and corrupt.

Clearly, not all “Third World” literature is produced by immigrants; and as Kwame Anthony Appiah has pointed out, neither is all cultural production in the “Third World” postcolonial in ways recognized by the postmodern West (348). If both postmodernism and postcolonialism are, to an extent, space-clearing gestures seeking to reject and replace prior practices that claimed a certain exclusivity of vision (modernism and colonialism, respectively), many areas of contemporary cultural productions in/from the “Third World” are not in this way self-consciously concerned with transcending or going beyond coloniality: “Indeed it might be said to be a mark of popular culture that its borrowings from international cultural forms are remarkably insensitive to, not so much dismissive of as blind to, the issue of neo-colonialism or ‘cultural imperialism’” (Appiah 348). Yet in the international marketplace, such cultural commodities do not attract the kind of attention and respect currently reserved for the more “proper” postcolonial productions.

The uncritical privileging of immigrant writers prevents us from seriously considering figurations of postcoloniality that may be grounded in alternative strategies for change. If postcolonial politics is to retain its radical cutting edge in dismantling the dichotomy between margin and centre, we can hardly afford to indulge in self-legitimizing mythologies and self-aggrandizing manoeuvres that dilute efforts towards decolonization.


  1. The term/category “Third World” obviously has little theoretical validity. I therefore use quotation marks to indicate its political rather than sociological signification.

  2. Neil Lazarus's Resistance in Postcolonial Fiction (especially 1-26) offers a useful periodization of African fiction in relation to the “great expectation” of the independence era and the “mourning after.”

  3. For instance, before the law finally was repealed in 1992, female Indian nationals did not have the right to pass on citizenship to children born overseas.

  4. For an extensive critique of The Empire Writes Back, see Mishra and Hodge.

  5. For examples of such readings, see McLaren; Watson-Williams; Malak.

  6. These attitudes continue to prevail despite the efforts of such immigrant scholars as Spivak, Suleri, Grewal, and Ahmad to focus on issues of class and gender in Rushdie's writing.

Works Cited

Ahmad, Aijaz. “Salman Rushdie's Shame: Postmodern Migrancy and the Representation of Women.” In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures. London: Verso, 1992. 123-58.

Appiah, Kwame Anthony. “Is the Post- in Postmodernism the Post- in Postcolonial?” Critical Inquiry 17 (Winter 1991): 336-57.

Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures. London: Routledge, 1989.

Brennan, Timothy. Salman Rushdie and the Third World. New York: St. Martin's, 1989.

Clifford, James. “Travel and Identity in Twentieth-Century Interculture.” The Henry Luce Seminar, Yale University, Fall 1990.

Dirlik, Arif. “Culturalism as Hegemonic Ideology and Liberating Practice.” Cultural Critique 6 (Spring 1987): 13-50.

Grewal, Inderpal. “Salman Rushdie: Marginality, Women and Shame.” Genders 3 (Fall 1988): 24-42.

Jameson, Fredric. “Third World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism.” Social Text 15 (Fall 1986): 65-88.

Lazarus, Neil. Resistance in Postcolonial Fiction. New Haven: Yale UP, 1990.

Malak, Amin. “Reading the Crisis: The Polemics of Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses.ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature 20.4 (October 1989): 176-86.

McLaren, John. “The Power of the Word: Salman Rushdie and The Satanic Verses.Westerly 1 (March 1990): 61-65.

Mishra, Vijay, and Bob Hodge. “What is Post(-)colonialism?” Textual Practice 5 (1991): 399-414.

Mukherjee, Bharati. “An Invisible Woman.” Saturday Night (March 1981): 36-40.

———. The Middleman and Other Stories. New York: Viking Penguin, 1987.

———. “Prophet and Loss: Salman Rushdie's Migration of Souls.” Village Voice Literary Supplement 72 (March 1989): 9-12.

Mukherjee, Meenakshi. “The Centre Cannot Hold: Two Views of the Periphery.” After Europe: Critical Theory and Post-Colonial Writing. Ed. Stephen Slemon and Helen Tiffin. Sydney: Dangaroo, 1989. 41-49.

Naipaul, V. S. “A Conversation with V. S. Naipaul.” By Bharati Mukherjee and Robert Boyers. Salmagundi 54 (Fall 1981): 4-22.

Nelson, Emmanuel S., ed. Reworlding: The Literature of the Indian Diaspora. New York: Greenwood, 1992.

Rushdie, Salman. “A Dangerous Art Form.” Third World Book Review 1 (1984): 3-5.

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———. “The Indian Writer in England.” The Eye of the Beholder: Indian Writing in English. Ed. Maggie Butcher. London: Commonwealth Institute, 1983. 75-83.

———. “An Interview with Salman Rushdie.” By Rani Dharkar. New Quest 42 (November-December 1983): 351-60.

———. “The Location of Brazil.Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism. 1981-1991. London: Granta and Viking, 1991. 118-28.

———. Midnight's Children. New York: Avon, 1980.

———. The Satanic Verses. New York: Viking, 1989.

———. Shame. New York: Vintage, 1984.

Safran, William. “Diasporas in Modern Societies; Myths of Homeland and Return.” Diaspora 1.1 (Spring 1991): 83-99.

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———. “Third World Intellectuals and Metropolitan Culture.” Raritan 9 (Winter 1990): 27-50.

Sangari, Kumkum. “The Politics of the Possible.” Interrogating Modernity: Culture and Colonialism in India. Ed. Tejaswini Niranjana, P. Sudhir, and Vivek Dhareshwar. Calcutta: Seagull Books, 1993. 242-72.

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Arnold Krupat (essay date 1996)

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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 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” (Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin 2). 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 life-expectancy 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.1

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” (348)—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” (332). Is any one of these meanings useful to describe contemporary Native American literature?2 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 self-consciously 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 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” (Greenblatt 52). 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 well-known passage, “in order that they may learn to speak” (Greenblatt 90). 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” (xiii). 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” (Swann xiii).

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” (Murray 8). 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” (“Race” 284), in its literature. “Whoever writes about the literature of a country,” as Appiah elsewhere cited Herder, “must not neglect its language” (50). 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.3 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.4

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,5 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.6 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” (Benjamin 180-81). 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 1986.7 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” (157). 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).8 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” (157-58). 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” (Asad 158-59). 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)” (160), can be a force moving us toward “learning to live another form of life” (149).

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.9 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” (Asad 157), 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 contemporary 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.10 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” (91). 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.11

In the rest of this essay, I will try to show how Leslie Marmon Silko's novel Almanac of the Dead (1991) is a powerful work of anti-imperial translation. Consistent with the methodology I have outlined, I must first point to a dimension of the novel that derives more nearly from an “Indian” than a Euramerican “language.” I must then show that the ideological work this “Indian language” figuratively performs is one of resistance to imperialism.

Before doing so, as a context in which to place Almanac, I want to open up the question of the ideological work performed by contemporary Native American fiction in general over the past twenty-five years or so, a period that overlaps at least the more recent “postcolonial” period in the rest of the world.

I will be going rather far afield for a theoretical framework to analyze the ideological work of some contemporary Native American novels to Africa and to Kwame Anthony Appiah's account of the postcolonial African novel. I find Appiah's account highly suggestive for the topic of my concern.

Appiah describes the postcolonial African novel as falling into two fairly distinct stages; however, I will place contemporary Native American novels along a continuum—an adjustment I think Appiah would accept. In its first stage, according to Appiah, postcolonial fiction in Africa conceives of itself as specifically “anticolonial and nationalist.” These novels of the late 1950s and early 1960s are “theorized as the imaginative re-creation of a common cultural past that is crafted into a shared tradition by the writer. … The novels of this first stage are thus realist legitimations of nationalism: they authorize a ‘return to traditions’” (149-50). The authors of these novels, trained in Europe and America for the most part, are dependent on the African university, “an institution whose intellectual life is overwhelmingly constituted as Western, and also upon the Euro-American publisher and reader” (149). “In the West,” Appiah notes, these authors are known “through the Africa they offer,” whereas “their compatriots know them both through the West they present to Africa and through an Africa they have invented for the world, for each other, and for Africa” (149). In Africa, Appiah contends, “from the later sixties on, these celebratory novels of the first stage become rarer” (150), and a much more critical, “postrealist” or apparently postmodernist novel, the sort of novel exemplified by Yambo Ouologuem's Le Devoir de violence (1968)—in English, Bound to Violence (1968)—began to be produced.

Le Devoir de violence begins with what Appiah calls “a sick joke at the unwary reader's expense against nativism,” and Ouologuem's “postnativist” novel continues on to provide “a murderous antidote to a nostalgia for Roots” (151). Novels of this second stage, “far from being a celebration of the nation, are novels of delegitimation: rejecting the Western imperium it is true, but also rejecting the nationalist project of the postcolonial national bourgeoisie” (152). I am not competent to judge the accuracy of this very general account of the postcolonial African novel of the past thirty years or so, or of the particular reading it offers of Ouologuem. But let us see what happens when we bring only this much to the Native American novel of roughly the same period.

The so-called Native American Renaissance, as we noted at the outset of this book, is supposed to have begun with N. Scott Momaday's 1969 Pulitzer Prize for his novel House Made of Dawn (1968). It is surely the case that this novel establishes if not a specifically postcolonial stage, at least a self-consciously new stage of Native American fiction.12 Momaday's novel and Silko's Ceremony (published in 1977 and in many ways indebted to Momaday's book) seem to work in much the same way as did the first stage of postcolonial African fiction as described by Appiah.

House Made of Dawn opens with its protagonist, Abel, a troubled mixed-blood veteran of World War II, running at dawn, “alone and … hard at first, heavily, but then easily and well,” in a gray and rainy valley, where “snow lay out upon the dunes” (7). So too does Abel run, once more at dawn, at the novel's conclusion, only now he runs “on the rise of the song, House made of pollen, house made of dawn. Qtsedaba” (191). The final word is from the oral storytelling tradition at Jemez Pueblo, or Walatowa, where Momaday spent much of his early life, and it echoes “Dypaloh,” the first word of the novel and the traditional marker of the onset of Jemez oral storytelling. The phrase “House made of pollen, house made of dawn” is from the Navajo “night chant” and it precedes the final words of the chant proper—“In beauty it is finished”—in which is indicated the completion of the healing or cure that is the primary purpose of the ceremony. Abel has learned these words from an urban Navajo named Benally who has “sung” over him. Short of a further discussion of this rich and complex text,13 let it suffice to say that House Made of Dawn appears to “authorize” at least the attempt to “return to tradition,” legitimating a tribalism, nationalism (the two are largely synonymous in the Native American context although in opposition to one another in the African context), or conception of “Indianness” that it invents or constructs in more or less realist fashion “for the world” and also for Native Americans. Like the producers of Appiah's first-stage postcolonial African novel, Momaday has also been dependent on the American university (his much-noted Stanford doctorate with Yvor Winters, for example) and the metropolitan publisher (his book appeared under the imprint of Harper and Row)—and to remark this, I hope it will be clear, in no way denigrates Momaday's very substantial achievement.

Silko's Ceremony also appeared through a major eastern trade house, Viking, and Silko's early work was also supported academically.14 Silko's protagonist, Tayo, is also a mixed-blood World War II veteran severely in need of healing. The novel chronicles Tayo's adventures in which he successfully lives out the vision “seen” for him by a somewhat odd but decidedly powerful Navajo shaman named Betonie. (Betonie's similarities to and differences from Momaday's Benally have been much discussed.)15 Tayo successfully concludes his “quest” with a return to his people.16 He is “cured, and the novel ends with a quasi-ceremonial invocation: “Sunrise, / accept this offering, / Sunrise” (275). The commitment to a “common cultural past,” a “shared tradition,” and a “return to traditions” is thus worked out in a structure that is circular and reintegrative, a comic structure, relative to a “real” world. Indeed, it is the ideologically functional point of the novel to insist that certain persons (e.g., Ts'eh Montano and her husband, The Hunter) and events (e.g., the appearance of the mountain lion) that might seem to be “mythic” are not mythic but “real.” You can go home again, Silko's novel insists, for the traditional world of the Pueblos is available still.

If House Made of Dawn and Ceremony may thus be said to demonstrate a very distinct “nostalgia for Roots,” in Appiah's phrase, it seems to me that this nostalgia is fully expressed in Momaday's long-awaited second novel, The Ancient Child (1989), in which a middle-aged painter named Locke Setman, or Set, with the help of a rather embarrassingly fantasized nineteen-year-old woman called Grey, not only leaves his life in the American metropolis but finds that his “true” or “authentic” identity was always-already given in his name, Set, which means “Bear” in Kiowa. Set increasingly “becomes” or discovers the bear in himself, learning that he is a type of “the ancient child,” the central figure in a Kiowa story about a boy who became a bear. The novel reaches its climactic moment in the light of a full moon as Set, “an awful quiet … in his heart,” sees “the image of a great bear, rearing. … It was the vision he had sought” (312). Here too, an ideology of legitimation is expressed in an esthetic “eternal return” consistent with the epigraph Momaday has chosen from Jorge Luis Borges (it might also, of course, have come from Northrop Frye): “myth is at the beginning of literature, and also at its end.”

For all of this, it is still the case that even The Ancient Child's commitment to the identities of myth cannot entirely ignore the differences of history. If in little else, at least in Grey's (rather trying) fascination with the legend of Billy the Kid and her citations of Shakespeare, James Joyce, Lewis Carroll, and Wallace Stevens, Momaday makes clear his awareness that even a young woman who is finding her identity as a traditional medicine person can do so only in relation to the present-day world and its most notable authors. Momaday had, of course, earlier indicated such an awareness in his portrayal of Benally, deeply attached to Navajo traditionalism yet very much subject to the influences, usually deleterious, of the Euramerican world. And in Ceremony, Silko presents Betonie too as someone fully cognizant of the fact that changes were necessary to “keep … the ceremonies strong” (133), as someone quite clear that the only way for tradition to sustain itself is for it constantly to change. For all of that, in the three novels I have so inadequately discussed, it does seem to be the case that, like the postcolonial African novels of Appiah's first stage, what is offered “is the imaginative re-creation of a common cultural past that is crafted into a shared tradition by the writer” (Appiah 149-50), an ideological image of Indianness for Native Americans and for the rest of the world. These novels present themselves in an essentially realist mode of representation (as I have said, to insist on the “reality” of the “mythic” is part of the ideological function of these novels) and in more or less comic, reintegrative structures.

Here the complicating instance of James Welch's work must be taken into account. In what follows, I do not claim to offer full readings of the texts I discuss but only to speculate on their ideological work in relation to the issues raised by Appiah. Welch's first novel, Winter in the Blood, appeared in 1974, after House Made of Dawn, therefore, and before Ceremony, and was published by Harper and Row (his subsequent novels have all been with New York trade presses: Harper, Viking, and Norton). His second novel, The Death of Jim Loney (1979), followed close on the publication of Ceremony. Although Louis Owens has titled his fine chapter on Welch “James Welch's Acts of Recovery” and has written of Winter in the Blood as achieving for its unnamed protagonist “a renewed sense of identity as Indian, as specifically Blackfoot” (Other Destinies 131), I read that novel as a bit more tentative in its conclusion—and indeed Owens himself later admitted, “The ending isn't exactly happy” (Other Destinies 146). And about The Death of Jim Loney, Owens quotes Welch himself—“The guy is going to kill himself. No, that's not funny” (Other Destinies 145).

Set, Tayo, and somewhat more tentatively, Abel resolve their problems by accepting an “Indian” identity of one sort or another. But this resolution is impossible for Jim Loney. Early in the novel, in response to his lover's rather silly exclamation—“You're so lucky to have two sets of ancestors … you can be Indian one day and white the next”—Loney thinks: “It would be nice to think that, but it would be nicer to be one or the other all the time … Indian or white. Whichever, it would be nicer than being a half-breed” (14). Later, the narrator, noting that Loney “never felt Indian,” has him recall his lover's remark—“She had said he was lucky to have two sets of ancestors”—only to conclude, “In truth he had none” (102). Loney dies violently and alone.

Thus, ideologically, Welch's early fiction seems to fall somewhere between Appiah's first and second stages (hence my preference, at the outset, for conceptualizing these matters along a continuum). It is largely “postnativist”—postnationalist or posttribalist—yet mostly realist (even though Winter in the Blood certainly contains scenes that have, not inaccurately, been considered surreal). Nor does it have the sort of corrosive quality that marks Ouologuem's novel or, as we shall see, Leslie Silko's Almanac of the Dead. Welch's third novel, Fools Crow (1986), explores the Blackfoot past, which it treats as past. To say this puts me once more at a slight tangent to Louis Owens, who wrote of Fools Crow, “By imagining, or remembering the traditional Blackfoot world, Welch attempts to recover the center—to revitalize the ‘myths of identity and authenticity’—and thus reclaim the possibility of a coherent identity for himself and all contemporary Blackfoot people, that which was denied Jim Loney” (Other Destinies 157). If this is indeed the case, then Welch, by 1986, would have come to a position not far distant from that of Momaday or the Silko of Ceremony, authorizing at least a reclamation of, if not a return to, tradition. As I see it, however, Welch, in Fools Crow, presents the Blackfoot past as indeed past; the question, then, is whether (and how) this past might be a “usable past.” Should this be the case, then Welch in some measure has departed from Momaday and the early Silko, coming nearer to those recent novels by Native American authors to which I will presently attend.

My argument thus far is that for all Momaday's and Silko's recognition of the need for tradition to change, in House Made of Dawn, Ceremony, and The Ancient Child these writers nonetheless insist on the possibility of a recuperation of the traditional—where, to be sure, the exact nature of the “traditional” remains to be specified. Nonetheless, to live in a “traditional” manner, within an organic “Indian” community, is presented as a tentative possibility for Abel and as an imminent reality for Tayo and Set. This is not the case, as I have said, for the protagonists in the first two novels of James Welch.

Neither able to “return to tradition” like Tayo and Set nor wholly cut off from it like Jim Loney—perhaps, then, somewhere between the Native American equivalent of Appiah's first- and second-stage postcolonial novel—are the protagonists in some recent fiction by Louis Owens, W. S. Penn, Diane Glancy, and Betty Louise Bell. Before proceeding, however, perhaps I should again say, as clearly as possible, what I am and am not attempting to do. I am not attempting to offer even a partial “survey” of contemporary Native American fiction; to do that would require attention to work by Sherman Alexie, A. L. Carr, Gordon Henry, Adrian Louis, Susan Power, and of course, Michael Dorris and Louise Erdrich, among many others. And I am not attempting to establish a canon of contemporary Native American writers, implying that the writers I choose to discuss are somehow the “best.” Obviously I think these are very good writers, but their particular interest to me here concerns their relation to varieties of postcolonial ideological work. Demonstrating that relation is what I am attempting to do.

In Louis Owens's The Sharpest Sight (1992) we have the portrayal of two traditional Choctaw elders, Luther Cole and Onatima, or Old Lady Blue Wood. These two, although they have powers that can shift the compass and change the weather, are nonetheless sophisticated citizens of the modem world; they are college graduates given to meditating on the stories of Moby-Dick and Huckleberry Finn and to critiquing published histories of their Choctaw people. They offer a sense of “home” to Cole McCurtain, Luther's nephew, and to Cole's father, Hoey. Indeed, the last words of the novel state, “In four days they were at the river, where an old man and old woman were waiting to take them home” (263). But the “home” these elders can offer does not seem to include the promise of reintegration into the sort of traditional community that Silko imagined for Tayo. Owens's meditation on tradition, moreover, is very much a meditation on traditions, inasmuch as the novel concerns not only the relation between Cole and his powerful uncle but also the relation between Mundo Morales, a Mexican American, and his grandfather—who, having died sometimes before the story takes place, appears only as a ghost. Near the end of the novel; the grandfather says: “My grandson has become more comfortable with the dead. … He knows at last who he is” (262). This suggests that Mundo has also, in some manner, come “home,” but I think we will have to look to Owens's further work for a fuller sense of just where and what “home” is.

In Owens's novel, Bone Game (1994), Cole McCurtain once more appears, and he is a professor at Santa Cruz, a social location and an identity quite unimaginable, I think, for Tayo or Abel and just exactly the sort of worldly placement that Set abandoned. To help Professor McCurtain through a very difficult time, Luther, Onatima, and Hoey all show up in Santa Cruz, where Cole's daughter, Abby, also has come. At the novel's end, Onatima and Luther return home to Mississippi, where they will talk to the bones of their Choctaw people and “tell them of their granddaughter in these strange, lightning-struck mountains” (242). Hoey by this time “has also found his world there,” in Mississippi, and as Onatima says, “When the time comes he will surpass all of us” (242). (And he will surely be the subject of another further novel!) But for Cole, “home” just now is New Mexico and the house where he and his exwife were once happy, where they raised their daughter and where Cole wrote his books. He will take back to New Mexico a reinforced sense of the power of the Choctaw part of his background, but there is no question of a return to traditional community.

W S. Penn's novel The Absence of Angels (1994) offers another portrait of a traditional yet entirely modern person, the narrator's grandfather, whose significant appearances at the beginning and end of the narrative provide a circular frame for the novel. Grandfather appears on the first page of the book, having just made the trip from Chosposi Mesa to Los Angeles—a fifteen-hour drive that “concentration” permitted him to make in eleven hours (in a 1947 Plymouth!). He has come to the hospital where Death hovers at the bedside of his newborn grandson, the sickly Albert Hummingbird, or Alley, the narrator and protagonist of the novel. Grandfather takes Death by the wrist, puts him in the passenger seat of the Plymouth, and drives him away—and Alley lives.

Grandfather not only drives a car but also pedals a bicycle—this too with great concentration—from which he falls, breaking a hip. Death, which had formerly and again recently stalked Alley, now appears at Grandfather's bedside, and the novel, like so many Native American novels, comes full circle in its last scene. Now it is Alley who visits his dying grandfather in the hospital. But Alley knows he cannot, indeed should not, try to drive death away, and Grandfather dies at exactly 10:21 PM on Christmas Eve, an hour and thirty-nine minutes short of the time he had predicted for his passing. Alley, with his lover, Sara Baites, scatters Grandfather's ashes across the desert, thinking about death and life and love and, finally, the life-sustaining value of laughter. Here too, although the power of a traditional person is celebrated, there still can be no return to tradition or to the consolations of “myth.”

In Diane Glancy's 1993 collection of stories, Firesticks, six of the nineteen stories, each of which is called “Firesticks,” form a linked series. Firesticks explores the relationship between a forty-two-year-old, part-Cherokee diner waitress named Turle Heppner and a drifter, a “dude” slightly younger than she (but also one-eighth Cherokee, “about a toe's worth” [28], maybe) known only as Navorn. When we meet them, Turle's father, William Bear Hall, is ill and dying, and Navorn agrees to drive Turle to see him in Frederick, Oklahoma, about three hours southwest of Guthrie, where Turle lives and works. Turle's father survives until the penultimate section of the series, when a call comes in to the diner telling Turle of his death.

In the meantime, Turle and Navorn have become lovers and then separated, although Turle now persuades Navorn one more time to drive her to Frederick to make funeral arrangements. Turle's father had asked to be buried on Mount Scott, in the Wichita Mountain range, “state property [and] solid granite” (55), as Turle notes in an explanation of why she has told her father that she could not accede to his wish. Turle says that when she looks at her father, she sees her grandmother's face. “He reminds me of the way she used to look. The few times I saw her” (38). Turle and her grandmother never spoke; “she didn't say anything” (40). Nonetheless, Turle explains: “She still speaks to me in a voice I can hear. It's as though what she had to say to me passed between us without speaking” (40). This silent communication is troubling to Turle, who has been “struggling for a language that would separate us. If I could have heard her, we would have parted like the people after Babel. I might not have liked, nor understood what she said. I would have had a chance to reject it. But we are together in our one language of silence. If she could speak, we could have separated” (40). Even though her mother raised her, Turle, as noted above, sees her grandmother in her father's face, and “it's his family [she] feels on windy days when the dust is up.” She adds, “In the red sumac groves I see the circle of their council fires” (41).

These “fires” are not literally those of her father's family, or not recently at any rate; the pronoun “their” seems to extend to people much further back, in a time when Cherokee council fires were struck by “firesticks.” Among several visions and “memories” of things she cannot account for as part of her own historical experience, there is Turle's “dream,” opening the final section of Firesticks, of “the burning firesticks the men used to carry from the holy Keetowah fire to light the smaller fires in the cabins.” Turle notes: “It had been a yearly celebration. Light out of darkness. New life from the ashes. I dreamed of the firesticks passed from generation to generation. But now we had lost our ceremonies” (125). Yet Turle comes to understand that words are not only for separation and ending but also for joining and continuation. “Maybe,” she says, “words are not always separators. If I speak fight I have light. My words are firesticks” (126).

Navorn drives her to Mount Scott, “Holy ground” (129), as her father had called it, where Turle will bury his pipe and belt buckle. After doing so

she felt all people again. Those who lived long lives on the prairie, and those who knew extinction of their way of life. …

The boulders on Mount Scott kept those faces before [her], frozen in fear and hopelessness. A band of Indians, massacred, their blood mingled with the red Oklahoma soil


Turle discovers that even if the ceremonies have been lost, there was a place to go after all. “The Spirit World kept all things that left. In my vision, the prairie moved again with herds of buffalo and antelope and Indian tribes. My father rode with them, their land restored” (131). Firesticks works to an ending in which Turle prays: “Comfort us, Great Spirit. And William Bear Hall, my other father, I'm sorry I did not bury you on Mount Scott like you asked” (131-32). In response, she hears, “‘Forgive me.’ The answer was his this time” (132). The story concludes: “I see our words are firesticks finding a way through the dark. Strange warriors. In dreams I hear your talk” (132). The placement of “Strange warriors” as a free-standing fragment is curious. Had there been a comma rather than a period after “dark,” “warriors” would have referred to words-as-firesticks. But that is not what the text gives us. Who, then, are these warriors? No doubt they are the Cherokees of old—word-warriors (to use a phrase that has been associated with Gerald Vizenor), carriers of the firesticks of the old council fires. In some measure memories, most particularly dreams and visions, bring them back.17 But to “have” them, to make them “real” and make them stay, requires words: “our words are firesticks” (132).

Those last words are Turle's words, and words for her are spoken (or unspoken), heard, remembered, and dreamed. But they are not written; Glancy is the writer of words, and Firesticks may certainly be taken in part as an affirmation of the author's sense of her vocation. As Silko does in Storyteller, Glancy in Firesticks presents herself, by implication, as one who writes words “for the people.” Turle Heppner can be heard because Glancy gives her the words—words like those of Turle's earlier vision in which she saw “antelope running and … saw buffalo, herds and herds of buffalo, as they once had been on the prairie … just as someone someday might get a vision of what our lives had been. They came back not to haunt nor accuse but to remind that they once had been, and still moved with the swirling winds on the plains and the clouds across the sky” (93, my emphasis). Turle will go back to work in the diner in Guthrie; she and Navorn will or will not stay together. Outwardly at least, her life will probably not look so very different from the lives of the non-Native inhabitants of her hometown. But the story has made clear that for her, what “once had been” “still moved.” The ceremonies are gone, and one cannot reconstitute and live the traditional past. But that past has a presence as well, one that may have powerful consequences.

Like Owens's fiction, Betty Louise Bell's 1994 novel, Faces in the Moon, offers a traditionalist couple, and like Glancy's fiction, it shows a move to memory and language as important in the maintenance of tradition. Here, Great-aunt Lizzie and Uncle Jerry are people who provide a center and give a sense of “home” to Lucie, the child the narrator once was. But there is no nostalgia here for “roots.” Lucie will not return to the old ways or go “home” again with any prospect of permanence. So far as the novel offers, in Appiah's words again, “a common cultural past … a shared tradition,” it is a tradition that cannot be discovered in a “return” of any kind but rather remains to be (re-)produced—as with Glancy—in language. But Lucie is not Turle Heppner; she not only will speak but also will become, as she announces on the penultimate page of the novel, the arrogant whiteman's “worst nightmare: … an Indian with a pen” (192), more specifically, an Indian woman with a pen.

Bell's novel begins powerfully with the following words: “I was raised on the voices of women. Indian women.” These voices are sited at “the kitchen table … a place of remembering, a place where women came and drew their lives from each other” (4). The novel ends with “the advice” the narrator says was “passed on to [her] by the old people” (193). And what is this “traditional” wisdom passed on by the old ones? It is: “Don't mess with Indian women. … That's all. You don't need to know more than that.” These words, spoken by the narrator, are echoed by the ghostly voices of other women: “‘Don't mess with Indian women,’ the voices whoop” (193). There is imagined here not so much a return to tradition and community as, instead, the necessity of writing, of producing tradition and community, specifically the community of Indian women who today may draw their lives from each other not only at the kitchen table but in a wider world beyond.

Bell's novel—like the work of Owens, of Penn, of Welch, and of Glancy and even like the Native American novels paralleling Appiah's first-stage postcolonial African novel—is written in a sophisticated mode of realism (i.e., a realism after modernism). Its form—in this it is like some but unlike others of the novels I have mentioned—contrapuntally plays a circular structure of return (back to the old ones, to kitchen-table talk) against a linear structure of “progress” (forward to self-discovery and writing). The book is a female kunstlerroman—a portrait of the artist as a young woman—charting the narrator's progress as an outward (in William Bevis's terms, a centrifugal)18 movement into the world. But this movement outward depends on a centripetal structure of return, one that, as I have said, takes place in memory or imagination.

Let's return to the final scene of Faces in the Moon, which I have only partly described above. It is set in the Oklahoma Historical Society, where Lucie has come to “look at the Cherokee rolls” (190) and fill in the lacunae of her past. Here is an image of the Foucauldian archive, constitutive of what may be known, thought, or spoken or of Virginia Woolf's library of the British Museum, where women exist only insofar as men have pronounced on them. It is in response to “the librarian's” contemptuous grin and his question “Who do you think you are?” (191) that Lucie allows her anger to erupt and then to voice the tough-minded wisdom of the old ones. But her cry, “Don't mess with Indian women,” even as it is echoed by ghostly voices, does not conclude the novel. Rather, the book ends with a sentence that on first reading I thought anticlimactic but that I now see as necessary. After the “whoop” of the voices repeating the refrain “Don't mess with Indian women,” the narrator says, “And I hear Auney say, slow and pleased, ‘Naw, I sure wouldn't wanna do that’” (193).

Lucie's Aunt Auney, her “mother's chorus since birth” (10) and the survivor of four marriages with difficult men, appeared on the first pages of the novel as an image of a strong woman; yet “the closest she came to fighting back was to refuse to forget” (11). Nor will Lucie forget, but she will also most definitely fight back, with her voice and her pen. So again there is a movement out, of “progress” or advance, but as well a movement back, a return in memory to the kitchen table as home. But this return will not ideologically authorize anything like the presumed satisfaction, unity, or plenitude of a precolonial past.

Here I will return at last to Leslie Marmon Silko's Almanac of the Dead (1991), a book that is very different from Ceremony and that has distinct affinities with Appiah's second-stage postcolonial African novel. In Almanac there is no pueblo to which one may return, no kiva in which one may feel related to the gods, the ancestors, and the earth. It is almost as if Silko had taken the celebrated advice given to Marlow in Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim: “In the destructive element immerse.” For this novel, unlike Ceremony, is not set in the mid-1940s but in the horrific present, where drug deals, the pornography of torture, traffic in weapons and body parts, and elaborate and cynical real estate scams define the Western “culture of death” in the Americas.19 I will try to describe a single strategy of this novel that seems to me to come, figuratively speaking, from a “language” other than “English,” a strategy that is deployed in decidedly anticolonial fashion, so that Almanac, in the ways I have indicated above, may be read as an example of anti-imperial “translation.”

Almanac devotes 763 pages to illustrating the statements Silko has placed in two boxes in the lower left-hand and lower right-hand comers of an annotated “Five Hundred Year Map” of northern Mexico and the southwestern United States; the map is printed just after the table of contents (of the paperback edition). The left-hand box, labeled the “Prophecy” reads: “When Europeans arrived [in the Americas], the Maya, Azteca, and Inca cultures had already built great cities and vast networks of roads. Ancient prophecies foretold the arrival of Europeans in the Americas. The ancient prophecies also foretell the disappearance of all things European.” The right-hand box, called “The Indian Connection,” states: “Sixty million Native Americans died between 1500 and 1600. The defiance and resistance to things European continue unabated. The Indian Wars have never ended in the Americas. Native Americans acknowledge no borders; they seek nothing less than the return of all tribal lands.”

Almanac imagines a contemporary continuation of “The Indian Wars,” telling of the movement of apocalyptic armies from north to south and from south to north to rid the Americas of “all”—or at least a great many—“things European.” Not all of Silko's Indian warriors are of Native American ancestry, and her cultural politics is not racialized. Thus, from the north, New Age pop spiritualists, guerrilla eco-warriors, homeless Vietnam War veterans, Lakota militants, a barefoot Hopi, and a Korean-American computer genius, among others based in the United States, begin a march southward, while a “People's Army” of Indians from Central America, led by nonviolent twin brothers and a Mayan woman who believes in handheld missile launchers and rockets, marches northward through Mexico. Both groups will eventually converge on Tucson, the eccentric center of the story, and the meeting of these two forces, still to come at the novel's end, will signal the beginning of the end of the dominance in the Americas of the settler culture.

The specific strategy of resistance I want to describe in Almanac of the Dead is its insistence on a north-south/south-north directionality as central to the narrative of “our America” (in the phrase of Fernández Rétamar).20 This shift in the directionality of history in itself works as an ideological subversion of the hegemonic Euramerican narrative, whose geographical imperative presumes an irresistible (“destined”) movement from east to West.

As Roy Harvey Pearce claimed more than forty years ago, “The history of American civilization would … be conceived of as three-dimensional, progressing from past to present, from east to west, from lower to higher” (49). The image of east-west movement, like other “images of centrality” in Edward Said's phrase, gives “rise to semi-official narratives with the capacity to authorize and embody certain sequences of cause and effect, while at the same time preventing the emergence of counternarratives” (58). East-west images found a “semi-official” narrative of American progress, of the fulfillment of a “manifest destiny,” that will take this nation “from sea to shining sea.” But “facing west,” as Richard Drinnon's powerful study of that name shows, also founds “The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating and Empire-Building.” Perhaps I can best convey the depth and persistence of east-west images in the construction of American imperial dominance by citing the words of that great empire builder (and Nobel Peace Prize winner!) Henry Kissinger, who, sometime in the 1980s, said: “You come here speaking of Latin America, but this is not important. Nothing important can come from the South. … The axis of history starts in Moscow, goes to Bonn, crosses over to Washington, and then goes to Tokyo. What happens in the South is of no importance” (in Clausen 634). In the hegemonic narrative of the dominant culture, the movement of history is always from east to west, and that movement can neither be reversed (to go from west to east would be the same as going from higher to lower, from civilized to savage, something unthinkable) nor be adjusted to accommodate the south, where, as Kissinger insists, “what happens … is of no importance.”21

It may not be fortuitous that the North-South distinction has gradually taken over from the earlier division of the globe into three worlds, unless we remember that the references of North and South are not merely to concrete geographic locations but are also metaphorical. North connotes the pathways of transnational capital, and South, the marginalized populations of the world, regardless of their location (351).

But it is exactly this inexorable east-west narrative that Silko contests. Insisting that history happens north to south, south to north, she shifts the axis of where is important, thus shifting the axis of what is important. The novel concludes with the return to Laguna Pueblo (where Silko grew up) of a “giant stone snake” that had disappeared. The novel's last sentence reads, “The snake was looking south, in the direction from which the twin brothers and the people would come” (763). This “looking south” rather than “facing west” is not only a change of geographical perspective but also a metaphor for a change of cultural and political value. In terms elaborated by Gerald Vizenor, Euramerican “dominance” is, here, challenged by Native American “survivance,” the former committed to progress, the latter to “continuance.”22

Silko's “armies,” as I have said, are composed of a ragtag collection of people—African American, Asian American, Euramerican, Native American. Will these poor inherit the earth? If the novel has gone well, we should hope so, whoever we are, and identify with them. To say this permits me a return to Yambo Ouologuem's novel Le Devoir de violence, in regard to which Appiah wrote, “If we are to identify with anyone, in fine, it is with ‘la négraille’—the niggertrash, who have no nationality” (152). As Appiah reads Ouologuem, however, this potential identification with “la négraille” is not a happy one. For them, for those “who have no nationality,” “one republic,” Appiah states, “is as good—which is to say as bad—as any other.” In this stage of the African novel, postcoloniality has become … a condition of pessimism,” “a kind of postoptimism” (155). Yet Ouologuem's postrealist” “delegitimation” of “nationality” and of “the postcolonial national bourgeoisie” is not strictly consistent with the “postmodernist” project according to Appiah, because it is “grounded in an appeal to an ethical universal … a certain simple respect for human suffering” (155). This “ethical universal” Appiah unashamedly names “humanism,” noting the way in which this makes the apparently postmodernist, postcolonial African novel “not an ally for Western postmodernism but an agonist from which … [Western] postmodernism may have something to learn” (155). I would say much the same for the apparently postmodernist Native American novel.23 For it too, as Appiah wrote, what “role postmodernism might play … is … too early to tell” (157).

The choice to respect human suffering and to reject nationalism is, as Appiah reads Ouologuem, a choice of “Africa—the continent and its people” (152), and we may take this observation back to Silko's text. Almanac, like the postcolonialist African fiction of Appiah's second stage, is certainly an instance of “postrealist writing,” offering a “postnativist politics … [and] a transnational rather than a national solidarity” (155), but it is not, for all the grimness of its detail, pessimistic.

Let me take these two matters one at a time. First, my sense of Almanac's commitment to “a transnational rather than a national solidarity” once more puts me at odds with Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, who claims that the book “insists upon the nationalist's approach to historical events” in its creation of “a Panindian journey toward retribution.” But Cook-Lynn's very next sentence admits: “[Almanac] fails in this nationalistic trend since it does not take into account the specific kind of tribal/nation status of the original inhabitants of this continent. There is no apparatus for the tribally specific treaty-status paradigm to be realized either in the Silko fiction or in the Pan-Indian approach to history” (“Cosmopolitanism, Nationalism” 34). But surely this is to recognize that Almanac is not so much failing in its nationalist approach as simply not taking such an approach at all. Almanac not only is committed to Pan-Indianism rather than tribal specificity—as Cook-Lynn herself realizes—but also is committed to a kind of Pan-Americanism, in which all those who adhere to tribal values of life and healing may join, regardless of blood quanta or enrollment cards.

As for Almanac's “optimism,” perhaps this may derive from the fact that Silko, like other contemporary Native American writers, lives in a postcolonial world but writes, as I have said, from within a colonial context. Materially, that is, sociopolitically, things are not good, but there is everything yet to be done to rid the Americas of bad European things and values. Of course the world of drug deals, body parts sales, and violent pornography that Silko describes is horrible to contemplate, but it is premature for “postoptimism.” What Cook-Lynn called “retribution” Annette Jaimes refers to as the dispensation of “a long overdue measure of justice to the haughty current minions of [the] malignant Euroamerican order.”24 This, Jaimes notes, “is what ultimately makes the novel … a work of life and liberation rather than death and despair” (57). Almanac insists that the prophecies are not to be mocked; the Americas will return to the values of life. These are, to be sure, the old values of indigenous tribal peoples, but they are, today, to be represented by a “transnational” “négraille”; whatever it might mean to speak of a choice of “Africa—the continent and its people,” Silko's” “armies” are an image of “America—the continent(s) and its people” today: a transnational “tribe” committed to healing, to continuance and survivance.


  1. Alan Velie has pointed out to me that these statistics should not lead to the general conclusion that all Native Americans are “victims enmeshed in the culture of poverty.” In Oklahoma, for example, there are a great many oil-rich Natives; in Connecticut, the Mashantucket Pequots number among the super-rich. For a discussion of the concept of “sovereignty,” see chapter one of my The Turn to the Native.

  2. I again refer the reader to Cook-Lynn, “Cosmopolitanism, Nationalism,” for a discussion of these matters from a ‘nationalist’ perspective.

  3. Cf. my “Native American Literature and the Canon” in The Voice in the Margin 96-131; and my essay ‘On the Translation of Native American Literature—A Theorized History,” in Swann. See also Cheyfitz, Poetics, in these regards and Murray, Forked Tongues, in particular chapter 1, “Translation,” and chapter 2, “Languages.”

  4. For a recent overview, with particular attention to Iroquois and Navajo examples, see Zolbrod's Reading the Voice. My own essay “On the Translation of Native American Literature” offers bibliographical references to most of the efforts at mythography or ethnopoetics.

  5. See Krupat, “On the Translation of Native American Literatures,” in Swann.

  6. See Krupat, Ethnocriticism, 196-99, 237.

  7. A somewhat different version of this paper was presented by Asad and John Dixon in July 1994 at the University of Essex's “Sociology of Literature” conference. This version appears as “Translating Europe's Others,” in volume I of the proceedings of the conference, Europe and Its Others.

  8. In this regard, see John Tomlinson's discussion (in Cultural Imperialism) of the linguistic imperialism resulting from the fact that even anti-imperial discourse takes place only in a very few languages, English primes inter pares.

  9. Recall, however, that although an indigenous language was the first spoken language of these artists, English was their first written language.

  10. Vizenor tends to claim ironies for the oral tradition as well, but this is a projection backward of present concerns. Primary orality must minimize irony for the simple reason that it is inimical to direct comprehension and ready recall.

  11. It needs to be said that the very fact of difference, whether in form or in content, need not always and automatically work in the interest of resistance. See, in this regard, Fredric Jameson's 1988 account of “the social functionality of culture” (195-96), in which he notes that in spite of the fact that modernist and postmodernist art were both equivalently perceived as obnoxious, the former does in fact function in a manner that is oppositional to the cultural dominant, whereas the second has itself become the cultural dominant.

  12. The interesting fiction of earlier Native American writers—writers like John Joseph Matthews, Pauline Johnson, John Milton Oskison, and D'Arcy McNickle, for example—has only recently begun to receive careful critical attention, and it remains to be seen whether a case can be made for considering them as the first generation of “postcolonial” or, indeed, anticolonial Native writers. For the present, however, there are good reasons to begin with Momaday.

  13. Momaday's work has probably received more critical attention than that of any other Native American writer. Matthias Schubnell's book-length overview of Momaday's work is more hagiography than critical study, and a book-length study of House Made of Dawn has been published by Susan Scarberry-Garcia. Louis Owens's chapter on Momaday in Other Destinies offers what I believe is the best overall account available. A. Lavonne Brown Ruoff's volume for the MLA gives most of the important references through 1990.

  14. Silko was a student of Tony Hillerman's at the University of New Mexico and for eighteen months was a correspondent of the poet and teacher James Wright, whom she met at a writers' conference. For this latter association, see Silko and Wright, The Delicacy and Strength of Lace.

  15. Ruoff is once more useful for references to the major criticism of Silko. See also the recent volume edited by Melody Graulich, “Yellow Woman.”

  16. My reference here is to Shamoon Zamir's extraordinary essay “Literature in a ‘National Sacrifice Area’: Leslie Silko's Ceremony.

  17. The role of memory in all of the novels I have discussed so far, and in Betty Louise Bell's Faces in the Moon, which I discuss below, is important. Rather than attempt to examine memory as some sort of unique and autonomous expression of Native American culture and value “in its own right,” we might find a more fruitful exercise in comparing it with its role, say, in Proust, Woolf, Faulkner, and even Eliot, among other of the canonical modernists. As Franz Boas showed long ago, to assert a “comparative method” as a measurement of value (e.g., higher or more “civilized” compared with lower and more “primitive”) is to produce inaccuracies, absurdities, or indeed abominations—just what those Native critics committed to cultural or intellectual “sovereignty” and “autonomy” have tried to circumvent. But there are other sorts of comparison available, and to ignore them is unnecessarily to foreclose possibilities for understanding. Because I have been misunderstood on this point before, I need to add explicitly that I am not suggesting that one should bring the assumptions one brings to Proust to these novels, but rather that one should see whether one can find a critical language that might mediate between Proust and Native American fiction—yet again, as this chapter takes it up, an issue of cross-cultural translation or ethnocriticism.

  18. See Bevis, “Native American Novels.”

  19. The phrase “the culture of death” comes up frequently in Silko's work, as it does as well in the work of Gerald Vizenor, to which I will turn shortly. In his encyclical letter of March 30. 1995, titled Evangelium Vitae, or Gospel of Life, Pope John Paul II used the term “culture of death” to name a secular humanism that is, in the pope's view, indifferent to “the original inalienable right to life” (New York Times, March 31, 1995). Although the pope and certain Native American writers are in agreement in their condemnation of what they variously consider the Western “culture of death,” I do not think they would necessarily agree as to what constitutes a life-giving culture.

  20. Silko's map does have a single horizontal line indicating the movement of several of the characters eastward, from San Diego to Tucson, and others westward, from El Paso to Tucson. The north-south/south-north directionality seems, however, of central importance.

  21. Cf. Dirlik, “The Postcolonial Aura”: “It may not be fortuitous that the North-South distinction has gradually taken over from the earlier division of the globe into three worlds, unless we remember that the references of North and South are not merely to concrete geographic locations but are also metaphorical. North connotes the pathways of transnational capital, and South, the marginalized populations of the world, regardless of their location” (351). As we shall see, in similar yet also different ways, Silko's North and South are also both “concrete” and “metaphorical.”

  22. I'm not sure just where Vizenor first began to develop his concept of “survivance,” although most recently it appears fictionally in his Heirs of Columbus (1991) and essayistically in his Manifest Manners (1994). What is necessary for survivance is healing, something important to Silko.

  23. I make the same case in regard to Gerald Vizenor's Heirs of Columbus in The Turn to the Native, chapter three. I here only repeat that the contemporary Native American novel, although it may perform ideological work that parallels the postcolonial novel in Africa or elsewhere, remains, as a consequence of its sociopolitical situation, a colonial production in a postcolonial world.

  24. Justice, for Jaimes, will be dispensed by “the dispossessed/disenfranchised indigenous vanguard swarming northward” (“Review” 57). But there is, as I have noted, a movement southward toward justice and life-giving values as well.

*This essay was first published as chapter two in The Turn to the Native: Studies in Criticism and Culture (Nebraska UP, 1996). We thank University of Nebraska Press for permission to reprint.

Works Cited

Appiah, K. Anthony. “Race.” Critical Terms for Literary Study. Ed. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McGlaughlin. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1990. 274-87.

———. “Is the Post- In Postmodernism the Post- in Postcolonial?” Critical Inquiry 17 (1991): 336-57.

———. In My Father's House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture. New York: Oxford UP, 1992.

Asad, Talal. “The Concept of Cultural Translation in British Social Anthropology.” Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Ed. James Clifford and George Marcus. Berkeley: U of California P, 1986. 141-64.

Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, Helen Tiffin. The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures. London: Routledge, 1989.

Bell, Betty Louise. Faces in the Moon. U of Oklahoma P, 1994.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Task of the Translator.” Ed. Hannah Arendt. Illuminations. New York: Schocken Books, 1969.

Bevis, William. “Native American Novels: Homing In.” Ed. Brian Swann and Arnold Krupat. Recovering the World: Essays on Native American Literature. Berkeley: U of California P, 1987. 580-620.

Cheyfitz, Eric. The Poetics of Imperialism: Translation and Colonization from “The Tempest” to “Tarzan.” New York: Oxford UP, 1991.

Clausen, Jan. “The Axis of Herstory: Review.” Nation 258 (May 18, 1994): 634-36.

Cook-Lynn, Elizabeth. “Who Gets to Tell the Stories?” Wicazo Sa Review 9 (1993): 60-63.

———. “Cosmopolitanism, Nationalism, the Third World, and Tribal Sovereignty.” Wicazo Sa Review 9 (1993): 26-36.

Dirlik, Arif. “‘The Postcolonial Aura’: Third World Criticism in the Age of Global Capitalism.” Critical Inquiry 20 (Winter 1994): 328-56.

Drinnon, Richard. Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating and Empire Building. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1980.

Glancy, Diane. Firesticks. U of Oklahoma P, 1993.

Greenblatt, Stephen. Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1991.

Graulich, Melody, ed. “Yellow Woman”: Leslie Marmon Silko. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1993.

Jaimes, M. Annette. “The Disharmonic Convergence: Leslie Silko's Almanac of the Dead: Review.” Wicaza Sa Review 8 (1992): 56-67.

———. The State of Native America: Genocide, Colonization, and Resistance. Boston: South End P, 1992.

Jameson, Fredric. The Ideologies of Theory: Essays, 1971-1986. Volume Two, Syntax and History. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1988.

Krupat, Arnold. The Turn to the Native: Studies in Criticism and Culture. U of Nebraska P, 1996.

———, ed. New Voices in Native American Literary Criticism. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution P, 1993.

———. Ethnocriticism: Ethnography, History, Literature. Berkeley: U of California P, 1992.

———. “On the Translation of Native American Song and Story: A Theorized History.” Ed. Brian Swann. On the Translation of Native American Literatures. Washington, D.C.: The Smithsonian Institution P, 1992. 3-32.

———. The Voice in the Margin. Berkeley: U of California P, 1989.

———. “Poststructuralism and Oral Literature.” Ed. Brian Swann and Arnold Krupat. Recovering the Word: Essays on Native American Literature. Berkeley: U of California P, 1987. 113-28.

Momaday, N. Scott. House Made of Dawn. New York: Harper and Row, 1968.

———. The Names. New York: Harper, 1976.

———. The Ancient Child. New York: Doubleday, 1989.

Murray, David. Forked Tongues: Speech, Writing and Representation in North American Indian Texts. Bloomington: U of Indiana P, 1991.

Ouologuem, Yambo. Le Devoir de violence. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1968. Bound to Violence. Trans. Ralph Manheim. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968.

Owens, Louis. Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1992.

———. The Sharpest Sight. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1992.

———. Bone Game. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1994.

Pearce, Roy Harvey. Savagism and Civilization: A Study of the Indian and the American Mind. 1953; rpt. Berkeley: U of California P, 1988.

Penn, W S. The Absence of Angels. Sag Harbor, NY: Permanent P, 1994.

Rétamar, Fernández. “Caliban: Notes toward a Discussion of Culture in Our America,” Massachusetts Review 15 (1974): 9.

Ruoff, A. LaVonne Brown. American Indian Literatures: An Introduction, Bibliographic Review, and Selected Bibliography. New York: Modern Language Association, 1990.

Said, Edward. “Identity, Negation, and Violence.” New Left Review 171 (1988): 46-60.

Scarberry-Garcia, Susan. Landmarks of Healing: A Study of “A House Made of Dawn.” Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1990.

Schubnell, Matthias. N. Scott Momaday: The Cultural and Literary Background. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1985.

Silko, Leslie Marmon. Storyteller. New York: Arcade/Little Brown, 1981.

———. Ceremony. New York: Viking, 1977.

———. The Delicacy and Strength of Lace: Letters Between Leslie Marmon Silko and James Wright. Ed. Anne Wright. St. Paul, MN: Graywolf P, 1986.

———. Almanac of the Dead. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991.

Swann, Brian. “Introduction.” On the Translation of Native American Literatures. Washington, DC: The Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.

Tomlinson, John. Cultural Imperialism: A Critical Introduction. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1991.

Vizenor, Gerald. Heirs of Columbus. Hanover, NH: U P of New England/Wesleyan UP, 1991.

———. Manifest Manners. Hanover, NH: U P of New England, 1994.

Welch, James. Winter in the Blood. New York: Harper and Row, 1974.

———. The Death of Jim Loney. 1979; rpt. New York: Penguin, 1987.

———. Fools Crow. New York: Viking, 1986.

Zamir, Shamoon. “Literature in a ‘National Sacrifice Area’: Leslie Silko's Ceremony.” In Krupat, New Voices. 396-418.

Zolbrod, Paul G. Reading the Voice: Native American Oral Poetry on the Page. Salt Lake: U of Utah P, 1995.

Arif Dirlik (essay date Spring 1999)

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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 one another. There is a preoccupation with history when history seems to be increasingly irrelevant to understanding the present. Worked over by postmodernism, among other things, the past itself seems to be up for grabs, and will say anything we want it to say.

It is another one of these paradoxes that I take up in this essay: the paradox of Eurocentrism. The repudiation of Eurocentrism in intellectual and cultural life seems to be such an obvious necessity that it may seem odd to speak of it as a paradox. Yet a good case can be made that Eurocentrism, too, has come under scrutiny and criticism at the very moment of its victory globally. Whether we see in the present the ultimate victory or the impending demise of Eurocentrism depends on what we understand by it, and where we locate it. The widespread assumption in our day that Eurocentrism may be spoken or written away, I will suggest, rests on a reductionist culturalist understanding of Eurocentrism. Rendering Eurocentrism into a cultural phenomenon that leaves unquestioned other locations for it distracts attention from crucial ways in which Eurocentrism may be a determinant of a present that claims liberation from the hold on it of the past. What is at issue is modernity, with all its complex constituents, of which Eurocentrism was the formative moment. Just as modernity is incomprehensible without reference to Eurocentrism, Eurocentrism as a concept is specifiable only within the context of modernity. Rather than define Eurocentrism from the outset, therefore, I seek to contextualize it in order to restore to it—and the many arguments against it—some sense of historicity.

If Eurocentrism is crucial to thinking modernity, we need to raise the question of whether or not it may be repudiated without a simultaneous disavowal of history. The question necessitates confrontation of Eurocentrism as a historical phenomenon against the background of other “centrisms”—in other words, the ways in which EuroAmerican production, dissemination, and domination of modernity differ in their values and processes from earlier forms of domination such as, say, “Sinocentrism.” It is also necessary, in assessing Eurocentrism as a historical problem, to take account of earlier critiques of Eurocentrism. This latter is crucial especially to accounting for the historicity of contemporary critiques of Eurocentrism, in terms of both their relationship to the past and their relationship to contemporary configurations of power.

I suggest by way of conclusion that a radical critique of Eurocentrism must rest on a radical critique of the whole project of modernity understood in terms of the life-world that is cultural and material at once. Modernity in our day is not just EuroAmerican, but is dispersed globally, if not equally or uniformly, in transnational structures of various kinds, in ideologies of development, and the practices of everyday life. It does not just emanate from EuroAmerica understood geographically, nor are its agencies necessarily EuroAmerican in origin. A radical critique of Eurocentrism, in other words, must confront contemporary questions of globalism and postcolonialism, and return analysis to the locations of contemporary struggles over the life-world. I should note here that the critique of Eurocentrism is a diffuse characteristic of all kinds of critiques of power in our day: from feminist to racial critiques. On occasion, it seems as if the problems of the world would be solved if somehow we got rid of Eurocentrism. This, of course, is silly. It not only misses much about Eurocentrism; it ignores even more about the rest of the world. Not the least of what it ignores is that although the agencies that are located in EuroAmerica may be the promoters of Eurocentrism, they are by now not the only ones, and possibly not the most important ones. Eurocentrism may not be global destiny, but it is a problem that needs to be confronted by any serious thinking about global destinies. These problems are too serious to be left in the hands of elites to whom Eurocentrism is an issue of identity in intra-elite struggles for power.


At one level, what Eurocentrism is and where it is located is sufficiently straightforward. Eurocentrism is crucial to understanding the spatialities and temporalities of modernity, not just in EuroAmerica but globally, from at least the late nineteenth century. The spatial conceptualizations around which we have organized history, from nations to areas to continents and oceans to the Third World and beyond, are in a fundamental sense implicated in a Eurocentric modernity. Even more powerful may be the reworking of temporalities by a Eurocentric conceptualization of the world, where the particular historical trajectory of EuroAmerican societies was to end up as a teleology worldwide in marking time. This was enunciated “theoretically” in the social sciences by the discourse of modernization, in its bourgeois as well as its Marxist formulations. History itself, as Nicholas Dirks puts it succinctly, is “a sign of the modern.”1 For the last century, but especially since World War II, Eurocentrism has been the informing principle in our constructions of history—not just in EuroAmerican historiography, but in the spatial and temporal assumptions of dominant historiographies worldwide. EuroAmericans conquered the world, renamed places, rearranged economies, societies, and politics, and erased or drove to the margins premodern ways of knowing space, time, and many other things as well. In the process, they universalized history in their own self-image in an unprecedented manner. Crucial to this self-image was the establishment by the European Enlightenment of a paradigm of the rational humanist subject as the subject of history, armed with reason and science, conquering time and space in the name of universal reason, reorganizing societies to bring them within the realm of rationality, and subjugating alternative historical trajectories to produce a universal history ever moving forward to fulfill the demands of human progress. The paradigm rendered the EuroAmerican experience of history into the fate of humankind, which then could serve as the rationalization for the pain let loose upon the world by its transformative aspirations.

Let us ignore for the moment an immediate objection to such an account of Eurocentrism: that it recapitulates an ideological Eurocentrism worthy of a most unreconstructed Eurocentrist. There is no recognition in this account of the incoherence of Eurocentrism as a historical phenomenon, because it is oblivious to the historicity of Eurocentrism, as well as to the contradictions that both dynamized its history and limited its claims. I will return to those questions in the next section. The immediate issue here is where to locate Eurocentrism.

Culture and discourse would seem to be the most popular choices of location in contemporary answers to Eurocentrism, represented most prominently by postcolonialism and globalism.2 Although quite different, and perhaps even antithetical, in their appreciation of the relationship of the present world situation to the past, postcolonialism and globalism would seem to be at one in their attitudes toward the location of Eurocentrism, or a Eurocentric modernity, which may account for their confounding by some cultural critics.

The differences are deeply methodological and historical. Methodologically speaking, postcolonialism in its most popular forms (in the United States, at least) eschews questions of the structurations of the world in terms of “foundational categories,” and stresses local encounters in the formation of identities; it is in many ways driven by a radical methodological individualism, and situationist in its historical explanations. Globalism, on the other hand, draws attention to the structurations of the world by forces that operate at the highest level of abstraction and, in some of its versions, find in such abstraction the reaffirmation of the scientistic promises of social theory. Equally interesting may be their differences in the relationships they posit between the present and the past. Armed with the insights of the present, postcolonialists proceed to reinterpret the past with those very same insights. In this perspective, Eurocentrism, rather than shape history, appears to have been an ideological cover thrown over the past to disguise the complexity of local interactions; postcolonialism then offers a way to dis-cover the past in its true complexity, more often than not expressed in the idea of “hybridity.” In contrast to this presentist colonization of the past, globalism proclaims a “rupture” between a “present condition of globality and its many possible pasts.”3 Its is a consciousness of totality that must be distinguished from similar consciousnesses of earlier periods; what it does, however, is to deny to Eurocentrism its claims to the creation of such a totality (“its many pasts”), and opens up the possibility that the Others of EuroAmerica may have been partners in its creation.

Although I have no wish to reduce intellectual orientations that claim no coherence for themselves to one or another of their articulations, the differences to which I point above may be illustrated through two statements by those who have gained some reputation as spokespeople of postcolonialism and globalism, respectively.4 Criticism that has caught the imagination of post-Reagan post-Thatcher scholars in the United States and the United Kingdom may not be very surprising, as it points merely to the importance of context in the reception of ideas. The same may be said of globalism, which also covers a wide range of intellectual and political orientations: from leftists who look to a cosmopolitan world to rational-choice political scientists who would make sure that cosmopolitanism live up to the demands of scientific ways of knowing the world—read EuroAmerican hegemony. The problem is not quite novel. Capital has long sought globalization. So have leftists, but not quite in the same way. What seems to be different about our times is the willingness of leftists to buy into the visions of globalization offered by capital. The editors of several influential volumes on postcolonial criticism write that:

European imperialism took various forms in different times and places and proceeded both through conscious planning and contingent occurrences. As a result of this complex development something occurred for which the plan of imperial expansion had not bargained: the immensely prestigious and powerful imperial culture found itself appropriated in projects of counter-colonial resistance which drew upon the many indigenous and local hybrid processes of self-determination to defy, erode and sometimes supplant the prodigious power of imperial cultural knowledge. Post-colonial literatures are a result of this interaction between imperial culture and the complex of indigenous cultural practices. As a consequence, postcolonial theory has existed for a long time before that particular name was used to describe it.5

Postcolonialism, then, is merely the current expression of forms of knowledge that have been around for a long time, except that there was no consciousness of it earlier. That those who are convinced of the discursive construction of knowledge should be oblivious to the positivistic implications of such an assertion is nothing short of remarkable.

By contrast, advocates of globalism leave no doubt about the break they seek to accomplish between the present and the past, including a break between a present condition and the factors that may have brought about such a condition. Roland Robertson, an enthusiastic advocate of globalization of social theory, writes:

I argue that systematic comprehension of the macrostructuration of world order is essential to the viability of any form of contemporary theory and that such comprehension must involve analytical separation of the factors which have facilitated the shift towards a single world—e.g., the spread of capitalism, western imperialism and the development of a global media system—from the general and global agency-structure (and/or culture) theme. While the empirical relationship between the two sets of issues is of great importance (and, of course, complex) conflation of them leads us into all sorts of difficulties and inhibits our ability to come to terms with the basic and shifting terms of the contemporary world order.6

The projects of postcolonialism and globalism are prima facie antithetical: the one repudiating all structurations but the local, the other aiming to uncover global structures; the one situationally historicist, the other seeing in complex empirical relations an obstacle to the formulation of grand theories; the one reenvisioning the past, the other proclaiming a break with it.

And yet they stand to one another in the relationship of the local to the global, and share in common a desire to break down the boundaries (or structures) that may intervene between the two. In the phraseology of one author who seeks to reconcile postcolonialism and globalism,

one essential, underlying truth must be pointed out. Most of these peripheral postmodern effects and claims I have been recording stem directly from decomposition, under the contemporary phase of globalization, of the two fundamental assumptions of the three worlds theory. … The cultural borders authorized/enforced under that theory yield to perception of cultural interpenetration and transgression as the normal state in both the demystified past and the avant-garde present. And the evolutionary timeline along which the three worlds theory ranks cultures is cut up into discontinuously segmented, free-floating “realities,” with even more transgressive an effect, making the primitive postmodern, and startlingly juxtaposing, not only different cultures and life-styles, but even distinct epochs.7

In reading this statement, we need to remember that the “three worlds theory” was embedded in the Eurocentric mapping of the world. For the immediate purposes here, Buell brings together postcolonialism and globalism in such a way as to articulate their common points in spite of the differences that I have stressed above: there is an assumption in both cases that culture is the site on which Eurocentrism needs to be challenged, and a disavowal of history in spite of differences toward the relationship between the present and the past. Whereas postcolonialists make no secret of the prominence they assign to culture in their stress on identity formations and negotiations, someone like Robertson is equally anxious in his discussion of globalization to separate “agency-structure (and/or culture) theme” from the forces that account for the emergence of globalization in the first place.8 It may be that for globalists no less than for postcolonialists, cultural boundaries are easier to negotiate than the boundaries of economic, social, and political power, which “inhibit” coming “to terms with the basic and shifting terms of the contemporary world order.”

It may not be too surprising, in light of the culturalism implicit in such declarations not just of the autonomy but of the priority of culture, that postcolonialism and globalism also share in a disavowal of history. Anthony Smith observes that there is something “timeless about the concept of a global culture,” which, “widely diffused in space … is cut off from any past.”9 Timelessness is clearly visible in the statement from Buell, which reorders many pasts into some kind of a postmodern pastiche. It is equally visible in the statement from Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin, for whom the past was not in any way significantly different from the present, but did not know it until the present articulated for it its potential consciousness.

The question at issue here should be obvious by now. Can Eurocentrism be grasped in its significance without reference to the structures of power that it implies? Conversely, can the present, and its many claims against and over the past, be understood in their full historicity, without reference to the past perspectives it seeks to erase, either through colonization or through assertions of rupture with the past? Both questions require consideration of Eurocentrism as historical phenomenon, its formations, and the agencies that have enabled it to serve as a formative moment in not just a EuroAmerican but a global modernity.10


The argument I offer here may be stated simply: Eurocentrism as a historical phenomenon is not to be understood without reference to the structures of power that EuroAmerica produced over the last five centuries, which in turn produced Eurocentrism, globalized its effects, and universalized its historical claims. Those structures of power include the economic (capitalism, capitalist property relations, markets and modes of production, imperialism, etc.), the political (a system of nation-states, and the nation-form, most importantly, new organizations to handle problems presented by such a reordering of the world, new legal forms, etc.), the social (production of classes, genders, races, ethnicities, religious forms as well as the push toward individual-based social forms), and cultural (including new conceptions of space and time, new ideas of the good life, and a new developmentalist conception of the life-world). The list is woefully inadequate, and the categorizations themselves are admittedly problematic; but it suffices to indicate the intractability of the problem of Eurocentrism, which is my major purpose here. A culturalist appreciation of Eurocentrism that proceeds from a quite productive assertion of the autonomy of culture to an obscurantist isolation of culture and discourses from questions of political economy, and even renders culture into a privileged site that has priority over other aspects of life, may end up only with a dehistoricized, desocialized understanding of Eurocentrism that does not even come close to acknowledging the problems it presents. Does capitalism, regardless of the possibility of “different cultures of capitalism,” nevertheless serve as an agent not just of new economic forms, but also of certain fundamental values emanating from EuroAmerica? Does nationalism, as Partha Chatterjee argues, have embedded in its “thematic” the most fundamental assumptions of a EuroAmerican Orientalism?11 Does the very existence of certain forms of media, even apart from their content, introduce new values into everyday life globally? What may be said of “material” agencies as the carriers of Eurocentrism may be observed in reverse of the ways in which cultural constructs of Eurocentrism may acquire the power of material forces. Does it matter at some point that the current mapping of the world was a EuroAmerican construct, when that mapping is internalized by others, and shapes the goals and boundaries of life-activity? Especially important in this regard is the ideology of developmentalism, on which I will say more later.

There seems to be some anxiety in contemporary thinking that to raise anew the question of these structures is to open the way to some kind of “functionalism” that once again reduces social phenomena to a few of its elements.12 Let us leave aside the question that culturalist functionalism may be as much a functionalism as any other. To recognize a multiplicity of phenomena that coincide historically and appear in structural and structuring relationships of one kind or another requires neither a reduction of those phenomena to one or more of their numbers nor that we ignore the relationships of contradiction between them, that in effect serve to undermine efforts to functionalize the structure. In fact, it is these relationships, in their totality and particularity as well as their functionality and contradictoriness, that enable a coherent grasp of differences in history—not self-referential localized differences that “result in an utter particularism in which history becomes a meaningless jumble of stories with no connection to each other,”13 as in much of the postcolonial alternative, or deterritorialized totalities that have no clear spatial and temporal referents, as in the globalist alternatives.

The complexity of Eurocentrism becomes even more daunting if we note that Eurocentrism, as we have it now, is hardly a EuroAmerican phenomenon. Much of what we associate with Eurocentrism is now internal to societies worldwide, so that to speak of “Europe and Its Others” itself appears as an oxymoronic distraction. Legacies of EuroAmerica are everywhere, from global structures to daily economic practices, from state formations to household practices, from ideologies of development to cultures of consumption, from feminism to the centering in politics of race and ethnicity. Ashis Nandy, like Frantz Fanon in an earlier day, locates them in the psyches of “Europe's Others.”14 They are also in the ways we think the world, from theorizations about society to thinking about history. Even where claims are made these days to premodern and, therefore, pre-“historical” ways of knowing, they fail to convince because their own efforts to refute a modernist historicism are conditioned by a self-consciousness about their own historicity. And how would we write the world without the legacies of Eurocentric mappings? Writing the world, no less than anti-Eurocentrism itself, may be incomprehensible without reference to those same legacies. If today we may find it impossible to think the world without reference to classes, genders, and so on, premoderns (and maybe even pre-postmoderns) would have been surprised that identities are negotiable, as one negotiates commodities in the marketplace.

The recognition of the pervasiveness of Eurocentrism in its various dimensions in many ways reveals the limitations of a preoccupation with “Europe and Its Others.” That juxtaposition may still make sense with reference to the past, when a separation could be assumed between Europeans and others, which would play an important part both in the construction of others and in the construction of Eurocentrism. At the present, when more than ever the Others are most visible in their relocations to older colonial centers, they have, so to speak, come home. As a EuroAmerican modernity long has been internalized in the rest of the world, the rest of the world has now entered the interior of EuroAmerica physically and intellectually—which, not surprisingly, is also the prime location for the concern with Eurocentrism. Preoccupation with “Europe and Its Others” seems under the circumstances to be a distraction from the confrontation of the victory of Eurocentrism, which is evident above all in the rendering of EuroAmerica and its many products into objects of desire globally. The contemporary concern with Eurocentric constructions of the Other, interestingly (and with some irony), seems to provide endless occasion for speaking about EuroAmerica, perpetuating the Eurocentrism it would formally repudiate—which may be the form this desire takes among intellectuals. At the risk of simple-minded psychologizing, anti-Eurocentrism strikes me above all as the mirror image of this desire; not so much as a negative compensation for it but rather as a demand for admission of non-EuroAmerican cultural elements into the interior of a world that has been shaped already by its historical legacy in a Eurocentric modernity. What, after all, is multiculturalism that calls for the recognition of cultural relics or heritages without challenging the structures of power that are the products of EuroAmerican domination of the world, and imbued through and through with its values? These same circumstances may have something to tell us about why globalism and postcolonialism, in their very contradictoriness, have caught the imagination of many as ways to deal with such a contemporary situation—even though in their different ways they may evade the most fundamental and pressing question: whether or not there is an Outside to Eurocentrism in a world that has been worked over by the forces of modernity.

If Eurocentrism understood as a cultural phenomenon is insufficient as a critique of EuroAmerican domination of the world, which was hardly just a “discursive” domination but has been embedded in structures of power, the power of Eurocentrism itself is not to be grasped without reference to these same structures. This is not to say that culture and discourses are insignificant, but only to reiterate that they are insufficient as explanations of the world; the separation of culture and discourse into realms apart from the material is itself very modern. For the same reason, to argue for a reconnection of culture and discourse to the materiality of everday life is not to argue for a return to an earlier privileging of political economy, but rather to open up new ways of thinking the connection under contemporary circumstances—which implies also rethinking the connections that were repudiated under the regime of modernity. Eurocentric modernity then appears as one way of connecting modes of living and cultures, rather than as establishing a “scientific” and, therefore, forever valid, causal relationship between the two. The problem, as a historical problem, then, is to inquire why Eurocentric ways of representing this relationship have acquired such power. Eurocentrists may suggest that it is the power of EuroAmerican cultures. I would like to suggest here that it is power that dynamizes the claims of culture; contrary to some versions of cultural studies that conflate power and culture until they become indistinguishable, it is important, I think, to distinguish the two so as to enable a more historical treatment of the relationship. The issue here is not one of ethical judgment or choice. The issue rather is ethical domination. And cultural domination is hardly its own justification. Neither Eurocentrism nor the contemporary challenges to it can be understood without reference to elements outside of the strictly cultural—which, needless to say, raises significant questions about what we mean by the cultural.

To recognize Eurocentrism as a historical phenomenon it is necessary to view it within the context of other instances of domination, of which Eurocentrism was neither the first instance nor is likely to be the last. Such a historical perspective may also provide clues for a more thoroughgoing critique of power and domination than is currently available.

Eurocentrism is a complex term that disguises all manner of struggles within EuroAmerica over the meanings of “Europe” and “modernity,” but most important, Eurocentrism was the product of a historical process, if not itself a historical process, that is inextricable from the invention of Europe's “Others.” Although at the level of power there may be little question that by the end of the nineteenth century EuroAmericans had more or less conquered the whole world, and proceeded to produce ideological legitimations for the conquest, as a cultural orientation Eurocentrism itself is a hindsight invention of the Europe/Other binary, not the other way around.15 Clichés about Enlightenment rationalism, unilinear histories, and so on, that are quite common these days in the critiques of Eurocentrism overlook the ways in which historical processes mediated the understanding of such ideological products within a EuroAmerican context. EuroAmerica itself is still within this historical process of invention. Globalism, explicitly, and postcolonialism, inadvertently, may well be constituents of this process in its contemporary phase.

Without the power of capitalism, and all the structural innovations that accompanied it in political, social, and cultural organization, Eurocentrism might have been just another ethnocentrism. It is rather remarkable in an age of proliferating ethnocentrisms such as ours that so little attention should be paid to ethnocentrism as a legacy not just of Eurocentrism (although that may have contributed to it in significant ways), but as a condition of the world at the origins of modernity, more often than not expressing the centrality in a variety of “world-systems” of the cultural assumptions of those who dominated those world-systems. This may be stating the obvious, but it needs to be stated nevertheless because considerations of political correctness have led to a shyness about criticism of ethnocentrisms other than the EuroAmerica (or blatantly murderous expressions of it in places such as Bosnia, Rwanda, Turkey, or Kosovo). Spheres of cultural hegemony that more or less coincided with economic and political domination have been present all along, defining a “Chinese” world, an “Islamic” world, “Arabic” and “Indic” worlds, and so on. In spite of real or imagined hegemonies over vast territories, however, none of these worlds were in the end able to match Eurocentrism in reach or transformative power. The statement may seem foolhardy when the end of history is not yet in sight; what seems safe to say is that if these other cultural hegemonies are ever globalized and universalized in the same manner as Eurocentrism, it will be on the basis of a world globalized and universalized through Eurocentrism, and in their articulations to this new world. There are presently efforts to discover an early “modernity” in East and Southeast Asia; but it did not occur to anyone in those regions to even raise the question of modernity until modernity had been established as a principle of history. Similarly, East Asian societies may claim a “Confucian” heritage that explains their recent success in capitalism, but this Confucian heritage is one that has been reinterpreted by the very requirements of capitalism.

Eurocentrism is the one centrism that historically has encompassed the globe, and reached levels of life that were not even of much concern to its competitors; it revolutionized lives around the globe, relocated societies in new spaces, and transformed their historical trajectories—to the point where it makes no sense to speak of history without reference to Eurocentrism. There may have been no shortage of “cultural hybridities” earlier; what is interesting and compelling about Eurocentrism is that by the time its globalizing aspirations neared (for they could never be reached) their geographical boundaries, Eurocentrism was to become a constituent of most people's hybridities—which is not to be said of any of the other centrisms, which were regionally limited and historically unstable.

The question is, then, what accounts for this power? The Eurocentric answer is clear enough: the superiority of EuroAmerican values. It is an answer that is convincing only to Eurocentrists themselves. It is also the cultural level at which most critiques of Eurocentrism proceed, and run into dead ends. The problem with the culturalist critique of Eurocentrism is not only that it provides no explanation for the hegemony of Eurocentrism, in contrast to other centrisms, but that it is also for the same reason incapable of addressing normative questions of value. The values of the dominant (such as human rights) are not prima facie undesirable because of the fact of domination, just as the values of the dominated are not to be legitimated simply by recourse to arguments of cultural difference. If capitalism is as much an agent of Eurocentrism as the advocacy of human rights, it does not make much sense to laud the entry into capitalism of other societies while also collaborating in their abuse of human rights on the grounds of cultural difference. The conflict between history and value is nowhere better illustrated than in the historicist (culturalist) affirmations of difference, which then proceed nevertheless to discover in these different societies civil societies, and so on, without any awareness that the latter might be products of Eurocentric teleologies, embedded in the very terms themselves, that contradict the notions of difference.

I suggest that such contradictions are products of the isolation of cultural questions from those of political economy. Eurocentrism was globalized not because of any inherent virtue of EuroAmerican values, but because those values were stamped on activities of various kinds that insinuated themselves into existing practices (such as trade), proved to be welcome to certain groups in non-EuroAmerican societies, or, when there was resistance to them, were enforced on the world by the power of arms. In other words, the globalization and universalization of Eurocentrism would have been inconceivable without the dynamism it acquired through capitalism, imperialism, and cultural domination.

It is remarkable, then, that there should be a tendency in various realms of intellectual activity in recent years to erase the role of capitalism in history on the grounds that it is a perpetuation of Eurocentrism to speak of capitalism as the formative moment of modern history. We may suggest, to the contrary, that without an account of the relationship between Eurocentrism, and the enormous power of capitalism that enabled EuroAmerican expansion, the criticism of Eurocentrism may not only perpetuate Eurocentrism in new guises, but also disguise the ways in which globalism itself is imbued with a Eurocentric worldview. The preoccupation with Eurocentrism pervades not just cultural studies but the rewriting of history, most visibly in efforts to produce a new “world history” that is immune to the Eurocentrism of past histories, which overlooks the possibility that the urge to world history may itself be a EuroAmerican preoccupation that perpetuates earlier hegemonies in a new guise. I am quite sympathetic to the epistemological concerns of world history proponents, namely, to overcome the restrictions of nation-based histories. There is nothing objectionable either about “putting Europe in its place” historically. On the other hand, the representation as Eurocentrism of emphasis on the historical role of modern capitalism promises not only to erase the distinctiveness of modern history, but also to eliminate the capitalist mode of production as a distinct mode with its own forms of production and consumption, oppression and exploitation, and ideology. This is the case with Andre Gunder Frank's “5,000 year world-system,” which, in the name of erasing Eurocentrism, universalizes and naturalizes capitalist development in much the same fashion as classical economics—that is, by making it into the fate of humankind rather than the conjunctural product of a particular history. Gunder Frank does not explain either why a China- or Asia-centered history constitutes more of a world history than a EuroAmerican centered one. Most seriously, the naturalization of capitalism historically also undermines the possibility of perceiving other alternatives in history, as the only alternatives it allows are alternative capitalisms.16

Even more revealing of the hegemonic implications of a globalized world history is a recent report on the status of world-history writing in China that observes ironically (and to the astonishment of its author) that contrary to what one might expect (we are not told who shares in the expectation—presumably all “Westerners”), Chithese historians continue to write modern world history around the history of capitalism, and, it follows for the author, a Eurocentric paradigm. This to the author is, of course, a product of the continued domination of Chinese historical thinking by the “ideological framework” of “a European-centered, Marxist-imbued world history.”17 The irony that Chinese should perpetuate Eurocentrism when EuroAmericans have already liberated their thinking from it escapes the author. So does the patronizing conclusion that this is the result of the domination of Chinese thinking by ideology (in contrast, presumably, to our scientific approaches), which perpetuates the hegemonic attitudes of an earlier day. No wonder that the author can also state that the large place given to Chinese history (autonomously of world history) in school curricula issues from “an ethnocentric view not unfamiliar to Western historians. China's self-perception as Zhongguo, or the ‘Central Kingdom,’ is well-known.”18 Not only does the author erase Chinese historians as contemporaries, instead of questioning her own version of world history, but she also proceeds to erase Chinese history by falling back on the authority of long-standing clichés in the “Western” historiography of China. Aside from the fact that this Chinese “self-perception” has its own history, other societies, too, teach their national histories separately from world history, and give it a large place, which has more to do with nationalist education in the modern world than some Chinese “ethnocentrism.” “Whose ethnocentrism” and “whose ideology” are questions that jump to mind immediately, but those questions may not be as important as the underlying hegemonic assumptions in much of the discussion on globalization, including the globalization of history. World history as an undertaking is not to be held responsible for this kind of obscurantism, but its possible hegemonic implications are a reminder nevertheless of the need for intellectual vigilance in an undertaking that is highly vulnerable to producing the opposite of what it intends. One necessary caution is to distinguish Eurocentrism from recognition of the historical role that EuroAmerica, empowered by capitalism, played in the shaping of the modern world.

One of the most remarkable pieties of our times is that to speak of oppression is to erase the subjectivities of the oppressed, which does not seem to realize that not to speak of oppression, but still operate within the teleologies of modernist categories, is to return the responsibility for oppression to its victims.19 Alternatively, it is to make a mockery of any notion of resistance to oppression, by identifying resistance with any kind of deviation from “normalcy.” The result, in either case, is the evasion of any significant, and historically determined, notion of politics by turning all such encounters into instances of cultural politics. What is also remarkable is the resonance between the political conclusions of contemporary culturalism with the culturalism of an earlier modernizationism: that what is at issue is not politics or political economy but culture.

A blatant example of the dangers implicit in the new culturalism is provided by Samuel Huntington's vision of “the clash of civilizations.”20 Huntington's views on “civilizations,” his approach to the question of culture, and the conclusions he draws are diametrically opposed to those of postcolonialism and globalism. He reifies civilizations into culturally homogeneous and spatially mappable entities, insists on drawing impassable boundaries between them, and proposes a fortress EuroAmerica to defend Western civilization against the intrustion of unmodernizable and unassimilable Others. What is remarkable about his views is his disavowal of the involvement of the “West” in other civilization areas. His is a conception of the contemporary world that divides the world into several “civilization” areas, where each hegemonic power should be responsible for the achievement of order in its area. Huntington sustains this remarkable view of the world by refraining from serious analysis of the structures of political economy (does not even say if fortress EuroAmerica is to withdraw its transnational corporations from the rest of the world), by taking out of the definition of culture any element of material culture, by confounding ethnicity, culture, race, and civilization, by questioning the significance of the nation, by an erasure of the legacies of colonialism, and an insistence that whatever has happened in other societies has happened as a consequence of their indigenous values and cultures, and, at the most general level, by a disavowal of history. His divisions of the world are a far cry from the insistence in globalism and postcolonial criticism on the abolition of boundaries, rejections of cultural reification, and negotiations of cultural identity. On the other hand, his reinstatement of the power of indigenous “cultures,” understood in terms not of nations but of “civilizations,” his erasure of colonialism and the reinstatement of persistent native subjectivities, his obliviousness to questions of political economy, and his disavowal of modernity's history resonate with globalist and postcolonial arguments. This is not to suggest that they are identical, therefore, or even operate out of the same paradigm (Huntington's is a paradigm of top-down order), but that they are contemporaneous. There may be a world of difference between the bounded ethnocentrism of Huntington's vision of the world and the multiculturalist pluralisms of globalism and postcolonialism, but they are at one in foregrounding ethnicity to mystify the transnational structures of unequal power that are their context.

Recognition of Eurocentrism as a historical phenomenon that differs from other centrisms in terms of the totalizing structures that served as its agencies returns us to the question that I raised earlier. If Eurocentrism globalized a certain ethnocentrism, and rendered it into a universal paradigm, is there then an outside to Eurocentrism? An outside to Eurocentrism may be found in places untouched and marginalized by it, which are fewer by the day, or it may be found in its contradictions, which proliferate daily. The universalization of Eurocentrism must itself be understood in terms of the ways in which EuroAmerican values were interpellated into the structures of societies worldwide, transforming their political, social, and economic relations, but not homogenizing them, or assimilating them to the structures and values of Eurocentrism. Questions of homogenization versus heterogenization, sameness and difference, assimilation and differentiation, are in many ways misleading questions, for they confound what are historical processes with the apportionments of identity into ahistorical, static categories. As I understand it here, the universalization of Eurocentric practices and values through the EuroAmerican conquest of the world implies merely the dislodging of societies from their historical trajectories before Europe onto new trajectories, without any implication of uniformity, for the very universalization of Eurocentrism has bred new kinds of struggles over history, which continue in the present. It also implies, however, at least in my understanding, that these struggles took place increasingly on terrains that, however different from one another, now included EuroAmerican power of one kind or another as their dynamic constituents. That, I believe, distinguishes what we might want to describe as a modernity defined by EuroAmerican from earlier forms of domination, which were regionally, politically, and socially limited by the technological, organizational, and ideological limits of domination. Sinocentrism, however effective in East and Southeast Asia, was nevertheless limited to those regions.

Eurocentrism as compared to earlier “centrisms” is universal in three senses. First is the omnipresence globally of the institutions and cultures of EuroAmerican modernity. Although the effects of this modernity may not be uniformly or equally visible on all the surface implied by global, it is nevertheless everywhere forcing widely different peoples into parallel historical trajectories (which, I stress, does not imply identity). Second, it is universal in the sense that Eurocentrism may be diffused through the agencies of non-EuroAmericans, which underlines the importance of a structural appreciation of Eurocentrism.21 Finally, although Eurocentrism may not be universal in the sense that it permits no outside, it is nevertheless the case that it has become increasingly impossible to imagine outsides to it, if by outside we understand places outside of the reach of EuroAmerican practices. It is not that there are no outsides, but that those outsides must of necessity be conceived of as post-Eurocentric, as products of contradictions generated by the dialectic between a globalizing EuroAmerica and places that struggle against such globalization. What this implies is a common history that of necessity provides the point of departure even for imagining outsides or alternatives to Eurocentrism. Eurocentrism, in other words, is not to be challenged by questioning the values that emanate from EuroAmerica. It requires challenging values and structures that are already part of a global legacy.

In a world that does not operate according to the norms of functionalism, but rather of contradictions, the globalization of Eurocentrism inevitably brings multifaceted contradictions into the very interior of a Eurocentric world, undermining at every moment the integrity of that world, beginning with the notion of Eurocentrism itself. The contemporary critique of Eurocentrism is driven not by victimization by Eurocentrism, but by empowerment within it. Foremost among the critics of Eurocentrism in our day are not those who are marginalized by Eurocentrism, or left out of its structures of power, but those who claim “hybridities” that give access to both Eurocentrism and to its Others, probably more of the former than the latter. If Orientalism was a product of EuroAmericans located in “contact zones” outside of EuroAmerica, on the margins of nonEuroAmerican societies, anti-Eurocentrism is a product of contact zones located at the hearts of EuroAmerica, or in transnational structures and circuits of power. As contact zones earlier presented EuroAmericans with a choice between civilizing mission and dissolution into “barbarism,” the new contact zones present intellectuals of Third World origin with a choice between “bridging” cultures that, given the persistent inequalities between societies, may mean further invasion of the rest of the world by the structures of power over which EuroAmerica continues to preside or burning the bridges, so that alternatives might be thinkable to a Eurocentric vision of human futures.

The contrast between building bridges and burning bridges offers a convenient way of identifying differences between contemporary and past radicalisms in their attitudes toward Eurocentrism. As late as the sixties and the seventies, radical evaluations of Eurocentrism insisted on intimate ties between questions of cultural domination and political economy, more often than not encompassed by the term imperialism. Third World national liberation struggles, synthesizing in locally particular ways goals of national independence and socialized economies, sought to “delink” national economies from the global markets of capitalism, to reorganize those economies in accordance with local needs, and to achieve “cultural revolutions” against EuroAmerican cultures of capitalism that would create citizenries responsive to national needs. In First World social sciences, insistence on considerations of political economy became the means to challenge the culturalism of modernization discourses that blamed “backwardness” on the native traditions and cultures of Third World societies.

From a contemporary perspective, both these earlier radical movements and their articulations in new social-science theorizations (such as “world-system analysis”) appear, contrary to their claims, to have been dominated by the master narratives and “foundational” assumptions of Eurocentrism. And to a large extent, this is plausible. In spite of the revolt against capitalism, national liberation movements for the most part remained wedded to the developmentalism of EuroAmerican modernity. They also remained within the spatial webs of Eurocentrism in taking for granted the spatial arrangements of modernity; most prominently the idea of a Third World itself. The nation-form was taken for granted, with the consequence that the nation was rendered into the location for culture, ignoring that the idea of a national culture could be realized only through the colonization of diverse local cultures.22

Other aspects of contemporary critiques of the radical assumptions of an earlier day seem a great deal more problematic, and may have more to say about the present than the past. The charge of essentialism is a favorite weapon in the arsenal of postcolonialism. It has been brought to bear on ideas of the Third World, Third World nationalism, and so on, which says less about the historical unfolding of these ideas than about efforts to create straw targets against which to validate postcolonialism. Although Third World may have carried essentialist connotations in modernization discourse, this was hardly the way it was understood by the “Third Worlders,” to whom Third World connoted anything but the identity of the societies so described; rather, Third Worldness was a condition of national situations, contingent on relationships between capitalist and noncapitalist societies. In revolutionary nationalisms, national cultures were not the givens of some tradition or other but were conceived of as cultures yet to be created through national struggles for liberation. Foundational categories were anything but foundational; I have described elsewhere how, in the context of a guerrilla revolution in China, for instance, there was considerable attention to the overdetermined and locally contingent nature of social categories, especially of class.23 That these revolutions worked from a EuroAmerican spatiality means only that present realities provided the point of departure for thinking alternatives to them. Most bizarre is the idea, rather common these days, that to speak of oppression and imperialism as determinants of these revolutions is to ignore or suppress the subjectivities of the oppressed,24 when these movements themselves represented nothing short of the reassertion of native subjectivities, and sought to create new revolutionary subjectivities. What this silly charge elides are questions of whose subjectivities are at issue, and what kinds of subjectivities we are talking about.

Questions of this nature imply that there is much to be gained from viewing the present in the perspective of the past. The world has changed, indeed, and the radicalism represented by immediate postcolonial struggles in the Third World truly appears in the present to belong to a distant past, no longer relevant to a contemporary politics. The question is how the world has changed—whether what we witness in the present is a rupture with the past or a reconfiguration of the relationships of power that have facilitated the globalization of earlier forms of power, while eliminating earlier forms of resistance to it. New economic, political, social, and cultural spaces are now in the process of production. Do these new spaces mean that the earlier spatializations of the globe are no longer relevant, or are they superimposed on those earlier spaces to provide more complicated arrangements of domination? There are now assertions of temporalities (including reassertions of traditions). Does that mean that the temporalities of Eurocentrism have disappeared? Consumerism, culture industries, and the production of signs seem to have moved to the forefront of economies, replacing political by discursive economies—at least for those situated in postmodernist First Worlds. Does that mean that production and political economy are no longer relevant? The diffusion of markets and market mentalities has rendered the production of cultures and identities a matter of negotiation. Does that mean that there are no longer inequalities in the marketplace? The list could go on, but it will suffice.

That these questions are missing from much of the contemporary discussion of globalism and postcolonialism may not be too surprising, because for all their claims to radicalism, and significant differences between them, both globalism and postcolonialism represent accommodations to contemporary configurations of power in which they are complicit. This is quite evident in the case of globalism, which is promoted by capital and its institutions, for whom globalization is anything but a matter of culture. In this perspective, globalism is little more than a recognition that capital is no longer just EuroAmerican, that there are successful participants in it who hail from other locations, and that other than EuroAmerican cultures must be incorporated into the structures and operations of capital because transnationalism itself implies the interiorization of difference—so long as they recognize the primacy of those structures in the first place.25 In social-science theory—or history, for that matter—these Others must be recognized in the fullness of their “traditions” and indigenous subjectivities, which are denied in discourses of imperialism and oppression. Never mind that social-science theory, into which differences are interpellated, itself represents a kind of thinking about the world grounded in Eurocentric structures of power. Hence it becomes possible to speak of different “civil societies,” grounded in different social configurations, as if the term civil society were innocent in its political implications. And, of course, “rational choice theory” represents a transcending of cultural differences in its “scientificity,” as if science as a mode of comprehending the world had nothing to do with “culture.” One foundation representative remarks in support of globalization that “Western theories” are not “for the rest of the world to adopt.”26 There is no indication in the statement that “Western” itself might be redundant, as it may be implicit already in the term theory.

Unlike globalization, which is founded in the developmentalist assumptions of capitalism, postcolonialism seems to me to be more of an accommodation with a current structure of power than an apology for it. The present situation is better described as postrevolutionary rather than postcolonial, because while the immediate response to postcoloniality as a historical phenomenon was revolution, contemporary postcolonialism eschews revolutionary options for accommodation to the capitalist world-system. The postcolonial rush to culture is an escape not only from the structures of political economy, but more importantly from revolutionary radicalisms of the past, which are now denied not only contemporary relevance, but even past significance.

Postcolonialism's complicity with contemporary configurations of power rests in its explicit repudiation of structures and “foundational” categories, which obviate the need to address the question of structured power in considerations of change, but also in its culturalism. Localized encounters and identity politics seem to serve in postcolonialism not as a refinement of, but as a substitute for, structured inequalities and struggles against it. More significant may be the rereading of the past with such a “methodology,” which also serves to erase the memory of more radical struggles for culture and identity and renders localism into a metanarrative that postcolonialism supposedly repudiates. What is remarkable about postcolonialism methodologically and conceptually is that for all its objections to essentialism,” it is based on presumptions of essentialized identities, which is implicit in notions of “hybridity,” “third space,” and so on. Repudiation of foundational categories also relieves it of the obligation to confront “differences” along the fault lines of classes, genders, races, and so on, which all become subject to negotiations of one kind or another. Postcolonialism, repudiating Eurocentric spatializations, ironically also returns us to pre-World War II spaces, where spaces established by colonial empires are acknowledged on unguarded occasions to provide spaces for theorizing about culture and identities.27 Most important, however, may be that in its repudiation of the structures of political economy in the name of discourses and culture, postcolonialism returns us past an earlier concern with political economy to the culturalism of modernization discourse. Its own discourse on culture is quite different, needless to say, than the spaceless and timeless cultures presumed by modernization discourse, but it is at one with the latter in elevating culture to primacy in social and cultural theory.

The parallel has interesting implications. Culturalism in modernization discourse served to conceal inequalities in the realms of economy and politics, and to shift the blame for problems in development from the dominant to the dominated—all the time assuming a certain teleology of development. Postcolonialism eschews teleology, and it eschews fixed, essentialized notions of culture. But what are we to make of its isolation of questions of culture from those of political economy? Does it also serve as some kind of cover for inequalities and oppressions that are no less a characteristic of the present than they were of the past? Postcolonialism itself does not provide an answer to these questions, because it refuses to address them in the first place. Clearly, the present represents not a rupture with the past but its reconfiguration. If the transnationalization, and transnational domination, of capital are one prominent feature of the contemporary world situation, another is the transnationalization of the class structures associated with capitalist domination. Postcolonialism, as Aijaz Ahmad observes, may be a “matter of class.”28 But it is not just a matter of class. It is also a matter of a class relocated to the centers of capital, in the new contact zones to which I referred earlier, which serve as sites of negotiation—“in the belly of the beast,” as Gayatri Spivak once put it. Spivak knows better than to say that this is the whole story, but for most postcolonialists who do not share her radicalism, that does seem to be the whole story. The “contact zones” at the heart of EuroAmerica provide locations where cultural difference may be asserted while sharing in the powers of the center, in which culture serves as a means to evade questions of inequality and oppression in interclass relations but is a useful means to identity in intraclass negotiations for power. Contact zones located on the boundaries of societies of the “Other” produced earlier Orientalisms; contact zones at the core produce “self-Orientalizations.”29 Unlike the former, which distanced societies from one another, the latter produces multiculturalist redefinitions of global power—as is indicated in the idea of “ethnoscapes,” or the stipulation of diasporic identities, regardless of place, class, gender, and so on. Interestingly, it is a new generation of Third Worlders, firmly established in the structures of Eurocentric power, who now speak for the societies from which they hail, while those back at home are condemned to inaudibility—or parochialism.

The refusal to situate theory with respect to the structures of power also has significant political implications. Culturalism of the contemporary variety also makes it impossible to evaluate cultures in terms of their political implications. It is a commonplace these days that there is no longer a “right” or a “left,” or conservatives or radicals. This may be an improvement over an earlier modernization discourse, which classified people outside of Europe according to where they stood vis-à-vis the values of Europe and the United States, so that any defense of native culture, for example, immediately led to the label “conservative,” while liberals and radicals derived their standing similarly from their willingness to assimilate Eurocentric conceptualizations of culture and politics. On the other hand, acquiescence in a contemporary cultural relativism—such as in “multiculturalism”—rules out political judgment except on the most contingent basis, which is one reason for the call by Slavoj Zizek for a renewal of Eurocentrism.30 Zizek credits Eurocentrism as a source of universalisms that are crucial to radical politics. Although there is much to be said for his argument, the plea nevertheless begs the question of what the agency and content of a contemporary universalism might be.


Much of what I have observed above may seem to have little to do with history as a discipline, for historians have been notably absent from recent discussions over history as epistemology. It is probably not too much of an exaggeration to suggest that a crisis of historical consciousness is one of the markers of life at the end of the twentieth century. The crisis refers to both the ways in which we think the relationship between the present and the past and, therefore, the relevance and validity of anything we may have to say about the past. A sense of a break not just with the immediate past but with the whole history of modernity calls into question anything history might offer to an understanding of the present. Historians might have a significant part to play in reasserting the significance of past perspectives in a critical appreciation of the present; but they seem to have adjusted with remarkable speed to the contemporary rewriting of the past. It is a professional disease of historians, especially of positivist historians, and a limitation on their imagination, that they may blame everything on the limitations of archives. A conviction that the only obstacle to truth lies in the limitations of archives helps historians avoid the challenges of historical crises by falling back on archival limitations. If things did not go the way a previous generation of historians had indicated, or if the problems of a previous generation no longer seem relevant, the historian can always claim that it was not in the archives.

In my own field of modern Chinese history, changes in China call for an urgent consideration of historical paradigms, and an evaluation of competing paradigms. Two generations of historians of China (in China and abroad) have taken revolution to be the paradigm around which to write modern Chinese history. That paradigm now lies in ruins, not because the paradigm itself was wrong necessarily, but because the revolution is a thing of the past in a China where leaders may pay lip service to the revolution in their very unrevolutionary and unsocialist turn to incorporation into capitalism. Rather than observe the turn critically, historians have been quick to deny that there was a revolution, that what had been considered a revolution was really nothing more than the perpetuation of backwardness, and that it was the archives that were responsible for their failure to foresee the fate of the revolution. The denial of revolution, not surprisingly, is accompanied by a shift of attention to pasts that may be more consonant with the self-images of the present. The question here is not just a question of ideology in history, it is also a question of bad history that refuses to acknowledge the ways in which the revolutionary past, having failed to achieve its putative goals, nevertheless served to shape the present.31

A reasonable alternative to this rapid adjustment to the present that also requires a disavowal of the past (both the past in actuality and the past in historiography) might be to acknowledge the crisis, and turn to a revaluation of the past, not by an abandonment of the paradigm of revolution, but by inquiring into the meaning of revolution.32 Radical historiography does not consist of the abandonment, or rewriting, of the past every time a new historical situation presents itself—in which case it cannot overcome a continuing adjustment to the present, which is hardly a claim to radicalism, as it makes it impossible to differentiate what is radical from what is mimicry of the demands of power. Rather, it is informed by a principled defense of autonomous political positions that question ever-shifting claims to reality, not by denying reality, but by critically evaluating its claims on the past and the present. If the past has no relevance to understanding the present, but is merely a plaything in the hands of the latter, there would seem to be little meaning to even claim validity for history as epistemology—or, for that matter, to any truth embedded in the archives of the past—which is the conclusion indicated by a radical postmodernism.

The proposition that “history is a sign of the modern” would suggest only to the most naive that the moment we have gone “postmodern,” we may therefore abandon history. The posts of our age, to those who would read them with some sense of reality, should suggest that what comes after bears upon it the imprint of what went on before, and that we are not as free as we might think of the legacies we have consigned to the past—which, for all his obscurantism, is the point that Huntington makes forcefully. The same goes for postrevolutionary, and for what has been my primary concern in this discussion, post-Eurocentric. Our conceptions of the world face the predicament of turning into ideologies the moment that they target their own historicities. And awareness of historicity requires attention both to transformations and to the presence of the past in such transformations.

To clarify further what I am suggesting here, it may be useful to contrast my critique of Eurocentrism with that of the historian of India, Dipesh Chakrabarty.33 At least in his more theoretical writings, Chakrabarty shares many of the arguments advanced here, most fundamentally that Eurocentrism is everywhere, including the very writing of history (and, I might add, geography). He is also unwilling, unlike in some more atavistic versions of anti-Eurocentrism, to repudiate either the legacy of the Enlightenment or that of the nation in the writing of history (indeed, he sees the nation as the location for historical consciousness, which is threatened by the consumerism of capital). Finally, he is quite willing to speak of history in relationship to the cultures of capitalism. Against this seemingly invincible hegemony of history (read, Eurocentrism), Chakrabarty, in a stance very similar to the one here, finds in “fragmentary and episodic … knowledge-forms” a promise of a more democratic knowledge.34

On the other hand, it is not clear from Chakrabarty's arguments whether or not his own project includes anything beyond challenging Eurocentric “knowledge-forms” or “provincializing Europe.” Judging by his argument, the “fragmentary and episodic … knowledge-forms” he speaks of are intended mainly to undermine Eurocentric claims to universality, and not to privilege the lives, or modes of living, that produce those knowledge-forms. In the same vein, Chakrabarty has little to say on questions of development, capitalism, and so on, except as they relate to colonialism's knowledge. It is not very surprising, therefore, that, under his editorship, the journal Subaltern Studies has abandoned and shifted its priorities from its originary concern to give a voice to the “subalterns” to “deconstructing” colonial representations of India and the Third World.35 By contrast, my argument here is intended to redirect attention from “culture” to “structures,” or at the least culture in relationship to the structures of political economy. The difference, I think, is a crucial one: if Eurocentrism resides ultimately in the structures of everyday life as they are shaped by capital, it is those structures that must be transformed in order also to challenge Eurocentrism. “Knowledge-forms” are crucial, but not as an end in themselves; they are most important for showing the way to different kinds of living. The project implied here is quite different from the postcolonial, multiculturalist thrust of Chakrabarty's culturalist critique.

To affirm the historical role that Eurocentrism has played in shaping the contemporary world is not to endow it with some normative power, but to recognize the ways in which it continues to be an intimate part of the shaping of the world, which is not going to disappear with willful acts of its cultural negation. One aspect of Eurocentrism that infused both earlier revolutionary ideologies and the accommodationist alternatives of the present seems to me to be especially important, perhaps more important for the historian than for others because it is complicit in our imagination of temporalities: developmentalism. The notion that development is as natural to humanity as air and water is deeply embedded in our consciousness, and yet development as an idea is a relatively recent one in human history. As Arturo Escobar has argued forcefully in a number of writings, development as a discourse is embedded not just in the realm of ideology, but in institutional structures that are fundamental to the globalization of capital.36

If globalism is a way of promoting these structures by rendering their claims into scientific truths, postcolonialism serves as their alibi by not acknowledging their presence. Historians, meanwhile, continue to write history as if attaining the goals of development were the measure against which the past can be evaluated. That, I think, is the most eloquent testimonial to the implication of our times in the continuing hegemony of capital, for which the disavowal of an earlier past serves as disguise. It also indicates where the tasks may be located for a radical agenda appropriate to the present: in questioning contemporary dehistoricizations of the present and the past, and returning inquiry to the search for alternatives to developmentalism. However we may conceive such alternatives, they are likely to be post-Eurocentric, recognizing that any radical alternatives to modernity's forms of domination must confront not just the cultures, but also the structures of modernity. At any rate, it seems to me that we need a reaffirmation of history and historicity at this moment of crisis in historical consciousness, especially because history seems to be irrelevant—either because of its renunciation at the centers of power where a postmodernism declares a rupture with the past, unable to decide whether such a rupture constitutes a celebration or a denuciation of capitalism, or, contradictorily, because of an affirmation of premodernity among those who were the objects of modernity, who proclaim in order to recover their own subjectivities that modernity made no difference after all. A historical epistemology will not resolve the contradiction, or provide a guide to the future, but it might serve at least to clarify the ways in which the present uses and abuses the past, and serve as a reminder of our own historicity—why we say and do things differently than they were said or done in the past. Ours is an age when there is once again an inflation of claims to critical consciousness. These claims are often based on an expanded consciousness of space. We need to remind ourselves, every time we speak of the constructedness of some space or other, that it may be impossible, for that very reason, to think of spaces without at the same time thinking of the times that produced those spaces.


  1. Nicholas Dirks, “History as a Sign of the Modern,” Public Culture 2:2 (1990): 25-32.

  2. This is not to say that culture and discourse are the popular choices only for postcolonialism and globalism. What I describe here as a new culturalism is characteristic of contemporary critical thought in general, and has its origins in the turn from the seventies to culture and discourse in varieties of poststructuralism, postmodernism, cultural studies, feminism, and so on.

  3. Michael Geyer and Charles Bright, “World History in a Global Age,” American Historical Review (October 1995): 1034-60, 1042.

  4. Postcolonial criticism covers a wide political (and, therefore, intellectual) range: from the Marxist feminism of Gayatri Spivak to the near libertarianism of Homi Bhabha and, more recently, Stuart Hall.

  5. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, eds., The Post-Colonial Studies Reader (London and New York: Routledge, 1995), p. 1; emphasis in the original. I have offered more sustained critiques of the problems of postcolonialism elsewhere, and draw on those earlier critiques in much of the discussion that follows. These critiques may be found in Arif Dirlik, The Postcolonial Aura: Third World Criticism in the Age of Global Capitalism (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1997). Of special interest from the perspective of questions of history may be the Introduction (“Postcoloniality and the Perspective of History”), “Three Worlds or One, or Many: The Reconfiguration of Global Relations under Contemporary Capitalism,” and “Postcolonial or Postrevolutionary: The Problem of History in Postcolonial Criticism.”

  6. Roland Robertson, “Mapping the Global Condition: Globalization as the Central Concept,” in Mike Featherstone, ed., Global Culture: Nationalism, Globalization and Modernity (London: Sage Publications, 1994), pp. 15-29, p. 23; emphasis added in the longer section. For a somewhat more elaborate critique, see Arif Dirlik, “Globalization, Areas, Places,” Center for Asian Studies-Amsterdam (CASA) Working Papers (1997).

  7. Frederick Buell, National Culture and the New Global System (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), pp. 336-37.

  8. For an even more uncompromising argument for the priority of culture, see Rob Boyne, “Culture and the World-System,” in Featherstone, Global Culture, pp. 57-62, where Boyne attacks Immanuel Wallerstein for speaking of culture in conjunction with economic and political analysis.

  9. Anthony D. Smith, “Towards a Global Culture?” in Featherstone, Global Culture, pp. 171-91, p. 177.

  10. That we should be more attentive to modernity rather than Eurocentrism is a view that I share with John Tomlinson, Cultural Imperialism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991). I do not, however, share Tomlinson's conclusion, therefore, that EuroAmerican agency may be taken out of the picture by such a shift of attention.

  11. Partha Chatterjee, Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse? (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993).

  12. In a rather ill-conceived essay, Stuart Hall brings a charge of (“primitive” as well as “primeval”) “functionalism” against this author (along with Robert Young). See Stuart Hall, “When Was ‘the Postcolonial’? Thinking at the Limit,” in Iain Chambers and Lidia Curti, eds., The Postcolonial Question: Common Skies, Divided Horizons (New York: Routledge, 1996). The charge does not call for comment, except to note that it is rather below the potential of such a distinguished cultural critic, to whose formulations I would myself acknowledge a debt. Rather than methodological problems of culturalism and functionalism, Hall's attack may have something to do with the post-Thatcherite turn in British Marxism. For this turn, see Chantal Mouffe, “The End of Politics and the Rise of the Radical Right” Dissent 42 (fall 1995): 498-502.

  13. Ken Armitage, “The ‘Asiatic’/Tributary Mode of Production: State and Class in Chinese History,” Ph.D. dissertation, Asian and International Studies, Griffith University (Australia), 1997, p. 3.

  14. Ashis Nandy, The Intimate Enemy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983).

  15. This is analyzed with brilliant pithiness by Samir Amin in Eurocentrism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1989). Historians of Europe have also demonstrated that Europe, and “nations” within Europe, were products of an internal colonization that paralleled the “European” colonization of the world. For Europe, see Fernand Braudel, Civilization and Capitalism, 15th to 18th Century, 3 vols., trans. Sian Reynolds (New York: Harper and Row, 1984), especially vol. 3, The Perspective of the World. For an oustanding study of internal colonization in the creation of nations, see Eugen Weber, Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914 (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1976). Societies such as the United States, Canada, and Australia, themselves colonial creations, interestingly provide the most explicit examples of such colonization in the creation of modern nation-states.

  16. Andre Gunder Frank, ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), especially chapter 1. My analogy with “classical economics” pertains only to the conclusions to be drawn with regard to economic development. Otherwise, Frank's analysis is informed by both Marxism and world-system analysis, of which he has long been a practitioner.

  17. Dorothea A. L. Martin, “World History in China,” World History Bulletin 14:1 (spring 1998): 6-8, 6.

  18. Ibid., p. 8.

  19. I am referring here to certain kinds of writing that assume categorical teleologies, that then proceed to judge other peoples for having failed to live up to them. An example of this kind of teleology, on the issue of class, is Dipesh Chakrabarty, Rethinking Working-Class History (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989). Equally prominent are writings on feminism. There has been an almost concerted writing attacking the condition of women in China that not only ignores what Chinese women might or might not want, but that has encouraged attacks on the socialist program for women, which has certainly accomplished a great deal more for women than any time earlier. It is interesting that feminists who attack the socialist program for what it has failed to achieve are often oblivious to what socialism has achieved, because it has not achieved what they think ought to have been achieved. This is not to say that women's questions should be reduced to what is of concern to women under socialism, but that women under socialism or under precapitalism may have a great deal to teach women who have discovered their “womanness” under capitalism and, regardless of what they may claim, are conditioned in their feminism by the mode of production that is their context.

  20. Samuel P. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs (summer 1992): 22-49, and, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996).

  21. There is plenty of evidence of this, including in the “civilizing mission” of the nation-state. One such piece of evidence is almost irresistible in the ironies it presents. A BBC report on Tibet, broadcast on October 18, 1998, had Tibetans complaining that in addition to the usual practices of religious suppression, the Chinese were now introducing capitalism to Tibet, introducing new hardships into the lives of the people. The “socialist” government of China has always assumed the burden of “civilizing” minority groups supposedly at an earlier stage of historical development; but now it is capitalism that provides the medium.

  22. It needs to be emphasized here that while contemporary theory has problematized the nation-form, contemporary political reality points in an opposite direction. The nation persists, minus its earlier revolutionary vision. If anything, nationalism in our day has taken the form of virulent nativism.

  23. Arif Dirlik, After the Revolution: Waking to Global Capitalism (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1994), chapter 2, and Arif Dirlik, “Mao Zedong and ‘Chinese Marxism,’” in Brian Carr and Indira Mahalingam, eds., Companion Encyclopedia of Asian Philosophy (London: Routledge, 1997), pp. 593-619.

  24. Buell, National Culture and the New Global System, provides an egregious example of this tendency. The volume opens up with an attack on Herbert Schiller for his views on cultural imperialism.

  25. It is necessary to point out that the idea of “different cultures of capitalism,” which acquired currency with the globalization of capital, is a rather tentative one. The recent crisis in Asian capitalisms, and the measures imposed for its solution, suggest the persistence of a struggle over the form of capitalism. The core capitalist state, the United States, unquestionably exerts hegemonic pressures to reorganize other capitalisms around its own model. For a discussion that calls into question Asian capitalism, see Wang Ruisheng, “Yazhou jiazhi yu jinyong weiji” (Asian values and the financial crisis), Zhexue yanjiu (Philosophical Research), no. 4 (1998): 23-30.

  26. Quoted in Jacob Heilbrunn, “The News from Everywhere: Does Global Thinking Threaten Local Knowledge? The Social Science Research Council Debates the Future of Area Studies,” Lingua Franca (May-June 1996): 49-56, 54-55.

  27. Stephen Slemon, “Unsettling the Empire: Resistance Theory for the Second World,” in Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin, The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, pp. 104-10, where Slemon suggests that postcolonialism may be most relevant to societies of the British Commonwealth.

  28. Aijaz Ahmad, “The Politics of Literary Postcoloniality,” Race and Class 36-3 (1995): 1-20, 16.

  29. I am referring here to the reification of cultures at the level of diasporas, an egregious example being the idea of a “cultural China.” For an extended discussion, see Arif Dirlik, “Confucius on the Borderlands: Global Capitalism and the Reinvention of Confucianism,” boundary 2 22:3 (fall 1995): 229-73. Attention to diasporas points to a second aspect of the part that culture may play in intra-elite struggles. Preoccupation with Eurocentrism occludes the struggles among “native” elites over the definition of cultural identity. As diasporic populations may be denied their cultural “authenticity” by those in the societies of departure, the repudiation of “authenticity,” and the reaffirmation of “hybridity,” provide obvious strategies in countering such denial.

  30. Slavoj Zizek, “A Leftist Plea for ‘Eurocentrism,’” Critical Inquiry 24 (summer 1998): 988-1009.

  31. These questions are discussed at length in Arif Dirlik, “Reversals, Ironies, Hegemonies: Notes on the Contemporary Historiography of Modern China,” Modern China 22:3 (July 1996): 243-84.

  32. For a gender-based argument that advocates adjustment to contemporary struggles while insisting on the immediate relevance of the past to the structuring of the present, see Vinay Bahl, “Cultural Imperialism and Women's Movements: Thinking Globally,” Gender and History 9:1 (April 1997): 1-14.

  33. Some of Chakrabarty's relevant writings are “Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks for ‘Indian’ Pasts?” Representations 37 (1992): 1-26; “History as Critique and Critique(s) of History,” Economic and Political Weekly (September 14, 1991): 2162-66; and “Radical Histories and the Question of Enlightenment Rationalism: Some Recent Critiques of Subaltern Studies,Economic and Political Weekly (April 8, 1995): 751-59.

  34. Chakrabarty, “Radical Histories and the Question of Enlightenment Rationalism,” p. 757.

  35. I owe some of these insights to Vinay Bahl, “Subaltern Studies Historiography,” in Arif Dirlik, Vinay Bahl, and Peter Gran, eds., History after the Three Worlds (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, forthcoming).

  36. See especially Arturo Escobar, Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994). What kind of radical historical agenda this may call for is discussed in Dirlik, “Reversals, Ironies, Hegemonies” and “Place-Based Imagination: Globalism and the Politics of Place” (forthcoming).

I am grateful to a number of people for reading and commenting on this essay. Vinay Bahl and Ali-Rifaat Abou El-Haj read it with special care with an eye on a volume on contemporary historiography in which this essay is to be included. Leo Ching, Michael Hardt, Roxann Prazniak, and Orin Starn contributed to it significantly in reminding me of all that I had overlooked. I appreciate their comments. I am also grateful for their encouragement and comments to the participants in two conferences at which this essay was presented as a conference paper: “Colonialism and Its Discontents: An Interdisciplinary Forum” (Institute of Ethnology, Academia Sinica, July 8-9, 1997), and “Globalization and the Future of the Humanities” (Beijing University of Language and Culture, August 17-21, 1998). What remains is my responsibility.

Louise Viljoen (essay date Winter 1996)

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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 understanding of postcolonialism is largely determined by the way in which the prefix post- in postcolonialism is read. If it is read as a reference to temporal succession and even supersession, the term postcolonialism applies to that which follows after colonialism. If, however, colonialism is defined as the way in which unequal international relations of economic, political, military, and cultural power are maintained, it cannot be argued that the colonial era is really over. Moreover, viewing colonialism as “a homogeneous thing of the past” (Thomas, 13) in the hope of achieving a break with a blameless present poses the risk of obscuring the historical, geographic, and political specificity of totally different forms of colonization. Anne McClintock has also argued that the reading of postcolonialism as that which follows after colonialism divides history into a series of teleologically directed phases that progresses from the pre-colonial via the colonial to the post-colonial. This description of history as a linear march of time falls into the same trap as the meta-narrative of Western historicism by arranging world history around the single binary opposition of colonial/postcolonial (292-93).

The writers of the well-known book on postcolonialism The Empire Writes Back (1989) seem to avoid these pitfalls by defining postcolonialism as that which undermines colonialism rather than that which follows after colonialism. They extend the use of the term postcolonial to cover “all the culture affected by the imperial process from the moment of colonization until the present day” and assert that literatures are made distinctively post-colonial by the fact that they “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 difference from the assumptions of the imperial centre” (Ashcroft, 2). Emphasising attributes like syncretism, hybridism, disruption, and polyglossia in postcolonial texts, they see postcolonialism as a potentially subversive presence within the colonial itself. They also declare that “South African writing clearly demonstrates that the political impetus of the post-colonial begins well before the moment of independence” (83).

The objections most frequently raised against the theory of postcolonial literature proposed by the writers of The Empire Writes Back are also those which affect its applicability to Afrikaans literature. Their totalising view of postcolonial literature as a homogeneous category disregards the differences between highly diverse geographic, historical, and cultural contexts like those of the African countries, the Caribbean islands, and former settler colonies like Australia, New Zealand, and Canada (Williams/Chrisman, 13). Even though it is conceded at the outset of The Empire Writes Back that the focus will be on the literature produced in English or “english” in the former British colonies, criticism has been leveled at the exclusivist embeddedness of its postcolonial theory in English. It soon becomes clear that this English-based definition of postcolonialism cannot adequately describe the full variety of literatures produced in languages and literary traditions other than the English. Because of its rootedness in English, The Empire Writes Back's account of South African literature is limited to that written in English, which is then described in terms of a simplistic binary division that obscures the heterogeneity of the languages and literatures in South Africa. It is argued that the white English literature of South Africa can be compared to the literature produced in settler colonies while the black English literature in South Africa can be more fruitfully compared to the literature of other African countries (27), thus revealing a nostalgia for the “apartheid” of binary divisions between black and white (Jolly, 21). By disregarding the literature produced in the black languages and Afrikaans, the writers of The Empire Writes Back paint an incomplete picture of the literary scene in South Africa (a country in which eleven languages have been given official status since the advent of democracy in 1994). Their description also ignores the interaction between the different literary systems in South Africa. This is an important oversight in the South African situation, in which the Afrikaans and English literatures were institutionally privileged because these languages had official status in predemocratic South Africa while black languages were not afforded the same status and means of literary production. Presenting writers who use English as the sole representatives of South African literature (albeit implicitly) also leaves the non-English reader of The Empire Writes Back with the impression of a theoretical imperialism which Aijaz Ahmad argued against in another context.

From this it becomes clear that a variety of “historically nuanced theories and strategies” (McClintock, 303) will have to be developed to describe the specific position of Afrikaans literature in the context of postcolonialism. Recent attempts to describe the history of white supremacy and racism in South Africa draw attention to the fact that its complex origins can be found in the long-drawn-out process of colonization first by the Dutch and then the British, the subjection of different peoples in territorial victories, and the subsequent enslavement of black people (Worden, 1994). In South Africa this developed into a systematic and legalized racial discrimination in the course of the nineteenth century that finally affected the economic, social, and political structures of the whole country. Although white supremacy was also prevalent in other colonial territories such as the British colonies in Africa, Asia, and America, it started declining after 1945 with the rise of the independence movements. In contrast, white supremacy became stronger in South Africa from the late forties onward under the apartheid government established with the coming into power of the Nationalist Party in 1948 (Worden, 65-120). Because of apartheid's entrenchment of the white supremacy associated with colonialism, some writers on colonial discourse and postcolonial theory refer to South Africa under the apartheid regime as a colonial regime (Ashcroft, 83), whereas others describe it as a neo-imperialist system (Carusi, 96). It must also be taken into consideration, however, that many Afrikaners (Afrikaans-speaking whites) regarded themselves as a people colonized by Britain because of the mythologisation of events like the Great Trek in the 1830s and the wars waged by the Boer Republics against Britain in the nineteenth century. For these people the declaration of a Republic by the Nationalist government in 1961 signaled the beginning of postcolonialism in the historical sense of the word (Worden, 87-88; Carusi, 96). Using the terminology of colonial discourse, one would be able to say that Afrikaans-speaking whites or Afrikaners had a “double” status in the course of South African history, that of being the colonizers as well as the colonized. Another complicating factor with regard to Afrikaans literature is that precisly this moment in Afrikaner history (the advent of the “postcolonial” Republic of South Africa in 1961) also marked the beginning of a tradition of dissent against Afrikaner nationalist power by Afrikaans writers (John, 11).

The situation is made even more complex by the peculiar situation of the Afrikaans language. Afrikaans is a separate language that developed out of the Dutch spoken by the first colonizers of South Africa (the Dutch East India Trading Company established a refreshment station at the Cape in 1652), with demonstrable influences of Malay, Portuguese, Khoi, High and Low German, French, Arabic, black languages, and English (Ponelis, 99-120). On the one hand, it can be viewed as a foreign language connected to the colonization of South Africa by the Dutch; on the other hand, it can be seen as an indigenous language that developed in Africa and carries a name which literally means “of Africa.” Since the turn of the century Afrikaans has been closely linked with the rise of Afrikaners from what they regarded as colonization and oppression by the British. The language was often used as an argument to culturally legitimate the right to existence and separateness of the Afrikaner nation in its rise to political power, finally achieved with the electoral victory of the National Party in 1948. Afrikaans also came to be identified with the oppressive ideology of apartheid because of events like the Soweto riots in 1976, which centered on the enforced use of Afrikaans in black schools. On the other hand, Afrikaans is not the exclusive property of whites in South Africa. More than half of all the speakers who use Afrikaans as a first language are coloured people (also referred to as black in the context of the political struggle; see Willemse, 237), who were excluded by the racist basis of Afrikaner nationalism. It is therefore also the language of those who could be seen as the colonized because of racial oppression. Voicing the “double identity” of Afrikaans, the black Afrikaans writer Hein Willemse stated in 1987 that one had to accept “that Afrikaans is at once the language of the conqueror and the language of the oppressed” and argued for its continued use as an instrument in the struggle against apartheid (239).

In its earliest stages in the late nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century Afrikaans literature functioned as a tool in the political struggle of the Afrikaner against British rule. This process of decolonization partly effected through Afrikaans literature was at the same time a process of colonization, because it excluded and oppressed Afrikaans-speaking people of colour as well as others. It is also known that the institutionalisation of Afrikaans literature was supported by the Afrikaner nationalist project and that it lent status and legitimacy to that project in its turn. Although Afrikaans literature has been called “a faithful bedfellow of Afrikaner nationalism and Afrikaner identity” (Willemse, 241), it would be a mistake not to recognise the counterhegemonic strain present in Afrikaans literature since the beginning of the sixties. Rosemary Jolly argues convincingly for the need to recognise the heterogeneity of the South African literary landscape, but her own analysis tends toward a view of Afrikaans literature as the monolithic representative of Afrikaner nationalism, thus constituting Afrikaans literature as the “other” of struggle literature in South Africa (22-23). Even though she implies the heterogeneity of Afrikaans literature by referring to the predicament of black Afrikaans writers, she mistakenly states of the well-known dissident writer Breyten Breytenbach that “writing against apartheid in his first language seems impossible” for him (22). Following his debut in 1964, Breytenbach often voiced his criticism of the apartheid government in literary texts written in Afrikaans. As such, he formed part of a strong tradition of dissidence in Afrikaans literary texts from the early sixties onward that counteracted the Afrikaner nationalist nature of earlier Afrikaans texts. During the eighties this tradition grew so strong that it became the dominant strain in Afrikaans literature rather than a marginal one.

To undercut the confusing variety of different postcolonialisms, Vijay Mishra and Bob Hodge distinguish between two kinds of postcolonialism, viewed as ideological orientations rather than historical stages. Although they make the mistake of racializing the distinction between settler and non-settler literatures, as Jolly has pointed out (22), their differentiation between an oppositional and a complicit postcolonialism can be useful in a description of Afrikaans literature's postcoloniality. Oppositional postcolonialism manifests most clearly in literatures striving for autonomy and political independence; concern with race, a second language, and political struggle are the fundamental principles of this form of postcolonialism. Complicit postcolonialism is implicitly present in colonialism itself, although not overtly political in nature; it refers to the always-present tendency toward subversion in any literature subordinated by imperial power structures and cultural domination, tending to manifest in “postmodern” features like fracture, interlanguage, and poly-glossia (Mishra/Hodge, 284-90). Experience has shown that Afrikaans literature has functioned both oppositionally (in open support of the political struggle) and complicitly (in the tendency toward the rupture and decentering of all totalising discourses), thus leaning toward the “fused postcolonial” in its construction of postcoloniality. The heterogeneity of Afrikaans literature thus necessitates the telling of several smaller narratives which take into account local historical contexts in order to avoid obscuring generalisations and ever-new forms of imperialism (whether it be on the grounds of language, race, gender, sexuality, or theory).


The parallel between the relationship man-woman and the relationship empire-colony or colonizer-colonized has often been cited in post-colonial theory as well as the “double colonization” of women in colonial situations (see Petersen/Rutherford). Some writers even feel that imperial, colonial, and postcolonial discourses can largely be seen as “allegories of gender contests” (Williams/Chrisman, 18). Although this reduction of the one to the other obliterates historical specificity and difference, it can be said that the history and preoccupations of feminism show certain similarities with that of post-colonialism. Early feminism, like the oppositional form of postcolonialism, tried to subvert structures of domination, whereas both feminism and post-colonialism have tried to write back the marginalised into the dominant discourse (Ashcroft, 175-76). These superficial similarities between postcolonialism and feminism should not blind one, however, to the fact that the feminist struggle is not necessarily coterminous with the struggles for political freedom characteristic of oppositional postcolonialism. It has been shown that some post-colonial nationalisms have entrenched rather than dismantled the power of patriarchy, so that women's struggle against domination often continues in these contexts. Much has been said and written about the continuous dialogue between race and gender which considerably complicates the discourse of postcolonialism as far as the situation of women is concerned. In the process, considerable attention has been given to the need to avoid totalising strategies which eradicate difference and presume the unity of concepts like the “third world woman,” the “black woman,” and the “white woman.” Even more than elsewhere, scholars in postcolonial feminism have been forced to elaborate their own subject positions in an attempt to establish the historical specificity of their discussions and to avoid the impression of a theoretical colonization. In contexts of oppositional postcolonialism (like the South African in the past decades) the dialogue between race and gender often centered on questions like: which comes first, gender or race? Or should one's first loyalty be to gender issues or the political struggle of the racially oppressed? It was not uncommon for women writers to feel pressured to give their political (racial) loyalties priority over their gender loyalties. The debate around this issue in South African literature has been lively, with academic feminists sometimes arguing the case for feminism and the gendering of race against prominent writers (see Lenta).

Without discounting the fact that other categories of writers have contributed significantly to the establishment of a postcolonial discourse in Afrikaans, it is striking that previously marginalised discourses (women's writing, gay writing, and popular literature) have become increasingly important in interrogating the discourses of power in South Africa. It has been suggested by more than one critic that Afrikaans women writers can play an important role in transforming South African culture in the post-colonial context. Andre Brink maintains that Afrikaans women writers have already shown the ability to utilise feminism's strategies for the subversion of phallocratic systems (Brink, 4), while Kenneth Parker argues that their freedom from any obligations toward the masculinist discourse of the Great South African Nation has already led to experimentation with ways in which to write the new South Africa (Parker, 4-5). It must also be noted, however, that the category of mainstream Afrikaans woman writer does not as yet include coloured or black women, despite the fact that more than half of the speakers who use Afrikaans as a first language are coloured people. Although one can point to a few Afrikaans texts by coloured or black women published in anthologies like I Qabane Labantu: Poetry in the Emergency (1989), no novels, collections of short stories, or volumes of poetry by such women exist in mainstream Afrikaans literature. This silence can undoubtedly be read as an indication of the double colonization effected by Afrikaner cultural domination on the grounds of race as well as gender. Some of the other reasons for this silence have been pointed out by Beverly Jansen: the double oppression of coloured and black women in the apartheid society as well as in the family, an inferior education system, debilitating socioeconomic conditions that sapped women's creative energy, the preference for English because of political resentment against Afrikaans as the language of the oppressor, and the neglected status of the oral tradition used by many of these women (Jansen, 79-81).

Although the category of Afrikaans woman writer displays racial homogeneity (in contrast with that of the men writing in Afrikaans), this does not simplify the position of women writing in Afrikaans with regards to race. Afrikaans writing by women until the sixties was influenced by the ambivalent position of Afrikaans women who were part of a group who felt themselves colonized by white British imperialism but who also colonized black South Africans. Therefore it is not strange to find that Afrikaans women's writing up until the sixties displayed patterns of affiliation to Afrikaner nationalism and racial supremacy. It is also interesting to note that women writers achieved considerable prominence in the Afrikaans literary system despite gender oppression, although this does not necessarily imply a well-developed feminist discourse (Van Niekerk, 5). Since the sixties, but especially during the seventies and the political emergency of the eighties, Afrikaans women writers have occupied a strong place in the tradition of dissidence against the apartheid regime in Afrikaans literature. Although they are the racial “others” of women of colour, most of those writing since the sixties have chosen to “betray” (a term used by Trinh Minh-ha in referring to the “triple jeopardy” of writing women; 104) their own race in identifying with the liberation struggle of black people in their texts. Their position is therefore not unlike that of white settler women in previous centuries, whose narrative stance was considerably complicated by their alignment with colonized blacks but simultaneous entrapment in the discourses of imperialism and patriarchy implicit in the mere act of writing in a colonial context (Driver, 12).

My discussion of the following examples of Afrikaans women's writing since the beginning of the eighties will try to demonstrate that an engagement with the problems of race, class, gender, and writing constitutes a common element in the post-coloniality of Afrikaans women's writing. The complex social, historical, and cultural positionality that emerges from these texts again indicates that it would be a mistake to regard even the small Afrikaans literature as a monolithic entity. The power of recent Afrikaans women's writing lies in the multiple voices that enunciate a complex subjectivity and that enable their texts to speak to diverse audiences (see Henderson on black women's writing in America).


The texts by Lettie Viljoen, Antjie Krog, Emma Huismans, Riana Scheepers, and Marlene van Niekerk I have chosen for discussion represent only a small sample of Afrikaans women's writing since the eighties. Texts by writers like Elsa Joubert, Wilma Stockenstrom, Jeannette Ferreira, Reza de Wet, Welma Odendaal, Jeanne Goosen, Dalene Matthee, Marita van der Vyver, Rachelle Greeff, and Johnita le Roux could just as well have been used to demonstrate the various forms of oppositional and complicit postcolonialism present in the Afrikaans women's writing of the past decade.


Lettie Viljoen's first novel, Klaaglied vir Koos (Lament for Koos), was published in 1984 during a time of increased militarisation and political repression by the South African government. The narrator in this short novel is a white woman whose husband unexpectedly leaves her and their four-year-old child to join in the armed struggle against apartheid. She angrily confronts the reader with these facts on the first page of the novel as she registers her fury at being left behind by her husband, declaring it to be the starting point of her narrative. (It is interesting to note that anger has been inspirational for more than one Afrikaans woman writer. A few years earlier the poet Antjie Krog declared in one of her poems, “Ek skryf omdat ek woedend is” (I write because I am livid; 1980, 23). After spending time in hospital to recover from the shock caused by her husband's departure, the narrator slowly puts her life together again. Having experienced a nadir of emotional estrangement and inertia, she slowly comes to terms with her feelings of rejection and inadequacy, regaining her independence and the confidence to live her own life.

The psychic trauma that provides the stimulus for the writing of Krog's novel foregrounds the narrator's feelings of inferiority, guilt, and inadequacy. The work demonstrates that her trauma is related to the way in which her subjectivity is constructed in terms of gender, race, and class relationships. Her gender identity is mainly constructed in terms of the differences between her and her husband. He is described as intellectual, capable of thinking in macro-political terms, intolerant of contradictions or ambivalence, prepared to go to war and sacrifice the safety of his bourgeois home and nuclear family to achieve his political ideal of freedom for the oppressed. According to her own analysis, she is a vessel filled with ideological content by her husband who dreams of a whole that will accommodate ambivalence and contradiction, wants to entrench the confines of their nuclear family rather than break it open, thinks of opposing the regime but not of leaving their home and joining the war as he did. In comparison to his she finds hers a small life of no consequence (41), although she is subconsciously warned by an image of herself and her husband as Siamese twins in a bottle that she should free herself from constituting herself as her husband's “other” (53). The narrator's racial identity is constructed in terms of her relationships with black people and also manifests in feelings of inferiority and triviality. She feels that her own life as a white woman is less meaningful and consequential than the lives of black men and women involved in the struggle against oppression. She sees their culture as more sustaining, their people's history as richer in texture and less perverse than the sparse facts of her own history as a white person (12, 38).

Relationships determined by class also feature in the construction of the narrator's subjectivity. As the white owner of a solid bourgeois home, she stands in a relationship of economic as well as racial power toward the homeless couple Frans and Bettie, the destitute woman Sylvia whose house burned down, and the gardener Nevil, who all knock at her door to ask for food or shelter and who depend on her goodwill for their survival. At first she hides from them in her house, frightened and silent (15), but eventually she is prepared to leave the safety of her bourgeois home to negotiate with them and even to join them: “Gaan ek voortaan nie meer van binne die huis onderhandel nie maar saam met die befoktes, die haweloses, die besittingloses, saans so my huis omsirkel, in waaragtige meelewing” (Henceforth I am not going to negotiate from inside my house, I am going to circle my house in the evenings together with the fucked, the homeless, the possessionless, in genuine empathy; 66). She finally achieves the solidarity with the dispossessed that her husband so desperately desired: “Een met die laagstes … die sosiaal uitgeworpenes” (One with the lowest … the socially rejected; 66). Thus she succeeds in breaking out of the constricting patterns preordained by gender, race, and class in predemocratic South Africa.

The narrator registers her rebellion against the various forms of domination which gives rise to her feelings of inadequacy and inferiority on a narrative level. The novel disengages itself from traditional narrative patterns (interpreted by feminists as patriarchally determined) by subverting linear causality, closure, and authorial control. The narrative outwardly follows the linear progress of the seasons but gives priority to the chaotic and unresolved inner life of the narrative as a structuring device. The novel also takes as its terrain the personal, the intuitive, the subconscious, and the microphysical domain rather than the public. Whereas the narrator's husband fights the political struggle on a public level, she conducts her struggle within a private domain (symbolised by the bourgeois house and garden). Whereas her husband analyses the political situation in South Africa on an intellectual level (18), she experiences it intuitively in terms of an image. While recovering in hospital, she sees the image of an ants' nest which she relates to the large number of oppressed workers in South Africa (11, 20, 27), with whom she feels a subconscious solidarity when performing her domestic tasks (27). Thus image and fantasy often take the place of intellectual analysis and event in her narrative. At certain points the concentration on the private and personal becomes a preoccupation with the micro-physical, as is evident from the scientifically detailed descriptions of sexual organs during intercourse, especially the male organ during erection and ejaculation (2, 7). The discourse of sexual submissiveness one finds elsewhere in the novel (she lies “down for” her husband; 6) is subverted by these moments of masculine, scientific discourse in which the colonizing “male gaze” is momentarily returned. Thus the construction of the narrating subject at the intersection of race, gender, class, and writing is interrogated on a thematic as well as a structural level.


Krog's seventh volume of poems, Lady Anne, was published in 1989, at the end of a decade marked by such furious political resistance against the apartheid government that it resulted in the unbanning of the ANC in February 1990. In this collection of verse, conceived as a postmodern epic, Krog interrogates her own situation as a white Afrikaans-speaking woman in the politically turbulent South Africa of the late eighties by using the historical figure Lady Anne Barnard as a “guide” (16) for her own life. Lady Anne Barnard (1750-1825) was a Scottish noble-woman who married her husband Andrew, a former soldier twelve years her junior, in 1793. Because she was a friend of Sir Henry Dundas, then Secretary of State for War, she procured for her husband the post of Colonial Secretary at the Cape during the first British occupation from 1795 to 1803. Unusually for a woman of her time and class, she accompanied her husband to the Cape in 1797, and they lived there until 1802. The letters, journals, diaries, and drawings she produced during her stay at the Cape and on travels into the interior have become an important source of information about the people, events, and social life of the time, because she recorded particulars male writers considered beneath their notice. She is also retained in popular memory as a socialite, known for entertaining at the Castle at the Cape of Good Hope as the official hostess of Governor Macartney (Lenta, in Robinson, x-xix).

Krog's Lady Anne is a collage of poems supplemented by quotations, drawings, an ovulation chart, a property advertisment, an electoral poster, and extracts from a diary. Several poems are written from the perspective of Lady Anne, whereas others are composed from the perspective of an “I” that can be autobiographically linked to the poet. Still another set of poems places the two women together in situations that imaginatively overstep the boundaries of time and space. Similarities as well as dissimilarities in the way the subjectivity of these two women is determined by race, class, and gender in different historical contexts emerge from the poems. Lady Anne's position at the Cape of the late eighteenth century is determined by the fact that she is a member of a privileged race (a European in Africa), a privileged class (of noble descent), and a power that colonized the indigenous peoples as well as the Afrikaners in South Africa (a British subject). She looks at South Africa from the perspective of a temporary inhabitant and voyeuristic traveler, as demonstrated by the poem describing her consciousness of being an outsider who looks at the country as if through a windowpane (56-57). The volume also refers to the fact that Lady Anne lived in a time of political upheaval. Some of the poems show her in Paris during the French Revolution, feeling guilty about the fact that personal sorrow stands in the way of political concern (65-66), while others depict her agitation about the inhumanity of slavery (81-82). The poet Antjie Krog's position in South Africa in the 1980s is determined by her being a member of a privileged race (white in apartheid South Africa), a privileged class (the bourgeois middle class), and a group who colonized black people in South Africa but were also colonized by the British (an Afrikaner). She looks at South Africa from the perspective of a permanent inhabitant who feels morally compelled to take part in the establishment of a just society in that country. Her writing is decisively influenced by the context of political emergency in which she finds herself. In the poem “parool” (parole; 35-38) she questions the validity of poetry about private emotions written from a privileged perspective in an unjust society and remains conscious of the fact that even her most innocent words cannot be detached from the context of political violence in which they were produced (32). She also acknowledges that her poetical project entails a measure of violence toward her subject, Lady Anne, when she admits in the final line of the volume, “onder my duim le die fyn sintaksis van jou strot” (under my thumb lies the delicate syntax of your throat; 108).

Because the epic usually traces the history of great men and nations, the mere fact that Krog chose a woman as subject of her postmodern epic makes a statement about the importance of gender issues amid the struggle for racial equality in South Africa. Her artistic portrait of Lady Anne ventures further than the conclusion of literary historians that she was both caught up in traditional gender stereotypes and anxious to escape them (Driver, in Robinson, 7). Krog represents her as a strong-willed person, fully conscious of the power play between men and women, as in the poem “ballade van die magspel” (ballad of the power game; 76). One of the poems even depicts her as expressing a militant erotic desire to grow a penis and to possess her husband sexually in the manner of a man (24). The poems referring to the poet Krog herself show the way in which she struggles to reconcile different facets of her gendered position (sexual partner, wife, mother, daughter, domestic manager) and how they interact with her writing as well as political and religious consciousness. Despite the fact that both the “bard” and her “epic hero” (108) are women and that they share many similarities, Krog experiences ambivalent feelings about her subject. These feelings emerge in several poems self-reflexively charting the course of her project of writing about Lady Anne. Her elation at finding a woman she can use as “guide” (16) soon makes way for frustration when she discovers that this British Lady cannot easily be accomodated into her own scheme and has to conclude, “as metafoor is jy fokol werd” (as metaphor you are worth fuckall; 40).

Because Krog is aware that her perspective on the South African situation is a limited one, she inserts quotations into her text that confirm, supplement, or contradict her own poems. One of these quotations describing a black working-class woman (97) is juxtaposed with a poem in which the poet expresses her affection for Lady Anne but also refers to her “totale stralende nutteloosheid” (total radiant uselessness; 96). By inserting this reference to the black working-class woman, the poet questions her own position as a privileged white woman writing about another privileged white woman. The quotation also deliberately exposes the class and racial divides present in the gender consciousness evident in the volume's focus on women. Krog's brutally honest interrogation of her own subject-position as a white Afrikaans woman writer in the late eighties is another example of the fused postcoloniality of Afrikaans literature, in which elements of oppositionality (the political struggle) and complicity (the postmodernist subversion of dominance and centrism) are combined.


Berigte van weerstand (Reports of Resistance) by Emma Huismans was published in 1990, shortly after the unbanning of the ANC, but looks back on the author's experiences during the political struggle in Cape Town in 1985 and 1986, when she worked as journalist for the publication Crisis News (Odendaal, 45). These stories with their strongly factual content focus on the issues of political struggle, race, and language that are usually associated with the oppositional phase of postcolonialism. The narrator in this collection of interconnected stories takes an active part in the political struggle, writing newspaper reports about the political crisis, carrying guns, nursing the wounded, and doing paperwork like taking down statements from victims of political violence.

Huismans's stories bring to light several complications in the dialogue between race and gender in the South African context. Although she is a privileged white, the narrator identifies herself actively with the struggle of the racially oppressed in South Africa. This does not mean, however, that her position as a white woman in the struggle is unproblematic, as can be deduced from remarks like: “Nog 'n jaar van swart en bruin agterdog oor wie is wie in die struggle en freaked out whiteys wat iets probeer doen” (Another year of black and coloured suspicion about who is who in the struggle and freaked out whiteys trying to do something; 11) and “My usefulness as 'n whitey in die local townships her uitgedien raak. Wit is 'n opvallende kleur” (My usefulness as a whitey in the local townships was wearing thin. White is a conspicuous colour; 12). Some of her assignments are also the direct result of her marginality in the struggle as a white person. In the story “Die verhouding” (The Affair) she is ordered by her young black comrades in the struggle to eliminate a coloured man suspected of defecting from the cause. She realises, “Dis 'n swart-bruin ding hierdie en 'n whitey om die can te carry” (This is a black-coloured thing with a whitey carrying the can; 14). Her conclusion illustrates the dilemma of the person who completes the crossover between races in times of political upheaval: “Maar commitment is commitment. 'n Opdrag 'n opdrag. En waar sal ek, ex-Afrikaner, more wees as ek dit nie uitvoer nie?” (But commitment is commitment. An order an order. And where will I, ex- Afrikaner, be tomorrow if I do not carry out the order?; 14).

The narrator's position in the struggle is further compromised by the fact that she is Afrikaans-speaking. Several stories demonstrate that the perception of Afrikaans as the language of the oppressor has been transferred onto the Afrikaans-speaking narrator despite her commitment to the liberation struggle. She comments that her Boer descent was “'n byna onuitputlike bron van wantroue” (an inexhaustible source of distrust) and her use of Afrikaans perceived as “'n persoonlike belediging” (a personal insult; 80) by one of her black comrades in the struggle. Her identity as an Afrikaans-speaking white is complicated by the revelation in another story that her familiy emigrated from Holland to South Africa when she was five years old. She comments ironically: “Verwoerd was vyf toe hy die eerste keer sy Hollandse voet op Afrikaanse grond gesit het, spot ek. Ek ook. Moet minstens nie ons Afrikanerskap in twyfel trek nie” (Verwoerd was five years old when he first set his Dutch foot on Afrikaans soil, I say jokingly. Me too. At least do not doubt our Afrikaner identity; 72). The stories also note with devastating candour the use of Afrikaans by the violent oppressors (18) and demonstrate to what extent English came to dominate the jargon of the liberation struggle. In contrast, the mere writing and publication of these “reports of resistance” in Afrikaans testify to the fact that Afrikaans was also the language of the struggle.

The collection touches as well on the nature of the relationship between the political (commitment to the struggle) and the personal (commitment to a love affair). The story “Die verhouding” (The Affair) describes an affair between the narrator and a woman who is not fully committed to the struggle (as is evident from bourgeois attributes like a state housing subsidy and two carefully groomed poodles). When the narrator is ordered to shoot the young coloured man they are taking leave of at the Johannesburg airport, she shoots her lover's two poodles instead. On the one hand, this action is a manifestation of sexual jealousy because her lover is flirting with the young man who is leaving; on the other hand, it is an expression of political frustration with the intricacy of struggle politics and her lover's superficial attitude toward these issues. Without reducing the importance of either one, the story demonstrates the problematic interaction of the political struggle with personal relationships.

The stories also raise questions about the prioritisation of race and gender issues in the political struggle. It is significant that gender is underemphasised in these stories. The collection contains only three references to the gender of the narrator (56, 68, 94) and only two references to the position of women in the struggle, from which it is clear that race takes priority before gender in the struggle, even if it is against the better judgment of the narrator (56, 63). The relative lack of attention for gender issues in these stories can be interpreted in different ways. It can be read either as an indication that race should be given preference over gender in the political struggle, or as a powerful commentary on the undervalued position of women in the struggle. To my mind, the problematic position of women is accentuated by the narrator's choice to suppress references to gender, something that also has implications for the lesbian relationships portrayed in some of the stories. Thus the dialogue between race and gender is extended to include the issue of sexuality or gay rights. The struggle for the political rights of the racially oppressed was often given priority over the struggle for gay rights in pre-democratic South Africa, in the same way that the struggle against gender oppression was subordinated by the struggle against racial oppression (Gevisser). The raising of these issues in Huismans's text shows that marginalized discourses like that of women's and gay writing can contribute significantly to a complex, heterogeneous postcolonialism in Afrikaans.


Like the collection by Huismans, Riana Scheepers's volume of short stories Die ding in die vuur (The Thing in the Fire) was published in 1990. Whereas Huismans's text is representative of the oppositional impulse, Scheepers's stories show that these impulses coexist with affirmative tendencies exploring new possibilities for postcolonial writing in Afrikaans. The collection combines a European narrative tradition (as manifested in the use of several postmodernist strategies) with an African narrative tradition (references to Zulu oral narration as carried forth by women) to forge a new narrative strategy for the South African situation. Apart from this, the difficult process of transculturation is achieved through an intricate interplay of focalisations that leads to the dismantling of privileged and patronising vantage points.

Most of the stories included in the collection are situated in rural KwaZulu-Natal, where Scheepers grew up and later taught as a university lecturer at the University of Zululand. The title of the collection refers to the “thing” that will give one horns on the head if one listens to stories before the day's work has been done, according to the Zulu narrative tradition (76). It is also part of this tradition for the ugogo or storyteller to spit in the fire after the story has been told in order to destroy all the fictional images called forth so that they cannot give her listeners nightmares (81). To emphasise further the influence of the Zulu narrative tradition on this collection, it is preceded and concluded by traditional storytelling formulas in Zulu. In “Abantu oNgoye” (The People of oNgoye) several stories are combined to create a composite ideological picture of the oNgoye massacre, which took place on the campus of the University of Zululand in the mideighties. The first story is told by an external narrator, who describes the founding of the University of Zululand as an ethnic university by Verwoerd; the second is narrated by an ugogo or traditional storyteller, who recounts the massacre from the perspective of the rural inhabitants of Zululand; the third is reported by the external narrator, who tells the story from the viewpoint of the students attacked in the massacre; the fourth is told by an “I” (reminiscent of the author Scheepers) who is trying to find out what really happened. The agile alternation between different narrative modes and ideological viewpoints and the author's relinquishing of a controlling perspective are narrative strategies adapted to the multiculturality of the South African situation.

Other stories in the collection chart the diverse forms of colonization still experienced by women in the remote rural regions of South Africa. In “Ruil” (Exchange) a white shopkeeper who emigrated from Scotland to rural KwaZulu-Natal abuses the financial and sexual power he has over the black women left impoverished and alone in their villages by the migrant labour system, exchanging a small jar of Vaseline for the sexual favours of a black woman. Although this is a potentially degrading situation for the latter, the narrator recovers the dignity of the woman by stressing her nobility at the expense of the shopkeeper's depravity. The story concludes with this image of the woman: “Haar nek en haar skouers het die trots en rysigheid van 'n vrou wat weet dat haar inkope goed afgehandel is” (Her neck and shoulders are proud and tall like that of a woman who knows that her shopping has been well done; 17). In “Tweede kind” (Second Child) the wife of a white missionary and a thirteen-year-old black girl abandoned by her people on instruction of the Isangoma (witch doctor) give birth at the same time in a remote missionary hospital. Because the girl dies and her baby cannot keep down cow's milk, the missionary's wife is asked to breastfeed the black baby. She grudgingly gives her “borste vir die barbare” (breasts to the savages; 21), as she terms it, bargaining with God to make her own son even stronger than he would have been, had she fed him herself. Although the black girl (condemned by the power of the male Isangoma) and the white woman (negotiating with a patriarchal God) are both subject to male domination, this story shows that gender does not necessarily unify them in a glorious sisterhood but that it is definitively intersected by race and class. “Dom Koei” (Stupid Cow) describes the practice of female circumcision from the uncomprehending perspective of a white student who sees the victim of such a circumcision brought to the rural medical clinic where she is doing postgraduate research. The story forces the reader out of a position of cultural ignorance by placing him/her in the same position as the white student through a confrontation with a graphic word picture of the circumcision wound. While the black nursing sister is treating the mutilated girl, the student is sent to free a cow that got itself caught in a wire fence outside the clinic. She vents her feelings of incomprehension, shock, disgust, and anger on the defenceless cow, which becomes symbolic of the girl: “Jou simpel fokken dom koei” (You dumb fucking stupid cow), she screams at the animal. The narrative places the student, the narrator, and the reader in a position of voyeuristic power in relation to the silent and defenceless victim, almost implicating them in this colonizing abuse of women.

“Oor die pornografie van geweld in die Afrikaanse prosa: 'n outbiografiese steekproef” (On the Pornography of Violence in Afrikaans Prose Writing: An Autobiographical Sample) raises the question of literary violence as opposed to literal violence in predemocratic South Africa. In this postmodernist collage of intertwining discourses a discussion about violence is conducted with two men, both Afrikaans authors who have written on violence. One of the stories included in the collage contrasts the situation of a white woman's inexperience of violence with her black housekeeper's daily exposure to it. Another story describes an attack on the black woman's kraal in which her little brother as well as the ugogo or storyteller dies. Not only does this tale reflect on its own implication as example of the European narrative tradition in the literary exploitation of violence; it also comments symbolically on the endangered position of the African oral tradition (the killing of the ugogo). As such, Scheepers's collection of short stories is aware not only of the variety of narrative possibilities available for the creation of a South African postcolonial discourse but also of that which threatens to impoverish or destroy it.


Marlene van Niekerk's novel Triomf was one of the first literary texts in Afrikaans to be published in what can literally be called “postcolonial South Africa.” Incorporating references to the first democratic election in South Africa in April 1994, it appeared only a month or two after the election. The novel recounts the monotonous daily lives of a family of poor white Afrikaners, showing how apartheid failed even those it was ideologically designed to benefit. The family lives in the Johannesburg suburb ironically called Triomf (triumph), built on the ruins of the black township Sophiatown, which was demolished in the fifties by the social engineers of apartheid to create a suburb for the white working class.

It is gradually revealed that the Benade family of Triomf is a gross caricature of the nuclear family and all the values it embodies: the old man Pop, his “wife” Mol, and their “relative” Treppie are actually siblings; the epileptic Lambert is their son, though it is not clear whether Pop or Treppie fathered him. Treppie's scheme to establish a refrigerator-repair business having failed and Lambert not being able to finish school or hold down a job because of his epilepsy, they depend on welfare pensions for their livelihood. The suspense in the novel comes from the buildup toward Lambert's fortieth birthday and the national election while the reader also waits for the unsuspecting Lambert to find out the truth about his father and mother. The family prepare themselves to escape to the North in their beat-up Volkswagen Beetle if “the shit hits the fan” after the election, but the end of the novel shows the remaining members of the family (Pop has died in the interim) still caught in the same circumstances as before. Nothing has changed, and the final moments of the novel depict them looking at the constellation of Orion over the roofs of Triomf, without a north they can escape to.

Underneath its naturalistic surface the novel is richly symbolic. On a political level the incestuous and inbred Benade family becomes symbolic of the extremes to which the apartheid philosophy of racial exclusivity led. The novel also discloses the historical circumstances that led to their condition (their ancestors were landowners forced off their land during a depression to become impoverished workers with the railways and in the garment industry in the city). Their history and family setup leads to a situation in which anyone outside the family is regarded with the utmost suspicion, prejudice, and contempt (as manifested in their crude racism toward blacks and their disgust with the “dykes” who live across the road). On a religious level the family, consisting of two brothers and sister together with their ironically innocent son, can be read as a symbolic perversion of the myths of origin found in several world religions, of Christianity's trinity and sacrificial lamb, of the different images of the devil, as well as of the idea of an apocalypse. The novel also drives the idea of the Freudian family romance to grotesque extremes, going so far as to have Lambert accidentally kill his “father” Pop.

Although this novel is not exclusively occupied with gender issues, it demonstrates more eloquently than could any feminist treatise the position of women in such conditions. The objectification of Mol, the sister of Pop and Treppie and the mother of their child Lambert, reaches astrocious depths. She is emotionally, verbally, physically, and sexually abused, especially by her brother Treppie and her son Lambert. She is the sexual tool of all three men, and her status as a (sex) object is underlined by the fact that their beat-up car is also called Mol. Racially she is part of a group who consider themselves superior to blacks (her position is symbolic of the failure of white supremacy); she is of a class looked down upon by other whites and Afrikaners (evident from the reaction of the young Afrikaans couple who try to recruit their votes for the Nationalist Party), and she is of the gender oppressed by the patriarchal system prevalent in the race and class configuration in which she finds herself.

Triomf, as well as a spate of other novels probing the hidden corners of the Afrikaner psyche in a process referred to as “Afrikaans literature's own truth commission” (Swanepoel, 102), signifies an important element in Afrikaans literature's postcoloniality. In her paradoxical ability to evoke feelings of revulsion as well as compassion for the degenerate Benade family, Van Niekerk illustrates the intricate relationship between the colonial and the postcolonial that must be negotiated when writing the new South Africa. Her novel demonstrates an awareness of the fact that the colonial cannot be eliminated from the postcolonial in a simple act of political amnesia and that the past must be confronted rather than evaded when constructing a postcolonial discourse in South Africa.


The texts by Afrikaans women writers discussed in this article have shown different ways of engagement with the postcolonial problematic in South Africa. The works by Lettie Viljoen, Antjie Krog, and Emma Huismans demonstrate their commitment to the project of an oppositional postcolonialism as well as the complexities involved in such a commitment for an Afrikaans woman writer. Riana Scheepers's novel shows an attempt to forge new narrative strategies appropriate for a multicultural situation and an awareness of the narrative subject's implication in discourses of power, while that by Marlene van Niekerk represents a preparedness to confront the colonial in the postcolonial. Afrikaans literature—including these texts written by women—has shown that it is willing and able to make a meaningful contribution to a postcolonial South Africa as well as to the continual process of defining a heterogeneous postcolonialism.


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Gina Wisker (essay date 2000)

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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 book, so we didn't exist in a kind of way in our culture and environment, our climate, the plants around us did not seem real, did not seem to be of any importance—we overlooked them entirely. The real world was what was in books.

(Dabydeen, 1988, p. 78)

This chapter explores a brief history of the Caribbean, concentrating on women's roles and writing and sketching in cultural contexts. It moves on to consider the important influence of the work of Jean Rhys, a white Caribbean Creole writer whose Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) encouraged interest in Caribbean writing. Several key women writers are discussed, including Louise Bennett, Pamela Mordecai, Lorna Goodison, Marlene Nourbese Philip, Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze, Jamaica Kincaid and Erna Brodber.

The very term Caribbean (instead of West Indies, the colonial term) is itself an ideological one which indicates a desire to reclaim and restore a voice and identity, traced as:

a desire to decolonize and idigenize imaginatively and to claim a voice for history, a geography and a people who had been dominated by British Victorians—both literally and literarily. Certainly this desire to reclaim and restore alter/native cultural traditions has been a prime motivating factor for many Caribbean writers throughout the twentieth century.

(Donnell and Lawson Welsh, 1996, p. 4)

Identity and finding a voice are important in the English-speaking Caribbean. Women writers explore motherlands, mother tongues, oral storytelling and poetry, nation language, Jamaican language, women's experiences and the importance of telling tales of individuals' lives. It is with Jean Breeze's work that oral performance poetry is discussed in particular, offering, as it does, a chance to hear and see a dramatic representation of examples of the kind of lives of Jamaican women in the everyday kind of language they would use themselves.


In considering the writing of the Caribbean we concentrate, here, on the English-speaking Caribbean, including: Jamaica, St Lucia, Grenada, Trinidad, Tobago, Dominica, Antigua, Guyana and other parts colonised by the British. There are many other islands colonised by other European countries, not considered here, such as Cuba, Haiti and Martinique, for example.

Caribbean writing by women is a rich vein brought directly over to the UK where many women writers have visited or settled. Divisions and choices in a book are difficult, but it has been particularly problematic to decide exactly where to ‘place’ writing by women such as Amryl Johnson, Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze, Merle Collins, Valerie Bloom and Grace Nichols, whose work is popular and has been published and/or performed both in the UK and the Caribbean. For the most part, I have included in this chapter novelists who remain in the Caribbean, and poets, whether living there or in the UK (Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze), Canada (Marlene Nourbese Phillip), or elsewhere, whose contribution to the development of oral performance poetry and a politicised focus on the vernacular tradition springs initially from their engagement with Caribbean culture in situ. I hope my rather hesitant decisions will not offend, and indeed, this chapter should be read alongside that on Black British writing (Chapter 12), to further enable consideration of the oral performance poets, in particular.

One of the problems that Caribbean/British women writers have experienced about publication in the past has been a refusal of the ‘establishment’ press to recognise their work in anthologies of British writing (except for The New British Poetry, 1988, where a Black British section is edited by Fred D'Aguiar). The overlap here is a deliberate attempt to remedy that exclusion and to indicate the rich cross-fertilisation between our cultures. Some of my choices here are also to do with where, how and when I met these writers and their work. It is also to do with space so that each can have as full a treatment as possible. Finally, choices are sometimes linked to publication in Cobham and Collins (eds), Watchers and Seekers: Creative Writing by Black Women in Britain (1987), one of several of the flowering of books recognising Black women's writing published in the 1980s. Merle Collins, Grace Nichols, Amryl Johnson and Valerie Bloom, all of Caribbean origin and living in Britain, will largely be discussed in the Black British chapter, although Jean Breeze could well appear there too.

Some of the issues which are uppermost in our consideration of writing by women from the English-speaking Caribbean are centred around mothering and mother tongue. These are politicised writers who spring from an established oral tradition, strong women who speak out against the sufferings of their foremothers and the economic difficulties of the present day. The choice of language used reflects not only the origins of the writers but deliberate statements about their relationship to the language of the colonisers and to the everyday language spoken at home. Issues of language choice are important in the expression of identity and nationhood as well as in the desire to depict the lives of everyday people and the ways in which they would express themselves. Their interests also centre on identity and relationships, mothering and motherhood.

Merle Collins, citing Jamaica Kincaid's Annie John (1985), Merle Hodge's Crick Crack Monkey (1970), Zee Edgell's Beka Lamb (1982) and Lorna Goodison's poem I am Becoming my Mother (1986), notes the similarity of themes and the importance of women's relationships in both prose and poetry:

In much of the writing by Caribbean women, the women play a central role in passing on values to young people, either because men have absconded, or because, even when they are there, the women are the ones who concern themselves with such communication. Their relationships between mother and daughter, aunt and niece or guardian and child is a recurring one in Caribbean women's writing.

(Merle Collins, 1988, p. 20)


For the Caribbean woman, the notion of a motherland is especially complex, encompassing in its connotations her island home and its unique culture as well as the body of tropes, talismans and female bonding that is a woman's heritage through her own and her mothers. The land and one's mothers, then, are co-joined.

(Morris and Dunn, 1991, p. 219)

Women's identity is initially formed through bonding and identifying with the mother, while male identity comes about through separation. Jean Rhys, Michelle Cliff and Jamaica Kincaid all stress the importance (and some of the problems) of the mother-daughter bond, and its nurturing relation to the mother land.


Only relatively recently has there been any major interest in the literature of the Caribbean, partly due to the fact that the Caribbean islands are widely dispersed and different, but mainly due to the difficulties of the domination of colonial literary expression. As the process of decolonisation continues, the growth of a national identity (see Frantz Fanon, 1952; 1967, chapter 1) becomes highly important, particularly in such a geographically divided region. In the pre-1950 period, ‘West Indian’ as a term indicated a shared experience of colonial rule, while during the 1950s the term began to represent a search for a unified regional identity (Blackman, 1949, p. 7; Hearne, 1950, p. 6) and the shortlived West Indian Federation was established in the early 1960s. However, nationalism replaced this as different islands sought independence. Subsequently, the ideologically conscious term Caribbean has gained acceptance, suggesting a range of experiences and identities and a range of literary production, ‘it is more suggestive of a literature freed from the (re-)centring tendencies of a colonial and Commonwealth framework’ (Donnell and Lawson Welsh, 1996, p. 6). Recognition of Caribbean identity is explored and expressed in and through literature, music and the other arts.

Historically, the plantation economy produced a multi-racial society. The original Indian inhabitants were not suited to plantation work so slaves were brought from Africa, and when slavery was abolished and emancipation began, they were replaced by Asian contract workers. (The abolition of the slave trade occurred in 1807 and the abolition of slavery about 30 years later.) Emancipation did not bring overnight change in terms of the great social gulf between European and African populations and there was little social mobility for free but unskilled Afro-Caribbeans. North American industrialisation entered their lives, demanding skilled workers for oil refineries and bauxite works. Some trained and worked there while others found employment on sugar and banana plantations, in ports or on the Panama Canal. Jamaica achieved self-government in 1944, Trinidad and Tobago in 1962. Bermuda, Britain's oldest colony, rejected Independence in 1995. Impoverished governments did little to improve the infrastructure of their countries and Independence from colonial rule has not necessarily removed the colonial-like controls and effects of the multinationals and of the strong economies of the First World (particularly, in this geographical location, the US and UK).

Still, today, there are distinctions in relation to skin colour and between the international urban community and the poorer classes in slums and rural areas. This polarisation has considerably affected women. Historically, as in the plantations of America, bi-racial women sought a route of improvement through ‘passing’ as white, and were seen as a threat to European women incarcerated in colonial houses—a prison of Victorian conventions. Erotic rivalry was likely to make these women enemies, not colleagues. In the Caribbean, family patterns which differed from those in the United States, grew up in relation to work. The men had to go away to work, leaving behind partners and families, so a tradition grew of women remaining at home in women-only communities, living on very little money. Rural and slum Black women acted as both parents and were hard working and long suffering, tough, different from the assimilated Black women in the urban situation. Merle Collins sees the issue of colour as one common to many Caribbean women writers. She notes that Caribbean women writing in the UK comment more on race and racism whilst in the Caribbean they are interested in ‘shadism’—the shade of colour someone is in relation to their social standing:

There is, therefore in the poetry and prose written by Caribbean women in Britain a much more overt focus on the theme of race. The Caribbean is more concerned with the ‘shadism’, the ‘pass fe white’ phenomenon written of by Louise Bennett in the 1960s. In England, where racial slurs are an everyday occurrence, the Black woman finds it necessary to claim her identity in a way not considered necessary to the woman in the Caribbean where the woman thinks of herself as woman and not as Black woman, because there is not the constant presence of a large racist white community. The result is that there is more of a focus on the theme of class and the claim to power of a black or brown middle class.

(Collins, 1988, p. 22)


Caribbean writers have a difficult task in the face of widespread illiteracy, particularly among women. Writers grow up in a small cultural group exchanging and commenting on each other's work. This fosters development but reduces influence from the outside world. Consequently, much literary production from Caribbean writers, particularly women, has been seen to be limited critically. Mineke Schipper defines some of the ways in which cultural differences lead to the critical dismissal of women writers in particular, saying:

the authors of these works are dependent on the European book market, where literary critics take exception to their ‘Caribbean style’, which is rather free with the accepted rules of grammar. When these writers attempt to express their experiences in their own way, the wording they choose is often overly emotional. Though they are writing in the European language, their emotional choice of words serves to emphasise precisely those characteristics which are typical of the Caribbean.

(Schipper, 1985, p. 172)

In Europe, Caribbean women writers' work is critically acclaimed but, until relatively recently, they had little position or recognition at home.

‘Shadism’, an interest in being pale coupled with the establishment (particularly in Havana) of women activists concerned with equality, encouraged the development of a version of the female ‘mulatto’—beautiful, powerful, essentially tragic—for whom race and appearance were a route to social success, and a problem both culturally and socially. In their novels, Marise Conde and Sonia Schwartz Bart, from Guadeloupe, represent the tragedy of the bi-racial woman, while Astrid Roemer of Surinam challenges colour and class issues and represents bi-racial women in a more positive light. Jean Rhys is a famous Caribbean writer who uses the figure of the tragic bi-racial woman in her great work Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) (see below).


Women's fiction and poetry have a shorter history than that of the male writers (C. L. R. James, Ralph de Boissiere, more recently Derek Walcott) although a rich oral culture was maintained through women storytellers. Most Caribbean women writers have only been publishing in any significant volume since the 1970s and 80s, with the notable exceptions of Louise Bennett (b. 1919, see below) the performance poet, and Phyllis Shand Allfrey (Dominica and the US) whose novel The Orchid House (1953) considers the way of life and emotions of the older Black woman. Notable writers include Olive Senior (Commonwealth Writers' Prize, 1987), Lorna Goodison (Commonwealth Poetry Prize for the Caribbean region, 1986), Merle Hodge, Jean Rhys, Una Marson (Jamaica) and Barbara Ferland (Jamaica). Political activism and ideological connectedness are notable in the work of Marson whose interest in language started to establish Jamaican English as a ‘nation language’ for writers.

In the 1980s women started to be published in greater numbers, building on their feminist activism and personal involvement in the political and cultural developments of the Caribbean. Erna Brodber, Jamaica Kincaid, Beryl Gilroy and Susan Cambridge are notable novelists, and drama emerged from the working-class drama collective Sistren (Jamaica), who produced Lionheart Gal: Life Stories of Jamaican Women (1986). While, earlier in the twentieth century, modernism was enabling for Black men, who transferred the power of utterance from the coloniser to the male colonised, its formal experimentation did not, however, liberate doubly burdened women writers. They have, latterly, turned to the narrative structure of post-modernism—to fragmentation, intertextuality, parody, and doubling, locating gender differences as a site for representing and reconstructing new identities. One way in which women Caribbean writers reject the notion of a subject defined by the dominant patriarchal culture is to produce a shifting subject at odds with dominant language—they experiment with language, producing, as Teresa de Lauretis puts it: ‘a multiple, shifting, and often self contradictory identity, a subject that is not divided in, but rather at odds with language’ (1986, p. 14).


Jean Rhys was a highly influential Caribbean writer. She was born on Dominica in 1890, left in 1907, and died in 1979, never having returned. Her works include: The Left Bank and Other Stories (1927), Quartet (1928), After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (1931), Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), Sleep It Off Lady (1976) and Smile Please (1981).

The casual reader interested in the Caribbean would most probably have come into initial contact with literature about the Islands through the writing of Jean Rhys. Her sequel to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847)—Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)—is a starting point for investigating the invisibility of Caribbean writers and the experiences of their peoples. Jane Eyre represents a notorious fissure in literature. Bertha Mason, Rochester's mad first wife, connotes the repressed sexuality of nineteenth-century England, designated mad because she is the unknown and uncontrollable. As a Creole, however, she would probably be of mixed race and, as such, her presence represents the whole, complex lumber of society's simultaneous attraction for, and repulsion from the sexualised woman. She is ‘Other’, woman as nature: powerful, alluring, dangerous, out of control, to be repressed, finally to be destroyed, the dark side of our nature; woman as attractive, passionate, red in tooth and claw, fatal. In Brontë's text Bertha is Jane's alter ego whom she must come to terms with and overcome, in order to relate to Rochester. Bertha is not entirely white (certainly not an English rose) and powerfully passionate (see Gilbert and Gubar's The Madwoman in the Attic, 1979, which examines the pathology of nineteenth-century England through her figure). Rhys takes the figure of Bertha and enables the silenced Black woman to speak through Antoinette, the name with which she was born, before Rochester took her over, translated her, confined her, contributed to the destruction of her sense of reality, and called her Bertha, renaming and redefining her. His next move was to ship her to England and incarcerate her in the attic from which she only escaped to hurl herself from the roof in flames and die. Rochester, a second son, has no inheritance, so must marry for money. Marrying hereditarily mentally ill Creole heiresses was not uncommon in those post-slavery days. Jamaica's vibrant colours, and Antoinette's vibrant passion, her difference, her resorting to ‘obeah’ (magic) to encourage him to develop his love for her, rapidly estrange and disgust him. For Rhys, this novel enabled an exploration of several issues: British inheritance of the legacy of slavery; British racism; and the close linking of representation of the sexualised Other (Creole woman and Black West Indian women) with issues of women's marginalisation and subordination specifically in relation to Black or bi-racial women.

For nineteenth-century England, involvement in the slave trade and wealth produced by the colonial sugar plantations was rarely discussed in the drawing room. Rochester's family income rested upon the labour of slaves in the West Indies (as did Sir Thomas Bertram's in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, 1814). Slavery was a dark secret. So too was the migration and channelling of sexual energies of the colonisers. Colonialism has been recognised by many critics as a way of exporting excess sexual energies, testified to in travel writing of the nineteenth century, which represents the landscapes of Africa and the West Indies as fertile women to be overcome and tamed (see references to ‘Mother Africa’ in Chapter 6). Colonial landscapes and colonised women represented fertility and wildness to be enjoyed, controlled, plundered and rendered silent. Rhys here, as in other works, investigates the ways in which race, difference and gender affect women's lives.


Caribbean life is a complex interaction of cultures and lifestyles, and race is an important topic in women's writing. The majority of Caribbean writers are of African descent and identify with this cultural inheritance, but there are also writers of Indian and Chinese descent, and Creoles: ‘the writers who are most involved with oral performance are strongest in their attachment to particular Creole forms’ (Savory, 1989, p. 33). Overseas women write of life on the islands as well as their own sociocultural-specific contexts. Writers use different island dialects, some switching between versions of Creole and international English. Women in particular find it difficult to negotiate the roles of mother/partner/daughter and writer:

Caribbean women who want to write scarcely ever have an easy time in sustaining a literary career of the kind the major male writers have experienced. … This is for the very obvious reason that the majority of women writers of Caribbean origins have domestic and family responsibilities as well as an obligation to earn a living (and frequently have to raise their children alone.

(Savory, 1989, p. 31)

While Rhys's second husband, Lesley, supported her writing, for Caribbean women, marriage and childbearing often take precedence, and ‘the history of Caribbean male writing is also largely a history of female support for it’ (Savory, 1989, pp. 31, 32), a support not normally reciprocated. Elaine Savory also comments on parental fears that writing might indicate madness, a fear which often prompts the burning of their daughters' writing. However, political activism and community involvement have fuelled women's writing.


The Sistren Theatre Collective is a phenomenon which has grown from the community to respond, reflect and encourage reflection about the lives of ordinary women: ‘they are not just playing roles, they are living it. They expose in their dramatic art the realty of their own daily lives and those of their people’ (Thomas, 1986, p. 15). The Sistren Theatre Collective began in 1977 as a group of women in a special employment programme. As the group, a mixture of Black and white Caribbean women, grew, they included women with specific cultural skills. They develop their material from real life. Sweet Sugar Rage, for example, is based on the lives of women sugar workers. They brought this piece to the city, used improvisation and role play with audience participation, and made it into a film. Sistren have written plays celebrating hidden heroes, and against nuclear arms testing. Their work is socially, culturally and politically engaged and involves people working on materials they have unearthed in relation to colonial policy about women from the 1930s onwards. Lionheart Gal (1986) was aided by Honor Ford-Smith, who transcribed along with Sistren, setting up interviews, and a structure, with them; producing a collection of biographies of all the members of the group and of others, both real and typical, written in Caribbean English, embodying the history and mixture of Caribbean peoples. It goes to the heart of how Caribbean women originated and live:

It is likely to be the most frank and from-the-heart account of the things that our women do not even dare to remember and think, much less to publish!

(Thomas, 1986, p. 19)

Humour and historical, mythical and real-life stories can be closely identified with. Motherhood, domestic service, family violence and abuse, and a search for economic independence in an unequal society are popular themes. As Merle Collins notes of them, anyone seeing their performance would have:

the sensation of sharing in the lives of women who have been held within the grip of poverty, alienated by a brutal neo-colonial political system, brutalised by the police who also brutalise their men, who in turn brutalise them. Their stories are those of women who have learnt to confront life with the same toughness with which it has confronted them, who want love and tenderness and caring but have learnt to carve a niche which ensures their survival in an unyielding atmosphere. Their experiences have given the strength and resilience which make life possible even when it continues to be a constant struggle.

(Collins, 1988, p. 20)

A similar sense of community is explored by Olive Senior in such short story collections as Summer Lightning and Other Stories (1987) and Arrival of the Snake Woman, and Other Stories (1989).



Crick Crack Monkey marks a crucial transition from nationalist to post-colonialist writing. It was the first novel by a Caribbean woman to problematise and question notions of difference and quest for voice in a social context that denied social cohesion to the colonised self, cutting it off from liberating forms of self-expression. The idea of establishing a voice against the dominant plantation-owning society is important in a slave or ex-slave culture.


Annie John charts the growing up of an intelligent young girl, presenting the world from her point of view. Although successful in school, she is no conformist and thus constantly gets into trouble for her rather naively politicised, radical responses. At home, her mother is seen by the adolescent as an aggressor and a spy who ‘had suddenly turned into a crocodile’ (1997 [1985] p. 84), set against Annie John's growing deceptions, which are largely unimportant (playing marbles instead of studying, walking home a different way, visiting girlfriends). With the passions of love/friendships with first Gwen then ‘the Red Girl’, she becomes wilder, and is suddenly removed to another island. Each friendship develops her, but must remain largely secret. The point of view changes as she grows, developing from a fear of dying when surrounded by cemeteries and funerals, to adolescent change and distance from her mother, who seems one person in company and another, suspiciously hostile, when alone. The mother/daughter bond is closely scrutinised. It limits and forms Annie John's personality:

Something I could not name just came over us, and suddenly I had never loved anyone so or hated anyone so, but to say hate—what did I mean by that? Before, if I hated someone I simply wished the person dead. But I couldn't wish my mother dead. If my mother died, what would become of me. I wouldn't imagine my life without her. Worse than that, if my mother died I would have to die too, and even less than I could imagine my mother dead could I imagine myself dead.

(Kincaid, 1997 [1985], p. 88)

Annie John also challenges racism and colonialism through questioning received versions of history, demonising Columbus and transferring a phrase about her grandfather:

When I next saw the picture of Columbus sitting there all locked up in his chains, I wrote under it the words: The Great Man Can No Longer Just Get Up and Go.

(Kincaid, 1997 [1985], p. 78)

Punished as a radical, Annie John derives her enlightened view from questioning history, identifying the cruel appropriation of her people. She feels none of this would have happened in reverse: her own ancestors would have supported the Europeans' rights to different ways, rather than trying to enslave and change them. Comparing herself to the white girl Ruth, who always sees herself and her ancestors as in the wrong, Annie John feels:

We could look everybody in the eye. For our ancestors had done nothing wrong except just sit somewhere, defenceless. Of course, sometimes, what with our teachers and our blood ties, it was hard for us to tell on which side we really now belonged—with the masters or the slaves—for it was all history, it was all in the past, and everybody behaved differently now. … But we, the descendants of the slaves, knew quite well what had really happened, and I was sure that if the tables had been turned we would have acted differently; I was sure that if our ancestors had gone from Africa to Europe and come upon the Europeans, living there, they would have taken a proper interest in the Europeans on first seeing them, and said ‘How novel’, and then got them to tell their friends about it.

(Kincaid, 1997 [1985], p. 76)

At the end of the novel she sails away, as her mother had left her own home, embarking on a new life and a job, with her own things in her own trunk. It is a voyage through childhood and adolescence, one with which we can all identify, and which is also explicitly that of a Caribbean girl.


Erna Brodber's novel is a marvellous post-modernist piece utilising different writing forms and traditions to give a voice to women with differing experiences, distinct from others' versions of their lives:

Erna Brodber's narrative method exemplifies the interpenetration of scribal and oral literary forms: a modernist, stream of consciousness narrative holds easy dialogue with the traditional teller of tales, the transmitter of Anansi story, proverb, folk song and dance. The casual centrality of the ‘supernatural’ in Brodber's fiction is also an excellent example of the writer's adaptation of marginalised thematic concepts from the oral tradition which she legitimises in the very process of ‘writing them up’.

(Cooper, 1993, p. 3)

In Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home Brodber chooses to use the novel, a bourgeois construct, as a medium to question the hegemony of the language in which she writes, disrupting the tenets of the genre as modernists do. (See Ann Morris and Margaret M. F. Dunn, ‘The Bloodstream of Our Inheritance: Female Identity and the Caribbean Mothers' Land’, in Nasta, Motherlands, 1991.)



Caribbean writers are often seen as the inheritors of Caliban (Shakespeare's The Tempest) because internalising language brought by Europeans warped the ways in which they thought and felt. English is a language which Marlene Nourbese Philip says ‘has sought to deny us’ (Philip, 1989, p. 85). The difference between a classical education—credentialled language—and the non-credentialled language spoken locally made some seem privileged and others barbarians. Lamming and others have attempted to disrupt the colonial language with its claims to linguistic and cultural superiority. There are two main trends in Caribbean poetry—the more classical, literary, and the oral.

The Caribbean is rich in women poets, many of whom also write and live in Britain. They include Louise Bennett (b. 1919, Jamaica); Lorna Goodison (b. 1947); Pamela Mordecai (b. 1942); Valeria Bloom (b. 1956); Grace Nichols (b. 1950, Guyana); Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze, Elean Thomas and Vivian Usherwood (Jamaica); Merle Collins (Grenada); Amryl Johnson (Trinidad); Gabriella Pearse (Columbia); and Barbara Burford (UK). Historically, there are several women poets who have influenced the development and celebration of mother tongue or nation language. Most of these are also performance poets. Miss Lou (Louise Bennett) was the first to formally and deliberately use the mother tongue in her performance poetry. Lorna Goodison and Marlene Nourbese Philip explicitly explore issues around national identity and the use of mother tongue. In considering the work of women poets here we will concentrate on the issues of mother tongue and, most importantly, of orality and performance poetry, looking specifically at Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze. It is useful to compare Caribbean oral performance poetry with the oral literatures of other countries such as Africa (Chapters 6 and 7) and the Aboriginal culture of Australia (Chapter 10).


Miss Lou is of middle-class urban origins. It was not until the post-independence seventies that she was rightly recognised, given the title ‘Honourable’. Poetry which speaks for and about ordinary, often rural poor people, and uses colloquial language, is deliberately chosen by Louise Bennett, who persisted with ‘Anancy’ and ‘Auntie Roachy’ and ‘boonoonoonoos’ and ‘parangle san ting’, when she could have opted for more elevated language, that of the colonisers. Her instincts were that she should use the language of her people. The consequence was that for years (since 1936) she performed her work in crowded village halls across the island, but until 1945 could get nothing accepted by the ‘Gleaner’, the oldest established newspaper.

Bennett is a folklorist and performer, deriving much from oral tradition, using stories, proverbs, street chants, children's games and language, voices, intonation, idioms, anecdotes, irony, often in discussions or letters mostly from women, commenting on everyday social and domestic life. Her work employs monologues and dialogues, self-ironising and celebratory expression. Mikey Smith, the performance poet, called her the mother of dub poetry. Her pioneering use of ‘nation language’ has been augmented by later women poets with a more political tone, and the collective sharing and oral delivery is crucial.

Bennett uses specific personae, often country women travelling to the rather confusing city, which offers fantastic possibilities but excludes or ridicules them. She uses oral literature's techniques—specifically Jamaican proverbs:

My Aunt Roachy saeh dat Jamaica people have a whole heap a Culture an tradition an Birthright dat han dung to dem from generation to generation. All like de great philosophy of we Jamaica proverbs—dem. Mmmm.

(Bennett, in Morris (ed.), 1983, p. 49)

Some of her proverbs are metaphorical, others may be literal statements to educate. She uses the oral tradition's repetition and alliteration, mnemonic devices to aid memory and the power of the proverb (see Walter Ong, in Orality and Literacy (1982). In his Introduction to Louise Bennett's Selected Poems (1983), Mervyn Morris emphasises the written and oral elements of her poetry:

Louise Bennett's art is both oral and scribable; the forms are not mutually exclusive. The poem in print is, however, fully available only when readers are in touch with the oral and other cultural contexts the words imply.

(Morris, 1983, p. 2)

Rex Nettleford's Introduction to Louise Bennett's Jamaica Labrish (1966) warns against underestimating her artistry:

Those who indulge her rumbustious abandon and spontaneous inducement of laughter will sometimes forget that behind the exuberance and carefree stance, there are years of training—formal and informal—as well as this artist's own struggles to share an idiom whose limitations as a bastard tongue are all too evident.

(Nettleford, 1966, quoted in Cooper, 1993, p. 40)

Of the creation of personae, especially ‘Aunty Roachy’ and the ‘doing’ of dialect, Bennett comments that people didn't take her seriously:

From the beginning, nobody ever recognised me as a writer. Well, she is doing ‘dialect’: it wasn't even writing you know. Up to now a lot of people don't even think I write.

(Interview with Scott, in Markham (ed.), 1989, p. 46)

Part of her legitimising has been to do with writing down. Bennett affirms nativist aesthetic values and the sociopolitical contradictions of Jamaica's history. Her own reading was the English Romantic poets but her ear listened to the people around her, and she discovered and developed a way to record idiomatic, colloquial speech. Commenting on Jamaican proverbs and the dictionary rendition of them, she says:

Dem-deh is we ole time Jamaica proverbs, an dem got principles governin thoughts an conducts an morals ab-n character, like what dictionary seh. So doan cry dem dung, for what is fi-yuh cyaaan be un-fi-yuh.

(Bennett, in Morris (ed.), 1983, pp. 49, 50)

Louise Bennett uses personae to present a wide variety of women's lives and points of view but chief amongst these is the ‘cunny Jamaica Oman’—the crafty cunning woman:

That cunning Jamaican woman, celebrated and satirised with equal gusto in Louise Bennett's ample corpus, is a composite character—an aggregation of the multiple personae employed by Bennett the ventriloquist, to cover the lives of representative Jamaican women of all social classes. This multifarious heroine—victim of

Bennett's comic/satirical sketches presents us with a diversity of social class values and behaviours that attests to the verisimilitude of Bennett's detailed portraiture.

(Morris (ed.), 1993, p. 47)

She gives us market traders like the ‘South Parade Peddler’, trying to get a sale and abusing a customer even as she is moved on, a lively street figure typical of those found in Jamaica, and now in the markets of London. Amryl Johnson takes up this locale and exchange (see Chapter 5). Louise Bennett reproduces the texture and richness of Jamaican yard and street life, the front porch and the street exchanges between people (also see African American women writers, Chapters 2, 3, 4), representing their enmities and loyalties, those who leave and return, long-standing relationships and crises. In several poems she deals with marriage, for example that following the 30-year courtship of the now toothless, white-haired bride and groom, or sudden, mass, forced marriages.

She was neither represented in collections (for example Focus) nor asked to a Poetry League of Jamaica meeting because people thought she would speak in dialect. (Established in 1923, the Poetry League of Jamaica called attention to poetry with a Year Book, meetings and prizes, but by the 1930s it had become a little outdated in relation to some of the poetic developments, particularly oral developments.)

At about this time I began to wonder why more of our poets and writers were not taking more of an interest in the kind of language usage and the kind of experiences of living which were all around us, and writing in this medium of dialect instead of writing in the same old English about Autumn and things like that.

For too long it was considered not respectable to use the dialect. Because there was a social stigma attached to the kind of person who used dialect habitually. Many people still do not accept the fact that for us there are many things which are best said in the language of the ‘common man’.

(Interview with Scott, in Markham, 1989, pp. 47 and 49)

There is both a serious social intent and humour behind her work. Her version of identity is a working-class one, at odds with the middle-class Jamaica Federation of Women satirised in ‘Bans O'Ooman!’ which attempted to unite all women but only temporarily had space for the working class defined in Bennett's description as ‘suspended’. In ‘Jamaica Oman’ (1983 [1966]) she dramatises the lively confrontational/amusing spiritedness of the cunny/cunning woman, and cites as the archetype the mythical Nanny figure who turned and bared her bottom at the troops' bullets to show defiance and disdain. The irony is that the Jamaica woman is actually powerful and liberated even though neither her men nor the colonisers are aware of this:

Jamaica oman cunnay, sah!
Is how dem jinnal so?
Look how long dem liberated
An de man dem never know!

(Bennett, ‘Jamaica Oman’, 1983 [1966], p. 30)

The streetwise Jamaican woman is ‘coaxin/fambly budget from explode’, working side by side with, but refusing to be treated as a man, ensuring that she ‘gwan like pants-suit is a style’.

Bennett is also articulate on the subject of origins and roots, colonialism and identity, using the lively ironic and realistic tones in both ‘Back to Africa’ (1983 [1966]) and ‘Colonisation in Reverse’ (1983 [1966]). In ‘Back to Africa’ she talks to one of her characters, Miss Mattie, about seeking her African roots. She points out that ‘between yuh an de Africans / Is great resemblance’ because her grandmother's side is reputedly from Africa, but Jamaica is such a mixture of races and cultures that in her family tree she can count English, French and Jewish also. Recognise that your roots are Jamaican, she advises, and then you can travel but at least return to where you are really from after such periods away:

Back to Africa, Miss Mattie?
Yuh no Know what yuh dah seh?
Yuh haffi some from somewhere fus
Before yuh go back deh!

In ‘Colonisation in Reverse’ she jokes about the ironic reversal, the rush to travel to England caused by Independence and cheap flights. The simple-minded sounding narrator/persona focuses on gossip and stereotype as well as straightforward record and highlights the recognition that colonisation in reverse is a neat irony. Settling in England as motherland is an impetus driven by the desire to ‘get a big-time job / an settle in de motherlan’ while they will possibly end up on the dole. Even those who ‘doan like travel’ are intent on going just to show how they are loyal to the Empire, as if their travel were both to a promised land, and a gift to England. This highlights her ironic recognition that Jamaicans, who emigrate to many parts of the world (late nineteenth century to Panama, elsewhere in Central America, Haiti, Cuba, Africa, then USA/Canada and to the UK and Europe from the late 1940s), have not always been welcomed:

What a joyful news, Miss Mattie;
Ah feel like me heart gwine burs—
Jamaica people colonizin
Englan in reverse.
they ‘tun history upsid dung!’ intent
Fi immigrate an populat
De seat a de Empire

Bennett collected folklore work all over Jamaica, won a Black Caribbean scholarship to RADA, produced a Caribbean radio play for the BBC and became a drama specialist for the Jamaica Social Welfare Commission upon her return in 1955. Jamaica Labrish (1966) is her most famous collection, and her Selected Works came out in 1983.

Lloyd Brown notes in West Indian Poetry (1978) that her characters seem independent of the author's experience:

The woman's experience which so clearly dominates her work remains, paradoxically, unobtrusive rather than explicitly reiterated. No other West Indian writers had dealt at greater length with the West Indian woman. And in no other writer has the world of the Jamaican (and the West Indies as a whole) been presented almost exclusively through the eyes of women, especially the rural women and the poorer women of the city.

(Lloyd Brown, 1978, p. 30)


One of the most significant linguistic issues relating to Caribbean women's writing is the ability to use a number of overlapping tongues and the necessity to be understood outside of this society as well as within it to be accessible. Merle Collins comments:

Throughout the Caribbean, people are more familiar with local languages influenced in some cases by the South American Indian heritage, together with various African language structures and the dynamic development of working language.

(Collins, 1988, p. 19)

The language spoken in Jamaica is Standard English, but most Jamaicans speak Jamaican Creole, a Creole of English lexicon which everyone in the speech community understands. Because of the lexical relationship between Standard and Creole, Jamaicans identify as English speakers. However, there is another complication, the development of Rastafari, the socio-religious group which has produced adaptations through ‘Dread Talk’—a lexical expansion within the Creole system with some words said differently. This movement between different versions of language is called code-switching and it can be seen in Goodison's poem below, which moves between Jamaican Creole, Rastafari Dread Talk, and Standard English (the first eight and last five words being Standard English, ‘no feel now way’ Dread Talk, and so on):

Bless you with a benediction of green rain, no feel no way
its not that the land for the sea and the sun has failed,
is so rain stay.
You see man need rain for food to grow
so if is your tan, or my yam fi grow? is just so.
PS thanks for coming anyway.

(Goodison, 1986, p. 53)

Goodison has internalised the multilingual nature of the speech community. Mother tongue alone could be seen as quite exclusive because its speech community, i.e. the people who are able to communicate using it, might be harmonious in terms of lifestyle and feel the language really represents their lived experience but, as with practices of communication in other contexts and countries, to get on with and be understood by other communities in Jamaica, people must learn other registers and tongues.

Goodison is one of the best known influences in a mixture of the oral and the scribal (written) tradition. Her work concentrates on women's roles, thinking back through her mother, grandmother and other women in her ancestry, commenting on the passage between Africa and the West Indies, the slave trade, and women finding their identities, freedoms and dignity amid hardship. ‘Guinea Woman’ tells of her great-grandmother whose beauty, like an antelope, was hidden and denied, her name ‘covered’ by that of the plantation owner just as she was literally sexually covered by him. Her grace and royal heritage are deliberately rendered strange:

slender and tall like a cane stalk
with a guinea woman's antelope-quick walk
and when she paused
her gaze would look to sea
her profile fine like some obverse impression
on a guinea coin from royal memory

(Goodison, ‘Guinea Woman’, in Busby, 1992, p. 722)

She was denied her heritage, memory and her ways. They ‘called her uprisings rebellions’ but Lorna Goodison shows that the beauty and power of her roots are quietly returning through new generations. In this she celebrates the dark skinned heritage, the beauty of Black womanhood:

the high yellow brown
is darkening down.
Listen, children
it's great grandmother's turn.

(Goodison, ‘Guinea Woman’, in Busby, 1992, p. 722)

It is a story, a myth, a family tale.

‘Nanny’ was a powerful woman too, skilled in herbalism and healing, an Amazon with her breasts flattened, moving to the rhythms of the forest. Her sale to the traders was not loss but a gain. Her mission was to pass on the knowledge and the power, like a trained insurgent and spy, to change the lot of women. This celebratory poem recognises the magic in Black women's lives, re-tells from a positive viewpoint the control women have in passing on gifts and history even within slavery, their continuity power. They:

… sold me to the traders
all my weapons within me.
I was sent, tell that to history.
When your sorrow obscures the skies
other women like me will rise

(Goodison, ‘Nanny’, in Busby, 1992, p. 723)

Another poem tells of the meeting of her parents, and yet another of how she is turning into her mother (‘I am Becoming my Mother’, [1986]). Each celebrates the lineage of powerful women in the family sphere. ‘I am Becoming my Mother’ is cyclical, beginning and ending with ‘I am becoming my mother’, only the subtle colour shift of yellow/brown to brown/yellow emphasises the recuperation of the Black women through the developing family. Birth waters, cooking, caring and even the homeliness of onions make this a sensuous poem and link it with the issues of thinking back through one's mothers (see Alice Walker's In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens, 1983). Denise Decraires Nerain (1996) has argued that Goodison moves further from writing the body and écriture féminine as her three poetry collections develop, and comes to see herself as a poet speaking for people's sufferings. She aligns the continuities and healing powers she has celebrated in her mother, grandmother and other female ancestors with her own powers as a poet to heal and build with words:

I come only to apply words
to a sore and confused time

(Goodison, ‘Heartease’, 1988, p. 365)

Her use of ‘I’ is a testifying found in slave narratives and the fictions of Walker and Morrison. She also uses ‘we’, speaking for and as part of the voice of the people, as do Aboriginal women poets (Chapter 9):

The poet's carefully constructed poetic role of healer draws both on the kind of divining traditionally associated with women but also in the linguistic power of the Biblical Word and other patriarchal discourses.

(Decraires Nerain, 1996, p. 435)

In ‘My Father Always Promised Me’ (1986) Goodison talks about the power of the father to enable her to speak as a woman poet, negotiating her own voice within the space offered by the symbolic order of the father. In the later sequence she speaks for people, not just women, and as a healer for the community. Hers is a mystical role, both as a woman and as a Biblical figure, and the use of Biblical language also links her to Jean Breeze (see Breeze's Spring Cleaning, 1992).


Marlene Nourbese Philip was born in Tobago and lives in Canada. In her poem ‘Discourse on the Logic of Language’, ‘she tries her tongue, her silence softly speaks’ (1993 [1989]), she engages specifically with issues of a colonialised discourse and nation language which would enable her to express her roots. This discourse is itself about issues of poetic language, engaging with debates around the use of dialect, Creole, and various forms of English or Jamaican Creole spoken by ordinary people. Valerie Bloom in her performances teaches the audience how to speak Jamaican English, pointing out their lack and enfranchising them as she demonstrates the forms in which the poetry will be articulated so that they can share in the experience and ‘overstand’ more. Marlene Nourbese Philip talks about dismantling the colonial hold on hers and others' language, to ‘deuniversalize’ the whole of literature. In the Introduction to She Tries Her Tongue Her Silence Softly Breaks (1993 [1989]), referring to ‘Discourse on the Logic of Language’: ‘the poem is sculpted out of the colonial experience—exploitative of people, destructive of mother tongues …’:

‘Discourse …’
is my mother tongue.
A mother tongue is not
not a foreign lan lan lang
—a foreign anguish
I have no mother
no mother to tongue
no tongue to mother
to mother

(Nourbese Philip, ‘Discourse on the Logic of Language’, 1989, p. 24)

The explicit lack of mother tongue relates, for her, to the loss of a mother's love and yet there is a supposed mother tongue, English, itself a language imposed by imperialist powers, which causes anguish because of its distance from the lived and spoken experience around her.

It is difficult to overturn a language, including a literary language which colours the way you see the world, and reflects a cultural domination. The use of the word ‘Black’, for example, is derogatory in the English language. Historically, slave plantation owners ensured their slaves came from different language groups in order to prevent insurrection. The ability to discuss and argue could, it was thought, lead to political challenge so language, recognised as power, was thus effectively denied and confused for slaves. Recognising a mother tongue against the imposition of English, then, is a radical awareness and challenge. In the poem sequence ‘Universal Grammar’ Philip explores grammar rules which led to disenfranchising language speakers through restriction, splitting up the slaves. ‘Re-member’ suggests both memory, which is prevented, and the putting together of body parts into a whole person. Language control is power, and disablement. Language controls expression, hides brutalities such as rape and murder at the hands of the ‘tall, blond, blue-eyed, white-skinned man shooting’, a figure who appears in many of the poems in the sequence.

‘Adoption Bureau’ (1993) utilises the Western myth of Prosperpine and Ceres to investigate contemporary Caribbean locations and claim kinship: ‘she whom they call mother, I seek’. Ceres, searching the lands for her daughter, covers the many countries to which Caribbean people have emigrated. She gradually sees signs of her lost daughter, her girdle, and sings a birth song of the surf to her. In the series ‘Cyclamen Girls’ Philip explores truths and pains behind a photograph, ‘circa 1960’, of a Black girl in a white wedding dress, typically flowering young, pregnant too early, confirming contradictions in performing the roles that Black womanhood has assigned her:

with the lurking smell of early pregnancy
So there, circa 1960, she stands—
black and white in frozen fluidity
photograph of the cyclamen girl
                              caught between
blurred images of
                              massa and master


What Brathwaite terms an ‘explosion of grassroots artistic/intellectual activity’ (1977, p. 58) took over in the late 1960s and 1970s, producing a vibrant, politically engaged oral poetry called dub poetry, whose Jamaican exponents were Mutabaruka, Oku Onuora and Michael (Mikey) Smith, and in the UK, Linton Kwesi Johnson. Johnson wrote/spoke out against racism and charted violent responses from the Black community. His ‘Five Nights of Bleeding’ (1975) brings the Brixton riots (a reaction against institutionalised and everyday racism) to life. The Caribbean has both the scribal and the oral traditions and most poets move easily between them, but some, like the dub poets, and Louise Bennett the foremother of women's oral poetry, deliberately develop an oral tradition. Oral poetry is most often very accessible in tone, content, theme, rhyme and rhythm. It speaks about everyday things, hopes, fears, dreams, desires, fantasies and nightmares, popular cultural figures—writers, comic-book heroes and everyone's emotions—love, death etc. And it uses a speaking voice to do so.

Conventionally, there have been difficulties in finding critically analytical approaches to oral poetry. It is important to note that orality has been central in the development of Black writing in many different contexts, and issues of the translation of the oral into the written remain of concern wherever we read Black writing (South Africa, Chapter 7; Africa, Chapter 6; Australia, Chapter 9). A chief element among African, Aboriginal and Caribbean Black oral literature is the importance of the evocation of the particular lilt and linguistic everyday usage of the speech community, which has adapted English for its own expression in its own context. Poets who choose the oral tradition very often also publish in the written tradition, especially in the Caribbean context. To decide to write poetry out of the use of this spoken language using neither the possibly more formal language of books, nor the high-flown content of English literature, enables people to recognise the importance of their own worlds and language, their own identity and values. Oral literature in both novels or storytelling and, in this discussion, in poetry of performance, concentrates on the importance of the speaking voice, idiomatic expressions, the particular local brand of expression and interest, contextual setting and particular interests and problems. This writing is a close expression of the feelings and everyday speech of the people themselves rather than a literature distanced from them (possibly, especially in the Caribbean context, a literature of the colonisers which misses out their presence and context entirely), and it trusts the energy of what is written to communicate to the inner ear. Some types of oral poetry include voice portraits or monologues, political manifestos, satire, folk tale and calypso.

Brathwaite's The History of the Voice (1984) makes many useful critical comments about oral literature, and particularly oral poetry, as a way of exploring the personal local experiences of one's own culture in the Caribbean, and of finding the right words, rhythms and sounds to express these experiences. In his view, the development of oral literature into published and performed forms goes along with developing a voice and celebrating the Caribbean landscape and peoples:

What is even more important, as we develop this business of emergent language in the Caribbean, is the actual rhythm and the syllables, the very software, in a way, of the language. What English has given us as a model for poetry, and to a lesser extent prose … is the pentameter.

(Brathwaite, 1984, p. 9)

In the USA Walt Whitman tried to break or bridge the pentameter, Cummings to fragment it, and Marianne Moore attacked it with syllabics but it remained. The pentameter, an essentially traditional form, cannot capture the rhythms and energy of the Caribbean:

the hurricane does not roar in pentameters.

(Brathwaite, 1984, p. 10)

How do you get a rhythm which approximates the natural experience, the environmental experience?

(Anthony Hinkson, in Brathwaite, 1984, pp. 10/11)

Nation language, African influenced, informs Caribbean poetry:

It is national language in the Caribbean that, in fact, largely ignores the pentameter. Nation language is the language which is influenced very strongly by the African model …

(Brathwaite, 1984, p. 13)

It is an English not of the imported Standard but ‘of the submerged, surrealist experience and sensibility’ (Brathwaite, 1984, p. 13). It

can produce the sound of the wind or wave or machine gun or howl. [There is a] necessary connection to the understanding of nation language as between native musical structures and the native language.

(Brathwaite, 1984, p. 16)

It is a musical, oral form. Performance of the sound of the language enables a conveying of emotion and strength:

The poetry, the culture itself exists, not in a dictionary but in the tradition of the spoken word. It is based as much on sound as it is on song. The noise that it makes is part of the meaning, and if you ignore the noise (or what you would think of as noise …) then you lose part of the meaning. When it is written, you lose the sound or the noise, and therefore you lose part of the meaning.

(Brathwaite, 1984, p. 17)

To break down the pentameter, poets working in the oral tradition discovered the old form—the calypso. Calypso uses dactyls instead of iambic pentameter, making the tongue sound different syllabic and stress patterns. Other forms are the ‘Kaiso’ which has dips and interval patterns, and the ‘Kumina’ and other more religious or ritual forms. Music connections are important here, as is the theatre, for oral performance itself (several poets, including Mikey Smith and Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze, have drama training).

Sonia Sanchez, Miles Davies and Langston Hughes influence Afro-Caribbean performance poetry, Davies linking in with jazz rhythms. One early performance poet was Miss Queenie. Brathwaite talks of seeing her perform—using her whole face and encircling arms, gesturing to become water or spear, enacting events or elements. This poetry is both particular to the individual, and political in its intent and context. Brathwaite describes it as ‘organic, it is person centred, fluid/tidal rather than ideal/structured nature’ (‘Caribbean Peach’, p. 49):

the word becomes a pebble stone or a bomb and dub makes sense (or nonsense) of politics demanding of it life not death, community not aardvark, new world to make new words and we to ‘overstand’ how modern ancient is.

(Brathwaite, 1984, p. 50)

Coming from a political matrix, much performance poetry is a political or social statement. However, while poetry by many of the male poets, such as Mikey Smith and Linton Kwesi Johnson, concentrates on making political statements about inequality, racism and hypocrisy, women's poetry is more likely to be concerned with the social, with presenting relationships and individual personalities, and with reclaiming stereotypes. To do this they use ‘women's talk’:

Women's talk, traditionally well known in the Caribbean, has become the basis of important Creole literary originality from the Jamaicans Louise Bennett (Jamaica Labrish, 1966) and the Sistren theatre group, with Honor Ford Smith as writer.

(Savory, 1989, in Butcher, p. 34)

Ford-Smith speaks of the use by the Sistren Women's Theatre Collective of testimony and ‘labrish’ or gossip, casual conversation, techniques in play-making:

Oral elements woven into the texture of written work are so commonplace in Caribbean writing generally as to be a fundamental characteristic, born of the vitality and power of the speech and viewpoint of the ordinary folk, as against the colonially imposed and middle-class sustained conventions of elite language and behaviour. But in the case of Bennett, Sistren and Breeze we have a deliberate attempt to stay with the oral completely, and their work is in written form simply a transcription of something indeed for performance.

(Savory, 1989, in Butcher, pp. 34/5)

The work of Sistren, Louise Bennett and Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze needs to be perceived in relation to the cultural contexts and their work within women-orientated thoughts and practices. However, we might also wonder what other creative work is actually lost because such expression is seen as evidence of being disturbed. There ‘are still parents who burn their daughters' writings out of fear that they denote serious neurosis and will prevent them from fitting into society’ (Savory, 1989, in Butcher, p. 37).


Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze is often seen as having developed oral performance forms deriving from Louise Bennett. She lives and works in both the UK and the Caribbean and her roots are in the Rastafarian movement. She has appeared on television and sees her work politically, derived from her multiple experiences as a Black woman, single mother, in an extended family and wider community. Like Merle Collins, she uses music, song, mime and dance to produce electrifying performances. Her first collection was Riddym Ravings and Other Poems (1988). In ‘The Mad Woman's Poem’ women are oppressed by men, the landlord, the doctors. ‘Hustler Skank’ uses street talk, exposing arrogant male speakers. These are tightly controlled poems concentrating on recognising a woman's lot in life. Jean Breeze's poetry is powerful, vibrant, oral performance work capturing the rhythms of monologues and dialogues, the personal and the lived experiences of Caribbean people in the UK and back home.

Jean Breeze chooses to write and perform without the musical accompaniment of reggae or calypso etc., forms chosen by the male performance poets such as Linton Kwesi Johnson. Her choice is to re-create the lilt and rhythms, the individuality of the speech patterns and concerns of ordinary women faced with passing wisdom on to daughters, sharing lovers. Dramatising the lives of ordinary folk, Jean Breeze argues that her words are fluid, released from the mechanical rigidity of the beat and from the fixity of the page. She makes a distinction between the poet as maker and the poet as performer:

For not only are the works in motion, unbroken by the beat, but the poet/performer, uncontained by the boundaries of the book, speaks face to face with an immediate audience. In the act of performatic transference, the speaker gets across the closure of the printed page.

(Cooper, 1993, p. 82)

The performance is a privileged reading of the text. Breeze uses audio visual and kinetic power. You can't tell how wonderful it is going to be by just reading it on the page, ‘somewhat like a musical score, the poem pressed to the page encodes performance’ (Cooper, 1993, p. 82). Each performance is original, partly fired and inspired by audience engagement and response.

Jean Breeze's most famous poem is probably ‘Riddym Ravings: the Mad Woman's poem’ (Spring Cleaning, 1992). The persona, convincing and disturbing, is a pregnant country woman, psychotic, wandering the streets of Kingston Jamaica. In her distress she remembers rural Jamaica as positive and friendly, and meets only rejection in the city. This woman has been admitted to Bellevue Hospital many times, where she is operated on by the doctor, and she is oppressed in her house by the landlord, twin patriarchal tyrants. Her condition of madness is explicitly related to economic hardship throughout; not having enough to eat and sleeping on the streets. Breeze engenders the madwoman's despair with artistic control. She shows the proximity of madness and sanity, and the audience appreciate the dramatised suffering. The ‘dissonant pain’ (Morris, 1988, p. 69) of the madwoman's debased condition is dignified, undiminished by her fleeting moments of total lucidity. The radio DJ in her head keeps her ‘sane’, provides a sense of identity, comforting her in distress.

She tries to smile, but is ignored. She tries to eat even rejected rotten pork, but is shooed away, yelled at and finally hauled into the asylum again for electric shock ‘therapy’ to remove her ‘voices’ which she characterises as the ‘radio in me head’. To her confused sight, tired, hungry and sleeping on the streets, the streets themselves seem to ‘bubble and dally’ but the language ‘bubble and dally’ is ironically taken from the exploits of young men for whom to bubble is to be having a good time and to dally is to weave and bob on a motorbike (Cooper, 1993, p. 84). She is more associated with rotten pork and back lots, her life is certainly not carefree like theirs. What she really cares about is DJ music, which provides her with some kind of inner control and some kind of identity. After each treatment she goes back on the streets and defiantly puts the earplugs back in, thus reclaiming her madness and her own identity, her own inner voices. Their actions against her are seen as sinister, oppressive and patriarchal.

Watching Jean Breeze perform is riveting. Parts of the poem are chanted and parts spoken. Parts, including especially the chorus, are sung:

Eh, Eh,
no feel no way
town is a place dat ah really kean stay
dem kudda-ribbit me han
eh-ribbit mi toe
mi waan go country go look mango

(‘Riddym Ravings’, 1992, p. 19)

The chorus rhymes (eh, way, stay, toe, mango), and the lilt of her voice takes listeners/readers through a series of sad reflections and attempts at declaring self worth, until an emphatic end. After another seemingly successful operation she almost loses her voice and cries ‘pull up missa operator!’ They have made their final attempt to shut out her voices and her inner self. On stage, Jean Breeze enacts the wandering, singing and the electrifying experience of the removal and replacement of the earplugs.

Like Mikey Smith, Breeze uses the words and rhythms of children's play, adoptions of persona and the tones and speech of ordinary folk, each performance original. Mervyn Morris notes of performance poetry:

If the poem in print does, however minimally, alter with the specific context of its reception, the ‘performance poem’ is even more difficult to fix, dependent for its meanings on the variable interaction between text, performer, audience and occasion.

(Morris, 1988, p. 19)

The community listening get to know the works but don't get bored by this; it is like Anansi storytelling time. (Anansi or Anancy is a trickster tale about a spider but the term refers to telling legends, myths, fairytales, proverbs.)

Less able performance poets become dominated by the dub beat, sound taking over from sense. Often poetry-reading performance is occasioned by commemorative events like South African Liberation Day or the International Radical Book Fair. Stewart Brown in his essay ‘Dub poetry: Selling out?’ (1987) warns:

as dub poetry becomes a commercial product as its performers, like Benjamin Zephaniah or Mutabaruka or Ras Levi Tafari become media stars and strive to entertain a mass multicultural audience there seems to me to be real danger that the protest, the anger, the fire becomes an act while the image, the dub/rant/chant/dance become the real substance of the performance.

(Brown, 1987, p. 53)

There is, he suggests, a problem with transforming rage into entertainment. Jean Breeze responds to this in an essay in Marxism Today:

I'd rather we had only two or three artists in our community that represent what is finest and truest about ourselves than a host of poseurs who have been allowed to take on the title of artist simply because they are black. … I'm tired of people preaching to the converted and saying it's art.

(Breeze, 1988, p. 45)

A broad thematic and tonal range characterises the work of the sophisticated performance poet whose work is not all protest and fire, concentrating on making individualised statements rather than merely being carried away by the beat or the moment.

There is a difference, Mervyn Morris notes, between dub poetry and the higher quality performance poetry where there is often a sense of chant, of different voices, of the accompaniment of body language and emphases to make the poem dramatic and varied. What characterises good performance poetry is the conjunction of word and beat, of a sense and sound of attitude, movement and atmosphere, using tags from ring games and chants, folklore and legend, myth and ironic wit. Like other Caribbean women poets, for example Lorna Goodison, Jean Breeze articulates different Jamaican and English voices, and embodies different persona in her poems, moving between the values of city and countryside Jamaica, and the lives of those who live in the UK communities. So she will dramatise the ageing immigrant looking back on her arrival, the young girl sent to the UK from Jamaica by her mum, long settled in London. In this she brings a community of individuals to life.

Some of her work, like that of Mikey Smith, interweaves oral and scribal characteristics and sources so we can read as well as hear it, although the written dialect is often quite difficult to follow unless read aloud, and it is decidedly better to get hold of one of her published tapes and listen along with the written word:

as composed text, the performance poetry of Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze and Mikey Smith illustrates the sensitive deployment of a range of rhetorical styles of both Jamaican and English provenance. The pure orality of Jamaican folk poetics (both rural and urban, folk song and reggae) engages in constructive dialogue with the scribal conventions of English metrics—in which both poets have been schooled … the meta-dub script of these skilled actors allows them to fully demonstrate their command of a broad repertoire of theatre idioms. In performance the word, unbroken by the beat, speaks volumes.

(Cooper, ‘The Word Unbroken by the Beat’, 1990, p. 84)

Looking at the representation of women in performance poetry, Mervyn Morris notes that there are negative views—presenting women as pathetic and powerless. There is also a diablesse character, a femme fatale who haunts some of the poems. Women authors often foreground gender and Jean Breeze certainly does so in her poems about relationships. Her poem ‘Baby Madda’ was provoked by living in the Clarendon hills with the Rastafarians—she became a Rasta after being at the Jamaican School of Drama. In an interview with Jean Small she has described her life as a woman in Rasta traditions—avoiding anything that is to do with ‘Babylon’—money, consumerism, capitalism, entrepreneurism. The poem registers the pain and difficulties of being a woman—carrying and bearing children and then supporting them in growth, under patriarchy—and it registers that the baby's father has become an ‘African’ but also an oppressor because he has so little to do with the suffering and the support. In performance the satire is made more telling by the joyously affirmative rhythms of the Rastafarian drumming and the visual effect of a woman in open protest against her ‘king’.

The everyday experiential roots to Breeze's poetry are expressed through her conversational language and tone, the repetition of speech rhythms, and of ‘ah’ or I. When she reads and experiences she uses the more colloquial ‘ah’, and when she takes on a poet's voice, finding her voice in her writing she uses ‘I’, so indicating a slightly more distanced and formal stance.

Many other of her poems are about people meeting in the street, chatting to each other in the market, women giving each other advice, mother to daughter, friend to friend, bewailing the behaviour of men and advising cunning. Woman's lot is a constant theme and often she interweaves the biblical with the everyday, so that in ‘Spring Cleaning’, the title poem to the collection Spring Cleaning (1992), she interweaves parts of the 23rd psalm with housework, the two intertwining, showing the woman as a godlike figure but humble, coping, cleaning, one thought and action following on from the next:

surely goodness an mercy

shall follow me

she pick up de broom

an she sweeping

all de days of my life

an she sweeping

an I will dwell

in de house of de Lord

she sweeping out



The poem does not end with ‘amen’ because the work keeps going, but the woman has a caring control.

‘Red Rebel Song’ (1992) is a powerful performance piece and also highly literary in its references. Jean Breeze engages loudly and violently with the negative representations of Black women through history and through contemporary media, speaking out for her own identity and the individuality and power of herself and other Black women. ‘Is lang time’ repeats—and emphasises—how there have been centuries of abuse and silencing, of mythologising and of marginalising. She principally wants to escape from and deny the abuse resulting from racial oppression based on difference:

is lang time I waan
free Iself
from de white black question

(Breeze, ‘Red Rebel Song’, 1992, p. 2)

Sexual abuse is criticised—that meted out both to women slaves, who were felt to be the property of their Black masters, and to those who are taken to represent Otherness, sexuality. Traditionally, under colonialism and slavery, Western men transferred their lusts and hang-ups about sex onto Black women, otherising, iconising, then abusing them so that Black women are seen as objects of lust, not individuals. This patriarchal transfer of libidinous energy onto another means that the Other is both viewed by a voyeur positioning her as an object for a male gaze, and then criticised for causing the lustful response in the first place. In this poem, referencing Jean Rhys's novel, she crosses ‘a Sargasso sea’ to get rid of and deny lust, and the reification:

is years
of ungluing Iself
from de fabric of lust
dat have I
in a pin-up glare

(Breeze, ‘Red Rebel Song’, 1992, p. 2)

She considers the role of the slave woman, whose blues song is forced to stay in her head unheard while the talentless white woman, her mistress, practises the piano. Her position is ‘in-between’. She sees herself as neither historical figure, the white mistress or the black cook:

my song lock up tight
eena mi troat

If she ever voiced her own song, she says, mountains would split open:

sitting on a timb bomb
an I kyan get angry
fah yuh would see
mountain quake

She runs through complex political problems which still keep Black people in poverty, and which politicians seem unable to solve:

delegation after delegation
an still kyan solve
a likkle irrigation

She calls to others to join her, to cross and straddle the space between, to be strong in their straddling of at least two cultures, although critically defined as a ‘painted halfbreed centrespread’.

This diasporan position—in two cultures at least—can give broad insights and strength, because being part of both cultures:

I nah
          tek no abuse fram eida direction

For a grand overall mother figure, compromise is not possible. She seizes her own sexuality and calls others to join her in organising change based on their common position. Belonging to two worlds at least is a strength not a weakness. This she bases on historical and literary as well as personal political awareness.

The ‘Sargasso Sea’ to which she refers, separating the Caribbean from the UK, reminds us of Jean Rhys's novel, which exposes the historical treatment of Black or mixed-race women as sexualised Other, and as mad. Jean Breeze's poem might be in dialect—nation language in fact, a mixture of Dread Talk and Jamaican English, in order to express the feelings of a Caribbean woman, but it also has complex subtle literary echoes. She mixes the referencing and intertextuality common in post-modern works with a poem in nation language, rejecting the role of madwoman in the attic, happy in her own madness in rebellion, rejecting the derogatory element of that label, seizing the madness as celebratory, aiding identity. She says:

I is de red rebel
accepting I madness
declaring I song
nah siddung eena attic
tek no fire bun

Bertha Mason jumps to her death in Jane Eyre amid a conflagration, Annette/Bertha, in Jean Rhys's novel, also jumps into the fire. The Rhys novel gives the Creole woman a voice. Breeze's poem takes up where Rhys's novel leaves off, seizing voice and power for the Black woman, the red rebel.

In terms of the strength and sound of the poem, she sings her own song, taking the ‘song it loud / sing it long’ from popular song writing, Bridge over Troubled Water, from the Bible and Simon and Garfunkel's song of the 1960s. There is a repetition and an emphasis on ‘I’, asserting identity so that she is the beginning and end of her own rainbow and song at the close of the poem. This is a powerful, engaged, repetitive poem. It takes from historical, literary, mythical and contemporary culture, placed in the voice of an ordinary woman, who is a red rebel—who has had enough and calls for action. Jean Breeze's oral performance poetry can be read, for example, noting the intertextual references and the arguments, as well as responded to in terms of the dramatisation of the character, the movement of the body in anger and love, and the rhythm of language in word and song. Hers is a poetry which explores individuals' lives, feelings and loves, on sexual politics, rather than concentrating on the more public politics found in Johnson and Smith.

Through their oral and written poetry and novels the women of the Caribbean critique both sexism and the racist legacies of colonialism, representing powerful, lively individualistic women, in their own varied language.

Works Cited

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Further Reading

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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.

An overview of postcolonialism critical theory and literature as applied to Canadian writing.

Brantlinger, Patrick. “A Postindustrial Prelude to Postcolonialism: John Ruskin, William Morris, and Gandhism.” Critical Inquiry 22, No. 3 (Spring 1996): 466-85.

Discussion of the interchange between late-Victorian socialism and emergent Indian nationalism in the writing of John Ruskin and William Morris, as well as the Indian response to their theories.

Howells, Coral Ann, and Lynette Hunter. Narrative Strategies in Canadian Literature: Feminism and Postcolonialism. Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1991, 141 p.

Critical essays on Canadian postmodern writing, tracing parallel strands of colonial and women's writing in Canada.

Irvine, Dean J. “Fables of the Plague Years: Postcolonialism, Postmodernism, and Magic Realism in Cien ańos de soledad.Ariel 29, No. 4 (October 1998): 53-80.

A review of Gabriel García Márquez's novel in the context of postcolonialism.

Singh, Amritjit, and Peter Schmidt. Postcolonial Theory and the United States: Race, Ethnicity, and Literature. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000, 465 p.

Essays focusing on an interpretation of American literature and cultural history in the context of postcolonialism and globalization.

Wisker, Gina. Post-Colonial and African Women's Writing: A Critical Introduction. New York: St Martin's, 371 p.

A collection of essays on postcolonial and African-American women writers from various nations, including a critical introduction to postcolonial theory.

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Essays and Criticism