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The Postcolonial ‘Ghetto’?

Ed Dodson

In the post-war British context, the term ‘postcolonial’ has often been applied to Black and Asian writers. General surveys of post-war or contemporary British literature frequently use ‘postcolonial’ as a euphemism for ‘non-white’, and this becomes a way of lumping all such writers under one heading.

Andrzej Gasiorek, in Post-War British Fiction (1995), restricts his discussion of ‘colonialism’ to V. S. Naipaul and George Lamming, and of ‘post-colonialism’ to Salman Rushdie. Peter Childs, in Contemporary Novelists (2005), associates ‘Britain’s imperial past and post-colonial present’ with the familiar triad of ‘Rushdie, [Hanif] Kureishi, and [Zadie] Smith’. Nick Bentley, in Contemporary British Fiction (2008), connects ‘the multiethnic nature of contemporary Britain’ to these three, as well as Monica Ali, Courttia Newland, and Caryl Phillips. Brian Finney, in English Fiction Since 1984 (2006), places all of the non-white writers he discusses (Rushdie, Kureishi, and Kazuo Ishiguro) in a section entitled ‘National Cultures and Hybrid Narrative Modes’.

Such literary categorisations are often tied to authors’ biographies. This is true for gender and sexuality as much as for race. Most of the writers above, who are sometimes called ‘Black British’ writers, have their roots in British colonies, past and present. As a result, they are perceived to have a particular investment in ‘postcolonial’ questions of race and empire. This is a perception that is often, but by no means always, true.

Numerous contemporary writers and critics have complained about the ghettoisation of Black and Asian literature within Britain. In Bernardine Evaristo’s words, ‘If you are a black writer you are deemed to be writing about black subjects and that is generally perceived to be for a black audience’. According to Aminatta Forna:

I have never met a writer who wishes to be described as a female writer, gay writer, black writer, Asian writer or African writer. We hyphenated writers complain about the privilege accorded to the white male writer, he who dominates the western canon and is the only one called simply ‘writer’.

There are a number of ways to tackle this question of naming. One is to expand the definition of ‘postcolonial’ beyond the confines of race: to read white writers as postcolonial, too. Several critics have argued that white writers from Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland (Irvine Welsh or Bernard MacLaverty, for instance) might also be considered postcolonial, or at least brought into postcolonial conversations. A parallel is suggested here between the ‘peripheries’ of the empire and the ‘peripheries’ of the UK, especially in the era of devolution.

An alternative and complementary solution would be, as Timothy Ogene argues, ‘to momentarily de-postcolonize’ the work of writers like Evaristo and Forna by discussing their writing outside of the frames of race and empire.

Postcolonial Writers Make Worlds brings together Black and Asian writers in and around the UK but without foregrounding their racial identities or imposing postcolonial themes on their work. At the same time, as the project title suggests, the term ‘postcolonial’ is not being discarded entirely.

The question we are left with is: what is the role of ‘postcolonial’ as a label today? It is, after all, fifty or so years after the major processes of decolonisation. Is postcolonialism still an effective tool for addressing contemporary writing in Britain produced by a range of writers from many different cultural backgrounds?

Cite this: Dodson, Ed. “The Postcolonial ‘Ghetto’?” Postcolonial Writers Make Worlds, 2017, [scf-post-permalink]. Accessed 30 January 2022.