Commonwealth Literature

The Commonwealth of Nations, also known as the Commonwealth or the British Commonwealth, has manifested a distinctive literary development, marked by its cultural and historical diversity. The Commonwealth is an intergovernmental organization of 54 nations which were formerly part of the British Empire. The Commonwealth aims to provide a framework of common values, facilitating cooperation between its member states in the field of democracy, human rights, rule of law, free trade and peace. Commonwealth member countries cover six continents: 19 in Africa, eight in Asia, two in the Americas, 12 in the Caribbean, three in Europe and ten in the South Pacific.

In general, Commonwealth literature is a vague term which defines English-language works written in the former British colonies or place which had the status of dominions. Also known as New English Literature, it is a body of fictional works grouped together because of the underlying cultural history and certain recurrent patterns. As Commonwealth writers come from a wide variety of regions, they win fame in the Anglo-American world because of their exotic setting and characters.

Some scholars, for example Tiffin in her Commonwealth Literature: Comparison and Judgment, argue that the very notion of Commonwealth Literature is in it self narrow and misleading. Others criticize the term as anachronism. Debates are centered also on the distinctions, similarities or overlapping of the term Commonwealth Literature and Postcolonial Literature. Hence, in an essay entitled Commonwealth Literature does not Exist, Salman Rushdie defined this type of fiction as "a body of writing created in the English language, by persons who are not themselves white Britons, or Irish, or citizens of the United States of America." However, he complained that the term is patronizing and marginalizes a number of writers, adding that this body of fiction will never be included in English literature, which will be always its superior.

The exact characteristics of Commonwealth literature also remain debatable. Recurrent motifs there are misuse of power, exploitation and alienation as well as post-colonial society. Apart from the issue of shared characteristics, scholars debate as to which writers to be included in the Commonwealth canon. Famous names among Commonwealth writers include: Salman Rushdie, R. K. Narayan, Nayantara Sahgal and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala as well as Japanese Nobel Kazuo Ishiguro.

Salman Rushdie is one of the key representatives of contemporary Commonwealth literature. As an Indian-British novelist, he is world famous for his novel Midnight Children (1981), which won the Booker prize. Most of his books are set in India and have a particular emphasis on history. He is classified as a magical realist writer. Rushdie triggered protests in the Muslim world with the release of his novel The Satanic Verses (1989). Even the Iranian government pronounced a fatwa, or a death sentence, against Rushdie.

Another central English-language writer is Kazuo Ishiguro. Born in 1954 in Nagasaki, Japan, Ishiguro moved to England in 1960. Having received four Man Booker Prize nominations, he is one of the most influential writers. Ishiguro won the Booker prize in 1989 for his celebrated novel The Remains of the Day. As he left Japan at the age of five, his fiction bears little resemblance to Japanese literature.

Zadie Smith is another representative of Commonwealth fiction. Born in London to a Jamaican mother, Smith won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize in 2006. Her famous novels are White Teeth (2000) and The Autograph Man (2002).

Some initiatives aim to promote common literary identity among Commonwealth writers. For example, the Commonwealth Writers' Prize is an annual award funded by the Commonwealth Foundation. The award was first presented in 1987. Covering Africa, Europe, Asia, the Caribbean, Canada, South-East Asia and the Pacific, the prize aims to recognize the best examples of fiction in the Commonwealth and to enable their access to a wider audience. The prize has another agenda as well: it seeks to promote literacy as a tool to enrich the lives of residents of emerging countries. Some 680m people out of a population of 2.1bn in the Commonwealth are estimated to be illiterate. This means that one-third of the Commonwealth population is not able to read or write.

Commonwealth Literature: Selected full-text books and articles

The Commonwealth Pen: An Introduction to the Literature of the British Commonwealth
A. L. McLeod.
Cornell University Press, 1961
English Postcoloniality: Literatures from around the World
Radhika Mohanram; Gita Rajan.
Greenwood Press, 1996
Postcolonizing the Commonwealth: Studies in Literature and Culture
Rowland Smith.
Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2000
Postcolonial Discourse and Changing Cultural Contexts: Theory and Criticism
Gita Rajan; Radhika Mohanram.
Greenwood Press, 1995
Empire Writing: An Anthology of Colonial Literature, 1870-1918
Elleke Boehmer.
Oxford University Press, 1998
Civility and Empire: Literature and Culture in British India, 1822-1922
Anindyo Roy.
Routledge, 2005
Traveling with Joyce: Derek Walcott's Discrepant Cosmopolitan Modernism
Pollard, Charles W.
Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 47, No. 2, Summer 2001
Towards a Transcultural Future: Literature and Society in a 'Post'-Colonial World
Geoffrey V. Davis; Peter H. Marsden; Bénédicte Ledent; Marc Delrez.
Rodopi, vol.2, 2004
Class, Culture, and the Colonial Context: The Status of Women in Buchi Emecheta's the Joys of Motherhood
Derrickson, Teresa.
International Fiction Review, Vol. 29, No. 1-2, January 2002
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Zen Comedy in Postcolonial Literature: Kazuo Ishiguro's 'The Remains of the Day.'
Rothfork, John.
Mosaic (Winnipeg), Vol. 29, No. 1, March 1996
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Reworlding: The Literature of the Indian Diaspora
Emmanuel S. Nelson.
Greenwood Press, 1992
After Empire: Scott, Naipaul, Rushdie
Michael Gorra.
University of Chicago Press, 1997
Politics of the Female Body: Postcolonial Women Writers of the Third World
Ketu H. Katrak.
Rutgers University Press, 2006
Prizing "Otherness": A Short History of the Booker
Huggan, Graham.
Studies in the Novel, Vol. 29, No. 3, Fall 1997
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Out of Place: Englishness, Empire, and the Locations of Identity
Ian Baucom.
Princeton University Press, 1999
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