On Hybridity and Postcolonialism

Antwan Jefferson, English 119, Brown University, 1999

Part 3 of "Establishing Literary Independence: Hybridity in Zimbabwean Literature"

Defining post-colonialism, as John Yang points out in his essay "Representation and Resistance," is a difficult on two counts: (1) to define it in its most basic form as "that which happens after political independence" is to miss many possible applications of the concept; and (2) to define post-colonialism according to its political implications shifts attention away from the importance of the work as literature and lessens the intentions of the author. At best, defining post-colonialism can be considered a work in progress:

Post-colonial literature and post-colonial studies have the ability...to control...the direction and definition of its label[ing]. 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.

Although there are apparent challenges to define post-colonialism fully, the basic definition suggested by Yang will provide sufficient framing for this essay: "A body of...works produced by a previously colonized nation." In Zimbabwean literature, the term applies because it indicates the status of the country twenty years ago: under European (British) government. [For more info. concerning the governmental conflict in Rhodesia, see Alice Dadirai Kwaramba's discussion of Rhodesia between 1965 and 1979.]

Thus, it is according to the colonial and post-colonial history of Zimbabwe that the culture might be considered hybrid -- conceived, as it was, within two different parent cultures. The literature of Zimbabwe consists of culturally specific content expressed in English language, and sometimes form. It should not be forgotten, however, that the hybridity of Zimbabwe is the result of writers who produce a narrative able to deliver Zimbabwean people from the status of subject. It is within the hybridity of Zimbabwean literature that authors are able to "write back" against the literature of colonialism.

Though it may be obvious to many, I offer the following idea of language: language consists of much more than words on paper; the spirit of what is communicated is more significant than what is printed as text. The use of written language requires an understanding of its construction, the ability to apply language, and a cultural context. Cultural context comes about as a result of writing as a member of a particular society or culture, enabling the writer with techniques, cliches, and phrases particular to the given society. It is only when a writer intends to write from a non-native perspective that the cultural context is minimized, and even then few aspects are still evident in the produced literature.

In his criticism of the reader's perception of post-colonial literature, Flemming Brahms notes that Third World post-colonial writers demonstrate a sense of urgency to recreate social and cultural selfhood. For the Zimbabwean author, not only is there the task of rewriting culture but she or he must also establish a sense of nationalism that works against absolutist cultural hegemony and affirms various native peoples. Defying the demands of the hegemonic discourses impinging on them, native writers are able to create fiction. For the reader this creation can examine the culture from which the author writes, or inform the reader of the colonialist discourse and structure against which the fiction is written. In either case, a question posed by Parry (gathered from Said's article "Orientalism") applies here: "how can one study other cultures and peoples from a libertarian, or a non-repressive and non-manipulative perspective?" This question is key in understanding the problem of applying critical discourse to African literature, and particularly the literature of Zimbabwe.

As non-Western literature is read by Western readers (or readers given to a Western literary tradition), their interpretations might easily differ from those of the author. This does not dictate the wanton deconstruction of the literature in search of familiar elements, because a technique such as this supports the labeling of the native as Other. Rather, affirming the native culture heavily influences the nature of Zimbabwean fiction, particularly the manipulation of language and the struggle to find or establish an identity. This identity is composed of the colonizing culture and the retained aspects of native culture. The challenge that this hybridity presents is the importance of reading the literature as fiction, constituting a canon of non-Western literature.

The phenomenon of re-establishing a culture by means of literature considers negotiating cultural hybridity while establishing selfhood. Native peoples must maintain those aspects of a colonized culture vital to their existence while manipulating them to serve as the building blocks of an independent society. They must also choose aspects to relinquish -- which is a way of preventing cultural hegemony.

In the 'hybrid moment' what the native rewrites is not a copy of the colonialist original, but a qualitatively different thing-in-itself, where misreadings and incongruities expose the uncertainties and ambivalences of the colonialist text and deny it an authorizing presence. Thus a textual insurrection against the discourse of cultural authority is located in the natives' interrogation of the English book within the terms of their own system of cultural meanings. (Parry 42)


Brahms, Flemming. "Entering Our Own Ignorance: Subject-Object Relations in Commonwealth Literature." in The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. ed. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. New York: Routledge, 1995. pp.66-70.

Darby, Phillip. The Fiction of Imperialism: Reading Between International Relations and Postcolonialism. Washington: Cassell, 1998.

Larson, Charles. "Heroic Ethnocentrism: The Idea of Universality in Literature." in The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. ed. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. New York: Routledge, 1995. pp.62-65.

Parry, Benita. "Problems in Current Theories of Colonial Discourse." in The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. pp.36-44.

Said, Edward W. "Orientalism." in The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. pp.87-91.

Sharpe, Jenny. "Figures of Colonial Resistance." in The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. pp.99-103.

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