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An Ex-Mas Feast

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By definition, post colonialism is a period of time after colonialism, and postcolonial literature is typically characterized by its opposition to the colonial. However, some critics have argued that any literature that expresses an opposition to colonialism, even if it is produced during a colonial period, may be defined as postcolonial, primarily due to its oppositional nature. Postcolonial literature often focuses on race relations and the effects of racism and usually indicts white and/or colonial societies. Despite a basic consensus on the general themes of postcolonial writing, however, there is ongoing debate regarding the meaning of post colonialism. Many critics now propose that the term should be expanded to include the literatures of Canada, the United States, and Australia.

In his essay discussing the nature and boundaries of post colonialism, Simon During argues for a more inclusive definition, calling it “the need, in nations, or groups which have been victims of imperialism to achieve an identity uncontaminated by universalist or Eurocentric concepts or images.” The scale and scope of modern European imperialism, as well as its extraordinarily organized character, including the cultural licensing of racial domination, has sometimes led to the perception of colonization as a modern phenomenon. In fact, many critics propose that modern colonialism was not a discrete occurrence and that an examination of premodern colonial activities will allow for a greater and more complex understanding of modern structures of power and domination, serving to illuminate the operation of older histories in the context of both modern colonialism and contemporary race and global political relations.

Works of literature that are defined as postcolonial often record racism or a history of genocide, including slavery, apartheid, and the mass extinction of peoples, such as the Aborigines in Australia. Critical response to these texts is often seen as an important way to articulate and negotiate communication between writers who define themselves as postcolonial and critics who are not part of that experience. In her introduction to Post-Colonial and African American Women’s Writing,published in 2000, Gina Wisker notes that the indictment present in many postcolonial texts tends to produce guilt or feelings of inherited complicity in many readers. Also, although writing about these texts may raise the level of awareness of both the texts and their writers, some postcolonial writers see reflected in this activity an arrogant assumption about the need for noncolonial cultures to recognize postcolonial writers. Similarly, other critics have noted that critical response that focuses entirely on the essential nature of black or Asian writers may also serve to marginalize their writing by supposing their experiences as largely a product of being “other” than European.

Postcolonialism includes a vast array of writers and subjects. In fact, the very different geographical, historical, social, religious, and economic concerns of the different ex-colonies dictate a wide variety in the nature and subject of most postcolonial writing. Wisker has noted in her book that it is even simplistic to theorize that all postcolonial writing is resistance writing. In fact, many postcolonial writers themselves will argue that their countries are still very much colonial countries, both in terms of their values and behaviors, and that these issues are reflected in their work. In her essay on postcolonialism, Deepika Bahri agrees, noting that while the definition of postcolonialism may be fairly boundaried, the actual use of the term is very subjective, allowing for a yoking together of a very diverse range of experiences, cultures, and problems. This diversity of definitions exists, notes Bahri, because the term postcolonialism is used both as a literal description of formerly colonial societies and as a description of global conditions after a period of colonialism. In this regard, according to Bahri, the notion of the “postcolonial” as a literary genre and an academic construct may have meanings that are completely separate from a historical moment or time period .

Some women colonial writers draw a relationship between postcolonialism and feminism. For many of these writers, who live in strong patriarchal cultures, language and the ability to write and communicate represent power. Some of these writers, for example, have noted that since the language of British-ruled colonies is English, literature written in English has often been used to marginalize and constrain female points of view. In the postcolonial period, however, language, and the ability to speak, write, and publish, has become an enabling tool for postcolonial authors.

The motif of Orientalism played an important role in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literary works in Europe. Fueling the creative imaginations of artists, literary figures, and in fact all of Europe, this fascination with the Orient also influenced many of the Romantic writers, who situated novels and poetry alike in the mysterious far-off lands of Turkey, India, the Middle-East, and Asia. Relations between East and West first gained widespread political and social importance during the Crusades (1096-1271), when religious hostility between the Muslim and Christian worlds exploded into a power struggle to recapture lands taken by the “Infidels.” However, while failing to successfully recapture the Holy Land, the Crusades opened up increasingly accessible channels to the East. Returning Crusaders brought back stories and goods from the far-off lands they had seen, which excited the popular imagination and created a thirst for greater contact with the Orient. The East became an intriguing destination for travelers, many of whom went on to write about their experiences in exotic lands among unfamiliar peoples and customs. Further, the establishment of trade routes, and the placement of European diplomats, dignitaries, and a military presence in Eastern countries brought more frequent contact and greater familiarity with the once virtually unknown Orient.

Although the earliest travelogues written by Westerners depicted inhabitants of the Orient as “Noble Savages,” they also provided sources of inspiration for Western writers. Scholars point out that there were approximately seventy travel books written during the period between 1775 and 1825. One of the most famous accounts were the letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who visited Istanbul in 1717 while accompanying her husband, Lord Montagu, Ambassador of the Levant Company, on a trip to Turkey. Her “Turkish Letters,” published posthumously in 1763, described harem life for the first time for English readers. Considered scandalous because of Lady Montagu’s detailed, nonjudgmental observations of Oriental sexual practices and the custom of polygamy, this work enthralled readers and became a favorite source of information for many writers. In addition to travelogues, this time period was marked by a flowering of scholarship on Eastern literature, history, philosophy, and religion.

George Sale completed his translation of the Koran, and such scholars as William Jones (who translated from Arabic, Persian, Hebrew, and Sanskrit) acquainted Western readers for the first time with such texts as the Mahabharata and the Arabian Nights.The Arabian Nights in particular became a favorite in Europe, giving rise to an enormous number of imitators who wrote their own Oriental tales and romances. In a wider context, the vogue for Orientalism was also aided by historic events: Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt in 1798 called attention to the military as well as the cultural importance of that region, and the Greek War of Independence (1821-28) enjoyed widespread support in England, most notably from Lord Byron, who personally traveled to Greece to join the forces fighting against the Ottoman Turks. Additionally, colonization by England and other Western countries meant that many more people traveled to the Orient and eventually shared their experiences in written form, giving rise to a large body of memoirs, diaries, geographies, histories, and manuals. In literature as well as in art, the Orient became associated with lush landscapes, eroticism, mystery, rich costume, and fierce military campaigns.

English Romantic writers in search of the unusual and picturesque soon began to incorporate Oriental themes and subjects into their works. Many scholars consider William Beckford’s novel Vathek(1786) a landmark of Orientalism. An Eastern romance, it is set in an imaginary Arabian or Turkish land. Its protagonist, the Caliph Vathek, who is half human and half demon, indulges his sensual appetite, faces djinns and genii, and winds up damned to eternal torment in a variation of the Faust theme. While this work has long been considered the prime example of the Orientalist craze in Europe, more recent critics have pointed out that, despite its Oriental trappings, its themes are essentially Western ones.

Moreover, Beckford relied on Oriental detail to such an excessive extent in Vathek that the work simultaneously becomes a parody of the style. Romantic writers Lord Byron, Thomas Moore, Robert Southey, and many others nevertheless continued to write in the Orientalist mode, mining the texts of Sir William Jones and other Oriental scholars for details about primitive Oriental landscape, dress, and military strategy, which they incorporated into their works. The Romantic emphasis on liberty also politicized their poetry, so that many of the Orientalist works—for example, Robert Southey’s Thalaba (1801), Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh (1817), and Lord Byron’s “Turkish Tales”—depict the struggle to overthrow a powerful Oriental tyrant.

Critics who have studied Orientalism in Europe, especially in nineteenth-century literature, have pointed out that there is much that can be learned about the West’s image of itself through the way Western writers have depicted the Orient. Recently, scholars such as Edward W. Said, Eric Meyer, and Jerome Christensen have focused on ways in which Orientalism reflects European preoccupations. The idea of the Oriental as the “Other,” or mysterious unknown, reflects European concerns about a changing, expanding world full of new uncertainties and questions about one’s own identity. To these critics, literary Orientalism must also be viewed in light of colonial expansion by Western countries and is problematized by Western political power and the self-appointed mission of “bringing civilization” to the Orient. Some scholars have pointed out elements of this issue in the works of such poets as Percy Bysshe Shelley and Alfred Lord Tennyson, who were drawn to the mythologies of other cultures but felt bound by their Christianity to distance themselves from such influence.

Critics such as Patrick Brantlinger, Reina Lewis, and Alicia Carroll have explored how Orientalism in literature influenced and, in some cases, constituted a critique of British nationalism through characterization, choice of theme, and treatment of both Oriental and domestic settings. Another avenue of criticism concerning Orientalism that has attracted attention is the handling of gender in Orientalist writings. Alan Richardson, Meyda Yeğenoğlu, and Joseph W. Lew, among others, have written about the role of women, especially in the writings of Lord Byron, where the veiled Muslim woman symbolizes the ultimate “Other” who can also reveal much about the individual confronting her as well as about Western patriarchy. The wealth of material concerning the Orient that was produced in nineteenth-century Europe allows for a unique understanding of the development of East-West relations, and ensures continued vigorous scholarly interest in Orientalism.

African Literature

Despite the ignorance of most so called “literati” to the domain of African literature, African literature in fact is one of the main currents of world literature, stretching continuously and directly back to ancient history. Achebe did not “invent” African Literature, because he himself was inundated with it as an African. He simply made more people aware of it. The Beginnings of African Literature

The first African literature is circa 2300-2100, when ancient Egyptians begin using burial texts to accompany their dead. These include the first written accounts of creation – the Memphite Declaration of Deities. Not only that, but ‘papyrus’, from which we originate our word for paper, was invented by the Egyptians, and writing flourished. In contrast, Sub-Saharan Africa feature a vibrant and varied oral culture. To take into account written literary culture without considering literary culture is definitely a mistake, because they two interplay heavily with each other. African oral arts are “art’s for life’s sake” (Mukere) not European “art’s for art’s sake”, and so may be considered foreign and strange by European readers.

However, they provide useful knowledge, historical knowledge, ethical wisdom, and creative stimuli in a direct fashion. Oral culture takes many forms: proverbs and riddles, epic narratives, oration and personal testimony, praise poetry and songs, chants and rituals, stories, legends and folk tales. This is present in the many proverbs told in Things Fall Apart, and the rich cultural emphasis of that book also is typically African. The earliest written Sub-Saharan Literature (1520) is heavily influenced by Islamic literature. The earliest example of this is the anonymous history of the city-state of Kilwa Kisiwani. The first African history, History of the Sudan, is written by Abd al-Rahman al-Sadi in Arabic style. Traveling performers, called griots, kept the oral tradition alive, especially the legends of the Empire of Mali. In 1728 the earliest written Swahili work, Utendi wa Tambuka borrows heavily from Muslim tradition. However, there are little to no Islamic presence in Things Fall Apart.

The Period of Colonization
With the period of Colonization, African oral traditions and written works came under a serious outside threat. Europeans, justifying themselves with the Christian ethics, tried to destroy the “pagan” and “primitive” culture of the Africans, to make them more pliable slaves. However, African Literature survived this concerted attack. In 1789, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustava Vassa was the first slave narrative to be published. Kidnapped from Nigeria, this Ibo man wrote his autobiography in Great Britain in English, and like Achebe used his narrative as a platform to attack the injustices of slavery and cultural destruction. Back in Africa, Swahili poetry threw off the dominating influence of Islam and reverted back to native Bantu forms. One exemplar of this was Utendi wa Inkishafi (Soul’s Awakening), a poem detailing the vanity of earthly life. The Europeans, by bringing journalism and government schools to Africa, helped further the development of literature.

Local newspapers abounded, and often they featured sections of local African poetry and short stories. While originally these fell close to the European form, slowly they broke away and became more and more African in nature. One of these writers was Oliver Schreiner, whose novel Story of an African Farm (1883) is considered the first African classic analysis of racial and sexual issues. Other notable writers, such as Samuel Mqhayi and Thomas Mofolo begin portraying Africans as complex and human characters. Achebe was highly influenced by these writers in their human portrayal of both sides of colonization. Emerging from Paris in the 1920s and 1930s, the negritude movement established itself as one of the premiere literary movements of its time. It was a French-speaking African search for identity, which ofcourse took them back to their roots in Africa. Africa was made into a metaphorical antipode to Europe, a golden age utopia, and was often represented allegorically as a woman. In a 1967 interview, Cesaire explained: “We lived in an atmosphere of rejection, and we developed an inferiority complex.”

The desire to establish an identity begins with “a concrete consciousness of what we are–…that we are black . . . and have a history. . . [that] there have been beautiful and important black civilizations…that its values were values that could still make an important contribution to the world.” LĂ©opold SĂ©dar Senghor, one of the prime thinkers of this movement, eventually became president of the country of Senegal, creating a tradition of African writers becoming active political figures. Achebe was doubtless familiar with the negritude movement, although he preferred to less surrealistic and more realistic writing. In 1948, African literature came to the forefront of the world stage with Alan Paton’s publishing of Cry the Beloved Country.

However, this book was a somewhat paternalistic and sentimental portrayal of Africa. Another African writer, Fraz Fanon, also a psychiatrist, becomes famous in 1967 through a powerful analysis of racism from the African viewpoint – Black Skin, White Masks. Camara Laye explored the deep psychological ramification of being African in his masterpiece, The Dark Child (1953), and African satire is popularized by Mongo Beti and Ferdinand Oyono. Respected African literary critic Kofi Awoonor systematically collects and translates into English much of African oral culture and art forms, preserving native African culture. Chinua Achebe then presents this native African culture in his stunning work, Things Fall Apart. This is probably the most read work of African Literature ever written, and provides a level of deep cultural detail rarely found in European literature. Achebe’s psychological insight combined with his stark realism make his novel a classic.

Post-Achebe African Literature
Achebe simply opened the door for many other African literati to attain international recognition. East Africans produce important autobiographical works, such as Kenyans Josiah Kariuki’s Mau Mau Detainee (1963), and R. Mugo Gatheru’s Child of Two Worlds (1964). African women begin to let their voice be heard. Writers such as Flora Nwapa give the feminine African perspective on colonization and other African issues. Wole Soyinka writes her satire of the conflict between modern Nigeria and its traditional culture in her book The Interpreters (1965). A prolific writer, she later produces famous plays such as Death and The King’s Horseman. Later, in 1986, she is awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

African Literature gains more and more momentum, and Professor James Ngugi even calls for the abolition of the English Department in the University of Nairobi, to be replaced by a Department of African Literature and Languages. African writers J. M. Coetzee, in his Life and Times of Michael K., written in both Afrikaans and English for his South African audience, confronts in literature the oppressive regime of apartheid. Chinua Achebe helps reunite African Literature as a whole by publishing in 1985 African Short Stories, a collection of African short stories from all over the continent. Another African writer, Naguib Mahfouz, wins the Nobel Prize in literature in 1988. In 1990 African poetry experiences a vital comeback through the work I is a Long-Memoried Woman by Frances Anne Soloman. African Literature is only gaining momentum as time marches onwards.

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