English Studies Site

An Introduction to Some of the Central Concerns of Post Colonial Literature

Place and Displacement

It is not difficult to see why place and displacement are often seen as perhaps the most central theme of post colonial literature. The process of colonisation inevitably causes peoples to be displaced or have their sense of place threatened. This can be caused by migration, in the case of the colonialists themselves, or in the case of refugees, or by transportation, such as the movement of slaves from Africa to the Caribbean.

The English Patient: Ondaatje’s own biography demonstrates a lack of secure place, of Dutch ancestry, born in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) now living in Canada. The novel’s main characters are ‘international bastards’, displaced from their homelands in the aftermath of war fought over national boundaries. The ideals of desert exploration by a multinational group of explorers, crossing and recrossing the African desert without regard for invisible national boundaries in the shifting sands, are destroyed by the onset of the Second World War. One of the most striking characters is Kirpal Singh, who volunteers for Allied army service in English-occupied India and picks up English values, including his nickname Kip, during his military training in England. He spends the war as a bomb disposal expert in England and Italy until his allegiance to the Allied cause is undermined by the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

Derek Walcott’s poetry often expresses the sense of displacement experienced by the Caribbean population. The Caribbean situation is striking as the entire population of the islands can trace its history to other parts of the world. This history of migration, voluntary and involuntary, often informs Walcott’s writing, for example in ‘Forests of Europe’.

The Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys tells the story of the mad woman in the attic in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, going back to her Creole history. The novel explores both Rochester’s sense of displacement in the Caribbean and Bertha’s in England, where her displacement takes the form of mental displacement in her madness.

As well as literal movement between one location and another, place and displacement can be considered metaphorically. By its very nature, colonialism suggests a cultural denigration; the indigenous culture is undermined by the supposedly superior cultural model of invader. The colonial culture invades, then exercises economic and judicial power over the indigenous population, which undermines the existing cultural systems.

Ngugi’s A Grain of Wheat is centred on the day of Uhuru, or Kenyan Independence from English rule. The exercise of English power is shown to have subjugated the Kenyan population, at times brutally. The novel, though, explores both the Kenyan urge towards self-expression and cultural re-establishment as well as the English disillusion with the failure of the colonial vision.

The central character Okonkwo, in Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, resists the marginalisation of his own culture consequent to the arrival of the white European Christian missionaries. His resistance ultimately leads to his own downfall, and the novel suggests, as Achebe argues in his theoretical writings, that once history has happened, and the white man has arrived, the only future is in adaptation and sycreticity, rather than in unbending resistance.

Brian Friel’s play Translations, about English control of Ireland through remapping and renaming, explores these issues in both a literal and metaphoric way, as the Irish population is displaced, not by geography itself, but how that geography is signposted. Behind this are questions of language (the ‘quaint archaic tongue’ the Irish speak versus ‘the King’s good English’), law, taxation and education to establish English control.

Appropriation and Abrogation

Post colonial literature often displays a tension between the indigenous values and an aspiration towards the values of the colonist, since they have, by the fact of their colonial control, proved powerful. Rather than reject, or abrogate, the values of the coloniser, there is often therefore the urge to appropriate those values.

The value that Mr Biswas places on his house in V.S. Naipaul’s The House of Mr Biswas shows his urge to be placed, but the architecture of the building suggests western aspirations, however inappropriate in context. At the same time his home-owning individualism undermines the values of extended family apparent in his own community.

Although set in post-independence India, Arundhati Roy’s The Gold of Small Things concerns a family who see social status and class indissolubly linked with Englishness. The insist that the children speak English, value The Sound of Music above Indian culture and take great pride in Chacko’s Oxford education and his English ex-wife.

Walcott’s poem ‘Parades, Parades’ questions why societies, once they have gained their independence from colonialism, rely on the rituals and systems of the coloniser and thus remain mentally colonised.

As a response to voluntary and imposed cultural denigration, a number of post colonial writers have sought to reassert the value and integrity of their own cultures. A number of texts demonstrate the value of the indigenous culture, its systems, laws, beliefs and mythologies. In this way there is at least an implicit abrogation of the coloniser’s values by the promotion of indigenous values.

Achebe clearly establishes the world of Ibo traditions in the first half of Things Fall Apart before the white missionaries arrive. In this way he introduces the reader to the social structures of the Ibo culture, including agriculture, family organisation, religious ritual, judicial settling of disputes and settlement of inter-village rivalries. In this way he portrays a thriving and structured society; it is the white systems, once they arrive, which seem alien and arbitrary.

Ngugi’s A Grain of Wheat demonstrates the tensions between abrogation and appropriation. The novel celebrates the rejection of English control and the success of the military insurgency which led to English withdrawal and independence, but is also clear-sighted about the political system, and its corruption, which has been appropriated.

These issues are brought crucially into focus by the question of language itself. There is an inevitable tension between accepting the imposed language as a means of expression and rejecting it and its cultural values. This tension is apparent in the positions taken by Chinua Achebe and Ngugi. Ngugi argues that decolonisation needs to be fundamental, including rejecting the language of colonisation, and took the decision himself to cease writing in English and to write only in Gikuyu, a Kenyan language. Thus, he argues, he writes for his own people rather than foreigners or a foreign-educated elite. Achebe, on the other hand, argues that it is essential to write in English, both to gain as large an audience as possible and because to refuse to do so would fail to acknowledge Nigeria’s history, which cannot be undone.


Most post colonial writers use a language which has been historically imposed, rather than one which has historically and culturally evolved. This naturally produces a tension when using English to describe the post colonial experience.

These issues are explored dynamically in Friel’s Translations, which focuses on the Irish language being replaced by English. One of the ironies of the play itself is that it is written in English, Friel creating a dramatic trick so that the audience understands that the characters are speaking Gaelic even though the actors are speaking English.

Although writing in their own language, this problem is not dissimilar for colonial writers in settler colonies, who use a language which has been imported and therefore can be considered inauthentic for the experience it describes.

Aside from rejecting the use of English altogether, as Ngugi has, post colonial authors often incorporate their indigenous language into English. At first this was done with explanatory glosses, but more frequently such inclusions are left unglossed, creating a hybrid language. In addition, the rhythms and syntactic structures of the indigenous tongue are often recreated in English, so that the hybrid language is no longer the English of the colonist. This means, of course, that there are many different versions of English across the globe.

Both Achebe and Ngugi (before he rejected English as his language) incorporate Ibo and Gikuyu vocabulary into their novels. Things Fall Apart in particular uses Ibo words frequently, such as obi and egwugwu, without any gloss. A reader may recognise that glossing for meaning would in any case be inadequate; neither hut nor spirits conveys the cultural dimensions of the two words. In a similar way, much of the chanting and greeting in the rituals is also conveyed in Ibo direct speech. Achebe’s narrative and sentence structure is also very direct and apparently simple, a reporting of events intersprinkled with colloquial idiom, and in this way it carries an echo of the Ibo oral tradition, despite the text being written in English.

Time and Chronology

Lineage, history and consideration of the past have long been central to European thinking and understanding. The conventional idea that history is written by the victor shows why many post colonial writers seek to realign history to the perspective of the oppressed or at least offer an alternative perspective to that of the imperialist. In addition, several writers seek to offer an alternative view of time itself, undermining the European value placed on chronological time, by fracturing and rearranging chronological time, questioning the linear model of history and narrative.

Many texts demonstrate this fracturing of chronology with different styles and different effects including Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, Ngugi’s A Grain of Wheat and R.K. Narayan’s The Guide, to name but five. One can see that Rushdie’s slippage of time is appropriate to the magical and mythic world of the novel, while Ondaatje’s looseness of structure perhaps parallels the looseness of boundaries in the desert sands. The absence of conventional narrative structure in The English Patient, though, as in The God of Small Things and A Grain of Wheat, is also used to hold information from the reader and to offer multiple perspectives on events rather than a logical sequence of cause and effect. Thus the real focus of Roy’s novel is not known for some time and Ngugi’s focus on the day of Uhuru is inextricably linked with the past which has gone before it. In Narayan’s novel, the reader learns two linked narratives almost simultaneously, so that they inform each other.

Settler colonies: USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand

The issues and concerns for the literature of the settler colonies are different from, but linked to, other post colonial literature. There are three main areas of concern: the relationship between old and new social and literary practices, the relationship between the settlers and the indigenous population and the relationship between the imported language and the new place.

Language inevitably carries values and ideas with it, so settler writers have been concerned with the creation of new national voice, distinct and separate from the imported voice, while using the same language. At the same time they have wanted to be recognised on an equal footing with literature from Europe.

These countries do have their indigenous populations, and there is diglossic potential as Aboriginal and Maori writers, for example, appropriate English. At the same time, some settler writers have consciously attempted to incorporate elements of Aboriginal and Maori language and structures into English to give it a distinct local form evolved in some way from the location.

The potential for hybridity in American literature is enormous, as its society is composed of so many international influences.

Willa Cather’s My Antonia gives a striking illustration of the early life of a settler colony in the USA, made up of disparate European influences.

Katherine Mansfield’s short stories are often strikingly European in flavour and attitude, as 19th century European ideas try to find a place in New Zealand, in a location which tests those ideas and social preconceptions.

David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon explores the anxieties of early settlers in the hostile terrain of Australia, heightened by the arrival of the novel’s central character, whose past, including time spent with the Aborigines, has robbed him of clear memory and language.