Feminist Fridays: Postcolonial Literature, Feminism, and Unexpected Enthusiasm

As of this week I am halfway through my third and final term at Oxford, meaning that by this point I’ve done enough work to form a solid opinion about my Trinity tutorials. Today I’d like to talk about my unexpected enthusiasm for postcolonial literature and how feminist perspectives play a role in reading and discussing this relatively recent field of study.

First, let’s talk about what I mean by postcolonial literature. This is actually a really difficult category to define, largely because it is commonly used to encompass a variety of different writers, texts, and ideas that don’t necessarily belong together. As Paul Brians explains in his article for Washington State University, “Taken literally, the term “postcolonial literature” would seem to label literature written by people living in countries formerly colonized by other nations.” However, he further argues that there are numerous problems with this definition because it can be homogenizing, generalizing, and therefore does not lead to productive and effective discussion of such texts or ideas:

“The more it is examined, the more the postcolonial sphere crumbles. Though Jamaican, Nigerian, and Indian writers have much to say to each other; it is not clear that they should be lumped together. We continue to use the term “postcolonial” as a pis aller, and to argue about it until something better comes along.”

As a relatively new field in academia (it only really started to develop in the US in the 1980s), postcolonial studies is a subject we are still grappling with today. Although it is much more commonly studied at universities now than in the past, it still isn’t as popular or frequently studied as other time periods or kinds of literature. Before coming to Oxford I had never studied this specific area of literature before and had little to no prior knowledge of the history of any of the nations I would be focusing on. When my tutor emailed me during spring break asking what texts I would like to read in the upcoming term, I remember worriedly replying: “I don’t even know where to begin.” Needless to say, I was intimidated, concerned, and convinced that I would be too stressed to even enjoy this tutorial.

As per usual with these kinds of situations, I needn’t have worried at all. 

First of all, I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to study something I have absolutely no experience with. Rather than feeling overwhelmed and bogged down with all of the new information I need to know, I can’t help feel excited and curious to learn even more. As a student who has mainly studied the same time periods and writers over and over and over again (I like modernism, what can I say?), it’s actually exhilarating to be tackling something completely new. There’s only so much T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf I can read before I start to ask: “Okay, but what else is out there?” {The answer? SO MUCH.}

Most importantly, the aspect of studying postcolonial literature that I’ve enjoyed the most is analyzing it from a feminist perspective. How does gender play a role in this genre of literature? How does taking gender into consideration change how we think about classic postcolonial texts like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart? Not only are these questions complicated by differences in languages and time periods, but they are also made more complex by differences in cultures. In her excellent book Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity, Chandra Talpade Mohanty denounces Western feminism for characterizing women outside of the Western world as inherently inferior:

“This average Third World woman leads an essentially truncated life based on her feminine gender (read: sexually constrained) and her being ‘Third World’ (read ignorant, poor, uneducated, tradition-bound, domestic, family-orientated, victimized, etc.). This, I suggest, is in contrast to the (implicit) self-representation of Western women as educated, as modern, as having control over their own bodies and sexualities and the freedom to make their own decisions” (Mohanty 22).

These are the kinds of challenging, eye-opening, fascinating questions that studying gender in postcolonial literature forces you to think about in each and every text. The answers are never simple or easy to reach, yet the process of coming to some sort of conclusion in each essay is a mode of learning in itself. There is nothing quite as rewarding as peeling back yet another layer of ignorance or homogeneity in a text to reveal the nuance, specificity, and purpose with which women writers write texts about women, for women. There are so many more voices out there that need to be heard, but we’ll never make any progress if we don’t first start listening to the ones that are slowly but surely trying to break through the masculine cacophony of the literary sphere.

Deciding to take this tutorial on a whim when I first applied to study at Oxford for a year was one of the best decisions I’ve made regarding my tutorial schedule. I can’t wait to see what new ideas the last few weeks of tutorial bring!

Click here to see other Feminist Friday posts!

Is feminism in postcolonial literature a topic you would like me to write more about in the future? Are you interested in hearing more about what I’ve been reading in this tutorial? Have you ever taken a course on postcolonial literature? Let me know in the comments section below!



22 thoughts on “Feminist Fridays: Postcolonial Literature, Feminism, and Unexpected Enthusiasm

  1. “Is feminism in postcolonial literature a topic you would like me to write more about in the future?” Yes please!!!
    I would love to learn more about this subject. Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists really spoke to me and I am determined to learn more about both feminism as well as postcolonial literature in general. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I loved this post! As a history major I love seeing another cultures take on history. My school recently gained access to Oxfords online library/journals. Seeing the American Revolution from the British side opened my eyes to how vast and complicated history is, which is the same thing your article did. As a new follower I don’t know exactly what you write about, but I thoroughly enjoyed this article. Thank You!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I didn’t realize that there was even a genre for postcolonial literature, which proves how much I still have to learn about literature if I’m going to study English in college. 😇

    This is unrelated to the actual content of this post, but I have to say that I absolutely LOVE your writing style — it’s so elegant and concise, and it’s also clear you’re really skilled at writing. Have you written a post on your blog about how you came to decide to study English in college? I would definitely read that post if it existed. I’m currently a sophomore in high school, so I still have time to pick what to study in the future, and English is a really, really strong prospect… though a lot of people around me are telling me to pick otherwise. I know I’m going to do something I love no matter what, but I think it would be nice to hear what you have to say about studying English, since you’re an passionate English student yourself and clearly have more experience than me. 😊

    Anyways, lovely post, Holly! You’re passion for books and stories really inspire me! 😋

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Awww, thank you so much, Zoie!! I really appreciate your kind words ❤ I would absolutely LOVE to write a post about how I came to study English in college–I'll definitely get on that soon! People used to tell me to study other subjects as well (as a matter of fact, some people still do!) but I firmly believe that studying English provides you with so many valuable skills. If it's what you're passionate about, then definitely go for it! ❤ ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve just spent the last fifteen minutes reading your Feminist Fridays posts, and I’m just … so fascinated. I can’t wait for your future posts & yes, please write about feminism in postcolonial literature as well!

    (Also, have you read We Should All Be Feminists yet? It’s such a good book!!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much!! ❤ That means a lot!

      I haven't read We Should All Be Feminists yet, but it's definitely on my TBR list! My friends actually just gave the Spanish translation as a gift a few months back, so I'm really looking forward to reading that this summer 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. “There is nothing quite as rewarding as peeling back yet another layer of ignorance or homogeneity in a text to reveal the nuance, specificity, and purpose with which women writers write texts about women, for women.” Wow this sentence really stood out and resonated for some reason. I’m very much enjoying reading your ‘feminist fridays’ posts, and I know that I would like to read more of your posts and thoughts on postcolonial literature!

    Liked by 1 person

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