The Empire Writes Back

The Empire Writes Back

‘. . . the Empire writes back to the Centre . . .’ Salman Rushdie

The experience of colonization and the challenges of a post-colonial world have produced an explosion of new writing in English. This diverse and powerful body of literature has established a specific practice of post-colonial writing in cultures as various as India, Australia, the West Indies and Canada, and has challenged both the traditional canon and dominant ideas of literature and culture.

The Empire Writes Back was the first major theoretical account of a
wide range of post-colonial texts and their relation to the larger issues of post-colonial culture, and remains one of the most significant works published in this field. The authors, three leading figures in post-colonial studies, open up the debates about the interrelationships of post-colonial literatures, investigate the powerful forces acting on language in the post-colonial text, and show how these texts constitute a radical critique of Eurocentric notions
of literature and language.

This book is indispensable not only for its incisive analysis, but for its accessibility to readers new to the field. Now with an additional chapter and an updated bibliography, it is impossible to underestimate the importance of this book for contemporary post-colonial studies.

Bill Ashcroft teaches at the University of New South Wales, Australia,
Gareth Griffiths at the University of Albany, USA and Helen Tiffin at the University of Queensland, Australia. All three have published widely in post-colonial studies, and together edited the ground-breaking Post-Colonial Studies Reader (1994) and wrote Key Concepts in Post-Colonial Studies (1998).

Alternative Shakespeares ed. John Drakakis
Alternative Shakespeares: Volume 2 ed. Terence Hawkes
Critical Practice Catherine Belsey
Deconstruction: Theory and Practice Christopher Norris
Dialogue and Difference: English for the Nineties ed. Peter Brooker
and Peter Humm
The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial
Literature Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin
Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion Rosemary Jackson
Dialogism: Bakhtin and his World Michael Holquist
Formalism and Marxism Tony Bennett
Making a Difference: Feminist Literary Criticism ed. Gayle Green and
Coppélia Kahn
Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction
Patricia Waugh
Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan
Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word Walter J. Ong
The Politics of Postmodernism Linda Hutcheon
Post-Colonial Shakespeares ed. Ania Loomba and Martin Orkin
Reading Television John Fiske and John Hartley
The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama Keir Elam
Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory Toril Moi
Structuralism and Semiotics Terence Hawkes
Studying British Cultures: An Introduction ed. Susan Bassnett
Subculture: The Meaning of Style Dick Hebdige
Telling Stories: A Theoretical Analysis of Narrative Fiction
Steven Cohan and Linda M. Shires
Translation Studies Susan Bassnett
Bill Ashcroft
Gareth Griffiths
Helen Tiffin
The Empire Writes Back
Theory and practice in post-colonial literatures
2nd edition
London and New York
First published 1989 by Routledge


General editor’s preface ix
Acknowledgements xi
Introduction 1
What are post-colonial literatures? 1
Post-colonial literatures and English Studies 2
Development of post-colonial literatures 4
Hegemony 6
Language 7
Place and displacement 8
Post-coloniality and theory 11
1 Cutting the ground: critical models of post-colonial
literatures 14
National and regional models 15
Comparisons between two or more regions 17
The ‘Black writing’ model 19
Wider comparative models 22
Models of hybridity and syncreticity 32
2 Re-placing language: textual strategies in postcolonial
writing 37
Abrogation and appropriation 37
Language and abrogation 40
A post-colonial linguistic theory: the Creole continuum 43
The metonymic function of language variance 50
Strategies of appropriation in post-colonial writing 58
3 Re-placing the text: the liberation of post-colonial writing 77
The imperial moment: control of the means of communication 78
Colonialism and silence: Lewis Nkosi’s Mating Birds 82
Colonialism and ‘authenticity’: V.S. Naipaul’s The
Mimic Men 87
Abrogating ‘authenticity’: Michael Anthony’s ‘Sandra Street’ 90
Radical Otherness and hybridity: Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage 96
Appropriating marginality: Janet Frame’s The Edge of
the Alphabet 102
Appropriating the frame of power: R.K. Narayan’s The Vendor of Sweets 108
4 Theory at the crossroads: indigenous theory and post-colonial reading 115
Indian literary theories 116
African literary theories 122
The settler colonies 131
Caribbean theories 144
5 Re-placing theory: post-colonial writing and literary theory 153
Post-colonial literatures and postmodernism 153
Post-colonial reconstructions: literature, meaning, value 178
Post-colonialism as a reading strategy 186
6 Re-thinking the post-colonial: post-colonialism in the twenty first century 193
Who is post-colonial? 200
Theoretical issues 203
Post-colonial futures 209
Conclusion More english than English 220
Readers’ guide 223
Notes 238
Bibliography 246
Index 271


No doubt a third General Editor’s Preface to New Accents seems hard to
justify. What is there left to say? Twenty-five years ago, the series began
with a very clear purpose. Its major concern was the newly perplexed
world of academic literary studies, where hectic monsters called ‘Theory’,
‘Linguistics’ and ‘Politics’ ranged. In particular, it aimed itself at
those undergraduates or beginning postgraduate students who were
either learning to come to terms with the new developments or were
being sternly warned against them.

New Accents deliberately took sides. Thus the first Preface spoke darkly,
in 1977, of ‘a time of rapid and radical social change’, of the ‘erosion
of the assumptions and presuppositions’ central to the study of literature.
‘Modes and categories inherited from the past’ it announced, ‘no
longer seem to fit the reality experienced by a new generation’. The
aim of each volume would be to ‘encourage rather than resist the
process of change’ by combining nuts-and-bolts exposition of new
ideas with clear and detailed explanation of related conceptual developments.

If mystification (or downright demonization) was the
enemy, lucidity (with a nod to the compromises inevitably at stake
there) became a friend. If a ‘distinctive discourse of the future’
beckoned, we wanted at least to be able to understand it.

With the apocalypse duly noted, the second Preface proceeded
piously to fret over the nature of whatever rough beast might stagger
portentously from the rubble. ‘How can we recognise or deal with the
new?’, it complained, reporting nevertheless the dismaying advance of
‘a host of barely respectable activities for which we have no reassuring
names’ and promising a programme of wary surveillance at ‘the
boundaries of the precedented and at the limit of the thinkable’.
Its conclusion, ‘the unthinkable, after all, is that which covertly shapes our
thoughts’ may rank as a truism. But in so far as it offered some sort of
useable purchase on a world of crumbling certainties, it is not to be
blushed for.

In the circumstances, any subsequent, and surely final, effort can
only modestly look back, marvelling that the series is still here, and not
unreasonably congratulating itself on having provided an initial outlet
for what turned, over the years, into some of the distinctive voices and
topics in literary studies. But the volumes now re-presented have more
than a mere historical interest. As their authors indicate, the issues they
raised are still potent, the arguments with which they engaged are still
disturbing. In short, we weren’t wrong. Academic study did change
rapidly and radically to match, even to help to generate, wide reaching
social changes. A new set of discourses was developed to negotiate
those upheavals. Nor has the process ceased. In our deliquescent world,
what was unthinkable inside and outside the academy all those years
ago now seems regularly to come to pass.

Whether the New Accents volumes provided adequate warning of,
maps for, guides to, or nudges in the direction of this new terrain is
scarcely for me to say. Perhaps our best achievement lay in cultivating
the sense that it was there. The only justification for a reluctant third
attempt at a Preface is the belief that it still is.

general editor’s preface


More than three-quarters of the people living in the world today have had their lives shaped by the experience of colonialism. It is easy to see how important this has been in the political and economic spheres, but its general influence on the perceptual frameworks of contemporary peoples is often less evident. Literature offers one of the most important ways in which these new perceptions are expressed and it is in their writing, and through other arts such as painting, sculpture, music, and dance that the day-to-day realities experienced by colonized peoples have been most powerfully encoded and so profoundly influential.

This book is concerned with writing by those peoples formerly colonized
by Britain, though much of what it deals with is of interest and relevance to countries colonized by other European powers, such as France, Portugal, and Spain. The semantic basis of the term ‘postcolonial’ might seem to suggest a concern only with the national culture after the departure of the imperial power. It has occasionally been employed in some earlier work in the area to distinguish between the periods before and after independence (‘colonial period’ and ‘post-colonial period’), for example, in constructing national literary histories, or in suggesting comparative studies between stages in those
histories. Generally speaking, though, the term ‘colonial’ has been used for the period before independence and a term indicating a national writing, such as ‘modern Canadian writing’ or ‘recent West Indian literature’ has been employed to distinguish the period after independence.

We use the term ‘post-colonial’, however, to cover all the culture affected by the imperial process from the moment of colonization to the present day. This is because there is a continuity of preoccupations throughout the historical process initiated by European imperial aggression. We also suggest that it is most appropriate as the term for the new cross-cultural criticism which has emerged in recent years and for the discourse through which this is constituted. In this sense this book is concerned with the world as it exists during and after the period of European imperial domination and the effects of this on contemporary literatures.

So the literatures of African countries, Australia, Bangladesh, Canada,
Caribbean countries, India, Malaysia, Malta, New Zealand, Pakistan,
Singapore, South Pacific Island countries, and Sri Lanka are all postcolonial literatures. The literature of the USA should also be placed in
this category.

Perhaps because of its current position of power, and the neo-colonizing role it has played, its post-colonial nature has not been generally recognized. But its relationship with the metropolitan centre as it evolved over the last two centuries has been paradigmatic for postcolonial literatures everywhere. What each of these literatures has in common beyond their special and distinctive regional characteristics is that they emerged in their present form out of the experience of colonization and asserted themselves by foregrounding the tension with the imperial power, and by emphasizing their differences from the assumptions of the imperial centre. It is this which makes them distinctively post-colonial.


The study of English has always been a densely political and cultural
phenomenon, a practice in which language and literature have both been called into the service of a profound and embracing nationalism.

The development of English as a privileged academic subject in nineteenth-century Britain – finally confirmed by its inclusion in the syllabuses of Oxford and Cambridge, and re-affirmed in the 1921 Newbolt Report – came about as part of an attempt to replace the Classics at the heart of the intellectual enterprise of nineteenth-century humanistic studies.

From the beginning, proponents of English as a discipline linked its methodology to that of the Classics, with its emphasis on scholarship, philology, and historical study – the fixing of texts in historical time and the perpetual search for the determinants of a single, unified, and agreed meaning.

The historical moment which saw the emergence of ‘English’ as an academic discipline also produced the nineteenth-century colonial form of imperialism (Batsleer et al. 1985: 14, 19–25). Gauri Viswanathan has presented strong arguments for relating the ‘institutionalisation and subsequent valorisation of English literary study [to] a shape and an ideological content developed in the colonial context’, and specifically as it developed in India, where: British colonial administrators, provoked by missionaries on the one hand and fears of native insubordination on the other, discovered an ally in English literature to support them in maintaining control of the natives under the guise of a liberal education.
(Viswanathan 1987: 17)

It can be argued that the study of English and the growth of Empire proceeded from a single ideological climate and that the development of the one is intrinsically bound up with the development of the other, both at the level of simple utility (as propaganda for instance) and at the unconscious level, where it leads to the naturalizing of constructed values (e.g. civilization, humanity, etc.) which, conversely, established ‘savagery’, ‘native’, ‘primitive’, as their antitheses and as the object of a reforming zeal.1

A ‘privileging norm’ was enthroned at the heart of the formation of
English Studies as a template for the denial of the value of the ‘peripheral’,
the ‘marginal’, the ‘uncanonized’. Literature was made as central to the cultural enterprise of Empire as the monarchy was to its political formation. So when elements of the periphery and margin threatened the exclusive claims of the centre they were rapidly incorporated. This was a process, in Edward Said’s terms, of conscious affiliation proceeding under the guise of filiation (Said 1984), that is, a mimicry of the centre proceeding from a desire not only to be accepted but to be adopted and absorbed. It caused those from the periphery to immerse themselves in the imported culture, denying their origins in an attempt to become ‘more English than the English’. We see examples of this in such writers as Henry James and T.S. Eliot.

As post-colonial societies sought to establish their difference from
Britain, the response of those who recognized this complicity between
language, education, and cultural incorporation was to break the link
between language and literary study by dividing ‘English’ departments
in universities into separate schools of Linguistics and of Literature,
both of which tended to view their project within a national or international

Ngugi’s essay ‘On the abolition of the English department’ (Ngugi 1972) is an illuminating account of the particular arguments involved in Africa. John Docker’s essay, ‘The neocolonial assumption in the university teaching of English’ (Tiffin 1978: 26–31), addresses similar problems in the settler colony context, describing a situation in which, in contrast to Kenya, little genuine
decolonization is yet in sight.

As Docker’s critique makes clear, in most post-colonial nations (including the West Indies and India) the nexus of power involving literature, language, and a dominant British culture has strongly resisted attempts to dismantle it. Even after such attempts began to succeed, the canonical nature and unquestioned status of the works of the English literary tradition and the values they incorporated remained potent in the cultural formation and the ideological institutions of education and literature.

Nevertheless, the development of the post-colonial literatures has necessitated a questioning of many of the assumptions on which the study of ‘English’ was based.


Post-colonial literatures developed through several stages which can be
seen to correspond to stages both of national or regional consciousness
and of the project of asserting difference from the imperial centre.

During the imperial period writing in the language of the imperial centre is inevitably, of course, produced by a literate elite whose primary identification is with the colonizing power. Thus the first texts produced in the colonies in the new language are frequently produced by ‘representatives’ of the imperial power; for example, gentrified settlers(Wentworth’s ‘Australia’), travellers and sightseers (Froude’s Oceana, and his The English in the West Indies, or the travel diaries of Mary Kingsley), or the Anglo-Indian and West African administrators, soldiers,
and ‘boxwallahs’, and, even more frequently, their memsahibs (volumes of memoirs).

Such texts can never form the basis for an indigenous culture nor can
they be integrated in any way with the culture which already exists in
the countries invaded. Despite their detailed reportage of landscape,
custom, and language, they inevitably privilege the centre, emphasizing
the ‘home’ over the ‘native’, the ‘metropolitan’ over the ‘provincial’
or ‘colonial’, and so forth. At a deeper level their claim to objectivity
simply serves to hide the imperial discourse within which they are
created. That this is true of even the consciously literary works which
emerge from this moment can be illustrated by the poems and stories
of Rudyard Kipling. For example, in the well-known poem ‘Christmas
in India’ the evocative description of a Christmas day in the heat of
India is contextualized by invoking its absent English counterpart.
Apparently it is only through this absent and enabling signifier that the
Indian daily reality can acquire legitimacy as a subject of literary

The second stage of production within the evolving discourse of the
post-colonial is the literature produced ‘under imperial licence’ by
‘natives’ or ‘outcasts’, for instance the large body of poetry and prose
produced in the nineteenth century by the English educated Indian
upper class, or African ‘missionary literature’ (e.g. Thomas Mofolo’s
Chaka). The producers signify by the very fact of writing in the language of the dominant culture that they have temporarily or permanently entered a specific and privileged class endowed with the language, education, and leisure necessary to produce such works. The Australian novel Ralph Rashleigh, now known to have been written by the convict James Tucker, is a case in point. Tucker, an educated man, wrote Rashleigh as a ‘special’ (a privileged convict) whilst working at the penal settlement at Port Macquarie as storekeeper to the superintendent.

Written on government paper with government ink and pens, the
novel was clearly produced with the aid and support of the superintendent.
Tucker had momentarily gained access to the privilege of
literature. Significantly, the moment of privilege did not last and he
died in poverty at the age of fifty-eight at Liverpool asylum in Sydney.
It is characteristic of these early post-colonial texts that the potential
for subversion in their themes cannot be fully realized. Although they
deal with such powerful material as the brutality of the convict system
(Tucker’s Rashleigh), the historical potency of the supplanted and
denigrated native cultures (Mofolo’s Chaka), or the existence of a rich
cultural heritage older and more extensive than that of Europe (any of
many nineteenth-century Indo-Anglian poets, such as Ram Sharma)
they are prevented from fully exploring their anti-imperial potential.

Both the available discourse and the material conditions of production
for literature in these early post-colonial societies restrain this possibility.
The institution of ‘Literature’ in the colony is under the direct
control of the imperial ruling class who alone license the acceptable
form and permit the publication and distribution of the resulting work.

So, texts of this kind come into being within the constraints of a
discourse and the institutional practice of a patronage system which
limits and undercuts their assertion of a different perspective. The
development of independent literatures depended upon the abrogation
of this constraining power and the appropriation of language and writing
for new and distinctive usages. Such an appropriation is clearly the
most significant feature in the emergence of modern post-colonial
literatures (see chs 2 and 3).


Why should post-colonial societies continue to engage with the imperial experience? Since all the post-colonial societies we discuss have achieved political independence, why is the issue of coloniality still relevant at all? This question of why the empire needs to write back to a centre once the imperial structure has been dismantled in political terms is an important one.

Britain, like the other dominant colonial powers of the nineteenth century, has been relegated to a relatively minor place in international affairs. In the spheres of politics and economics, and increasingly in the vital new area of the mass media, Britain and the other European imperial powers have been superseded by the emergent power of the USA. Nevertheless, through the
literary canon, the body of British texts which all too frequently still acts as a touchstone of taste and value, and through RS-English (Received Standard English), which asserts the English of south-east England as a universal norm, the weight of antiquity continues to dominate cultural production in much of the post-colonial world.

This cultural hegemony has been maintained through canonical assumptions about literary activity, and through attitudes to postcolonial literatures which identify them as isolated national off-shoots of English literature, and which therefore relegate them to marginal and subordinate positions. More recently, as the range and strength of these literatures has become undeniable, a process of incorporation has begun in which, employing Eurocentric standards of judgement, the centre has sought to claim those works and writers of which it approves as British.2 In all these respects the parallel between the situation of post-colonial writing and that of feminist writing is striking (see ch. 5).


One of the main features of imperial oppression is control over language.
The imperial education system installs a ‘standard’ version of
the metropolitan language as the norm, and marginalizes all ‘variants’
as impurities. As a character in Mrs Campbell Praed’s nineteenthcentury
Australian novel Policy and Passion puts it, ‘To be colonial is to talk
Australian slang; to be . . . everything that is abominable’ (Campbell
Praed 1881:154).
Language becomes the medium through which a hierarchical structure of power is perpetuated, and the medium through which conceptions of ‘truth’, ‘order’, and ‘reality’ become established. Such power is rejected in the emergence of an effective post-colonial voice. For this reason, the discussion of post-colonial writing which follows is largely a discussion of the process by which the language, with its power, and the writing, with its signification of authority, has been wrested from the dominant European culture.

In order to focus on the complex ways in which the English language has been used in these societies, and to indicate their own sense of difference, we distinguish in this account between the ‘standard’ British English inherited from the empire and the english which the language has become in post-colonial countries.

Though British imperialism resulted in the spread of a language, English, across the globe, the english of Jamaicans is not the english of Canadians, Maoris, or Kenyans. We need to distinguish between what is proposed as a
standard code, English (the language of the erstwhile imperial centre), and the linguistic code, english, which has been transformed and subverted into several distinctive varieties throughout the world.

For this reason the distinction between English and english will be used
throughout our text as an indication of the various ways in which the
language has been employed by different linguistic communities in the
post-colonial world.3

The use of these terms asserts the fact that a continuum exists between the various linguistic practices which constitute english usage in the modern world. Although linguistically the links between English and the various post-colonial englishes in use today can be seen as unbroken, the political reality is that English sets itself apart from all other ‘lesser’ variants and so demands to be interrogated about its claim to this special status.

In practice the history of this distinction between English and english
has been between the claims of a powerful ‘centre’ and a multitude
of intersecting usages designated as ‘peripheries’. The language of
these ‘peripheries’ was shaped by an oppressive discourse of power. Yet
they have been the site of some of the most exciting and innovative
literatures of the modern period and this has, at least in part, been the
result of the energies uncovered by the political tension between the
idea of a normative code and a variety of regional usages.


A major feature of post-colonial literatures is the concern with place
and displacement. It is here that the special post-colonial crisis of identity
comes into being; the concern with the development or recovery
of an effective identifying relationship between self and place. Indeed,
critics such as D. E. S. Maxwell have made this the defining model of
post-coloniality (see ch. 1).

A valid and active sense of self may have been eroded by dislocation, resulting from migration, the experience of enslavement, transportation, or ‘voluntary’ removal for indentured labour. Or it may have been destroyed by cultural denigration, the conscious and unconscious oppression of the indigenous personality and culture by a supposedly superior racial or cultural model. The dialectic of place and displacement is always a feature of post-colonial societies whether these have been created by a process of settlement, intervention, or a mixture of the two. Beyond their historical and cultural differences, place, displacement, and a pervasive concern with the myths of identity and authenticity are a feature common to all post-colonial literatures in english.

The alienation of vision and the crisis in self-image which this displacement
produces is as frequently found in the accounts of Canadian ‘free settlers’ as of Australian convicts, Fijian–Indian or Trinidadian– Indian indentured labourers, West Indian slaves, or forcibly colonized Nigerians or Bengalis. Although this is pragmatically demonstrable from a wide range of texts, it is difficult to account for by theories which see this social and linguistic alienation as resulting only from overtly oppressive forms of colonization such as slavery or conquest.

An adequate account of this practice must go beyond the usual categories of social alienation such as master/slave; free/bonded; ruler/ruled,
however important and widespread these may be in post-colonial cultures.
After all, why should the free settler, formally unconstrained, and
theoretically free to continue in the possession and practice of
‘Englishness’, also show clear signs of alienation even within the
first generation of settlement, and manifest a tendency to seek an
alternative, differentiated identity?

The most widely shared discursive practice within which this alienation
can be identified is the construction of ‘place’. The gap which opens between the experience of place and the language available to
describe it forms a classic and all pervasive feature of post-colonial texts.
This gap occurs for those whose language seems inadequate to describe
a new place, for those whose language is systematically destroyed by
enslavement, and for those whose language has been rendered
unprivileged by the imposition of the language of a colonizing power.

Some admixture of one or other of these models can describe the
situation of all post-colonial societies. In each case a condition of alienation
is inevitable until the colonizing language has been replaced or appropriated as english.

That imperialism results in a profound linguistic alienation is obviously the case in cultures in which a pre-colonial culture is suppressed by military conquest or enslavement. So, for example, an Indian writer like Raja Rao or a Nigerian writer such as Chinua Achebe have needed to transform the language, to use it in a different way in its new context and so, as Achebe says, quoting James Baldwin, make it ‘bear the burden’ of their experience (Achebe 1975: 62). Although Rao and Achebe write from their own place and so have not suffered a literal geographical displacement, they have to
overcome an imposed gap resulting from the linguistic displacement
of the pre-colonial language by English.

This process occurs within a more comprehensive discourse of place and displacement in the wider post-colonial context. Such alienation is shared by those whose possession of English is indisputably ‘native’ (in the sense of being possessed from birth) yet who begin to feel alienated within its practice once its vocabulary, categories, and codes are felt to be inadequate or inappropriate to describe the fauna, the physical and
geographical conditions, or the cultural practices they have developed
in a new land. The Canadian poet Joseph Howe, for instance, plucks
his picture of a moose from some repository of English nursery
rhyme romanticism:
. . . the gay moose in jocund gambol springs,
Cropping the foliage Nature round him flings.
(Howe 1874: 100)
Such absurdities demonstrate the pressing need these native speakers
share with those colonized peoples who were directly oppressed to
escape from the inadequacies and imperial constraints of English as a
social practice. They need, that is, to escape from the implicit body of
assumptions to which English was attached, its aesthetic and social
values, the formal and historically limited constraints of genre, and the
oppressive political and cultural assertion of metropolitan dominance,
of centre over margin (Ngugi 1986).

This is not to say that the English language is inherently incapable of accounting for post-colonial experience, but that it needs to develop an ‘appropriate’ usage in order to do so (by becoming a distinct and unique form of english). The energizing feature of this displacement is its capacity to interrogate and subvert the imperial cultural formations.

The pressure to develop such a usage manifests itself early in the development of ‘english’ literatures. It is therefore arguable that, even before the development of a conscious de-colonizing stance, the experience of a new place, identifiably different in its physical characteristics, constrains, for instance, the new settlers to demand a language which will allow them to express their sense of ‘Otherness’. Landscape, flora and fauna, seasons, climatic conditions are formally distinguished from the place of origin as home/colony, Europe/New World, Europe/Antipodes, metropolitan/provincial, and so on, although, of course, at this stage no effective models exist for expressing this sense of Otherness in a positive and creative way.


The idea of ‘post-colonial literary theory’ emerges from the inability of
European theory to deal adequately with the complexities and varied
cultural provenance of post-colonial writing. European theories themselves
emerge from particular cultural traditions which are hidden by false notions of ‘the universal’.

Theories of style and genre, assumptions about the universal features of language, epistemologies and value systems are all radically questioned by the practices of postcolonial writing. Post-colonial theory has proceeded from the need to address this different practice. Indigenous theories have developed to accommodate the differences within the various cultural traditions as well as the desire to describe in a comparative way the features shared across those traditions.

The political and cultural monocentrism of the colonial enterprise
was a natural result of the philosophical traditions of the European
world and the systems of representation which this privileged. Nineteenth-century imperial expansion, the culmination of the outward and dominating thrust of Europeans into the world beyond Europe, which began during the early Renaissance, was underpinned in complex ways by these assumptions.

In the first instance this produced practices of cultural subservience, characterized by one postcolonial critic as ‘cultural cringe’ (Phillips 1958). Subsequently, the emergence of identifiable indigenous theories in reaction to this formed an important element in the development of specific national and regional consciousnesses (see ch. 4).

Paradoxically, however, imperial expansion has had a radically destabilizing effect on its own preoccupations and power. In pushing
the colonial world to the margins of experience the ‘centre’ pushed
consciousness beyond the point at which monocentrism in all spheres
of thought could be accepted without question. In other words the
alienating process which initially served to relegate the post-colonial
world to the ‘margin’ turned upon itself and acted to push that world
through a kind of mental barrier into a position from which all
experience could be viewed as uncentred, pluralistic, and multifarious.

Marginality thus became an unprecedented source of creative
energy. The impetus towards decentring and pluralism has always
been present in the history of European thought and has reached its
latest development in post-structuralism. But the situation of marginalized
societies and cultures enabled them to come to this position much earlier and more directly (Brydon 1984b). These notions are implicit in post-colonial texts from the imperial period to the present day.

The task of this book is twofold: first, to identify the range and
nature of these post-colonial texts, and, second, to describe the various
theories which have emerged so far to account for them. So in the first
chapter we consider the development of descriptive models of postcolonial
writing. Since it is not possible to read post-colonial texts without coming to terms with the ways in which they appropriate and deploy the material of linguistic culture, in the second chapter we outline the process by which language is captured to form a distinctive discursive practice. In the third chapter we demonstrate, through symptomatic readings of texts, how post-colonial writing interacts with the social and material practices of colonialism.

One of the major purposes of this book is to explain the nature of existing post-colonial theory and the way in which it interacts with, and dismantles, some of the assumptions of European theory. In the fourth chapter we discuss
the issues in the development of indigenous post-colonial theories, and in the fifth we examine the larger implications of post-coloniality for theories of language, for literary theory, and for social and political analysis in general.


Critical models of post-colonial literatures

As writers and critics became aware of the special character of post-colonial texts, they saw the need to develop an adequate model to account for them. Four major models have emerged to date: first, ‘national’ or regional models, which emphasize the distinctive features of the particular national or regional culture; second, race-based models which identify certain shared characteristics across various national literatures, such as the common racial inheritance in literatures of the African diaspora addressed by the ‘Black writing’ model; third, comparative models of varying complexity which seek to account for particular linguistic, historical, and cultural features across
two or more post-colonial literatures; fourth, more comprehensive comparative models which argue for features such as hybridity and
syncreticity as constitutive elements of all post-colonial literatures
(syncretism is the process by which previously distinct linguistic categories,
and, by extension, cultural formations, merge into a single new form). These models often operate as assumptions within critical practice rather than specific and discrete schools of thought; in any discussion of post-colonial writing a number of them may be operating at the same time.


The first post-colonial society to develop a ‘national’ literature was the
USA. The emergence of a distinctive American literature in the late
eighteenth century raised inevitable questions about the relationship
between literature and place, between literature and nationality, and
particularly about the suitability of inherited literary forms. Ideas about
new kinds of literature were part of the optimistic progression to
nationhood because it seemed that this was one of the most potent
areas in which to express difference from Britain.

Writers like Charles Brockden Brown, who attempted to indigenize British forms like the gothic and the sentimental novel, soon realized that with the change in location and culture it was not possible to import form and concept
without radical alteration (Fiedler 1960; Ringe 1966).

In many ways the American experience and its attempts to produce a new kind of literature can be seen to be the model for all later post-colonial writing.1 The first thing it showed was that some of a post-colonial country’s most deeply held linguistic and cultural traits depend upon its relationship with the colonizing power, particularly the defining contrast between European metropolis and ‘frontier’ (see Fussell 1965).

Once the American Revolution had forced the question of separate nationality, and the economic and political successes of the emerging nation had begun to be taken for granted, American literature as a distinct collection of texts also began to be accepted. But it was accepted as an offshoot of the ‘parent tree’. Such organic metaphors, and others like ‘parent–child’ and ‘stream–tributary’ acted to keep the new literature in its place. The plant and parent metaphors stressed age, experience, roots, tradition, and, most importantly, the connection between antiquity and value. They implied the same distinctions as those existing between metropolis and frontier: parents are more experienced, more important, more substantial, less brash than their
offspring. Above all they are the origin and therefore claim the final
authority in questions of taste and value.

But as the extensive literature of the USA developed different characteristics from that of Britain and established its right to be considered independently, the concept of national literary differences ‘within’ English writing became established. The eventual consequence of this has been that ‘newer’ literatures from countries such as Nigeria, Australia, and India could also be discussed as discrete national formations rather than as ‘branches of the tree’. Their literatures could be considered in relation to the social and political history of each country, and could be read as a source of important images of national identity.

The development of national literatures and criticism is fundamental
to the whole enterprise of post-colonial studies. Without such developments
at the national level, and without the comparative studies between national traditions to which these lead, no discourse of the post-colonial could have emerged. Nor is it simply a matter of development from one stage to another, since all post-colonial studies continue to depend upon national literatures and criticism. The study of national traditions is the first and most vital stage of the process of rejecting the claims of the centre to exclusivity. It is the beginning of what Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka has characterized as the ‘process of self-apprehension’ (Soyinka 1976: xi).

Recent theories of a general post-colonial discourse question essentialist formulations which may lead to nationalist and racist orthodoxies, but they do not deny the great importance of maintaining each literature’s sense of specific difference.

It is this sense of difference which constitutes each national literature’s mode of self-apprehension and its claim to be a selfconstituting entity. However, nationalism, in which some partial truth or cliché is elevated to orthodoxy, is a danger implicit in such national conceptions of literary production. The impetus towards national selfrealization in critical assessments of literature all too often fails to stop short of nationalist myth.

Larger geographical models which cross the boundaries of language,
nationality, or race to generate the concept of a regional literature, such
as West Indian or South Pacific literature, may also share some of the
limitations of the national model. While the idea of an ‘African’ literature,
for instance, has a powerful appeal to writers and critics in the various African countries, it has only limited application as a descriptive label. African and European critics have produced several regional and national studies which reflect the widespread political, economic, and cultural differences between modern African countries (Gurr and Calder 1974; Lindfors 1975; Taiwo 1976; Ogungbesan 1979).

Clearly some regional groupings are more likely to gain acceptance in the regions themselves than are others, and will derive from a collective
identity evident in other ways. This is true of the West Indies. Although the Federation of the West Indies failed, the english-speaking countries there still field a regional cricket team. Both the West Indies and the South Pacific have regional universities with a significant input into literary production and discussion. ‘West Indian’ literature has almost always been considered regionally, rather than nationally.

There have been no major studies of Jamaican or Trinidadian literatures as
discrete traditions. A different regional grouping, emphasizing geographical
and historical determinants rather than linguistic ones, has also developed to explore ‘Caribbean’ literature, setting literature in english from the region alongside that written in spanish, french, and other European languages (Allis 1982).

Despite such variants on the national model, most of the english
literatures outside Britain have been considered as individual, national
enterprises forming and reflecting each country’s culture. The inevitable
consequence of this is a gradual blurring of the distinction between the national and the nationalist. Nationalism has usually included a healthy repudiation of British and US hegemony observable in publishing, education, and the public sponsorship of writing. Yet all too often nationalist criticism, by failing to alter the terms of the discourse within which it operates, has participated implicitly or even explicitly in a discourse ultimately controlled by the very imperial power its nationalist assertion is designed to exclude.
Emphasis may have been transferred to the national literature, but the theoretical assumptions, critical perspectives, and value judgements made have often replicated those of the British establishment.


Theories and models of post-colonial literatures could not emerge
until the separate colonies were viewed in a framework centred on
their own literary and cultural traditions. Victorian Britain had exulted

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