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Why literary imperialism is just another form of colonialism

  • Zirrar Ali
  • 28 Sep 2022

Has the problematic phenomenon been archived to the era of colonialism studies or has it been re-sharpened, re-imagined and re-inserted into the public imagination?

In this file photo taken August 24, 2004 in Ramallah, graffiti on the West Bank separation wall and poster of Professor Edward Said: Scholar, Activist, Palestinian (1935 - 2003) is seen. ( Justin McIntosh / Wikimedia Commons )

“Has not the country become independent? Be sure, though, that they will direct our affairs from afar. This is because they have left behind them people who think as they do.”

― Tayeb Salih, Season of Migration to the North

If Orientalism was a way for the West to imagine the East in creating a discourse that allowed a certain identity to be created and re-created, then what can we observe about the evolution of the literary world in this ‘post-colonial’ era within the mind of the modern ‘native’?

On the one hand there are serious writers, journalists and commentators who have challenged the old European world characterisation of the East (i.e., Amitav Ghosh, Teju Cole, Rohinton Mistry, Susan Abulhawa, Abdulrazak Gurnah) but on the other hand, we have writers who offer a different yet familiar view of the East. Presented as ‘insiders’, they tell stories to expose the dire reality of a desperate society. 

Often the protagonist is a young woman or girl, who needs to be saved, not just from her own oppressive surroundings (usually her father or male relatives), but from all of society itself. Her dream and ambition is nothing more complicated than to be simply ‘free’, to escape her forsaken and doomed existence. This plot is not new or original and can be found in many old orientalist works with the only difference being that we’ve swapped the brave white protagonist for a darker one. 

In works such as Monkey’s Paw (1902) by W.W. Jacobs, Kim by Rudyard Kipling (1901), Heart of Darkness (1899) by Joseph Conrad and A Passage to India (1925) E.M. Forster, we see the white explorer enter the lands of the East, only to want to escape after realising there is nothing but misery and death. The land and its people are cursed, the native is violent and deviant, and the woman, usually hidden or reserved, is nothing more than a shadow that comes and goes.

If we briefly overlook the direct military interventionism of Global North in the Global South since the so-called ‘end’ of the colonial period for a moment, we can analyse the ways in which European dominance over the ‘orient’ has remained undeterred.

In our postmodern ‘postcolonial’ world, the plot of many stories remains pretty much the same. When the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001, we were told women took off their burqas in celebration, "freedom" finally. This equating of the hijab and veil with civil rights and religiously sanctioned violence (Jabbra, 240) continues to be employed as a tool for Western interventionism backed by swaths of literature.  In 2003 the Americans invaded another Muslim state, this time Iraq. Again, women were at the forefront of what Zillah Eisenstein calls “imperial feminism”. 

To further bolster the arguments and rhetoric for the Americans delivering freedom through war, an entire literary industry popped up to confirm and re-iterate the official Western position. These books would corroborate the old tropes using fictional characters based in real places and times. Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner (2003), for instance, was for many an introduction to Afghanistan and used to justify its initial invasion and subsequent occupation

In 2017 Angelina Jolie joined the imperial feminist cause with her animated adaptation of the book, The Breadwinner (2001) written by Deborah Ellis. The book tells the story of a desperate young Afghan girl who, after losing her father to the Taliban, has no choice but to disguise herself as a boy to become the sole breadwinner for her family. Written, funded, produced and directed by an all-white women team, The Breadwinner won critical acclaim (it has a 95 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes) for telling a story that “dares to confront sobering real-life issues with uncommon—and richly rewarding—honesty”. 

While late-colonial era literature has been the subject of analysis and critique for many decades (most famously in Edward Said’s Orientalism [1978], Eqbal Ahmad’s Confronting Empire [2000] or Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth [1961]), allowing one to understand its place in time to under the constructs of imperial ambition, modern literature, which similarly supports neo-colonial European wars and intervention, remains unquestioned. When wars are positioned as an ethical moral obligation, few dare to question the premise and position presented in literature, giving writers incredible flexibility to weave fantastical stories without justifying the plot.

Stories such as The Breadwinner are praised for their magical storytelling and its characters, entirely fictional, celebrated for their bravery. Meanwhile Hosseini’s The Kite Runner was substituted for actual academic materials and used by NGOs and higher learning institutes to educate the young on not only the history of Afghanistan, but on the very serious and timely topics of human rights abuses, religious fundamentalism and refugees and resettlement. Yet, no one asks the obvious question: can and should a fictional book be used with such unquestioned authority?

Other fictional works attempt the same and find some success. For example Three Cups of Tea (2007) by David Oliver Relin and Greg Mortenson, The Storyteller’s Daughter (2002) by Saira Shah, The Bookseller of Kabul  (2002) by Asne Seierstad, and A Bed of Red Flowers (2005) by Nelofer Pazira.

If literature written during the European colonial era is easy to call out for its problematic orientalist themes and tropes, then literature written today in defence of European and American wars is difficult to pin down by the introduction of ‘native’ authors in its service.

The ‘insider’ native offers a seemingly more reliable voice for the modern ‘woke’ generation, who, on the surface, reject old imperial ambitions of their ancestors and want to see a more just world. The insider native is authentic, and if the arguments of the insider native are not enough, modern imperial feminism is here to save the day.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

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