The spheres of art and literature have had a major impact on the development of society. It has shaped civilisations, changed political systems and exposed injustice. Literature gives us a detailed preview of human experiences, allowing us to connect on basic levels of desire and emotion. Therefore, it seems only natural that storytelling has given strength to cultures and helped them reestablish themselves on a global stage.
Frankly, the world we inhabit is incomprehensible except in relation to the history of imperialism and colonial rule. It is only fitting that literary education includes work from the vast expanse of minority writers who were forgotten in favour of Chaucer, Hemingway, or Emerson. Decolonising our curriculum is, first of all, the acceptance that education, literary or otherwise, needs to enable self-understanding.
To decolonise the English syllabus is not to claim racial victimhood or assert superior virtue; it is to expand the imagination of students of literature. Juxtaposing critical works of minorities alongside their white counterparts has been disparaged as being the hope of ‘bleeding heart liberals’ and it is telling that efforts to inject unaddressed layers of perspective into teaching are being dismissed as ‘false diversity’. The assumption here is precisely the problem – that the most profound of philosophical thought and learning was exclusive to white upper-class people, largely men.
As the world constantly grows in its complexity and societies demand reparations for historical atrocities – literature has to engage with that complexity. To truly ‘decolonise the curriculum’, we need a critical humanistic interrogation of the past. Colonial societies were repressive and undemocratic in nature as domestic governmental systems and social structures were controlled by a privileged group, and this theory allows us to focus on the root causes of the rampant discrimination in post-colonial societies.
One of the fundamental parts of post-colonial societies is the attempt to assert in their works the dignity of their culture and nation, to simultaneously battle against and move along with the cultural conflict that arises from a nation’s attempt to repossess its identity. Reconstructing the history of a colonised country with a view that realistically portrays the inherent differences between native culture and the culture of imperial power, literature makes a powerful and arguably successful attempt to restore the lost dignity of a nation.
Questioning the Eurocentric ideology of a colonised society is integral to post-colonial fiction as the writer writes back to the heart of their culture, restructuring European realities in terms of the victims of colonialism. This concept of subversion is not merely used as an effective literary strategy; it becomes a means of self-assertion. The colonial past is evoked as an effort to dismantle Eurocentric nations of history and to demystify those who are exalted in our history books as being ‘colonial heroes’, while simultaneously acting to give a voice to those who have been ruled by oppression and subjugated into silence.
Take Assia Djebar’s Women of Algiers in Their Apartment with its bold rejection of the belief that history is written by victors, as it portrays the Algerian women who fought against their French colonisers during the Algerian War of Independence. Their contributions, stories, and voices have mostly been overlooked by historians but find the recognition they are owed. Djebar herself took part in the war, but as a novelist and historian, she gave many of the women who fought alongside her a voice and visibility. As literature explores so powerfully, the novel deals with framing of identity, the politics of rewriting, and the relation between nation and nationalism. The Culture Game by Olu Oguibe deconstructs the Western image of Africa – as apparent in Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness – to liberate the continent from the colonial and racist ideology that fuels that very picture.
— Laura Sg (@LauraSglr) March 10, 2020
These staples of post-colonial literature replace colonial metanarratives with counter-narratives of resistance, deconstruct imperial ideology and colonial domination to articulate the worth of societies that were once cruelly marginalized. The great literature that we dwell on spins an unwavering tale. Its well-rehearsed nature is dependent on our lack of perspective, where the art of story-telling becomes void with its repetition of a single paragraph in the multitudes of volumes that denotes the plurality of human experience.
A unipolar view of history and its impact on literature has led to a systematic distortion of the material. Updating syllabuses will not completely eliminate white men from the curriculum. Instead, it sets the foundation for challenging long-standing biases and omissions that limit how we understand politics and society. It is a misconception that advocates for decolonising our literary narrative and in turn history want to nullify the canon. Rather, they desire to eradicate the poor assumption that the most worthwhile of thought sprung exclusively from white men and their colonial narratives. To seamlessly weave the polarities of the experiences of the coloniser and the colonised would create a historically accurate vision of the past that is founded on acknowledgment instead of denial.
The philosophy underlying the politics of rewriting is not one of declaring war on the past, but declaring war against the present realities which, implicitly or explicitly, are the consequences of that past.