Study Guide

Postcolonial Literature Top Authors

  • Chinua Achebe

    Chinua Achebe's such a big deal that people often call him the "father of modern African literature." He was a Nigerian writer who was one of the first to write a postcolonial novel that said, basically, "screw you" to Nigeria's British colonizers. Chances are that if you haven't read the novel, you've at least heard of it. It's called Things Fall Apart, and it was first published in 1958.

    We can't talk about postcolonial literature without talking about Things Fall Apart. And that's because this work is a prime example of the way in which postcolonial authors "write back" to the empire, challenging its racist assumptions, its claims to cultural superiority, and its economic exploitation of the colonized.

    Things Fall Apart (1958)

    The novel tells the tragic story of Okonkwo, a famous Igbo warrior at the turn of the 19th century, when British colonizers and missionaries first arrived in Nigeria. Okonkwo is a totally headstrong guy, and he does not see eye-to-eye with the English. As you can imagine, things don't turn out so well for him. In fact, things fall apart. (Sorry, we had to.)

    Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart as a direct response to the negative depiction of Africans he saw in a lot of European literature. He wanted to write his own novel and show the Europeans that Africans were not the "savages" they were made out to be in European literature. Lo and behold, we got Things Fall Apart.

    Arrow of God (1964)

    Arrow of God is a kind of sequel to Things Fall Apart, tracing what happens a few decades after the events that take place in the first novel. It tells the story of Ezeulu, an Igbo priest in Nigeria who stands up to colonizers and missionaries. It's all about the fight between indigenous religion and values and Christianity. And no, things don't stay together here, either.

  • Salman Rushdie

    Remember that writer who had a fatwa issued against him by the Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini? Yup, that's the Indian-English writer Salman Rushdie.

    In case you were wondering, a fatwa is a religious edict, and in this case, the Ayatollah decided that a book Rushdie wrote called The Satanic Verses was disrespectful to the Prophet Muhammad, so the Ayatollah basically told people that killing Rushdie would be an awesome thing to do. Thanks to the Ayatollah, Rushdie had to live in hiding for ten years.

    Rushdie is probably best known because of the fatwa, but he's a super important postcolonial writer, too. And it's not actually because of The Satanic Verses; it's because of another novel—one he wrote before The Satanic Verses—called Midnight's Children.

    Midnight's Children (1980)

    Midnight's Children made Rushdie into a superstar. It tells the story of Saleem Sinai, a big-nosed man who is born at the exact moment—like, down to the minute—of India's independence in 1947. Because he's born at the same moment as the new nation, his fate becomes entangled with it.

    Magical realism, crazy narrative techniques, history, drama: it's all in there. Maybe that's not a surprise, given that this is a novel that re-writes almost the whole of 20th century Indian history from Saleem's. It's a big book, and it's got all the big postcolonial themes, from colonialism to nationalism to history.

    Shame (1983)

    Rushdie wrote this one after Midnight's Children (and before The Satanic Verses), and it picks up on a lot of the postcolonial themes found in Midnight's Children. This time, the focus of the novel isn't India, but Pakistan, which used to be a part of India before partition in 1947. You can probably guess by the title of the novel that it isn't about pretty things. It's pretty much about how it all went wrong in Pakistan after partition.

  • Jean Rhys

    Jean Rhys is an unusual postcolonial writer. She was a woman of (mostly) European ancestry born on the island of Dominica in the Caribbean. People like her were, at the time, called (white) Creoles. She lived there until she was 16, when she was sent to England, where she finally settled to write. For most of her life, she wrote in obscurity, making almost no money. Then she published Wide Sargasso Sea in 1966 and shot to fame pretty much overnight.

    Why is Rhys so important? Well, one reason is that her work exemplifies postcolonial "counter-discourse." She isn't afraid to stare the empire—Britain, in this case—in the face and talk right back to it. Her work is all about the underdog, and in Wide Sargasso Sea, her main character is a victim of both colonialism and patriarchy.

    Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)

    So Jean Rhys basically read Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre and was like, "What?"

    You see, in Brontë's novel, there's this crazy woman, Bertha Mason, locked up in the attic. She's Rochester's wife. If you remember, Rochester is Jane's romantic interest in Brontë's novel. The thing is that Bertha Mason is a Creole from the Caribbean, just like Jean Rhys herself.

    Brontë doesn't tell us much about Bertha, but Rhys was both intrigued by her and by the fact that her story didn't make it into Jane Eyre. So Rhys wrote Wide Sargasso Sea, which tells the story of Bertha Mason and Rochester from Bertha's perspective (although in Rhys's book her real name is Antoinette).

    Rhys's book was a direct response to the depiction of people from the Caribbean as loony in Charlotte Brontë's novel. Seeing things from Bertha's perspective complicates both Brontë's novel and the entire British enterprise in the Caribbean.

    Tales of the Wide Caribbean (1985)

    Jean Rhys's collection of short stories about the Caribbean gives us a panorama of Caribbean culture, colonialism, and issues relating to women and gender. It's not as well known as Wide Sargasso Sea, but it's worth a read to get a broader picture of Rhys's world and the culture that influenced her.

  • Gabriel García Márquez

    Here's a Colombian novelist who's considered to be among the greatest of South American writers. Any book you pick up by Márquez will teach you a whole lot about Colombia's—and South America's—postcolonial identity. The book that made him super famous was none other than One Hundred Years of Solitude.

    Ever heard of magical realism? Well, Márquez is the writer most closely associated with this style of writing. He developed and used the magical realist style to express the "surreal" aspects of postcolonial reality in South America. He found a whole new way of expressing the unique nature of postcolonial reality, with its unique jumble of cultures, identities, and discourses. Did we mention he won the Nobel Prize for his work?

    One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967)

    If there is one book not to miss by Márquez, this is it. His most famous novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude tells the story of a several generations of a family living in the fictional town of Macondo in Colombia. This is a novel on epic scale—and it has people who fly when they drink hot chocolate, clouds that rain yellow flowers, and an ageless gypsy. How can you not read it?

    The Autumn of the Patriarch (1975)

    This novel explores the corrupting effects of power. It focuses on a dictator who pretty much stands in for all of the horrible dictators who came to power all over the world after the end of colonialism. Lots of big postcolonial themes here, including nationhood, history and oppression.

  • Derek Walcott

    The second Nobel winner on our list, Walcott's a poet who comes from a teeny-tiny island nation in the Caribbean called St. Lucia (it's really tiny). He's one of the most important writers to engage with the Caribbean's complicated racial, cultural and colonial history. Did we mention he's a poet? Just goes to show you that postcolonial lit can come in all kinds of forms.

    Walcott uses his poetry to rewrite colonial history from the perspective of those who were the victims of colonialism in the Caribbean. From the indigenous Carib peoples who were violated by colonialism to the African slaves brought over to work on plantations, Walcott tells the kinds of stories that colonization tried to wipe out.

    Omeros (1990)

    This is Walcott's big poem. We mean, it's so big, it models itself on the mothers-of-all-epics, Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. ("Omeros" is "Homer" in Greek.) Walcott is taking classic texts from the Western tradition—it doesn't get more classic than Homer, folks—and rewriting them from the perspective of the colonized. Here, Walcott writes from the perspective of St. Lucians.

    Dream on Monkey Mountain (1970)

    Walcott is so good, he not only writes poetry, he writes drama, too. Dream on Monkey Mountain is a play about—you guessed it—a man who has a dream. It's an allegory about Caribbean history, culture, and colonialism. This one is all about the connections between the Caribbean, Africa, and Europe.