In Dirlek’s attempt to pinpoint the era of postcolonialism in his essay “The Postcolonial Aura”, he suggests three definitions: “literal description of conditions in formerly colonial societies […] “global condition after the period of colonialism” and lastly, “a discourse on the above-named conditions” (563-64). Over the last weeks, we have focused on the last, learning about the discipline of postcolonialism as it pertains to literature—which, as we all know, means how it pertains to society. We have read narratives that attempt to convey life before, during, and after colonization and in them we can begin to piece together a sense of where postcolonialism fits into the other narratives of the world. (Note: I originally wrote “larger narratives of the world” as if I was suggesting that postcolonial narratives are somehow smaller than others. Perhaps in exposure, but not in meaning. My only caveat is that “larger” is the usual word to place in that type of expression, and now I’m questioning every time I’ve used it in the past.)
Yet postcolonialism can also be expressed as a state of uncertainty, caught between the legacy of colonialism and global pressures to pass through nationalism straight into capitalism. The so-called First World countries went through a gradual progression from feudal state, to nation-state, to global capitalism. For the colonies, there has been an insistence to eliminate that second phase, the phase—though violent—that solidifies a nationalistic identity for a group of people before entering into the global realm. I am not arguing that this phase is necessary, but we are denying nations—a term and state of being that has been insisted upon by Europeans–the same societal evolution that we have had.
As a discipline, postcolonialism should have a number of targets, both inward and outward. Looking at the impact of colonialism upon a people, how those people then have to redefine themselves—through political action, art, violence—and, also, how the colonizers have to acknowledge their part in the process. Colonization is not a single direction vector; the impact of subjugating a people creates an ideology of superiority that has no justification in the real world outside of force. And when that force lessens, the justification for the First World’s sense of place disappears. Unfortunately, being on top means not working too hard to stay on top, so millions of willfully ignorant people do not understand why they are no longer “number #1.” Clinging to religion and guns, indeed.
Yet focusing on the colonizer as victim should only be a tiny, miniscule part of the discipline. Their suffering is pale in comparison to the millions of people oppressed, displaced, and killed through the process of colonization and settlement. We can look at this one section of the colonial mind and take notice, and understand, and somehow, prepare for the ultra-right-wing discourse that fills the void where global superiority once lived; and we should look long enough to remain vigilant against those forces gaining power. But in the end, the postcolonial discipline is about raising voices, voices in the present and past, and creating a tapestry that reflects those who have never had a voice in the global discourse.
The two stories I chose, at random, were “The Free Radio” and “At the Auction for the Ruby Slippers” from Salman Rushdie’s collection East, West. The true success of an anthology is if you can recurring themes across a sample of stories taken from anywhere within the text. Both “Radio” and “Ruby Slippers” deal with unfulfilled dreams, but they are dreams sold as lies. Ramani and the narrator of “Ruby Slippers” are both trying to obtain something just out of their reach. They have made sacrifices—some big and unimportant, some small and life-changing—and in the end their dreams are unsatisfied. Ramani is easy seduced by the thief’s widow and the promise of a free radio, an old compensation for vasectomy in order to curb the population in India. The reward was still rumored, still part of the fabric of society, even though the radio rewards had dried up generations before. Yet, for Ramani, this small token means access to the world, to All-India Radio, and the land beyond his small town. The dream of the radio unrealized, he leaves to take on another dream of becoming a movie star, and, with wife and her children in tow, takes leave. Another disappointment awaits Ramani, most likely, though he keeps up appearances in letters home. He is not smart enough to be nihilistic.
The narrator of “Ruby Slippers” sits at an action in some post-postmodern future, where commerce and cruelty are as commonplace as bombings in the streets. The magic aura surrounding Dorothy’s slippers has reached religious levels, as the fictional and the real collide. They hold a promise of “home” a place that, in the time of the story, holds no real meaning outside of a nostaligic place of perfection—in the same way that some people view 1950s America. For the narrator, the promise of home is a direct representation of the sexual relationship with his cousin Gale, and his desire to return to her. Yet in the frenzy of bidding, the excitement of the rising price actually frees our narrator from that desire. He is whisked away—like a tornado, as it were—from her hold on him and as he comes to his senses, he realized he is free. The dream unfulfilled is much smaller than Ramani’s, but the scene of crass commercialization and debasement of individuality is the true prison our narrator is in. The only person in “Ruby Slippers” that has a true sense of home is the astronaut stranded on Mars. Everyone else is pretending.
We see how often part of colonization is selling a dream; a dream/lie of modernity, education, progress, etc. Selling a dream/lie of a better life, but that is a life defined by someone else. Generation after generation the dream is postponed, and “soon, be patient, work harder” are the only consistent messages the colonized hear. Eventually, the magic of the dream/lie fades and perhaps that is where the postcolonial truly begins.