Postcolonial Novels and Novelists

A discussion of postcolonial literature must first acknowledge the scope and complexity of the term “postcolonial.” Temporally, the term designates any national literature written after the nation gained independence from a colonizing power. According to this definition, all literature written in the United States after 1776 could qualify as postcolonial. Because the United States has occupied the position of an economic and political world power since the nineteenth century, however, it is today regarded more as a historically colonizing force than as a former colony of Great Britain. Within this field of literary studies, “postcolonial” refers to those nations that gained independence between the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the 1960’s.

Geographically, “postcolonial” is a global term: It designates nations of the Caribbean, Central and South America, Africa, the South Pacific islands, and Malaysia. It applies equally to India, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the Philippines. The colonizing powers to which these countries were subjected and with which they have continued to contend after gaining independence are Great Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Germany, and the United States.

Postcolonial studies are not limited by geography or time, however. They treat a broad span of concerns: the functioning of different empires during the colonial period and varying administrative systems left as legacies to the former colonies; the specific conditions under which independence was gained in each case; cultural, economic, and linguistic imperialism that persists after independence; and the local concerns of education, government, citizenship, and identity. Postcolonial literature tends to address opposition to imperial forces as it seeks to define autonomous national identity. In that quest, postcolonial literature explores issues of cultural alienation, and it struggles to express the specificity and particularities of indigenous cultures in languages that are not generally the original languages of the indigenous peoples but rather the languages of the former colonizers. The Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o decided in 1981, after his imprisonment and exile for coauthoring and producing two Kikuyu-language plays that criticized the postcolonial Kenyan government, to switch from English to Kikuyu as the language for his writing. Similarly, the Irishman Samuel Beckett chose to live in France and write in French because this location and language did not carry the baggage of Ireland’s struggles for independence from Britain. For many postcolonial writers, then, to write in the language of the colonizing power is an act of acceptance and acquiescence to that power, even if that power is no longer physically present.


Anita Desai

The issue of language is complex, however. Although writing in the language of the colonizers implies some complicity with their power and cultural dominance, there are questions of circulation and counterdiscourse to consider. Can the circulation and readership of Ngugi’s writings be as wide in Kikuyu as in English? Can the postcolonial voice of resistance against dominance and hegemony of the empire be heard in a Caribbean patois? To express postcolonial struggles and establish national identity in the languages of the colonizing powers—English, French, or Spanish—is to form a counterdiscourse that can be heard at the center of the empire.

To express oneself in a language that is not one’s own, a language that does not belong to one’s land but has been violently imposed on it, is a source of tension that gives rise not only to feelings of alienation and uncertainty regarding the legitimacy of the mother tongue but also to confusion regarding identity. To what degree is a citizen from India truly Indian, having been educated in English, writing in English, and even communicating with fellow Indians in the language of the British Empire? Although India possesses national identity, history, literature, and cultural practices, how can these remain purely Indian after two hundred years of British rule? Just as postcolonial Indian literature finds expression in English, not in one of the hundreds of Indian languages, so does it strive to define and establish an identity that can no longer be pure. This postindependence, postcolonial identity must admit that it is a hybrid, a mix of colonial and national identities transmitted through education, government, religion, and social practices.

The dynamics of foregrounding and theorizing a plurality of identities, mixing of cultures, and interdependence between colonizer and colonized, as well as localized political concerns, create a reciprocity between postcolonial fiction and postcolonial theory. The interdependent development of postcolonial fiction and theory constitutes postcolonialism.

The association with poststructuralism and postmodernism is not accidental: These schools of literary and cultural criticism serve to validate the margins of artistic production by deconstructing centers of truth. These forms of criticism posit that truth, meaning, and identity are never axiomatic; they are in a constant state of production, wholly dependent on the contexts in which they appear. Postcolonial theorists stress that colonial identity is created by the ruling, colonizing powers. For example, Edward W. Said’s seminal work Orientalism (1978) argues that the “Orient” is a set of images and assumptions constructed by the Western literary canon and projected onto colonized nations. Along with Said, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Homi K. Bhabha argue that these fabricated, projected images of the Oriental “other” provide a framework and support for the enlightened European subject. India’s Subaltern Studies group, led by Ranajit Guha and Spivak, rereads the history of British occupation for the purposes of asserting versions of cultural identity free from imperial constructions. Just as the Oriental other was given form through writing, so the postcolonial subject seeks expression through literature. With each postcolonial novel that is written, a new version of postcolonial subjectivity is told, and a new theory of cultural difference as well as political and intellectual autonomy is formulated. In postcolonialism, fiction and theory work together to define, shape, and stretch each other’s boundaries.

Among the principal themes developed in postcolonial fiction are those of exile and alienation; rebellion, struggle, and opposition against colonial powers; and mixing or confusion of identities, multiculturalism, and the establishment of cultural autonomy free from imperial forces.

Exile and Alienation

Exile and alienation are represented both physically and figuratively in postcolonial fiction. Exile occurs when the protagonist or another character, usually a member of an indigenous people subjected to the colonial power, travels to the land of the colonizers for the purpose of education or finding work. Becoming a marginal member of society in the colonizing nation, the subject takes on certain characteristics and values of the oppressing culture. Thereafter, returning to the land of birth is nearly impossible because of psychological changes the postcolonial subject has experienced while away. Physical exile also occurs for political reasons: The subject either acts out against the government and is sent away or chooses to leave the homeland because colonial and postcolonial rules have wreaked such change on the native environment that it becomes unlivable.

Figuratively, the theme of exile is expressed as alienation and represents a search for the self. Colonial conditions in the native land render native culture, language, and education inferior to the culture and governing systems of the colonizers. Such cultural repression and validation of the imperial other provoke in the postcolonial protagonist an identity crisis and prompt him or her to search for a legitimate and positive image of the self. In order to embark on this quest for the self, the protagonist must first be split, shattered, or called into question, leading to alienation from society. Alienation is similar to exile in that the subject is no longer “at home” either physically or psychologically in the native land. Physical alienation occurs when an otherwise respectable inhabitant of the native land is considered criminal or subversive by colonial law, leading to imprisonment or the revocation of societal privileges for the subject. More often, alienation is represented as psychological in postcolonial fiction: It is the state of not belonging, of not having a true home. Postcolonial subjects are alienated by Eurocentric, imperial systems that will never fully accept them, either culturally or racially; at the same time, they are alienated by native cultures that have either acquiesced to the colonial system or rejected them because they speak the language of the colonizers or have received the education of the empire.

One of the most in-depth explorations of cultural exile and quest for the self is presented in James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). Although its main characters, Stephen Dedalus, Leopold Bloom, and Molly Bloom, never leave Dublin, the novel draws a modern parallel to Homer’s Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614), the epic story of a man’s alienation from his home, exile to strange lands, and search for a way back home (metaphorically, a search for the self). On the surface, Joyce’s novel does not appear to be concerned with Ireland’s struggle for freedom from centuries of British rule. The action of the novel takes place in one day; the plot consists in Bloom and Stephen going about their day and in Bloom making his way home. Yet the novel operates on many levels—literally, metaphorically, and mythically—one of which emerges from its many references to the British occupation of Ireland and the Irish struggle for political autonomy. Following Bloom in his journey through Dublin, the novel depicts his departure from home and his return to home at the end as an exploration of Irish subjectivity. What the reader discovers, as the many layers of meaning unravel, is that Bloom is neither a pure Irishman nor a pure product of British colonial rule. The novel makes references to Bloom’s Jewish descent; his wife, Molly, grew up in Gibraltar, the geographical gateway for British imperial expansion; and Bloom’s English is a multicultural mix of Irishisms and Italian and Greek words. This modern odyssey with colonial concerns shows that a search for the self leads to the revelation of an identity that is not culturally pure. The novel also shows that as soon as one leaves home, all notions of a pure, unified self are lost.

A prototypical novel of exile and alienation is George Lamming’s In the Castle of My Skin (1953). This autobiographical bildungsroman presents the author’s childhood in Barbados from his point of view at the age of twenty-three while living in London. He is led into retrospection by the alienation he experiences in the capital of the colonizers. The childhood that he revisits and that forms the narrative chronologically parallels the last stages of colonialism in the Caribbean and unfolds against the backdrop of rising nationalism. The author’s childhood development meaningfully parallels the loss of cultural innocence as destructive floods, a general strike across the island, and riots mark his ninth year, and the land of the village is sold to business just before he takes his first job in neighboring Trinidad. As the protagonist leaves Barbados, his village falls apart, thus producing an analogy between loss of childhood innocence and the disruption of cultural identity, between exile and alienation and the destruction of native lands by colonization. Only from the point of view of physical and spiritual alienation can the narrator look back and understand the destruction of his homeland. Only from this state of exile can he narrate his story; the only home to which he can return is the one that is rendered fictional, the one that constitutes his story. As the title suggests, in the state of exile that colonialism has forced upon him, the narrator is left with only his body, which has become his home.

The theme of alienation and exclusion of people not only from a dominant culture but also from their own land, language, and cultural practices has extended the boundaries of postcolonial literature to include feminist concerns regarding the oppression of women by men. Anita Desai’s novel Fire on the Mountain (1977) addresses the cultural and social alienation of women in India with an unusual twist on the theme of exile. The novel’s protagonist, Nanda Kaul, has retired to a mountaintop in the Punjab after fulfilling the duties of wife and mother. This exile into retirement in her old age foreshadows the transformative exile that awaits Nanda. The novel first depicts her as the image of Indian womanly perfection: stately, gentle, upstanding, and refined in her manners. Nanda paints her life as a young woman in the colors of happiness: her childhood, what her parents offered her as a child in a society that typically holds girls in contempt, and her marriage. By the end of the narrative, she reveals the unhappy reality of her past: Her father was usually absent when she was a child, and he never brought home nice gifts; her husband never loved or respected her, and he kept a mistress throughout his marriage to Nanda; and she never enjoyed a closeness with her children, who were in fact responsible for placing her atop a mountain in order to be rid of her. So that Nanda’s story does not appear to be tragic or out of the ordinary for women in India, the novel presents a minor character, Ila Das, whose life story is indeed tragic and unlucky. Ila is a childhood friend of Nanda who has not grown up; she is vulgar, ill mannered, and rather stupid. Ila has also been unlucky: Her father died when she was young, her mother was an invalid, and her brothers squandered the family fortune. Nanda and her husband rescue Ila many times from poverty by procuring jobs for her that she fails to keep. She is well-intentioned but has no social graces to compensate for her lack of survival skills. One day, just after having tea with Nanda, Ila is raped and killed in the streets. This event marks a turning point for Nanda, who admits to the social alienation she has experienced her whole life. She then performs the exit ritual and becomes one with the fire god, Agni, the bearer of the flame of eternal life, by walking into hot coals. Her act of exile from the physical realm represents her alienation and at the same time raises her life to a higher, symbolic, transformative level.

Struggle and Opposition

Aside from the themes of alienation, exile, confusion of identity, and search for the self, postcolonial fiction is also characterized by tensions between colonizer and colonized or between the old colonial society and the emerging postcolonial one. These multiple themes that seek to define the postcolonial condition are often present in and overlap within the same novel, but it is just as often the case that one theme stands out above the others.

When the theme of social and political tension upstages the others, it can take the form of direct confrontation between colonizer and colonized. For example, in E. M. Forster’s novel A Passage to India (1924), colonial tensions make their way to the courtroom when the respectable Indian citizen Dr. Aziz is accused of attacking a visiting Englishwoman, Adela Quested, during a friendly outing to some regionally famous caves. Everyone in town takes a side as the polemics surrounding the trial against Aziz reach an explosive level. The Indians believe strongly in Aziz’s innocence, while the occupying British remain convinced that Aziz is a local savage incapable of restraining himself around a white woman. The trial marks the climax of the novel, and the turning point occurs when Adela takes the witness stand only to waver in her testimony and withdraw her charges against Aziz. Here, colonial tensions are played out on a symbolically legal level; the confrontation between colonized and colonizer is expressed as a life-or-death issue of guilt or innocence to be decided by emotional fervor and resentment of the colonial situation only thinly veiled by justice. In the end, justice prevails in that Adela recants her accusation, but the readiness of the British to bring Aziz to trial and the Indians’ protest against such an act of oppressive power reveal the prejudices, and exemplify the hatred and mistrust, that colonialism promotes on each of the opposing sides. The novel encapsulates colonial hatred and mistrust in a legal issue, the trial, yet it is a legal issue—one country’s government forcibly taking over another country’s rights to govern itself— that provokes this hatred and mistrust.


Chinua Achebe

In the novel Things Fall Apart (1958), by the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, struggle, confrontation, and rebellion are evident from start to finish. The protagonist, Okonkwo, is leader of an Igbo village and has built a reputation from his youth as a great wrestler. He develops fierce, warrior-like ways in opposition to his father, who died a man of weak, “woman-like” character. Okonkwo is a strict ruler, adhering closely to the traditions of his religion and culture. He does not defy tradition when community elders command the execution of his adopted son; he obediently accepts the traditional punishment of seven years of exile when he inadvertently kills a clansman. Okonkwo is a warrior whose principal cause is to preserve his culture even if it means rebelling against his father and, at times, cruelly beating his wives. Ironically, in obeying the dictates of tradition by serving the sentence of exile, Okonkwo allows his culture to be destroyed. During the seven years of his absence, British missionaries move in and proselytize. In exile, Okonkwo learns from a friend that when people in a neighboring village killed a missionary, more white men came and annihilated the village’s entire population. Okonkwo returns to his community to find that a district commissioner, a representative of the British government, has established a council. The climax of the novel stems from a conflict of religious interests: When the villagers burn down the missionaries’ church because of sacrilege committed against their religion by a convert, the commissioner performs an act of retribution by imprisoning a group of Igbo men, including Okonkwo, until a fine is collectively paid. In the final confrontation between colonized and colonizer, Okonkwo kills a British messenger, knowing immediately after the fact that this reckless act of violence has ruined his possibility of successfully combating the British with warrior-like integrity. When the district commissioner arrives at Okonkwo’s home to arrest him for the murder, he finds the warrior hanging from a tree, having committed suicide. The novel ends with the commissioner’s musings about how to integrate Okonkwo’s story as either a chapter or a paragraph in his book, The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.

Achebe’s novel depicts struggle and conflict within the Igbo community before and during colonization. It is precisely this contrast, as well as the focus on customs and interpersonal relations in the village, that sends a message: Conflicts did indeed exist among the Igbo people of this community prior to colonization, but they could be reckoned with and resolved; with colonization came the destruction of Igbo religion, and conflicts soon led not to resolution but to violence and death. The last words of the novel, the title of the district commissioner’s book, reflect the British appropriation of African history: The chronicle of an Igbo village and the life of its leader becomes, by the end of the novel, a mere episode in the history of British colonization.

Multiculturalism and Identity

Colonial rule—the control and assimilation of other nations, their cultures and histories—was not executed without conflict, struggle, and opposition; furthermore, it has left its subjects, colonized peoples, in a state of alienation and either physical or psychological exile from places that were once unquestionably their homes. While colonialism has created two distinct categories of people, colonized and colonizer, each on the opposite side of the power divide, historically it has also caused a blending of races, languages, cultures, and systems of beliefs and values. This mixing of cultures is another principal theme in postcolonial fiction, and it is often developed in the broader context of establishing identity. With what identity are the people of a colonized nation left after centuries of foreign occupation and rule during which their neighbors were exported for labor or they themselves left home in search of legitimating education and experience in Europe? On what cultural identity can an Indian family, for example, depend when the parents speak Hindi yet their children speak only English? What historical legitimacy can a community enjoy when its history has been rewritten by colonizers and when its laws have been overruled by the laws of a foreign land?

The need for an identity not imposed by occupying forces comes from a lack created by the violent intrusion and disruption of “home” by foreign powers. In V. S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas (1961), the house that a Hindu resident of Trinidad, Mr. Biswas, insists on buying but cannot afford becomes a symbol of independence and identity. His is an unlucky life fraught with poverty, lack of love, and failure. Analogous to oppressive, colonizing powers is the Tulsi clan to whom Biswas’s wife remains faithful and who hold him in contempt. Having had enough of homelessness and rambling, Biswas buys the house, no better than a shack, and it stands for his pride, a fortress of autonomy towering above the prejudice and cultural oppression from which he suffers. His house also symbolizes the poverty and weakness that members of minority groups experience in establishing cultural autonomy. The house of Mr. Biswas is a metaphor for his identity: It is at once poor and ramshackle, yet it belongs solely to him. In 2001, Naipaul was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for his “works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories.”


Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1988) deals in more complex terms with the issue of establishing cultural identity in postcolonial Britain and India. Regarding the formation of the postcolonial subject, this novel underscores ambivalence and posits that identity is composed through hybridity. Neither the British subject nor the Indian subject is constituted in a culturally pure fashion; the identities of both consist in effects and qualities of the other. Postcolonial identity is split between the cultural identity produced in the land of the colonizers and that of the colonized land, between British history and Indian history, between formation under British rule, with its concomitant values and customs, and the values and customs of the indigenous culture. From the moment the two cultures meet and clash as part of the colonizing project, neither culture can remain pure or unaffected.

The Satanic Verses expresses this process in terms of good and evil. Rushdie blurs the distinction between the colonizers as evil and the colonized as good by transforming the characteristics of the two protagonists, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha. Gibreel was a poor orphan who became a movie star in Bombay (Mumbai). He achieved stardom by acting the parts of Hindu gods in theological films, and all the women of Bombay desire him. Aside from the divine roles he plays and the archangel his name denotes, he develops the physical attributes of an angel. After the start of the novel, he quickly acquires a halo and the power to entrance whomever he meets. In terms of postcolonial subjectivity, Gibreel initially represents the purity of Indian culture and identity, but by the end of the novel he has become disturbed and delusional, transforming into Azraeel, the angel of death. Gibreel parades around London blowing Azraeel’s trumpet, provoking fires, and pronouncing destruction. Thematically, Gibreel is in London to colonize the land of the colonizer. As archangel, he fancies himself the harbinger of change for humanity, and he declares to the city of London that he intends to “tropicalize” it. In transforming from benevolent angel into the angel of death and destruction, Gibreel represents the absolutist system of values imposed on India by the British. Gibreel, the postcolonial subject, is both good and evil; he is both the culturally pure colonial native and a violent, invading force. His insanity and subsequent death suggest that such absolute, inflexible identities lead to totalitarianism and destruction. In order to thrive, the postcolonial subject must be constituted by a working blend of cultural attributes.

By contrast, Saladin Chamcha is a “brown Englishman,” an Indian made in Britain. Bombay-born, he was sent to English schools as a boy, and there he remained. He has made a career of providing the voices for inanimate objects in British television commercials as well as for the animated cartoon character Maxim Alien. Saladin proves to have the most malleable of British accents, with which he can can pass for a catsup bottle, a proud Englishman, or an alien at will. He has expelled the Indian from himself—lifestyle, face, and voice—and represents the postcolonial Indian subject who has completely subscribed to British ways. It is not surprising that shortly after the start of the novel Saladin begins to grow horns. As the Indian who has betrayed his culture and national identity, Saladin is a product of postcolonial evil. He metamorphoses into a full-blown, eight-foot, goatlike devil. Just as Gibreel undergoes a qualitative transformation from good to bad angel, so Saladin rehumanizes himself upon admitting his hatred for “Mister Perfecto,” Gibreel, who betrayed Saladin at the time of the latter’s unjustified arrest. In the end it is Saladin who makes of himself a successful postcolonial subject: Having received a British education and understanding the position of fellow immigrants in London, he returns to his native Bombay, to his dying father’s side, and there he decides to stay.

The start of the novel presents the situation that brings Saladin and Gibreel together. They take the same plane to London from India, and the plane is hijacked by Sikh militant separatists. They spend more than one hundred days hovering over the British Isles until the plane explodes; Saladin and Gibreel are the sole survivors. As they descend toward English soil, the two protagonists are transmuted into devil and angel, first passing through a state of being one. The process of uniting Saladin and Gibreel in order to separate them as devil and angel represents the cultural and symbolic splitting of the postcolonial subject. The novel then renders ambiguous their respective identities as Gibreel becomes a demonic angel and Saladin develops his sense of humanity through his experience as a devil. Above all, the novel posits that postcolonial identity is not stable, absolute, or fixed; it is always in a process of renegotiating itself. The postcolonial subject is neither a culturally pure colonized native nor a completely converted object of colonizing discipline and control. Postcolonial identity is necessarily a dynamic blend of the qualities, mentalities, and cultural formations of both colonized and colonizer.

Postcolonial fiction is not limited to the themes of exile and alienation, struggle and opposition, and cultural hybridity. Many postcolonial novelists have developed other themes, such as American and European enslavement of Africans, the historical oppression of black people in the United States, and the forced assimilation in North America of minority cultures such as Native Americans, Latinos, and Asian immigrants. Some have addressed the lives of North Africans and their descendants in France and of Turkish immigrants in Germany. Regardless of the topic or setting, however, the postcolonial novel concerns itself with the cultural and political situation created by the colonial project, the necessarily violent and oppressive encounter between colonizer and colonized.

Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Postcolonial Literatures. 2d ed. New York: Routledge, 2002.
Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge, 1994.Boehmer, Elleke. Colonial and Postcolonial Literature: Migrant Metaphors. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Harrison, Nicholas. Postcolonial Criticism: History, Theory, and the Work of Fiction. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2003. L
azarus, Neil, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Postcolonial Literary Studies. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
McLeod, John. Beginning Postcolonialism. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 2000.
Mohanram, Radhika, and Gita Rajan, eds. English Postcoloniality: Literatures from Around the World. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996. Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon, 1978.
Salhi, Kamal, ed. Francophone Post-colonial Cultures: Critical Essays. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2003.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics. New York: Routledge, 1988.
Wisker, Gina. Post-colonial and African American Women’s Writing: A Critical Introduction. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.

Categories: Literature, Novel Analysis

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2 replies

  1. Very good

  2. Very good outline of what postcolonial literature is, and what it is about.

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