What is postcolonial, anyway? (AKA: What am I doing help help)


Here, take an umbrella. Pass the rest down the line.

Ready? Good. HERE WE GO.

One of the biggest problems I faced when I was trying to pull together a reading list for my BA was trying to define postcolonialism. It seems ridiculously simple on the face of it. Stuff that happens after colonialism. I thought that, too, but it turns out that I’m totally wrong. (Well okay maybe not totally but wrong enough that there is like a reason for this blog post which is really just me standing in the middle of a bunch of literary theory and wikipedia articles and being so confused you guys.)

It turns out, there’s very little consensus about what postcolonialism (as a movement or field of study, even) actually is. I’m always a fan of reading the Wikipedia page for something before I start doing research in databases and libraries, but if you read the definition of postcolonialism on Wikipedia, you’ll notice that there are no citations.

Hey. Wikipedia. Not helpful.

However, it seemed to me that when people around me talked about postcolonialism, they talked about a very specific kind of project – a project of national identity separate from that of the imperial powers.

It didn’t seem too difficult to imagine that there would be literature that invoked ideas that were thematically similar to what I thought was probably postcolonialism.

Granted, there were fewer works of SFF that I could call postcolonial than I would have wanted, but I figured that might be the case. Part of what makes postcolonialism compelling for writers, is, I think, the fact that they can discuss something that has deeply affected their own lives, or the lives of their families. It’s probably easier to set those kinds of stories in the real world, contemporary or historical, and try to hash out those issues without interfering aliens or whatever. The other reason I wasn’t surprised was that I felt like SFF is still a fairly Western genre. I love this influx of writers of other nationalities and cultures that’s been growing steadily since… well, since I was old enough to notice. So like 15. So like 5 years? YOU KNOW.

So I guess the question I had to address before I started to pull books out of the library willy-nilly was how I was going to define postcolonial for the purposes of the BA. And then I was thinking, is postcolonialism ultimately a question of setting, or is it a question of theme? Because, you know, a lot of the literature I ran into seemed to be concerned with either setting or themes.

Okay okay this is kind of messy to explain without examples so let’s look at what I’ve been reading.

As I mentioned before, I’m reading a lot of Nalo Hopkinson. The first book of hers I read was Brown Girl in the Ring.

Brown Girl in the Ring takes place in New Toronto, which is basically the picture of urban decay and gang violence. There were a couple of really exciting moments for me, where I sat up and went “AHA! I HAVE YOU NOW, THESIS!” Both of these moments were moments of language being coded as a part of identity performance.

1. Ti-Jeanne, protagonist and woman of Caribbean descent, mentions that her former lover, Tony, is closer to the Caribbean because he can speak Creole. In fact, he learned both English and Creole from his parents, and Ti-Jeanne is mildly jealous of his knowledge.

2. Ti-Jeanne’s grandmother switches from her Creole-flavored English to Standard English when she speaks to a group of street children (who are not of Caribbean descent). This was a great moment for me, because Ti-Jeanne’s grandmother doesn’t switch out of her patois when she’s confronted with people who are more intimidating, or potentially more “powerful” in society. A lot of those people are also Caribbean. It’s only when the people she’s dealing with are not Caribbean that she adopts SE.

So, I don’t know if Brown Girl in the Ring is a book that has a postcolonial setting, even if it’s in Canada. North America is a strange phenomenon, in terms of colonization… I don’t think the patterns of oppression and prejudice necessarily fit in with what people generally talk about as colonial. Maybe I’m mistaken about that, but what really stuck in my head as postcolonial about this book was the fact that it addressed the identity problem and it did it through language.

I guess the contrast to this would be Midnight Robber.

Midnight Robber takes place on a planet that’s been colonized by people of Caribbean descent. Well. I guess there are two planets. There’s Halfway Tree, which is a prison planet not unlike a galactic Australia, and Toussaint, the “civilized” planet where all the not-criminals chill and drink space tea and stuff.

I admit I’ve gotten maybe 10 pages into Midnight Robber. I blame the fact that all my friends came out with books in the months I was in France and I had to buy them all and read them all once I got back.

Still, from what I’ve seen, this book has much more of a postcolonial setting than the other. Since the colonizers are all from the Caribbean, it’s almost like we get double postcolonialism. TWO POSTCOLONIALISMS FOR THE PRICE OF ONE. I’ll be interested to see if identity has the same markers in this book, or if there will be significant changes in the way people react to/identify with their Caribbean descent. This book also has the further-complication that I was talking about earlier, the fact that it’s an other-world book. It doesn’t happen on a world that we can recognize at all. I wonder if that will make the need to identify, to speak a common language, to feel a connection to “home,” stronger. Or weaker.

2 thoughts on “What is postcolonial, anyway? (AKA: What am I doing help help)

  1. I know you posted this a month ago but in my endevors to find other postcolonial blogs I came across this. I am currently about to start my graduate degree in English with a focus on cultural studies and postcolonial literature and theory. Postcolonial literature is any literature–ie. poetry, play, novel–that deals with living in a postcolonial world if you are interested in defining what postcolonial deals with. Bill Ashcroft in his book Post-Colonial Studies: The Key Concepts, which I believe is available on Nook? It is also available through Amazon where you might be able to find it for real cheap. There you will find info on research as well as definitions of key concepts in pc studies. I just started a blog for my reasearch on postcolonial for my one class on pc. The link is http://post-colonial-scholar.blogspot.com/. Check it out I’d be glad to have a follower. Check out Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart which is a response from an African writer to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. If your’re interested in Scifi Neuromancer by William Gibson is a unique take on colonization but it’s very subtle–Rastafarians are included pretty cool? Homi Bhabha is an excellent theorist on all things postcolonial. AND one more author you might find intersting is Salman Rushdie–Midnight’s Children is my all time favorite novel! Hope this isn’t too overwhelming, and I know I kind of just threw some of this stuff at you. Postcolonial studies is a rather new area in English studies, but I am thrilled to help you with any questions you might have!

    1. Hi Sean! Thanks for replying. I appreciate the suggestions, too! I’ve looked into a lot of the books you’ve mentioned, actually, but I think they are not exactly what I’m looking for in terms of my BA thesis. I’ll add them to my reading list, though, which is ever-expanding and never-conquered because, you know. School is a time suck. I’ll check out your blog, too, and good luck with your studies! 🙂

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