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Toward a Multicultural, Postcolonial British Literature

For too long British literature as been taught as an isolated national tradition. Yet, British literature can also be perceived as a dynamic dialogue between the traditions, history, language, and culture of the world's most influential imperial power and the enormous diversity of its colonial possessions around the world. This page suggests a few texts and ideas for teachers beginning to explore a truly multicultural, postcolonial approach to teaching British literature.

English Works to Pair with Texts from the British Empire

Utopia (1516) by Thomas Moore is based on accounts of the New World from the Vespucci expeditions. A fascinating imaginative work to compare with both European and Native American societies, inspires debate and interesting creative projects. (Dover Thrift $1.50.)

The Tempest (1611) by William Shakespeare is at the center of a rich discussion about colonialism and cultural encounter. Drawing on early accounts of the Virginia colonies, Prospero and Caliban have come to be regarded as emblematic figures of European and native relations. (See my article ³A Multicultural Tempest,² English Journal, April 1993) (Dover $1.50.) Compare to: First chapter of A People¹s History of the United States (Howard Zinn); ³Of Cannibals² contemporary essay by Montaigne, read by Shakespeare; and, Strachey Letter--Letter from the Virginia colonies on which the play was based.

Oroonoko (1688) the first novel written in English--and written by a woman. Drawing on her voyage to the Caribbean Aphra Behn tells the story of an African prince taken into slavery who rebels against his masters.

Robinson Crusoe (1719) by Daniel Defoe is one of the most popular classics, read, it is said, by every young man that ever went into service in the British empire. Interesting study of an Englishman bringing order and civilization to the ³savages² and the ³untamed² New World. (Dover $2.00.) Compare to: Foe by TM Coetze (1986) experimental fiction by South African writer, author of Waiting for the Barbarians.

Olahdah Equiano (1789) an amazing slave narrative that is a work of English literature (published in England by an English citizen). Would make a rich comparison with The Tempest, Oronoko, Robinson Crusoe, etc. (Dover $2.00)

³A Modest Proposal² by Jonathan Swift is set in England¹s oldest colony, Ireland, and is a critique of English absentee landlords.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte has a fascinating colonial connection through Rochester¹s Caribbean plantations and wife, Bertha Mason. Many other 19th Century novels have similar interesting colonial connections, consider Magwitch in Great Expectations, Mr. Micawber in David Cooperfield, Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights or even the Bertran estate funded by Antigua plantations in Mansfield Park.. Compare to: Wide Sargasso Sea Jean Rhys; Abeng, Michelle Cliff

Heart of Darkness (1899) by Joseph Conrad is most meaningful when read in the context of European colonialism. (Dover $1.00) Many other works by Conrad explore colonial themes. Compare to: ³Racism in Heart of Darkness² by Chinua Achebe (see Norton Edition); Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, and many other postcolonial texts.

Passage to India by E.M. Forster treats the arrogance of British colonialism in India. Students may find the film more approachable than the novel.

Kim (1901) by Rudyard Kipling addresses the ³Great Game² of British and Russian struggle for control over India. Many other works by Kipling would fit perfectly into such a course, including Plain Tales of the Hills, Gunga Din and Other Poems (Dover $1.00), Man Who Would Be King (Dover $1.50).

³Shooting an Elephant² by George Orwell set in the British colony of Burma is an excellent essay on the role of the English as colonial administrators.

Lord of the Flies by William Golding can also be seen as a work in the colonial tradition and makes an interesting comparison with Robinson Crusoe and Heart of Darkness. Compare to: Jonsilver(?) a truly disturbing colonial version of Lord of the Flies with girls instead of boys; Coral Island British adventure story mentioned in and critiqued by Lord of the Flies; The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells, a colonial story and could be read along with several of the classic British works. (Dover $1.50.)

Sampling of Postcolonial Works

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart, (1962) No Longer At Ease, (1963), A Man of the People, Arrow of God, Anthills of the Savannah (Nigeria)

Armah, Ayi Kwei. The Beautiful Ones are Not Yet Born (1969) (Ghana)

Brutus, Dennis. A Simple Lust collected poetry (1973) (South Africa)

Cliff, Michelle. No Telephone To Heaven. (1987) (Jamaica)

Dangerembga, Tsitsi. Nervous Conditions (1989) (Zimbabwe)

Desai, Anita. Bye, Bye Blackbird. (Indians in England)

Emecheta, Bucchi. Joys of Motherhood, (Nigeria) Second Class Citizen, In the Ditch(Nigerians in London)

Equiano, Olaudah. Equiano¹s Travels (1789) Slave narrative. (Africa, England)

Gordimer, Nadine. short stories (South Africa)

Harris, Wilson. Palace of the Peacock. (British Guiana)

Kane, Cheikh Hamidou. Ambiguous Adventure (1972) (Senegal) trans. from French

Laye, Camara. Black Child trans. from French

Maran, Rene. Batouala (1921) trans. from French

Markadaya, Kamala. Nectar in a Sieve (India)

Mathabane, Mark.Kafir Boy (1986)

Narayan, R.K. The Guide, The Painter of Signs, The Man-Eater of Malgudi, etc (India)

Ngugi wa Thiong¹o. Weep Not, Child (1964) (Kenya)

Nwapa, Flora. Efuru (1966) (Nigeria)

Ondatje, Michael. Running in the Family. (1982) (Ceylon)

Patan, Alan. Cry the Beloved Country (1949) (South Africa)

Rushdie, Salman. ³Chekov and Zulu² (1993) (Indian Community in England)

Salih, Tayeb. Season of Migration to the North (1970) (Sudan)

Sembene, Ousmane. God¹s Bits of Wood (1961), Xala, Tribal Scars and Other Stories (Senegal) trans. from French

Recommended Background Reading For Teachers

Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon(1961)

Decolonizing the Mind (1986), Writers in Politics (1981), by Ngugi wa Thiong¹o.

The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Postcolonial Literatures. Ashcroft, Griffiths, Tiffin. (1990)

Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said (1993).

Colonial Encounters: Europe and the Native Caribbean 1492-1797, Peter Hulme.

Crusoe¹s Footprints: Cultural Studies in Britain and America, Patrick Brantlinger, 1990.

[Western Michigan University] WMU English Department [WMU English Education]

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Revised Date: 10/99