(More) Problems with the Term PostcoloniaL

© 1997 Anthony R. Guneratne, Department of English Language and Literature, National University of Singapore

To Robert Stam, Ella Shohat, Hamid Naficy and Trinh Minh-ha, . . . and to Ken Saro-Wiwa who can no longer walk with us.

[The following essay, which is Part One of Anthony R. Guneratne's "Virtual Spaces of Postcoloniality: Rushdie, Ondaatje, Naipaul, Bakhtin and the Others," has been adapted, with kind permission of the author, from the no-longer extant NUS site on which the original paper for the First Conference on Postcolonial Theory appeared. [External Link]  = linked materials not in the original print version.GPL]

"When," an Indian friend of mine (with a progressive cast of mind and a firm conviction in the idea of technological advancement) asked in exasperation, "does the state of postcoloniality end?" Questions of the same order have been plaguing literary scholars for a while, and a number of profound thinkers and theorists have done their best to abolish the term "postcolonial" altogether. In articles first published in 1994 in the journal Social Text, both Ella Shohat and Anne McClintock point out that "postcolonialism" never really existed except as a designation of convenience, and that it is no more, in essence, than colonialism attached to a "post-" (and straining at its tether to reassert its modes of thought).

In an essay of more than a decade earlier Salman Rushdie made a seemingly parallel argument: he, too, sought to banish an insufficient term, "Commonwealth," which according to him creates an "exclusive ghetto" whose effect is to change the meaning of English literature into "something far narrower, something topographical, nationalistic, possibly even racially segregationist." Rushdie went on to point out that "at best, what is called 'Commonwealth literature' is positioned below English literature proper," placing "Eng. Lit. at the center of the world and the rest of the world at the periphery," a situation which inverts priorities and obscures more fundamental literary issues. (I paraphrase Rushdie's angry essay, "'Commonwealth Literature' Does Not Exist" Imaginary Homelands 61-70.)

There is a distinction, however, between Rushdie's denunciation of "Commonwealth" and the no less passionate attacks of recent critics on "postcolonialism." For Shohat and McClintock the thing described by the offending word is no more real than the world mapped by colonialism, while for Rushdie it is not the thing described (to which he permits a tangible existence) but the concept represented by the term itself which is an insidious "chimera." Rushdie's essay is replete with references to writers -- Indian, Latin American and African -- who do share a certain commonality of experience, and throughout he is a celebrant of what he calls a "transnational, cross-lingual process of pollination" (69) -- what the Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin terms, with no less approbation, "polyglossia" Bakhtin introduces the concept of polyglossia in his early essay "Epic and Novel" (The Dialogic Imagination 12), although he elaborates on its import only in his longer works (61-67).) Indeed, even in his fictions Rushdie seems to delight in the word "mongrel," a term he associates particularly with the grand melange that is India, but which can be applied more broadly to a polyglot state.

The occasion for my embracing "mongrel," however, is not Rushdie's predilection for it, but its use in 1996 by an Australian politician to describe the offspring of parents of mixed race. As a term which has already won some celebrity in other contexts, and one which would easily encompass such freckled monsters as Joyce and Yeats in the same polyglot potpourri (and those poor creatures could only wish they were postcolonial), it seems to have no less a ring to it than other fortunate pejoritives like "Impressionist" or "Fauve," and surely could be adopted with no less felicity than Aimé Césaire's "négritude." Moreover, the program for a theory of mongrel literature is already present, albeit in a form I do not find entirely acceptable, in Rushdie's essay:

. . . if we were to forget about "Commonwealth Literature," we might see that there is a kind of commonality about much literature, in many languages, emerging from those parts of the world which one could loosely term the less powerful, or the powerless. The magical realism of the Latin Americans influences Indian-language writers in India today. The rich, folk-tale quality of a novel like Sandro of Chegem, by the Muslim Russian Fazil Iskander, finds its parallels in the work-for instance-of the Nigerian, Amos Tutuola, or even Cervantes. It is possible, I think, to begin to theorize common factors between writers from these societies-poor countries, or deprived minorities in powerful countries-and to say that much of what is new in world literature comes from this group. This seems to me to be a "real" theory, bounded by frontiers which are neither political nor linguistic but imaginative. [69-69]

Where I think Rushdie falters in his definition is in vacillating in his choice of umbrella under which his writers shelter, at one moment an economic and political one, at another "imaginative." Interestingly, long before Rushdie placed the writers from the margins at the center of "what is new in world literature," Mikhail Bakhtin had made rather similar claims about the distinctive and innovative qualities of novelistic discourse; for instance, in "Epic and Novel" (The Dialogic Imagination 11-12).

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Last Modified: 18 March, 2002