I am Daniele Nunziata, a Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Oxford. In my current research, and previously during my DPhil, I have been focusing primarily on literature which may be described as ‘postcolonial’. People outside this discipline often ask me what this is and how they might learn more about it. Like most literary movements, it can difficult to establish when postcolonialism first began, but it very generally refers to writing (including theory, poetry, and fiction) which speaks against, or came after (hence the prefix), colonialism. In many of the cases I consider in my research, this would include works which resist and/or came after the end of the British Empire’s rule over territories across the world.
For instance, some of my family come from, and live in, Cyprus. All of it was under the control of the British Empire until 1960, and literature which speaks to this history and what came after it might well be described as ‘postcolonial’. Similar claims can be made of, say, literature from South Asia in the years leading up to and following 1947; or from Nigeria which, like Cyprus, became independent in 1960. Postcolonialism also involves important reflections on life and politics after – as well as before – decolonisation.
It should be noted that this brief introduction is an extremely simple description of an enormous field which inevitably fails to contain the wide convolutions of colonial history. Some writers of fiction might produce texts which a publisher or scholar identifies as ‘postcolonial’, but the writer themself might not wish to use this term to describe their own composition. Be careful when using any general markers when classifying culture, particularly markers as powerful and substantial as ‘postcolonial’.
At this university, there are many useful resources to help gain greater insight into this field, including the postgraduate seminar series, Postcolonial Writing and Theory at Oxford. There are also multiple MSt programmes – including ‘World Literatures in English’ and ‘Comparative Literature and Critical Translation’ – which enable students to consider postcolonial and comparative ways of approaching literary and cultural studies. Research collectives like OCCT at St Anne’s College provide similar homes for these ways of approaching texts.
Below is a list of notable works – three pieces of theory or academic research, and three pieces of fiction – which are essential reading if you wish to consider learning more on the postcolonial discipline.
- Edward Said, Orientalism (1978). One of the most important works in helping to bring the field to life, Orientalism is a meticulous study of how writers in Britain and France have often written about countries across Asia and North Africa using a specific series of stereotypes which present a place they call the ‘Orient’ in a particular and pejorative way. These stereotypes were then used to justify British and French colonisation of the territories being described. Said was a Palestinian writer who spent much of his career as a professor at Columbia University.
- Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (1961). Fanon was a philosopher and psychiatrist, born in French-ruled Martinique, who worked in metropolitan France and Algeria. This written work is partly based on his time as a psychiatrist in colonised Algeria (1953 1957) and analyses the physiological impact of imperialism on the minds of individuals, including the role played by violence in these contexts.
- Elleke Boehmer, Stories of Women: Gender and Narrative in the Postcolonial Nation (2005). There are many works from the illustrious career of Oxford’s own Professor of World Literature, Elleke Boehmer, which could be included on this list. This specific monograph illustrates the necessity of evaluating questions of gender within postcolonialism and is an important piece of intersectional thinking and research. Boehmer is also an author of novels and short stories, including her most recent collection, To the Volcano (2019), which brings together the moving lives of multiple characters and families across the world who feel the pressures of inequality on the Global South. This brings us to…
It was nearly impossible to shortlist just three texts. Ultimately, I have picked three which were recognised in the 2019 list of 100 Novels that Shaped Our World and which also happen to have postcolonial themes.
- Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (1958). This is one of most well-known and beloved examples of ‘postcolonial’ fiction. Tracing the life of the tragic hero, Okonkwo, in the years leading up to, and following, the arrival of Christian missionaries to an Igbo village in what is now Nigeria, the novel shows how the protagonist and his family react to the sudden cultural changes in advance of British imperialism. It was followed by two sequels, no Longer at Ease (1960) and Arrow of God (1964), which continue to follow Okonkwo’s family through successive time periods.
- Zadie Smith, White Teeth (2000). Winning the Commonwealth Writers First Book Prize, White Teeth gives a compelling insight into British life during the 1970s, largely following the experiences of two best friends, Samad and Archie, who met serving in World War II. This is an important capsule of life in the time period it depicts, exploring how culture and religion impact a person’s identity, including within the British-Bangladeshi community.
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun (2006). This novel moves between the narrative viewpoints of three characters who view the onset of the Nigerian Civil War (1967–1970) and experience the horrors it unleashes. The reader is forced to confront this painful part of the history of Biafra, moving beyond single-sentence references in British or American history textbooks. If you are not already familiar with Adichie’s fiction, you may have read or heard extracts from her powerful TED talk which was published as an essay, We Should All Be Feminists (2014). To quote her, a feminist is “a person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes”.
Dr Daniele Nunziata is a Lecturer in English at the University of Oxford. He completed his DPhil at St Hugh's College analysing postcolonial Cypriot literature. His other research concerns writing from the Middle East and Africa and has been published in PMLA, the Journal of Postcolonial Writing, and the Studies in World Literature book series. The primary themes of his creative writing include post/colonial history and diasporic cultural identities.