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The Edinburgh Companion to Twentieth-Century Literatures in English

By Brian McHale; Randall Stevenson | Go to book overview

Chapter 12
1960, Lagos and Nairobi:
‘Things Fall Apart’ and ‘the Empire
Writes Back’

Patrick Williams

The 1960s are popularly remembered as going out on a wave of radicalism, international in extent, and often student-led: May ‘68; the Italian ‘hot autumn’ of ‘69; protests against the Vietnam War; Black Power in the United States. The decade came in, however, on something more resembling a global tidal surge of decolonisation, but one whose events, because they occurred on the peripheries of Empire rather than in its heartlands, figure less in the memories both of the period and of its significant protests. Although Eldridge Cleaver of the Black Panthers could claim at the end of the 1960s that Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1961) was the Bible of the Black Power movement, it was on another continent, at the other end of the decade, and in another kind of struggle that Fanon was writing and fighting: in the first place against French colonialism, but beyond that, against the global reach of the capitalist system. As the Caribbean critic C. L. R. James noted, writing of the French Revolution and the great slave rebellion in Haiti, rather than history consisting of Europe affecting (‘educating’, ‘civilising’) Africa or Asia, there was, at the very least, a reciprocal effect. One example of this in our period is the way in which Third World anti-colonial struggles (including their cultural dimension) affected politics and culture in the West, variously radicalising and internationalising them.

‘Things fall apart’; ‘the Empire writes back’: these phrases from W. B. Yeats and Salman Rushdie, are, in their different ways, so much part of the common currency even, in the latter case, the clichés of the field of postcolonial literature and theory. From a certain traditionalist perspective, the fact of the latter, the emergence of writing from the formerly colonised areas of the world, in the shape of novels, poetry, plays and essays, was not merely a sign of things falling apart the edifice of literary culture crumbling along with the greater structure of Empire itself but also a significant contributory factor in the catastrophe. It is one of the many important achievements of postcolonial studies that it has been able to overturn that perspective, and see the emergence of anti-colonial and postcolonial texts as an unquestionably positive phenomenon. This chapter will examine a (necessarily small) representative sample of postcolonial authors and the way their various modes and strategies of resistant textuality their different forms of ‘writing back’ relate to the larger historical process of the ‘falling apart’ of the colonial empires. The writers discussed are principally of African and Caribbean origin, partly because the Indian subcontinent did its writing back both earlier and later than the period under examination here.

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