Postcolonialism and Literature – Reading the others. An introduction.

Reading Jillian’s blog A Room of One’s Own, I noticed that, despite she is reading the great classics of the American and English literature, she had forgotten part of the British Empire and its works: those from the colonies, productions that can be broadly labelled under  postcolonial literature.

She was shocked and asked other readers for their opinion and me, obviously, for an explanation. So, after some talking, we’ve agreed a post would help many readers and, luckily, help them discover another perspective. So, why postcolonial? Why is it interesing? If the canon is the canon, there should be a reason for it, shouldn’t it?

As a consequence, I am proud to inaugurate the first thematic series of posts at BOOKS AND REVIEWS: Postcolonialism and Literature – Reading the others. Hope you enjoy and please, let me know any doubts or suggestions you may have. Enjoy!

First of all, a little bit of theory. Postcolonial literature may refer to:

  1. The literary productions during the colonisation of that place.
  2. The literary productions after the colonies gained/were gaining independence, mainly by the native population.

Jill also asked: whose colonies?

It depends very much on the postcolonial field you chose. They are usually gruped by their “owners”. Therefore, we can have English Colonies, French Colonies, Spanish colonies etc. My field is Anglophone postcolonialism: productions from the colonies of the British Empire.

Which colonies?

This is a tricky question: can we consider American literature (until they gained independence in 1776) postcolonial? I would not. There is a key factor in postcolonial studies and it is an economic factor usually linked to slavery and exploitation. If we considered true native Americans texts, that would be another question.

Therefore, postcolonial is usually focused in later English colonies: India, the West Indies (the Caribbean), Africa, Australia, Canada and Ireland among many others.

Who writes postocolonial texts?

Basically, anyone who was living in a colony, an English one in this context. However, the colonisers enjoyed, more or less, the same privileges that they did in England. Meanwhile, there was a body of slaves, indentured workers and native people being caught under their power and their discourse (I will explain this term later on). It is their perspective that interests us because, back then, they were ignored and culturally supressed.

Why do they write those texts?

Well, I may say that we all have a right to an artistic expression but, during the colonisation, natives and slaves were not entitled to any kind of education or free time to express themselves. As a consequence, 21st century century readers face a literary gap: we know what happened in India or Antigua thanks to the colonisers. But, what about the other side of the story?

Here is when postcolonialsm makes an entrance. Although it is more recent than many classical works making reference to the colonies, they offer a response (write back/answer) to nowadays and past social issues: racism, discrimination and the jewel of the crown: slavery.

Why aren’t they part of the canon?

I’m sorry to say, some of them are but remain unknown to most of us., like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. However, it just takes a little bit of critical thought (and I needed an amazing teacher to see this). WHO dominated the Empire? The answer is plain: white men. WHO got published? White men and, sometimes, white women. Who were their target readers? White, educated and middle-class people.

Basically (please, historian, forgive this summary): the world a was the white men’s world. It was their reality and their ideology. Women were inferior, Black people were inferior, Native Americans were inferior… Do I need to keep up the list?


Next, I will explain some basic concepts and I will suggest you  some readings. Since 8th March is the Women’s Day, I will try to come up with two works: one masculine and another feminine. I will have explored them firstly (or at least, heard of them) so I can answer any questions or doubts. Until now, feel free to search the net or visit the following links:

Suggested reading:

  1. History:

2. Postcolonial Theory:

3. Literary suggestion: (easly and light, please do not panic!)

  • Mutabaruka’s poem Prison and my analysis can be found here. While reading, please consider: what means prison for you? Just being in jail? A hint: for the poet, a prison is not a physical place but a situtation.

Thanks to all of you who have shown interest!

I hope you comment with your thoughts, any doubts or feelings about postcolonialism, I am here to help you! Huge thanks to Jillian too for making a post out of my response.

*The Book Depository offers free global shipping, so, if you are interested, you may like this over Amazon or any other shipping-fee sites. I give my word, they are 100% realiable.


  • Jillian

    Thanks for doing this, Elena! I will be reading this series but fear I can’t fully participate, if there’s to be a lot of reading/research links? For my purposes, I’m very interested in a list of your suggested works by writers from Australia, Africa, etc. But I couldn’t possibly take on reading all of them right now. I want to read the canon to get my base, and keep all the suggestions on a back-burner — like a Goodreads list, where I can examine them once I’ve had time to form a base knowledge of American/British writers, male, female, and African-American.

    I might also want to take time to read the Irish-American, Chinese-American, Japanese-American points-of-view in the 19th century (my particular interest), as well as the French colonies (also a particular interest), and native French, Russian, Japanese, etc, literature.

    I’ve had time to study some British literature in the 19th century, but not 17th, 16th, 15th, 14th, 13th, not Greek in the BC, not Irish, Scottish, French, Russian, American-Southern, American post-colonial (which I would say 100% counts), French Revolutionary (hugely important in America and around the world, Napoleon, Italian, German, Jewish Holocaust, Spanish, etc, etc.

    Also, the vast amount of literature from American slaves, which hugely interests me, and the literature from women — who, included in the canon or not, were made to curb their voices to get published by men and/or write under a man’s name. And what about Louisa May Alcott? She wrote moralistic work to satisfy men, then wrote under a pseudonym to write the work she really cared about — thrillers. This is newly discovered.

    I guess my point is, that I’m ecstatic to learn about other viewpoints, but I surely don’t want to miss out on all the literature that personally intrigues me, and/or ignore the ‘canon,’ in a quest to read British post-colonial works. I think they deserve their spot in my search through literature, but certainly not all of my attention.

    And, right now, my focus is the canon.

    Thanks sincerely for doing this, Elena! I am interested. I just don’t want you to take all your time doing this without knowing that, all I’m really after right now, is your suggestions for authors from the countries/timeframes you mentioned at my blog. I can research colonialism (French, German, Italian, Portugese, Russian and British) when I feel ready to delve into that part of literature.

    If a recommended works list is too much to ask (I don’t want to put you out), that’s no big deal. I’ll be majoring in literature in college (I start my lit program next year), and I’m sure the doors will begin to open as I’m exposed to courses in world literature.

    So, my point is, I’m just after a couple author names, for future reference. There’s all the time in the world, to explore. 🙂

    I am curious about thiBritish colonialism and will read on for sure, if you continue to post on it. I just wanted to be honest about my personal goals, as a reader.

    (And I’ll probably never answer questions like ‘what does prison mean to you? what kind of prison do you think the poet was referring to? And remember, not all prisons are buildings,’ because I like to interpret the works on my own, without being led. Might be particular to me? Literature is about exploring, for me. Telling me to contemplate the meaning of a prison [unless I’ve asked] is like telling an explorer exactly where the treasure is buried, imo. Unless I’m in school, where complaining that I want to do it myself is met with scorn.) 😉

    • Elena

      Oh, never mind about the suggested readings. I will write in my post anything I think it’s interesting for future readings so, if you choose to read any of the novels/short stories, you can understand them better.

      Thank you again, Jillian!

  • Jillian

    … I’ll probably never answer questions like…

    Actually, to be honest, I likely won’t answer any questions about works posted, because I want to read them after the works I’ve already planned for myself. (I only have so much time in a day).

    But I’ll be quietly reading, if you continue this, and m,ight pop in now and then with a comment.

    And I do thank you for your advice today! 🙂

    I’m interested, but don’t

  • Mel u

    Very interesting post and concept-I have posted on post colonial aspects of the literature of the Philippines and have tried to explain why there was only a tiny bit of literature produced in a country of millions until the 1920-as to the idea that the canon is a “white man’s world”-for the last 1.5 years I have read a 100 or so Japanese novels-the post 1900 Japanese novel has at least a dozen works that should be in the canon-Japan was itself a colonial nation with a record very much to be ashamed off-the Japanese novel is not a post colonial literature at all-There are many Japanese writers that are the equal of all but the very best western writers-as you suggested saying that an author is a great Filipino writer if what you mean is “great for a Filipino” is really quite a colonial mentality-just like if you read a short story by a native American and you say “this is a really good native American work” and do all you can to avoid comparing it to the best in the literary world you are yourself being very post colonial.

    I sort of agree that if you define colonial literature. as a reactionary work, then you need to know what they are reacting to first-

    I mention the Japanese novel to establish the existence of a body of literature as a whole as good as anything in the 20th century that is not produced by “white men or women” and not written for them-

    I felt embarrassed recently when a novel that is not really good at all by a Filipino author was praised as a work of great genius all over the book blog world because nobody wanted to appear to have a “colonial mentality”

    very interesting thread and I will try to keep up

    • Elena

      “I felt embarrassed recently when a novel that is not really good at all by a Filipino author was praised as a work of great genius all over the book blog world because nobody wanted to appear to have a “colonial mentality”

      I completely agree. I will be dealing with their image of “the others” and being too polite in my next post. I hope you come back, so we can trust our thoughts, Mel_u.


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