The Postcolonial Woman as a Terminological Problem

George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University

The term postcolonial in the phrase "postcolonial women" turns out to be just as problematic as the metaphoric uses of other words related to colonialism. "The coupling of postcolonial with woman," as Sara Suleri points out, almost "inevitably leads to the simplicities that underlie unthinking celebrations of oppression, elevating the racially female voice into a metaphor for 'the good.' Such metaphoricity cannot be called exactly essentialist, but it certainly functions as an impediment to a reading that attempts to look beyond obvious questions of good and evil" and provides "an iconicity that is altogether too good to be true."

What Suleri calls this "rectitude" -- this too easy certainty of the speaker or writer's moral and political superiority -- provides the "theoretical undoing" of such terminology and argument on several grounds. First, its tends to empty the word postcolonialism of its historical force and value: "Where the term once referred exclusively to the discursive practices produced by the historical fact of prior colonization in certain geographically specific segments of the world, it is now more of an abstraction." And this abstraction comes at a great cost:

this reimaging of the postcolonial closes as many epistemological possibilities as it opens. On the one hand, it allows for a vocabulary of cultural migrancy, which helpfully derails the postcolonial condition from the strictures of national histories, and thus makes way for the theoretical articulations best typified by Homi Bhabha's recent anthology, Nation and Narration (1990). On the other hand, the current metaphorization of postcolonialism threatens to become so amorphous as to repudiate any locality for cultural thickness. A symptom of the terminological and theoretical dilemma is astutely read in Kwame Anthony Appiah's essay, "Is the Post- in Postmodernisms" 1989: 28). The acute embarrassment generated by such an idiom could possibly be regarded as a radical rhetorical strategy designed to induce racial discomfort in its audience, but it more frequently registers as black feminism's failure to move beyond the proprietary rights that can be claimed by any oppressed discourse.

One reason for such metaphorization of the term postcolonial, like that of the term colonize, lies in its convenience as a way of assigning values and establishing the moral superiority of both the critic and the critic's topic. A second appears in the almost necessary ignorance of most of us involved in working with postcolonial texts: after working for three decades with Victorian English literature, art, and culture, I have a sense of what I do and do not know about them. In contrast, like most contemporary students of postcoloniality, I have no such detailed knowledge of the individual cultures that produced the postcolonial texts I read and teach -- in part because I do not know the indigenous languages that rival and shape texts in English and in part because these texts come from so many different countries. Unfortunately, having grown up within a former colony does not help all that much, since although one can speak with more authority (!) about one's own country, one cannot do so about the experience of colonialism and postcolonialism in general. Nigerian poets and critics cannot, in other words, speak for those from India and Australia.

What practical and theoretical approaches, then, must (or can) the student of postcolonial texts in English take? What does the reader's purpose have to do with this problem?


Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literratures. London: Routledge, 1989.

Bhabha, Homi K. (ed.) Nation and Narration, New York: Routledge and Keegan Paul, 1990.

Suleri, Sara. 'Woman Skin Deep: Feminism and the Postcolonial Condition.' Critical Inquiry 18. (1992): 756-69

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