LITR 5731 Multicultural Literature    
Model Assignments

Sample Student Midterm Essay 2009

Alice Catherine Louvier

30 September 2009

The Effect of Colonial Texts in Post-Colonial Writing

            I was not completely unfamiliar with the impact of decolonization on third world populations when I signed up for this class, but the concept of literary post-colonial theory was completely new to me. Last year I graduated with a BA in Women’s Studies and a concentration in Latina/Latino studies. The coursework exposed me to many social aspects of post-colonial fall-out, and incorporated classes in Women’s Literature and Latin American History that included the Caribbean area we are studying in class. Clearly, I am drawn to both the history and the art form we are examining. Furthermore, my favorite focus for research is feminist theories of discourse, and I look forward to the prospect of using similar techniques to find evidence of colonial/ post-colonial biases. As I see it, the nature of discourse changes when the author recognizes the presence of privilege, so authorial awareness of imperialism separates the literature of the colonizers from that of the colonized. I believe that a noticeable shift of focus occurs in the interval between the colonial and post-colonial periods. An English right of empire is intrinsic to colonial texts, while post-colonial authors consciously address the effects of colonization. Defoe seems completely unaware that his novel reflects the beliefs of his time, while Walcott and Kincaid each purposefully control language and style to transmit the post-colonial condition.

 Sensitivity to colonial/post-colonial literary discourse has already affected my understanding of both literature and history. I had never read Robinson Crusoe before this class so I saw it for the first time through a colo-poco lens. As a result I was very aware of the colonial attitudes depicted in the novel. I had to wonder how I would have seen the story without the influence of the class. I am also taking a Shakespeare class this semester, so in a clever ruse to overlap research, I looked there for a similar text that I had read before my exposure to colonial/post-colonial theory. I am ashamed to admit that I did not recognize the connection between The Tempest and British colonialism until I prepared my presentation on the Empire Writes Back website. However, now I see a lot of parallels between Shakespeare’s play and Robinson Crusoe. Both stories have European male protagonists who become stranded on isolated islands and assume dominion over the people (or metaphysical entities) that belong there. Before the project, I saw the play as Prospero’s story and I understood the island as a setting of Shakespearian magic, not British conquest.  I was always aware of the master/slave and usurper/usurped aspects of the play, but I did not perceive the presence of a colonizer/colonized binary. However, when I applied the course objectives to the play, I noticed the British imperial righteousness buried in the subtext.

Since Robinson Crusoe and The Tempest are products of the same culture at different points in time, I decided to look at the two texts in terms of the literary historicism described in Objective one. When seen as an intertextual dialogue, the two works show the evolution of British attitudes of empire. The earliest record of Shakespeare’s play is dated at 1623, the same year Britain established its first settlement in the West Indies (St.Kitts). That is about a hundred years before Defoe published Robinson Crusoe (1719). Colonization was only beginning at time of The Tempest, so the population would be aware of the West Indies, but it would not seem quite real. However, American “savages” from Virginia had already been brought to Queen Elizabeth’s court. So Shakespeare’s mysterious Mediterranean island allowed the audience to identify with familiar geography, but acknowledged their fears with the hostile, barely human natives that live there. In contrast, Defoe wrote at the height of British expansion and his story reflects a much more knowledgeable public with more concrete fears. He based his island on culturally accepted reality. The right of “civilized” Europeans to rule “uncivilized” natives is implicit in both texts. This leads me to believe that the British right of empire was established before the conquest really began. Furthermore, the bestial depiction of Caliban shows how early the British began dehumanizing the “other” population of the unfamiliar world. Defoe’s Friday seems more human by comparison, but not of the same order as the British protagonist.

The humanity of Friday becomes noticeably redefined two-hundred and fifty years later in Derek Walcott’s post-colonial poem “Crusoe’s Island.” In choosing that title, the poet virtually forces an intertextual dialogue between his poem and Defoe’s novel. Walcott’s mimicry of Defoe’s protagonist equips the narrator with a preformed identity, allowing the meaning in the text to change according to the reader’s perception of the original. As a result, “Crusoe’s Island” uses hybrid constriction or double articulation to tell two narratives with the same words. The first is the story of the artist. Being an artist himself, Walcott identifies with the Crusoe character. The artist fills his loneliness with his own image; he is the second Adam who renames the world according to his own design. The Crusoe-artist forges a profane and pagan world on Vulcan’s anvil that is a false image of the world formed on God’s anvil with the power to calm the waters and turn sea grapes golden in the sun. In this analogy, Friday’s progeny are the innocents (like Friday himself) who learn more from God’s creation than the artist can ever learn from his own design. The second narrative is that of British colonization. In this instance, Crusoe is the foreigner who brings in the Christian God to renounce the “natives” as the pagan “others” of Bethel and Canaan. The second Adam is the colonizer who renames the island and everything on it according to his own will. This time Friday’s progeny are the dark-skinned people left behind to thrive in God’s glory after the British pull out. Walcott does not condemn Crusoe in either narrative, he makes him mortal. Likewise, he elevates Friday from his pet-like status in Robinson Crusoe. So both characters become human, but Friday is the better man.

It is important to realize that in the case of Derek Walcott the superiority of Friday does not bespeak his own superiority to white Englishmen. On the contrary, Walcott relates to both the Crusoe and the Friday of his heritage. The poem’s double articulation reflects his dual identity as both the colonizer and the colonized.. When he adds intertextual imagery from The Iliad and Genesis to his Robinson Crusoe analogy, the poet combines Greek myth, Judeo-Christian scripture, and English literature to create a his West Indian poem. This unification of classical narratives and Caribbean poetry is an analogy for Walcott’s concept of the West Indian identity. He considers post-colonial West Indians to be the product of two cultures colliding. The resulting society has things in common with both of the originals, but form an entirely new entity. However, when Walcott expresses his sentiments outside of poetry it becomes apparent that the unification he espouses is not as simple as binding two halves into one whole. In his 1976 essay “The Muse of History” he writes:

I accept this archipelago of the Americas, I say to the ancestor who sold me, and to the ancestor who bought me, I have no father, I want no such father, although I can understand you, black ghost, white ghost, when you both whisper "history," for if I attempt to forgive you both I am falling into your idea of history which justifies and explains and expiates, and it is not mine to forgive, my memory cannot summon any filial love, since your features are anonymous and erased and I have no wish and no power to pardon. (Nobel)

So, just as the poet embraces both sides of his heritage equally, he rejects both sides equally.

Jamaica Kincaid’s notion of a Caribbean post-colonial cultural identity is the polar opposite of Derek Walcott’s. Unlike Walcott, Kinkaid identifies exclusively with the oppressed “other” of colonial Antigua. In her essay “A Small Place’” she attacks her oppressors in an unfiltered monologue, disavowing any bond with white English colonizers. Kincaid’s post-colonial response to the imperial world order pictured in Robinson Crusoe is far more abrasive than Walcott’s. She gives an element of intense hostility to the voice of black Antiguans forced to live in the shadow of white, English empire. Hers is a world of “us” and “them” filled with animosity for the white colonial “you” who judges the inadequacy of black Antiguan “people like me.” At the end of the essay, she expresses her bitterness for the devastation the descendants of African slaves suffered at the hands of the English colonizers with the words: “Even if I really came from people who were living like monkeys in trees, it was better to be that than what happened to me, what I became after I met you.”

In “A Small Place,” Kincaid introduces language as a source of contention when she rails against English laws forbidding the use of abusive language.  Despite the fact that enforcing the law was complicated by the inability of officials to understand the words, the English government took for itself the right to control the speech of black Antiguans. She proclaims the injustice of forcing the people to sensor themselves in a manner not in keeping with its cultural norms, and expresses righteous indignation at the power differential that allowed this to happen. I find it interesting that she insists on calling the English colonials “rude” rather than “racist.” Kincaid noticed that the English took an accusation of rudeness more seriously than they did an accusation of racism, so she turns their own language against them. She renames the white colonials (resignifies the signifier) in her own terms, much as Crusoe renames everything on the island in Walcott’s poem or Defoe’s novel. This action takes away the right of the English to self-define. Kincaid writes “the only language I have I which to speak of this crime is the language of the criminal who committed the crime.”(94). However, the author uses the re-defined vocabulary for her the post-colonial response. I view her re-naming as a sign of post-colonial reassertion of the rights formerly denied them by the colonial force. I believe that she begins to take back her voice when she takes control of the words.

Walcott’s and Kincaid’s views on language are as divergent as their views on cultural identity. However, this is hard see in the pieces we studied because Kincaid’s monologue directs her personal point-of-view straight to the reader, while Walcott lets the narrative convey his ideas. In order put the two post-colonial writers in a more direct dialogue, I will use quotes from Walcott’s essays and interviews to relate his views on language in clear-cut terms. While Kincaid calls English the language of “the criminal who committed the crime,” Walcott takes possession of the language for himself. He says, “…the English language is nobody’s special property” (Shoenberger). He can connect with English more readily than Kincaid because he feels that black and white post-colonial West Indians are joined by virtue of the racially mixed heritage of the Caribbean. In “A Small Room” Kincaid expresses distrust of the English education when she writes:  “…you loved knowledge, and wherever you went you made sure to build a school, a library (yes, and in both of these places you distorted or erased my history and glorified your own). In contrast, Walcott values English schooling and places extra significance on his extensive literary education because “…for a poet, literature is stronger than life. (Schoengerger).  Therefore, Walcott builds his work on the foundation of a traditional, poetic form and makes a conscious effort to combine this form with a West Indian voice. The poet tried to stay “…as close as possible to an inflection that was West Indian. The aim was that a West Indian or an Englishman could read a single poem, each with this own accent, without either one feeling that is was written in dialect” (Bixby)

I am intrigued by the equation of language and cultural voice. I noticed on The Empire Talks Back website that where were considerably more poets as “spokesman” for the post-colonial response than novelists. I think that has something to do with ownership of the words. The abbreviated syntax of poetry allows words to link together without a formally devised relationship (grammar). So even if the post-colonial poets are stuck with the English words, they need not follow English rules; the poet can connect one word with the next according to West Indian perception. While I believe this theory is valid, I must admit that it does not apply to either of the post-colonial authors we discussed in class. Derek Walcott uses the English language and traditional poetic form as tools to facilitate the double articulation of “Crusoe’s Island,”  and although Jamaica Kincaid rails against the language of the criminals in her essay, she chooses the form of the novel for artistic expression.

In class we studied Lucy as a post-colonial novel, but I think it is more like a female coming of age story. This is an important distinction. If Lucy is primarily a woman’s story, it is a post-colonial narrative for the same reason Robinson Crusoe is a colonial narrative. Defoe’s novel is an adventure narrative about a protagonist that gets stranded on a deserted island. It is a colonial narrative because the British imperial worldview permeates the story. Kincaid novel is a coming of age narrative about a young woman who learns about herself through interaction with other women. It is a post-colonial narrative because a post-colonial worldview permeates the story. The protagonist’s female identity is inescapably tied to the post-colonial experience. However, I think the post-colonial aspects of the narrative are more intentional in Lucy than in Robinson Crusoe. Like Walcott in “Crusoe’s Island,” Kincaid tells the story of her protagonist with hybridized construction. She uses the same words to tell the story of Lucy’s personal struggle to become a woman and the story of a post-colonial West Indian struggling to understand a world that refuses to recognize the impact of colonization.  The character Lucy seems to hold many of the same attitudes as those expressed by Kincaid in “A Small Place.” However, they seem less abrasive in the novel because the character is only part of the story.  Lucy’s interior monologue relates her perception of the story’s narrative along with her reaction to events and other characters. The reader then draws conclusions from a combination of the narrator’s monologue, the character’s dialogue, and the action of the narrative.

While Robinson Crusoe and Lucy are both novels, Jamaica Kincaid consciously manipulates language in a way that goes a step beyond that of Defoe. Robinson Crusoe is a narrative with a little dialogue, and Lucy balances the narrative’s monologue with dialogue giving the story an added level of complexity. Kincaid’s double articulation is achieved in part because of the refinement in the literary form of the novel between Defoe’s time and the present. However, Walcott achieves the same effect in by “combining the ‘old canon’ of Western classics and the ‘new cannon’ of multi-cultural literature” within his poem. It seems that the biggest difference between colonial and post-colonial literature is awareness. The post-colonial authors we have studied recognize the imperialism within the old canon that authors of those did not recognize. Derek Walcott is intensely aware of literary texts and form that came before him and uses that knowledge to express his post-colonial ideas. Jamaica Kincaid incorporates her Caribbean identity into the evolving literary form of the novel. In both cases, awareness of the past makes their voices more eloquent in the present. However, I still wonder about the location of Shakespeare’s plays in matrix of literature and British Imperialism. I would like to do further research to find presence of early colonial allusion within the work and ask what influence society had on Shakespeare and what influence Shakespeare had on society.
 Schoenberger interview  -- Patrick Bixby’s article for Emory

.  -- Nobel Prize site