Study Guide

Postcolonial Theory Timeline

How It All Went Down

1899: Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness

We just had to start with this one. True, postcolonial theory didn't yet exist, but, without this seminal classic novella, where would poco theory be? Yep, nowhere.

This book alone has made careers for a number of poco academics because it both exposes the evils of colonialism and falls prey to those same evils at the same time. That's right, pretty trippy. It's the perfect book to love and hate simultaneously if you're a poco critic. Which is why you keep running into it in all your English lit classes.

1958: Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart

This novel was really the first, big novel in English that dealt with the whole problem of colonialism from the perspective of a (post)colonial (yep, post was still in parentheses at that point) thinker and writer. Achebe did it by weaving in the traditions and language of his people, the Igbo of Nigeria, with the big, bad English used by the colonizers—appropriating it, in other words. He's the original "'hybrid."'

1961: Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth 

An Algerian, French-speaking psychiatrist and philosopher takes it to the (French) Man by, as Sartre points out, not speaking to that Man at all. Instead, he calls his people to arms and argues that they ought to fight back against the colonial power of the French in Algeria. How could the world not take notice?

1975: Chinua Achebe's lecture "'An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness"'

Fiction's fun, but when you really want to make a splash, why not take down a major Western novel and the entire English-speaking world along with it? Nothing will get you noticed more than accusing a major dead white guy for being racist. At least, that was the case in the 1970s with Achebe's lecture on Joseph Conrad.

But that's not all he did. He made it clear that even if someone's critical about colonialism, that doesn't mean the person is free from guilt. Pointing fingers won't save you from Achebe, Connie boy.

1978: Edward Said's Orientalism

Even though we've listed a bunch of stuff that came before Said's book, this is the event most people refer to as Day 1 of postcolonial theory. Sure, people before him worked with postcolonial ideas, but Said was the first to bring theory-theory into the mix—like Derrida, Foucault, etc.

All of which means that Said cemented his place in US academia forever while ushering in the whole idea that, in a postcolonial world, everyone is complicit in the continuation of colonial legacies, especially academics who criticize colonialists from their big, cushy armchairs in offices with paintings of belly-dancers or fat Buddhas.

1981: Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children

You can't talk about postcolonialism without mentioning Salman Rushdie. If Edward Said is the father of poco theory, then Rushdie is the big daddy of poco lit. Sure there was Achebe and Conrad before him, but Rushdie was the first to write a really huge novel with techniques such as magical realism. It was also the first major novel to deal explicitly with the Partition of India. Plus, Midnight's Children is just a really captivating story. After all, it won the Booker Prize, not just once, but three times (two of those were Best of the Booker Prizes to celebrate the 25th and 40th anniversary of the prize). Yep. It really is that good.

1988: Gayatri Spivak's essay "'Can the subaltern speak?"'

Spivak did quite a bit even before this essay came out, but this little gem was major—it came like a kick in the pants to the rest of the (patriarchal) field. She reminded everyone that it's the "'subaltern"' (or economically oppressed) woman in neo/postcolonial times who "'can't speak"' because, in part, people like postcolonial (male) critics attempt to speak for her.

That's totally an oversimplification of the essay, but you get the gist—having a voice, not having a voice, political consequences, and off we go.

February 14, 1989: The fatwa on Salman Rushdie

Rushdie writes this book—maybe you've heard of it— The Satanic Verses. It sounds creepier and more sacrilegious than it actually is (which is, not at all), but Iran's Supreme Leader Ayotollah Ruhollah Khomeini (seriously, they really call this guy "'Supreme Leader"') doesn't get the memo.

So he issues what the Muslim world calls a "'fatwa"'—basically a notice that says "'Hey, we don't like you. If you come around here, we'll kill you."' Happy Valentine's Day, Salmiekins!

Anyway, what's this got to do with postcolonialism? Apart from the fact that Rushdie is basically your go-to postcolonial fiction writer, the fatwa thing became this huge media circus (well, huge for 1989) and really pushed Rushdie (and, therefore, postcolonialism) into the popular consciousness. Not that that meant your average person necessarily understood what postcolonialism was, but at least people other than bookish types now knew who Rushdie was (and maybe got curious enough to read his book).

1989: Bill Ashcroft, et al.'s The Empire Writes Back

A bunch of Australian academics decide to take the whole idea of postcolonialism and run with it around their own island. In so doing, they make a bunch of people who thought postcolonialism was only for dark-skinned people from Africa, India, and the West Indies, a little bit uncomfortable.

But without this book, there just wouldn't have been the same explosive study of postcolonial theory in the 1990s. This gang made postcolonial theory okay for people who weren't dark-skinned or from those aforementioned countries. Exclusion is inclusive now, guys!

1994: Homi Bhabha's The Location of Culture

Love him or hate him, Bhabha's one of the main reasons why poco theory sounds the way it does now—complicated, dense, maybe even just plain incomprehensible. But there is actual substance to his ideas. Case in point: hybridity, or the whole idea that mimicry of the colonizer can be a form of political resistance too.

That's the "'big idea"' found in The Location of Culture; in fact, the idea and the book were so big that "'hybridity"' became the buzzword in the 1990s (and if you don't believe us, check out Google Scholar; it counts over 20,000 citations of Bhabha's book to date).

2000: Zadie Smith's White Teeth

You know how sometimes you'll come across a book or a film that captures the spirit of the times? That's White Teeth in the year 2000.

This hotshot new British author just out of college writes about the part of London that doesn't get featured in Olympic coverage: the part with new immigrants, a burgeoning hip-hop scene, blacks and Muslims, conspiracy plots, and hustling discontent. It's one of those books that's super-cool, a good page-turner, but also super-smart (which means you'll feel super-smart without even trying).

Plus, it basically made the field of postcolonial studies cool and necessary again (the 1990s were good for poco in universities, but needed a boost like this one to get some attention in the real world).

2001: Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's Empire

When this book came out, it made a huge splash in academia. Everyone thought it was the next, big thing in poco theory since it was so ambitious. The book seeks to argue that "'empire"' still exists today, just not in the way we're used to seeing it (as an in-your-face, full-scale takeover of a nation and its people). Hardt and Negri argue that empire today is a lot more crafty and hybridized. It comes in the form of huge corporations, NGOs, U.S. "'democracy,"' and multinational groups like the G8. The book's popularity hasn't had the same staying power as some of the classics of the poco field, maybe because it's practically as large as a small nation. We can't guarantee that you'll walk away from the book completely enlightened, but if you try carrying the book around, you'll definitely build some decent muscles.