As the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion student representative for the School of Modern Languages (SML) in 2022-23, I am using this blog post to recount the work both I and SML have been doing on decolonising the curriculum, including the genesis of this blog series.
Back in 2020, added to a list of rather bleak events that the world was facing, including Donald Trump’s impeachment, Brexit trade talks, and the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, was the murder of George Floyd. On the night of 25 May 2020, George Perry Floyd Jr. was held under the knee of Derek Chauvin for 9 minutes and 29 seconds until he died. This unjust and brutal murder caused many people to join the Black Lives Matter movement in the US and beyond to protest against police brutality, racial profiling, and lack of police accountability. These protests were the largest in the United States’ history, even larger than during the Civil Rights era, with an estimated 26 million people participating.
During the pandemic, I and other SML students took part in said protests and educated ourselves about race relations on both sides of the Atlantic. Although race has been something we talked about in our lectures in SML, I found myself searching for materials that would allow me to further explore the topics of decolonisation and race relations between Spain, Portugal, and Latin America – my own areas of study.
I brought this up with some fellow students, and two weeks after the murder of George Floyd, we decided to write the following open letter to SML staff:
Dear SML Staff,
This letter is sent to you on behalf of SML students from courses RT47 [BA Spanish, Portuguese, and Latin American Studies] and Y001 [BA Combined Honours] regarding the recent communication from the university on the subject of Black Lives Matter.
For students of Latin American Studies, the issue of colonisation is not something we are unfamiliar with; however, for students of other languages, for example, French, it has been requested that more information be provided about the history of colonial relations for that country. Even those who are enrolled on RT47 are eager to further study contemporary race relations that have not been discussed in class.
We would very much appreciate it if you and the SML would be able to compile a list of resources (books, articles, web pages etc.) that discuss in depth race relations and issues, particularly regarding African diasporas in your countries of expertise, and also about UK colonialism if possible.
The email from the Vice Chancellor mentioned that the School of English Language, Literature and Linguistics has “shared resources on issues of white privilege, anti-racism and the history of protest and activism” and we feel it would be really beneficial if you were able to provide something similar to all SML students as well.
We understand that colonialism and race is not taught as frequently outside of the Schools of Modern Languages and Humanities, but we would still like to further educate ourselves to learn more about the impact race has, not only on our lives, but in our studies as well.
We were ecstatic with the positive responses we received from the SML staff, including the numerous resources from all language areas of SML recommended to us. Dr Sarah Leahy first brought up the idea of turning these resources into a collaborative database between staff and students, a project that has been on development for the past year. Another immediate response was the creation of this blog, Decolonising Modern Languages and Cultures, by Dr Catherine Gilbert and Dr Michael Tsang.
Dr Giuliana Borea and Dr Leahy have been especially proactive, and managed to secure a grant from the Black History Month fund which is a continuation of the recommendations of SML staff. This fund also allows students to get involved with paid collaborative work to build the online database of resources in tandem with the SML staff.
I cannot commend and thank the SML staff, library collaborators, and everyone who has shown an interest in EDI matters enough, as without their support we would not have been able to get this project off the ground and spark such an interesting dialogue.
[Ren is a Stage 4 student of RT47 BA Spanish, Portuguese, and Latin American Studies. As well as being the Student Representative for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in SML, she is also the SML Student Decolonising Lead. She centres most of her studies on race relations in Latin America, Indigenous language rights, and colonial history.]
 Shvili, J. (2021), ’10 Largest Protests in the History of America’, World Atlas.
Taiwan has a very complicated history of colonisation, but like many East Asian societies this history fits uneasily in current discussions of postcolonial and decolonial studies. Ever since the Portuguese gave Taiwan the name ‘Formosa’ (meaning beautiful), this island underwent a succession of five colonisers, beginning with the Dutch (1624–1662), the Spanish (1626–1642 in northern Taiwan), the Cheng family from China (1662–1683), the Qing Dynasty of China (1684–1895), and the Japanese (1895–1945). In addition, we can further debate whether the Kuomintang’s (the Nationalist Government of China; hereafter KMT) 1949 retreat to the island – after being defeated by the Communist Party in the Chinese civil war – can be seen as another colonisation. If the simple definition of a colonial regime is the rule of outsiders for their own benefit (Jacobs 2013: 569), and if colonisation is a form of domination, exploitation and a process of cultural transplant (Horvath 1972: 46), then the KMT’s self-proclaimed status as legitimate successor of the Japanese as ruler of the island, their brutal suppression of native Taiwanese people, and the prioritisation of Mandarin over other local dialects would suggest that the KMT are indeed colonisers. Furthermore, given that the KMT imposed a 38-year martial law and remained the only ruling party until the late 1980s, it seems impossible to ever imagine how Taiwan could start to decolonise itself. Where should one start?
The Complexity of Post-Japanese Taiwanese History
As a researcher and teacher of East Asian Cinema, I will focus on the period of post-Japanese colonisation, because among all the former colonisers, the Japanese colonial regime left the most profound influences on Taiwan society. Taiwan became a Japanese colony under the Treaty of Shimonoseki (1895) after the Qing Dynasty of China was defeated in the First Sino–Japanese War (1894). During this period, the Japanese implemented the kōminka (Japanisation) movement, which successfully instilled pro-Japanese sentiments among the educated upper class Taiwanese elites. When the Japanese colonial rule fell at the end of the Second World War, decolonisation did not happen in Taiwan, for then came the KMT from mainland China, which monopolised the top positions in the governance of the island. Widespread discontent against the KMT even generated nostalgic feelings for the Japanese colonial past among the natives. Scholar Chen Fangming for one sees it a recolonisation project to re-educate former subjects of the Japanese Empire into new citizens of the Chinese republic (Scruggs 2015: 32). Instead of decolonisation, a residual Japanese colonial identity was revived among the native Taiwanese when they were humiliated by the mainland recolonisers (despite sharing the same ethnic origin), ridiculed in the high-handed recolonisation process of the KMT, and their native tongue of Taiwanese Hokkien suppressed in favour of Mandarin.
A series of domestic and international setbacks in the 1970s further bogged Taiwan down: in 1970 the Diaoyu islands were returned to Japan; in October 1971 Taiwan withdrew from the United Nations; in 1975 the political patriarchal figure President Chiang Kai-shek passed away; and in 1979, diplomatic relations between the United States and communist China resumed. However, the continuous loss of international recognition and the waning power of the KMT regime brought hope to Taiwan. Politically, people were increasingly vocal in their demand for political liberalisation. Culturally, Taiwan’s xiangtu (‘native soil’) literature regained attention after being long suppressed by both the Japanese and KMT regimes. Xiangtu literature attempts to create a distinctive form of Taiwanese identity different from the mainstream Chinese national identity promoted by the KMT. For the first time after years of tight Japanese and KMT control and censorship, Taiwanese writers enjoyed the ‘luxury’ of seeking a representative literature that would realistically reflect the new social, economic and political conditions of a rapidly modernising society. The decolonisation of Taiwan started, I believe, with this nativist literary movement that first appeared in the early 1970s and continued to play an important part in the gradual process of cultural democratisation in the 1980s.
Cultural Democratisation and Taiwanese Films
Cultural democratisation refers to the long-term process whereby diverse cultural ideas previously not permitted are allowed to be produced and promoted (Rawnsley 2016: 373). I see much overlap with the core spirit of decolonisation, where the prefix ‘de-’ invites a revised understanding and to ‘unlearn’ certain knowledge and structures of knowledge (Mistry 2021: 2). A few years before the lift of martial law in July 1987, a prominent urge to construct a local Taiwanese identity began to gather momentum. Alongside xiangtu literature, the Taiwan New Cinema (TNC) movement also emerged as a wave that manifested a distinct Taiwanese cultural and historical identity which was non-existent before the late 1970s. Although the TNC directors at the time may not have been directly aware of the idea of decolonisation, their themes and aesthetics in every way expressed their resistance to any form of colonisation, be it institutional or ideological. With the increasingly relaxed restrictions on media in the years leading up to the end of martial law, Taiwanese cultural and media workers could freely and properly conceptualise Taiwan’s identities and historiography at last. For example, local dialects were frequently used in TNC films alongside Mandarin – a sign that these films expressed not only an awakening Taiwanese identity, but also a subconscious act of decolonisation.
TNC films also reconceptualised the historiography of Taiwan through their portrayal of Taiwan’s colonial past under Japanese rule. For example, director Hou Hsiao-hsien, one of the flagbearers of TNC, seized the opportunity to exploit the suspension of rigid ideological control and made his first post–martial law film A City of Sadness (1989) toexplore the Japanese colonial period, which had been off limits previously. Set in the 1940s, the film represents Taiwanese identity as a kind of ‘helpless child’, a metaphor traced back to Wu Zhuo-liu’s most influential novel Orphan of Asia (1945) which highlighted the ambiguity and tension inherent to being Taiwanese. In Hou’s film, Wen-heung, the eldest brother of the Lin family and a business owner with a gangster background, finds his livelihood threatened by the politically connected and more competitive Shanghainese gangsters from the mainland. Two out of his three younger brothers are sent to the Philippines and Shanghai respectively to fight for the Japanese colonial regime during the Second World War; while the elder of the two never returns, the younger, Wen-leung, suffers from shellshock after the war (Fig 1). Because they have been sent to fight against the Chinese on behalf of the Japanese, the newcomers in Taiwan from the mainland see them as traitors. The youngest brother Wen-ching, a deaf and mute photographer, is accused of supporting the native Taiwanese after an anti-KMT uprising. He is taken away for interrogation and is never to be seen again (Fig 2).
As Wen-heung bitterly spells out in the film, ‘the Taiwanese are the most pitiful. Nobody cares about us, nobody loves us, everyone tries to oppress and humiliate us’ (Fig 3). The story of the Lin brothers is a refraction of Taiwan’s complicated colonial trajectory, and Hou uses a number of remarkable cinematic techniques to underscore this. First, he uses different languages to highlight the identity conundrum faced by the Taiwanese. With Japanese being replaced by Mandarin as the official language under the KMT regime, the film’s main narrator, Wen-ching’s young wife Hiromi (Fig 4; note her Japanese name), ironically uses the local Taiwanese dialect to report events and express her own emotions. As such, the KMT’s imposition of mainland Chinese culture and reimagination of Taiwan’s historiography are directly challenged by the voiceover of a native Taiwanese woman with a Japanese name who reports history from her point of view. Moreover, Hou’s signature technique of ‘long shot–long take’ enhances the objectiveness of his observation on Taiwan’s colonial history. By allowing ‘certain real situations to naturally unfold themselves in the film’ (Yeh & Davis 2005: 157–158), Hou invites the audience to question how some political concepts are normalised and institutionalised by colonial or dominant power structures. Through this film, Hou helps initiate an ongoing process of constructing a localised Taiwanese identity, precisely by combing through a brutal colonial history hitherto unexplored under the period of martial law (Chiang 2013: 30). It is without doubt a film of decolonisation par excellence.
Although the TNC is generally believed to be a short-lived movement taking place between 1982/83 and starting to phase out shorty after 1987, the works of the first generation TNC directors such as Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang still have great impact on the ensuing generations of Taiwanese directors, and the ongoing process of Taiwan’s decolonisation is still a prominent theme in post-TNC films. The still-coalescing multi-ethnic and multicultural Taiwanese identity is depicted, for example, in Wei Te-sheng’s recent trilogy – Cape No 7 (2008), Warriors of the Rainbow (2011) and Kano (2014) – which features a non-dichotomising attitude that does not portray the successes and failures of Japanese colonisation in black-or-white terms. As Jyoti Mistry contends, decolonial processes should neither be bound to the geographical space of the colony nor to the time before, during or after colonialism (2021: 2). As long as Taiwan cinema exists, the long revolution of decolonisation will never cease.
Horvath, R. (1972) A Definition of Colonialism. Current Anthropology 13 (1), pp. 45–57.
Jacobs, J. (2013) Whither Taiwanization? The Colonization, Democratization and Taiwanization of Taiwan. Japanese Journal of Political Science 14 (4), pp. 567–586.
Mistry, J. (2021) Decolonizing Processes in Film Education. Film Education Journal 4 (1), pp.1–13.
Rawnsley, M. (2016) Cultural Democratisation and Taiwan Cinema. In: G. Schubert, ed. Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Taiwan. London: Routledge, pp.373–388.
Schiwy, F. (2007) Decolonization and the Question of Subjectivity. Cultural Studies 21 (2–3), pp. 271–294.
Scruggs, B. (2015) Translingual Narration: Colonial and Postcolonial Taiwanese Fiction and Film. Hawaii, Hawaii University Press.
Yeh, E. & Davis, D. (2005) Taiwan Film Directors: A Treasure Island. New York: Columbia University Press.
Yeh, E. (2005) Poetics and Politics of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s films. In: S. Lu & E. Yeh, eds. Chinese-Language Film: Historiography, Poetics, Politics. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, pp. 163–185.
A City of Sadness (1989) Directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien. Era Communications (International rights).
Cape No 7 (2008) Directed by Wei Te-sheng. Buena Vista Distribution.
Kano (2014) Directed by Wei Te-sheng. Vie Vision Pictures Co., Ltd.
Warriors of the Rainbow (2011) Directed by Wei Te-sheng. Vie Vision Pictures Co., Ltd.
[Carrie Poon is a 4th-year doctoral candidate in the School of Modern Languages, Newcastle University, working on her PhD project on Taiwanese director Edward Yang’s films and their representation of masculinity. She currently teaches on an undergraduate module on East Asian Cinema which explores the culture, history and identity of different East Asian cities through their films.]
This blogpost was developed from a student essay written for the module ‘Introduction to History, Culture and Society of the Iberian Peninsula’, which is taken by stage 1 and stage 2 students of Spanish and Portuguese or Spanish combined with other languages. The module is designed as an introduction to the Iberian Peninsula from three interrelated angles: history, culture and society. The first part of the module related to Portugal introduces students to Portugal and Lusophone Africa, namely the return of the Portuguese from Angola after the Carnation Revolution through Dulce Cardoso’s The Return (O Retorno, 2011). The second part is focused on the last years of the Colonial War in Angola by reading Pepetela’s Ngunga’s Adventures (As Aventuras de Ngunga, 1972). Students then go on to learn more about the history of Portugal, namely the overseas discoveries, slavery, the dictatorship, and the shift to democracy.
— Dr Conceição Pereira, module lecturer.
The historical fiction novel As Aventuras de Ngunga (Ngunga’s Adventures), by well-known Angolan author Pepetela, was written, re-edited and translated under differing historical and cultural contexts. Here I consider the two Angolan editions of the novel, published in 1973 and 1976, as well as the English translation by Chris Searle, published in 1980, to understand each edition’s significance and interpretations. While each of the three editions carries different meanings and intentions, they all have the aim of educating several generations across the world on the anti-colonial struggle in the former African colonies, particularly in Angola.
Pepetela initially wrote As Aventuras de Ngunga in 1972 whilst fighting as a guerrilla for the MPLA (People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola), one of the main nationalist groups in the Angolan War of Independence. When he first wrote this text, Pepetela’s intentions were clear – the MPLA needed educational texts that could be used in their schools to teach their young pioneers Portuguese in order to communicate with each other. Phillip Rothwell describes Pepetela as a ‘cultural midwife’ to Angola and argues that Pepetela ‘tells the story of the MPLA even more than the story of Angola’ (2019, p. 2). When examining this edition of the novel, it is clear that Pepetela made the MPLA the focus of his writing, building the plot around the importance of education in the struggle for liberation. This can be seen clearly in the novel through the young Ngunga’s own struggle to understand the significance of teaching and learning in the schools. Pepetela wanted to make it clear that although the liberation movement required violence to achieve its aim of freedom, it also needed educated pioneers who could read and write. Education in itself is presented as a victory over colonialism in the novel.
Nevertheless, Pepetela initially had no intention of publishing As Aventuras de Ngunga as a novel. The text was ‘originally distributed, in five hundred typed copies, on the MPLA’s eastern front’ (Hamilton 1993, p. 266) and did not become a story in its own right until Pepetela realised it had many of the elements of a novel. Following this, he developed a storyline and later published the first edition of As Aventuras de Ngunga in 1973. When this first edition was published, it became a work of historical fiction, combining fiction with reality as a way to observe the world, without shying away from its controversies and contradictions. Rather than adopting a Manichean view, where everything is either all-good or all-evil, Pepetela chose to show the signs of corruption and greed within the MPLA and among some Angolans. Whilst the Portuguese colonialists are written as all-evil characters, Pepetela addresses the moral grey area within the Angolan pioneers with characters such as the Cook, an Angolan who worked for the Portuguese International Police (PIDE), and Kafuxi, the corrupt president of a Kimbo (small rural community). Ngunga begins his journey with the view that the MPLA soldiers and Angolans are all good, but as he becomes a man through his education, he realises some are overtaken by greed and selfishness just like the Portuguese colonialists. This demonstrates that Pepetela is not naïve to the corruption that can take place in organisations like the MPLA, but instead chooses to show that the biggest struggle is that against colonialism.
Ngunga learns of the constant battles in the world around him – not only physical, but moral – and chooses to change the world. By showing the moral struggle faced by Ngunga regarding some of the Angolan characters in the novel, Pepetela ‘is able to humanize his people more fully’ (Phillips 2001, p. 142) and make them complex – and therefore more realistic – characters in Ngunga’s story. The novel carries a clear message that overcoming colonialism will only be possible through struggle, unity and education. This is Pepetela’s main intention with the 1973 Angolan edition of the novel: to inspire the pioneers and Angolan soldiers to educate themselves, mature to make their own decisions, and become their own heroes in the face of colonialism and moral struggles.
Following the end of the liberation war in 1974 and the independence of Angola in 1975, the meaning and intention of As Aventuras de Ngunga changed. According to Russell Hamilton, ‘with the arrival of independence, Ngunga became a national symbol’ (1993, p. 266), no longer just representing MPLA soldiers and pioneers, but now becoming a symbol of Angola, of liberation, and of the fight against colonialism. Ngunga was first the hero to which the soldiers compared themselves during the struggle for liberation and, with the 1976 edition of the novel, he became the hero against which all Angolans judged themselves. For, as Iain Thomson writes, a hero functions like a mirror, ‘reflecting back to the group an idealized image of itself’ (2011, p. 100).
In 1976, Pepetela himself was made Deputy Minister for Education of Angola, further giving his work a new purpose. It is true that As Aventuras de Ngunga always had the purpose of educating, but now it served to educate a whole nation, a way to unite Angolans following liberation, reminding them of the qualities of a true Angolan such as Ngunga. With Pepetela’s enlarged influence over education in Angola, along with the strong anti-colonial sentiment that could be felt there after liberation, it is no surprise that As Aventuras de Ngunga evolved to have a new meaning in the country. During the colonial period, the education system in Angola revolved around Portuguese history and Portuguese geography, but following liberation, those with a higher level of education played a fundamental role in creating a new national consciousness, centred around Angolan national identity. The importance of Angolan literature in this cause is shown by Márcio Mucedula Aguiar, who emphasises how novels such as As Aventuras de Ngunga can be used in the fight to overcome a racist and Eurocentric viewpoint, characteristic of postcolonial societies arising from Portuguese domination (2011, p. 14). Pepetela uses this edition of his novel to recreate the ideals and identity of independent Angola, now free from its colonial chains, yet still struggling from the consequences of long-term Portuguese colonialism and racism.
With the English edition of Ngunga’s Adventures, translated by Chris Searle and published by Young World Books in 1980, the interpretations and intentions of the text have further been changed. Whilst the Angolan editions carried the purpose of educating first the young pioneers and then the whole of Angola about the importance of education in the anti-colonial struggle, the English translation has the wider aim of educating young people in the Western world (more specifically, Great Britain) about the issue of colonialism and the process of decolonisation. This can be seen through Searle’s translator’s preface, where he writes that ‘Ngunga still lives in Africa, anywhere where the African people are … fighting the vestiges of colonialism and racism’ (Pepetela 1980, p. 3). Searle widens the scope of Ngunga’s story to make it clear that colonialism is far from over and is most definitely not limited to Angola.
The English translation of Ngunga’s Adventures played a part in filling the void in the British educational system when it came to challenging Eurocentricity in schools. Young World Books, a registered charity created with the purpose of developing anti-racist materials for young people, intended to make the ‘anti-imperial attitude’ (Pepetela 1980, p. 62) accessible to British children through translations like Ngunga’s Adventures – something that was severely lacking in Britain at this time. In the broader historical context, it could be argued that the 1970s were a period of blossoming educational reform in Britain, with several debates taking place surrounding improving inclusivity and accessibility to a well-rounded education. However, following the Second World War, Britain had become increasingly suspicious of ‘foreigners’, with many Britons strongly opposed to sharing the recent social advances with those who were not born in Britain, more specifically with those who, some argued, didn’t belong there. This change in attitude, along with a dramatic increase in immigration and increasing ethnic and religious diversity, meant that the issues of race and racism became frequent topics of discussion in the decades following 1945.
In response to these important developments, many forward-thinking teachers and figureheads of 1970s Britain, one of which being Chris Searle himself, pushed for a shift in the educational syllabus. Before becoming a teacher, Searle was well-known for his anti-racist attitude and activism that he developed after his travels around America and the Caribbean, where his outlook on life was changed through events such as the murder of Martin Luther King, the anti-Vietnam protests, and the Black Panther movement. It was not only Searle’s beliefs, but also his efforts to educate the younger British generations of the time on anti-racism and anti-colonialism, that made him the ideal translator for Pepetela’s novel. Through this translation of Ngunga’s Adventures, Searle allows Pepetela to reach a broader audience and makes readers reflect on colonial and post-revolutionary society and the world (see Castro 2015, p. 209).
In short, the story of the young pioneer Ngunga and his adventures was originally intended to teach young Angolans about the significance of education and moral strength in the fight against colonialism. It was written to give them a common goal, portraying someone who fought the same struggles as them and that they could aspire to be. After Angolan independence, the novel also took on the purpose of unifying a newly liberated nation and reinventing its national identity. The 1980 English translation of Ngunga’s Adventures carries a different intention than that of the Angolan editions that came before it, insofar as its new audience is one that was unfamiliar with the struggle against colonialism, especially that which took place in Africa and specifically Angola, due to the lack of anti-racist and anti-colonial literature available in the British education system. Yet, it still shares the most important aim that applied to all three editions of the novel – that of education.
Aguiar, Márcio Mucedula. (2011) O uso da literatura infanto-juvenil de pepetela para consciência e superação do colonialismo e racismo. Revista Espaço Acadêmico 11 (126), pp. 13–20.
Castro, Fernanda. (2014) Entrevista a Pepetela. Navegações 7 (2), pp. 29–213.
Hamilton, Russell. (1993) Portuguese-language literature. In: Oyekan Owomoyela, ed. A History of Twentieth Century African Literatures.University of Nebraska Press, pp. 240–284.
Pepetela. (1976) As Aventuras de Ngunga. Luanda: União dos Escritores Angolanos.
Pepetela. (1980) Ngunga’s Adventures: A Story of Angola. Translated by Chris Searle. London: Young World Books.
Phillips, Richard. (2001) Politics of reading: Decolonizing children’s geographies. Cultural Geographies 8 (2), pp. 125–150.
Rothwell, Phillip. (2019) Pepetela and the MPLA: The Ethical Evolution of a Revolutionary Writer, Cambridge: Legenda.
Thomson, Iain. (2011) Deconstructing the hero. In: Iain Thomson. Heidegger, Art, and Postmodernity.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 141–168.
[Charlotte Pickles is currently a second-year student studying Spanish, German, and Portuguese at the School of Modern Languages, Newcastle University. This is her first ever blog post, and she is delighted to be sharing her thoughts on a topic that carries such cultural significance in the context of decolonisation.]
Blog post by Stephanie Newell, with an introduction by Neelam Srivastava
This blog post by Steph originated out of an event I organised in May 2021, hosted by the Newcastle Postcolonial Research Group. Entitled ‘Postcolonial Pedagogy and the Task of Decolonisation‘, it featured two globally eminent scholars of postcolonial studies and African literature: Stephanie Newell and Ato Quayson. Steph was recently Leverhulme Visiting Professor in the School of English at Newcastle University (2019–2021). I invited Steph and Ato to speak not only as pioneers in the field, but also as hugely experienced teachers of postcolonial literature and theory. Decolonisation and diversity are by now buzzwords in Higher Education: both at Newcastle University and at universities around the world, ‘decolonising the curriculum’ has become a mantra. In many ways, of course, this is an extremely welcome development; a global public conversation is finally taking place around the need to rethink the teaching and transmission of western cultural heritage. Its influential reach is an acknowledgement that there is work to be done on provincialising and decentring the supposed ‘universality’ of the human subject within and across the disciplinary formations of university education. At another level, though, ‘decolonising the curriculum’ partakes in the slightly hypnotic and uncritical (or acritical) aspect of all mantras: it thus risks morphing into an ideological party line rather than maintaining a dynamic consciousness of decolonisation as a constant work in progress. The risks inherent in the party line are linked to the uses it is put to: how do we make sure that decolonisation stays faithful to its stated objective, i.e., working towards a collective project of liberation, rather than merely becoming a way to pursue individualistic or identitarian claims within the academy?
The event aimed to examine the intersections and divergences between recent debates on curriculum diversity and the values and principles of postcolonial literary pedagogy, which has long been asking students to think critically about the racial and colonial assumptions structuring academic programmes in the Humanities. The conversation with Ato and Steph centred on their experience of teaching postcolonial literature, from a time when it was still quite marginal to mainstream syllabi, to the current moment, when Decolonising Education has become almost a policy at the institutional level. We wanted to ask these scholars whether the inclusion of postcolonial literature automatically achieves the decolonisation of the curriculum or whether new forms of cultural subalternity and canonicity enter into play. How can university teachers negotiate students’ demands for the recognition of gendered, racialised, and economic oppression with the need to emphasise that there are often competing notions of marginality? Subalternity is a relational, never an absolute identity, and thus the goalposts are ever mobile. The conversation on screen evolved in fascinating and unforeseen ways, with both scholars sharing anecdotes and insights about their pedagogic experiences. The participants also chimed in with their own observations and questions; many said they were there to learn, as decolonisation was still a recent word for them. After the event, some wrote to me asking for reading lists and tips on how to decolonise a research topic without an apparent point of entry (for example, someone wanted to know how they could research the use of building materials in Indonesia from a decolonising perspective). This awareness was of course the necessary starting point for the educational journey of decolonisation. As one participant remarked, decolonisation is always unfinished, never complete, a constant effort to uncover and dismantle the founding stereotypes and institutional biases at the heart of what we call knowledge.
The Task of Decolonisation
I started my lecturing career in 1994, just as the first two major anthologies of postcolonial theory arrived on the scene. Critical race theory, Pan-Africanism and theories of colonialism and anticolonialism had been growing in impact within universities in the Global North throughout the second half of the twentieth century, but the appearance of these two anthologies put postcolonial studies firmly on the syllabus as a mainstream, or at least unavoidable, sub-discipline in English departments. In the UK, the old ‘Commonwealth Literature’ syllabus, with its canon of Anglophone literary texts, was rapidly reshaped into the new field of postcolonial studies.
Nearly 30 years later, as the field of postcolonial literature gives way to world literature, I wonder what that institutional moment in the mid-1990s – better phrased, perhaps, as that moment of institutionalisation – produced in terms of epistemological breaks and complicities? The anthologies gave teachers and students a wide range of tools for recognising how imperialist and racist power operate structurally, institutionally, archivally and historically. Through the anthologies, an awareness of postcolonial literature and theory slowly filtered into English literature courses, inspiring discussions about the necessity for the diversification of the curriculum and giving visibility to non-Eurocentric perspectives, albeit often parked in ‘postcolonial’ corners of the syllabus rather than on foundational courses.
But a question remains: to what extent has the mainstreaming of postcolonial literature and theory in universities from the mid-1990s onward, with all the critical ways of thinking these works inspired, helped to move our departments and our universities in the direction of ‘decolonisation’? Without a doubt, the discipline of postcolonial studies has helped to diversify the syllabus, but how has it contributed to the ‘task of decolonisation’, that is, the removal of Eurocentric power structures, the diversification of knowledge production and the creation of spaces to take action against systemic racism and other forms of prejudice (see Cleary 2021; Bhambra et al. 2018; Gopal 2021)?
The Oxford dictionary definition of decolonisation is ‘the action or process of a state withdrawing from a former colony, leaving it independent’ (Oxford Languages, OUP). The Oxford Languages data graph shows no usage of the word up to about 1940, and then a steady rise from 1955 onward (see figure). The real increase in usage occurred long after ‘the actions or processes of states withdrawing from former colonies’ between the late 1940s and early 1960s. Usage of the word climbed exponentially in the 2000s and continues on an upward trajectory. This is a term that has gained popularity as a consequence of its metamorphosis from the definition of a specific political process involving foreign territories into a powerful metaphor for recognising and transforming power relations in metropolitan institutions. In its contemporary usage, decolonisation still means ‘actions or processes’ involving the reconfiguration of institutional spaces, but what is being ‘withdrawn’ is more difficult to identify than in dictionary-definition decolonisations. Contemporary decolonisation processes involve critical, deliberative, space-clearing gestures within institutions by and on behalf of historically excluded groups, as well as the recognition of how racism and other exclusionary forms of power operate through multiple institutional spaces – ranging from schools to police forces – as well as through implicit and unconscious prejudices (see Bhambra et al. 2018).
In a recent article on ‘The English Department as Imperial Commonwealth’, Joe Cleary points out that English departments have tended to respond to calls for diversification by expanding their scope and provision rather than by questioning their power structures and histories. As a consequence, he argues, they adopt ‘additive strategies’ by which they ‘retain as much as possible of the core curriculum while opening new subject options and degree pathways’ (2021, p. 166).
While the ‘additive’ type of expansion is a good example of diversification, it falls short of decolonisation. To illustrate some of the problems with the diversification of the curriculum without an accompanying institutional decolonisation, I want to recount a teaching experience that illustrates some of the ways in which the diversification of the syllabus may produce the opposite of what it sets out to promote unless it is accompanied by an explicit critique of broader problems of structural racism and Eurocentrism.
In the autumn of 2017, the English Department at Yale introduced a new foundational course, ‘Readings in Comparative World English Literatures’. The initial course blurb read:
An introduction to the literary traditions of the Anglophone world in a variety of poetic and narrative forms and historical contexts. Emphasis on: developing skills of literary interpretation and critical writing; diverse linguistic, cultural and racial histories; the politics of empire and liberation struggles. Authors may include Daniel Defoe, Mary Prince, J. M. Synge, James Joyce, Claude McKay, Jean Rhys, Yvonne Vera, Chinua Achebe, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, J. M. Coetzee, Amitav Ghosh, Salman Rushdie, Alice Munro, Derek Walcott, and Patrick White, among others.
By the standards of postcolonial literary study in the UK, our reading list was conservative and contained too few writers of colour. Within a few weeks of the start of semester, however, a reporter for the right-wing student media outlet, the College Fix, ran a highly critical piece on the ‘decolonization’ of the Yale English degree programme, arguing that this course enabled undergraduates to complete an English major without having to study Chaucer or Shakespeare.
On the same morning as the College Fix piece appeared, I received an unsolicited email, also on the theme of decolonisation (the senders’ names and email address have been removed):
Subject: Prospective student
Dear Ms. Newell,
Just a short note to thank you for ‘decolonizing’ your English department. My brilliant high school sophomore daughter was, god knows why, actually considering Yale as one of her college picks next year. However, your recent actions concerning the English Department’s curriculum eliminated that choice for her, and my wife and I are eternally grateful. Our daughter, who reads (and treasures) all those hate-filled white demon writers, still understands and values the inestimable contributions those dead white men made to Western civilization, so there’s no need now for us to lose her to your Soviet-style cultural genocide—a manner of self-righteous, self-hating lunacy that we know is echoed throughout Yale’s various educational departments.
Sincerely: we couldn’t be more grateful to you.
The man and woman who signed this email also contacted the Press Office, and one of them phoned the Yale English Department administrator to communicate the sentiments expressed in the mail. As I was not permitted to reply directly to the correspondents, I passed their message to the student-run Yale Daily News, which included it in an article on decolonisation debates in the English Department.
With all this going on, the eighteen undergraduates enrolled in ‘Readings in Comparative World English Literatures’ certainly felt as if a spotlight was focused on them. This may have contributed to an incident toward the end of semester, when a group of four or five white American women, one of whom had been especially vocal on the topic of global women’s rights, intervened in the discussion of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children to argue that the novel was evidence of Rushdie’s patronising and stereotypical ideas about Indian women, who he deprived of agency and depicted as inferior to men.
There were four students of colour in the class, one of whom, who identified as Southeast Asian, argued vociferously against the way these students appeared to be ‘speaking for’ Indian women in their critique of Rushdie. This student was later called a ‘misogynist’ by the most outspoken of the critics, although not in my hearing. Meanwhile, one of the other students of colour, who identified as Southeast Asian-American, interjected to say that Indian women did not have gender equality either at independence in the late 1940s, when Midnight’s Children is set, or in the early 1980s, when Midnight’s Children was published, so Rushdie should not be obliged to represent them as equal. She was shouted down. I attempted to problematise both sides of the argument: should Rushdie’s female characters be regarded sociologically at all? What were the problems with a reflectionist view of literary texts? Were there ways we could think about gender stereotypes, representation, postcolonial masculinities and discursive power without requiring ‘real’ Indian women as referents? But the students who identified as liberal feminists became increasingly vociferous for the remainder of the session while the students of colour became silent.
Four years on, I have some unresolved questions about this classroom altercation. Is it an example of the ways in which the diversification of the syllabus does not equate to institutional decolonisation (in spite of the claims of conservative commentators)? In terms of the problematics of identity politics, how significant is race compared with class, political persuasion, national identity and gender to understanding what happened? A handful of white liberal American women seemed to have taken the diversified foundational syllabus and filled the space it had cleared in the curriculum with what they understood to be universal truth–claims articulated on behalf of women globally. I wonder how different the encounter would be now, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement?
The following week was the final week of semester, giving very little time to address the fall-out from the Rushdie class. I gave students Achebe’s essay from Morning Yet on Creation Day (1975) in which western readers are urged to ‘cultivate the habit of humility appropriate to [their…] limited experience’ (1975, p. 9). I also brought Chandra Talpade Mohante’s ‘Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses’ (1988) and Sara Suleri’s ‘Woman Skin Deep: Feminism and the Postcolonial Condition’ (1992) to everyone’s attention. (Both of these essays are reproduced in the postcolonial studies anthologies of 1993 and 1995.) In a minilecture on these materials, I highlighted Achebe’s call for western readers to exercise humility, and offered a critique of liberal universalism that concluded with Frantz Fanon’s final appeal, in Black Skin White Masks, to become a person ‘who always questions’ (1967, p. 232). But as the course ended, it seemed to me that the vocal students had not experienced much self-doubt about the validity of their positions.
Clearly, the role of the teacher is crucial in maintaining an environment of individual safety and collective mutual respect where students can question their own and others’ preconceptions reflexively and non-aggressively. Consensus need not – indeed, should not – be a teacher’s objective in seminar discussions within arts and humanities subjects. Many scholars have written about how to create learning climates where individual discomfort can be safely expressed in the context of institutional power hierarchies and structural biases, ranging from Spivak’s powerful arguments for teaching as a decolonial intervention in classrooms in the Global North through to the many publications on anti-racist pedagogy and broader theories calling for agonistic pluralism in the western public sphere (Spivak 1993, Bhambra et al. 2018, Shim 2012, Mouffe 1999).
But in addition to the need for carefully facilitated discussions inside the classroom, the student interventions described above need to be positioned within a cluster of external, institutionally framed conditions arising out of the status of Yale English as a liberal arts department in an elite private university, a department dominated until recently by an adherence to New Criticism and an Old World literary canon, and regarded by many Americans as a bastion of tradition. In this context, the moment of diversification of the foundational syllabus in 2017 can be seen as both an ‘additive strategy’ that expanded the syllabus without addressing the systemic problems that accompany the ‘task of decolonisation’, and also as a ‘decolonising’ challenge to the methods and parameters of English Literature in elite American universities, especially as perceived by people outside the department who disapproved of the wider debates about curricular diversification.
Six weeks after the end of the course, the student who had been shouted down wrote an article for the Yale Daily News. I was intensely uncomfortable reading her account of our class on Midnight’s Children. In it, she indicated that institutional Eurocentrism had prevented a diversified syllabus from becoming much more than a tool for American liberals’ assertions of moral superiority over the rest of the world. I felt deeply implicated in the problems she identified.
A large number of further questions come out of this classroom experience, from the practical to the pedagogical, from ‘lived experiences of race’ (to borrow Fanon’s phrase) among students of colour at predominantly white institutions to white liberals’ unreflexive displays of what Emily Apter calls the ‘translatability assumption’: that is, an investment in the idea of a comprehensive world literature that is accessible to all, regardless of linguistic, political, cultural and institutional histories (Apter 2013, p. 347). As Apter argues, the belief system that gives rise to the concept of ‘translatability’ risks ignoring the ways cultural differences cannotalways be made explicit, nor conveyed cross-culturally through the medium of texts. Yet, as Priyamvada Gopal points out in her brilliant recent article, ‘On Decolonisation and the University’ (2021), the idea of cultural incommensurability should be treated with caution because of its danger of reiterating segregationist ideas that work against the articulation of global solidarities and shared anticolonial political agendas. In place of incommensurability, Gopal’s template for decolonising actions involves ‘mutually transformative engagement – between different cultures, traditions, and approaches to knowledge, bearing in mind structural disadvantages and historic power differentials. We might even call this process “relinking”’ (Gopal 2021, p. 20).
English Departments in the Global North have rapidly diversified their curricula in the last three decades, and demands for decolonisation have challenged university management in the wake of BLM. Institutionally, however, we need to think more deeply about the structural transformations we have yet to achieve, and who speaks for whom in this discourse of decolonisation. Gopal insists that decolonisation should not hold the status of a metaphor: it is not ‘a metaphor for social justice’, she argues, because it involves the dismantling of colonial orders through anticolonial critique and activism (2021, p. 15, pp. 13–14). She invites us to conceptualise ‘an anticolonial university … rather than a “decolonized” one’, in order to make visible and repair the gaps in understanding that accompany knowledge production in the Global North (ibid.). In short, Gopal’s proposal for the decolonisation of universities is for a ‘reparative’ project that acknowledges and transforms the ‘harmful conditions’ out of which so much knowledge has emerged in our institutions (17).
Given the contributions of postcolonial writers and theorists over the decades to make visible these ‘colonial’ conditions, some practical questions remain: who constitutes the ‘colonised’ in this more-than-metaphorical discourse of institutional decolonisation, and who is the ‘coloniser’? What are the next steps we should take to achieve a broad, reparative project of decolonisation at our different institutions, and how shall we go about collectively articulating our goals?
Apter, Emily. (2013) Against Translation: On the Politics of Untranslatability. New York: Verso.
Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, eds. (1995) ThePostcolonial Studies Reader. London and New York: Routledge.
Bhambra, Gurminder K., Dalia Gebrial, and Kerem Nişancıoğlu. (2018) Decolonising the University. London: Pluto Press.
Cleary, Joe. (2021) The English Department as Imperial Commonwealth, or The Global Past and Global Future of English Studies. boundary 2 48 (1): pp. 139–176.
Fanon, Frantz. (1986 ) Black Skin White Masks. London: Pluto Press.
Gopal, Priyamvada. (2021) On Decolonisation and the University. Textual Practice. DOI: 10.1080/0950236X.2021.1929561
Mohante, Chandra Talpade. (1993 ) Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses. In: Williams and Chrisman, eds. Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader.New York and London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, pp. 196–220.
Mouffe, Chantal. (1999) Deliberative Democracy or Agonistic Pluralism? Social Research 66 (3), pp. 745–758.
Shim, Jenna Min. (2012) Exploring How Teachers’ Emotions Interact with Intercultural Texts: A Psychoanalytic Perspective. Curriculum Inquiry 42 (4), pp. 472–496.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. (1993) Outside in the Teaching Machine. London & NY: Routledge.
Suleri, Sara. (1993 ) Woman Skin Deep: Feminism and the Postcolonial Condition. In: Williams and Chrisman, eds. Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader.New York and London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, pp. 244–256.
Williams, Patrick, and Laura Chrisman, eds. (1993) Colonial Discourse and Postcolonial Theory: A Reader. New York and London: Harvester Wheatsheaf.
[Stephanie Newell is Professor of English and Acting Chair of the Council on African Studies at Yale University. Her research focuses on the cultural histories of printing and reading in West Africa, including spaces of local creativity and resistance in colonial-era newspapers. The book project she started while being a Leverhulme Visiting Professor at Newcastle University between 2019–2020 is entitled Newsprint Worlds: Local Literary Creativity in Colonial West Africa.]
 Patrick Williams’ and Laura Chrisman’s Colonial Discourse and Postcolonial Theory: A Reader (1993) was swiftly followed by ThePostcolonial Studies Reader (1995), edited by Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin. Williams’ and Chrisman’s volume had fewer, but longer, extracts from major works of theory; Ashcroft et al.’s volume contained a multitude of shorter extracts from diverse sources and genres, several of which overlapped with the first volume.
 Noticeably, Routledge (Taylor & Francis) published the majority of new works of postcolonial theory in the 1990s and played a critical role in defining the field.
How does world literature contribute to the debate on decolonising the curriculum? World literature can put a new spin on the meaning of “decolonising” because of its dual critique of monolingualism and class blindness in contemporary academia. Indeed, world literature means linking the teaching of non-canonical works, including texts in translation, to an incessant critique of global unevenness, class privilege and economic exploitation. Accordingly, world literature can offer precious tools to resist the undervaluing of the humanities today. Without renouncing its oppositional vocation, it can make literary pedagogy inclusive, relevant and empowering.
The idea that literary studies, and the arts and humanities in general, are threatened by chronic underfunding and systematic undervaluing in our currently political and economic climate is by now well versed. World literature, as field of study and theoretical paradigm, has recently been brought into discussions around the validity and purpose of English studies in a world that is supposedly fully globalised and in an academic and political environment that, with its emphasis on profitability and value-for-money above all else, is increasingly hostile to the arts and humanities. In our view, a world literature rooted in cultural materialist theory offers a valuable and timely contribution to the current need and desire for global perspectives in literary and cultural studies, and has the potential to do so without compromising on the needed critique of our current political and social order, including the important task of decolonising the curriculum.
In this post we will focus on the challenges and possibilities of teaching world literature as part of an English studies programme. These reflections are based on our experience of teaching world literature at Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU). Our third-year ‘World Literature’ module aims to reframe the study of English by drawing on a concept of world literature developed by literary critics such as Franco Moretti, and the Warwick Research Collective. This particular concept of world literature should not be seen as a new canon: rather, world literature is a system, a way of embedding the study of literature in the complex economic realities of the twenty-first century. The questions we raise in the module can be aligned with the general aim of decolonising the curriculum, as we propose international authors from minority and non-privileged backgrounds. However, world literature can put a new spin on the debate and help reimagine what we mean when we talk about “decolonising” the study of literature.
Translation: avoidable or necessary?
In our experience, there is a deep suspicion within English studies around teaching texts in translation, underpinned by an assumption that something will always be lost in translation. As multilingual academics, we, of course, appreciate the satisfaction of working with literature across several different languages. However, this is not always an option available to our primarily monolingual students. In fact, one of the problems with debates discouraging the use of literary texts in translation, is that they often fail to adequately account for the complex politics of language in spaces where majority languages are not spoken. Certainly, in the Nordic region, which is the focus of the research of one of us, translation is unavoidable in the production and circulation of literature because the national literary canons are, quite simply, smaller, and often spill over national borders. This blurring of national canonical boundaries is itself a reflection of the region’s colonial history, including, for instance, the fact that Danish was the official language of the Faroe Islands until 1948 and Greenland until 2009. In both countries the revival of national languages was central to national independence movements, which necessarily involved translating foreign works of literature into Faroese and Greenlandic.
It is, then, a reflection of continued cultural hegemony of English, which is itself, of course, the result first of British and now American imperialism, that translated texts play such a small part in our literary culture. When teaching world literature to our students at LJMU, we found that exposing students to texts in translation invited them to reflect on the parameters of their subject by encouraging debate about what is included and excluded in the broad category of English Literature, and that discussions about the importance of decolonising the curriculum followed. If we want a curriculum that is truly decolonised and global in scope, reading in translation is therefore necessary, but we need to teach students how to approach translated texts, for they often lack the confidence to read and write about texts that deal with non-Anglophone cultures.
Decolonisation: ideology or critique?
Teaching translated works is a most productive and valuable starting point for linking world literature to the politics of decolonising the curriculum. It shows that ideas and narratives expressed in other languages can be highly translatable and relevant to students in the UK. Furthermore, our experience of teaching non-canonical texts, including works in translation, in a non-Russell Group, ex-polytechnic university can suggest many issues that headlines about decolonising English at Oxbridge have so far dramatically overshadowed. Indeed, the momentum of decolonising the curriculum should not be exhausted by the agenda of cultural diversity. Rather, it should challenge systemic inequality, shifting the focus from the individual and singular towards a more sustained engagement with the structural and the social. In contrast to other ways of studying English, world literature emphasises how texts are entangled in a global supply chain that enables the circulation of capital and commodities. It reveals the dark backstage of oppression of workers, communities and environments that makes our consumer economy possible. Against facile celebrations of multicultural tolerance or success stories of elite migrants, world literature involves an unrelenting focus on the exploitation, injustice and unevenness at the heart of our globalising world. Most centrally, teaching world literature in an ex-polytechnic can illuminate how the question of social class cannot be overlooked in attempts at contesting privilege and hierarchy. Thus, our current syllabus includes a study of NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! (2008). In our module, we propose this text within a wider reflection on Liverpool and its place in a global shipping industry, linking it to pressing concerns about slavery and finance capital. In a ‘World Literature’ module, teaching about the legacy of the 1781 Zong massacre can be a way of discussing the politics of representation in relation to the commodification of human bodies and the exploitation of workers. It is also a way to remap the North-West of England in the wider frame of global capitalism and to find resonances across generations of workers from around the globe.
Teaching world literature to students from diverse and non-privileged backgrounds has taught us to make our curriculum relevant and empowering, mirroring the civic mission and the values of equality and inclusivity of our institution. In much the same way in which the fight for gender equality needs to contest the rise of neoliberal, corporate feminisms, so world literature needs to expand our consciousness about privilege. In an era of student debt, anxieties about job security and the growth of an academic precariat, world literature is the best way to reintroduce questions about cultural production, institutional critique, and social unevenness.
World literature can give the idea of “decolonising the curriculum” a new, revitalising tone: instead of mere politics of recognition and admittance, entry into the mainstream or diversification, decolonising should equal an incessant work of critique and the unlearning of academic race and class privilege. Decolonising should involve putting economic inequality and class domination back into the agenda. In an era of planned undermining of the humanities, world literature prepares us for strategies of resistance and opposition that are urgently needed to protect the future of our discipline and of our communities.
[Christinna Hazzard is sessional lecturer in the Humanities at Liverpool John Moores University. She has recently had a chapter on “Nordic Noir and the Postcolonial North” published in Noir in the North (2020) and is preparing a monograph proposal for her doctoral thesis titled Semi-Periphery Realism: Nation and Form on the Borders of Europe.]
[Filippo Menozzi is lecturer in world literature at Liverpool John Moores University, where he is also director of the MA English Literature. He is the author of Postcolonial Custodianship (2014) and World Literature, Non-Synchronism, and the Politics of Time (2020), and editor of a special issue of New Formations on Rosa Luxemburg.]
In 1822, James Butterworth, a topographer, published an account of his visit to the Trinity Church in the sleepy, but industrialising town of Salford. He was struck by the respectability and cleanliness of the place, a credit to the townspeople who kept it. Inside the building, there was a handsome organ, the arms of England and, beyond that, a white marble arch which bore an inscription. It read:
Sacred to the Memory of
Major of his Majesty’s 62d REGT of foot
Who perished at sea
On his return from the West Indies
Thrice had his foot Domingo’s island prest [sic],
Midst horrid wars and fierce barbarian wiles;
Thrice had his blood repelled the yellow pest that stalks,
Gigantic through the Western Isles,
Returning to his native shores again,
In hopes tembrace [sic] a father — brother — friends
Alas! The faithless ratlin [sic] snaps in twain
He falls — and to a watery grave, descends.
(Butterworth 1822, pp. 95–96)
In this quiet English town, in a building that was at the heart of public and spiritual life, lay a monument to a history otherwise largely forgotten; a history of Anglo–Haitian relations. Such a history blows wide open any notion that Britain’s nineteenth century was one of imperial might and expanding control over vast swathes of the world. Instead, from the perspective of Haiti’s Black sovereignty, we gather a decolonised vision of the British Empire, one in which we see the fragility and even failure of White colonial projects.
The testimony in Trinity Church told its viewers of the British invasion of Haiti, during the country’s revolution and wars of independence (1791–1804). The enslaved in that territory had risen up against the French colonists and enslavers, initially to fight against the conditions of enslavement, and then to overthrow the system itself. As the revolution grew, the French lost control of the territory. Spain and Britain attempted to invade and annex what had been the most profitable regime of plantation enslavement on the planet. Here is where Drinkwater, and the inscription, become relevant. Like so many of his compatriots, 14,000 to be precise, or one third of the British forces, the Major’s life was lost in this failed project of invasion and re-enslavement. The self-emancipated in Haiti, under the banner of Toussaint Louverture, would go on to defeat the British, the Spanish and also Napoleon’s elite army that he assembled to take back the colony. In 1804, Jean Jacques Dessalines, now leader of the Haitian Revolution, declared independence, creating the world’s first Black sovereign nation–state.
The story of Haiti and Britain does not, though, end here. Far from it. In the nineteenth century, Britain would become the most aggressive colonising force in the world; a project premised on ideas about British exceptionalism, racial supremacy and the need to colonise in order to civilise those ‘barbaric’, to use the terms of Drinkwater’s inscription, peoples of the world. Haiti’s own trajectory would be one of maintaining its fragile status as a Black, independent and sovereign nation in a hostile, ever-more imperialist world. It would seem, then, that Haiti and Britain would enter a relation of opposition and conflict in which the might of the British Empire came up against Haitian resistance. Such power imbalances were surely crucial to interactions between subjects of the two countries. But there was also a more dynamic set of relations in which Haitians intervened in the British imperial project, as much as British imperialists threatened Haitian sovereignty.
If we fast-forward nearly 100 years after the Haitian Revolution, and Drinkwater’s untimely demise, we see British travellers and Haitian political figures, and the broader population, entering discourse over the meaning of the Revolution, and of Haiti’s Black sovereignty. These deliberations did not only have existential implications for Haiti, but also for a British Empire that had recently colonised vast swathes of the African continent. If Haiti was to illustrate that people of African descent could, so the logic ran, ‘progress’, form a nation state, and even achieve ‘civilisation’, then there was less of a need for British intervention. When Hesketh Vernon Prichard visited Haiti in 1900 and wrote up his account as a travel narrative, and as a series of articles in the newly formed popular press, the Daily Express, he was at pains to emphasise how this nation, and its state, had got it all wrong. Chief amongst Prichard’s complaints was the Haitian adoration for its revolutionary hero, Jean Jacques Dessalines, rather than that other, supposedly exceptional, figure of Louverture:
In Toussaint [Louverture], you have a man whose bond, whose acts of mercy are the sole bright episodes against one of the darkest backgrounds of history… The many tales of his acts of generosity, no one of which militated in any degree against the cause of Haytian liberty, are legion.
Over and against him stands a far different figure, that of General Dessalines, who spared no man in his anger and no woman in his lust, who was corrupt and venal to an unheard of degree … Today, in Hayti, which of these two men is the national hero? It is Dessalines.
And the act upon which his fame chiefly rests is the barbarous decree issued by him for the massacre of every living French soul, man, woman and child.
(Prichard 1900, pp. 279–80)
Although the accusation does not hold true, Dessalines was, for British commentators throughout the nineteenth century, the ‘corrupt’ and ‘venal’ leader who massacred all foreigners in Haiti during the Revolution. The fact that Haitians extolled his memory demonstrated to people like Prichard their complete lack of capacity for any sort of proper government. In turn, this played into imperial fantasies about people of African descent beseeching domination, and British leadership. On the face of it, then, it would seem that Haiti’s attempt to construct a nation–state was undermined as it was instrumentalised in the British imperial project.
However, Haitians did not only defend their right to sovereignty, but in continuing to celebrate Dessalines, they threatened some of the founding myths of the British Empire. Haitian President Nord Alexis, Prichard’s contemporary, evoked the national hero when he rallied Haitians to the cause of a united Haitian patriotism. In a speech printed in the national paper Le Nouvelliste, he declared, ‘let us remember that we are one people and that we represent one race. We must not fail at this dual task that Dessalines assigned to us: to be a people and to represent a race’. This hero of the Revolution was instrumentalised by observers like Prichard to argue for the pressing need for the British to rule over people of African descent; but he was also deployed by Haitian political elites to augment Haitian national unity and patriotic duty. In this latter case, Dessalines continued to haunt the British imperial project as he was seen to emphasise the vulnerability of the British interventions in the Caribbean, and the fallibility of imperial and racial justifications for colonisation.
A decolonised historical method can take many forms, but at heart it is concerned with recovering the experiences, thoughts and ideas of those maligned in imperial accounts and occluded from the colonialist historical record. It is concerned, as a matter of justice, with recognising the intellectual wealth and historical contribution of global majorities to local, national and world pasts. Such a method also improves exponentially any historical understanding of the given subject as it pays critical attention to the complexities of a multitude of viewpoints rather than dwelling only on the writings of imperial agents. British history, for instance, seen from the viewpoint of Haitians and many other people across the Caribbean and African contexts, becomes not only a story of oppression and violence, but also of fragility. Haitians resisted the cultures of imperialism and, much more than this, helped to shape its cultural, political and diplomatic trajectories.
Butterworth, James. (1822) Antiquities of the Town and a Complete History of the Trade of Manchester. Manchester: CW Leake.
Prichard, Hesketh Vernon. (1900) Where Black Rules White: A Journey Across and About Hayti. Westminster: Archibald Constable.
[Jack Webb is Research Associate in Postcolonial Print Cultures in the School of English, Newcastle University. His monograph, Haiti in the British Imagination: Imperial Worlds, 1847–1915 was published with Liverpool University Press in November 2020. In August, he will take up a lectureship in Modern British History at the University of Manchester.]
Postcolonial theory, in Italian academia, is a young field of study. Colonialism has similarly received little attention in literature, from both authors and scholars, going almost unnoticed in the public discourse and academia, until recent publications started to address the long-lasting legacy of imperialism and its role in shaping the Italian national identity, especially during the Fascist period. It is almost implausible that the period of Italian colonialism, roughly stretching from 1869 to 1960, has been overlooked for decades since the Second World War and still, regrettably, remains an under-studied area in the Italian academy and a problematic topic in the public and political arena. When that chapter of history is discussed, the tone is apologetic, if not dismissive. Italians still fashion themselves as those who brought development and investment to Africa. Although more limited in both time and space than British or French colonialism, Italian colonialism was a period of massacres, oppression, and racism. It had an unquestionable impact, both in the metropole and in the colonies, that still resonates today. Scholars, especially historians, have started to investigate this impact from the mid-1980s (Giorgio Rochat and Angelo Del Boca), but only in the mid-1990s and early 2000s did postcolonialism as a scholarly field made its appearance in literary studies in Italy.
What are the reasons for this delay? Scholars such as Ruth Ben-Ghiat, Mia Fuller, Derek Duncan, Sandra Ponzanesi, Valeria Deplano, and Cristina Lombardi-Diop have tried to explain the historical, political, and social causes that concealed colonialism from public discussion and academic interest. Most of them are connected to historical factors, such as the absence of mass migrations from the former colonies to Italy and the lack of any trials against Fascist officials who fought in the African territories during WW2; there are also socio–political reasons, such as the myth of Italiani brava gente[good people], which helped to globally re-establish Italy’s reputation as a democratic nation after twenty years of Fascist dictatorship.
In the field of literary studies, Roberto Derobertis, in his short but telling article, ‘Da dove facciamo il postcoloniale?’, examines the consequences of this delay in Italian academia. He suggests that Italian postcolonial studies are founded on ‘missed debates and gaps’, so that the corpus of postcolonial works that is growing in Italy lacks consistency and is reliant on paradigms elaborated in other colonial contexts, such as the Anglophone and the Francophone. For example, Edward Said’s ground-breaking work Orientalism was translated into Italian only in 1991 (Bollati Boringhieri), thus causing a delay to the response to the productive debate engendered by its publication in 1978. Still today, Italian readers and scholars have limited access to well-established works of postcolonial scholars, as only a few texts (and primarily Anglophone) have been translated. Ironically, one of the main theoretical backbones of Said’s work is the thought of Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937).
Due to this absence of engagement with postcolonial scholars’ theoretical works, the postcolonial paradigm has never been used systematically to analyse the literary and cultural production in Italy. Indeed, only a few monographs and comprehensive studies have explored alternative readings of Italy as a postcolonial entity and have suggested a coherent theory to apply to the Italian case. Moreover, the authors of these studies often teach or work outside Italy, mainly in the UK and the US, meaning that the departments of Italian studies have failed to incorporate the postcolonial paradigm into their curricula. This reluctance to engage with postcolonial studies has prevented Italian academia from developing an exclusive and well-framed postcolonial theory, specific to the Italian context.
In this scenario, we can clearly identify blind spots and absences in Italian postcolonial studies. There is still much work to do ahead, especially in the fields of literary studies. The analysis of the representation of Africa in Italian literature, but also in newspapers, magazines, textbooks, and other media, has just begun, but is crucial for understanding how the ‘concept’ of Africa, fashioned during colonialism, still persists to this day. Postcolonial studies are also instrumental in re-reading the canon and decolonising it. It is fundamental to show that colonialism, more than forgotten, has been like a ghost, almost invisible but definitively present, in literature and in our every-day life too.
Another way to look at colonialism, which is still largely ignored, is to focus on the former colonies and place geography at the centre of the literary enquiry. Thus far, postcolonial interventions ‘have become so accustomed to thinking of the novel’s plot and structure that […] they have overlooked the function of space, geography, and location’ (Said 1993, p. 84). As in Somalia’s case, we are still missing an exploration of the forms of resistance coming from Somali people during colonialism and its aftermath. Italy, in fact, officially ruled Somalia until 1960, but the relationship between the two countries continued until the beginning of the Somali civil war in 1991. Of this other piece of history, quite exceptional in the postcolonial context, we still know very little, even though the body of works by Somali writers, especially from the diaspora, is growing and, in some cases, has received international acclaim, as in the case of Nuruddin Farah and Nadifa Mohamed. Both these authors show us how the ties with Italy are far from receding and how we should listen to the voices able to speak about a past which has been blotted out from Italy’s national consciousness for far too long.
Recent events (from the European migrant crisis to the death of George Floyd, Black Lives Matter protests and the removal of symbols of colonialism and slavery) had a strong impact both at the global and local level (see, for example, the defacing of Indro Montanelli’s statue in Milan after the statue of slave trader Edward Colston was removed in Bristol). These events have also shown how it is essential, in this particular moment more than ever, to face the past and its legacy, especially for nations such as Italy, which are experiencing a new rise of racism towards those Libyan, Eritrean, Somali and Ethiopian ‘immigrants’ whose migrations are linked to the colonial past and its ongoing impact in the present. Drawing inspiration from Said’s words, what we should do now, as teachers and scholars, is to urge students – and ourselves – ‘to situate [one’s own identity, history, tradition] in a geography of other identities, peoples, cultures, and then to study how, despite their differences, they have always overlapped one another, through unhierarchical influence, crossing, incorporation, recollection, deliberate forgetfulness, and, of course, conflict’ (1993, pp. 331–332).
References and a mini bibliography on Italian colonialism
Ahad, Ali Mumin. (2017) Towards a critical introduction to an Italian postcolonial literature: A Somali perspective. Journal of Somali Studies 4 (1–2), pp. 135–159.
Aidid, Safia. (2011) Haweenku wa garab (Women are a force): Women and the Somali Nationalist Movement, 1943–1960. Bildhaan 10, pp. 103–124.
Andall, Jacqueline, and Derek Duncan. (2005) Italian Colonialism: Legacy and Memory. London: Peter Lang.
Ben-Ghiat, Ruth, and Mia Fuller. (2005) Italian Colonialism. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Chambers, Iain, ed. (2006) Esercizi di potere: Gramsci, Said, e il postcoloniale. Rome: Meltemi.
De Donno, Fabrizio, and Neelam Srivastava. (2006) Colonial and postcolonial Italy. Interventions:Journal of Postcolonial Studies 8 (3), pp. 371–379.
Deplano, Valeria. (2018) Per una nazione coloniale. Il progetto imperiale fascista nei periodici coloniali. Perugia: Morlacchi.
Gnisci, Armando. (2003) Creolizzare l’Europa. Letteratura e migrazione. Rome: Meltemi.
Lombardi–Diop, Cristina, and Caterina Romeo. (2012) Postcolonial Italy: Challenging National Homogeneity. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Mellino, Miguel. (2006) Italy and postcolonial studies. Interventions 8 (3), pp. 461–471.
Palumbo, Patrizia. (2003) A Place in the Sun: Africa in Italian Colonial Culture From Post–Unification to the Present. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Parati, Graziella. (2005) Migration Italy:The Art of Talking Back in a Destination Culture. Toronto: Toronto University Press.
Portelli, Alessandro (1999) Mediterranean passage: The beginnings of an African Italian literature and the African American example. In: Maria Dietrich, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Carl Pedersen, eds. Black Imagination and the Middle Passage. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 282–304.
Sinopoli, Franca, ed. (2013) Postcoloniale italiano. Tra letteraturae storia. Aprilia: NovaLogos.
Said, Edward. (1993) Culture and Imperialism. London: Chatto & Windus.
Tomasello, Giovanna. (2004) L’Africa tra mito e realtà. Palermo: Sellerio.
Virga, Anita, Brian Zuccala et al. (2018) Postcolonialismi italiani ieri e oggi. Special issue of Italian Studies in Southern Africa 31 (1).
[Marco Medugno has recently obtained his PhD in English literature from Newcastle University, with a comparative project on Somali diasporic authors writing in English and Italian. He is currently teaching Fictions of Migration at NCL and working on a project about the reception of Dante in the African Anglophone literary context.]
‘You don’t look Asian. In fact I thought you were Latina.’
‘Oh, your surname’s Lopez, so are you Spanish?’
‘Nice! You’re from the Philippines, so you’re basically Spanish, right, if you think about it?’
These are just some of the questions and general exclamations of disbelief and confusion that I have encountered on numerous occasions since moving to the UK from the Philippines at the age of eleven. I have heard so many different variations of these phrases that, when I started university, I was not the least surprised when many university peers also assumed I was at least partly Hispanic/Latina. In fact, every one of those false assumptions I used to take proudly as a compliment, because it meant that I looked more ‘Westernised’ than ‘Asian’. It was not until I was in my late teens that I realise such thoughts were not always reason for celebration but were the result of a deep-rooted colonial rule of Spain over the Philippines for almost 400 years. I soon realised that these expressions and assumptions were mostly innocent mistakes; after all, the Philippines’ colonial era – or any other country’s colonial history for that matter – was not exactly a top priority in English history textbooks. But it is time to start deconstructing those boundaries of comfort and question how much of our viewpoints and education derive from the colonial period. Therefore, in this blog post, I want to share with you the richness of pre-colonial Philippines and, among the many aspects of Spanish post-colonial influences in Philippine cultural heritage, my focus will specifically be on language.
A brief history of the Philippines
Contrary to popular belief, the Philippine archipelago was not founded by Spanish explorers. As early as AD 1000, Chinese, Arabic, and Indian traders were already trading widely with local communities on the islands; yet, it was Spanish colonisation, ‘an alien force’ (Constantino & Constantino), that disrupted the growth of indigenous cultures. In 1521, Spanish explorers encountered many uncharted territories during their expansion into the East, and Ferdinand Magellan eventually arrived on the island of Visayas. These Spanish colonisers gradually combined hundreds of islands into a single colony, culminating in the creation of Las Islas Filipinas, a large community of cultural areas with varying degrees of familiarity with one another.
Ruy Lopez de Villalobos, who claimed this area in the mid-1500s for the future King Philip II of Spain, took possession of the islands and thus began 333 years of Spanish rule. Together with the imposition of Castilian colonial sovereignty came the transplantation of Spanish social, economic, and political institutions to the Philippine archipelago. The colonial powers compelled the native Filipinos to swear allegiance to the Spanish empire, where they had previously only had village chieftains recognised as ‘datus’; to worship a new God, where they had worshipped a pantheon of supernatural deities and divinities; to speak a new language, where they had (and still have) a range of tongues and dialects; and to change their work patterns, abandoning their old mode of subsistence economy. Furthermore, the Filipino collective land ownership system was replaced by a Spanish landholding system focused on private ownership. As a result, when the Spanish rule ended in 1898, many previous aspects of the Filipino way of life were lost (Bauzon 1991). It is worth mentioning, however, that various social classes remained fiercely autonomous or indifferent to the coloniser; some appropriated and reinterpreted Spanish customs (Wendt 1998), while others laboured as slaves for the empire (Cortes et al. 2000).
This colonial era lasted until the 1898 Philippine Revolution, when the United States fought Spain during the Spanish–American War and took control of the Philippines. It was clear then that the islands had acquired a new colonial ruler, triggering the 1899–1902 Philippine–American War.
The Philippine language – past, present, and future
The pre-colonial baybayin and the Spanish abecedario
From the age of four, when I started learning how to read and write, I never questioned, nor did it ever cross my mind, why Filipinos did not have their own unique alphabet system like some Asian countries such as China, Japan, Thailand, Korea, etc. I simply thought it had always been that way.
Imagine my shock, then, when just two years ago I came across an Instagram post showing a Filipino artist reviving the country’s ancient language through art and discovered that we Filipinos did in fact have our own writing system, one that was eventually pushed out of the Filipino language by Spanish missionaries. I felt that a part of my Filipina identity was unlocked as I learnt that the history of the Philippines extends beyond the 300 years of Spanish colonisation often taught in history books. This revelation has since motivated me to read and discover more about it, as well as share and speak about it to more people.
That indigenous system of writing is called the baybayin. Borrowing from Hindu and Javanese sources, the baybayin is an alpha–syllabic script, meaning that some characters stand for either a single consonant or vowel, while other characters stand for an entire syllable.
The baybayin quickly went into decline and eventual extinction under Spanish colonisation. Converted Filipinos were taught Catholicism, the Latin alphabet, and the Spanish language by Spanish missionaries who acted as the islands’ first teachers. The first book ever written and printed in the Philippines, Doctrina Christiana (1593) (English: Christian Doctrine), is one example of this wherein the Latin alphabet was first used to explain the fundamental values of Christianity and Christian prayers in Spanish. The book was later translated into Tagalog (the majority language in the Philippines) in both the baybayin and Latin alphabets.
The Doctrina does not begin with prayers, but with a brief lesson in the Latin alphabet, a phonetic transcription, and its Tagalog baybayin counterparts. According to the Doctrina, the Latin alphabet is made up of the following letters:
A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, L, M, N, O, P, Q, RR, S, T, U, V, X, Y, Z
As one may have guessed, the letter ‘RR’ represents what in Spanish phonology is called a trilled ‘r’ or hard ‘r’ in words such as ‘arroz’ and ‘perro’. Colonised Filipinos began to follow the Spanish alphabet from the 17th century, referring to it as the abecedario, and eventually expanding it to 32 letters, including the ‘LL’ as in ‘caballo’, CH as in ‘chico’, and NG representing the sound in words like ‘manga’, ‘venga’ and ‘vincular’.
Today, in the Chavacano language alphabet, a heavily Spanish-based Creole (mixed Spanish/Native) widely spoken in Zamboanga City in Mindanao and in some parts of Cavite City in Luzon, the abecedario letters CH, LL, and RR are still used.
Filipinos were introduced to the English language and its 26-letter alphabet at the end of Spanish rule and the arrival of American-style public education during the American era. Today, English is more widely taught in schools than Spanish. Despite this, the abecedario remained in use as many phrases still used Spanish letters. Eventually, the letters of the abecedario were modified into the official Philippine alphabet now known as abakada:
A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, Ñ, Ng, O, P, Q, R, S, T, U, V, W, X, Y, Z
The present day
I never realised how many of the words in the native language I speak every day were derived from another language until I started studying Spanish in school. As Marlon James Sales, a Philippine-born translator and linguist at the University of Michigan, described it perfectly during an ABC interview: ‘Most Filipinos don’t realise they’re speaking Spanish’. Indeed, although the Spanish rule had long ended and English became the second most dominant language in the Philippines since Spanish was removed as a co-official language in 1987, linguistically the Spanish language remains influential. Despite the fact that only about 0.5 percent of the Philippines’ 100 million people speak Spanish, the country still has the highest concentration of Spanish speakers in Asia. Linguistically, approximately 4,000 words, or about one-third of vocabulary in Tagalog, are derived from Spanish words, including words and phrases like:
‘kumusta’ (‘How are you’, from Spanish ‘cómo está’),
‘puwede’ (‘can/could’, from ‘puede’),
‘bintana’ (‘window’, from ‘ventana’),
‘syudad’ (‘city’, from ‘ciudad’),
‘trabaho’ (noun for ‘work’, from ‘trabajo’),
‘alas kwatro’ (‘at four o’clock’, from ‘a las cuatro’).
At the same time, there are some ‘false friends’ (see figure), where the meaning in Tagalog is different from other Romance languages. Some other Philippine languages report a stronger Spanish influence, with the Visayan language having around 6,000 words coming from Spanish.
In recent years there have been campaigns to bring the baybayin letters back to Philippine culture. This includes modifications to modernise the letters to suit the many Philippine languages/dialects, such as introducing ‘D’ and ‘R’ sounds that were not in the traditional version:
On 23 April 2018, the Filipino House committee on basic education and culture approved a bill to make baybayin the national writing system and require baybayin translations for the following:
signage for streets
public facilities, buildings
fire and police stations
community centers and government halls
labels of locally produced food products
mastheads of newspapers and other print publications
Filipinos have been expressing their opinions through social media debates, blog posts and news articles on this seemingly drastic national change.
My view is that the baybayin should not be used as a primary writing system just yet, but should eventually be rolled out in gradual changes. First, the Government should prioritise teaching it to educators as it would be difficult to pass on to future generations if teachers themselves lack proficiency. The next step is then to broaden it in the curriculum and teach it from as early as kindergarten, so that Filipino children can acquire it organically as a first language. Notably, other Filipino dialects like Kulintan, Tagbanwa, and others, also have their own scripts, which should be taught in the schools of their respective provinces.
Those opposed to the changes believe that it is a waste of time or simply impractical. As one commentator put it, ‘Filipinos are supposed to move forward with the communication systems, I just think this is a mile step back’. However, in light of the fact that the official Filipino language was removed from the core college curriculum in 2019, learning the baybayin provides a key opportunity for us to reestablish a link to the rich pre-colonial traditions and cultures of the Philippines and helps strengthen a proud Filipino identity. Above all, it reminds us that the Philippines is not a pale imitation of Spain nor of the United States. Just as globalisation pulls everyone closer than ever, allowing us to embrace ideas from other countries, it is equally important for former colonies to understand their roots in local or pre-colonial customs and homegrown traditions.
Moving forward, as part of the decolonising initiative, I would love to see further advances in how Spain’s colonial legacy with its former colonies in all parts of the world – especially in the Philippines and countries in Southeast Asia during its quest for empire – is being taught and implemented in schools and universities in Spain and Spanish-speaking countries. I for one was shocked to find out from a Spanish classmate last year that this vital portion of Spain’s history is either being glorified or passively taught and researched in their school and university curricula. I believe in educating the current and future generations in their country’s colonial history, as this will allow them to gain a more critical understanding of their country’s past and, in a way, accountability and responsibility. It also goes without saying that Spain’s colonial legacy should also be taught in Spanish language modules in universities and schools across the UK.
It is clear that while Spanish colonisation catapulted the Filipino people, for better or worse, into the world of Spanish culture and civilisation, the Filipinos had also demonstrated their capacity to blend the country’s rich indigenous lifestyle with incoming Spanish influence, producing the beauty that is the Philippines today. I am not Hispanic, nor am I Latina; I am a Filipina. It is time to rethink and reevaluate what we know about our own histories and cultures and about one another. When we delve deeper into what we have been accustomed to, looking beyond the colonial point of view, we start to see the world we live in through multiple perspectives, multiple histories, and multiple cultures, and this is what ‘decolonising’ means for me.
Constantino, Renato and Letizia R. Constantino. (2008) The first ‘liberation’. In: A History of the Philippines: From the Spanish Colonization to the Second World War. New York: NYU Press, pp. 10–23.
Cortes, Rosario M., Celestina P. Boncan and Ricardo T. Jose. (2000) The Filipino Saga: History as Social Change. Quezon City: New Day Publisher.
Wendt, Reinhard. (1998) Philippine fiesta and colonial culture. Philippine Studies 46 (1), pp. 3–23.
[Erica Lopez is currently a second-year student studying Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan, Translation, and Interpreting at Newcastle University. She has always been passionate about cultural representation and diversity, and is thrilled to be writing her first blog post on a topic that is very near and dear to her.]
In November 2020, as part of the preparation for my Spanish interpreting class, I was researching Fairtrade just to pick up vocabulary that I could add to my glossary for the topic. Whilst on the Fairtrade Foundation’s website, I came across an article called ‘Why it’s time to decolonise the curriculum and diversify learning’. The title caught my attention, and the first line states that ‘research revealed that young people in England could leave secondary school without studying a novel or play written by a non-white author’. This struck me greatly because up until that moment I had never realised that, and it was a statement that was very true for my own education. I took both Drama and English Literature at GCSE and I continued with Drama for A-Levels, and amongst Shakespeare, Priestley and Steinbeck, not once did we study plays or books written by a person of colour – in other words, someone who looked like me. The curriculum did not reflect the diverse student population of my school, let alone the demographics and realities of the country. Looking into AQA’s current curriculum for AS and A-Level English Literature, out of the many novelists and poets on the list of recommended works, the African American author Alice Walker and the Indian author Arundhati Roy are the only writers of colour I could find, appearing as a tokenistic gesture. Worse still, even if these two authors are on this list, it is another question whether teachers actually choose to teach their work. As anecdotal evidence, three of my friends who studied A-Level English Literature between 2016 and 2019 said that their teachers chose not to.
Coming to the realisation that my English and Drama lessons had been so lacking in diversity and alternative perspectives made me reflect on the rest of my education. Unfortunately (although not surprisingly), a trend emerged: History classes did not explore Britain’s history of slavery and colonialism or their lasting impacts within British society and around the world; Spanish classes never even briefly mentioned how Spain – like Britain – was involved in the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism not just in the region today known as Latin America, but in Africa and Southeast Asia as well. It is clear, however, that the UK is nowadays more aware of its cultural diversity as exemplified by cultural events such as the Notting Hill and Leeds Carnivals celebrating Caribbean heritage, or the Lunar New Year celebrations that are normally celebrated in many of the country’s major cities. As a result, we have an education system that is out of sync with Britain’s realities.
What this means is that year after year there are cohorts of students leaving compulsory education with a very narrow vision of the world due to the serious gaps in our current curriculum. Students may be led to believe that the only literary works of value come from white writers of the Global North, unaware of writers such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Tomi Adeyemi or Khaled Hosseini. As for History, we cannot forget to teach students why Britain, the USA and Europe are considered the economic and cultural centres of the world, and what sort of historical processes were put in place to coerce and exploit the Global South into, for example, producing raw materials such as sugar and tea, thus forming the backbone of the West’s wealth. A key part in decolonising the curriculum involves looking at events in a global context: when studying a specific era of one country’s history, it is damaging to examine events in a void, and it is important to also look into what was going on elsewhere at that time to see how interconnected history has always been.
Bearing in mind the holes left after finishing compulsory education, I had hoped that university would fill in the gaps of knowledge and take a more decolonial approach in terms of content covered. As a student on a Modern Languages course specialising in Spanish and Portuguese, I had imagined that in our Spanish language classes – not just the optional cultural modules – we would discuss all of these important topics that had always been omitted from primary and secondary curricula. Unfortunately, this was not often the case. In our Spanish lessons, we did not talk about or debate the impacts of Spanish colonialism; we did not discuss, for example, African, Latin American, or Asian diasporas living in Spain.
Through my own research, I have found many resources that broadened my view of the Spanish-speaking world: videos on the black experience in Spain and on discrimination still faced by indigenous Mexicans, an article exploring having Chinese heritage whilst growing up in Spain, a film touching on Afro-Venezuelan identity (Pelo Malo), and information on the Costa Rican writer of African descent Quince Duncan, dubbed ‘Costa Rica’s leading Afro–Caribbean writer’.
I understand that in specific cultural modules for Spanish, topics such as race and colonialism are included. With this blog reflection, however, I would like to propose that such discussions need not only be available in optional cultural modules but should have a tangible presence in our core language classes as well. For instance, linking back to the resources mentioned above, it would be great to include the voices of those marginalised in the Hispanic world: let’s discuss race and migration in Spain, indigenous cultures and activism in Latin America, or Spanish colonialism in Equatorial Guinea and the Philippines (there are no cultural modules discussing these two former colonies). Debating more complex issues in our language classes would not only be beneficial to the development of our verbal communication, but would also increase our knowledge of the histories and realities tied to the language.
As a counterpoint, my Portuguese language lessons have been more effective in their decolonising approach to teaching, through discussing contemporary indigenous Brazilian issues and activism with guest speaker Vanessa Pataxó, recommending the film Vitalina Varela which highlights a Cabo-Verdean viewpoint of life in the Portuguese capital, and reminding us of the scope of the Lusophone world including countries such as Mozambique, Timor-Leste and Angola. The result is that we are getting to know the Portuguese-speaking world through the eyes of many, not just the coloniser. Education at all levels plays an integral role in shaping how we view the world and interact with it. Consequently, in all areas of study, whether it is English, History or Modern Languages, educators should ensure that students have access to multiple perspectives of the content studied. In doing so, old colonial structures that continue to be reproduced can finally be broken down. It will not be easy, nor will it happen overnight, but it will be the genuine and committed structural changes from within our education system that will mark the first real step.
[Jemima Ajayi is currently a second-year student studying Spanish and Portuguese Translation and Interpreting at the School of Modern Languages, Newcastle University. This is her first ever blog post, and she is excited to share her thoughts on such an important topic.]
The launch of our new Decolonising Modern Languages and Cultures blog comes at a critical time for interrogating and understanding our histories, institutions and positionalities. While I have long thought of myself as a Postcolonial Studies scholar, it is only in recent years that my own research has taken a ‘decolonial turn’, and I want to use my first post for this blog to reflect on my individual trajectory and to make sense of the shifts in my own thinking.
My background is in French and Francophone Studies and my research projects over the past 15 years have included analysing the work of Haitian migrant writers in Quebec, cultural translation in China–Africa relations and, most significantly, testimony bearing witness to the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda.
Ultimately, my research is about storytelling. How do we tell stories about ourselves and about others? How do we use stories to make sense of the atrocities and traumas we experience? How do we interpret and engage with stories about difficult histories, and how do we understand our own implication in these histories? These questions are inevitably entangled with structures of power and privilege, and we need to be acutely aware of our own positionality in relation to the stories we listen to and the stories we tell.
But how can we develop such an awareness, and how can we fully step into the process of decolonising in our own work?
My starting point was to look at the limits of trauma theory, which has been developed in Europe and the US. It seemed to me that the claim trauma theory makes to ‘universalism’ is flawed – indeed, the very notion of the ‘universal’ is one developed in the West – and there wasn’t sufficient acknowledgement of the specificity of experiences of trauma in different sites around the globe, of the experiences of people who have lived through very different traumatic historical events and whose voices were subsequently being marginalised.
I therefore wanted to analyse Rwandan women’s writing in order to show the challenges they pose to dominant understandings of trauma. A central premise of trauma theory is that trauma defies narrative, that it is ‘unspeakable’. But this wasn’t what I was seeing in Rwandan women’s writing. The women were finding both subtle and powerful strategies to ‘speak’ the trauma and suffering they had witnessed and experienced. The problem lay instead with the ‘unhearability’ of their stories, which is the case for so many marginalised voices who lack empathetic audiences willing to listen.
Yet it was only after publication of the book that I became fully aware of the broader significance of this work, thanks to the perceptive reading of one reviewer who pointed to a ‘curious blind spot’ in the book – that the book was contributing to the project to decolonise trauma studies without explicitly acknowledging the advances in this area.
Cultivating an awareness
My conscious aim moving forward in my research is to engage head on with questions of decoloniality. As I shift from more literary-based research to anthropological and oral history methods, it is crucial for me to understand and maintain an awareness of the underlying power structures and my own position of privilege in this work. Indeed, as Linda Tuhiwai Smith reminds us in the opening sentence of her powerful book Decolonizing Methodologies, ‘the term “research” is inextricably linked to European imperialism and colonialism’ (2012 , p. 1).
My current project, ‘Genocide Commemoration and Education in the Rwandan Diaspora’, examines commemoration from the perspective of storytelling, seeking to understand the myriad ways in which memory narratives are constructed, negotiated and transmitted in specific diasporic locations. Working with communities based in Belgium, France and the UK, this project explores how these communities grapple with the challenges of communicating their experiences of violence and exile to the host societies, who often want to ignore or even deny this history.
An important strand of the project examines the educational tools being developed for use in Belgian and British schools. What I have found so far is that, if the genocide against the Tutsi is taught at all, it tends to be in history classes, linked to the study of war and genocide more broadly, particularly the Holocaust. There is not enough focus on the colonial dimensions of Rwandan history, and students are asked, rather, to reflect on the ‘universal’ human experiences of trauma. Teaching materials frequently gloss over or underplay the role of Belgian colonial administration, indicative of a continued refusal at an institutional level to confront the afterlives of colonialism in Rwanda and to critically interrogate Europe’s implication in this difficult history.
Faced with these glaring inadequacies, it becomes impossible to do this research without acknowledging the imperative to decolonise existing education systems.
It seems to me that our task as researchers and educators is to raise awareness of the stories produced at the peripheries and to work to construct multiple and more inclusive histories that help dismantle ongoing forms of inequality and injustice. For, as the wide-ranging contributions in Gurminder Bhambra, Dalia Gebrial and KeremNişancıoğlu’s edited volume Decolonising the University (2018) demonstrate, a curriculum centred on multiplicity is one of the central tenets of decolonising educational institutions.
I believe that Modern Languages should be a natural home for these debates to take place, and I hope this blog will provide a forum for students and academics alike to share their experiences, exchange ideas and drive the work of decolonising forward.
Bhambra, Gurminder K., Dalia Gebrial, and Kerem Nişancıoğlu. (2018) Decolonising the University. London: Pluto Press.
Gilbert, Catherine. (2018) From Surviving to Living: Voice, Trauma and Witness in Rwandan Women’s Writing. Montpellier: Pulm.
Tuhiwai Smith, Linda. (2012 ) Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. 2nd edn. London & New York: Zed Books.