What’s Up with Me and Postcolonial Literature?: My Reading Journey

My reading habit has been winding its leisurely, sometimes unpredictable way through its many stages and phases over the years.

When I started learning how to read in kindergarten, I was intimidated by English Novels and stayed away from them for a long time. In hindsight, I have only been able to narrow this avoidance down to the reason of me having been ruthlessly compared to my older sister as a child, and not in a good light at that. Ie, skinny (her) vs fat (me), well-behaved (her) vs mini hooligan (me), bookish (her) vs cannot sit still+ running all over the place (me). As she started reading English Novels at a early age (7), I couldn’t bear the thought of ‘competing’ with her and thus being compared with her, hence I avoided that territory for a long time. So when I started reading, I read children’s dictionaries front to back and vice versa as well as encyclopaedias.

Then, at about ten, I started reading Harry Potter, my first English Novels, and after succeeding on the third or fourth try in reading The Goblet of Fire, I realised that English Novels aren’t all Intimidating after all. After a while in the Young Adults section of the library, I decided to give myself more of a challenge. At 11, I decided I wanted to read the unabridged version of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. It took me a quick six months. After that, Great Expectations was ever so slightly easier at five months.

Still, I never really thought much about the value of literature, and it didn’t even cross my mind that anyone would want to actually spend thousands on a university education in it.

At 15, Jane Eyre made me fall in love with the classics (and Mr. Rochester) while To Kill a Mockingbird changed the way I view literature. I realised that literature, if so employed, is a powerful tool in challenging, and then hopefully, slowly, shaping and changing culture. For better or for worse.

Recently, I’ve been falling in love with post-colonial literature, or writing that is shaped by post-colonial tenets.

Pre-University, I voided postcolonial literature. I suppose, without any proper knowledge about where to find local literature, whatever local writing my teachers made us read was meant to fulfil an agenda– I have narrowed this agenda down to: exploring Singapore through its literature. Therefore, all books on the reading list are a means to this end. With the limited perspective of my not-so-proactive younger self, I assumed this agenda onto all local literature and dismissed the post colonial genre as a whole. A silly, and dare I say costly, mistake that I am glad has been amended.

I stuck to ‘canonized’ aka mostly western literature for a long time, glorifying it as Literature with a capital ‘L’. Thankfully, my years as an English major worked to change that. I am throughly grateful for professors-like-mentors who care enough to challenge what Literature is and should be made up of. Not all of my professors did, of course, but there are always those few who work against the grain. Thus began my exposure and appreciation for not only postcolonial literature, but uncannonized, sometimes deemed illegitimate literature.

Outside of the seminar room, I’ve started reading very good postcolonial literature over the past few years. Like all other literature, postcolonial literature is a mighty tool if wielded well. As subtle, yet powerful as Kerouac’s On the Road to shape culture, or Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird to challenge it, postcolonial literature stands in as the voice of peoples oppressed. It tells the world, using narrative– an underrated, yet potent tool– that people of colour, denied a voice and a right for years, have something to say. A story to tell. A story that might be merely different and discomfiting, or outrightly angry, fighting back at injustice the teller’s people have had to suffer. Granted, many postcolonial groups, like my own, have been long relieved of colonial oppression. Yet, these stories not only highlight wounds that have yet to heal and permanent impact that has been wrought. They also reminds us that there are still groups suffering from the tyranny of such racially and ethnically biased values and practices.

Furthermore, as I myself grow as a person, I become increasingly aware of, and therefore perplexed and frustrated by how my place in the world is so powerfully determined by simple factors such as the color of my skin and hair, the shape of my eyes, the flatness of my nose, my accent, lingo, beliefs, cultural practices. Factors which should be invisible by now. Reading postcolonial literature is comforting as I grow in and around this heartbreaking reality; my daily struggle with this fact is a universal one, sorrowfully and triumphantly told in these courageous, or tentative narratives.

The two such narratives I’ve written about here so far, Everything I Never Told Youand The Sympathizer, are stellar examples of such courage.

Of course, literature alone cannot change society. But change starts with these little fires that challenge the way we think and make us question reality: how much of what is, should be? Representation defines normalcy. Inviting postcolonial literature into the conversation is helps us realise that there are gaps in it, gaps filled by assumptions that can and should be replaced by questions. And eventually, I believe, literature and the arts will be and are quintessential drivers of such change.

Till then, may we, as good literary advocates and as thinking citizens of the world, continue to support and create art that mould this world into a better shape.

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