English

Winner: Ayla Samson, Harris Westminster Sixth Form

"How does postcolonial literature challenge orthodoxies, both in content and form?’"

Books, as Virginia Woolf wrote, are ‘mirrors of the soul’[1], reflecting people and their experiences, yet orthodoxies of literature dictate narrow boundaries around who is reflected and how. The canon is inundated with literature written about white people, from a white perspective, leaving little room for non-white experiences. This is the literary manifestation of the oppression endured by colonised people, thus postcolonial literature seeks to challenge orthodoxies by reflecting them more accurately. Some postcolonial works, such as Aime Césaire’s Une Tempête, shift focus within a canonical text to colonised characters, challenging the way in which oppressed people are usually represented. Others, such as Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other, give time and legitimacy to stories of black women, defying norms of who is represented. Finally, some postcolonial literature rejects the idea of representation altogether, as Benjamin Zephaniah does in Knowing Me.

            Postcolonial literature challenges orthodoxies by revisiting canonical texts from a new perspective. Aime Césaire’s Une Tempête take the framework of a canonical text and reshapes, broadening audiences’ understanding of oppressed groups. Césaire rewrites Shakespeare’s The Tempest, adopting its form, characters, and a similar title, which translates to ‘A Tempest’. By replacing the title’s definite article ‘the’ with the indefinite ‘a’, Césaire implies that literary works are subjective iterations of a story, not the definitive versions. He explores this further through Caliban, a slave to Prospero, who stole Caliban’s island. Caliban’s experiences mirror those of colonised people, aligning him with such oppression. Césaire expresses Caliban’s humanity, ending with his shouts of ‘FREEDOM HI-DAY! FREEDOM HI-DAY!’[2], in place of Prospero’s monologue. Here, Césaire repeats the verb ‘freedom’, seen throughout the play in Caliban’s cry for ‘(shouting) Freedom Now!’[3] and declaration that ‘[he’s] interested in being free! Free, you hear!’[4]. In conjunction with the expressive stage directions and punctuation, the repetition reminds us that Caliban is a person, desiring basic liberties. In this way, Césaire invokes sympathy for Caliban, allowing him an emotional depth and complexity that Shakespeare excludes, through which audiences can connect to him. Additionally, by concluding Une Tempête with a declaration of the colonised character’s humanity, Césaire suggests that the play is framed around Caliban, and that this shift in focus allows a nuanced understanding of him. In doing so, he challenges the orthodoxies in perspective that limit Shakespeare’s portrayal of Caliban. Césaire displays the benefits of such a shift, providing a more empathetic understanding of native people by giving them attention and depth within a narrative that previously degraded them. This creates an unorthodox, yet truthful depiction that challenges European norms.

            Césaire’s portrayal of Caliban also challenges orthodoxies by conveying the subjectivity of the dominant view, and role of language in maintaining it. He undermines the notion of one definitive perspective by presenting the same character in a more accessible way, inviting audiences to consider the disparity between the two depictions. Césaire demonstrates how easily an author’s biases can colour the conclusions drawn from a narrative, its characters, and about their real-world counterparts by extension. This is emphasised by the text’s explicit reference to the relationship between language and identity, a continuation of Shakespeare’s exploration of this idea. It is discussed, for example, when Caliban says ‘Uhuru!’[5], and Prospero replies ‘back to your native language again. I’ve already told you, I don’t like it’.[6] Here, inclusion of the Swahili word ‘uhuru’, (meaning freedom) is a recognition of alternative modes of expression. Prospero’s negative reaction displays the danger these alternatives pose to his power, as they undermine his domination of the narrative. The playwright reminds us that European languages, whilst forced on colonised populations, are not the default, and neither is the perspective of the people who use them. Therefore, after subverting a canonical text to challenge the sanctity of the orthodoxies it represents, Césaire draws our attention to the role of language in perpetuating these norms. This conveys that the literary canon’s default perspective is arbitrary, and thus the orthodoxies it entails should be challenged. Moreover, Césaire exposes the existence of oppression in the literary landscape, and that it must be addressed here as well as in the outside world.

            Some postcolonial literature, rather than challenging orthodoxies in representation through existing characters, challenge the subject matter of the canon as a whole. These works, such as Bernadine Evaristo’s polyphonic novel Girl, Woman, Other, give attention and importance to stories suppressed by colonialism. Its divergence is reflected in its focus on black, British women, and the experimental form of Evaristo’s prose, which eschews European convention for a less restricted expression of narrative. This is evident in chapter 1’s Amma Bonsu, a queer, black, female playwright whose identity and experience Evaristo explores through her clothing. This includes ‘patterned harem pants’,[7] ‘peroxide dreadlocks’ [8]and the ‘silver hoop earrings, chunky African bangles and pink lipstick [that] are her perennial signature style’[9]. The volume of adjectives here highlights Evaristo’s purposeful specificity, suggesting a desire to fully realise a character rarely explored in literature. Furthermore, each detail represents an element of Amma’s identity, ‘chunky African bangles’ indicating her heritage, ‘silver hoop earrings’ a symbol of modern black culture, and ‘pink lipstick’ an image of western femininity. Evaristo draws attention to the multitudinous aspects of Amma, conveying the intricacy of this character who represents marginalised demographics. Concentrating on Amma’s identity challenges colonial standards of importance and worth by interrogating and celebrating a black, female character’s life with the same respect given to white, male protagonists of celebrated literary classics. Moreover, Evaristo recounts Amma’s play, ‘The Last Amazon of Dahomey’[10], the story of Nawi, ‘a vulnerable teenage bride’ [11]who is ‘forced to join [the king’s] female combat troops’[12] and becomes a ‘legendary Amazon general’[13]. This adds another unorthodox story, but also, as ‘every company [Amma] sent it to turned it down’[14], engages with the idea of challenging homogeneity in literature, self-referentially, within the text.

            Evaristo challenges orthodoxies of subject matter by representing the experiences of marginalised people, but also by using them as mouthpieces to express universal human experiences. Amma’s style is said to have ‘evolved from the cliched denim dungarees, Che Guevara beret’[15] and ‘PLO scarf’[16]. Evaristo’s inclusion of the ‘Che Guevara Beret’ and ‘PLO scarf’ gives insight into Amma’s past image of herself, as introduction to that of her current self. By introducing these details with the verb ‘cliched’, Evaristo invokes a sense of commonality, not only in the stereotypical nature of Amma’s earlier choices, but also in that becoming a truer, more individual version of yourself is universal. Thus, Evaristo introduces readers to a character with an identity uniquely shaped by their black, female experience, whilst revealing this to include universal human experiences as well. Evaristo makes this explicit by describing that adverts ‘told her generation [smoking] would make them appear grown-up, glamorous, powerful, clever, desirable and above all, cool / no one told them it would actually make them dead.’[17] The disparity between the first, long description, and the bluntness of the adjective ‘dead’, emphasises the contrast between smoking’s various connotations. This conveys how the meaning of cultural symbols varies over time, transforming the identities drawn from them, a change that the noun ‘generation’ confirms is itself universal. The possessive pronoun ‘her’, reminds us that this experience is felt as much by Amma as it would be any white protagonist. Therefore, by expressing universal experiences through stories of people from neglected groups, Evaristo challenges norms of whom can be the voice of human experience, and the depth that can be explored in marginalised people’s stories.

            Whilst Césaire and Evaristo aim to challenge orthodoxies in the representation of colonised people, other postcolonial authors, such as Benjamin Zephaniah, challenge the idea of representation itself. In his poem Knowing Me, Zephaniah approaches the grouping of people, based on signifiers like race, as a colonial practice, and seeks to dismantle this structure. He invokes this in his confession that ‘I have never found the need/ to … sit with fellow poets exorcising ghosts’[18], which can be interpreted as disinterest in exploring his own past for others’ sake, and in interrogating and amplifying canonical authors, who haunt present day storytelling like ‘ghosts’. This suggests that Zephaniah wants to create something independent of past standards.  He does so by demonstrating the absurdity of identity, and the categorization of people to dictate it, by contrasting groups and individuals. He begins the poem with ‘according to the experts’[19], the external officiality of the phrase being counterintuitive to the introspective title. This ironic contrast is replicated in the lines ‘I’m … not playing the alienation game’[20]. There is a disparity between the noun ‘alienation’, connoting solitude and discomfort, and the noun ‘games’, connoting congregation and joy. This oxymoron exposes the inconsistency at the core of the idea of identity; that it is an expression of a person’s individuality derived from membership of a group. The phrase ‘too unfrustrated’ that follows, being an illogical amplification of absence, adds to the sense of impossibility. By repeatedly highlighting conflict in the concept of identity, Zephaniah suggests that an individual cannot be defined by belonging to a group and remain an individual. This opposes not only orthodoxies in literature that degrade people due to membership of ethnic groups, but also the idea, suggested in other postcolonial works, that this can be rectified by fairer representation. Zephaniah suggests that, instead of regarding people as representatives of factions, we see them as unique individuals, a challenge to norms of categorization and representation in literature that mirror colonial ideas.

            Zephaniah challenges these orthodoxies of identity further by portraying them as unnecessary, presenting a person who is self-assured without racial categorisation. Lines such as ‘I don’t feel lost’[21] and ‘I am not half a poet shivering in the cold’[22], as well as the refrain ‘I don’t have an identity crisis’[23], are blunt declarations of this fact. The simplicity of the register here, and the repetition of the first-person pronoun ‘I’, convey an explicit self-awareness of the speaker’s individuality. Furthermore, by structuring the poem with the refrain ending many stanzas, as well as the piece as whole, Zephaniah suggests that this autonomous image of self is the conclusive version of a person’s identity, rendering external identification futile. Additionally, he conveys that this rejection of racial grouping is not a negation of struggle, or erasure of colonial history. The poet states ‘I don’t need an identity crisis to be creative,/ I don’t need an identity crisis to be oppressed’[24]. Here he asserts that oppression can be recognised without acceptance of the oppressor’s divisions. His claim that inhabiting a new type of identity does not hinder creativity is proved by the existence of the poem itself. This is epitomised in the form, the free verse structure, symbolising creativity without traditional restrictions.  Therefore, Zephaniah challenges orthodoxies in literature by showing not only the absurdity, but also the needlessness of colonial norms that categorise people, and the tendency in literature to accept them.

            In conclusion, postcolonial literature challenges orthodoxies in the way non-white people are represented by rewriting a notable marginalized character, introducing diverse experiences into the literary landscape, and disputing the categorization of people based on ethnicity. Whilst Césaire, Evaristo and Zephaniah have different approaches to challenging orthodoxies, they all fulfil David Foster Wallace’s assertion that ‘good fiction’s job is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable’[25] by making those who benefit from colonial orthodoxies less powerful, and those that have suffered more. Postcolonial literature seeks to disrupt the power structures and traditions that orthodoxies maintain. Therefore, it is no wonder that Zephaniah diverges from the approach of other postcolonial authors, as postcolonial literature is inherently subversive, and thus must challenge even its own orthodoxies, allowing culture to continue to grow in a way that colonial rule prevented, and continuing to promote freedom in the literary landscape.

           

 

 

Bibliography

Woolf, V. (1941). Between the Acts. New York: Harcourt Brace and Company.

Césaire, A. (2002) Une Tempête (R. Miller, Trans.). New York: TCG Translations.

Evaristo, B.(2020) Girl, Woman, Other. United Kingdom: Penguin Books.

Zephaniah, B (2001) Too Black, Too Strong. United Kingdom: Bloodaxe Books Ltd.

Burn, S. J. (2012) Conversations with David Foster Wallace. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi  

 

[1](Woolf: 1941, p.16)

[2] (Césaire: 2002, 3,5)

[3] (ibid 2,1)

[4] (ibid 3,5)

[5] (ibid 1,2)

[6] (ibid 1,2)

[7] (Evaristo: 2020, p.3)

[8] (ibid. p3)

[9] (ibid.p.3)

[10] (ibid, p.1)

[11] (ibid, p.24)

[12] (ibid, p.25)

[13] (ibid, p.25)

[14] (ibid, p.25)

[15] (ibid, p.3)

[16] (ibid, p.3)

[17] (ibid, p.4)

[18] (Zephaniah: 2001, p.55)

[19] (ibid, p.55)

[20] (ibid, p.55)

[21] (ibid, p.55)

[22] (ibid, p.55)

[23] (ibid, p.55)

[24] (ibid, p.55)

[25] (Burn: 2012, p.21)

runner up: Lauren Wilson, Oldham Sixth Form College

"How does postcolonial literature challenge orthodoxies, both in content and form?’"

Postcolonialism provides the necessary challenge to Western orthodoxies that have dominated the history of colonisation for centuries. It removes the focus from the European colonists and instead illuminates the effect of their actions. Similarly, the aim of postcolonial literature is to deconstruct these ideas that have been continually generated in the Western canon. As a genre, it explores various misconceptions about the colonised. However, their common denominator is that they all challenge fallacious orthodoxies that have prevailed throughout colonial history. I will discuss texts by the writers Aime Césaire, Toru Dutt, and Jean Rhys to explore how they demonstrate this challenge.

 In ‘Une Tempête’, Césaire challenges orthodoxies by deconstructing the history of European colonisation. As a reworking of Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’, it questions a play that glorifies colonists, yet ignores their actions. For instance, the Elizabethan age was seen as the start of the ‘golden age’ of discovery, with explorers such as Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake making voyages to the New World. Consequently, their voyages have been romanticised within Western literature. Instead of allowing these representations to flourish, ‘Une Tempête’ offers a more historical perspective, exploring the oppression of indigenous people. Césaire’s characterisation of Prospero is representative of these European colonists, who, when exploring new lands, would appropriate them and treat the inhabitants as if they were not there. Prospero reflects this belief when he asks Caliban, ‘’What would you do without me?’’ (Césaire: 1969, p.12). Caliban challenges this, reaffirming that the land is not Prospero’s to take, and without him he would be ‘’king of the Island’’ (Césaire: 1969, p.12). This also alludes to the ‘white man’s burden’ - the belief that natives were somehow indebted to the colonists for their civilisation. Prospero recounts how Caliban was ‘educated, trained’, by him, and ‘dragged up’ from ‘bestiality’ (Césaire: 1969, p. 11).  In response, Caliban says, ‘’You didn’t teach me a thing’’ (Césaire: 1969, p. 11), demonstrating that the difference in culture does not mean one is inferior to the other. The belief that indigenous people were undeveloped or in need of civilization by Europeans was widely held, so Caliban’s response subverts this and represents the truth behind orthodoxies that have been written into history. Therefore, by recalling events from a postcolonial perspective, Césaire depicts the colonists as the lustful, avaricious tyrants they were; as the ‘’old addicts’’ who ‘’founded the colonies’’ (Césaire: 1969, p. 65). More importantly, he reinforces the idea that the colonised were not the problem, but Prospero, i.e., the Europeans, ‘’is the one we’ve got to change’’ (Césaire: 1969, p. 22).

 Césaire’s writing also challenges Shakespeare’s Eurocentric portrayals of indigenous people being uncivilised or savage. For example, Prospero refers to Caliban as a ‘’savage [...] dumb animal’’ (Césaire: 1969, p. 11) throughout the play, dehumanising him and refusing to acknowledge his true name and identity. Furthermore, Prospero’s accusation of Caliban’s attempt to rape Miranda encapsulates the belief that indigenous people were violent and predatory towards Europeans, not the other way around. However, Caliban says, ‘’You’re the one that puts those sexy thoughts into my head,’’ revealing that he couldn’t ‘’care less’’ (Césaire: 1969, p. 13) about Miranda. This removes the veil placed over indigenous history by Europeans, challenging generally accepted beliefs and showing what went on behind the scenes of colonisation. Rather than being pacified, Césaire allows Caliban to see beyond these lies; he says to Prospero, ‘’You lied to me so much, about the world, about myself, that you ended up imposing on me an image of myself,’’ but he denounces this image as ‘false’ (Césaire: 1969, p. 64). Therefore, Césaire gives him back the power that was taken from him and allows him to vocalise his oppression. In his final declaration of ‘’Freedom! Hi-day, freedom!’’ (Césaire: 1969, p. 68), Caliban is unseen, giving him, not Prospero, a sense of god-like authority that lets him rise above his abuse. This is an effective challenge to colonial orthodoxies, as it allows the once voiceless to have a voice about what happened during the ‘golden age’ of discovery.

 Postcolonial literature can also challenge orthodoxies through the use of eco-poetics, commenting on the surroundings and its inhabitants to question ownership of the land. By focusing on the environment, writers present nature as a powerful force that has its own agency and is deeply linked with human identity. Immediately, this contrasts the opinions of colonists, who appropriated the land without considering the harm done to either the people there or the environment. Texts such as ‘Our Casuarina Tree’ by Toru Dutt reflect on the devastation done to Indian territory by colonisation, reinforcing the fact that Europeans had no entitlement to the land they were taking. Dutt uses the tree as a central figure, to illuminate aspects of culture that were previously abandoned and overlooked. Indeed, activist Vanchinathan describes Dutt’s writing as her way of ‘’restoring back to [...] society the richness of Indian spirit.’’ She portrays the effect on both the people and their land in this poem, yet at the same time celebrates the nature of her homeland unapologetically. This is done primarily through the image of a ‘’huge python, winding round the rugged trunk, indented deep with scars’’ (Dutt: 1882, p. 137). The weariness of the tree is reminiscent of the way in which land was taken and appropriated for the profit of European colonists. Contrasted with the python, who remains strong and predatory, this demonstrates the colonised overcoming their oppression. Dutt refuses to grant the colonists ownership of the land, as nature represents parts of their culture that cannot be destroyed. Dutt also reveals that is it not merely the ‘magnificence’ of the tree that makes it appealing, but the images and memories it is ‘’blent with’’, of her ‘’sweet companions, loved with love intense.’’ (Dutt: 1882, p. 138). This suggests that nature is the source of her power, and vice versa, because the two are intrinsically linked, and thus could never belong to anyone else.

 This is further proved when Dutt writes about hearing the ‘’trees lament’’ even in ‘’distant lands’’ (Dutt: 1882, p. 138), as it is an irredeemable part of her identity.  She personifies nature, in phrases such as ‘’a creeper climbs’’ to emphasize the interconnection between people and their land (Dutt: 1882, p. 137). Furthermore, Dutt’s reference to the ‘’deathless trees’’ that live on when her ‘’days are done’’ (Dutt: 1882, p. 139), demonstrates how nature is the way her culture and identity will be preserved. The European colonists, perhaps suggested by the line ‘’when earth lay trancèd in a dreamless swoon’’ (Dutt: 1882, p. 139), would have taken the land ignorantly, thinking they could force Indians to assimilate into their lifestyle. However, Dutt demonstrates how land cannot easily be transferred from possession to another, like a commodity. Likewise, identity cannot be changed to suit another culture, despite what the colonists believed.

 Dutt also used the form of her poem to redefine and subvert European’s physical expectations of India. For example, when Charles Dickens’ son travelled to India in 1857, he represented it as an empty, passive land, while he embodied the superior, British traveller. Dutt, on the other hand, portrays India as an empowering and vivacious land. The first stanza uses an ABBA CDDC EE rhyme scheme, which continues throughout the poem. The variety of the rhyme scheme portrays how naturally new thoughts bud with each line when Dutt thinks of the tree, as if she is harmonious with it. The poem itself uses lines that regularly vary from short to long in length, perhaps mimicking the python’s journey as it winds round the tree. This makes the whole poem symbolic of the tree it surrounds. Furthermore, each stanza ends with a rhyming triplet, for instance,’’...the garden overflows with one sweet song that seems to have no close/ sung darkling from our tree, while men repose,’’ (Dutt: 1882, p. 137). The imagery of fruition and eternity used here is reflected in the rhyme scheme; instead of a rhyming couplet, Dutt used triplets to reflect how the power of the tree is overflowing. This challenges the way that British travellers such as Dickens perceived its colonies in the 19th century. Dutt also suggests that it is in fact England, not India, with its ‘’awful branches lingered pale,’’ that is decaying, while her Casuarina tree’s vivacity defends it from ‘’Oblivion’s curse,’’ (Dutt: 1882, p. 139). By subverting these beliefs, Dutt reclaims India from the colonial gaze, demonstrating India’s potency over other forms of nature and over the colonists’ ownership.

 Similarly, Jean Rhys challenges orthodox portrayals of colonised women in English literature. Such portrayals include Shakespeare’s characterisation of Sycorax in ‘The Tempest’, who is referred to as a ‘’foul witch [...] from Algiers,’’ (Shakespeare and Lindley: 2013, p. 131). As a character who is never made present in the play, her stigmatisation is foregrounded when Prospero reveals that she ‘’was banished’’ from her homeland (Shakespeare and Lindley: 2013, p. 131). This illustrates how the ethnicity of colonised women was used to legitimise their abuse at the hands of Europeans. In ‘’Wide Sargasso Sea’’, Rhys utilises the same gothic backdrop found in Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’. Unlike Bertha Mason, however, who is concealed in an attic, Rhys gives her protagonist the agency required to challenge her position as a woman imprisoned by both colonists, and men. Although trapped, Antoinette Cosway is presented as an omniscient perceiver; she hears her keeper Grace talk with a woman who she has ‘’never seen’’ but knows that ‘’her name is Leah.’’ (Rhys: 1966, p. 113). Contrasted with the passive and seldom present Sycorax, Antoinette’s acute awareness of her surroundings challenges these typical presentations of colonised women. Furthermore, she knows that beyond her room in the attic, there is a door that ‘’leads [...] into a passage’’ (Rhys: 1966, p. 113). As a relic of the gothic setting used in the original text, this passage could be a liminal space. For Antoinette, it represents how she is caught between entrapment and freedom, yet has the agency to pursue the latter. Rhys realises this agency by allowing Antoinette to ‘’open the door and walk into their world’’ (Rhys: 1966, p. 113). In the traditional gothic context, this would be an act of transgression. Rhys, however, presents a woman on the verge of learning what England, and its colonists, are really like.

 In doing so, Rhys continues to challenge orthodoxies by offering an uncensored presentation of England. For example, where orthodox texts emphasise England’s position as a strong colonial force, post-colonial literature seeks to deconstruct it. As previously mentioned, when Dickens’ son travelled to India in the 19th century, he interpreted it as empty, almost barren land. However, Rhys subverts this ideology, and instead argues for England’s inferiority as a nation. Upon her arrival, Antoinette describes England as being ‘’made of cardboard’’ (Rhys: 1966, p. 113), suggesting a weak construction. She also likens it to ‘’a world where everything is coloured brown or dark red or yellow that has no light in it’’ (Rhys: 1966, p. 113). This desolate void is so unlike the England she has been told of, that she finds it hard to believe she is even there at all. Like the European explorers, Antoinette is portrayed as a traveller in an unknown land; in her incredulous state, she declares that England ‘’isn’t like it seems to be’’ (Rhys: 1966, p. 113). Thus, in revealing what England is truly like, Rhys not only challenges but deconstructs the myths and lies of the colonists.

 Writer and critic Elleke Boehmer once described postcolonialism as something that “critically or subversively scrutinizes the colonial relationship’’. For these texts, a strong sense of subversion certainly lies at the heart of its challenge to Western orthodoxies. They each effectively explore the fallacies that have flourished due to European writers, and, in doing so, hinder them. Moreover, post-colonial writers strive to expose colonists, rather than glorify them, as Césaire, Dutt and Rhys have done.

 

 Bibliography:

 Césaire, A. (1969). A Tempest. Translated from French by R. Miller. New York: TCG Translations.

 Dutt, T. (1882). Ancient ballads and legends of Hindustan. London: Kegan Paul [etc.].

 Rhys, J. (1966). Wide Sargasso Sea. London: Penguin Books.

Shakespeare, W. and Lindley, D. (2013). The tempest. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

runner up: Nadia Zouaoui, Grey Coat Hospital School

"How does postcolonial literature challenge orthodoxies, both in content and form?’"

Postcolonial literature challenges imperialist paradigms through its counter-hegemonical, satirical nature, scrutinizing power dynamics and celebrating a shift in power from historical oppressor to the historically oppressed. Often, postcolonial literature is presented in different forms to precolonial literature, to intensify its ambivalence, unorthodoxy, and resistance to hegemonical values, aside from the content itself. Whether it be prose or poetry, the content of postcolonial literature highlights issues confronted by natives of colonies, as well as impacts of decolonisation. Orthodoxies are challenged widely through the exploration of themes such as racism, immigration, stereotypes associated with race, injustice and ignorance, gentrification, culture, politics, oppression, and an optimistic desire for liberation.

A key stylistic trope of postcolonial literature involves reimagining canonical texts, breaking down their sacrosanctity to undermine colonial power. This is exemplified in Rhys’ excellent Wide Sargasso Sea, where ostensible madwoman of Jamaican heritage, Bertha, gives a first-person account of her treatment whilst locked in Mr Rochester’s attic. Throughout Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Bertha is presented as insane and uncontrollable. Bronte’s zoomorphism of Bertha illustrates Victorian attitudes towards inhabitants of their colonies. Presenting these colonies as backward civilizations, inhabited by barbaric peoples, justifies the coloniser’s maltreatment and dehumanisation of their subjects. This is evident in Bronte’s novel, in which the reader is made to feel hostile towards Bertha for jeopardising the love shared between Jane and Mr Rochester, whereas the Bertha of Wide Sargasso Sea is easy to sympathise with. She is confused, frightened, and frustrated, suggested by the repetition of rhetorical questions as Bertha asks herself ‘why I have been brought here. For what reason? (…) What is it that I must do?’ Hegemonical and ignorant colonial attitudes are embodied by the character of Mr Rochester who refused to ‘call me Antoinette’. This denunciation of Bertha through refusal of calling her by her real name illustrates Rochester’s arrogance as well as Victorian Britain’s racial hierarchy. To reclaim Bertha’s identity and give her back her rights as a woman of Jamaican descent, Rhys gives Bertha her own voice, through permitting the ‘subaltern [to] speak’ (Spivak).[1] This contrapuntal reading of Jane Eyre liberates the oppressed, Bertha, a woman from one of the British Empire’s most valuable colonies, through the presentation of her as one who is incarcerated, indeed, a victim of imperialism. In Jane Eyre, Bertha is described as having wild hair and an unappealing appearance, whilst in Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys evokes pity as ‘there is no looking-glass here and I don’t know what I am like now’. This illustrates how subjects of colonies tend to lose their identity due to loss of power to their coloniser. Bertha is not even permitted to keep a looking-glass, therefore her appearance is unkempt, and she lacks self-awareness and a sense of identity. These were stolen from her by Rochester, a white Englishman, the quintessence of colonialism and oppression. Loss of identity is reinforced through reminiscing her life prior to meeting her coloniser, as ‘the girl I saw was myself and not quite myself…now they have taken everything away. What am I doing in this place and who am I?’ As well as a profound loss of identity, pathetic fallacy of ‘cold’ England is used to reflect Bertha’s emotions. However, she believes ‘we lost our way to England’. She is in denial, maintaining the belief that the ‘cardboard house where I walk at night is not England’. It is likely Bertha believes she is not in England as colonial British Jamaica idolised England as the ‘Mother Land’, often romanticising it as a paradise, a common misconception mocked in numerous postcolonial texts, including Andrea Levy’s Small Island. Levy’s Gilbert Joseph in Small Island cannot believe the ignorance and racism of the British upon arriving in England from Jamaica after the War. Contextually, Levy’s parents were of the Windrush Generation and faced similar trauma on arriving to England. In its colonies, Britain is portrayed as a shining beacon of civilization. Meanwhile, the true nature of England is revealed in both Levy and Rhys’ novels. Not only the bad weather, but the sheer ignorance and sovereignty of the English towards their colonies.

As a resistance to orthodoxies and therefore colonial power, Zephaniah’s Knowing Me consists of seven stanzas of varying lengths, sometimes using standard English, but often utilising Jamaican English words and unorthodox spellings such as ‘dis’, ‘de’, and ‘kool’. Humorous, clear, and simple language is used to illustrate the speaker’s clear sense of identity despite expectations and stereotypes. The speaker uses sarcasm as he is exhausted of ‘de experts’ who believe he should behave a certain way due to his racial identity. The speaker wants these so-called ‘experts’ to know he remains ‘unfrustrated’, the coinage used here to imply the speaker’s placidity, or even contentment, despite the oppression of black people. He speaks ‘politely’ to the officers of the law who stop him, and he celebrates Afro-Caribbean culture in Britain with his ‘Jamaican hand on my Ethiopian heart/ The African heart deep in my Brummie chest’. Zephaniah explores nationality as oppose to the construct of race, historically used to categorise humans, marginalising against some whilst empowering others. To be black could mean one was of  African or Caribbean descent, in this case, Ethiopian or Jamaican, reflecting the versatile and diverse nature of the black community, which consists of varying rich, prolific cultures and traditions. On the topic of race, Britannica states: ‘By the 18th century, race was widely used for sorting and ranking the peoples in the English colonies—Europeans who saw themselves as free people, Amerindians who had been conquered, and Africans who were being brought in as slave labour—and this usage continues today’.[2] By celebrating diverse nationality in Britain as opposed to race, Zephaniah resists the influence of the white supremacy construct, which used the concept of race to divide, conquer and discriminate, grouping all ‘black’ people together, despite their differences in culture, religion and nationality. This reinforces the speaker’s strong sense of identity. In contrast to Antoinette in Wide Sargasso Sea, whose identity crisis was brought about due to colonialism of the white male, the speaker in Knowing Me maintains a clear sense of self despite the coloniser’s attempts to remove, undermine or question his identity. The speaker is sick of ‘people’, perhaps suggesting white people, ‘asking me if I feel British or West Indian, African or Black, Dark and Lonely, Confused or Patriotic’, the capitalization reinforcing different expectations and stereotypes associated with the inhabitants of colonies. The speaker does not disassociate themselves from their British identity, either. Just as their Afro-Caribbean heritage is celebrated, they make a declarative ‘I am all that Britain is about’, challenging orthodoxies as the speaker has no hostility towards the historical oppressor. Indeed, Britain is equally a part of their identity as Jamaica or Ethiopia. Zephaniah shifts the power through challenging stereotypes, embracing all aspects of his identity; rather than denouncing Britain as a colonial or racist country, he celebrates and accepts it within his writing, despite the irksome questions he receives regarding his identity. The tone of the poem is nonchalant, and it is a didactic poem, reinforcing that, to be creative, black, and British, does not need to involve a dramatic loss and subsequent search for identity. One can embody all those characteristics just as a white person can, and the speaker proclaims, ‘diversity is my pornography’. This once again challenges orthodoxies as to accept diversity is historically profoundly unorthodox. Whilst Rhys evokes pity for Bertha, Zephaniah radically proclaims he does not ‘think of [himself] as a victim of circumstance’, a victim of the racial hierarchy. He is liberated and content, whereas Bertha suffers the consequences of colonial attitudes profusely.

Mirroring the light-hearted, resilient tone of Zephaniah’s Knowing Me, Maya Angelou’s Still I Rise illustrates the perseverance of the subjects of colonial power, and more specifically, the resistance of black people towards racial oppression. The repetition of ‘I rise’ mirrors the repetition of ‘I don’t have an identity crisis’, emphasizing to the coloniser that the writers are undefeatable. Still I Rise has a feminist tone to it, celebrating Angelou’s identity as a black woman, a rarity in orthodox literature. Angelou addresses a second person pronoun who creates ‘bitter, twisted lies’, supposedly addressing the coloniser or oppressor who rewrites or whitewashes history. She questions ‘does my sassiness upset you?’ and ‘does my sexiness upset you?’, mocking stereotypes regarding black women whilst walking ‘like I’ve got oil wells pumping in my living room’, laughing ‘like I’ve got gold mines diggin’ in my own back yard’ and dancing ‘like I’ve got diamonds at the meeting of my thighs’. This alludes to both the speaker’s confidence, but also to the coloniser’s exploitation of its colonies for natural raw materials and commodities, otherwise unavailable in their own country. The coloniser ‘want[s] to see me broken’, yet the speaker resists this, rising from a history ‘rooted in pain’, referring to slavery. The speaker emerges from the oppression, ‘leaving behind nights of terror and fear’. Like Zephaniah, Angelou uses ‘I am’ proclamations, such as ‘I am the dream and the hope of the slave’. This hyperbole echoes Zephaniah’s declarative ‘I am all that Britain is about’, reinforcing black people’s retrieval of power. The internal rhyme of ‘welling and swelling’ emphasizes the speaker as a figurative ‘black ocean’, reflecting her race, and ‘bear[ing] in the tide’ of oppression. An optimistic tone ends the poem, with a future (or ‘daybreak’) that is ‘wondrously clear’, the adverb emphasizing the speaker’s hopefulness and confidence for justice and equality. The natural imagery throughout the poem, with similes such as ‘like dust’/ ’like air’/ ’like moons’/ ‘like suns’, not only beautifies the poem, but also illustrates how a return to equality and a world free of oppression is natural decree; just as the sun rises, the historically oppressed rises and regains their power. Meanwhile, oppression is riddled with ‘hatefulness’, ‘terror’, ‘fear’, ‘shame’ and ‘pain’. There is a historical significance to this poem, almost as if the speaker’s ancestors are supporting them through liberation, with references to the historical richness and cultural legacy of precolonial African civilizations, for example, the reference to ‘huts’, ‘gifts my ancestors gave’, and the ‘dream and hope of the slave’. Each stanza consists of four lines until the final stanza, consisting of fifteen lines, seven of these repeating the simple yet impactful words ‘I rise’, a powerful condemnation of colonial, hegemonic, and imperialist attitudes.

Antoinette (rather than Bertha!) of Rhys’ reimagined, decolonised version of Jane Eyre is easy to sympathise with, humane, and resilient. Zephaniah’s speaker in Knowing Me maintains strength and single-mindedness despite stereotypes, and Angelou’s Still I Rise encompasses the resilience of all victims of oppression. The structure of the poems allows declarative, assertive statements to stand out, withstanding and weakening systematic, colonial oppression and racism. Instead of silencing the Jamaican woman, or labelling her as mad, Rhys offers a narrative that views her in a positive, sympathetic light, so the reader may understand both sides of the story. Otherwise, it is simply unjust. Obeying orthodoxies of precolonial texts means obeying the systematic racism and the unjust colonial power structure of the time. Therefore, reimagining, rescripting and creating new narratives is vital to challenging imperialist paradigms and orthodoxies, especially within the world of English literature.

Bibliography

Angelou, M. published by Random House, from Selected Poems 1978. Still I Rise

Bronte, C. 1847, published by Smith, Elder & Co. of London. Jane Eyre

Levy, A. 2004 published by Headline Review Small Island

Spivak, G. 1987 Can the Subaltern Speak? Published in Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg's ‘Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture’ University of Illinois Press; Reprint edition 1987

Zephaniah, B. Publication date unknown. Knowing Me

 

 

[1] Gayatri Spivak's essay "Can the Subaltern Speak?"

 published in Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg's ‘Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture’ (1987)

[2] Access website here: https://www.britannica.com/topic/race-human/The-history-of-the-idea-of-race Date accessed: 04.05.2021