Postcolonial Identity, PostColonial Literature

Heather Sofield, English 119, Brown University, 1999


Part 6 of "Who Am I? : Negotiation of Identity in A Post -Colonial State"


The Nobel prize-winning Carribbean poet Derek Walcott declares that history in the Third World has thus far produced only a "literature of recrimination and revenge written by the descendants of slaves or a literature of remorse written by the descendants of masters" (Walcott, p.371), and this claim is certainly substantiated in the above-cited writings. These authors have shown us only the negative consequences of colonialism. Is it possible that there is another path leading from the crossroads of which Achebe speaks? A means of negotiating the conflicting cultures to achieve a solid and positive sense of identity?

Achebe's seems to be a vision of optimism sharply contrasting the examples in literature. But we understand his ideas more clearly when viewed in the context of his own quest for identity. He credits his first book as being the primary step in his peace-making process. "Although I did not set about it in that solemn way I now know that my first book, Things Fall Apart, was an act of atonement with my past, the ritual return and homage of a prodigal son." (Achebe, p.193) Achebe has used his education as a means by which to strengthen, not demean, his cultural heritage; a means to forge a new identity of his own.

There are many others who share this optimistic view and maintain that it is indeed possible to find a positive sense of identity in a post-colonial state. Further, literature of post-colonial nations, while being a means for personal inquiry as was the case for Chinua Achebe and his first book, can function as a forum that fosters an exchange of ideas and encourages that same personal inquiry on the part of the reader. Instead of offering portraits of loss and grievance, authors might utilize their talents to re-invent identity, thus offering a new perspective to readers looking to literature for inspiration or guidance.

Michael Dash's essay "Marvelous Realism; The Way out of Negritude," claims that "one feature of Third World writers which distinguishes them as a literary fraternity is the fundamental dialogue with history in which they are involved" (199). Because of the dynamics of their socio-political environments make it impossible for a Third World or post-colonial writer to create something separable from local and national political history.

As I have already mentioned, heretofore this literature has focused on "desperate protest" against injustices of the past, thereby characterizing identity in a retributive light. But Dash remains convinced that now is the time for post-colonial literature to act as a vehicle for progression, much in the manner suggested by Achebe. He believes that dwelling on the negative incidences of colonialism hinders a nation from recognizing its own power of survival and adaptation. As he says,

colonization did not make things of men, but in their own way the enslaved people might have in their own imagination so reordered their reality as to reach beyond the tangible and concrete and to acquire a new re-creative sensibility which could aid in the harsh battle for survival. (200).

Dash calls this a counter-culture of the imagination.

While Dash is speaking more generally of an entire population, this idea might be applicable to an individual struggling for a sense of self. While it may be very difficult for an African to affirm such a sense in a society which is obsessed with "whiteness", the counter-culture of the imagination serves as a vehicle of transformation, wherein one may reinvent without observing the restrictions imposed by history and society. And certainly it is easy to see the importance of literature as a vehicle by which to disseminate such views. While African tradition remains primarily and most powerfully oral, the importance of the written word in this evolving hybrid society should never be underestimated. While it may differ somewhat from the manner in which I imagined myself to be Anne of Green Gables when I was a girl, it is not unreasonable to assume that African students and citizens will look to their literature for heroes and inspirations.

If it is possible then to use education and literature as tools to successfully forge a sense of identity in a society torn between dominator and dominated, what then can we say about the position of English in African academics, and the usage of the English language in African literature?

First, let us address the issue of language. It could be said that writing African literature in English is a capitulation of sorts. The use of a foreign language sends a mixed message and demeans the tale. It should not be called African literature because it is in English. What could a reader ascertain or conclude about his or her own identity when s/he must confront in a single volume the undying conflict between African and English. Even if the literature itself serves to provide a progressive positive conceptualization of post-colonial society, thus encouraging a similar self-identification, does the use of a foreign language completely undermine such a message?

In 1975 Chinua Achebe gave a speech entitled "The African Writer and the English Language". He answered the above challenge with these words,

"Is it right that a man should abandon his mother tongue for someone else's? It looks like a dreadful betrayal and produces a guilty feeling. But for me there is no other choice. I have been given the language and I intend to use it." (Thiong'o, p.285)

African writer Gabriel Okara also addresses the issue of writing African literature in English. He wrote,

"Some may regard this way of writing in English as a desecration of the language. This is of course not true. Living languages grow like living things, and English is far from a dead language.... Why shouldn't there be a Nigerian or West African English which we can use to express our own ideas, thinking and philosophy in our own way?" (Thiong'o, p.287)

Again, Achebe agrees,

"I feel that the English language will be able to carry the weight of my African experience. But it will have to be a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit new African surroundings." (Thiong'o, p.286)

These two African writers agree that there is no use returning to a moot past. In order to successfully find a sense of identity, it is necessary to recognize the infiltration of foreign culture. Zimbabwe is in fact a new hybrid culture and the use of the English language is evidence. But it is not traitorous to tradition or culture rather writing in English is a way of giving new life and form. A way to affirm the possibility of existing in a foreign culture. For example, if we imagine the English language as representing western culture, post-colonial literature is an example of a successful cultural transplant. Post-colonial literature written in English should only serve to strengthen a sense of identity by proving that African values and ideas can survive the translation. The key is to make the language one's own, to incorporate rather than being incorporated.

Returning to my earlier question, what is the role of education then in discovering this new, stronger, kind of identity?

Dangarembga's novel most clearly illustrates the impact of education. Tambu learned almost entirely in "white" schools - created and administered by whites. In such a surrounding, recognizing the importance of education in the formation of identity, it is not surprising that Tambu changed in such a drastic way. Eager to learn, and benefit her family, she was receptive to the influences surrounding her. When we are young, and even as we grow older, we are ready to believe what people tell us. Tambu entered the mission school with a strong sense of self but quickly learned that white people were more beautiful and therefore more deserving of love and respect than were Africans. She is educated to abandon her identity.

In 1972, Ngugi Wa Thiong'o presented a co-authored argument for the abolition of the English Department and the creation of a new department devoted to the study of African languages and literatures. Some of his arguments have great relevance when considered in relation to a concept of identity in a post-colonial state and might be the answer to this question.

Thiong'o first considers reasons why English language and literature has been studied instead of African, and then calls to question the real importance of the former discipline. He advocates a more centralized worldview, through which African states refuse to accept the attitude that they are essentially still colonies - existing under, or peripheral to, the Western world. A more centralized conceptualization of national identity is necessary.

"The aim, in short, should be to orientate ourselves towards placing Kenya, East Africa, and then Africa in the centre. All other things are to be considered in their relevance to our situation, and their contributions towards understanding ourselves."

He identifies the most important role of education as its ability to serve as a

"means of knowledge about ourselves. Therefore, after we have examined ourselves, we radiate outwards and discover peoples and worlds around us."
As America is the center of the map for an American, and England for a Briton, so should Africa be the center to Africans, not
"existing as an appendix or satellite of other countries and literatures." (Thiong'o, p.441)

So, perhaps a change in perspective and direction in African education systems is necessary. It is certainly the direction advocated by many post-colonial theorists and writers. Such a change would serve to strengthen a sense of nationalism and self-worth while also building a secure foundation from which an individual may begin to negotiate the complicated issues of foreign culture and influence and then forge his/her own identity. The difficulty in discovering identity in a post-colonial state can be attributable to a certain lack of self-confidence - either in an individual or a nation, subconscious or conscious. How can one hold on to one's cultural legacy with pride if it appears to have no value or potential? But if one acquires a vision in which those attributes are appreciated for their true value, s/he has also discovered the very source of strength required for reconciliation. With these tools to aid in the journey, the crossroads can be navigated successfully and the subsequent path might lead to a brighter, more positive, but certainly stronger, future.


Who Am I? : Negotiation of Identity in A Post-Colonial State


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