Postcolonial Literature: From Colony to Computation
A civilization depends upon the fictions that its people use to understand themselves, their relation to each other, and to the places they live. It’s therefore no coincidence that for most of the history of English literature, Western readers have presumed that the best literature, in fact the only literature worth reading, has come from the First World—from England and its settler nations. This literature provided its readers with a shared understanding of how they should behave and is in this sense partly responsible for producing the cultural sensibilities that limit what and, crucially, who is excluded from a society. This is no less true for today’s globally interconnected world as it was for the readers at the height of the British Empire. A study of a society’s literary forms provides us with a way to understand how a given population understands itself and its relation to those it excludes from its social interactions.
So, what does it mean when the majority of literature produced by the First World fails to mention its dependence on colonialism, past and present? In this class, we’ll explore how this murky division between history and fiction has come to shape how writers and readers alike understand their relation to the past, the present, and to their means of expression through literary genre. To do so, we look to the fictions of the twentieth and twenty-first century from the former British Empire and Commonwealth—both those considered by that Empire as central, as well as those considered peripheral. We will discover how the most prolific writers of those centuries came up with strategies in order to come to terms with, or hide, the historical facts of empire and its continuing effects on their present day. As we move through some of the most important works of fiction written during the twentieth and into the twenty-first century, we’ll tease out some of the issues to emerge out of the uneasy relation between colonial history and literature as it appears in the novel, drama, poetry, and film: cultural-nationalism, diaspora, and globalization; histories, identities, and generational shifts; literary form and the idea of “postcolonial literature.”