"The Plague of Normality":
Reconfiguring Realism in Postcolonial Theory


Laura Moss

University of Manitoba

Copyright © 2000 by Laura Moss, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

  1. In his exploration of contemporary realism Dennis Walder exclaims that "despite recent attempts to undermine the idea of realism as outdated or infected by humanist ideology, its use persists" (18). Perhaps one reason that realism not only persists but thrives, at least in many postcolonial contexts, is that contemporary postcolonial realist novels are capable of resistance.[1] This statement, I realize, is likely to raise a few eyebrows in skepticism. The prevalent view -- both popular and academic -- is that, for whatever reason, realism and resistance do not converge. Theoretical responses to realism produced in postcolonial locations have ranged from viewing it as a form that interpellates the ideology of imperialism, to characterizing it as naïve or simplistic, to configuring it as an attempt at the representation of a single authenticated experience. Realism is seldom established as a viable form for resistance narratives. In spite of many examples of recent politically charged realist texts, (Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance, Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things, Randolph Stow's Tourmaline, Keri Hulme's The Bone People, Zoë Wicomb's You Can't Get Lost in Cape Town, Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion, or even Nalinaksha Bhattacharya's Hem and Football, to name only a few) the critical expectations about the form often hold that it is a reinforcement of conservative ideology. On one hand, this assumption has led to the cooption of literary realism by right-leaning critics. On the other, it has led to the virtual dismissal of the realist novel by those left-leaning critics looking for an apparently radical form to hold disruptive content. In contrast to both these positions, I argue that realism is a feasible, perhaps even indispensible, form for political and social engagement in postcolonial contexts. Such an argument is a reaction to the positioning of realism as a foil for other more 'accepted' forms of insurgence.
  2. Non-realist writing is frequently privileged by postcolonial critics searching for a form to hold disruptive politics because of the assumption that its various forms are inherently conducive to political subversion due to their capacity for presenting multiplicity. The prevailing idea, as it has been developed or assumed by many postcolonial critics, is that realism is almost necessarily conservative, and non-realist forms are inherently somehow more postcolonial -- and therefore have greater potential for resistance. The problematic nature of critical assumptions about postcolonial examples of realism stems, at least partially, from the privileging of the notion of resistance in postcolonial discourse. The concept of 'resistance' has been fetishized to the point where it is even often presented without an object. At the same time, there has been a critical elevation of writing perceived to be experimental or writing that plays with non-realistic form. Within postcolonial criticism, these simultaneous developments have converged in the production of a profusion of studies linking, and sometimes suggesting the interdependence of, political or social resistance and non-realist fiction. If a text does not fit the profile of postcolonial resistance, as realist texts seldom do, it is generally considered incapable of subversion.
  3. The postcolonial theoretical tendency has been to overlook the elements of realism in texts that have been perceived by critics as either postmodern, on one hand, or a kind of comfortable humanism, on the other. In addition, as Susanne Baker argues, the desire to read realism out of a novel is frequently an exoticizing maneuver perpetuated by an audience uninitiated in the specificities of a given culture. While the desire to read the plurality of the non-real narrative is understandably often motivated by a desire to read past a monolithic world view that places the postcolonial subject in a position of alterity, such a notion is inevitably based on the premise that the form of realism reinforces such a monolithic view.
  4. Some critics of postcolonial literature, Helen Tiffin, Diana Brydon, Timothy Brennan and Peter Hulme for example, have approached realism in a manner parallel to that of Catherine Belsey in her claim that the form performs the work of capitalist ideology, as they assert that realism often performs the work of imperialism.[2] There is a need, however, for these critics to distinguish more clearly between the realism used in the service of imperialist beliefs written by authors who look in from the outside in a fallaciously objective manner and the realism produced by authors who are indigenous to the postcolonial locations of their narratives. Other critics, Stephen Slemon for instance, have noted that realism, on one hand, may be a rhetorical trope used by authors in a naturalizing and ethnographic fashion, or, on the other, may join together with postmodern techniques in order to be subversive.[3] Still other theorists, Kwame Anthony Appiah most notably, have acknowledged the proliferation of realist texts by indigenous authors, but have also argued that realism is only a stage in the evolution of a 'truly' decolonized literature -- one that culminates in a "postrealist" and "postcolonial" stage (150). I simply want to add to the conversation by suggesting that while some realist fiction may indeed reinforce the structural hierarchies of colonialism, other texts may contain resistance to the 'real' material oppressions of postcolonial societies and allow space for what Wilson Harris calls the "re-visionary potential within texts of reality" ("The Fabric of the Imagination," 176). Ultimately postcolonial theoretical approaches to realism need to include the possibility that realism is as viable a form for cultural, social, or political critique as magic realism or formally experimental writing.
  5. A notable defence of realism in postcolonial contexts can be found in David Carter's article "Tasteless Subjects," where he wonders whether the fascination of postcolonial critics with the non-real is due to the "boring" nature of realism (296). This is, he insists, simply a matter of critical taste. Carter notes that postcolonial critics tend to present realism as a monolithic whole that is "complicit with the process of imperialism" and therefore with "universalism, essentialism, positivism, individualism, modernity, historicism, and so on" (296). The problem with implicating realism in the process of imperialism, he claims, is that such an implication "can produce its own blindness in the form of a massive overstatement in which all realisms become one essential realism" (296). In this paper, I am in some sense answering Carter's call to examine the form as more than an "essential" realism, more than just a moment in the past, and more than a complicit form in the present.
  6. This is not to say that postcolonial realism is inevitably resistant to colonialist ideas. Tiffin, Brydon, Hulme and Brennan eloquently prove that realism can be and has been used to perpetuate imperialist ideals. Part of an account of postcolonial theorists' reluctance to empower realism would identify a widespread concern that it has a history, in colonial education systems, of being used to normalize hierarchies of control, exoticize colonial cultures, and reinforce the 'superiority' of British culture. In Decolonizing Fictions, Tiffin and Brydon point out that colonial schools often used literature to propagate British nationalism and the propriety of colonialism in colonial locations. They assert that in the West Indies, for instance, "literary texts which had both reflected and energized the vilification and capture of alterity formed part of a curriculum devoted to naturalizing the colonial as 'other' within an English/ European code assumed or proffered as a norm" (49). The role of literature in inscribing hierarchies of otherness, however, is not limited to realism in their estimation, but is almost inherent in the propagation of European cultural products as exemplars for colonial subjects.
  7. In Colonial Encounters, Hulme explicitly links imperialism with realism. Responding to Ian Watt's use of Daniel Defoe's novel Robinson Crusoe to show that realism developed as an individuating process, Hulme convincingly argues that Robinson Crusoe is an allegory of the colonial encounter between the British and the Caribs in a specific Caribbean location. [4] Hulme's point is that this novel proliferates the ideology of colonial discourse. He replies to Watt's claims that Robinson Crusoe is "crucial to the thesis of formal realism" by pointing out that this example of early realism is also an example of the early propagation of an imperialist ideology as it prescribes methods for the spiritual and practical education of the 'savage' in the character of the 'cannibal' Friday. Hulme notes that while Crusoe is the prototype of the individuated British colonist (216), Friday, the "most famous Carib in literature" (211), is the model colonial subject who acquiesces in his own transformation and civilization. The realism of the text reflects the foundational colonialist assumptions about "the European hero's lonely first steps in the void of savagery" on the uninhabited island (186). According to Hulme, the focus on detail simply acts to make the encounter more realistic and thus more palatable. However, while Hulme's theories about realism are persuasive when directed towards the early uses of the form, he seems to suggest that the form of realism retains a normalizing-imperializing orientation in the present because of its usage in the past.
  8. In "The National Longing for Form", Timothy Brennan, like Hulme, charges realism with doing the work of imperialism as he aligns the rise of the novel (particularly realism) with the rise of European nationalisms. The eighteenth-century novel transcends the ancient notion of levels of style and brings together the "high" and the "low" within a national framework simulating a national constituency. This, he argues, was accomplished for "specific national reasons" including the reproduction of British nationalist and imperialist sentiments (52). Brennan declares that the simulation of a contemporary hierarchical society in realist novels served to reinforce the hierarchy as ordinary. However, contemporary realist novels are for Brennan still colonial novels, because they rely on a European form that buttressed the ideology of imperialism in the past, and has not been sufficiently de-colonized to avoid doing so in the present. As with Hulme, Brennan does not limit his critique of realism to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries but extends his comments to contemporary uses of the novel in general and to realism in particular.
  9. For Brennan, the novel is "a naturally cosmopolitan form that empire has allowed to play a national role in an international arena" (56). The novel is implicated in the propagation of British nationalism as well as individual nationalisms. Yet, for Brennan nationalism seems to be a First World concept imposed on a Third World context. He characterizes fictional realism as a form that perpetuates nationalism, regardless of whether that nationalism is in the service of colonial or anti-colonial ends. This view may be arguably valid with regard to the prose fiction produced in emerging independent nations until perhaps as late as the 1950s; however, the last fifty years have produced an abundance of realist fiction about which it is insulting to imply that it is a pawn in the First World's creation of a dependent Third World culture.
  10. Many critics indict realism on the grounds that it lends itself to an imperializing function because it does not appear overtly to question the normalization and naturalization of otherness in its representation of the quotidian. While this is an understandable fear, it does not take into account the many recent uses of realism by writers from formerly colonized countries who actually use the form to present a critical depiction of the problems of the everyday in spite of, or in reaction to, its antecedents. [5] Surely many postcolonial authors have sufficient consciousness of western literary history and enough political agency that they can produce realist fiction that supersedes its roots in the propagation of a European sensibility.
  11. There are also some writers who claim that they have not had a great deal of access to European literary forms. Miriam Tlali, for instance, became the first black woman novelist in South Africa when she published Muriel At Metropolitan in 1976 (the novel was written in 1968). When asked in an interview about the influences she had for the novel, she replied that the assumption that she even had access to texts to be influenced by was "a loaded one -- so loaded with assumptions that it annoyed me" ("Remove the Chains" 24). She was barred from entering the public library in Johannesburg, and the university she had been attending -- The University of Witwatersrand -- was closed to black students when she was only part-way through her studies there. As a black woman under the oppression of apartheid, she did not play with experimental fiction as other writers writing at the same time may have done. This is not to imply that her realist fiction is artless, simplistic, or naïve, but rather to argue that she strategically represented the quotidian in order to depict the system of apartheid fully in place. The legislated instability of her cultural and social subjectivity is balanced by the apparent stability of her form and the sharp criticism therein.
  12. In his collection of essays, In My Father's House, Kwame Anthony Appiah differs importantly from both Brennan and Hulme in that he does not link the "novel" itself with an imperialist ideology but allows it to have the potential to address "common" African problems.[6] It best fulfills that potential, however, in the form of what he labels "post-realism" (150). When Appiah outlines the stages in the development of African writing, realism is the first unavoidable stage in the evolution of a "true" decolonized literature. Yet he makes it clear that it is only useful as a phase on the way to the second stage of African writing -- the post-realist, postcolonial stage. The novels of the first stage he labels "realist legitimations of nationalism" (150). This is reminiscent of Brennan's ideas about realism inscribing the narrative of nationalism on a nation. Accordingly, Appiah claims that the first generation of African literature (spanning roughly 1955-1965), exemplified for him by Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart and Camara Laye's L'enfant noir, is anticolonial and nationalist. The texts of this stage are also celebratory "imaginative recreations of a common cultural past crafted into a shared tradition by the writer" (149). Realism does this most successfully, for Appiah, because it presents what he sees as an uncritical representation of an idealized past.
  13. Yet how could Things Fall Apart, for example, be seen as a representation of a common cultural past when Achebe himself is so adamantly averse to the idea of universalism and so invested in the idea of cultural specificity?[7] His novel does not attempt to present a pan-African past but rather an Ibo past (as Appiah himself points out in a previous chapter). Even his representation of an Ibo past is not depicted as definitive. According to Appiah, "realism naturalizes: the originary 'African novel' of Chinua Achebe . . . is 'realist'" (150). What, then, does Things Fall Apart naturalize? It ends with the suicide of Okonkwo, the main character, because he is disempowered, emasculated, and imprisoned; with the clear disintegration of his culture through the depiction of the metamorphoses of village life; and with a sharply critical parody of the British district commissioner through his ethnographic report entitled the "Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger" in which Okonkwo's lifestory will merit one skewed paragraph (191). While this text does delegitimate colonialism, it is certainly not a celebration of a common cultural past or even a lamentation about the disruption of a common cultural past. Nor is Things Fall Apart a direct reference to a 'real' world outside the text, but rather it is an illusory description of a world that may have existed before colonization. This realist novel is a rejection of idealization, escapism, and other qualities of romance.[8]
  14. The second generation of novels in Africa, in Appiah's genealogy, are "postrealist" and "postcolonial" novels. As the prototypical example Appiah cites Yambo Ouologuem's Le devoir de violence. For Appiah this novel represents a challenge to the novels of the first, realist, stage. He piercingly writes: "So Ouologuem is against it, rejects -- indeed, assaults -- the conventions of realism" (150). As it is somewhat unclear what Appiah's idea of the conventions of realism are, it is also unclear what he feels that Ouologuem has assaulted or with what weapon this assault has taken place. Appiah further argues that "the assault on realism is . . . postnativist; this book is a murderous antidote to a nostalgia for Roots" (151). Such a nostalgia for roots is a reference to what he depicts as the nativism of Things Fall Apart. Nativism in Appiah's configuration is a desire to return to the traditions of orature of pre-colonial African society based on the notion that "true African independence requires a literature of one's own" (56). [9] Postnativism, then, points to the reliance on an overly homogeneous idea of an African past that such a search for an authentic pre-colonial history requires.
  15. Appiah equates an epochal-generational moment with formal literary qualities: "postmodernism is, of course, postrealist also" (150). The "postcolonial stage," according to Appiah, consists of the "post-realist" novel of delegitimation (151). If, however, we are to understand that post-realism delegitimates the naturalization of nationalism in the realist novel, what happens, in Appiah's paradigm, to the realist novel that also acts to denaturalize nationalism? Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah disproves Appiah's contention. Although it is a theoretically "post-realist" novel, it is written in a realist form. Anthills of the Savannah goes well beyond the desire for a nationalist postcolonial self-rule when an independent Nigerian society is exposed as corrupt and deceitful. It is a celebration neither of neocolonialism nor of postcolonial nationalism. Because the novel is written in a realist form, in Appiah's configuration it cannot be considered a member of the postcolonial stage of the African novel.
  16. Similarly, Wole Soyinka's early novel The Interpreters is a rejection of a nationalism based on the past embodied in the idea of the 'Ancestors.' In The Interpreters, the five main characters each represent an aspect of contemporary educated Nigerian society (the scholar, the artist, the engineer, the civil servant, and the journalist). The civil servant must choose between retaining his job in the Foreign Office and going to his family's village to become "chieftain" of the family. He chooses the city and turns his back on the traditions of the past in order to concentrate on the future. The characters are metaphorically meant to interpret the present to the past and the past to the present. This novel is therefore postnativist, but it is not, formally speaking, post-realist. It is, as Appiah argues of Ouologuem's novel, a repudiation of the idea of a singular national history. Both Anthills and The Interpreters (although to a lesser extent) are typical of Appiah's second stage -- the postcolonial stage -- as novels of delegitimation rejecting the "nationalist project of the postcolonial national bourgeoisie" (152). The texts may be viewed as "postcolonially postnationalist as well as anti- (and thus, of course, post) nativist" (151), but they are written in a form more closely representing the conventions of realism than of non-realism or post-realism. They therefore would not qualify as second stage in his rather rigid set of characteristics which joins postnationalism, postnativism, postmodernism, and post-realism. The near conflation of these terms is a result of his creation of a linear genealogy in African literature. However, while Appiah can be criticized for placing realism low on an evolutionary scale of African writing, he still acknowledges its place as a viable form for postcolonial writers.
  17. Unlike Appiah, Stephen Slemon does not rely on a rigid chronology in theorizing realism. Indeed, Slemon's attitude to realism changes depending on his subject of inquiry. In a specific discussion of Wilson Harris's theories on realism, "Wilson Harris and the Subject of Realism," Slemon outlines and advances the "case against literary realism" as a "naturalizing" trope, an ethnographic endeavour, and a discourse of authenticity (74). He further illustrates how each of these problems with realism is accentuated if explored in a postcolonial context. Slemon begins his essay on Harris with the claim that "'realism' . . . is a rhetorical trope, a readerly assumption" (73). [10] This, however, implies a reader educated in Western literary traditions. The implication is that the reader will have access to the assumed liberal humanist associations and the putatively colonial rhetoric of realism. In a sense, the acceptance of such an assumption works to perpetuate the idea that the education system still interpellates the student with the ideology of colonialism through realism.
  18. In "Modernism's Last Post," his more generalized treatment of the conjunction of postcolonialism and postmodernism, however, Slemon links a "recovered realism" to "post-colonial literary reiteration" with the "dual agenda" of representation and subversion (4). In this context, realism is the "parodic repetition of imperial textuality" set in "opposition to the interpellative power of colonialism" (4). Realism here is depicted as subverting the power structure from within the system of power: it is only subversive by parodically calling attention to its implication in the colonial project. In this paradigm realism is necessarily linked to parodic reinscription before it can begin to overcome the case against it as outlined in Slemon's elucidation of Harris' position on realism.
  19. In his comments on Harris, Slemon argues that literary realism is often viewed in current critical circles as "a mode which attempts to pass off as 'natural' the signifying system within which the literary work is constructed, and thus to stabilize the dominant social values of a work's time and place" ("Wilson Harris and the Subject of Realism" 74). I question the explicit link between realism and the reification of a system of dominant values. It is possible for a writer to depict a situation as unnatural even in its representation as ordinary and normal. While such a depiction is not specific to postcolonial contexts (one need only think of the realism of Charles Dickens, for example), it is interesting to look at the distinction between the normal and the natural in postcolonial realism because it is in this context that the accusation against realism as normalizing alterity is levied. A fitting illustration of the difference between the ordinary and the unnatural comes in Tlali's story "Fud-u-u-a!" set in South Africa in the 1980s. In this text, three commuters -- while waiting in a cramped corner of a train station for the "O-Five" -- share their stories of extreme discomfort, humiliating conditions, and even sexual assault on the trains. The main character, Ntombi, declares:
    What is annoying about this congestion is that you never see it happening in their trains -- those 'white only' coaches . . . You know one day in the morning when 'our' sardine-like packed train got to the Langlaagte junction, the 'comfortable all white Randfontein train' was just crossing on to the other line and the two moved side-by-side. Some of the whites on their train were looking at us and smiling as if they were sneering at monkeys in the zoo. As if we were deliberately put there for their entertainment. (36)
    Clearly the situation on the train is 'ordinary' in the South African apartheid context of the story, but it is not portrayed as ethically acceptable, or in any way 'natural,' in its blatant racism and inequality. This passage is exemplary of realism in its depiction of the details of daily life (the "0-Five", the Langlaagte junction, the Randfontein train, even the "one day" configuration), but it also criticizes the inequity of that daily life and suggests the possibility of civic unrest based on this single aspect of the quotidian. Harris asserts that "normality is a plague of habit few suspect" (181). Tlali's realism, and not hers alone, both suspects and questions just such a "plague of normality" (181).
  20. Slemon grounds his discussion of the 'natural' on Scott Carpenter's statement that "realism appeals to a stable referent -- a 'meaning' held contractually between author and reader -- and because of this, realism can only allow 'meaning to be repeated and distributed, but not changed'" ("Wilson Harris and the Subject of Realism," 74, my italics). The emphasis is again on an assumed complicity between the author and the reader following convention; yet what happens when either the reader or the writer is located in a context where s/he does not (or cannot) accept the social values or is in a position lacking Carpenter's so-called stable referent? Realism in such a context can be used to construct a stable referent otherwise unacceptable or unimaginable to the reader. In opposition to Carpenter's ideas, it seems that Tlali writes to repeat and distribute (or expose) the details of living under apartheid through the example of daily commuting, but with a clear desire to change the system of oppression. So information/ meaning is repeated, distributed, and changed in Tlali's realism as she contests the 'normality of the existing state of affairs.' Slemon's uncontextualized realism is a mode of naturalization. For Tlali, in a specifically 1980s South African context, realism appears to be a mode of denaturalization or a manner of defamiliarizing the unacceptably familiar. Tlali turns two trains carrying commuters, a 'natural' phenomenon, into the unnatural spectacle of a zoo on rails.
  21. Slemon also argues that realism "directs the burden of representation entirely onto the object under observation and away from the figure who is observing, measuring, and recording. It is thus the trope par excellence of the ethnographic endeavour" (74). While this has been a clear danger of realism, as Hulme attests, the emphasis here is placed on the author as a cultural outsider looking into a culture with a pretended objectivity. Such objectivity carries the idea that the outsider can access the "truth" of the subject. But what if the author is writing from within the society? She can become the experiencing or observing "I." By using the same terms as Slemon, one can argue that realism is the perfect trope of distancing the author from the object being observed, especially if that object is being criticized. Again, by employing "Fud-u-u-a" as an example, I reverse Slemon's trope by shifting the agency from the white spectators to the black narrator. The narrator reverses the stare of the smiling white passengers and consequently shifts the focus of the ethnographic gaze onto the repressive system. The narrator notes how the white passengers on the train are watching her as in a 'spectacle,' but through the act of narration she has interpretive control and subverts their gaze as she observes, measures, and records their actions. Through realism Tlali directs the burden of representation onto a racially segregated Republic of South Africa in order to highlight its problems.
  22. In her introduction to Tlali's collection of short stories, Footprints in the Quag, Lauretta Ngcobo writes: "It is as though [Tlali] has taken a step back to watch the devastation all around" (xvii). Tlali uses the ethnographic gaze associated with realism to her advantage. The image of the spectators on the white train can be compared to the Western critic who looks at form and tries to see in it some fixed political truth. The patronizing smiles of the white passengers parallel the possible attitudes of the critics about the simplicity of realism, the colonializing force of the form, or the political urgency of non-realism. Such assumptions are as removed from the actual subject of observation as the spectators are safely encased in glass and steel. This is the critical imposition of a literary subjectivity. Slemon briefly points to the need for colonial subjects to write past an imposition of an imperialist subjectivity. He maintains a need for the decolonization of "modalities of literary representation" (75). I argue that Tlali, among others, already does precisely this as she implicitly decolonizes the critical assumptions associated with realism.
  23. In "Modernism's Last Stand," Slemon makes the connection between subjectivity and realism clear. He seems to consider realism to have more potential for social transformation in this essay than he does in the Harris essay. He writes: "I think that Western post-modernist readings can so overvalue the anti-referential or deconstructive energetics of postcolonial texts that they efface the important recuperative work that is also going on within them" (7). Such recuperative work, it seems, is often done in the form of representational realism. He notes that "postcolonial cultures have a long history of working towards 'realism' within an awareness of referential slippage, and they have developed a number of strategies for signifying through literature an 'order of mimesis'" (7). While Slemon tantalizingly points to the possibilities of realism, in order to achieve a full degree of subversion realism is joined in his analysis by parody. Neville Farki's The Death of Tarzana Clayton, the novel he uses to illustrate his theories, "provides us with a highly visible site in which this reach for a positive (post-colonial) referentiality operates alongside a counter-discursive parodic energy" (7). Although Slemon places his emphasis on the counter-discursive nature of the parody of representation, I see the possibility of counter-discursivity already available in realism.
  24. Because of the general postcolonial critical desire to disparage realism as a closed form, I am interested in opening up the possibility of reading resistance in the form. This may occur partially through a recognition of the potential for multiple perspectives inscribed in realism rather than the assumed presentation of a singular world view in the form. However, the postcolonial veneration of multiplicity as an end in and of itself, in which I generally participate, needs to be approached with caution. Multiplicity in postcolonial contexts is, after all, often the result of the trauma of colonial, neocolonial, and postcolonial history. Realism itself is not necessarily multiplicitous -- or monoplicitous, for that matter -- and recognizing its potential for multiplicity does not impute to the form the sometimes ethically empty plurality often attributed to postmodern fragmentation. Indeed, realism also has the capacity for critically representing a context in which the result of multiplicity has been the closing down of possibility. The case of realist texts produced in an environment of legislated racial difference in apartheid South Africa -- a dehumanizing multiplicity -- immediately comes to mind.
  25. The question remains: How can discussions of postcoloniality be advanced by the inclusion of realism as a possible mode of resistance? The answer lies in the fact that while in most fields of study, postcolonial criticism makes a point of being open and inclusive, the exception to this virtual policy of openness has been in the area of form. Many critics have prescriptively accepted the idea that a form can be imbued with a single ideology. The result of this assumption is that discussions of postcolonial realist narratives have become virtually stagnant. While contemporary (mis)conceptions about realism often stem from the problems of strict classification, an appeal to the imperialist origin of the novel, and the collapse of the distinctions between the author, the text, and the reader, my point has been to secure for literature written by authors who use the forms of realism a recognition of what that choice of form may mean in a postcolonial context.


    [For their responses to drafts and for their encouragement, I would like to thank Rosemary Jolly, Sylvia Soderlind, Stephen Slemon, and Fred Cutler.]

  1. Postcolonial theory often relies on the generation of counterdiscursive energy through the suggestion of an alternative mode of perception. Writing in this vein, W. D. Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin provide a simple definition: "postcolonialism is a continuing process of resistance and reconstruction" (2). Although this definition can be characterized as sweeping, it is particularly useful in its focus on the necessarily dual nature of postcolonial vision that looks backward in critique and forward in resolution. This very definition, however, relies explicitly on the link between postcolonialism and resistance. If a whole genre of fiction is not seen as capable of resistance then this definition of postcolonialism itself is also necessarily affected.

    Rather than engaging with the many complex debates on the definition of the term 'postcolonial', here I am using the term to refer to the literature that emerges out of locations affected by an imperializing force and the criticism that addresses this literature. Because some authors strongly resist what they view as the homogenizing tendency of postcolonial theory, it is useful to separate postcolonial theory from the study of world literature written in 'e'nglishes or that of postcolonial narrative. This project, nonetheless, challenges postcolonial theory through the lens of postcolonial fiction. Back

  2. See Diana Brydon and Helen Tiffin's Decolonising Fictions, Timothy Brennan's "The National Longing for Form", Peter Hulme's Colonial Encounters, and Catherine Belsey's Critical Practice. Back

  3. See Slemon's "Modernism's Last Post" and "Wilson Harris and the Subject of Realism." Back

  4. See Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel. Back

  5. Although literary historians such as Erich Auerbach and Ian Watt trace the history of representation through Western culture, it is important to note that the inscription of local observation did not necessarily originate in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French and British realism. While the production of the written novel is based on European antecedents, it would be a mistake to think of postcolonial examples of realist fiction as strictly arising out of a European background. Realism is not necessarily only a European form, and by extension, non-European realism is not necessarily derivative of the European form. The local environment has been captured in storytelling, song, oral narratives, and proverbs for centuries throughout the world. Still, the colonial and postcolonial novel developed alongside Western narratives, influencing them as they were influenced by them.

    An example of parallel forms evolving in Europe and colonial India, for instance, is that of 'socialist realism' and 'social realism.' Marxist uses of socialist realism in Europe appealed to writers in India who wanted to document living conditions and oppressions. Khwaja Ahmad Abbas notes that at the Progressive Writers Conference in Calcutta in 1936, the members, noting their indebtedness to Marxism, adopted a manifesto which is regarded by some as the formal unfurling of the banner of social realism in India (Abbas 147). They resolved to "adopt a critical attitude to the old concepts of Family, Religion, Sex, War, and Society, challenging the reactionary and obscurantist concepts and ideologies" (147). Indeed, according to Abbas, social realism, defined as the "acute awareness of the social forces that surround the individual, their power to influence the lives of men and women . . . and the overall interaction of the individual and society" (146), is one of the "deeply rooted literary conventions in India" (151). Although a concentration on social institutions was evident in Indian literature well before 1936, the international influence of Marxism is clearly signaled in the appellation of social realism. One only has to turn to such disparate classics of Indo-Anglian social realism in 1930s or 1940s India as Mulk Raj Anand's Untouchable, Raja Rao's Kanthapura, or Bhabani Battacharya's So Many Hungers! to think of critical depictions of the limitations of social structures in India. Calling Untouchable the "harbinger of social realism in India," Abbas writes that "what marked out Anand's characterization of Bhaka, the untouchable, was the author's rational anger and indignation at the inequities of the caste system, and his desire that this injustice be ended" (147). Social realism in this case lies in the conjunction of verisimilitudinous characterization and embedded social critique. The proliferation of social realism in India was not limited to writing in English but also included writing in Urdu, Malyalam, Hindi, and Punjabi, among others.

    Abbas further aligns social realism with socialist realism when he distinguishes between realism and social realism in a manner similar to Georg Lukács. He argues that "while realism implied depiction of the truth of life, social realism was concerned with dynamic interpretations of life with the purpose of changing that reality" (145). One of the most noteworthy 'purposes' of social realism was the commitment to the struggle against imperialism. In this vein, Abbas writes: "in the early years of our freedom movement, social realism was also a weapon for the defense, and propagation, of the national aspirations" (146). As such, social realism was used to critique both restrictive caste structures and British imperialism. The novels often suggest possibilities for a future beyond caste barriers and into Indian nationalism. Like its socialist realist antecedents, social realism was a form very much intertwined with a desire for political change. Back

  6. For Appiah, the category of "African Literature" is useful as it is interested in a "common set of problems" such as the transition from the traditional to the modern, the experience of colonialism, racial theories and the prejudices of Europe, the growth of literacy, and the modern economy. In short, he argues that African literature is concerned with the changes "largely thrust on African peoples by European imperialism" (81). Back

  7. In "Colonialist Critivism," Achebe writes: "I should like to see the word 'universal' banned altogether from discussions of African literature until such a time as people cease to use it as a synonym for the narrow, self-serving parochialism of Europe, until their horizon extends to include the world" (76). Back

  8. The definitional juxtaposition of realism and romance is a common one. Even in his short definition of realism in A Glossary of Literary Terms, M.H. Abrams compares romance to realism. Romance presents an imagined view of life -- "more picturesque, more fantastic, more adventurous, or more heroic than actuality" -- realism presents life and the social world as they seem to the common reader, "evoking the fact that the characters might in fact exist" (174). Back

  9. See chapter 3, "Topologies of Nativism" of In My Father's House and see also what Appiah calls the "now-classic manifesto of African cultural nationalism"(56), Toward the Decolonization of African Literature. Back

  10. It is interesting to note that in Wilson Harris' "A Note on Zulfikar Ghose's 'Nature Strategies'," the main text being considered by Slemon in this essay, Harris does not actually use the term realism, but instead uses the words "silence" and a "comedy of manners" to refer to the everyday image (175). Further, Harris's comments in the "Note" are based on Ghose's poetry, not his fiction. Back

Works Cited

Abbas, Khwaja Ahmad. "Social Realism and Change." In Aspects of Indian Literature: The Changing Pattern. Ed. Suresh Kohli. Delhi: Vikas Publishing, 1975. 145-54.

Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1988.

Achebe, Chinua. Anthills of the Savannah. New York: Anchor, 1988.

---. "Colonialist Criticism." Hopes And Impediments. New York: Doubleday, 1989. 46-60.

---. Things Fall Apart. 1958. London: Heinemann, 1967.

Adam, Ian, and Helen Tiffin, eds. Past the Last Post. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 1990.

Appiah, Kwame Anthony. In My Father's House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Ashcroft, W. D., Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, eds. The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. London and New York: Routledge, 1995.

Auerbach, Eric. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. 1946. Trans. Willard Trask. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1953.

Baker, Suzanne. "Magic Realism As a Postcolonial Strategy: The Kadaitcha Sung." SPAN: Journal of the South Pacific Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies 32 (1991): 55-63.

Belsey, Catherine. Critical Practice. London: Methuen, 1980.

Brennan, Timothy. "The National Longing for Form." Nation and Narration. ed. Homi Bhabha. London: Routledge, 1990. 44-71.

Brydon, Diana, and Helen Tiffin. Decolonising Fictions. Sydney: Dangaroo Press, 1993.

Carter, David. "Tasteless Subjects: Postcolonial Literary Criticism, Realism, and the Subject of Taste." Southern Review 25 (1992): 292-303.

Chinweizu, Onwuchekwa Jemie, and Ihechukwu Madubuik. Toward the Decolonization of African Literature. Enugu: Fourth Dimension Publishing, 1980.

Harris, Wilson. "The Fabric of the Imagination." Third World Quarterly 12.1 (1990): 175-86.

---. "A Note on Zulfikar Ghose's 'Nature Strategies'." The Review of Contemporary Fiction 9.2 (1989): 172-79.

Hulme, Peter. Colonial Encounters: Europe and the Native Caribbean, 1492-1797. London and New York: Methuen, 1986.

Slemon, Stephen. "Modernism's Last Post." Past the Last Post. Eds. Ian Adam and Helen Tiffin. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 1990. 1-11.

---. "Wilson Harris and the Subject of Realism." The Uncompromising Imagination. Ed. Hena Maes Jelinek. Sydney: Dangeroo Press, 1991. 70-82.

Soyinka, Wole. The Interpreters. London: Heinemann, 1965.

Tlali, Miriam. "Fud-u-u-a." Footprints in the Quag: Stories and Dialogues From Soweto. Cape Town: David Philip, 1989. 27-43

---. Muriel at Metropolitan. Johannesburg: Raven's Press, 1976.

---. "Remove the Chains." Index on Censorship 6 (1984): 22-26.

Walder, Dennis, ed. The Realist Novel: an Introduction. London: Routledge, 1995.

Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel. London: Penguin Books, 1963.

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