Writing Back / Reading Forward: Reconsidering the Postcolonial Approach

by Laura A. Zander (Author)
©2019 Thesis 374 Pages
Series: MUSE: Munich Studies in English, Volume 43


Predicated upon the opposition of writing back and reading forward, the author challenges some of the established concerns or preoccupations of the field. Postcolonial theory, framed by several binary assumptions, e.g. the dichotomy of coloniser/colonised, perpetrator/victim, powerful/powerless, has frequently led to a partial vision regarding postcolonial subjects as well as literatures. By submitting six selected novels from India, South Africa and the Caribbean to contrastive readings, the book maps out the scope of literary interpretation, also and in particular in a postcolonial context. More than simply providing a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of each text, this study challenges both the benefits and limits of the postcolonial as a critical theoretical approach.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • Dedication Page
  • Acknowledgements
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. Theoretical Approach
  • 2.1 Pretext of the Postcolonial
  • 2.2 Delimitating the Postcolonial
  • 2.2.1 Temporality of the Postcolonial
  • 2.2.2 Postcolonial Geographies
  • 2.3 Conceptualising the Postcolonial
  • 2.3.1 Nature of the Postcolonial
  • 2.3.2 Postcolonial Literature
  • 2.4 Debating the Postcolonial
  • 2.4.1 Death of a Discipline?
  • 2.4.2 Decolonising the Postcolonial
  • 2.5 The Postcolonial Paradox
  • 2.5.1 Writing the Postcolonial – Representation vs. Subversion
  • 2.5.2 Reading the Postcolonial – Literally vs. Allegorically
  • 2.6 Narratives of Emancipation
  • 2.6.1 Approach of this Study
  • 2.6.2 Corpus and the Question of Race
  • 3. J. M. Coetzee’s In the Heart of the Country
  • 3.1 Narrative Construction
  • 3.2 Writing Back
  • 3.2.1 A Loss Created by Colonial Legacy
  • 3.2.2 Murderous Resistance
  • 3.2.3 Female Madness or Escaping Reality
  • 3.2.4 Language of Colonisation
  • 3.2.5 Prisoner of a Stony Desert
  • 3.3 Reading Forward
  • 3.3.1 Created by Words
  • 3.3.2 Written into History
  • 3.3.3 Attempting Escape from Writtenness
  • 3.3.4 Prisoner of a Stony Monologue
  • 4. Robert Antoni’s Divina Trace
  • 4.1 Narrative Construction
  • 4.2 Writing Back
  • 4.2.1 Caribbean Collective
  • 4.2.2 Tracing History and Telling Tales
  • 4.2.3 Constructing the Self
  • 4.2.4 Tracing Polyphonic Plurality
  • 4.3 Reading Forward
  • 4.3.1 Collective Concealed
  • 4.3.2 That What Cannot Be Told
  • 4.3.3 Deconstructing the Self
  • 4.3.4 Concluding the Trace
  • 5. Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things
  • 5.1 Narrative Construction
  • 5.2 Writing Back
  • 5.2.1 Divide and Classify
  • 5.2.2 Traumatic Memories
  • 5.2.3 Destructive Force of History
  • 5.2.4 The Cost of Living
  • 5.3 Reading Forward
  • 5.3.1 Unclassified
  • 5.3.2 Resisting the Play or Playing Resistance
  • 5.3.3 Reconstructing Creativity
  • 5.3.4 Hopeful Notions of Tomorrow
  • 6. Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger
  • 6.1 Narrative Construction
  • 6.2 Writing Back
  • 6.2.1 A Fluid Sense of Self
  • 6.2.2 Exotic Subalterns
  • 6.2.3 Violent Predators in a Metropolitan Jungle
  • 6.2.4 Freeing the Self
  • 6.3 Reading Forward
  • 6.3.1 Another Kind of Revolution
  • 6.3.2 Resisting Allegory
  • 6.3.3 Perpetrating Subalterns
  • 6.3.4 Becoming Tiger
  • 7. Earl Lovelace’s Is Just a Movie
  • 7.1 Narrative Construction
  • 7.2 Writing Back
  • 7.2.1 Black Power or a Revolution Failed
  • 7.2.2 Searching for Selfhood
  • 7.2.3 Cultural Construction
  • 7.2.4 Communal Collective Substantiated
  • 7.3 Reading Forward
  • 7.3.1 Recognising the Other
  • 7.3.2 Poet of the Revolution
  • 7.3.3 Realism and the Absurd
  • 7.3.4 More Than a Movie
  • 8. Nadine Gordimer’s No Time Like the Present
  • 8.1 Narrative Construction
  • 8.2 Writing Back
  • 8.2.1 Postapartheid History Happening to People
  • 8.2.2 Constructed by the Past
  • 8.2.3 Just Black and White and (Al)most(ly) Free
  • 8.3 Reading Forward
  • 8.3.1 Symbolic Resonances
  • 8.3.2 Creating (for) the Future
  • 8.3.3 A Normal Life After the Struggle
  • 9. Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Primary Literature
  • Secondary Literature

1. Introduction

Some 30 years ago, a virtual wave of postcolonialism or, should I say, of the concept of decolonisation in a political as well as a literary sense, swept through the academic world. Universities introduced new chairs devoted to postcolonial studies, not only in the English-speaking countries, but also, for instance, in Germany and France. New literary societies were founded such as the Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies (ACLALS) or the German Association for the Study of the New Literatures in English (ASNEL), which hosted their own conferences, published their own journals (The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Commonwealth Essays and Studies, Journal of Postcolonial Writing etc.) and their own bibliographies. To a certain extent, this postcolonial focus could also be found in associations, conferences and journals dedicated to African writing (African Literature Association, Research in African Literatures, African Literature Today) or that of the Caribbean (Caribbean Studies Association, The Journal of West Indian Literature, Caribbean Studies). Last but not least, this field was opened for and embarked upon by academics who did not really fall in love with Shakespeare or actually have the means to do so. In fact, at the beginning of this wave of postcolonial studies at German universities, there was a rigid division between professors who continued their Shakespearean studies and academic non-professorial teaching staff who enjoyed having found an original and perhaps sometimes less prosaic research field of their own. Moreover, all of a sudden, the best – or rather most interesting – literature was arguably no longer produced in the established centres, but from the margins, by writers such as J. M. Coetzee or Salman Rushdie.

However, in spite of the growing success of this field of research, it would soon prove a futile attempt to liberate this particular literature from the imperial clutches of Britain or Shakespeare, respectively, since, in a way, Shakespeare himself had inspired this new way of critical reading. Thus, several of his characters figure centrally in the English translation of Octave Mannoni’s study Prospero and Caliban: The Psychology of Colonization, a work that can be convincingly argued to have initiated the field of postcolonial studies. Soon enough, the project of writing back, as it has been notoriously coined by Ashcroft, Griffith and Tiffin’s study, has become a key concern of these postcolonialists, and their favourite subject for this very endeavour or any project of reworking canonised Western classics, has been, of course, The Bard. Famous examples include adaptations of Shakespeare’s The Tempest such as Aimé Césaire’s of 1969 or ←13 | 14→Jonathan Miller’s famous ‘colonial’ 1970 production. And among those who subjected Shakespeare to postcolonial re-readings are George Lamming in The Pleasures of Exile (1960), which is perhaps the most influential work, but there are also various novelistic rewritings of Shakespearean tropes such as Ngũgĩ wa Thingo’s A Grain of Wheat (1967), Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners (1974) or Marina Warner’s Indigo (1992).

Even beyond this Shakespearean approach, however, the field of postcolonial studies has been clearly determined by the endeavour of writing back. Whether this term was taken as a call to actually rework canonised texts, to re-read them in order to decolonise their content, or as an ideological conception redirecting the creative as well as the academic approach within the field – the Empire has indeed been writing back.

There is no doubt that, in the meantime, much has been accomplished in this comparably young field of literary theory. It has, however, also been met with fierce critique and has, even in its beginnings, been never free of query. The limits of the postcolonial concept in its geographical, temporal and ideological meaning have been rigorously disputed, and critics have been accused of forcing homogeneity on countries and regions with entirely different histories of colonisation. And one really has to wonder whether postcolonial nation-states do share more than a common history of oppression. Above all, postcolonial studies is a discipline of constant tension between the claims of a political imperative and that of the arts. If one accepts postcolonialism as “a continuing process of resistance and reconstruction,” as Bill Ashcroft and his colleagues suggest in their Postcolonial Studies Reader, the purpose of this discipline only appears valid as long as colonialism persists to be resisted against. Although, without doubt, colonialism is still around in various guises, it remains disputable whether its lingering level and intensity justify the attention of an entire literary discipline. Although there is an incessant flow of literature that can indeed be traced back to the former colonies, postcolonial studies as literary theory remains challenged on various levels. Lately it seems as if the field’s ideological concern with the process of decolonisation has paralysed it in ‘a politics of blame.’ The endeavour of writing back has, for many, become a continuous looking back to the former coloniser instead of looking forward and, more importantly, writing forward towards a self-determined future – and of course – literature. And, while many postcolonial critics cling to the field’s initial purpose of political resistance, postcolonial literature might quite possibly have already embarked on a journey to newer shores.

If one assumes that writers from the postcolonial regions have indeed been writing forward, have indeed replaced the politics of blame with projects, aiming ←14 | 15→at both emancipation and creation, the question arises of whether the scholarly debate in fact has adequately redirected the critical approach. The central issue of the current state of postcolonial studies, it seems, may perhaps then not be so much a question of whether the Empire can write back, but whether postcolonialism as a critical approach can in effect read forward.

Rather than setting out to resolve the many paradoxes of the postcolonial, this study aims to test the persisting value of the discipline as well as enquire into new possibilities of its application to literature. Building upon the dichotomy of writing back and reading forward, I want to challenge received notions of the field’s theoretical conceptions as well as its practical use with regard to literary text. I have chosen a selection of postcolonial fiction, their publication dates ranging from the 1970s to 2012, in order to both explore and challenge the benefits and boundaries of contemporary postcolonial readings. The literary corpus consists of works from India, the Caribbean and South Africa, each in their way prototypical for a country or region that has been ‘touched’ by colonialism. This geographical spread of literature to be discussed here will hopefully make it possible to establish some general tendencies in the academic practice of postcolonial studies, rather than to confine the investigation to specific cases or regions.

This study therefore sets out to return to the initial strengths of the postcolonial approach, its fresh perspective allowing it to break up hierarchies and challenge categorisations where other critical theories fell short. My understanding of postcolonial literature, then, is that of a field unparalleled in its originality precisely because of its unique, if dreadful, historical background. Rendering this project as a distinctly literary one, the dialogue of critical theory and literary practice will hopefully reveal as much about the particular works in focus as about the aesthetic conceptions that my readings are based upon. Instead of treating this literature merely in terms of the revolting Empire, my focus will be to reveal the distinct literary features of both content-related as well as formal nature, that allow these texts to award agency to the former colonies as well as to their people, and ultimately to create a literature in every sense equivalent, if not comparable to Shakespeare, the greatest of all playwrights, then certainly comparable to its Western counterparts. Based on the assumption that the postcolonial is most powerful when understood as reading practice, as critical theory with which to approach literary texts, I hope to show the extent to which the reader rewrites a literary work in the course of textual analysis. Since literature, by nature, is never definite and allows for several, sometimes contrasting readings thereof, the approach of this study is a contrastive one. By submitting the selected texts to contrastive readings, I intend to map out the scope of literary interpretation. ←15 | 16→A somewhat more conventional postcolonial reading of each novel will focus on traditional tropes and engage with the critical reception of the text within the postcolonial debate. Additionally, each text will then be examined from a slightly different angle that will centre on the gaps and absences that might have been produced by the first reading. Consequently, I hope to provide a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of each text, but also to challenge both the benefits and limits of the postcolonial critical approach.

Unfortunately, there is no Shakespeare among these selected works, no rewriting or reworking of the greatest of all playwrights have lent the focus for this study. Nevertheless, all texts are, in one way or another, determined by their mixed heritage, Western and non-Western aesthetics have evidently come into play in each of their literary productions.

J. M. Coetzee’s In the Heart of the Country and Robert Antoni’s Divina Trace are both of particular interest because they can indeed be read as ‘realistic’ representations of postcolonial societies. They can, however, also be understood as highly metafictional, testing the narrative genre as much as their respective political surroundings. Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things and Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger have both become Indian classics for portraying the ills of a society determined by colonial legacy. Nevertheless, in both these texts, the literary trajectory certainly exceeds social criticism and they are replete with formal and textual peculiarities that are not always sufficiently accounted for in conventional readings of the novels. Earl Lovelace’s Is Just a Movie and Nadine Gordimer’s No Time Like the Present have in common that, generally speaking, they were largely overlooked in the critical debate. Though both authors are highly acclaimed in their respective regions, the Caribbean and South Africa, these late works of both authors have received very little scholarly attention. Subsequently, I hope to show that both these texts are not only highly underrated but can equally be read both in a capacity of writing back, of contesting hidden power structures, and also have the potential to create a both empowering and hopeful vision for their respective regions a substance best revealed when reading forward. And most notably, with regard to all these texts, I hope to show that they are the better for precisely this colonial legacy, for the very reason that they are benefitting from a unique hybrid cultural origin which has resulted in an inheritance of literary gain, instead of, as the title of Kiran Desai’s award-winning novel indicates, in an Inheritance of Loss.

2. Theoretical Approach

The field of postcolonial studies is essentially a rather paradoxical one. At the core of this postcolonial paradox lies the conflation of the aesthetic and the political, postcolonial critical theory is employed to instigate change in view of the social conditions of the ‘real’ world.1 Despite this tension between a political imperative and an aesthetic one, the postcolonial made its mark precisely for being more than just a literary category. The interplay of social and political conditions in the postcolonial nation-states and how these conditions were exposed, reconditioned and challenged in the fictional discourse appears to be the hallmark of the postcolonial approach. Yet this complicated interlocking between fiction and ‘reality’ remains the field’s greatest difficulty. The attempt to comply both with the demands of the literary as ‘proper’ academic research as well as with satisfying life’s ‘realities’ challenges both the literary critic and any writer of imaginary fiction. Yet it is exactly this radical antinomy that has shaped the field into such an interesting and important one.

In this study, then, rather than resolving the postcolonial paradox, I would like to address as well as negotiate some of its intrinsic contradictions: Can the postcolonial be method, objective as well as condition? Can any literary approach offer solutions to real-life issues, whether in the former colonies or elsewhere? Does a comparative approach – something of a prerequisite in postcolonial studies – necessarily renounce cultural and historical specificity, thus denying the postcolonial nation-states their need for individual recognition? Can the objective of postcolonial theory be both ideological conception as well as literary criticism, or are the political/ideological and the individual/aesthetic necessarily mutually exclusive? And in consequence, is the allegorical reading of postcolonial fiction blurring its specific or literal meaning and vice versa? Is the counter- or ‘reactionary’ approach of postcolonial methodology not inevitably recreating and reinforcing the colonial divide, manifestation of an us-and-them mentality, regardless of the respective side the author or critic is standing on? ←17 | 18→And, ultimately, does counter-narrative while questioning authority not also justify and reinforce the very existence of its counter-object, the master-narrative?

These central concerns should not be taken to imply that I intend to resolve any of these contradictions. The postcolonial paradox is inherent to the postcolonial as critical theory and no simple solutions to any of these contradictions can or should be provided. But I do believe that addressing them in order to approach the postcolonial text from both a fresh and original angle will prove not only productive, but also promises to provide a different perspective for applying postcolonial theory. Rather than suggesting a paradigmatic shift, I attempt new modes of reading postcolonial fiction in order to do justice to this rich and creative body of work, which, in my opinion, has certainly surpassed its colonial legacy.

As has been outlined in the introduction, this study sets out to explore and challenge both the benefits and boundaries of the postcolonial as literary theory and aims to place these theoretical considerations in relation to the textual interpretation of six selected novels. In order to provide a solid foundation for the theoretical investigation, in the first chapter, The Pretext of the Postcolonial, a few considerations on terminology and the varying conceptions of the notion of the postcolonial appear necessary. Only then, in Delimitating the Postcolonial, do I want to demarcate the postcolonial in its temporal and geographical capacity. As for the varying assumptions towards the nature of the postcolonial and the numerous activities referred to as such, similar reflections appear useful. Therefore, in the following chapter, Conceptualising the Postcolonial, I will examine its potential as condition, objective and method. In the second part of this chapter, I will also look at the body of postcolonial writing often referred to as ‘postcolonial literature’ in order to examine the usefulness of such a category. These opening sections of the theoretical chapter are not intended to define the extent and the very limits of the postcolonial; instead some general considerations in view of its diverse usage and scale will be offered.

After these preliminary thoughts, I will turn to some of the more problematic areas already indicated above. In Death of a Discipline, I will examine the persistent purpose of postcolonial studies and put into question the usefulness of postcolonial critical theory for analysing literature even after the colonial regimes have been abolished in the respective colonial countries – at least in a political sense. Ultimately, as indicated above, one of the greatest dangers of the postcolonial approach is perpetuating the discriminating tendencies it initially set out to avoid. This is even more true since the comparative nature of the postcolonial entails the risk of renouncing cultural specificity, thus continuing the very unifying and totalising practices it wants to fight against. These essential concerns ←18 | 19→of postcolonial theory will be discussed in the fourth section, Decolonising the Postcolonial.

The following section, The Postcolonial Paradox, is dedicated to discussing two central dichotomies of the postcolonial debate. On the one hand, there appears to be a constant tension between the demand for accurate representation and conceptual subversion when writers are depicting postcolonial societies. In this vein, the question will have to be raised of whether a ‘realistic’ representation of social ills is most helpful in order to debunk and mediate the burdens of the colonial legacy, or whether less conventional forms, such as the postmodern, best serve to challenge and dissolve lingering hegemonic structures on both a political as well as an aesthetic level. On the other hand, I will discuss the opposition between both literal and allegorical readings in the context of postcolonial fiction. Within the field, there appears to be a frequent debate on the benefits and dangers of allegory and it remains to be seen whether such a contradiction between the literal and the allegorical is in effect productive. The question of whether this issue is indeed specific to postcolonial texts and not a question of the very nature of the literary in more general terms will also be examined. The final section will then focus on the particular approach of this study, thus compiling the findings of the previous sections in order to arrive at a methodology that can be put into practice in the following textual analysis. Finally, the second part of Narratives of Emancipation will map out the corpus chosen for this study and set forth the reasoning behind the textual selection. Some additional thoughts on the question of race within the postcolonial context will conclude the theoretical approach and thus lead over to the analytical chapters that will then supply contrastive readings of each of the novels.

2.1 Pretext of the Postcolonial

At the very outset, the issue of terminology has to be faced. In contrast to the title of this study “Reconsidering the Postcolonial Approach,” it appears rather dubious whether such a clear-cut and coherent understanding of the term ‘postcolonial’ can possibly be realised. Without doubt, there are various different postcolonialisms, and postcolonial studies as critical theory has not yet and most likely should not been confined to any such singular meaning. In my title, however, I do use the term in connection with the definite article. This is a conscious choice. The object of this study is not to put forth any one new and improved conception of a postcolonial reading mode. What I do want to question is not only a specific procedure or practice, but to interrogate the approach in its various manifestations. Consequently, I find the title’s phrasing quite suitable.

←19 | 20→

Moreover, one cannot, it appears, set out to attempt a definition of the term without having tested and challenged the different implications of all that is or can be ‘postcolonial.’ The academic debate and its interrogation of the various meanings of postcoloniality and/or postcolonialism, in its attempt to analyse, explain and respond to the cultural legacies of colonialism, have been ongoing since the early 1960s. This level of academic discord is not only due to the varied and often distinct manifestations of colonialism, but also to the highly ambiguous and controversial meaning of the term ‘postcolonial’ itself. The postcolonial is obscure as well as nonspecific not only in its geographic as well as temporal dimension, but also as an ideological concept.2 Though this study does not attempt to succeed in what renowned scholars have failed to accomplish for over the past 50 years – to define the postcolonial – at least some key questions in view of a possible definition will be raised in order to place the novels to be discussed in the ongoing theoretical debate.

Therefore, in the following, I will first sketch a very rough outline of my use of the postcolonial in the course of the study in a more narrow sense. This first negotiation of the term will then have to serve as a point of departure upon which a more sophisticated interrogation of its extent, its limits and its nature will have to be performed within the subsequent sections.

At first sight, the postcolonial clearly appears to signal historical connotations. ‘Post-colonialism,’ in its hyphenated nominalisation, appears to designate the era after colonialism and to echo other ‘posts’ such as postmodernism in their post-epochal denotation. Such an understanding of the term ‘postcolonial’ in strictly historical terms, however, falls short. In addition to the historical quality of the term, it simultaneously speaks for a set of material conditions as well as aesthetic practices. While there is no doubt about its usefulness to describe temporal phases as wells as geographical entities, in the context of this study, it will be used particularly for its ability to recognise dominant power structures as well as an imagery of subordination, its capacity to indicate an undercutting of lingering colonial legacy. Instead of signalling a “prescriptive and restrictive repertory of ←20 | 21→common concerns for the various literatures,” I apply the term for its potential to indicate “both historical continuity and change in the context of some colonial legacy.” (Thieme 1996 5, McLeod 2000, 33) Certainly not to be understood as “prematurely celebratory” (McClintock 1992, 294) of a condition that may not yet exist, I apply the postcolonial to signal a discursive engagement that resists colonial perspectives. Accordingly, the hyphen is consciously dropped to emphasise the ideological, transhistorical quality of the term.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (February)
postcolonial literature South Africa India Caribbean contrastive readings literary criticism
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien. 2019. 374 S.

Biographical notes

Laura A. Zander (Author)

Laura A. Zander studied English Literature, Linguistics and Law at the Ludwig Maximilians University Munich. She received her doctorate from the English Department at LMU, after completing her MA in English simultaneously with her postgraduate judicial service traineeship. She has been teaching both English Literature and Law (Digital Forensics) at LMU and Goethe University Frankfurt.


Title: Writing Back / Reading Forward: Reconsidering the Postcolonial Approach