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Nation in postcolonial literature

In this continuous series on postcolonial literature, I would like to explore the theme of Nation in postcolonial literature. Nation is a prominent theme in postcolonial literature. Nation building in postcolonial nations in Asia and Africa is an important part of de-colonisation process. Nation being a culturally constructed and born out of and upon the artistic, folkloric and philosophical discourses about the nation, particularly the generation of postcolonial writers of the 1950s and the 1960s were concerned about their role in national building.

The novel has historically played a critical role in objectifying the multiple and the unified nature of the national life and continuing theme in postcolonial literature include the geographical, cultural, economic and political contours of the nation. However, the perennial issue of addressing a nation and its literature is how does a nation represent itself to its people and to the world at large?

Postcolonial literature seeks to era the colonial past of a nation. What the postcolonial writer does seek to is to resist and contest the Western construction of their nations as primitive, savage, backwards and ancient and try to retrieve pre-colonial past that would help define the nation in a different light to what it was as defined by the Western. Important facet of this project is not the definition of the nation’s past but of its destiny and future. The postcolonial writers seek to reconstruct the nation without the frames of references used by the colonial masters.

The task would be more complex given the fact that most of the postcolonial methodologies, rhetorical forms and epistemologies are always and already infested with and informed by Western definitions and interpretations. In postcolonial texts, past, present and the future are fused when trauma (colonial), pride (nationalism) and hope (postcolonial) converged. One of the examples these postcolonial themes are eloquently articulated is Nelson Mendela’s first ‘State of nation’:

“The time will come when our nation will honour the memory of all the sons, the daughters, the mothers, the fathers, the youth, and the children who, by their thoughts and deeds, gave us the right to assert with pride that we are South Africans and that we are citizens of the world…we must, constrained by and yet, regardless of the accumulated effect of our historical burdens, seize the time to define for ourselves what we want to make of our shared destiny”

Although the sense of postcoloniality is exciting, it comes with the increasing awareness that the postcolonial society will not be as wonderful as it thought to be. It can be observed that writers in the initial stages of independence were worried over the possibility to colonial corruption slipping into postcolonial decadence. At the same time, a segments of the population witnessed that they were being marginalised by new native rulers. What is interesting to observe is that the postcoloniality has brought about a process of exclusion.

The process enables a certain group/class to dominate the other ethnic groups , communities, races, and classes and render them disempowered, ‘colonised’ and marginalised even in the independent nation states. Gyanendra Pandey argues that ‘minorities are constituted along with the nation’ and nation constructs and colonises specific groups and communities even it (nation) claims independence as postcolony.

Subalternisation

Pramod K. Nayar argues that this process of marginalisation of certain groups in the postcolonial society is ‘In postcolonial societies, this argument has been borne out through a process that I call postcolonial subalternization- a process captured and critiques in many discursive and non-discursive texts of the 1980s and after from Africa and Asia.’ These writers embarked on a process of writing their own histories, realising that dominant cultural narratives refused to represent them or misrepresented them.

Citing Ben Okri’s The Faminished Road (1991), Nayar points out, “Ben Kri’s boy-prophet in The Faminished Road, has a dream where the ‘interchangeable dreams’ of politicians and ‘insanity of thugs’ manipulated the people. The nightmare that Okri describes captures the unreal lapse into oppression, decadence, and the horror of the postcolonial state. The citizens become the subalterns in the state. As the Party of the Poor and the Party of the Rich begin to resemble each other in Okri’s novel, Azro realises that the postcolonial state was simply ‘the new incarnation of their recurrent clashes, the recurrence of ancient antagonism, secret histories and festering dreams’.

One of the best examples of subaltern self-representation is the Dalit writings in India. The Dalit corpus of writings also makes up strong critiques of postcoloniality. The primordial concerns of the literature of postcoloniality that construct ‘nationhood’ includes; the mode of constructing, imagining and representing the nation, the role of locality, community, and the space in creating national identity. They also extensively deal with issues of cultural identity (particularly for Aboriginal writings in postcolonial societies) and the politics of nativism. One of the prominent themes of the literature of postcoloniality is the centrality of religion and spirituality in making of national identity which is a dominant theme in Piyadasa Sirisena’s novels. The writers also concern about the continuation of colonialism through other forms, particularly by postcolonial elites and the marginalisation of certain communities and identities with the postcolonial nation state. This Nayar eloquently describes as ‘a process of subalternisation which leads to protest and movements for social change and reform.’

Sri Lankan literary scene

In Sri Lanka, the construction of nation and very idea of ‘nationhood’ was spearheaded by the discourse of cultural nationalism through the literary production by Piyadasa Sirisena although one may consider his texts purely as propaganda literature. Describing his pivotal role not only in shaping modern Sinhala novel but also spearheading cultural nationalism, Prof. Wimal Dissanayake states, in Sinhala Novel and the Public Sphere, “Piyadasa Sirisena can best be described as a novelist of advocacy. His primary focus was on the promotion of cultural nationalism as a way of regaining self-esteem and re-possessing history. In order to achieve this goal, he dealt with a number of overlapping themes in his fiction. In the first novel that he published Jayatissa Saha Roslin, the guiding theme is religion-the demonstration of superiority of Buddhism over other religions”. In a way, what Piyadasa Sirisena sought to achieve through his fictions was fiercely to contest the colonial history and emphasised the centrality of religion and spirituality in making national identity.

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