Rachel Rueckert's Reviews > The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures

The Empire Writes Back by Bill Ashcroft
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's review
Sep 28, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: africa, india
Recommended for: People interested in Postcolonail Theory
Read in July, 2010

Reading this book was extremely helpful in putting postcolonial literature into perspective. Considering the content, it was also fairly easy to digest. Until reading this book I had been frustrated by some of the slang and accents of “english” (the different, but not lesser evolution of the English language in various countries) of postcolonial literature, or discouraged when I was not given a dictionary to make sense of it. I still have a lot of questions, especially since my personal experience in Ghana, Africa this summer and the lack of literature in the school system, but overall this was the voice of clarity that I was waiting for.

I really appreciated the history lesson in English literature as a “privileged academic subject,” not that long ago (3). Until I came to Ghana I never realized just how elitist my major, English, seems to be. I used to read Victorian novels and covet the leisure of the upper classes, but that is probably me. It is the useless on an everyday scale. A book will not help me feed my family or till the farm. These things that I have dedicated my life to studying are just that. A privilege. Something that few others could ever enjoy. I feel ethnocentric in even being disappointed that the kids don’t read. Why should they be reading the English classics from the “center?” This book seems to argue that the “center” is an illusion, yet another concept imposed through colonialism.

The whole “Who reads postcolonial literature came up,” which made me excited, but it did not really address it in this book (213). But the fact that it was there says to me that there is something more to look into on that topic. Audience seems really problematic with some of these texts, since my personal experience has let me to believe that locals do not read these national texts. That would be the question to sum up my experience in the secondary school in Wiamoase, Ghana.

Also, I never thought about the United States being “postcolonial.” I remember learning about the difficulty of establishing our own literary tradition (15), but it helped me see the theoretical points in this movement. I liked the definition that “postcolonial” cover “all the cultures affected by the imperial process from the moment of colonization to present day,” and that they have to “assert themselves by foregrounding the tension with the imperial power, and by emphasizing their differences from the assumptions of the imperial center” (2). Until now, I have never thought of the United States as postcolonial, as I mentioned before, but more importantly, I do not think I ever realized that we kind of still are, and it affects me. I am an American twenty something English student. I read this book while planning a layover in London for in two weeks during the last week of my stay in Ghana. My whole life I had looked forward to the day when I could go on that pilgrimage of a sort. Walk the paths that Virginia Woolf walked, sit in the pub of C.S. Lewis lectured in, or stand on thee bank of the Themes with Matthew Arnold. It had always been my burning passion to see these places I have never been to, simply because it is what I have read and been exposed to. Never mind that like Piccadilly Circus, I did not know how to ride the tube (which, I kept calling the lue), it is “the center.” Talk about an educational crisis! Again! What does it mean to be an American English student studying English literature? What does it mean that the only way Cambridge would let me, an American, enter their university is if I had a million dollars or a dad who won a Nobel Peace Prize? What does it mean that to this day Americans rarely get that Nobel Peace Prize in literature? Why have I always gravitated to the English instead of the American writers? Why is England so much more appealing to me than Boston for school? Why am I to “the center” but a branch off the tree struggling to be grafted back in?

Yet, I did not on the London study abroad with my fellow classmates. No. No rather I went to Ghana, somewhere in the red dirt with no address, hot shower, or Shakespeare’s Globe. Does that make me crazy, or did I learn something different? I am going to India next summer on my next field study. I was pleased to read that India and Africa have loud voices in postcolonial theory. Postcolonial literature is looking more and more like my course of study.

I am glad I read this book. It sure changed my outlook on my first England adventure. I cannot help but think it is incredibly interesting that I went be going to Bath to see the Roman ruins. Where exactly do we draw the line for being postcolonial? Are we not all in some sense altered by it, or were long before this book was published?
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message 1: by Katy (new)

Katy Thank you for your review of this book; I've just finished reading it and wanted to see what other people thought. However, I don't think you need to have an educational crisis.

I am British and grew up reading a lot of American fiction. I was addicted to teen series’ like Sweet Valley High, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Point Horror, which introduced me to thrilling concepts like ‘parking lots’ and ‘drive-in movies’, and ‘prom’. I also studied American literature in my English literature classes at school – John Steinbeck, Harper Lee and Ernest Hemingway, to name but a few. I don’t think we even called it ‘American’ literature, it was just part of the rich tapestry of mainstream ‘English Literature’. I still read a lot of American literature and I dream of going to all these exotic places, like Alabama and West Virginia. Where does that put me?

My youngest brother used to talk in an American accent when playing with his Power Rangers, because that's what he'd picked up from watching Power Rangers on TV. American culture is very pervasive in the UK.

I don’t think the tuition fees for international students are fair, but if I went to study at Harvard, I’d have to pay a ton of money too.

There is no Nobel Peace Prize in Literature. Who knew, huh?! There is however, this thing known as the Nobel Prize in Literature, (and there is a completely separate prize, called the Nobel Peace Prize.) Guess what? 10 US writers have won the Literature one! In the world rankings, That’s 2nd place after France, and ahead of the UK. So your nation's literature is pretty well represented in that respect.

The white Brits and white Americans have a common history. The people who colonized the land which is now the United States came from Britain. At the time Shakespeare was writing, your grandparents’ grandparents’ grandparents (plus the odd generation) were living it up in Tudor England! The Spanish were getting their teeth into South America around that time, but North America was still the preserve of Native Americans. Who, by the way, are the people who were actually colonized and left on the margins of society.

Literature opens up the world for us. It draws us into distant lands and cultures that are foreign, and therefore, all the more tantalising. Of course you are going to be drawn to this strange English land more than the familiar one you know. It doesn’t mean you are “a branch of a tree struggling to be grafted back in”. It means you are human.

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