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The gaze of Orientalism – the importance of exploring postcolonial literature

Updated: May 19, 2020

I’ve grown up in a very ‘White’ society. Other than being exposed to White literature, and white books, little did I know, such knowledge pigeonholed my perception of world history. Thankfully, my parents instilled in me a love for critical thinking and evaluation, and more importantly a firm sense of identity. As much as they got cold feet staying in one place for too long, I did too. I was meeting many people from different backgrounds and creeds and this only broadened my understanding of human identity and culture, and understandably so. No two people acted in the same way, and this meant I was always learning to navigate around peoples' otherness. Besides people, I remained fascinated by authors and writer's 'alternative truths'.  I would spend long hours comparing literature and exploring a wider array of readings, beyond the ‘set’ texts at University. And whilst my professors discouraged rummaging beyond a set reading list, I saw the library as my Narnia, a tool to broaden my own horizon.

Schools told us a great deal about Western literary tradition and its values. Like the Greek leader Odysseus, and Milton. But what about world stories teaching about African history, East Asia, or the Islamic Golden legacy? Why were books being banned in schools? Why were certain books considered canons, and others invisible? Sooner than later, I figured that reading wasn’t neutral, and there was always another side to every story. In fact, not only did critiquing matter, but readers were encouraged to understand they had authority over the author.

I could go on forever questioning, but one I recently had for my students was whether they'd read Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea? This was especially for my fans of Jane Eyre. Of course they hadn't. Wide Sargasso Sea, a postcolonial prequel discusses the identity crisis of creole women and Rochester's imperialistic drive over her. This was eliminated from the curriculum, lest it took away from the permeating romance between Jane and Rochester. The Creole woman, Antoinette, was simply referred to as 'the mad woman in the attic'.

In a conversation with her husband in Part II of the novel, Antoinette laments with frustration, “So between you I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong and why was I ever born at all”. It is in this fit of exasperation that she displays the “uncertainty of cultural identity” and “sense of estrangement” commonly felt by West Indians according to one literary critic.  Thus, Wide Sargasso Sea provides readers with an illustration of the confused, often contradictory qualities imposed on Creoles by the societies between which they are torn.  In spite of male imperialists’ efforts to erase all aspects of an identity within Antoinette, Rhys masterfully creates a new sense of self within her that embraces all the opposing qualities comprising her character.

In the same way that Creoles suffer rejection by the black community of which they are a part, they are also treated as “the other” by their white European counterparts whose political power and wealth allow them to maintain significant influence over Caribbean society.  Due to the white colonizers’ inability to fully understand Creole lifestyle and culture, they create harmful stereotypes and rank those of mixed races as inferior to themselves.  An example of the pervasive cultural barriers between whites and Creoles exists in their different behaviours toward the native blacks on the island was identified when Rochester’s reaction of disgust at the sight of Antoinette demonstrating physical affection for blacks, such as Christophine, showed the persistent European mentality of viewing members of a race formerly enslaved as objects rather than people. 

This erasure of culture and history is nothing new. The Arab world was also rich in literature, identified by the traditions of the medieval Golden Age, and the Arab Renaissance of the 19th and early 20th centuries, when Cairo was to the Arab world what Paris was to the West. However, in light of the tantalising portrayal of the East, Westerners have since erased and scripted Arab thought, and annihilated it.

All sounds bleak? Well, it somewhat is, but that doesn't mean we can't do something about it collectively. We just need to start conversations around cultural plurality and defy the hegemony of Western modernity. it is important more than ever to engage in wider conversations, beyond the ‘set texts.’ This could begin with a study of post-colonial literature; presenting itself as a core tenant in cultural exploration. I highly encourage my students to engage in wider conversations and to hear from the Orient.

According to Homi Bhabha, postcolonial studies is concerned with the analysis of the lived condition of unequal power sharing globally and self-authorisation of cultural, economic and militaristic hegemony, as well as the monocultural discourses and their colonising imperative. The mandate of postcolonial criticism is to disclose the enduring paradigm of epistemic violence; the theoretical and cultural practises of the West, revealing in those conventions as a latent space of neo-colonial representation – or effacement – of the ‘Other.’

The Orient's job is to analyse and collapse the institutional, political construct for dealing with the Orient that authorises views upon it, by describing, teaching, settling and ruling over it.

At Articulately, we're beginning here with our circle of thinkers. We're teaching our students to appreciate the depth and breadth of every word they read and to challenge ruthlessly. By teaching autonomous life-long thinking, and cultivating global citizens who can grow to have an astute understanding of the world around them; we know this is the first step in combating ignorance and disparity in society.

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