Representation and Resistance: A Cultural, Social, and Political Perplexity in Post-Colonial Literature

John Yang, English 119, Brown University, 1999

Overview: The Problem of Representation and Resistance in Post-Colonial Literature

Many problems surround the terms post-colonial and post-colonial literature. In its most literal definition, post-colonial literature is simply a classification: a body of work or works produced by a previously colonized nation. If one accepts post-colonial literature only at its simplest definition, he leaves the term too broad and without coherency. One defines a literary movement not only by the era and location in which the movement occurred but also by the style of the writing and its political and social impact on society. For example, Romantic literature in Great Britain was produced from the mid to late eighteenth century to the early nineteenth, and some of the themes that emerged from British Romanticism were the glorification of nature and the omnipresence of love through class boundaries. Similarly, Victorian literature of the nineteenth century possessed qualities of the Age of Enlightenment, a movement that ran parallel to Queen Victoria's reign.

Therefore, to accept post-colonial literature only by its temporal and political designation does not give justice to the artist whose intentions may subsequently be ignored. If a reader credits or disparages a work strictly for its literary value, that is a choice that he makes. However, if the same reader states that this method is the only means by which one should value literature, he ignores the possible intentions of the author. Indeed a novel defined as post-colonial intends to have a greater impact than simply its plot. What are the implications of political independence from a so-called "empire?" What does it mean to write either as a voice, a representative, or a citizen of the post-colonial country? What are the political, social, and economic implications of the literature he produces?

If a post-colonial work manages to escape the valueless fate of many novels of the late 20th century, it is then subjected to more problems within the theoretical genre of post-colonial studies. The issues I will discuss are such: how a post-colonial novel acts as a representative of its respective nation and how it serves as a symbol of resistance against its colonizer. Within these categories, authors depict the life of a newly independent nation, speak out against the oppression of its colonizers, express a desire for an ideal "pre-colonial" society, or extol the beneficial consequences of empire. How can such widely varying ideas singularly define post-colonial literature?

It is important to note the differences among Romantic, Victorian, and post-colonial literature. First, the political and social implications differ greatly among them. In addition, Romantic and Victorian literature were labeled as such in hindsight, while post-colonial authors and scholars are self-aware of the existing style and movement that is labeled post-colonial. Post-colonial literature and post-colonial studies have the ability then to control self-consciously the direction and definition of its label. In other words, "post-colonialism" is a definition in progress. This definition in progress further problematizes post-colonial literature because without a solid source, scholars can debate forever what constitutes a post-colonial work and if that work gives justice to post-colonial literature as a whole.

Representation and Resistance: An Examination

Two ideas that surface repeatedly in post-colonial literature and theory are representation and resistance. Inevitably, scholars will judge a novel or poem by how adequately it represents an indigenous people or by how it reacts to the oppressing colonizers. Does Philip Jeyaretnam's Abraham's Promise serve as a statement against the remnants of a colonized Singapore or does it perpetuate the colonizing institutions of modern Singapore? This is one of the numerous questions scholars may ask when applying a theoretical study of post-colonial literature. Edward Said uses the term "Orientalism" in one aspect of post-colonial theory. He states that the idea of post-colonialism needs the dynamic between itself and its colonizers in order to define its existence:

The Orient is an integral part of European material civilization and culture. Orientalism expresses and represents that part culturally and even ideologically as a mode of discourse with supporting institutions, vocabulary, scholarship, imagery, doctrines, even colonial bureaucracies and colonial styles. (87)

The dynamic between the colonizer and the colonized may impose an intellectual rather than a political domination over the post-colonial nation. While political freedom may exist, the intellectual independence is far from reality. Said goes on to state "it [Orientalism] is, rather than expresses, a certain will or intention to understand, in some cases to control, manipulate, even to incorporate, what is a manifestly different (or alternative and novel) world." (90) Thus, choosing to represent an indigenous culture with the language of the empire serves as another form of colonization.

Resistance theory in post-colonial literature refutes the very notion that idea of representation also connotes further subjugation. Resistance literature uses the language of empire to rebut its dominant ideologies. In other words, the colonized nation is "writing back," speaking either of the oppression and racism of the colonizers or the inherent cultural "better-ness" of the indigenous people. Helen Tiffin expresses this point best in her essay "Post-colonial Literatures and Counter-discourse": "Post-colonial literatures/cultures are thus constituted in counter-discursive rather than homologous practices, and they offer �fields' or counter-discursive strategies to the dominant discourse." (96) Thus the counter-discursive nature constitutes post-colonial literatures rather than a unifying style or theme.

Counter-discourse fails to recognize that by existing simply to react against or to resist dominant ideology, it is marginalized into an idea that cannot stand on its own. As Tiffin states, counter-discourse exists only "in its determining relations with its material situation." (96) The concept of "other" cannot exist without its relationship to its reference point. Could this then be the fate of post-colonial literature? Is post-colonial literature only a subset, corollary, or a reaction to the already existing dominant discourse of English Literature?

The paradox of marginalization and empowerment seem to coexist in the ideas of representation and resistance. How does one then resolve this paradox? Tiffin offers another idea in the study and assessment of post-colonial literature. This idea involves a compromise between complete separation from the empire and the complete dependence upon the empire for its existence. She states "[p]ost-colonial cultures are inevitably hybridised, involving a dialectical relationship between European ontology and epistemology and the impulse to create or recreate independent local identity." (95) Using Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea and J.M. Coetzee's Foe as examples, she states that "neither writer is simply �writing back' to an English canonical text, but to the whole of the discursive field within which such a text operated and continues to operate in post-colonial worlds." (98) It seems as though colonial institutions in literature such as language and narrative style are necessary for a body of work to reach an academic audience. However, by potentially being able to reach a larger audience, an author enables himself to voice the emotions, frustrations, and the triumphs of his people to a group of scholars or students not yet exposed to his nation or race.

In the following essays, I will examine how four novels exemplify different aspects of representation and resistance theory. Philip Jeyaretnam's Abraham's Promise depicts the lack of social and political direction of a post-colonial world. Gopal Baratham's A Candle or the Sun explores the reactionary nature of local government immediately after its political independence. Yvonne Vera's Nehanda portrays the heroic tale of a young woman chosen to resist her colonial oppressors. Finally, Uncle Babamukuru in Tsitsi Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions explores Jenny Sharpe's notion of the mimic man in her essay "Figures of Colonial Resistance." All the novels serve to represent the indigenous lifestyle, resist colonial acts of authority and oppression through their textual transmission, or they accomplish both.


Said, Edward W. "Orientalism." in The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. ed. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. New York: Routledge, 1995. pp. 87-91.

Tiffin, Helen. "Post-colonial Literatures and Counter-discourse." in The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. pp. 95-98.

Representation and Resistance: A Cultural, Social, and Political Perplexity in Post-Colonial Literature

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