Postcolonialism and Literature – Reading the others. Doubts and Orientalism.

The good thing about blogging is that allows a fluid communication and flow of ideas. Here are some I’d like to comment on:

Amanda said: One thing I’ve wondered about though previously–do we have to be careful in looking at other viewpoints (female, minority, etc.) to not praise them just for being “other,” but to carefully evaluate their worth as well?

Absolutely! Thanks to your response I can introduce Edward Said’s work Orientalism. In that wonderful book, he dealt with how the West represents the East. Have you ever thought about it? If you had the opportunity to approach a colonial text, you will find  a patronizing point of view: the great Western powers have to take care of the poor, weak and ignorant Eastern countries. As a consequence, the East is always feminine (let’s not forget the others in Western socities: women) and its jungles are usually “penetrated”  and its people, tammed and helped. To exemplify my point, I think you can read Rudyard Kipling’s poem The White Man’s Burden where he wants white men to take the “burden! of educating and dealing with those “ungrateful natives” they are “helping”. However, if you don’t feel like it, here are the first four lines:

Take up the White Man’s burden–
Send forth the best ye breed–
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;

Another important point Said makes is: why the Western powers act this way?His’ is a simple and wonderful explanation: by defining the East as savages, uncivilized, cold, exotic, lazy etc, the West is defining itself as the opposite. To put it plainly: they are savages because they haven’t read Aristotle, then, we are educated.

Mel_u said: 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”

True. That is one of the problems with any kind of special approach to literature, in fact, of any label. As soon as you label something postcolonial, you are making a difference. But, in order to undestand the true meaning of such works, I think a little bit of labelling is needed. Actually, Margaret Atwood wrote a wonderful short story on this issue of being too politically correct. It is called THERE WAS ONCE (click to read it) and it’s a two-page long story. It will take you five minutes and it’ll change your perception of… everything!

Also, someone at Jillian’s blog said she only liked reading the canonical masculine productions and that feminine works/postcolonial works tried too hard to make their point and sacrified the story.

I cannot but strongly disagree: white men belonging to the canon also make their points but we take for granted their points, views and opinions! Plus, some women from a feminist tradition can fall into that trying-too-hard label, so can postcolonial writers, but so did white men! Please check Macaulay’s Minute on Indian Education. Consider how he presents the superiority of the English by means of linguistic and literary superiority. In the complete text, he even argues English is older than Sanscrit.

The intrinsic superiority of the Western literature is, indeed, fully admitted by those members of the Committee who support the Oriental plan of education.
We have to educate a people who cannot at present be educated by means of their mother-tongue. We must teach them some foreign language. The claims of our own language  (English) it is hardly necessary to recapitulate. It stands pre-eminent even among the languages of the west. It abounds with works of imagination not inferior to the noblest which Greece has bequeathed to us;

Now, if that’s not trying too hard to make his point, I don’t know what can it be!

I hope I have resolved some of your doubts but, unluckily, there are too many troublesome issues. However, I will try to deal with the suggested readings and texts being as objective as I can and never forgetting their historical, economical and social context. For me, reading postcolonial literature is as easy as reading any other genre: the reader has to balance the quality of the text without forgetting its background.

Many argued: One has to read the classics.

Yes, obviously. I have never (and will never ever) deny this. The canon is there and has to be read, but that does not imply that we cannot doubt about it, contrast it or even complement it with other works. I never suggested Jillian should stop reading the classics, I just suggested she complemented her literary perception of past centuries with other voices.

Suggested readings:

  1. Margaret Atwood’s short story THERE WAS ONCE – The argument between a mother and her daughter when telling a canonical fairy tale. Really funny,
  2. Macaulay‘s Minute on Indian Education. A report trying to convince Englishmen of the necessity of helping Indians, of making them English. Although this is a cruel, snob and derrogatory text, it can exemplify the Western approach of Eastern countries.

Upadate: Some interviews with the late Edward Said, to whom we owe a lot.

Interview with Edward Said. Really, really interesting, it summarizes his main points:

Americans and Orientalism nowadays: the problem of Americans facint the Middle East.

Orientalism as a tool for colonisation and cinematographic representations:



  • Carey

    I am really enjoying your series of posts! I think it is important to remember that in literature as a whole there are works that are simply amazing, good, ok, and bad whether we are talking about works from white European writers, white American writers, male or female writers, African-American writers, Latin American writers, other post colonial writers, contemporary writers, etc. And these categorizations are highly subjectable since they are all ultimately based on personal perception. One reader’s “amazing” can be another reader’s “aweful.” I guess I am just saying that the reader should feel free to praise or criticize no matter the race, gender, or socio-economic status of the writer.

    • Elena

      Yes, but I think one has to differentiate:
      a) What the reader likes or not.
      b) The quality of the work behind texts (this needs some academic analysis such as style, narration, semantic fields etc).

      For example, I do not like Dickens’ works, but I cannot forget about their importance in English literature. I see his technique and his images and I recognized them as art, but it is not an art I like.

      Same happens with postcolonial writtings: you can like them or not, but you can’t forget their background. (You see? I find it impossible to take away the background from the author!).

      Thanks for coming, Carey! I have added your blog to my reading blogs list.

      • Carey

        I understand your point regarding the difference between literary appeal and literary worth, but ultimately even the measure of literary worth is subjective. For me, positive or negative reactions in either category should be based more on the work in question and less on the writer (their race, gender, and class) of the work in question. Does that make sense? 🙂

  • Mel u

    I just read “There Was Once”, you are right it is very interesting and funny-in her novel The Penelopiad she has a real good satire on academic analyses of literary works from a post colonial point of view-sometimes I think of Dr Samuel Johnson turning in his very high canon status work into a 21th century publisher and being told his work must be revised to included a better balance of backgrounds among the authors –

    I find your series of post to be very interesting and stimulating

    • Elena

      Wow, thanks!! I am a Margaret Atwood fan since I read “There was Once”. Just lately I read “The Blind Assassin” and I fell in love with her again. In fact, I had the honour to attend her conference when she won the Prince of Asturias’ Prize a few years ago and she is really charming. What a woman!

      Thanks for coming and commenting, Mel_u, I love your feedback.

  • Em

    Mel U sent me a link to this post as I am a big fan of Margaret Atwood and thought I would be interested by the link to “There Was Once”.
    I am familiar with the story and think it is brilliant. I am quite interested in your interpretation of the characters as being mother and daughter. They are both unnamed, so it is really up to us to decide of their identity, although we can assume that the interlocutor is most definitely a woman. I have read an analysis in which the author thought there were three characters, which has not really convinced me. Most critics would argue that the storyteller is a man, although this remains uncertain and might be influenced by feminist views.
    What made you think they are mother and daughter? It’s a different perspective and one that might be worth exploring…

    • Elena

      I think that is one of the satirical points of the short story: as Western readers, we are used to have this mother-daughter telling of stories. But, why can’t it be a father and a son? Is it that boys do not like fairytales? So, my fault for taking for granted that they are two feminine characters!

      I had also heard about the three characters, but I just can’t figure it out by myself. I don’t see it.

      Thanks for your interest.

      • Em

        It’s a good point to note this tradition of female storytelling, which is actually often present in Atwood’s longer stories, but I wonder if we wouldn’t encounter an age problem though.
        Anyhow, it remains a brilliant piece!

  • jesswords10

    Popped over from Jillian’s blog, and I see that you’re reading Small Island. Would love to hear what you think of it when you’re done. I watched the film version and liked the story a lot.

    • Elena

      It’s 150 pages more or less til I’m done but I will surely post a review of this wonderful book. I’ll keep you posted! I am also reading “A Small Place” by Jamaica Kinckaid, really good. Maybe you’d like to read it too until then.

      Thanks for visiting my blog!

  • Risa

    I realised as I read your link to Atwood’s There Was Once, that the satire in the piece works both ways. Did Atwood intend it that way, or is she really picking sides?

    Btw, I’m finding this series very interesting!…will be following your posts.:)

    • Elena

      When you say “both ways” you mean she is trying to be postcolonial and politically correct but she cannot really achieve it? If it is that, I completely agree. Ms Atwood is a polite and respectful lady, but she also likes making fun of the conventions.

  • amanda

    Some good points here–I really like that story by Atwood, as I sometimes feel that in our concern to be politically correct, or at least not inappropriate–as Mel_u’s comment which you quoted also illustrates–can carry us too far, to a point where our correctness almost comes across as its own prejudice. That is, we don’t want to be seen as anti-X, so we praise X and it comes across sounding hollow.

    It becomes a really delicate balance. I keep struggling with the concept of how much value to give a book for its artistic/literary merit versus its ideas. I can think of at least one book I’ve read which is not necessarily technically proficient (at least some critics have really been negative towards it), but which for the way it caused me to really think and evaluate the world around me, I highly value.

    • Elena

      Well, that’s the great thing about literarute. In a way or another, any book can appeal to a certain reader and can impress them for life. I do not understand those people who read best sellers continually because they are thought for making money and not for thinking. Obviously, you can find certain expections, The Help was one for me (and maybe it wasn’t for you). But, in general, I prefer contemporary good fiction that makes me think. Good or bad? Well, that’s completely up to me, my academic knowledge and my taste!

  • Ellen Rhudy

    I came over from A Room of One’s Own, and i’m really enjoying your series of posts and like that you’re bringing some attention/education to this huge realm of literature that tends to be overlooked. I’ve always found the debate over how to approach post-colonial lit frustrating and confusing, because there is always that temptation to praise a work above what it deserves simply because of the circumstances under which it was written, or the subject matter it was dealt with. You do a nice job of pulling that issue apart here, and I’m looking forward to reading your future posts on this.

    • Elena

      Thanks for joining Ellen, and welcome! I hope I can “educate” (what a word, eh?) some readers so you can decide by themselves what to praise what not to. For my studies and my… personality, it is important to delevop a critical mind and be able to judge what I read without having to follow some authorities out there. As I said, a book can change my life (you know which one did? “The Constant Gardener” by John LeCarré) and not be a masterpiece, but improve my overview on things, my personal situation or… anything.

      Hope to see you around in the following posts!!

  • Jillian

    Some excellent points here.

    The canon is there and has to be read, but that does not imply that we cannot doubt about it, contrast it or even complement it with other works.

    Yes!!! I so agree.

    I’ll try to get over to read Atwood today – thanks!

  • Jillian

    “The Constant Gardener” by John LeCarré:

    Oh, how interesting. It’s life-changing? A friend of mine recommended it recently, so I added it to my 300 List.

    • Elena

      It is. It will make you stand up and doubt everything you thought fixed and perfect. And it will make you angry…

      Thanks for your comments, Jillian!

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