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Historical Context

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Post-World War II Britain’s loss of empire in the wake of World War II is arguably the single largest defining factor in the shaping of world politics in the last fifty years. Between 1945 and 1985, Britain lost almost all of its fifty formal dependencies in Africa, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, the Pacific, South- East Asia, and the Far East and withdrew from a number of countries in the Persian Gulf over which it exerted considerable influence. In the preceding three centuries, Britain had colonized numerous countries and lands, while competing for resources and markets with Holland, Spain, and France, each of which had its own colonies and territories. In the seventeenth century, Britain had gained control over the eastern coast of North America, eastern Canada, the Caribbean Islands, and parts of Africa, which it used to acquire slaves, and had developed markets in India. The colonization of Ireland was also undertaken in earnest during this century. After the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, Britain became the leading industrial power in Europe, whose world economic strength was supported by its superior military, especially its navy.

During the nineteenth century, the British Empire tottered. The abolition of slavery by Britain and its empire in the early part of the century and the emphasis on free trade created an unfavorable economic climate for Britain, and its dependencies became more and more of a burden to manage. However, Britain also viewed its imperialistic expansion as a moral responsibility, using Darwin’s theories of evolution as a rationale for exerting greater control over India, Africa, and China. British writer Rudyard Kipling referred to this responsibility as “the white man’s burden,” meaning that it was the God-given duty of the British to civilize and Christianize people who were obviously incapable of governing themselves.

The sheer size of Britain’s empire contributed to its downfall, as it simply did not have the resources— militarily, economically, or morally—to stem the rise of nationalist movements in its territories. After World War I, the size of the British Empire expanded even farther to include territories “won” from Germany and Turkey during the war, such as Egypt, for whom they became the “trustee.” In 1931, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the Irish Free State formed the “Commonwealth of Nations,” which backed Britain during World War II. After World War II, nationalist movements succeeded in ousting European colonizers from their countries. Numerous countries won independence from Britain, including India and Pakistan (1947), Ireland (1949), Egypt (1951), Kenya (1963), and numerous others. French colonies such as Chad, Benin, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Madagascar, Central African Republic, Mali, Niger, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Togo, Zaire, Somalia, Congo, Gabon, and Cameroon also declared independence in 1960, and Mozambique and Angola declared their independence from Portugal in 1975. Britain, however, is not ready to cede all of its territories, as evidenced by their battle for the Falkland Islands, a group of islands in the south Atlantic about three hundred miles east of the Argentinean coast. Although Argentina has claimed the islands since the early 1900s, Britain has occupied and administered the islands since 1833, rejecting Argentina’s claims. In 1982, the two countries went to war over the Falklands, which has a total population of about 2,000 people. Britain used its superior naval power to defeat Argentina, but not before Argentina lost 655 men and Britain 236.

In the last decade, another colonial empire has crumbled, this one more rapidly than the British Empire. Former Russian colonies, once a part of the United Soviet Socialists Republic, declared their independence from Russia. In 1990, the Congress of Deputies...

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of Russia adopted the Declaration of Independence, and in 1991, Moldavia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Belarus, Uzbekistan Armenia, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan declared independence but joined the Commonwealth of Independent States, a federation created to share resources and to interact on the basis of sovereign equality. Because of the lack of translations and the heavy censorship inside the U.S.S.R., which existed for years, little academic work has been done on the literature from these emerging countries.

Literary Style

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Point of View Point of view refers to the eyes and sensibility through which a story is told or information is presented. Postcolonial literature challenges status quo Western points of view through using narrators who represent previously silenced or oppressed people. Since much literature from colonized countries was written from the colonizers’—usually male—point of view, it’s not surprising that much postcolonial literature employs narrators who themselves are doubly oppressed, being both colonized by “outsiders” and being women. Silko, Danticat, Boland, and numerous other postcolonial writers express the particular difficulties women from colonized countries face, as they battle patriarchal attitudes and institutions of their oppressors as well as from their own people.

Narration Narration refers to how a series of events is told. The mode of narration is deeply intertwined with an author’s style and subject matter. Some postcolonial novels are narrated in a relatively straightforward manner in which events are recounted chronologically. However, many postcolonial works adopt a postmodern approach to storytelling. Postmodern narration, in this sense, refers to the use of different points of view, multiple narrators, and blending of styles and genres to describe events and action. Rushdie employs a kind of postmodern narration in Midnight’s Children, as does Danticat in Breath, Eyes, Memory and Silko in Ceremony. Critics often use “Postmodernism” to refer to literature and art produced after World War II that take literary techniques to an extreme. Heavily affected by the brutality of Nazi atrocities during the war and the specter of nuclear holocaust, much postmodern literature shows an extreme pessimism of the human condition. With its hyper self-reflexivity, its often fractured and disjointed relaying of action, and its play on language, postmodern narration makes sense for postcolonial writers, many of whom are attempting to subvert colonial representations of their world and traditions.

Setting Setting refers to time, place, and culture in which the action of a story takes place. Features include geographic location, characters’ physical and mental environments, cultural attitudes, or the historical time of the action. The setting for postcolonial literature varies from country to country, writer to writer, although a good many of the novels are set after the countries have declared their independence from Great Britain. Kincaid’s A Small Place, for example, chronicles life after Antigua won the right to self-governance, and Coetzee’s Disgrace is set in a post-apartheid South Africa, when the power relations between whites and blacks are shifting.

Movement Variations

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Literary Theory Postcolonial theorists critically study both colonial texts and texts written after colonialism. One of the primary reasons postcolonial literature has become as popular as it has is due in large part to theorists such as Said, Spivak, Fanon, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Homi Bhabha, and others, who explain the significance of the literature in relation to history, politics, philosophy, and literary traditions and discuss its place in contemporary society. Many of these theorists and critics are themselves from postcolonial countries and so speak with the authority of experience. Said, for example, is Palestinian; Spivak is from Calcutta, India; Fanon is from Martinique, a French colony. In challenging how writers and others have represented colonial subjects, these theorists seek to empower themselves and the literary projects of postcolonialists in their attempts to reshape perceptions and thinking about formerly colonized people and countries. The emergence of postcolonial studies as a field of academic inquiry and the popularity of postcolonial literature in the last thirty years or so is due in no small part to these theorists. The institutionalization of postcolonial studies has also come about at the same historical moment as poststructuralist theory, which challenges fundamental assumptions as to the nature of human identity, history, language, and truth itself.

Film As countries gained their independence from colonial powers, filmmakers sought to describe the experience of the new countries and the changes wrought by independence upon individuals and their respective states. Deepa Mehta, for example, a Canadian-based Indian director, challenges Indian traditions in films such as Fire, Earth, and Water, (1996–2000), which seek to de-mystify the exoticism of India for foreigners and to interrogate the politics of sexuality in pre- and postcolonial India. Another well-known Indian director, Mira Nair, gained an international reputation with her film Salaam, Bombay! (1988), which documents the poverty and hopelessness of Bombay street children. Since then, Nair has directed films exploring racial tensions between immigrants and minorities in the United States. In films such as Mississippi Masala (1991) and The Perez Family (1993), Nair shows the hopes and aspirations of people from postcolonial countries and what becomes of them when they encounter a different kind of oppression in the country they believed would provide them with new lives. Another Indian director, Shyam Benegal, made films depicting the feudal, colonial, and patriarchal structures undergirding Indian society. For example, his 1996 film, Making of the Mahatma, describes the British colonial domain in South Africa, emphasizing the formative development of Gandhi. Other directors who explicitly address postcolonial themes in their films include Farida Ben Lyazid, Ken Loach, Deepa Mehta, Ketan Mehta, Mira Nair, Peter Ormrod, Horace Ove, Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, and Ousmane Sembene.

Music When colonizers have ruled a country for long periods of time, it is inevitable that their influence would manifest itself in the art and music of the colonized peoples. The hybrid culture of colonies often integrates both native material and material of the occupying forces. Because much of this music transcends national borders and cultural boundaries, it is often referred to as “World Music.” In The Study of Ethnomusicology: Twenty-nine Issues and Concepts, Bruno Nettl lists three motivating behaviors expressed in the music of postcolonial non- Western countries: the first is “the desire to leave traditional culture intact, survival without change”; the second is “simple incorporation of a society into the Western cultural system”; and the third is “the adoption and adaptation of . . . products of Western culture . . . with an insistence that the core of cultural values will not change greatly and does not match those of the West.” Examples of postcolonial music exhibiting cultural hybridity include Aboriginal pop music groups of the 1970s such as Yothu- Yindi, which combined elements of popular music and tribal ritual songs. In Ethnicity, Identity and Music: The Musical Construction of Place, Martin Stokes, who writes this kind of music, shows the “restructuring of song texts by incorporating a mixture of ritual symbolism and concern with colonial hegemony.” An example of a hybrid musical form that reflects the migration of peoples across national borders is Indian Ravi Shankar’s blending of classical Indian music with Western sounds. Shankar became an international celebrity when he began performing with the Beatles’ George Harrison in the 1960s. One album, called Soundz of the Asian Underground, features ambient music and hip hop songs played by Asian musicians with instruments native to their own culture.

Compare and Contrast

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1940s–1960s: Numerous European colonies in Africa gain their independence including Egypt, Sudan, Tunisia, Morocco, Ghana, Guinea, Chad, Benin, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Madagascar, Central African Republic, Mali, Niger, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Togo, Zaire, Somalia, Congo, Gabon, Cameroon, Sierra Leone, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, and Gambia.

Today: Although these countries have declared their political independence from European powers, many of them are still virtually economic colonies of Western powers such as the United States. The Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC), for example, derives almost 14 percent of its production from Nigeria, which is dependent on oil for 80 percent of government revenue. However, Nigeria’s dependence on Western money for its oil has also contributed to corruption, environmental degradation, and social unrest from tribes such as the Ogoni, who claim Shell’s operations are polluting their land.

1940s–1960s: Numerous colonies in Asia and the Middle East gain their independence, including Yemen, Malaysia, Myanmar, India, Pakistan, Kuwait, Israel, and Jordan.

Today: Many of these countries continue to feud over land. India and Pakistan, for example, fight over the ownership of the Kashmir region, and the Palestinian people remain locked in a bloody battle with Israel for their own state.

1940s–1960s: Numerous colonies in the Caribbean, Central America, and the South Atlantic gain their independence though remain a part of the British Commonwealth, including Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica, Antigua, and Trinidad & Tobago.

Today: Many of these countries, such as Barbados and Jamaica, have become tourist destinations for Europeans and Americans, although the majority of the native populations live in poverty.

Representative Works

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Breath, Eyes, Memory In her 1994 novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, Haitian-born Edwidge Danticat examines themes of migration, gender, sexuality, and history, common themes of postcolonial literature. The novel follows the exploits of Sophie in her battles to carve an identity out of disparate languages and cultures, such as Creole, French, and English and to adapt to American ways in the Haitian diaspora after she arrives in Brooklyn, New York. Danticat’s emphasis on women’s experience makes her a leading younger voice of postcolonial feminism. Breath, Eyes, Memory was an Oprah Book Club selection and helped Danticat to be named one of the Best Young American Novelists by Granta magazine in 1996.

Ceremony Leslie Marmon Silko’s 1977 novel, Ceremony, is widely considered to be one of the most important works of Native-American literature written. Silko’s novel celebrates the traditions and myths of the Laguna Pueblo people while examining the influence of white contact on Pueblo storytelling. As a people who continue to live under a form of colonial rule (i.e., the United States) yet who have achieved a degree of autonomy, Native Americans occupy a special place in postcolonial discourse.

Decolonizing the Mind Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s 1986 book is part memoir, part treatise, describing the storytelling traditions of his people and the ways in which the British colonial educational system attempted to eradicate Gikuyu language and culture, effectively colonizing the mind of native Kenyans. Ngugi writes: “I believe that my writing in Gikuyu . . . an African language, is part and parcel of the anti-imperialist struggles of Kenyan and African peoples.”

Disgrace J. M. Coetzee’s 1999 novel, Disgrace, is set in Cape Town, South Africa, and explores the themes of racial justice, crime, revenge, and land rights in post-apartheid South Africa. Apartheid refers to the 317 laws enacted by Dr. D. F. Malan’s nationalist party in the late 1940s and early 1950s. These laws legally strengthened already existing racial segregation and economic, political, and social domination by whites. The plot’s action revolves around David Lurie, a divorced white university professor expelled from his school for sexual harassment. Shortly after Lurie moves to his lesbian daughter Lucy’s country farm, local blacks rape her. The story concerns Lurie’s response to that incident. Coetzee received his second Booker Prize for the novel.

The English Patient Michael Ondaatje’s 1992 novel, The English Patient, explores many of the primary themes of postcolonial discourse including the intersections between individual and national identity and how the dialogue between the two shape consciousness. The novel is set in a villa in Florence and follows the lives of a young woman and three men, all from different countries, as they revolve around the badly burned English patient who lies dying in an upstairs room. The novel was adapted into an internationally acclaimed film in 1996.

The House of the Spirits Isabelle Allende’s first novel, The House of Spirits, published in 1982, tells the history of Chile through female characters. As in many postcolonial novels, Allende stakes out the margins, here represented by women, to critique the center, represented as established patriarchal power. In retelling Chile’s history from the position of a historically oppressed group, Allende exposes the immorality and cruelty at the heart of the colonizing authorities. In doing so, she reclaims not only the history of her country but her own personal history as well, as she refuses to play the part of victim any longer.

Midnight’s Children Salman Rushdie’s 1981 Booker Awardwinning novel weaves his personal history into the history of India, using a narrator, Saleem Sinai, who was born in 1947, the year of Rushdie’s birth and India’s independence. Rushdie employs a number of narrative devices, including Hindu story telling, Magic Realism, and a style analogous to the “Bombay talkie,” a type of Indian film, to underscore how difficult it is to write history and to show the many opportunities that independence offered the country, many of which have been squandered. Midnight’s Children secured Rushdie’s reputation as a writer of international stature, but Rushdie also offended many Indians for depicting Indira Gandhi, the prime minister of India, as a tyrant. Rushdie revised the novel and apologized. His 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses, brought Rushdie even more trouble, as Muslim fundamentalists considered the novel blasphemous of Islam and the prophet Mohammad. The Indian government banned the book, mass protests against it sprung up around the world, and Ayatollah Khomeini, the spiritual leader of the Iranian revolution, issued a fatwa, a judicial decree sentencing Rushdie to death.

Outside History: Selected Poems, 1980–1990 In her 1990 poetry collection, Outside History: Selected Poems, 1980–1990, Eavan Boland challenges the poetic traditions of England and Ireland, suggesting that Irish women have been doubly oppressed: once by their position as a colony of England and second by their gender. Boland tackles the difficult task of rewriting history so as to give Irish women a voice and a place in the poetic traditions of her own country. Her poetry, though frequently addressing experiences that many women share, alludes to Irish poetic tradition and mythology.

Rose Li-Young Lee’s first collection of poems, Rose, published in 1986, provides a glimpse into the consciousness of the Chinese diaspora. Lee, whose parents emigrated from China to Indonesia and then with their family to America, was born in Jakarta. His poems, though deeply personal and full of family history, show the devastating emotional and psychological effects that forced emigration has on both families and individuals. The atmosphere of “silence” in Lee’s poems illustrates the writer’s own shame in his inability to speak the language of his new country.

A Small Place In her 1988 book, A Small Place, Jamaica Kincaid draws on her personal experience of growing up on the British island colony of Antigua to express her contempt for the ways in which British colonialism had destroyed her country. In particular, she focuses on the British educational system and how it attempted to turn Antiguans into English. Kincaid also reserves blame for Antiguans themselves, in their willingness to adopt the worst of British culture and ignore the best. She describes the country both before and after independence, suggesting that in some ways the country has been worse off since it became self-governing.

Things Fall Apart Chinua Achebe’s 1958 novel, Things Fall Apart, is set in Africa at the turn of the twentieth century and explores the interaction between traditional African society and British colonialism. The protagonist, Okonkwo, a member of the Ibo tribe, struggles to understand and adjust to the changes brought by British control and Christianity. More than eight million copies of the novel have been sold worldwide, and it has been translated into more than fifty languages. Things Fall Apart is also regularly included on syllabi in literature, history, and philosophy classes. In 1959, Achebe was awarded the Margaret Wrong Memorial Prize for the novel. Achebe’s 1987 novel, Anthills of the Savannah, examines the post-independence condition of a fictional West African country, showing how the legacies of colonialism continue to undermine the possibility for the country to unite.

Media Adaptations

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British director Isaac Julien’s adapted Algerian revolutionary Frantz Fanon’s classic text, Black Skin, White Mask, into a film of the same name in 1996. It has been released by California Newsreel. The film features interviews with family members and friends, documentary footage, readings from Fanon’s work, and dramatizations of crucial moments in Fanon’s life.

Michael Ondaatje’s novel, The English Patient, was adapted into a film in 1996, directed by Anthony Minghella. It was winner of nine Oscars, including best picture.

Director Mira Nair’s film Mississippi Masala (1991), explores the racial tensions between immigrant Indians from Uganda and resident African-Americans in the South. Nair’s film The Perez Family (1993), follows the lives of Cuban refugees who came to the United States in the Mariel boatlift of 1980.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Achebe, Chinua, Things Fall Apart, William Heinemann, 1958.

Allende, Isabelle, The House of the Spirits, Bantam Books, 1986.

Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, eds., The Empire Writes Back, Routledge Kegan & Paul, 1990.

—, eds., The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, Routledge, 1995.

Bhabha, Homi K., The Location of Culture, Routledge, 1994.

—, ed., Nation and Narration, Routledge, 1990.

Boland, Eavan, Outside History: Selected Poems, 1980– 1990, Norton, 1990.

Coetzee, J. M., Disgrace, Viking Penguin, 1999.

—, Waiting for the Barbarians, Penguin Books, 1982.

Fanon, Frantz, Black Skin, White Masks, Grove, 1967.

—, The Wretched of the Earth, Grove Press, 1967.

Harasym, Sarah, ed., The Post-Colonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues, Routledge, 1990, pp. 67–74.

Howe, Irving, “A Stark Political Fable of South Africa,” in the New York Times, April 18, 1982, Sec. 7, p. 1.

Lee, Li-Young, Rose, BOA Editions, 1986.

Leitch, Vincent B., ed., The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, W. W. Norton, 2001, pp. 1–28.

Nettl, Bruno, The Study of Ethnomusicology: Twenty-Nine Issues and Concepts, University of Illinois Press, 1983, pp. 147–50.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, Heinemann, 1986.

Ondaatje, Michael, The English Patient, Knopf, 1992.

Said, Edward, Orientalism, Vintage Books, 1978.

Spivak, Gyatri Chakravorty, A Critique of Post-Colonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present, Harvard University Press, 1999.

Stokes, Martin, ed., Ethnicity, Identity and Music: The Musical Construction of Place, Oxford, 1994, p. 147.

Further Reading Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, eds., The Empire Writes Back, Routledge, 1990. This accessible study surveys new writing in cultures as diverse as India, Australia, the West Indies, Africa, and Canada and details many of the debates that animate postcolonial discourse.

—, eds., The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, Routledge, 1995. This anthology provides the most comprehensive selection of texts in postcolonial theory and criticism to date, featuring ninety of the discipline’s most widely read works. All the well-known theorists such as Said, Spivak, and Homi Bhaba are represented as well, and their essays have been edited for clarity and accessibility.

Fanon, Frantz, Black Skin, White Masks, Grove, 1967. Fanon leans heavily on his personal experience in this book to show how his intellectual and emotional world, as well as his country, has been colonized by the French.

Said, Edward, Orientalism, Vintage Books, 1978. Said’s study of how the West has historically represented the Arab world ranks as one of the most important works of postcolonial theory.

Thieme, John, ed., Post-Colonial Literatures, Arnold, 1996. This anthology offers writing from more than two hundred writers and is the most comprehensive selection of anglophone postcolonial writing ever published in one volume. Thieme organizes the sections according to regions including Africa, Australia, Canada, Caribbean, New Zealand and South Pacific, South Asia, South-East Asia, and Trans-Cultural Writing. Thieme also provides a useful introduction explaining his text choices and strategy of organization.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide