Postcoloniality in Text and Film

Gregory Gipson '98, English 27, 1997

"Postcoloniality" is one of those words that resists precise definitions. Having written once at length on the subject, I here hope to make good use of two very different novels and their film adaptations to provide not only an object lesson in some of the ways in which postcoloniality manifests itself in these texts, but also, and more obliquely, to raise some questions about the translation of text to film and how such displacement affects the political substance of the work.

Postcolonial encompasses a body of thought both vast and amorphous, so that a postcolonial viewpoint is in some ways a postmodern viewpoint, or perhaps a Marxist one. Postcolonial perceptions, therefore, are not only postcolonial; they are also a bit of everything -- that is, if you are of the type who likes all your ideas in neat, named packets. Perhaps our desire to name everything is a vestige of the sort of belief in words' intrinsic power which prompts the village elder in Vera's Nehanda to comment that "words must be kept alive," so that even as we put our words to paper, "mak[ing them] still. . .turning [them] into silence" (42-43), we are attempting to imbue them with some resonance beyond their stereotyped pictorial representations. Whatever the reasons, despite its bizarre and occasionally all-encompassing nature, postcolonial is still also a word all its own, and it deserves at least a desultory effort at encapsulation.

I previously defined postcoloniality as a three-fold idea, imparting to a postcolonial work certain immediate concerns: a conscious effort by the author to address within the work any of a variety of cultural and political concerns of life in a decolonized nation, a complex grounding in the cultural and political contexts of the country in which the book is set, and, because of the first two, a basis "in the 'historical fact' of European colonialism, and the diverse material effects to which this phenomenon gave rise" (General Introduction to the Post-colonial Studies Reader, 2). The only thing relevant to add (though this definition is itself without its original context, and, even then, was incomplete) is a further investigation of the sort of context required of a postcolonial text and why The Remains of the Day and Once Were Warriors fit into the framework, albeit jammed in a bit.

In two out of the three defining characteristics listed above, I invoke context as a necessary ingredient, both as current political and social environments and as history. The notion of contextuality is obviously crucial to postcolonial texts, partly because certain environments may be incomprehensible to cultural outsiders (as in Europeans or Americans) without some aid, and partly because the stories themselves frequently rely on some historical or present condition influenced or created by colonialism. Historicity and current affairs are tightly entwined and necessarily so; the events of the past after all lead to the situations of the present. Thus it is relevant to consider Sage Wilson's assertion that "postcolonial thought refuses to wipe the slate clean," and that therefore "historical and contemporary conditions in all their necessary messiness become premises for change" (Wilson essay). Postcoloniality is indeed a mode of thought which refuses to ignore the past, while looking decidedly toward the future.

As for "premises for change," I will irresponsibly ignore that part of his statement, not wishing to be embroiled in a longer definition than is strictly necessary. Certainly postcolonial thought is of the sort which looks to change and reordering of old ideas, trying to reevaluate or outdistance colonialism and other hegemonies.

Postcolonial Web Once Were