IB English – A Brief Introduction to Postcolonial Theory
By Steve Leech
(Test Prep (ACT/SAT/SSAT), English Literature, English Builder tutor at The Edge Learning Center)
In my experience, a major issue a lot of students have with literature is that they overthink it and get intimidated. To simplify, I often tell them to consider the idea of privilege: which people have social power, where it comes from, and what its effects are. This concept forms a useful lens for understanding many literary theories such as feminism, marxism, queer theory, and the topic of discussion here, postcolonialism.
Postcolonialism examines the impact of a foreign colonial or imperial presence on a local population, whether it’s the British and the Native Americans, the British in India, or the British across pretty much half of Africa. Other colonial powers have existed, of course, but the British got into colonialism like it was Crossfit. Naturally, one can look at any aspect of a culture from a postcolonial (“PoCo” if you’re hip) perspective, but applying it to literature is especially valuable for the IB curriculum, which often asks students to consider international literature or poses culture-based questions on the Paper 2 examination.
Much postcolonial literature from the 20th and 21st centuries deals with the immediate effects of European meddling in Africa, Asia, and the Americas (such as in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart) all the way up to how events two or three generations ago affect people today (as in Zadie Smith’s On Beauty.)
Throughout these texts, postcolonial issues extend beyond obvious matters like the forced relocation of slaves or the economic exploitation of indigenous people to more intimate questions. In Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye, African-American characters hold themselves to white European standards of beauty, which leads them to much suffering and self-harm. A central idea in many of these works is cultural–and therefore personal–identity. The value curricula such as the IB place on these types of perspectives is that they push students to consider perspectives outside of what they themselves encounter daily or, especially in the case of students in Hong Kong, to reexamine those daily encounters with fresh eyes. Even students who never experienced life in British Hong Kong live in its shadow.
Even so, these types of relationships between cultures are far from a recent phenomena. We can take PoCo back hundreds of years to when the people of the British Isles were on the receiving end of imperialism for a change. Beowulf is one of the earliest known texts in the English language although you might not think so when you look at it. This narrative poem comes from the Geats, a people from what is now Sweden, but is written in English. Were the Geats trying to force their culture onto the local English people, or were the English actively taking elements of the Geats’ culture for their own?
This is just one example of the breadth postcolonial perspectives can take. Certainly we can look at the indigenous people affected by empires and colonial powers, but we can also examine those same expansionist powers through the same lens to consider their values and drives. Rudyard Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden”, about the struggle of white Europeans to bring “culture” and Christianity to the world, seems quite silly and sad in the light of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, which details the descent of western schoolboys into primitive savagery when they are removed from the general society. Similarly, On Beauty considers in part the effect that increased power and autonomy on the part of colonized people has on the traditional figure of colonization: the white European male. It does not go well.
While the postcolonial perspective is powerful and certainly useful in the IB curriculum, it is far from the only philosophy that students can leverage to not only improve their scores but also better understand literature as a whole. Examining these social power structures opens the door to more subtle movements and philosophies, which in turn create a greater understanding of not only the written arts but also the greater experience of the human condition.