Postcolonial English Literature: Characteristic Features




Postcolonial English literature aims to dismantle Eurocentric narratives to help create an inclusive society with social justice, and equality. Some of the characteristic features of Postcolonial English literature can be summarised as follows:

1. Decolonization and Independence

Postcolonial literature emerges in the aftermath of colonial rule and often reflects the struggles and aspirations of nations and communities during the process of decolonization and the attainment of independence. It explores the themes of liberation, nationalism and the challenges of nation building. Chinua Achebe’s novel Arrow of God is an example of postcolonial literature that depicts the political and cultural upheaval in Nigeria during the period leading to its independence from British colonial rule.

2. Hybridity and Cultural Mixing

Postcolonial English literature embraces the notion of hybridity, which refers to the blending and mixing of diverse cultures, identities and languages. It explores the complex interplay between indigenous traditions and the influences of colonizers, resulting in the formation of unique cultural expression. Derek Walcott’s epic poem Omeros, for example, weaves together Caribbean, European, and African cultural elements reflecting the diverse heritage of the region.

3. Representation and Identity

Post colonial literature challenges dominant representations and stereotypes perpetuated by colonial powers. It aims to present more authentic and nuanced depictions of the experiences, history and identities of marginalised and colonised peoples, often focusing on the intersectionality of race, class, gender and ethnicity. For example, Tony Morrison’s novel Beloved examines the psychological and emotional impact of slavery on African Americans providing a voice of those whose stories were silenced or distorted by the dominant narratives.

4. Historical Revisionism and Counter-Narratives

Postcolonial literature involves in challenging and re-evaluating dominant historical narrative, questioning established accounts, and providing alternative perspectives on colonial history. Postcolonial writers aim to disrupt the colonial narratives that have shaped our understanding of the past. They seek to reclaim, reinterpret, and rewrite historical account from the standpoint of the colonised.

Historical Revisionism in postcolonial English literature involves critically examining the historical events, figures and interpretations propagated by colonial powers. It seeks to unveil the biases, omissions and distortions within the dominant historical accounts which often served to justify colonialism and reinforce the colonizer’s power.

Counter-narrative is closely related to historical revisionism and involves providing alternative perspective to challenge dominant narratives. Postcolonial literature offers counter narrative that present the stories and viewpoints of the colonised, subverting the colonial gaze and filling the gaps in the historical records.

An example of historical revisionism and counter-narrative can be seen in the works of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, a Kenyan writer. In his novel Petals of Blood Thiong’o revisits the history of Kenya’s struggle for independence and challenges the official colonial narratives. He exposes the contradictions and failures of postcolonial national-building project critiquing both colonial and postcolonial power structures. Through this counter narrative, Thiong’o highlights the complexities of the colonial past and its continued influence on the present.

5. Subversion of Colonial Language and Form

The subversion of colonial language and form is a distinct characteristic feature of postcolonial English literature. It refers to the deliberate challenge and subversion of the linguistic and literary norms imposed by the colonial powers, as well as the exploration of alternative modes of expression rooted in indigenous cultures and languages. This subversion aims to reclaim cultural identity, resist linguistic dominance, and disrupt the power dynamics inherent in colonial language and literary traditions present in post-colonial societies.

The poetry of Kamau Brathwaite, a prominent Caribbean poet, exemplifies works that subvert colonial language and form. In his collection The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy, Brathwaite combines elements of standard English with elements of Creole and African languages, creating a unique poetic language that reflects the cultural and historical experiences of the Caribbean. This linguistics subversion challenges the dominance of colonial English language and celebrates the rich linguistic heritage of the region.

6. Representation of Marginalised Voices

Representation of marginalised voices is a significant characteristic feature of Postcolonial English literature. It involves giving voice to individuals and communities who have been historically marginalised, silenced or overlooked due to the impacts of colonialism. Postcolonial literature seeks to rectify the historical imbalance by amplifying the voices and stories of the marginalised groups including indigenous peoples, people of colour, women and other marginalised communities. Through literature, these voices are able to express their unique perspectives, articulate their struggles, and offer counter-narratives to challenge existing power structures.

A notable example of the representation of marginalised voices can be found in the works of the renowned Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. In his seminal novel Things Fall Apart, Achebe presents Igbo culture and society in pre-colonial Nigeria. By centring the Igbo perspective, Achebe counters the dominant Western narrative that portrayed African cultures as primitive or inferior. Achebe provides insight into the complexities of Igbo society, its values, traditions and the effects of colonialism on the community. This representation of marginalised voices challenges colonial stereotypes and offers a rich understanding of the cultural, social and historical context from an African perspective.

By representing marginalised voices, postcolonial literature seeks to rectify historical injustices, challenge oppressive structures and provide a more inclusive understanding of the world. It offers readers an opportunity to engage with perspectives that has often been silenced and ignored, fostering empathy, understanding and dismantling of stereotypes and prejudices. Through the representation of marginalised voices, post colonial English literature aims to promote social justice, empower the marginalised and work towards are more just and inclusive society.

7. Critique of Colonial Power Structures

Postcolonial writers employ their works to critically examine the power dynamics and hierarchy inherent in colonialism. They expose the injustices, inequalities and oppressive systems perpetuated by colonial rule, shedding light on the experiences of the colonised and challenging the dominance of the colonizers. This critique takes various forms, ranging from direct confrontations to subtle subversions.

For example, in Aravind Adiga’s novel The White Tiger, Adiga examines the power structures in postcolonial India, exploring the socio-economic disparities and corruption prevalent in the country. Through the protagonist Balram, the novel critiques the oppressive systems perpetuated (means “continued) by the ruling elite and exposes the exploitation of the underprivileged classes. It provides a scathing (means “severely critical”) commentary on the lingering (means “lasting”) effects of colonialism and its impact on power dynamics.

By shining a light on the inequalities and injustices perpetuated by the colonial powers, postcolonial authors aim to dismantle (means “tear down”) existing hierarchies, raise awareness, and foster (means “promote”) a re-evaluation of historical narratives. The critique of colonial power structures within postcolonial English literature prompts reader to reflect on the lasting impacts of colonialism and motivates them to work for social justice and equality.

8. Focus on Identity and Belonging

Postcolonial English literature probes into (means “examine”) the complications of identity formation and the quest for a sense of belonging in the aftermath (means “consequence”) of colonialism. Such works explore how individuals and communities navigate their cultural, racial and hybrid identities in a post-colonial world. They examine the challenges, conflicts and negotiations that arise in the process.

Postcolonial literature often represent the experiences of characters who grapple (means “struggle”) with the questions of identity, cultural displacement and the impacts of colonialism on their sense of self. These works talk about the struggles faced by individuals who are torn between their indigenous heritage and the cultural influences imposed by the colonizers. They often present the themes of assimilation, cultural hybridity and the longing for a connection to one’s roots.

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Cultural displacement refers to the experience of individuals or groups being uprooted from their familiar cultural environment, often due to factors like migration, colonization, or forced relocation. It involves the loss of one’s original cultural context and the challenges of adapting to a new one, which can lead to feelings of disconnection, identity issues, and cultural shock. This concept highlights the impact of such transitions on a person’s or community’s cultural identity and practices.

An excellent example of this characteristic feature of postcolonial English literature can be found in Zadie Smith’s novel White Teeth. It explores the lives of a series of characters from diverse cultural backgrounds living in London. The novel delves into the struggles and complexities of navigating hybrid identities, cultural clashes and the search for belonging in a multicultural metropolis. The novel describes the challenges faced by character who struggle to establish a sense of self amidst diverse cultural influences and the legacies of colonialism.

Postcolonial English literature questions the notion of fixed identity categories and examines the fluidity and hybridity of cultural, racial, and national affiliation (means “association”).

9. Engagement with Postcolonial Theory

Postcolonial English literature, naturally, engages with Postcolonial Theory. It refers to the incorporation and exploration of concepts, themes, and frameworks developed by postcolonial theorists in literary works. This engagement helps to generate a deeper understanding of the complex dynamics and legacies of colonialism within literature.

Postcolonial theorists such as Homi Bhaba, Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, and Franz Fanon have offered critical insights into the effects of colonialism on societies, cultures, identities and power dynamics. Postcolonial literature engages with their theories to shed light on the nuances of postcolonial experiences. It uses these theories as lenses through which to analyse and critique the colonial and postcolonial situations.

An example of engagement with post colonial theory can be seen in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s novel Nervous Conditions. Dangarembga explores themes of gender, race and colonialism in colonial Rhodesia (Present-day Zimbabwe). The novel engages with postcolonial theories of identity, cultural hybridity, and the impacts of colonial education. Through the characters’ perspectives and experiences, the author highlights the difficulties and tensions resulting from colonialism, and its effects on personal and social identities.

By incorporating postcolonial theory, Postcolonial English literature becomes a platform for both scholarly and creative engagement with the intricacies of postcolonial experiences. This engagement contributes to academic discourse and social critique, encouraging readers to question and challenge prevailing narratives, power structures, and inequalities within postcolonial societies. It helps deepen our understanding of the multifaceted nature of postcolonial literature and its broader socio-political implications.


© Md. Rustam Ansari []


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