Colleen Lutz Clemens
As a grader for the AP exam, I was excited to see that my assigned question invited students to engage with Orhan Pamuk’s novel Snow, a text on which I had just finished writing a dissertation chapter. I was eager to see what students would have to say about the novel I had been tangling with for months. Snow depicts a poet’s foray into Kars, Turkey, for love and his ensnarement in a brief revolution. Out of the 1200 essays I graded, only one discussed Pamuk’s novel. I am not sure if students stayed away from the choice because of lack of exposure or the novel’s complexity. I was saddened by the fact that the majority of the essays discussed texts embedded in the western canon, even though the exam offered students several postcolonial novels as an option.
We as educators need to acknowledge that students are growing up in a time when the world is “flat,” when they will be expected by the workforce and the world to have an awareness of people beyond the United States and Europe. Students need to rely more on literature to expose them to ideas about the world beyond their own experience. Postcolonial literature can give students the chance to see that perhaps those characters living in a “different” culture are not all that different.
While the definition of “postcolonial” is widely debated, a common thread in the definitions is that a text should focus on a people who have been influenced by colonization. When considering these parameters, and if we consider colonization broadly—national, economic—quickly the list of possible text choices spans the globe. Exposure to most texts that fall within these criteria will benefit secondary students, though I acknowledge that there are significant obstacles to giving students such exposure. I see two challenges to incorporating postcolonial texts into the secondary classroom: the belief that students need history lessons to understand postcolonial texts and the fixation on teaching novels from the western canon due to standards and assessment. I would like to make a case for the incorporation of postcolonial texts in the secondary classroom by discussing these challenges and offering a new framework to view them.
The first obstacle to teaching postcolonial literature is the notion that one must teach the history and background of the text’s setting for the students to be able to grasp the story. While this can be the case for some postcolonial texts, it is not the case for all of them. In fact, bombarding students with history and context can do a disservice to the literature.
For example, when teaching Edwidge Danticat’s “Children of the Sea” from her collection Krik? Krak! I offer my students only a five-minute review of François Duvalier or “Papa Doc”’s hold on Haiti after the students have read the story. I do not want the history of place to overshadow the universal theme of love rendered impossible by outside forces. I have found that when I present students with a wealth of historical background, they have the tendency to read the story as a “national allegory,” to borrow Fredric Jameson’s term, instead of reading the story as a document of a human experience. When students approach “Children of the Sea,” I want them to see a bildungsroman about love, not a story about Haiti. The former reading invites students to connect with the characters, while the latter may create a blockade between reader and character, as I have noticed students have the tendency to disconnect because of perceived differences in geography.
Students do not need to hear a lecture on the dictatorial practices of the tonton macoutes because Danticat gives the reader enough for the students to know that these are really bad guys who incite terror in the population. In journals, an unnamed girl and boy write about their experiences of staying in Haiti, in her case, and fleeing it by boat in his. Her description of the macoutes is enough for a reader to sense the stranglehold this police force has on the people it is supposed to protect: “our neighbor madan roger came home with her son’s head and not much else…[at] the morgue, they gave her the head. by the time we saw her, she had been carrying the head all over port-au-prince, just to show what’s been done to her son. the macoutes by the house were laughing at her. they asked her if that was her dinner” (Danticat 1996, 7). Clearly the macoutes are insidious—a student doesn’t need to know the word comes from the story of a bogeyman that steals children. Students come to class feeling sad for the two unnamed characters that will never see each other again, a fate rendered at the hands of the Duvalier dictatorship and enacted by the macoutes. Instead of prefacing students’ reading with terms and history, I have found it useful to explain those elements to fill in any remaining gaps the students have after reading the story. Students are more interested in learning about the tonton macoutes’s history once they have the solid imagery of the story to which they can attach their new knowledge.
If we start teaching information that has very little context for learners in the United States, we as educators focus on difference and can end up “othering” an entire nation, the most significant pitfall of teaching postcolonial texts. As a teacher of such texts, I want students to see that even if the characters come from a different culture, often they have shared dreams, desires, and struggles. When we use the literature as a springboard for exposure, students have an opportunity first to see that the characters of “Children of the Sea” in many ways are just like them—with a desire to love and rebel against one’s parents—even if the contexts are vastly different. Once students care about the characters in the story, they seem to care more about the small dose of historical perspective I offer to help understand the context of the story that has already moved them.
A similar argument can be made for a text such as Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, which tells the story of a girl growing up under the shadow of the Iranian Revolution. As an educator, I could approach this text as one telling the story of Iran that uses Marji as an allegorical character, or I can choose to teach the book as a bildungsroman about a young girl who idolizes her family, endures the trials of puberty, and works to find her way in the world. By focusing on how Marjane’s life is similar to the lives of my students, the students are able to connect with a character that identifies as Iranian, perhaps an important empathy to develop as the United States continues its fraught relationship with this nation. Again, there is little need to offer lessons about Iranian history because the book gives a reader enough historical and political context for the reader to understand the challenges of living under an autocratic regime. For example, Marjane describes (and illustrates, as the text is a graphic novel) her room: “I put posters up in my room. I put my Nikes on . . . and my denim jacket with the Michael Jackson button, and of course, my headscarf” (Satrapi 2007, 131). Though she may be living in a country that is often in conflict with the United States, Marjane looks like our students: her room still boasts posters of rock bands, and she wears sneakers and a denim jacket, even alongside the headscarf mandated by Iranian law. She goes in search of contraband cassette tapes of music her mother neither understands nor likes. Marjane is a typical teenager.
Students can understand her struggle to come to terms with her changing body. Satrapi uses an entire page of the graphic novel to catalog the ways Marjane’s body becomes disproportionate and clumsy: “Between the ages of fifteen and sixteen, I grew seven inches. It was impressive. My head also changed in its own way. First, my face got longer. Then my right ear grew . . . Of course my nose tripled in size . . . Finally my chest developed . . . In short, I was in an ugly stage seemingly without end” (Satrapi 2007, 189). The corresponding scene in the film always elicits laughter from my students, as they can relate to this moment since they are often living it. Her life mirrors the life of our students, even if she lives in a country often considered enemy territory. Students do not need to learn about the Iranian Revolution, though like Danticat, Satrapi does offer plenty of context for the students to understand the terror of that experience. My hope is that students see that growing up in Iran shares many elements of growing up anywhere. Empathy for Marjane through literature allows students a glimpse into Iran that they may not be offered otherwise.
The second concern is that much of postcolonial literature does not fall into the strict confines of the canon. Finding time to add one more thing within the constraints of standards, testing, and assessment can be a challenge, especially when so many of those things are wedded to the idea that “classic” texts are the only ones that matter. Things Fall Apart, perhaps the only canonical text from the entire African continent, is a gorgeous novel, and when the world embraced it, Achebe offered a corrective to European canonical novels such as Heart of Darkness. Achebe despises Conrad’s work and argues that the author himself is “racist” (Achebe 2005, 343).
But Things Fall Apart carries a heavy burden in that young readers expect it to explain all of Africa to them, when really the novel deals with a specific geographic and cultural location situated in Nigeria. While the first section of Achebe’s novel is didactic and shows that there was a well-defined “civilization” already in place before the missionaries’ arrival, the novel does not work to define an entire continent. When teaching this text, we acknowledge the need to honor the canon, and while teaching this canonical text, we can offer a fuller picture of the African continent with shorter texts that will not take as long to read as a novel and give the students the opportunity to create a fuller picture of “Africa” in their minds. Sadly, the unfortunate lesson students may learn is that Okonkwo’s experience is representative of the “African” experience: an easy lesson when a young student is exposed to only one book from the African continent in the course of his/her entire secondary education, or when we as educators approach Africa as a single place, a danger even the most well-intentioned of educators can fall into, as does Patricia Goldblatt in her discussion of teaching postcolonial literature in her secondary classroom “Experience and Acceptance of Postcolonial Literature in the High School English Class”: “Because I believe that literature is a dialectic between the cultural fabric of a country and its people, I wanted the students to glimpse the impact of politics, arts, religion, geography, media, history, and economics on the inhabitants of Africa, the first colonized country [sic] we studied” (73).
If teaching Things Fall Apart as part of a canonical study, educators can look to contemporary Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who offers students the opportunity to look beyond the “single story” of Africa in two short texts both easily found on the Internet: her 20-minute TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story” and her short story “The Headstrong Historian.” The former explains to students the dangers of having an essential, singular notion of Africa. During her TED talk Adichie warns, “But to insist on only these negative stories is to flatten my experience and to overlook the many other stories that formed me. The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” The latter offers a corrective to the Commissioner’s undercutting of Okonkwo’s culture and life. In the short story, Grace, part of Obierika’s family line, comes to terms with the colonial history that effects her lineage and reclaims her Nigerian name in the end: “It was Grace who, feeling an odd rootlessness in the later years of her life, surrounded by her awards, her friends, her garden of peerless roses, would go to the courthouse in Lagos and officially change her first name from Grace to Afamefuna.” Within a class period, students can get a fuller view of the implications of colonization and connect with literature in ways they may not have imagined, just by encountering a second voice from “Africa.”
As within all bodies of literature, postcolonialism offers many choices for text that are short, so if the difficulty is a curriculum chockfull of canonical texts (and within the current climate of standards and assessment, I wonder if anyone isn’t facing that problem of already not having enough time), there is often room for a poem or short story that could offer a voice from a different part of the world (I would suggest the poetry of Caribbean writer Derek Walcott or the short stories of Botswanan writer Bessie Head). While the habit of making world literature feel ancillary/corollary to the “canon” is problematic, I concede that any exposure would be helpful as students work to find their subject position in relation to the rest of the world. The juxtaposition of postcolonial texts with texts from the western canon will help students see that perhaps growing up in Nigeria isn’t all that different than growing up in the U.S.: that all people worry about finding their place in this big world. What we want from the study of postcolonial texts is for students to leave the books realizing that there is more space for commonality than difference, as our students go out to work, love, and live in this “flattened” world.
Our students no longer live in a world where the single story of “other people” will serve them, and the literature classroom is where students can find the space to question their ideas of cultures beyond theirs outside the scope of food and holidays. Exposure to a wide variety of texts of varying genres and from different areas of the world can offer students the lens to view the world they will inherit as future educators, leaders, and global citizens. Including such texts will make our students better readers of the world, because “[w]hatever ideologies postcolonial theory might challenge, its most important benefit is that it empowers students to reflect on their own cultural knowledge as they build interpretations of literature. It thus becomes an essential component of inclusive literary pedagogy” (Appleman 2009, 85). A balance between honoring the canon and giving students a glimpse into the current world is possible with minimal shifting of the curriculum.
Achebe, Chinua. 2005. “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” In Heart of Darkness: A Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Paul B. Armstrong. 336-349. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.
Appleman, Deborah. 2009. Critical Encounters in High School English: Teaching Literary Theory to Adolescents. New York: Teachers College Press.
Danticat, Edwidge. 1996. Krik? Krak! New York: Vintage.
Satrapi, Marjane. 2007. The Complete Persepolis. New York: Pantheon.
Colleen Lutz Clemens, Ph.D., assistant professor of Non-Western Literatures at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania, earned her Ph.D. in Post-Colonial Literature at Lehigh University. Her research focuses on issues of veiling in literature and studies the intersection of women’s issues in art and politics. Her academic work has been published in Feminist Formations and in an upcoming issue of Journal of Postcolonial Writing. She is the editor of several books of non-fiction including Philadelphia Reflections: Stories from the Delaware to the Schuylkill and has published short essays in various collections including Click: When We Knew We Were Feminists and TRIVIA: Voices of Feminism. She lives in Bucks County with her partner, two dogs, and daughter. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via her blog kupoco.wordpress.com.