Postcolonialism and Literature – Reading the others. Overgeneralized anger? Dicussion!

Now that there are three posts on this issue, I would like us to discuss an issue I haven’t made up my mind at all yet.

Yesterday I dealt with slavery and the scars it has produced in many authors. I also mentioned Jamaica Kincaid who, in her work, A Small Place, hates tourists visiting Antigua. All through her novel, she keeps repeting: you (find this charming, love the hot weather) because you are American, or worse, European.

As a European, although not the typical tourist who would buy the cheapest holiday package to any Caribbean island only taking into account the price, I cannot but feel a little bit offended. I understand her position, but, as a European, I have done nothing to her. So, in my opinion, she is generalizing a little bit about Americans and Europeans. However, I personally dislike those who go to the Caribbean only looking for a Heaven-in-Earth place, a sunny place full of charming and easy going blacks.

What do you think? Do you recognize this behaviour as part of your country? Do you feel offended as an American/European?

I am very interested in your feedback, this is an important issue in postcolonialism, so please, leave your comments below so we can share our views. Thanks!

Suggested readings:

  1. Oroonoko by Aprha Bhen (The Book Depository, 7$) – 17th century novel about the author’s travel to “an exotic place” where she meets a beautiful and passionate young black man and his love story.
  2. The Martyr (Ngugi wa Thiong’o) This is a short story so recent, I couldn’t find it online for you. Sorry! It deals with some uprisings in Kenya. One of my favourites.


  • Jillian

    I can’t say that it bothers me.

    It’s just a perspective. Opinion, not fact.

    I read a LOT of opinions about America from non-Americans, and I find them enlightning, for the most part. I don’t always agree, but it lets me view my country though eyes in other countries, with different perspectives — and it has given me a lot to think about.

    “Human understanding is marvellously enlightened by daily conversation with men [and women!], for we are, otherwise, compressed and heaped up in ourselves, and have our sight limited to the length of our own noses.” – Michel de Montaigne

    I do think the passages you cite lump people into a pile and slap them with a label, but it’s certainly not the first time in history that has happened.

    • Elena

      I can partly agree. But, then, I think: isn’t her overgeneralization (and “hate” discourse) as terrible as the behaviour of colonisers towards black people and their supposed inferiority? Obviously, Kincaids’ are just words, but, as a literature student, I find it difficult to forget about the power of words!

      Thanks for sharing, Jillian.

  • amanda

    I think the generalization of a group is common–sometimes with some truth, sometimes without. I think Americans–especially as tourists–are commonly viewed as loud, obnoxious, and demanding, but I think we sometimes reinforce that stereotype. (Of course, given that loud and obnoxious are more memorable than quiet and courteous, the ‘negative’ tourist is probably more obvious.) When I was in college, I spent a semester in Italy, as part of my program of study. We were told that the Italians would know that we were Americans. However, most of us endeavored not to stand out, and by the end of the semester more than one of us had been asked for directions by Italians, or asked, in Italian, to take a picture for a pair or tourists. I was even asked once if I spoke German, before I was asked if I spoke English! (I assume the person asking spoke better German than English.) On the other hand, I saw other American students or tourists who were the stereotypically loud, obnoxious American.

    I can understand too, the frustration of the local–it may not even always be so much that the tourist is of a specific country but that the tourist is there at all. It can be a tricky thing–the business owner wants the tourist dollars; the neighbor wants to just be left in peace. Add to this a long history of difficult relations between different groups–be they cultural, class, ethnic–and I can begin to see Kincaid’s view.

    Although it can be too easy to say that another person/group doesn’t really understand us (something I think Americans are often guilty of), I always try to remember that maybe I don’t really understand them, and that I am just as guilty of falling for preconceptions about other people as they are of me. I guess this is the primary motivation I have for trying to read and learn other perspectives. I’ve been fortunate to get to know people from a number of different backgrounds, but there are so many others I’m not familiar with, beyond the generalizations that culture has presented to me. Happily, literature allows us to explore so many more cultures and perspectives–of the past as well as today–than anyone could possibly know in their lifetime. Perhaps Kincaid is overzealous in her opinions, but I find myself curious to learn the motivation of her viewpoints rather than offended that she should have formed a generalization against “me.”

    • Jillian

      Happily, literature allows us to explore so many more cultures and perspectives–of the past as well as today–than anyone could possibly know in their lifetime.

      Yes — that’s what I love the most, about it.

    • Elena

      I love your answer, Amanda, I really do (and your good-tourists behaviour!).

      I am actually curious about Kincaid’s works too since I have only read “Annie John” and a excerpt from “A Small Place.”

      Thank you, really. Yours is the kind of answer I wanted, and thanks for the personal experience too!

      • amanda

        I’m glad you liked my answer, thank you! (I hope it wasn’t too lengthy!) I guess this is something I’ve thought about a lot, in part because of my experiences, and in part because I’ve always tried to understand the other point of view.

        As for being good-tourists–I think it became more of a challenge–will they figure out we’re Americans? Or my favorite, trying to complete an entire transaction in Italian–which usually wouldn’t happen if the shopkeeper found out I was American; he or she would automatically switch to English, either to practice themselves or to be accommodating to a money-spending customer. It was all fun!

  • Risa

    I can understand Kincaid.

    Many times I’ve seen ‘foreign’ tourists making the rounds through our city with a camera about their necks, and casually attired in kaki bermudas and sleeveless t-shirts, and I’ve felt a slight jolt of resentment. It’s hard to explain. Perhaps it’s a defensive reaction at how the West perceives us. It is something that is so very much a part of our psychy. We know we’re being silly (atleast, some of us know), but it’s an emotional reaction born of prejudice that we cannot help much. When I go to church and I find an American or European clicking pictures of the building (quite often not having attended service) I feel quite put out. But when I try to stamp the prejudice down it’s mainly because I know that if I were to visit a cathedral in Europe, I’d definitely do the same thing!! The main problem actually lies in the difference between the East and the West, I guess. Many times we have a ‘white man’ (American or European) talk to us rather condescendingly, or you can see that they’re trying so hard to not notice differences. To be fair, this does not happen all the time. There are a few who have managed to blend in with our culture…but these are usually the ones who stay on. On the other hand, there are Indians who automatically view themselves as inferior and so talk up to a touring ‘white man’. All of this is really the result of the postcolonial hangover.

    Another thing that many of us Indians find rather annoying is that foreigners are always surprised at the fact that we speak English and speak it well. It’s very rare to find a foreigner who won’t ‘complement’ you on your English!!…you can’t blame us if we find that offensive. But, as I say, all of this is really prejudice that is so sharply ingrained in us whether we are from the East or the West. I doubt it’s something that can be fought against as a society….it’s a prejudice that can be weeded out only individually.:(

    Oh!….and, come to think of it, I think distrust of tourists is a rather common thing everywhere. I recall friends talking of trips to England, where the local folk who do now dwell in cosmopolitan cities, are rather resentful of ‘brown skins’.

    • amanda

      Your comment on churches and tourists taking pictures reminds me of a day in Italy–we were in Rome with our professors. It was a Sunday, which somehow they decided was the best day to poke in and out of all the lovely Baroque churches in between services. It felt terribly awkward to me and I couldn’t understand why we couldn’t have visited the churches on a different day of the week, when they didn’t have so many services. (If I recall correctly, many of the big Italian churches have at least one daily service, but more on Sundays.) It just felt rude.

  • Rebecca Reid

    I’ve lived outside of the US a few times, most recently my family relocated to Melbourne Australia. I saw the US in a very different light when I was an unknown American (you can’t tell where I’m from until I talked) among a bunch of others from Asia, Africa, Europe, etc. (Melbourne is very cosmopolitan). I can really see how and why people resent things when I was looking from a different perspective.

    So no, I don’t get offended if people make generalizations about Americans when they’re trying to make a point about where THEY are.

    • Elena

      I get your point, but Kincaid’s is not about who people are but more who they used to be. As a European I am ashamed of our colonisers’ past, but, those people have nothing to do with me or my ideas.

      Last year I took a class on Chicano literature (Mexicans living in the US) and the teacher explained that one of the main themes was a strong feeling of anger against Spaniards because of the 16th century colonisation. I try to, but it’s hard to understand that feeling after 400 years!

  • Elena

    No no, your answer was just perfect! There are different perspectives and, as long as contrasted with the text, they are ALL valid 🙂 thanks for coming back.

  • Eva

    I’m not offended, because I feel that Kincaid is talking about Europeans and Americans as a group, rather than me as an individual. As a woman and feminist, I am enraged over the systematic subjugation of my gender, and even reading about the conditions of life for women two thousand years ago can be upsetting. We’re still living with the effects of all of that past sexism (not to negate the presence of current sexism); similarly, I don’t think because colonialism ‘started’ four hundred years ago, that means it isn’t relevant to the present. After all, if you look at any Latin American country, the elite (both economically and politically) are the light-skinned descendants of Spaniards and other European colonisers while the darker native people are still disenfranchised. And if I were a descendent of native people, I imagine I’d still be angry at the Spanish for putting that into place. Really, I think a little bit of rage is the least postcolonial authors are entitled to! 😉

    It’s taken me quite a bit of reading and thinking to the get to the point that I can read about the horrible things white people have done without feeling guilty/defensive over it, though. Now, I can talk about my white privilege as a simple matter of fact; I can’t make white privilege go away by denying it, but by accepting it and taking small measures to counteract it, I show my protest at the system.

    I hope that makes sense! I’ve rambled far away from the original topic re: being offended by A Small Place.

    • Elena

      Well I belong to one of those countries that commited anything but good things in America and I would never justify Americans being angry at me because of what my supposed ancestors did (after all, we are such a mixture, who knows where our ancerstors come from). I think we should see beyond the group and focus in the individual: you don’t have to hate Europeans in general because it is such a non-valid argument as those used by racist. It is a generalization.

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