Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Dreamer Idiot Tackles Postcolonialism

One of the most exciting things about this blog is that very often when I post something up, readers drop by to debate a point or add a comment and suddenly there's a dialogue going on from which I learn so much.

The other day I was totally gobsmacked to receive a long and very eloquent e-mail from dreamer idiot who picked up a dismissive comment I made about post-colonialism ( after reading Raman's piece on the term). With his permission I post it up part of his e-mail (but totally forgive those with no interest in literary studies if they choose to tune out at this point - this is the academic stuff after all and not everyone's cup of tea) :
This ... brings me to both Raman’s and your discomfort with the term ‘post-colonial’, which certainly has its many detractors, and as my limited knowledge both as reader and former student of literature would enable me to say, a contested term in literary studies. Yes, the term doesn’t sit well with many readers, but as Mr. Raman pointed out, it has been a helpful, but still problematic term for academics to employ when looking at the writings of writers from post-colonial nations. In the words of Philip Roth (as quoted in your post), I’m probably one of the people that needs be shot. (So, here’s my response to some of Mr.Raman’s partly misunderstood but still legitimate grievances.

You probably know all of these already, but I am just putting everything in as part of my response)
The study of post-colonial literature may be traced to the pioneering work of the late Edward Said and the group of Australian literary critics, Bill Ashcroft, Graham Huggan, Helen Tiffin on Australian, African, Caribbean literature (probably Pacific as well) led to the formation of a post-colonial literature as a field of academic study. (There is also Anne Brewster whose PhD research about twenty years ago centred on Malaysian and S’pore literature in English.)

‘Post-colonial’ as a term becomes misleading because of the debates surrounding what constitute the ‘post-colonial’, hence it is probably best, to avoid the confusion and frustration of readers, to say that ‘post-colonial’ is a theory of literature (and culture). By and large, ‘post-colonial’, as the term suggests, examines and explores the social (cultural), historical, economical and political conditions of colonialism that shape the nature of the fictions and poetry that are produced. Although European colonialism may have ended for about a good forty years, the lingering effects of colonialism and the varying responses and reactions to them (again, social, political etc) may be felt and experienced till today. As ‘post-colonial’ is a theoretical framework, it has been used in a variety of ways. Yes, Irish writers like James Joyce and Seamus Heaney are sometimes examined under the term ‘post-colonial’, because their Irish identity stands out markedly and emerges out of a sense of being historically subjected under the English, and in Heaney’s case, the politics of the British and the IRA. Not surprisingly, J.M.Coetzee is also considered a post-colonial (and also post-modern) writer who struggles to make sense and redress or apologise, if you will, for the trauma of colonialism in South Africa.

Mr.Raman’s issue on why ‘post-colonial’ has not been employed for American and Canadian literature is a another good case in point of the problematics of the term.
Firstly, there have been critics who have applied ‘post-colonial’ to American literature, but it has been mainly restricted to African-American literature, but the scholarship has not been very productively developed, because African-American literature is unique in its own position of displacement and identity politics (these writers are still American not Africans). Moreover, American literature (and history) has its roots in an Anglo-European tradition, hence it is not exactly ‘colonial’ in that it does not constitute a foreign political and economical (or cultural) imposition or influence. American literature, also, has developed its own voice/s through its writers and poets like Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman and Emily Dickinson, blazing a path and establishing a tradition of its own.

In contrast, Australian literature presents a slightly different situation, mainly because of the complication of its convict history. ‘Post-colonial’ has been used by some literary critics to characterise, describe even white Australian writers (it’s true).
Mr. Raman is right on the point that many writers, not just ‘white’ writers, but even writers like Romesh Gunasekera reject such labelling which, though a term of convenience for academic study, can be rather constrictive and limited. With regard to N.K..Narayan, Mr. Raman is mistaken, because he is considered a post-colonial writer. The only reason he does not appear on the list Mr.Raman mentioned is that he is not as widely read or rather taught in literature courses, since most are often only introductory courses to a whole range of post-colonial literatures; and then, those courses are dependent on the speciality of the lecturer. Unless one works specifically on Indian or what is sometimes called South-Asian literature in English, one probably might not read him.

It therefore appears that post-colonial writers belong to a specific ‘species’ of writers, as many have noticed. They are often writers , whom you may prefer to call ‘World writers’ and their works, ‘World literature;, but they have been called ‘post-colonial’, simply because their writing draws upon their ambiguous or double position as writers who are somewhat ‘exiled’ or disconnected from the land of their birth or family’s origin, and being so, feel simultaneously at home and not at home in the ‘First’ World country that they are residing in and from which they write their fictions.
... Another problem with the ‘post-colonial’ is that there appears to be a degree of literary exoticism and orientalism involved, (something Mr. Raman took issue with), which is also probably why Thor Kar Hong picked a bone with what he deems a rather ‘forced’ use and depiction of cultural and temporal setting in Tash Aw’s novel. The term ‘post-colonial’ then turns more contentious, as the politics of reading comes into the picture. Among the criticisms that get levelled is that ultimately the imperial ‘West’ still holds the epistemic ‘power’ in defining and designating what it deems ‘good’ literature. ...
dreamer idiot - am most touched to think that you've taken the time and trouble to fill in the (clearly considerable!) gaps in my knowledge of the subject.

By the way, am I a postcolonial hangover?


The Visitor said...


Jane Sunshine said...

Dreamer Idiot (unusual handle!) has made a compelling case for post-colonial lit generally.

It is of course fashionable to pick on post-colonial literature these past few years or so as academia does tend to thrive on the topical. I think that whether post-colonial lit itself has past expiry date should be the least of our concerns. What it has provided is a background support for various vibrant voices that have transformed the English language (Saleem Sinai and Parvati the Witch, Okonkwo and Dina Dallal clamour at the back of my mind). And surely this is cause for celebration.

Anonymous said...

Boox are boox. Meh.

dreamer idiot said...

I am glad to read the sentiments of book/word/language lovers here who bring me back to earth, reminding that the pleasure (experience) of the reading itself is greater than all the intellectualising. Thx guys.

Jane Sunshine, yeah, it's a strange moniker, but I can't find a suitable identity for my 'virtual'/online self. Definitely postcolonial scholarship has created greater interest in many writers whom we otherwise might not have read... Yipee for that.

dreamer idiot said...

Oops, i forgot, thx sharon. :)

bibliobibuli said...

no thanks needed ... ;-D

yep, reading is the main thing ...

Sufian said...

Pieces like this make me wonder. Do 'academics' read? Or are they like Prince Modupe, who wrote of his encounter with the written word, "The one crowded space in Father Perry's house was his bookshelves. I gradually came to understand that the marks on the pages were trapped words."

Trapped words. Trapped meanings.

Are Academics adventurers trying to free the words trapped in books? Is it a crusade? A conquest? Are they enlightened priests out to free the natives? Oh yes a story can't just be a story. It's an oppression. It's history. It's ten thousand philosophical things.

Sartre: But if...white roses signify 'fidelity' to me, the fact is that I have stopped seeing them as roses.

And from our favourite communist, Brecht:

Interrogation of the Good

You are our enemy. This is why we shall
now put you in front of a wall. But in consideration
of your merits and good qualities
we shall put you in front of a good wall and shoot you
with a good bullet from a good gun and bury you
with a good shovel in the good earth