Ben Jelloun, Tahar


Picture of Tahar Ben Jelloun  at book signing

Image by Giuseppe Nicoloro/CC Licesned

Born in Fez, Morocco to a shopkeeper and his wife in December of 1944, Tahar Ben Jelloun is one of North Africa’s most successful post-colonial writers. Winner of France’s Prix Goncourt, Ben Jelloun moved at eighteen from Fez to Tangier where he attended a French high school until enrolling at the Université Mohammed V in Rabat in 1963. It was at the university where Ben Jelloun’s writing career began. Exposed to the journal Soufflés (Breaths ) as well as the journal’s founder, poet Abdellatif Laabi, Ben Jelloun completed his first poems, publishing his first collection, Hommes Sous Linceul de Silence, in 1971. After completing his Philosophy studies in Rabat, in 1971, Ben Jelloun immigrated to France. In France, he attended the Université de Paris, receiving his Ph.D. in psychiatric social work in 1975. Along with providing material for his dissertation, La Plus Haute des Solitudes,  Ben Jelloun draws upon his experience as a psychotherapist for his creative writing. His second novel, La Reclusion Solitaire (later Solitaire), is a fictionalized account of some of his patients’ dysfunction which was written in 1976. Between 1976-1987 Ben Jelloun was regularly published and received awards, but it was not until his novel L’Enfant de Sable, (later translated as The Sand Child) that he became well-known and recognized, all of his novels after The Sand Child were translated into English. The sequel to L’Enfant de Sable, La Nuit Sacree  or The Sacred Night  is the work for which he received his most notable award, the Prix Goncourt in 1987.  Ben Jelloun now lives in Paris with his wife, Aicha, and his daughter, Merieme.



Book cover of The Sand Child, 1985.

The Sand Child, 1985

The use of language is an interesting factor in Ben Jelloun’s work. Critics have maintained that Ben Jelloun is catering to a French audience. After all, although Ben Jelloun is Moroccan and hence Arabic is his native language, he chose to write in  French. Likewise, in his novel Les Yeux Baisses, a young Moroccan girl becomes enamored with the French language and wishes to be a French writer. Some say it is difficult not to parallel this character’s situation with Ben Jelloun’s. Ben Jelloun simply declares, though, “When I started to write it came normally to write in French… I feel freer when I write in French.” From this statement and others such as “Arabic is my wife and French is my mistress; and I have been unfaithful to both,” it is obvious though that bilingualism is an integral part of his life as well as a theme in his works. Regardless of Ben Jelloun’s inclination towards French or lack thereof, he is quite clever in incorporating languages into his writings. For instance, in La Nuit Sacree, he refers to a woman waiting on people in the restroom as L’Assise which in French means “the seated woman” and which in Arabic is translated into gellas, the title given to women who sit and wait on those in the restroom. This use of duality of languages adds to the complexity and sophistication of his pieces.

Moroccan Culture

Although the language for some readers may be an obstacle, others argue that it is Ben Jelloun’s incorporation of Moroccan culture into his texts which alienates readers. Situations unfamiliar to his audience may be difficult to relate to; therefore his stories may lose some legitimacy. An obvious example is that of pretending that one’s daughter is a son in order to preserve one’s property and maintain one’s prestige. Although this probably seems foreign to most, one could argue that the themes of gender identity and the way in which it relates to power and societal structure are pervasive throughout all cultures. If the reader does not agree with this statement, he can simply take Ben Jelloun’s work as an entertaining tale rather than a social commentary. However, it is just this latter aspect of Moroccan incidents or references that are disturbing for some critics. Not only does Ben Jelloun write about Moroccan situations that may be seen by others as nonsensical and/or uncivilized, but he openly criticizes them. Although this has resulted in the praise by, for example, women’s groups, critics protest that Ben Jelloun defends and appeals to Europeans through stereotyping and a skewed perception of Morocco.


It has been said that Ben Jelloun is primarily a poet; therefore his writing style resembles that of a poet. His work is concise yet full of poetic images and lyrical language. Ben Jelloun is a story teller, but he also allows the reader to become involved in his magical world. Dream-like states, hallucinations, and allusions to Andre Breton and the exquisite corpse each give Ben Jelloun’s work a magical intoxicated quality. Unreliable narrators and different points of view of the same story add to the mystical atmosphere as well. Ben Jelloun ends L’Enfant de Sable with, “If any of you really wants to know how this story ended, he will have to ask the moon when it is full. I now lay before you the book, the inkwell, and the pens.”  This creative space for doubt and wonder gives the piece a surrealist quality. After all, it may have simply been a fanciful tale, it may have been a true story. One is not quite sure.

Sexuality/ Dysfunction

In light of his doctoral research on the relationship between sexuality and immigration for North African male workers in France, it is clear that Ben Jelloun is quite interested in sexuality and dysfunction. The majority of his works have the protagonist suffering from some sort of dysfunction whether it be sexual, as in,  L’Enfant de Sable or more physical, as in, L’Ecrivain Public.

The Sand Child/Sacred Night

Ben Jelloun’s first book translated into English, The Sand Child, catapulted him into the literary spotlight. The themes of gender identity and a male-dominated society, of masking and storytelling, and surrealism provide the backdrop for a surreal story of secrets, sexuality and identity. The main character, Ahmed, is the eighth daughter of man without an heir. Raised as a boy, Ahmed eventually realizes she is a girl, but accustomed to her status of power as a male in Islamic society, decides to remain a man, even marrying her distant cousin Fatima. Her desire to have children marks the beginning of her sexual evolution. As a woman named Zahra, Ahmed discovers her true sexuality and her true identity. The sequel, The Sacred Night, completes Zahra’s transformation, with Zahra finding her life with a blind man named Consul.



  • Ben Jelloun, Tahar. L’Ecrivain Public. Paris: Seuil, 1983.
  • —. L’Enfant de Sable. Paris: Seuil, 1985. Translated by Alan Sheridan as The Sand Child. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1987.
  • —. Harrouda. Paris: Denoel, 1973.
  • —. Jour de Silence a Tanger. Paris: Seuil, 1990. Translated Silent Day in Tangier. London: Quartet, 1991.
  • —. Moha le Fou, Moha le Sage. Paris:Seuil, 1978.
  • —. Muha al-ma`twah, Muha al-hakin. Paris: Seuil, 1982.
  • —. La Nuit Sacree. Paris: Seuil, 1987. Translated by Alan Sheridan as The Sacred Night. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.
  • —. La Priere de l’Absent. Paris: Seuil, 1981.
  • —. La Reclusion Solitaire. Paris: Denoel, 1976. Translated by Nick Hindley as Solitaire. London: Quartet, 1988.
  • —. Les Yeux Baisses. Paris: Seuil, 1991. Translated by David Lobdell as With Downcast Eyes. London: Quartet, 1993.
  • —. Corruption. Carol Volk (Translator). New York: The New Press, 1995.
  • —. L’Auberge des pauvres. Paris: Seuil, 1997.
  • —. Racism Explained to My Daughter. New York: The New Press, 1998.
  • —. This Blinding Absence of Light. New York: The New Press, 2001.
  • —. Islam Explained. New York: The New Press, 2002.
  • —. La Belle au bois dormant. Paris: Seuil, 2004.
  • —. The last friend. New York: The New Press, 2006.
  • —. Yemma. Berlin: Berliner Taschenbuch Verl, 2007.
  • —. Leaving Tangier. Translated by Linda Coverdale. New York: Penguin, 2009.
  • —. The Rising of the Ashes. Translated by Cullen Goldblatt. San Francisco: City Lights2009.
  • —. A Palace in the Old Village. New York: Penguin, 2010.


  • Ben Jelloun, TaharA L’Insu du Souvenir. F. Maspero, 1980.
  • —. Les Amandiers Sont Morts de Leurs Blessures. F. Maspero, 1976.
  • —. Le Discours du Chameau. F. Maspero, 1974.
  • —. Hommes Sous Linceul de Silence. Atlantes, 1970.
  • —. La Memoire Future: Anthologie de la Nouvelle Poesie du Maroc. F. Maspero, 1976.
  • —. La Remontee des Cendres. Seuil, 1991.
  • —. Sahara. Mulhouse, 1987.


  • Ben Jelloun, TaharChronique d’une Solitude.  Avignon, France, 1976.
  • —. Entretien avec Monsieur Said Hammadi, Ouvrier Algerien. Theatre National de Chaillot , 1982.
  • —. La Fiancee de l’Eau.  Theatre Populaire de Lorraine, 1984.


  • Ben Jelloun, Tahar. Giacometti. Grandvilliers: Editions Flohic, 1991.
  • —. Haut Atlas: L’Exil de Pierres. Paris: Chene, 1982.
  • —. Hospitalite Francaise: Racisme et Immigration, Maghrebine. New York: Seuil, 1984.
  • —. Marseille, Comme un Matin d’Insomnie. Marseilles: Le Temps Parallele, 1986.
  • —. Le Pain Nu. Translated from Arabic by Mohamed Choukri. Paris: F.Maspero,  1980.
  • —. La Plus Haute des Solitudes: Misere Sexuelle d’Emigres Nord-Africains. New York: Seuil, 1977.


Prix de l’Amitie Franco-Arabe 1976 for Les Amandiers Sont Morts de Leurs  Blessures
Prix de l’Association des Bibliothecaires de France et de Radio Monte-Carlo 1978 for Moha le Fou, Moha le Sage
Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres 1983
Prix Goncourt 1987 for La Nuit Sacree
Chevailer de la Legion d’Honneur 1988
Prix des Hemispheres 1991 for Les Yeux Baisses

Works Cited

  • Colby, Vineta, ed. World Authors 1985-90. New York: H.W. Wilson, 1995.
  • DiYanni, Robert, ed. The Reader’s Adviser. 14th edition Volume 2: The Best in World Literature. New York: R.R. Bowker, 1994.
  • France, Peter, ed. The New Oxford Companion to Literature in French. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
  • Peacock, Scot, ed. Contemporary Authors. Volume 162. Detroit: Gale, 1998.

Author: Amy Owen, Spring 1999
Last edited: April 2012

Colonialism and Architecture

The colonial presence is always ambivalent, split between its appearance as original and authoritative and its articulation as repetition and difference. It is a disjunction produced within the act of enunciation as a specifically colonial articulation of those two disproportionate sites of colonial discourse and power: the colonial scene as the invention of historicity, mastery, mimesis or as the ‘other scene’ of Entstellung, displacement, fantasy, psychic defence, and an ‘open’ textuality.

Homi Bhabha “Signs Taken for Wonders” 107-8


In Homi Bhabha’s “Signs Taken for Wonders,” the English book is presented as an unintended vehicle of hybridization and ambivalence. In its original context it was a direct product of its culture, but in the colonial context its initial meaning started slipping away as it underwent “an Entstellung, a process of displacement, distortion, dislocation, repetition” (105). Through this process the book, used by the colonizer and colonized alike, eventually became an ambivalent object, as ambivalent and uncertain as colonial rule itself.

Colonial architecture shares many of the characteristics of this transfer, and like Bhabha’s English book, it can be regarded as “an insignia of colonial authority and a signifier of colonial desire and discipline” (102).

Colonialism and Architecture

Bhabha’s reasoning can be best applied to the early stages of the history of colonial architecture. For instance, the English in India and the French in Indochina and Northern Africa, tried to retain control of the semantic content of the styles in which they built. At the same time, however, the local elites were freely using elements of Western architectural vocabularies to create their own hybrid products. In so doing, they forced a semantic shift that subverted the Western canon in ways that upset European claims to exclusive semantic and representational rights.

Immeuble Liberté à Casablanca / CC Licensed / (Click on the image above to see a larger version.)

As Thomas Metcalf and Gwendolyn Wright have shown, the history of architecture and urbanism in colonial settings develops into a narrative of adaptive strategies that were closely related to the changing policies of colonial rule. In both French and British colonies, there was a gradual move from building in styles imported directly from the metropole to the adoption of elements from the local architectures. In the words of Gwendolyn Wright:

Administrators hoped that preserving traditional status-hierarchies would buttress their own superimposed colonial order. Architects, in turn, acknowledging that resistance to new forms is often based on affections for familiar places, tried to evoke a sense of continuity with the local past in their designs. (9)

In the period between the two world wars, this second phase of syncretic design would in turn be superseded by a policy of modernization that was translated architecturally as an extension of the so-called “International Style.” This trend in many cases was continued even after independence by the new ruling elites and their architects. Thus, if for Gwendolyn Wright, “political ambitions are not inherent in architectural forms, whether the forms are modern or historicist, whether the politics of the patrons are conservative or radical,” (309)  we might add that by the same logic styles could be once more recycled, and their associations once more revised, as the postcolonial era was inaugurated.

The history of colonial architecture, however, also includes many instances of building design related to what Mark Crinson has termed “informal imperialism” whereby “control was established through the ostensibly peaceful means of free trade and economic integration into the orbit of European power” (2). These were site-specific cases that did not correspond to a general colonial ideology, as in the case of the building of St. Mark’s Church in Alexandria (1845-1855). In our neocolonialist times, examples of such seemingly isolated projects continue to be found, most notably in the designs of multinational architectural firms.

Orientalism and Architecture

Mayo College in India / CC Licensed (Click on the image above to see a larger version.)

In the nineteenth century, the architectural and urbanistic enterprise being undertaken in the colonies was also closely related to the general phenomenon of Orientalism that was then emerging in Europe. Scholarly architects, such as James Fergusson in India, assembled encyclopedic histories of architecture that included local architectures, such as his Illustrated Handbook of Architecture (1855), that would later prove crucial in the creation of pseudo-Indian styles by British architects active in India. Such hybrid styles can be understood through Bhabha’s interpretation of the colonial “strategy of disavowal” whereby “the trace of what is disavowed is not repressed but repeated as something different – a mutation, a hybrid.” It is a strategy, however, that “disturbs the visibility of the colonial presence and makes the recognition of its authority problematic” (111).

Architecture and Dominance

In recent years, the study of colonial architecture and urbanism has been much expanded to include cases that might be considered unorthodox, such as the imposition of the principles of Socialist Realism in architecture in the areas under the influence of the ex-Soviet Union. Greg Castillo describes this process as “colonial Socialism”and proposes the notion of a “Stalinist Empire” in which Moscow acted as colonial metropole and urban model.

The entrance to the Alliance Franco-Sénégalaise in Ziguinchor, Casamance, Senegal

Alliance Franco-Sénégalaise by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen/ CC Licensed (Click on the image above to see a larger version.)

A number of these cases, including Castillo’s text, are discussed in Forms of Dominance (1992), a collection of essays edited by Nezar AlSayyad. For AlSayyad, “dominance is not exclusive to colonial cities, but the use and manifestation of dominance in the colonial context is particularly blunt” (5). The editor himself contributes to the volume with a study of “The Islamic City as a Colonial Enterprise”(27-43) where he poses the question: “Why is it that in our use of the cultural association we talk about the urbanism that the Arabs initiated or inherited in the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia as Islamic urbanism and not colonial urbanism? (…) Why is it then that we persist in talking about Islamic cities instead of the colonial cities of Islam?”(27)

The essays in Forms of Dominance are very much indebted to the pioneering work of Anthony D. King. King himself contributed to the volume with an epilogue. In this closing essay, King discusses the persistence of colonizing practices in an arguably postcolonial world.

The Postcolonial Phase

Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur / CC Licensed (Click on the image above to see a larger version.)

In postcolonial times, architecture and urbanism have continued to play an important role in the enforcement of political control, often under the guise of national styles. Lawrence Vale explores the complexities of post-independence architectural production in his 1992 book Architecture, Power, and National Identity. Vale probes the question of the manufacture of a national style in the newly created post-independence nation-states and wonders whether it is possible to design ex novo forms symbolic of national identity.

In other cases, architecture has served emergent economies to express their fascination for symbols of economic development and national progress in a context of inflationary globalization, international economic competition, and more or less covert instances of neocolonialism. In the first half of the 1990s several countries in Asia invested much effort and ingenuity in the construction of skyscrapers which not only challenged the legendary supremacy of the American high-rise, but were also meant to represent these countries’ new role on the international stage (see, for example, Petronas Towers and Shanghai World Financial Center).

On the other hand, the challenge of designing an architecture of place, beyond the “universalism” of the modernist movement and of corporate hubris, is being encouraged by certain constituencies such as the Aga Khan Award, whose patronage is nonetheless often received with a considerable degree of controversy.

Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank

Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, 2008 / CC Licensed (Click on the image above to see a larger version.)

International architectural firms, mostly based in the United States and Western Europe, have found an expanding and profitable market in the former colonies. Their transnational practices place their designs within the more general framework of globalization and postmodernist architecture, but in some cases these categories overlap with the reality of late colonialism in ways that throw a strong light on the continued dominance of the Western canon. In the case of Sir Norman Foster’s Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank headquarters (Hong Kong, 1979-85), a high-tech office building integrated Chinese geomancy principles, but it was also a monument to corporate and technological power erected in one of the last colonies of the former British Empire. As such, it qualifies as late colonial architecture, although it is seldom so interpreted in the specialized literature.

AlSayyad provides one last question for consideration. In his essay on the Islamic city he states: “Colonial urbanism can only be understood in its true temporal framework. Once this framework ceases to exist, then its urban products can no longer be seen as colonial” (41). What then, we may ask, does colonial architecture turn into after independence?

Bibliography and Recommended Reading

  • AlSayyad, Nezar, ed. Forms of Dominance. On the Architecture and Urbanism of the Colonial Enterprise. Aldershot: Avebury, 1992.
  • Bartolucci, Marisa. “Islamic Revelations.” Metropolis 2, vol. 17 (September 1997): 62-67.
  • Bhabha, Homi K. “Signs Taken for Wonders: Questions of Ambivalence and Authority under a Tree Outside Delhi, May 1817.” The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994: 102-22.
  • Castillo, Greg. “Cities of the Stalinist Empire.” Forms of Dominance. ed. Nezar AlSayyad. Aldershot: Avebury, 1992:261-85
  • Çelik, Zeynep. The Remaking of Istanbul. Portrait of an Ottoman City in the Nineteenth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993 (1986).
  • Crinson, Mark. Empire Building: Orientalism and Victorian Architecture. New York: Routledge, 1996.
  • Culot, Maurice and Jean-Marie Thiveaud, eds. Architectures françaises Outre-mer. Belgium: Mardaga, 1992.
  • Curtis, William J.R. Modern Architecture Since 1900. London: Phaidon, 1997.
  • Germain, Michel. Le Viêt-nam autrefois. France: Horvath, 1994.
  • King, Anthony D. Colonial Urban Development. Culture, Social Powerand Environment. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul,1976.
  • —. Global Cities. Post-Imperialism and the Internationalization of London. New York: Routledge, 1990.
  • —. Urbanism, Colonialism, and the World-Economy: Cultural and Spatial Foundations of the World Urban System. New York:Routledge: 1990.
  • —. “Rethinking Colonialism.” Forms of Dominance. ed. Nezar AlSayyad, 339-55. Aldershot: Avebury, 1992.
  • Metcalf, Thomas R. An Imperial Vision: Indian Architecture and Britain’s Raj. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.
  • Nalbantoglu, Gülsüm Baydar, and Wong Chong Thai, eds. Postcolonial Space(s). New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1997.
  • Vale, Lawrence J. Architecture, Power, and National Identity. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.
  • Wiseman, Carter. “Flights and Fancy.” ARTnews 6,vol. 96 (June 1997): 116-21.
  • Wright, Gwendolyn. The Politics of Design in French Colonial Urbanism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Related Links:

Aga Khan Award, letters in response to the article by Marisa Bartolucci in Metropolis (September 1997)

ArchINFORM, architecture page (entries by country/city/architect)

“The High-Rise Pages”

Phillips Antiques, interesting commercial page

Shanghai World Financial Center, information page

Author: Martina Millà Bernad, Spring 1998
Last edited: May 2012

Magical Realism

Magical Realism

A literary mode rather than a distinguishable genre, magical realism is characterized by two conflicting perspectives, one based on a so-called rational view of reality and the other on the acceptance of the supernatural as prosaic reality. Magical realism differs from pure fantasy primarily because it is set in a normal, modern world with authentic descriptions of humans and society. It aims to seize the paradox of the union of opposites; for instance, it challenges binary oppositions like life and death and the pre-colonial past versus the post-industrial present. According to Angel Flores, magical realism involves the fusion of the real and the fantastic, or as he claims, “an amalgamation of realism and fantasy.” The presence of the supernatural in magical realism is often connected to the primeval or magical “native” mentality, which exists in opposition to European rationality. According to Ray Verzasconi, as well as other critics, magical realism is “an expression of the New World reality which at once combines the rational elements of the European super-civilization, and the irrational elements of a primitive America.”  Gonzalez Echchevarria believes that magical realism offers a world view that is not based on natural or physical laws nor objective reality. However, the fictional world is not separated from reality either.


The term “magical realism” was first introduced by Franz Roh, a German art critic, who considered magical realism an art category. To him, it was a way of representing and responding to reality and pictorially depicting the enigmas of reality. In Latin America in the 1940s, magical realism was a way to express the realistic American mentality and create an autonomous style of literature. Yet, magical realism is not confined to Latin American literature alone, for many Latin American writers have influenced writers around the world, such as Indian writer Salman Rushdie and Nigerian poet and novelist Ben Okri.

Characteristics of Magical Realism

The Famished Road book cover

Ben Okri, The Famished Road, 1991

Hybridity: Magical realists incorporate many techniques that have been linked to post-colonialism, with hybridity being a primary feature.  Specifically, magical realism is illustrated in the inharmonious arenas of such opposites as urban and rural and Western and indigenous. The plots of magical realist works involve issues of borders, mixing, and change.  Authors establish these plots to reveal a crucial purpose of magical realism:  a more deep and true reality than conventional realist techniques would illustrate.

Irony Regarding Author’s Perspective: The writer must have ironic distance from the magical world view for the realism not to be compromised. Simultaneously, the writer must strongly respect the magic, or else the magic dissolves into simple folk belief or complete fantasy, split from the real instead of synchronized with it. The term “magic” relates to the fact that the point of view that the text depicts explicitly is not adopted according to the implied world view of the author. As Echevarria notes, the act of distancing oneself from the beliefs held by a certain social group makes it impossible to be thought of as a representative of that society.

Authorial Reticence: Authorial reticence refers to the lack of clear opinions about the accuracy of events and the credibility of the world views expressed by the characters in the text. This technique promotes acceptance in magical realism. In magical realism, the simple act of explaining the supernatural would eradicate its position of equality regarding a person’s conventional view of reality. Because it would then be less valid, the supernatural world would be discarded as false testimony.

The Supernatural and Natural: In magical realism, the supernatural is not displayed as questionable.  While the reader realizes that the rational and irrational are opposite and conflicting polarities, they are not disconcerted because the supernatural is integrated within the norms of perception of the narrator and characters in the fictional world.


The idea of terror overwhelms the possibility of rejuvenation in magical realism. Several prominent authoritarian figures, such as soldiers, police, and sadists all have the power to torture and kill. Time is another conspicuous theme, which is frequently displayed as cyclical instead of linear. What happens once is destined to happen again. Characters rarely, if ever, realize the promise of a better life. As a result, irony and paradox stay rooted in recurring social and political aspirations. Another particularly complex theme in magical realism is the carnivalesque. The carnivalesque is carnival’s reflection in literature. The concept of carnival celebrates the body, the senses, and the relations between humans. “Carnival” refers to cultural manifestations that take place in different related forms in North and South America, Europe, and the Caribbean, often including particular language and dress, as well as the presence of a madman, fool, or clown. In addition, people organize and participate in dance, music, or theater. Latin American magical realists, for instance, explore the bright life-affirming side of the carnivalesque. The reality of revolution, and continual political upheaval in certain parts of the world, also relates to magical realism. Specifically, South America is characterized by the endless struggle fora political ideal.

Magical Realist Authors

Isabel Allende
Kwame Anthony Appiah
Allejo Carpentier
Syl Cheney-Coker
Kojo Laing
Mario Vargas Llosa
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Toni Morrison
Ben Okri
Salman Rushdie 

Examples of Magical Realism in the works of Marquez and Okri

One Hundred Years of Solitude book cover

Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude, 1967

In One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), Marquez incorporates many supernatural motifs like levitation and flying carpets. Marquez also creates, in the tradition of the grotesque carnival and supernatural realism, the character of Melquiades, who is an overweight gypsy with supernatural powers.  His novel contains powerful images of paradoxical bodily disgust and celebration, ambivalent celebration and laughter, and the reconstruction of human shapes, all of which exemplify characteristics of magical realism. In this novel and others, Marquez utilizes ironic distance.  Okri’s The Famished Road (1991) also incorporates several characteristics of magical realism. Specifically, examples of hybridity occur often. For instance, after the character Azaro wrongly believes a figure by the river to be the ferryman of the dead, he learns that she is in fact a hybrid woman, young in body but “with an old woman’s face.” The illustration is also a hybrid of ancient ritual and custom.  Also, The Famished Road depicts the theme of political struggle and political corruption. The character Madame Koto is implied in the corruption of modern Nigerian politics. She encapsulates the new power herself, rather than its transgression, foreshadowing the country’s civil war to come. Okri uses ironic distance in this novel as well.

Works Cited

  • Chanady, Amaryll Beatrice. Magical Realism and the Fantastic. New York:  Garland Publishing, Inc, 1985.
  • Cooper, Brenda. Magical Realism in West African Literature. London:  Routledge Publishing, 1998.
  • Danow, David K. The Spirit of Carnival: Magical Realism and the Grotesque.  Kentucky:  The University Press of Kentucky,1995.

Author: Lindsay Moore, Fall 1998
Last edited: July 2012

Yeats, W.B. and Postcolonialism

Which Yeats?

Picture of W.B. Yeats

Image by George Charles Beresford/Public Domain

There are many versions of William Butler Yeats (b 1865  d 1939),  Ireland’s most famous poet, dramatist, critic and Senator. Variously claimed by nationalists, occultists, fascists, modernists, Romantics, and postcolonialists,Yeats’s life and work are open to many interpretations. As a writer who devoted himself to building Irish culture and literature, Yeats’s position as a postcolonial figure seems obvious. At the same time, he was a member of the Anglo Irish Ascendancy and flirted with fascist ideas in his old age. This article summarizes some of the most compelling arguments for Yeats as a major postcolonial artist.

Critical Overview

This discussion rests on the question of Ireland’s place as a postcolonial nation. In their foundational reader, The Empire Writes Back,  Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin exclude Ireland from the list of postcolonial nations, even though Canada and the United States are included. Even so, they include Ireland within certain points of their discussions.  Edward Said, in Culture and Imperialism, argues for Yeats as a decolonizing writer, and makes the claim that Ireland is indeed a postcolonial nation. David Lloyd’s essay,”The Poetics of Politics: Yeats and the Founding of the State” explores the connections between Yeats’s poetry and nationalism. Interrogating Yeats’s position as both postcolonial and colonialist, Seamus Deane’s Celtic Revivals raises important questions about images of nation and history. Jahan Ramazani uses Yeats to interrogate postcolonial studies, and vice versa, coming to the conclusion that Yeats’s work as a nation-maker qualifies him for inclusion as a postcolonial (Ramazani prefers the term “anticolonial”) poet. Finally, Declan Kiberd works with Yeats’s literary reconstructions of childhood and argues that Yeats’s search for a writing style mirrors a quest for selfhood in a postcolonial context.


The Early Years: Sligo, London, Gonne, Folklore and Mysticism

Born in Dublin in 1865, Yeats was the son of a painter, John Butler Yeats, and Susan Pollexfen Yeats, whose family lived in Sligo, in the Northwest of Ireland. Yeats spent much of his childhood in Sligo,and repeatedly returned to those memories in his work. His homesickness when the family moved to London in 1874 and his sense of isolation in an English school resurface in his Autobiographies. After briefly attending art school, Yeats devoted himself both to Irish literature societies in London and Dublin and his own literary development.

Maud Gonne, whom Yeats met in 1889, would become the inspiration for most of his love poetry. Though Yeats never agreed with Gonne’s militant Republicanism, he continued to write about her all of his life. In the 1890s, Yeats became fascinated by Irish folklore, and published collections of Irish legends and original poems inspired by mythological Irish figures. During this period, Yeats joined the Theosophical Movement, and became a member of the Order of the Golden Dawn. This mystical, esoteric group, devoted to the supernatural, supplied Yeats with important symbolic systems. He developed an interest in Indian mysticism.

The Abbey Theater and The Irish Revival

In 1904, Yeats, along with Lady Augusta Gregory and Annie Horniman, founded the Abbey Theater. At the Abbey Yeats sought to create an Irish theater and educate the Irish public by offering a place for the performance of works by Irish dramatists. This laudable goal met with difficulties. The 1907 Playboy Riots, in response to supposed indecency in John Millington Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World, infuriated Yeats, who supported Synge’s play in the face of pushes for censorship. After discovering ancient Japanese Noh Drama in 1916, Yeats began to incorporate Noh conventions (little scenery, heavy symbolism, stylized movements) into his own drama. The Abbey Theater and Yeats’s poetry made important contributions to the Irish Revival, a resurgence of Irish drama, poetry and prose from the Victorian period to the 1920s.

Politics and Marriage

Though frustrated by the Dublin reaction to Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, Yeats’s attitude to Ireland changed again in 1916. The Easter Rising of 1916, when roughly 700 Irish volunteers took over parts of Dublin and proclaimed an Irish Republic, inspired in Yeats a new nationalism. His elegy for those executed by the British, “Easter 1916,” eulogizes the dead while retaining an ambivalent attitude toward violent resistance. In 1917, Yeats married Englishwoman Georgie Hyde-Lees. Yeats believed that his wife was capable of acting as a spirit medium, and based much of his mystical work, A Vision (1925), on her automatic script. The couple had a son and daughter and lived in a Norman castle, Thoor Ballylee. From 1922 to 1928, Yeats served as a Senator for the Irish Free State, and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in1923. Yeats died in the South of France in 1939, and was buried in1940 in Sligo.

The Critics on Yeats and Postcolonialism

This section will provide abstracts of a selection of the major critical contributions to the question of Yeats and postcolonialism, arranged chronologically.  For more information on these texts and suggestions for further reading, please see the bibliography.

On Seamus Deane’s Celtic Revivals (1985)

Seamus Deane’s essays debate Yeats’s position as postcolonial writer. At times Deane finds in Yeats a strong cultural nationalist, but just as often he accuses Yeats of writing out of reductive visions of Ireland. He interrogates Yeats’s position in two essays in this volume, “Yeats and the Idea of Revolution” and “O’Casey and Yeats: Exemplary Dramatists.” The first essay implicates Yeats in “inventing an Ireland amenable to his imagination” (38). Deane reads the connections between death and sex in Yeats’s play A Full Moon in March:  “Sex and violence produce poetry. Aristocrat and peasant produce, out of a violent fusion, art” (47). At the same time, Deane sees in Yeats’s attitude towards Ireland and England a conflict that he compares to V. S. Naipaul’s position on India and England: “the English left behind in their twentieth century colonies one of their most enduring inventions — a concept of Englishness.. . The whole Irish Revival is a reaction against this attitude, a movement towards the colony and a way from the mother country, a replacement of ‘Englishness’ by ‘Irishness’” (48). Though Deane has problems with some of Yeats’s “colonialist” dramatizations of Ireland, he investigates this issue in postcolonial terms. Deane’s second essay on Yeats and O’Casey finds in Yeats “a more profoundly political dramatist than O’Casey, that it is in his plays that we find a search for the new form of feeling which would renovate our national consciousness” (122). Deane’s writings explore the question of Yeats as postcolonial writer.

On Edward Said’s “Yeats and Decolonization,” from Culture and Imperialism (1993)

After acknowledging Yeats’s position as a canonical European, modernist poet, Said introduces the notion of Yeats as an “indisputably great national poet who during a period of anti-imperialist resistance articulates the experiences, the restorative vision of a people suffering under the domination of an offshore power” (220).  Said goes on to place Ireland in the context of colonialism, and defines nationalism as the “mobilizing force that coalesced into resistance against an alien and occupying empire on the parts of people possessing a common history, religion, and language” (223).  The essay moves towards Yeats as a postcolonial poet as Said discusses the connection between geography, place names, and the decolonization of both land and language. Grouping Yeats with other English-speaking African and Caribbean authors, Said describes an “overlapping” between Yeats’s “Irish nationalism with his English cultural heritage” (227). After questioning nativism in terms of Yeats’s writing, Said argues that “Yeats’s slide into incoherence and mysticism during the 1920s” relates to a limited nativist perspective (231). Yeats’s preoccupations with an “ideal community” and with history as “the wrong turns, the overlap, the . . .occasionally glorious moment,” Said argues, place him in the company of “all the poets and men of letters of decolonization” (232).  Said ends by placing Yeats somewhere along the way to full postcolonialism:  “True, he stopped short of imagining full political  liberation, but he gave us a major international achievement in cultural decolonization nonetheless” (239).

On David Lloyd’s “The Poetics of Politics: Yeats and the Founding of the State” from Anomalous States: Irish Writing and the Post Colonial Moment (1993)

Emphasizing the important political “discomfort” that Yeats’s poems still cause, Lloyd explores the relationships between Yeats’s poetry and Irish nationalism. Applying later Yeats to the poet’s earlier work, Lloyd detects Yeats’s discomfort with the nationalist force of his own drama and poetry. The famous early Yeats play, Cathleen Ni Houlihan inspired such fervent nationalism that in later life Yeats would ask: “Did that play of mine send out certain men to the English shot?” In Lloyd’s view, this concern is “by no means an overweening assessment of the extraordinary part his writings played in the forging in Ireland of a mode of subjectivity apt to find its political and ethical realization in sacrifice to the nation yet to be” (59).  Lloyd addresses the paradoxical emphasis on foundation and demise in Yeats’s poetry (68).  At the end of the essay, Lloyd turns to Yeats’s female characters, and raises questions about “the antagonism between certain feminisms and the nationalism of the state” (81).

On Declan Kiberd’s Inventing Ireland (1995)

Kiberd spends his first chapter, “Childhood and Ireland,” on Yeats, discussing the effect of the poet’s Sligo childhood on both his writing and his vision of Ireland.  He questions the ways that Yeats’s early work, like other Revival texts, “which so nourished the national feeling, were often British in origin, and open to the charge of founding themselves on the imperial strategy of infantilizing the native culture” (102). Kiberd weighs in with other critics on the strong connection between Yeats’s writing and place: “In emphasizing locality, Yeats, Synge and Lady Gregory were deliberately aligning themselves with the Gaelic bardic tradition of dinn-sheanchas (knowledge of the lore of places)” (107).  Kiberd offers a reading of the differences between Irish and British definitions of culture: “In (Yeats’s) estimate, a true culture consisted not in acquiring opinions but in getting rid of them” (111).  “Innocence,” then, “is not inexperience, but its opposite” (112).  In the next chapter, “The National Longing for Form,” Kiberd argues that Yeats and Whitman, as postcolonial writers, both perform “a search for a national style” (116).  This chapter explores the relationship between the literature of the “cultural colonies” and the “parent country” (115). Kiberd then presents a fascinating argument for Yeats’s search for his own style as a form of “self-conquest” (120).  Connecting literature and self, Kiberd argues that for both Whitman and Yeats “the decolonization of the body was a task almost as important as the decolonization of the native culture” (127). Investigating ideas of culture, and arguing for the search for a new style as a quest for a new self and nation, Kiberd reveals connections between Yeats and Whitman as writers of decolonization.

On Jahan Ramazani’s “Is Yeats a Postcolonial Poet?” (1998)

Ramazani’s fascinating essay begins by outlining the arguments for and against Yeats’s inclusion as a postcolonial writer. Acknowledging Yeats’s “whiteness, and his affiliation with the centuries old settler community of Anglo-Irish Protestants, Ramazani argues that due to his “anticolonial resistance to British cultural domination and his effort to transform the degraded colonial present by recuperating the precolonial past,” Yeats warrants examination as an anticolonial writer. If we place Yeats “under the postcolonial microscope, the many different shapes and sizes of postcoloniality need to be distinguished.”  Ramazani then discusses postcolonialism in terms of Yeats and Ireland, arguing that the term “anticolonial” replace “postcolonial.”  With “influences on writers as diverse as Derek Walcott and Lorna Goodison, Raja Rao and A. K. Ramanujan, Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka,” Yeats belongs to the postcolonial tradition of hybridization.  Ramazani continues to position Yeats with postcolonial,or anticolonial writers: “When Yeats, speaking at a political gathering in 1898, declared that the English empire ‘has been built on the rapine of the world,’ he anticipated Frantz Fanon‘s claim” (81). In terms of Irish cultural history, Ramazani claims that through their “Revival, the poets have turned a corpse like Ireland into a living, vibrant, even awe-inspiring ‘imagined community.’” Finally, Ramazani interrogates Yeats’s use of Indian symbols and characters as neither completely Orientalist nor affiliating, but sees his attraction to India because it “represents the Unity of Culture he wished for Ireland.” Ramzani concludes that as a nation-maker and a writer of hybridization Yeats should be considered an anticolonial writer.

For more Irish entries see:

1. Field Day Theatre

2. Brian Friel

3. Roddy Doyle

4. Eavan Boland


  • Ashcroft, Bill, Griffith, Gareth, and Tiffin, Helen. The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures. New York: Routledge, 1989.
  • —. (eds.) The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. London: Routledge, 1995.
  • Brown, Malcom. The Politics of Irish Literature from Thomas Davis to W. B. Yeats. Seattle: U Washington P, 1972.
  • Cairns, David and Richards, Shaun. (eds.) Writing Ireland: Colonialism, Nationalism and Culture. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1988.
  • Deane, Seamus. Celtic Revivals: Essays in Modern Irish Literature 1880-1980. Winston Salem: Wake Forest UP, 1985.
  • —. “Yeats: the Creation of an Audience.” Tradition and Influence in Anglo- Irish Poetry. Terence Brown and Nicholas Grene. (eds.) Totwa: Barnes and Noble, 1989. pp. 31-46.
  • Eagleton, Terry, Jameson, Fredric, and Said, Edward. (eds.) Nationalism, Colonialism and Literature. Minneapolis: U Minnesota Press, 1990.
  • Eagelton, Terry. “Yeats and Poetic Form.” Crazy John and the Bishop and Other Essays on Irish Culture. Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame P, 1998.
  • Ellmann, Richard. The Identity of William Butler Yeats. New York: Oxford UP, 1964.
  • Foster, John Wilson. “Yeats and the Easter Rising.” Colonial Consequences:Essays in Irish Literature and Culture. Dublin: Lilliput, 1991. pp.133-148.
  • Foster, R. F. Paddy and Mr. Punch: Connections in Irish and English History. London: Penguin, 1993.
  • —. W. B. Yeats, A Life. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997.
  • Frazier, Adrian. Behind the Scenes: Yeats, Horniman, and the Struggle for the Abbey Theater. Berkeley and Los Angeles: U California P, 1990.
  • Kiberd, Declan. Inventing Ireland. London: Jonathan Cape, 1995.
  • Lloyd, David. “The Poetics of Politics: Yeats and the Founding of the State”. Anomalous States: Irish Writing and the Post Colonial Moment. Dublin: Lilliput, 1993. pp. 59-87.
  • Llyons, F. S. L. Culture and Anarchy in Ireland 1890-1939: From the Fall of Parnell to the Death of Yeats. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1979.
  • Ramazani, Jahan. “Is Yeats a Postcolonial Poet?.” Raritan vol.17 no. 3 (Winter 1998): pp. 64-89.
  • Said, Edward. “Yeats and Decolonization.” Culture and Imperialism. New York: Vintage, 1993. pp. 220-239.
  • Watson, G. J. Irish Identity and the Literary Revival: Synge, Yeats, Joyce and O’Casey. Washington: Catholic U of American P, 1979.
  • Yeats, William Butler. Autobiographies. New York: Scribner, 1999.
  • —. The Yeats Reader. Richard J. Finneran (ed.). New York: Scribner, 1997.
  • —. The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats. Richard J. Finneran (ed.). New York: Scribner, 1997.

Related Sites

The Atlantic Monthly: All Ireland’s Bard.  Seamus Heaney reviews R. F. Foster’s biography, Yeats, A Life.
The Atlantic Monthly’s Reading of “Easter 1916″ by Peter Davidson, Philip Levine,and Richard Wilbur. Article on “Easter 1916.”
The Atlantic Monthly: William Butler Yeats by Louise Brogan. A 1938 article on Yeats as an older poet with an overview of his life.’s index to Yeats’s Responsibilities and Other Poems, The Wind Among the Reeds, and The Wild Swans at Coole.
Emory’s Special Collections Yeats Page

Author: Elizabeth Brewer, Spring 2000
Last edited: April 2012

Huidobro, Vicente

“Make a poem the way nature makes a tree” -Vicente Huidobro, “Creationism”


Photo of Huidobro

Image by Dcoetzee/Public Domain

Vicente García Huidobro Fernándezwas born to a distinguished aristocrat family in Santiago, Chile in 1893. In his teenage and early adult years, the works of modernist Chilean writer and poet Rubén Darío inspired him. He praised Darío as “a renovator of poetry” (Camurati 29) and as homage to him, he began to publish his own work through the pages of Azula magazine which he founded in 1913. Three years later; Huidobro parted for Europe; in Paris where he met other minds of the vanguard such as Pablo Picasso, Guillame Apollinaire, and Pierre Reverdy. Huidobro’s poems written in both French and Spanish began to the build upon the Cubist poetry of Apollonaire and Reverdy.

He ushered in a new style or school of writing which he termed as creacionismo (‘creationism’) which fused many of the contemporary vanguard movements of the early 20th century along with other ideals of Neo-platonism and the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. In 1925, he returned to Chile to become a newspaper editor during which time he also ran unsuccessfully for the presidency of Chile. Throughout he continued to write works of prose and poetry building upon his ideas of creacionsimo. In 1931, he published Altazor, which most consider to be his definitive poetic work. In 1948, he died in Cartagena, Chile at the age of 56.

Vanguard Movement

Following the modernist movement, the world of art and literature entered a phase termed as the ‘Vanguard’, or ‘avant-garde’ movement (Good). This complex movement attempted to step away from the literary and aesthetic norms of the past and to chart new horizons of expression for the artist. It is believed that Italian writer Fillippo Tomaso Marinetti initiated the movement through the manifesto of ‘Futurism’.  In this essay he declares:

“To admire an old picture is to pour our sensitivity
into a funeral urn, instead of casting it forward in
violent gushes of creation and action”
Marinetti, “Foundation Manifesto of Futurism”, 1909  (qtd. inRye 9).

The twilight of this global artistic movement is considered to have arrived with the advent of the Surrealist movement of the  1930′s. Within the span of those decades, many sub-movements were spawned including Expressionism, Dadaism, Cubism, and Ultraism. All of these Vanguard sub-movements had similar motivation to create new artistic bounds, through either exploiting the institutions of the past or creating whole new ones.


Creacionismo was  the apotheosis for Huidobro, a space where the poet could assume a role as the divine. In his poem “Arte poética” (Poetic Art), the final verse reads:  “El poeta es un pequeño Dios” ‘The poet is a small God’ (Huidobro 69). This verse was the epitaph for his movement. Creacionismo licensed the poet to become the Creator within their poetic space, where the world of subjectivity was merged into the reality that the poet created. Huidobro maintained that the rise of Creacionismo was solely attributed to him, free of any direct influence. He describes his poetry as not singularly influenced, “but only by the universe of poetry that has been studied and felt” (Perdigó 42). It is argued that aside from his contemporaries, Huidobro’s greatest influences are the Neo-Platonists of the 16th century and the ideas of American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson.

According to the Neo-Platonists, the conception of God is as follows:

“God was Beauty and the source of Beauty.
God’s image is Man.
Therefore, the ideally beautiful Man is the
closest approximation of God on this Earth”
(Summary of Renaissance).

This conception was a precedent that Man’s ability could be equal to God’s, the created had been endowed with the powers of the Creator. Huidobro aimed for the idea of understanding the world at its most essential parts, in order to invigorate his own world of poetic subjectivity. In his manifesto “Creacionismo”, Huidobro describes:  “A living thought, like the spirit of an animal or a plant, has its own architecture, and embellishes nature with something new” (Huidobro 41).  Emerson also echoed the idea of a mortal Creator, he stated that “man has access to the entire mind of the creator, is himself the creator in the finite” (Perdigó89). Huidobro perpetuated this idea that “where the artist from being a craftsman become a creator; and the poet, of all men, compared to God” (Peridgó 189).  One of his poetic innovations was the calligram, or “painted poems” (Kahnweiler 75). Apollinaire initially popularized this style of verse somewhat similar to Japanese haiku. However, Huidobro added an element of “geometrization and stylization of form” (Ogden 46). In particular, his poem’s, “Paisaje” [Landscape], first and last verses create a separation of consciousnesses where in between a realm of subjectivity words convert into visual images. The poem actually seems to take the shape of a mosaic in its own “new and autonomous world” (Bary54).

Though the evidence is debated, the certainty remains that “Creacionsimo is exclusively applied to Huidobro’s work” (Perdigó 21).



Poetic Art

Verse is like a key
That opens a thousand doors
A page turns, something takes flight
How many believing eyes look
And the hearing soul remains trembling

Invent new worlds and care for their word
The adjective, when it does not give life, kills
We are in a cycle of nerves
The muscle cluster,
Like I remember, in the museums;
No more do but we have less force;
The true vigor
Resides in the mind

Why do you the rose, oh poets!
It will flourish in the poem

Only for us
Live all things under the sun

The poet is a small god.


In darkness we pass through parallel routes
The moon is where you see it
The tree is taller than the mountain
But the mountain is so wide that it exceeds the extremes of the land
The river runs but carries no fish
Careful at play in the grass recently painted
A song that drives sheep to the sheepfold

Works Cited

  • Apollinaire, Guillame. Selected Writings. Trans. Roger Shattuck. Paris:  New Directions, 1971.
  • Bary, David.  Huidobro o la vocación poética. Granada:  Universidad de Granada, 1963.
  • Camurati, Mireya.  Poesía y poética de Vicente Huidobro. Buneos Aires:  García Cambeiro, 1980.
  • Dawes, Greg. Poetas ante la modernidad: las ideas esteticas y politicas de Vallero, Huidobro, Neruda y Paz. Madrid: Editorial Fundamentos, 2009.
  • Good, Carl.  “Huidobro, Altazor y las vanguaradias”. Atlanta: Emory University, March 19, 2001.
  • Huidobro, Vicente. Manifestos Manifest.  Trans. Gilbert Alter-Gilbert. Los Angeles:  Green Integer, 1999.
  • Huidobro, Vicente. Obra selecta. Ed. Luis Navarrete Orta. Caracas: Biblioteca ayacucho, 1991.
  • Kahnweiler, Daniel-Henry. The Rise of Cubism.  Trans. Aronson, New York: Wittenborn, Schultz, Inc., 1949.
  • Ogden, Estrella Busto. El creacionismo de Vicente Huidobroen sus relaciones con la estética cubista. Madrid: Editorial playor, 1983.
  • Perdigó, Luisa Marina. The Origins of Vicente Huidobro’s”Creacionismo” and its Evolution. New York: Mellen University Press, 1994.
  • Reyes, Alfonso and Carlos Garcia. Correspondencia: Alfonso Reyes, Vicente Huidobro, 1914-1928. Mexico D.F.: El Colegio National, 2005.
  • Rye, Jane. “Summary of the Renaissance: “Neo Platonism.”” Futurism. London:  Studio Vista,1972. <>
  • Schopf, Federico. El desorden de las imagenes: Vicente Huidobro, Pablo Neruda, Nicanor Parra. Santiago: JH Fondo Juvenal Hernandez Jaque: Editorial Unversitaria, 2010.
  • Sema, Mercedes. Del modernismo y la vanguardia: Jose Marti, Julio Herrera y Riessig, Vicente Huidobro, Nicanor Parra. Lima: Ediciones El Santo Oficio, 2002.
  • Willis, Bruce Dean. Aesthetics of equilibrium: the vanguard poetics of Vicente Huidobro and Mario de Andrade. West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 2006.

Selected Bibliography

  • Huidobro, Vicente.  Altazor or A Voyage in A Parachute. Trans.  Eliot Weinberger.  St. Paul:  Graywolf Press, 1988.
  • Reverdy, Pierre.  Selected Poems.  Trans. John Ashberry. Winston-Salem:  Wake Forest University Press, 1991.

Author: Adam Dunshee, Fall 2001
Last edited: June 2012

Postcolonial Performance and Installation Art

This article discusses contemporary performance and installation artists who address the objectification of the non-white bodies in Western culture: Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gomez-Peña, Joyce Scott and Kay Lawal, James Luna, Renée Green, Lyle Ashton Harris and Renée Cox, and Grace Jones. Significantly, many of these performance artists use their own bodies as a medium to interrogate the history of “human exhibitionism” in Europe and the United States. By exhibiting their own bodies these artists use performance art to explore the complex ways in which the displays of the non-white body have affected and continue to feed popular stereotypes about people of color in the Western imagination. The performances assert that racial and cultural difference and “otherness” in Western society are inscribed on the non-white body (see Orientalism). By recalling specific histories of human display, the artists implore their audiences to recognize, reexamine, and transcend their intolerance and prejudice against persons who appear visibly different from themselves.

This page introduces a small, representative sample of artists who have engaged this theme and it serves as an introduction to this genre of performance art. By way of organization, each of the links below take viewers to one performance piece from one of the above mentioned. After an image and a brief discussion, a statement from the artist reflecting on their work follows, and each section concludes with a short bibliography of further reading sources.

An Index of Works

Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gomez-Peña . Undiscovered Amerindians, 1992.
The Spectacle of the Hottentot Venus: The Thunder Thigh Revue’s Women of Substance.
James Luna: Artifact Piece.
Renée Green: Revue 1990.
Lyle Ashton Harris and Renee Valerie Cox: Hottentot Venus 2000.
Grace Jones: 1985 Performance in Paradise Garage

Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gomez-Peña. Undiscovered Amerindians, 1992.

In order to address the widespread practice of human displays, Fuscoand Gomez-Peña enclosed their own bodies in a ten-by-twelve-foot cage and presented themselves as two previously unknown “specimens representative of the Guatinaui people” in the performance piece “Undiscovered Amerindians.” Inside the cage Fusco and Peña outfitted themselves in outrageous costumes and preoccupied themselves with performing equally outlandish “native” tasks. Gomez-Peña was dressed in an Aztec style breastplate, complete with a leopard skin face wrestler’s mask. Fusco, in some of her performances, donned a grass skirt, leopard skin bra, baseball cap, and sneakers. She also braided her hair, a readily identifiable sign of “native authenticity.”

In a similar fashion to the live human spectacles of the past, Fusco and Gomez-Peña performed the role of cultural “other” for their museum audiences. While on display the artists’ “traditional” daily rituals ranged from sewing voodoo dolls, to lifting weights to watching television to working on laptop computers. During feeding time museum guards passed bananas to the artists and when the couple needed to use the bathroom they were escorted from their cage on leashes. For a small donation, Fusco could be persuaded to dance (to rap music) or both performers would pose for Polaroids. Signs assured the visitors that the Guatinauis “were a jovial and playful race, with a genuine affection for the debris of Western industrialized popular culture … Both of the Guatinauis are quite affectionate in the cage, seemingly uninhibited in their physical and sexual habits despite the presence of an audience.” Two museum guards from local institutions stood by the cage and supplied the inquisitive visitor with additional (equally fictitious) information about the couple. An encyclopedic-looking map of the Gulf of Mexico, for instance, showed the supposed geographic location of their island. Using maps, guides, and the ambiguous museum jargon, Fusco and Gomez-Peña employed the common vocabulary of the museum world to stage their own display.

Despite Fusco and Gomez-Peña’s professed intentions that Undiscovered Amerindians should be perceived as a satirical commentary, more than half of the visitors to the museums who came upon the performance believed that the fictitious Guatinaui identities were real.

In 1992, Fusco and Gomez-Peña first staged the performance on Columbus Plaza, Madrid, Spain, as a part of the event Edge ’92 Biennial, organized in commemoration of the quincentennial of Columbus’ voyage to the New World. The performance piece had an illustrious two year exhibition history  including performances at Covent Garden in London, The National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., The Field Museum in Chicago, the Whitney Museum’s Biennial in New York, the Australian Museum of Natural History and finally in Argentina, on the invitation of the Fundacion Banco Patricios in Buenos Aires.

Quote about Undiscovered Amerindians from Coco Fusco:

According to Fusco, she and Gomez-Peña aimed to conduct a “reverse ethnography … Our cage became a blank screen onto which audiences projected their fantasies of who and what we are. As we assumed the stereotypical role of the domesticated savage, many audience members felt entitled to assume the role of colonizer, only to find themselves uncomfortable with the implications of the game” (Fusco 47).


The Spectacle of the Hottentot Venus: The Thunder  Thigh Revue’s Women of Substance

In 1986 artist Joyce Scott in collaboration with actress and comedian Kay Lawal formed the two-person performance troupe, The Thunder Thigh Revue. As the name of their performance partnership reveals, the two women in the Revue directly engaged issues surrounding the representation and perception of the body, and more specifically the black female body in American society. The first performance the Thunder Thigh Revue produced was called Women of Substance in which the tradition of exhibiting the non-white body in public spectacles was central.

At the moment of Women of Substance, which both the reviewers and Joyce Scott conceive as the pinnacle of the performance, Scott appears in the guise of Saarjite Baartman. The lights in the performance space dim, sobering the atmosphere of the room. Scott walks slowly to the center of the stage wearing an extension on her buttocks made out of sponge. Only a sheer stocking covers the rest of her body. Scott, illuminated by a bright white spotlight, stares blindly out at the audience and begins a mournful cry.

In what sounds like a low-pitched wail, Scott as Baartman speaks to the audience. She laments being far away from home in South Africa, and discusses her infinite loneliness since she was brought to “new shores.” In her portrayal of Baartman, Scott tells of the violation and humiliation of her body as an object of public display. She also speaks of her influence in the popular culture of Europe in the nineteenth century, such as how a popular women’s fashion device’s like the bustle, a padded butt extension, was inspired by her. Although oft-times in Scott’s monologue as Saarjite her individual words are difficult to discern, the overall drone of the wail itself conveys the sadness and pain of being on public display and the subject of ridicule. Through her song Scott gives Baartman a voice, imploring her audience to get past the spectacle of the body to perceive Baartman as a human being with feelings, desire, and subjectivity.

Baartman is part of the cast of characters that Scott and Lawal employ to express “the pain and passion of being the ‘other,’ an overweight black woman in this society”(Stokes Sims 221 ). As Lowery Stokes Sims notes in “Aspects of Performance in the Work of Black American Women,” throughout the performance, “Apparitions of women of substance float in and out of the performance giving testimony to their rage, their indignation, and their pride and determination” (Stokes Sims 219). In the scene that precedes the Hottentot Venus performance, Scott appears as Venus from Botticelli’s famous painting, outfitted in sponge replicas of Venus’ shell and flowing dirty-blond hair, whom she describes as the quintessential personification of beauty in Western art. By performing the two vignettes together, by introducing the audience to these two Venuses, Scott also highlights the vast discrepancies between the Western beauty ideal epitomized in Botticelli’s Venus and the condemnation of the black female body in Western culture. While the latter becomes the celebrated subject of Western painting, the former’s body is fetishized in public freak shows.  Other characters include a black Statue of Liberty and a dialogue with a refrigerator. All the women of substance in the performance encourage their audience to examine the stereotypes people hold based on physical appearance.  In the United States, the Thunder Thigh Revue appeared primarily in art museums and galleries, including The Baltimore Museum of Art, Maryland Art Institute, and Sushi Gallery, San Diego. The pair also made numerous theater appearances.They staged Women of Substance at the Edinburgh festival in Scotland.

Quote from Joyce Scott on Women of Substance:

In an interview I conducted with Scott she said her aim in performance art is to seize “gross stereotypes and fuck with them.” She explains,”There’s a cesspool of stereotypes about looks, and I’m trying to put a new spin it …” Scott recognizes that that her own physical appearance which she described as “a fat black woman with gappy teeth and wild hair,” is reminiscent of “the stereotype that African-Americans have tried to debunk since the 1960s!” (Searle 48). Her own personal experience and awareness of how people visually perceive her, is a major impetus behind her investigation through performance of the ways people in society visually appraise, evaluate, and make stereotypic assumptions regarding “others” based on physical appearance.

See also Representation.


  • Hammond, Leslie King, and Lowery Stokes-Sims. Art as A Verb: The Evolving Continuum, Installations, Performances, and Videos. Baltimore: Maryland Institute College of Art,  1988.
  • Searle, Karen. “Joyce Scott: Migrant Worker for the Arts.” Ornament 15.4 (1992) :46-51.
  • Sims, Lowery Stokes. “Aspects of Performance in the Work of Black American Women Artists.” Feminist Art Criticism: An Anthology. Ed. Arlene Raven and Cassandra Langer. London: U.M.I Research Press,
  • 1988.  207-225.

James Luna: Artifact Piece

James Luna often uses his body as a means to critique the objectification of Native American cultures in Western museum and cultural displays.  He dramatically calls attention to the exhibition of Native American peoples and Native American cultural objects in his Artifact Piece, 1985-87. For the performance piece Luna donned a loincloth and lay motionless on a bed of sand in a glass museum exhibition case. Luna remained on exhibit for several days, among the Kumeyaay exhibits at the Museum of Man in San Diego. Labels surrounding the artist’s body identified his name and commented on the scars on his body, attributing them to “excessive drinking.” Two other cases in the exhibition contained Luna’s personal documents and ceremonial items from the Luiseño reservation.

Many museum visitors as they approached the “exhibit” were stunned to discover that the encased body was alive and even listening and watching the museum goers. In this way the voyeuristic gaze of the viewer was returned, redirecting the power relationship.

Through the performance piece Luna also called attention to a tendency in Western museum displays to present Native American cultures as extinct cultural forms. Viewers who happened upon Luna’s exhibition expecting a museum presentation of native American cultures as “dead,” were shocked by the living, breathing, “undead” presence of the luiseño artist in the display. Luna in Artifact Piece places his body as the object of display in order to disrupt the modes of representation in museum exhibitions of native others and to claim subjectivity for the silenced voices eclipsed in these displays.

Artifact Piece was first staged in 1987 at the Museum and Man, San Diego. Luna also performed the piece for The Decade Show, 1990, in New York.

Quote from Luna:

The Artifact Piece, 1987, was a performance/installation that questioned American Indian presentation in museums-presentation that furthered stereotype, denied contemporary society and one that did not enable an Indian viewpoint.  The exhibit, through ‘contemporary artifacts’ of a Luiseño man, showed the similarities and differences in the cultures we live, and putting myself on view brought new meaning to “artifact.” (Durland 37)

Suggested Reading

  • Durland, Steven. “Call Me in ’93: An Interview with James Luna.” High Performance (Winter 1991) 34-39.
  • Fisher, Jean. “In Search of the ‘Inauthentic’: Disturbing Signs in Contemporary Native American Art.” Art Journal (Fall 1992) 44-50.
  • Luna, James. “Allow Me to Introduce Myself.” Canadian Theatre Review 68 (Fall 1991) 46-47.

Renée Green: Revue 1990

In the mixed media installation Revue, installation artist Renée Green combined several visual images and texts pertaining to the black female body: a small diminutive representation of the Hottentot Venus is centrally placed in the installation, surrounded by a series of photographically manipulated images of Josephine Baker. Framing these images on both sides run a row of texts, some of which quote Josephine Baker’s critics and others excerpts from 19th century travel accounts. The installation also includes a small open cabinet on which a toy circus comprising several miniaturized animal representations is placed. On the floor in front of the installation another wind-up animal, a lion, is caged in its surroundings.  The wind-up toy has been viewed by critics as stand in for “The Hottentot Venus,” who was similarly caged and performed the part of an animal.

In the installation, Green deals with visual representations of the black female body, like the Hottentot Venus and Josephine Baker, which were prominently positioned at the center of Britain and France’s popular exoticized gaze. Interestingly, Green’s manipulation of the scale of the images, particularly of the small Hottentot Venus image, and the blurred focus of the Baker photographs precisely resists visual apprehension.

Green also concentrations on the fascination with the black female body as manifest discursively in nineteenth century travel literature and in critiques of Baker’s performances. In contrast to the visual images the texts are blown up larger than life.  One of the enlarged panels of the excerpts from a travel account reads: “The dance of the Negresses is incredibly indecent … she gets into positions so lascivious, so lubricious that it’s impossible to describe them … It’s true that the Negresses don’t appear to have the depraved intentions which one would imagine; it’s a very old custom, which continues innocently in this country; so much so that one sees children of six performing this dance, certainly without knowing what they’re leading up to.” The visual and discursive mediations on the black female both in the metropoles of Britain and France and in distant countries, as recorded by a traveler, are juxtaposed in the installation.

Revue was installed as part an exhibition The Body as Measure at the Davis Museum and Cultural Center, Wellesley College in 1994. Revue was reinstalled for the exhibition Mirage: Enigmas of Race, Difference, and Desire in London in 1995.

Quote from Green:

In particular I was interested in the way that an artist (filmmaker) and writer such as Laura Mulvey was trying to rethink the way in which certain ideas about visual pleasure were developed.  I was also trying to figure out the way in which a body could be visualized, especially a black female body, yet address the complexity of reading that presence without relinquishing pleasure and history. (Read 146 )

Further Reading

  • Fox, Judith Hoos. The Body as Measure. Wellesley College: Davis Museum and Cultural Center, 1994.
  • Alan Read. The Fact of Blackness.  Seattle and London: Bay Press and inIVA,  1996.

Lyle Ashton Harris and Renee Valerie Cox: “Hottentot Venus 2000″

Book cover of Black Venus / CC Licensed (Click on the image above to see a larger version.)

For the exhibition Mirage: Enigmas of Race, Difference and Desire (1995), Lyle Ashton Harris in collaboration with Renee Valerie Cox created the photograph, “Venus Hottentot 2000.” In this futuristic reinterpretation of the Hottentot Venus, Renee Valerie Cox directly inserts her own body into the historical matrix of Western representations that configured black female sexuality. In the photograph Cox’s body is transformed, recalling the Hottentot Venus, with the addition of protruding metallic breasts and an accompanying metal butt extension. The white strings that delicately hold these metallic body parts in place with bow, seem to emphasize the artists’ complex and ambivalent relationships to representations of black female sexuality. Cox wears the metallic appendages like a costume or disguise, but her own nude body is simultaneously revealed to the viewer. She stands in profile emphasizing her bodily dimensions, hands akimbo, and stares directly at the viewer.

“Hottentot 2000″ is one photograph in a series by Harris called The Good Life, 1994.

Quote from Harris:

This reclaiming of the image of the Hottentot Venus is a way of exploring my own psychic identification with the image at the level of spectacle. I am playing with what it means to be an African diasporic artist producing and selling work in a culture that is by and large narcissistically mired in the debasement and objectification of blackness. And yet, I see my work less as a didactic critique and more as an interrogation of the ambivalence around the body. (Read 150)


  • Mirage: Enigmas of Race, Difference and Desire. London: ICA and inIVA, 1995.
  • Alan Read. The Fact of Blackness. Seattle and London: Bay Press and inIVA,  1996.

Grace Jones: 1985 Performance in Paradise Garage

Image of grace Jones Performing at a concert

Image by Steffmiester/CC Licensed

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Grace Jones boldly interrogated both racial and sexual stereotypes associated with the black female body, through her work in performance. Interestingly, Jones, a Jamaican born artist, was actively working in the Parisian fashion world as a model at the time she moved into performance art. Her involvement and popularity in the Parisian fashion world as a spectacle, being a model, may be compared with the likes of Josephine Baker and Saarjite Baartman before her, black females whose bodies became the locus of the Parisian imagination.

Jones’ bold and often confrontational dress and performance style played with and disrupted primitivist myths about black sexuality. In collaboration with artists like Jean-Paul Goude and Keith Haring, Jones transformed her body into medley characters, many of which satirized a primitivist reading of the black female body. The multiple personas of Grace Jones ranged widely from overly sexualized dance performances in which she donned a gorilla or tiger suit to very masculinized self-representations. For these performances Jones would appear with a crew cut in a tailored men’s suit. Both these modes of representation in Jones’ work, as hyper-sexualized animal and instances of cross-dressing have been related to Josephine Baker’s performances, more specifically, her “jungle” performances in banana and tusk skirts and the famous photographs of Baker in a top hat and tuxedo (Kershaw 21).

In 1985 Jones collaborated with Keith Haring in a performance staged at Paradise Garage, an alternative dance club in New York City. For the performance Haring painted Jones’ body in characteristically Haring-stylized white designs. Interestingly, Haring’s body art was inspired by the body paintings of the African Masai. Jones also adorned her body with an elaborate sculptural assemblage of pieces of rubber, plastic sheen, and metal, created by Haring and David Spada. A towering sculptural headdress topped off the costume. Her breasts were delineated with protruding metal coils. The metal coils were a deliberate reference to an iron-wire sculpture of Josephine Baker by artist Alexander Calder. Later in the performance Jones appeared in a Baker-style skirt, composed of yellow neon spikes. Through the painting, adornment, and importantly through her performance, Jones played with iconic signs of “the primitive,” and transformed these signifiers and her body into a site of power.


  • Kershaw, Miriam. “Postcolonialism and Androgyny: The Performance Art of Grace  Jones.” Art Journal 56 (Winter 1997): 19-25.
  • Wallace, Michelle. “Modernism, Postmodern and the Problem of the Visual in Afro-American Culture.” Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Culture. Ed.  Russell Ferguson. 39-50.

Author: Krista A. Thompson, Spring 1998
Last edited: May 2012

Khan-Din, Ayub


“This was our Pakistani life; this is how we existed outside Salford. A life none of my friends knew or could understand…I think in [East is East] I came as close as possible to understanding my father’s motivation in the way he tried to bring us up,” explains Ayub Khan-Din with regard to his award winning play (Khan-Din, xi). The 38-year-old playwrite is originally from Salford, England. He is the eighth of ten children to a Pakistani father and British mother. With one brother four years his senior and another three years his junior, Khan-Din admits: “I wasn’t part of the older kids or younger kids. I lived in my own world and spent a lot of time daydreaming. It paid off in the end” (qtd. in Wolf). Strangely enough, throughout his childhood, and well into teenage years, Khan-Din had severe difficulty reading and writing. With such poor linguistic skills, it was impossible for anyone to believe that his daydreaming would ever really pay off.

At the age of sixteen, Khan-Din left school and worked at Lee’s Salon, where he went on to become “the worst hairdresser in Manchester.” Khan-Din’s inspiration to become an actor stemmed from David Niven’s autobiography entitled The Moon’s a Balloon, in which Niven writes about his own decision to pursue a career in acting after having served many years in the army. Indeed, Khan-Din also transitioned into the acting profession. His on-screen credits include “My Beautiful Laundrettez” and “Sammy and Rosie Get Laid”.  He remembers his acting experience to be a tumultuous one, mostly because of his bicultural background: “I had no idea after leaving drama school that I would suddenly be stamped with an invisible mark that said BLACK ACTOR!  So while more of my contemporaries went off to rep, I had the added disadvantage of trying to find a company that enforced integrated casting — I didn’t work for a year!” (Khan-Din, ix). Although Khan-Din wasn’t “working” in the traditional sense per se, he was in process of creating what would later become his ticket to success, East is East. The play is based heavily on Khan-Din’s own life and experiences growing up in a bicultural, working-class background: “The parents are drawn directly from my own family. The youngest boy, Sajid, is me as a child. All the arguments in the film, all the theories behind the father’s way of thinking are my own arguments and theories which I developed from writing the first draft of the stageplay to the last draft of the screenplay. The different issues, the different aspects of the relationships — they’re all very similar to my own background.” (A Quick Chat with Ayub Khan-Din). Khan-Din’s mother passed away because of Alzheimer’s disease soon after he graduated from the Mountview Drama School. As a tribute to her and in an attempt to understand his past, Khan-Din decided to delve into the complexities of his childhood by writing East is East as a stage play. He later produced it as a screenplay for Miramax films. Khan-Din has received harsh criticism from more traditional members of Asian society for what they believe to be a somewhat derogatory depiction of Pakistani culture. In response to such comments, he claims: “It was a personal story. I wasn’t writing about any specific community, I was writing about my father.” (A Quick Chat with Ayub Khan-Din). Khan-Din is currently married and has authored several other plays including  So Soon, So Soon and Belmondo Sahib. In 2007 and 2010, Khan-Din’s plays Rafta, Rafta and the sequel to East is East titled West is West premiered.  His work has received mixed reviews, but the overall consensus of critics is that East is East remains his most solid and compelling play.

East is East: Major Themes

Plot Synopsis

East is East poster

East is East poster

Khan-Din’s autobiographical play, East is East, is his most well-known and best received work. It explores the trials and tribulations of George and Ella Khan as they raise eight  rebellious and rambunctious children. George, the children’s Pakistani father is adamant that his children wed other Pakistanis, while Ella, George’s British wife would rather their children marry whomever they choose. The central paradox that the Khan children grapple with is the fact that their own father has married someone outside his race. As critic Les Gutman eloquently states: “The play’s weight… arises from the complex bundle of contradictions that George represents. He is a devout Muslim, proud of his Pakistani heritage and culture. He anguishes over the current fighting between India and Pakistan [...] and longs for the family he left behind. He is firm in his intent to rear his children as Pakistani Muslims which prompts the controversies central to the play.” Indeed, it is George’s own insecurities about his lifestyle and decisions that lead him to place unbearable pressure on his family. George and Ella have been married for nearly twenty-five years and she is his second wife.  “Mrs. Khan number one” as George calls his first wife, lives in Pakistan and is always referred to when George is upset with Ella. George and Ella own and run a fish ‘n’ chips shop, the wages from which are barely enough to support their family. Within the family itself are 7 boys, Nazir, Tariq, Abdul, Maneer, Saleem and Sajid and one girl, Meenah. Khan-Din’s characterization of the Khan children is particularly interesting. On one hand, he cannot develop them to the extent that novels can, so in a sense they are stereotyped. On the other hand, he does provide his audience with just enough information to understand each character’s underlying personality. Nazir breaks away from George’s edict of matrimony very early in the play and is consequently considered no longer part of the family. Tariq, the most strong-willed son and Abdul, the most passive one, are focused on heavily because it is their wedding that George is trying to arrange and what most of the action is centered around.

The entire play hinges on the problems encountered in bicultural families and raises important issues concerning whether two very different cultures can coexist. Additionally, the play has strong historical relevance because it takes place during a very turbulent time in Indian history. The year is 1971 and Bangladesh is trying to gain its freedom and talks of Enoch Powell are always in the air. With so many relevant ideas and themes, the play raises extremely important questions in regards to whether two opposing groups of people can coexist or whether Rudyard Kipling’s quote, from which the play borrows it’s name, holds true that, “East is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet.”


There are a variety of issues and themes that Khan-Din explores throughout his play. Most of them can be classified as social, historical, or symbolic in nature.

Social Themes

Bicultural families: Khan-Din is particularly interested in illustrating the obstacles that bicultural families must surmount in order to maintain some level of stability and contentment within them. The cultural differences within the Khan household present various problems for all of its members. Careful exploration of George’s character reveals that he longs for his Pakistani heritage and compensates for it by instilling Pakistani ideals on his children. As Les Gutman states, “East is East beautifully harmonizes the bedlam of life in a large family and the personal crisis of its conflicted immigrant father. The former is at once touching and very funny; the latter, tormented and ugly.” George is a Pakistani man living in Britain during a time in which bi-racial marriages were looked down upon. Although George loves Ella and his family, the reader understands that he longs for his own homeland as well. As for Ella, the dual cultures within her family force her to compromise her thoughts and beliefs heavily. Despite her lack of refinement in behavior, Ella is a loyal wife and mother. However, many problems arise in trying to satisfy her husband’s wishes as well as her children’s. Throughout the play, Ella always feels as though she must choose between the happiness of her children and the happiness of her husband, since both seem to be mutually exclusive.

Gender Roles:  The roles of men and women deserve a close exploration as well. However, Khan-Din is more concerned with depicting the dilemmas faced by his female characters. His principal female character, Ella, challenges many of the societal roles that have been relegated to women. Ella is an interesting character because, on the surface, she is the direct antithesis of femininity. She curses and insults her husband and children, but underneath everything, she is extremely vigilant in regard to her family and sacrifices a lot in order to hold it together. In his representation of women, Khan-Din compels his readers to consider the roles they played in order to hold the family together. The only other character that Khan-Din develops is Meenah. Due to such strong male influences, Meenah is something of a tomboy. Although George tries to enhance Meenah’s Pakistani side, there are  instances which attest to the fact that Meenah simply does not ‘fit’ into George’s ideals.  Even when she is first introduced, she is wearing a sari and it is pointed out that it “makes her look like a sack of spuds” (Khan-Din, 4). Khan-Din’s presentation of women is intriguing and provides many key insights concerning the workings of the Khan family.

Historical Themes

Bangladesh Liberation War: East is East is set in 1971.  During this time period, Bangladesh is trying to gain its independence from Pakistan. In March of 1971, the Pakistani army committed genocide against the east Pakistani people. This prompted the Bengali people to wage a war for their own independence. Because India helped Bangladesh do this, George is always making negative comments about this throughout the play.

Enoch Powell: This historical figure has a foreboding presence throughout the play. Although he is not an official character, he is a major part of the historical backdrop of the play. During the early 1970′s this prominent politician and writer launched attacks on the immigrants taking away British jobs. Of both historical themes, Khan-Din asserts: “Bangladesh’s war of independence had a big effect on our household, because what happened in the house always revolved around the TV news. In a way, it was almost as if the disintegration of Pakistan was happening in our house at the same time. It affected everything that was going on” (A Quick Chat with Ayub Khan-Din).

Symbolic Themes

Sajid’s parka:  Sajid, the youngest of the Khan’s, and Khan-Din’s representation of himself, is associated with the parka that he constantly wears. The parka is supposed to be the boy’s shield from the harsh realities of the family, as well as the harsh realities of the world. Although Sajid is the youngest member, he is certainly not the most spoiled. He relies on his parka to protect him from what his family cannot. At the end of the play, Sajid makes a landmark decision to discard his parka. The meaning behind this action can be interpreted in many ways, but most readers see this as his readiness to take on the complexities of his lifestyle.

On Stage

Khan-Din originally intended for East is East to be performed as a stage play. It opened first at the London Royal Court Theatre in 1997 and in The Manhattan Theater Club in 1999. Scott Elliot, the artistic chief and director of the Manhattan Theater Club exclaims: “Its unbelievably original…when you read it, you think ‘What is this?’ And then you find out most of it is true, so that really increases your interest. You just know where this play is coming from–the warmth and heart and love and rage that are in this family.”  Khan-Din echoes these sentiments in regards to the play: “The anger is there. But you can get your message across much stronger, I think, through humor and showing humanity. That’s the only way an audience is going to come in. And if you’re not going to get an audience, at the end of the day, your play is a dead duck.” Khan-Din’s play was anything but dead– it sold out in all productions in both London and New York. Additionally, Khan-Din was awarded the Writer’s Guild Award for Best New Writer as well as Best West End Play.

On Screen

In 1999, East is East was distributed to Miramax Films who asked Damien O’Donnell to direct a film version of the play. The cast included Linda Bassett as Ella and Om Puri as George. Although both cast member were a part of the original theater productions of the play, some viewers felt that the film failed to retain the same appealing qualities as the stage play. As Kristine Landon-Smith states: “The film is totally different from the stage play…I found that some of the characters lost their nuances on screen and became stereotypes” (qtd. in Ahmad). Despite a few criticisms, the film received overall positive reviews. During the first week of its release in Britain, the film grossed one million dollars at the box office–pulling ahead of the box-office smash “The Sixth Sense.” Later in 1999, Khan-Din was nominated for best screenplay at the Evening Standard Awards, one of London’s most distinguished honors. Khan-Din did not win, although East is East did receive the award for the best film of 1999. Indeed, Khan-Din’s progress as a writer is best reflected in his plays. However, equally as admirable, is his ability to present his complicated life as understandable pieces — both for his audiences as well as for himself.

Works Cited

  • Guthman, Edward. “Old, New Ways Clash in East’; Pakistani Father Raises a Family in London.” (15 Sept. 2000) Lexis Nexis Academic Universe.  9 Nov 2000. Web.
  • Gutman, Les.  “A CurtainUp Review: East is East.” (2, June 1999) 24  Nov 2000. Web.
  • Khan-Din, Ayub. “East is East.” New York: Hyperion, 1999.
  • “A Quick Chat With Ayub Khan-Din.” (6 Oct. 1999). 9 Nov. 2000. Web.
  • Toscan, Richard.  “Guidelines for Play Competitions.” (1995) The Play Writing Seminars Homepage. 9 Nov. 2000. Web.
  • Wolf, Matt.  “East is East and West is an Off Broadway Stage.” (23 May  1999). Lexis Nexis Academic Universe. 9 Nov 2000. Web.

Selected Bibliography

  • Ahmad, Shazia. “Din’s Own Story.” American Theater. Vol. 17. (2000). Lexis Nexis Academic Universe. 9 Nov 2000. Web.
  • Bassett, Kate. “I Owe It All to David Niven.” The Daily Telegraph. (1999).  Lexis Nexis Academic Universe. 9 Nov 2000. Web.
  • Donnell, Alison. Companion to Contemporary Black British Culture. London: Routledge, 2002.
  • French, Philip. “A Fate Worse Than Death?” The Observer. (1999). Lexis  Nexis Academic Universe. 9 Nov 2000. Web.
  •  Hingorani, Dominic. British Asian theatre : dramaturgy, process and performance. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire ; New York : Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Related Links

Reviews of the film

Official Sites (Miramax official site) (U.K. official site).

Bangladesh Liberation War Site

Author: Tina Bhatnagar, Fall 2000

Last Updated: July 2012

Harris, Wilson


A Guyanese of Amerindian, African, European, and possibly Asian descent (Harris 1999: 237), Wilson Harris was born in New Amsterdam, Guyana (then and up until 1966 British Guiana) on March 24th, 1921. Having been educated at Queen’s College in the nation’s capital of Georgetown, he went on to become a government surveyor employed in mapping the country’s interior, specifically along their major rivers (see map below this text).

Harris emigrated to England in 1959. His academic career has since taken him to various corners of the globe. He has held positions teaching creative writing at the University of Texas in Austin, the University of California in Santa Cruz, as well as in Australia. He has been honored with numerous awards including the most recent 2010 knighting by Queen Elizabeth II.


The Guyana Quartet, 1985.

The Guyana Quartet, 1985

Harris started his writing career as a poet, publishing two volumes of verse before his departure to London, Fetish (1951) and Eternity to Season (1954), as well as numerous poems published separately in Guyana’s literary journal Kyk-over-al, among them “The Sun: Fourteen Poems in a Cycle” (1955). His novels, the genre in which Harris has been most prolific, can roughly be divided into five main phases (James 1999). His experience as a surveyor, although present in nearly all his writing, was to show most prominently in the first of these phases, which comprises his novels Palace of the Peacock (1960), The Far Journey of Oudin (1961), The Whole Armour (1962), and The Secret Ladder (1963) — collectively referred to as The Guyana Quartet. Using the landscape of Guyana as a backdrop (which is nevertheless intricately interwoven with the narrative), these works draw on the country’s multiethnic heritage as a reservoir for reconciliation and achieving an awareness of the interconnected fates of everyone affected by colonialism. Often introducing characters symbolic of a particular segment of society, the novels thrust these characters into situations of heightened physical and spiritual danger, during which they are made to realize their common plight. Working metaphorically by juxtaposing the country’s exterior (the coast) to its interior (the hinterland, the rainforest), Harris stages a “voyage in” which emphasizes the role of the unconscious in overcoming the legacies of colonialism.

Following Heartland (1964), which reevaluates some of the themes and characters of the Quartet, Harris published a number of novels which take his use of imagination as a tool for liberation one step further. Beginning with The Eye of the Scarecrow (1965), Harris started to depict psychological impairments, such as the loss of memory or nervous breakdowns, induced by accidents symbolically linked to colonialism, as creating a void which can (and must) be filled by the imagination (The Waiting Room (1967), Tumatumari (1968), and Ascent to Omai (1970), all fall into this loose category). This step places a visionary view of the world on an equal level with a “factual” appraisal of “reality,” thus questioning the ordering principles imposed by that reality. In a place as severely affected by colonialism as the Caribbean, such a stance is of particular importance, as it stresses the role of the writer in healing the impacts of colonialism.

Black Marsden (1972) initiates a set of novels that shift the setting to places outside of Guyana and adopt a comparative perspective which helps Harris to generalize some of his observations about the conflicts he had explored in his earlier fiction. Set in Scotland, Black Marsden (which is subtitled A Tabula Rasa Comedy, hinting at the author’s more playful way of addressing some of his issues) integrates the arts of theater (in the plot) and painting (in the theme ? there are bleak physical as well as psychological landscapes through which the characters are made to wander) into the novel form. Companions of the Day and Night (1975) continues Marsden, concentrating on a different main character. Another two-volume set of novels in this phase is DaSilva daSilva’s Cultivated Wilderness (1977) and The Tree of the Sun (1978), in which the character DaSilva makes a return as a painter from Harris’s first novel, Palace of the Peacock.

The last of the somewhat unified cycles of fiction by Wilson Harris is represented by his Carnival Trilogy, comprised of the novels Carnival (1985), The Infinite Rehearsal (1987), and The Four Banks of the River of Space (1990). Playing on carnival’s subversive potential in reenacting received traditions, these novels are rewritings, respectively,of Dante’s Paradiso, Goethe’s Faust, and Homer’s Odyssey. Apart from alluding to these three representative pieces of the Western literary canon, the trilogy also addresses the role of science. In passages reminiscent (in effect, if not in style) of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Harris shows how in an age of rapidly shifting analytical paradigms in the realm of science, this realm has moved ever closer qualitatively to the realm of traditional storytelling and one of its major protagonists, the Anancy trickster figure.

Harris’s most recent works, Resurrection at Sorrow Hill (1993) and Jonestown (1996) are again invoking the Guyanese landscape as a metaphor of the seemingly impenetrable psyche of its protagonists. As in the Guyana Quartet, however, there is a “voyage in” which does engage with the overwhelming sense of alienation created by the jungle (and, implicitly,by colonial rule) in a very creative manner. These two works are more global in outlook than the Quartet, however, in that they address manifestations of hierarchical systems which are epitomized by, but not endemic to, colonialism. Resurrection at Sorrow Hill counters the structuring mechanisms of surveillance instituted by the prison system (as described by Foucault 1979) as well as by the mental asylum (see Foucault 1973) by ascribing a regenerative quality to the “madness” of its main protagonist (adequately named “Hope”) which in turn is needed to overcome the madness of the “real world.” Another form of “madness,” namely religious fanaticism, is addressed in Jonestown.

The Cross-Cultural Imagination

Wilson Harris’s work stands out among Caribbean writers as arguably the most radically inclusive body of writing produced in the region. As any writer from a colonized country writing in the postcolonial era, Wilson Harris has had to address the effects of colonization on the society which provided the source for his creative project. Harris has been interested in showing that the process of colonization affects both sides of the colonial divide,a point made very clearly by his Barbadian colleague Edward Brathwaite with regard to the working of language (Brathwaite 1971). It is important to note, however, that Brathwaite, in analyzing Creole Society in Jamaica, erected a division of Afro – vs. Euro-Creole, thus disavowing the influence of other ethnic groups on the development of the culture; Harris’s efforts at integrating all groups which make up Caribbean, and Guyanese society in particular, into his writings stand out among Caribbean writers, especially in so far as he explicitly makes reference to the Amerindian heritage of the region.

Harris uses the coincidence of mythical figures of both the African and the Amerindian oral traditions, such as Anancy the spider, to propose his concept of a “cross-cultural imagination.” The link between African and Amerindian myth is seen by Harris as a consequence of the Middle Passage, creating a “limbo gateway” (“History, Fable, and Myth in the Caribbean and Guianas,” 152-166 in Harris 1999) through which a new imagination can emerge. By invoking the limbo dance as a metaphor, Harris insists that this new imagination only comes about as the result of a painful, yet fruitful, interaction between not only the African and Amerindian, but also the European cultures. The imagination, in the Caribbean setting, is seen to progress in a singular fashion, from cramp to growth.

Harris also relies on Amerindian mythical representations of nature as carriers of his central messages. This reliance is grounded in a belief that “one cannot […] colonize the unconscious” (Rowell 1995: 192) – Frantz Fanon would of course vehemently disagree).

A professed devotee of Carl Gustav Jung, Wilson Harris has expressed his admiration for the philosopher’s concept of a collective unconscious. However, it has been his aim to expand this idea so that it may include the forces of nature as well as the inanimate world. Harris’s alternative term for this phenomenon is the “universal unconscious” (Kutzinski 1995:20). This has been a central ingredient in his challenging of colonial rule by way of enabling the imagination to effect liberation from confining epistemological boundaries which neatly separate human consciousness from its surroundings.

In keeping with this approach, Harris has also repeatedly rejected realism as a mode of artistic expression. Asserting that “[t]here’s a sense in which realism weds us to Death,” (Rowell 1995: 194) Harris valorizes the unconscious as providing of a gateway that enables a reinsciption of reality as preconceived by colonial discourse.

Aesthetic Concerns

One of the most prolific writers of our time, Wilson Harris has not only consistently worked in different genres, but has likewise brought them into conversation with one another and thus blurred the lines between fiction and nonfiction. Hence, many of his essays display an uncompromisingly poetic style, while his novels are interspersed with passages which could easily pass for pieces of literary and cultural criticism. This convergence is so complete that, in fact, Harris explicitly quotes himself in his writings in key passages.

The rejection of dichotomies in the aesthetic realm is symbolic of his rejection of the same dichotomies in the political sphere, pertaining to colonialism. While indicting the colonial project and its repercussions (on the psyche in particular), Harris nevertheless takes great care in emphasizing the effects of this process on both colonizer and colonized,which makes it possible for him to gesture towards an inclusive vision of reconciliation that transcends “the cult of revenge” (Resurrection at Sorrow Hill, 107).

Works by Wilson Harris

This bibliography is restricted to Harris’s major works of fiction and criticism. An extensive listing of primary and secondary sources (including all of Harris’s early writing) is available at

  • Harris, Wilson. The Age of the Rainmakers. London: Faber and Faber, 1971.
  • —. The Angel at the Gate. London: Faber and Faber, 1982.
  • —. Ascent to Omai. London: Faber and Faber, 1970.
  • —. Black Marsden. London: Faber and Faber, 1972.
  • —. Carnival. London: Faber and Faber, 1985.
  • —. The Carnival Trilogy. London: Faber and Faber, 1993.
  • —. Companions of the Day and Night. London: Faber and Faber, 1975.
  • —. DaSilva daSilva’s Cultivated Wilderness and Genesis of the Clowns. London: Faber and Faber, 1977.
  • —. The Eye of the Scarecrow. London: Faber and Faber, 1965.
  • —. The Far Journey of Oudin. London: Faber and Faber, 1961.
  • —. The Four Banks of the River of Space. London: Faber and Faber,1990.
  • —. The Guyana Quartet. London: Faber and Faber, 1985.
  • —. Heartland. London: Faber and Faber, 1964.
  • —. The Infinite Rehearsal. London: Faber and Faber, 1987.
  • —. Jonestown. London: Faber and Faber, 1996.
  • —. Palace of the Peacock. London: Faber and Faber, 1960.
  • —. Resurrection at Sorrow Hill. London: Faber and Faber, 1993.
  • —. The Secret Ladder. London: Faber and Faber, 1963.
  • —. The Sleepers of Roraima: A Carib Trilogy. London: Faber andFaber, 1970.
  • —. The Tree of the Sun. London: Faber and Faber, 1978.
  • —. Tumatumari. London: Faber and Faber, 1968.
  • —. The Waiting Room. London: Faber and Faber, 1967.
  • —. The Whole Armour. London: Faber and Faber, 1962.

Critical Writings

  • Harris, Wilson. Explorations: A Selection of Talks and Articles, 1966-1981.ed. by Hena Maes-Jelinek. Mundelstrup: Dangaroo Press, 1981.
  • —. Fossil and Psyche. Austin: African and Afro-American Studies and Research Center, University of Texas, 1974.
  • —. Tradition, the Writer, and Society: Critical Essays. London and Port of Spain: New Beacon Books, 1967.
  • —. History, Fable and Myth in the Caribbean and the Guianas (Edgar Mittelholzer Memorial Lectures). Georgetown: National —. History and Arts Council,  1970; rev. and updated ed. Wellesley: Calaloux, 1995.
  • —. Selected Essays of Wilson Harris: The Unfinished Genesis of the Imagination. Ed. by A.J.M. Bundy. New York: Routledge,1999.
  • —. The Womb of Space: The Cross-Cultural Imagination. London:  Greenwood Press, 1983.


  • Harris, Wilson. Eternity to Season. Georgetown: published privately, 1954; rpt. London: New Beacon  Books, 1978.
  • —. Fetish. Guyana: Miniature Poets Series, 1951.
  • —. “The Muse on the Trail,” New World (Guyana Independence Issue, 1966),45.
  • —. “The Winter Christ,” Three Poems, Temenos Academy Review, 2 (Spring 1999), 46-49.

Selected Bibliography

  • Drake, Sandra F. (1986). Wilson Harris and the Modern Tradition: A New Architecture  of the World. New York: Greenwood Press.
  • Durrant, Sam. Postcolonial Narrative and the Work of Mourning: J. M. Coetzee, Wilson Harris, and Toni Morrison.  Albany, NY: State U of New York P; 2003.
  • Maes-Jelinek, Hena (1991). “’Numinous Proportions’: Wilson Harris’s Alternative to All  Posts’.” Adam, Ian and Tiffin, Heken (eds.). Past the Last Post: Theorizing Post- Colonialism and Post-Modernism. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf. 47-64.
  • McDougall, Russell (1998). “Walter Roth, Wilson Harris, and a Caribbean/Postcolonial Theory of Modernism.” University of Toronto Quarterly 67(2): 567-591.
  • Gilkes, Michael (ed.) (1989). The Literate Imagination: Essays on the Novels of Wilson  Harris. London: Macmillan.
  • Webb, Barbara J. (1992). Myth and History in Caribbean Fiction: Alejo Carpentier,  Wilson Harris, and Edouard Glissant. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Special Issues

  • Callaloo 18:1 (1995)
  • The Review of Contemporary Fiction 17:2 (1997).

Author: Christian Wolff, Spring 2000
Last edited: June 2012

Mimicry, Ambivalence, and Hybridity

Robinson Crusoe and Friday by Carl Offterdinge/public domain

Robinson Crusoe and Friday by Carl Offterdinge/public domain

Daniel Dafoe’s 1719 novel, Robinson Crusoe, is a rich text for understanding the mechanisms of European colonialism and the relation between the colonizer and the colonized (represented by Crusoe and Friday). Dafoe represents Crusoe as being the ultimate incarnation of an Englishman: industrious, self-determining and ready to colonize natives. Crusoe encounters a native and he names him Friday, teaches him English, the words of God, and slowly “civilizes” the dark-skinned native. Although the novel forecloses any possibility of understanding Friday’s experience, a reader could start to wonder how Friday’s relation to Crusoe affects his own sense of identity. In the novel, we only see Friday as mimicking Crusoe and civilization–but what effects does this mimicry have on a colonized subject and psyche? And how does mimicry and hybridity affect textual representation and signification?

The term hybridity has become one of the most recurrent concepts in postcolonial cultural criticism. It is meant to foreclose the diverse forms of purity encompassed within essentialist theories. Homi Bhabha is the leading contemporary critic who has tried to disclose the contradictions inherent in colonial discourse in order to highlight the colonizer’s ambivalence in respect to his position toward the colonized Other. The simple presence of the colonized Other within the textual structure is enough evidence of the ambivalence of the colonial text, an ambivalence that destabilizes its claim for absolute authority or unquestionable authenticity.

Along with Tom Nairn, Homi Bhabha considers the confusion and hollowness that resistance produces in the minds of such imperialist authors as Rider Haggard, Rudyard Kipling, and E. M. Forster. But while Nairn sees their colonialist grandiose rhetoric as disproportionate to the real decadent economic and political situation of late Victorian England, Bhabha goes as far as to see this imperial delirium forming gaps within the English text, gaps which are the signs of a discontinuous history, an estrangement of the English book. They mark the disturbance of its authoritative representations by the uncanny forces of race, sexuality, violence, cultural and even climatic differences which emerge in the colonial discource as the mixed and split texts of hybridity. If the English book is read as a production of hybridity, then it no longer simply commands authority.

His analysis, which is largely based on the Lacanian conceptualization of mimicry as camouflage focuses on colonial ambivalence. On the one hand, he sees the colonizer as a snake in the grass who, speaks in “a tongue that is forked,” and produces a mimetic representation that “emerges as one of the most elusive and effective strategies of colonial power and knowledge” (Bhabha 85). Bhabha recognizes then that colonial power carefully establishes highly-sophisticated strategies of control and dominance; that, while it is aware of its ephemerality, it is also anxious to create the means that guarantee its economic, political and cultural endurance, through the conception, in Macaulay’s words in his “Minute on Indian Education” (1835),”of a class of interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern – a class of persons Indian in blood and colour but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect” – that is through the reformation of that category of people referred to by Frantz Fanon in the phrase, “black skin/white masks,” or as “mimic men” by V.S.Naipaul. Friday could be one of these mimic men; but as we have already seen, the process of colonial mimicry is both a product of and produces ambivalence and hybridity.

Bhabha explains that Macaulay’s Indian interpreters and Naipaul’s mimic men are authorized versions of otherness: “part-objects of a metonymy of colonial desire, end up emerging as inappropriate colonial subjects … [who], by now producing a partial vision of the colonizer’s presence” (88).  What is left in the repeating action of mimicry, according to Bhabha, is the trace, the impure, the artificial, the second-hand. Bhabha analyses the slippages in colonial political discourse, and reveals that the janus-faced attitudes towards the colonized lead to the production of a mimicry that presents itself more in the form of a menace and rupture rather than than a resemblance and consolidation.

Hybridity, Bhabha argues, subverts the narratives of colonial power and dominant cultures. The series of inclusions and exclusions on which a dominant culture is premised are deconstructed by the very entry of the formerly-excluded subjects into the mainstream discourse. The dominant culture is contaminated by the linguistic and racial differences of the native self. Hybridity can thus be seen, in Bhabha’s interpretation, as a counter-narrative, a critique of the canon and its exclusion of other narratives. In other words, the hybridity-acclaimers want to suggest first, that the colonialist discourse’s ambivalence is a conspicuous illustration of its uncertainty; and second, that the migration of yesterday’s “savages” from their peripheral spaces to the homes of their “masters” underlies a blessing invasion that, by “Third-Worlding” the center, creates “fissures” within the very structures that sustain it.

Further reading

  • Bakhtin, M.M.. The Dialogic Imagination. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.
  • Belnap, Jeffrey Grant. The Post-colonial State and the “Hybrid” Intellectual. California: U.M.I., 1993.
  • Bhabha, Homi. Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1995.
  • Brathwaite, Edward Kamau. “Creolization in Africa.” Ashcroft, et al. The Postcolonial Studies Reader. London: Routledge, 1995. 202-205.
  • Chambers, Iain & Lidia Curti, eds. The Post-Colonial Question. London: Routledge, 1996. 9-11; 49-50; 134-5; 250-51.
  • Hobsbawm, Eric and Terence Ranger. The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
  • Hogan, Patrick Colm. “The Gender of Tradition: Ideologies of Character in Post-Colonization Anglophone Literature.” Order and Partialities: Theory, Pedagogy and the “Postcolonial.” Ed. Kostas Myrsiades and Jerry McGuire. Albany: SUNY Press, 1995. 87-110.
  • James, C. L. R. Beyond a Boundary. London: Hutchinson, c1963.
  • Mongia, Padmini, ed. Contemporary Postcolonial Theory. London: Arnold, 1996. 127-8; 284-91; 329-31.
  • Nandy, Ashis. The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self Under Colonialism. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1983.
  • Ranger, T. O. Dance and Society in Eastern Africa, 1890-1970: the Beni ngoma. London: Heinemann, 1975.
  • Taussig, Michael. Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses. New York: Routledge, 1993.
  • Young, Robert J.C.. Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race. London: Routledge, 1995.

Author: Abdennebi Ben Beya, c. 1998.
Last edited: July 2012

Soyinka, Wole


Image by Chidi Anthony Opara/CC licensed

Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian born writer of international renown, is an artist proficient in multiple genres. Soyinka has written in the modes of drama (Death and the King’s Horseman and Madmen and Specialists), poetry (Idanre and other Poems), autobiography (Ake: The Years of Childhood), the novel (The Interpreters), literary and cultural criticism (Myth, Literature and the African World), and political criticism (The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis). He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986.

Soyinka not only writes for the stage but is also active in directing and producing theater. Soyinka believes that the role of performative art is very important in shaping and regenerating the culture and political identity of a people and a nation. Art connects the culture of a people with the cosmic and the archetypal primal sources of beginnings. Soyinka’s belief in the interrelation between a culture’s art and its cosmic history is manifested in his depiction of  Yoruban cosmology in his writings. Due to the infusion of Yoruban deities and folklore some of Soyinka’s writing may be very distant from the average knowledge and expectations of western readership. The cultural intricacies and weight of Yoruban myth will not be explicated here, but the relation between Soyinka’s use of Yoruban myth and his ideas about western mind and reader will be examined.

The Place of Colonial Discourse in Soyinka’s Work

In the “Author’s Note” prefacing the text of Death and the King’s Horseman, Wole Soyinka quietly inserts a very important message to potential readers of his works:

The bane of themes of this genre is that they are no sooner employed creatively than they acquire the facile tag of “clash of cultures,” a prejudicial label which, quite apart from its frequent misapplication, presupposes a potential equality in every given situation of the alien culture and the indigenous, on the soil of the latter. (In the area of misapplication, the overseas prize for illiteracy and mental conditioning undoubtedly goes to the blurb-writer for the American edition of my novel Season of Anomy who unblushingly declares that this work portrays the ‘clash between old values and new ways, between western methods and African traditions!’) It is thanks to this kind of perverse mentality that I find it necessary to caution the would-be producer of this play against a sadly familiar reductionist tendency, and to direct his vision instead to the far more difficult and risky task of eliciting the play’s threnodic essence.

Death and the King’s Horseman is a play that tells the historically accurate events of the tragic demise of Elesin, a Yoruban king’s horseman, and the moment of cosmic crisis that this brings upon his culture as a whole. As the king’s horseman it is Elesin’s role to follow his king into death through self-sacrifice. The play opens after the death of the king and thus Elesin’s death is imminent. Contrary to most western readers’ expectations, Elesin is not wracked with self-pity and rage against his fate. Elesin knows that he holds the highest honor due to his active role in continuing the Yoruban cosmos by easing the transition of their fallen leader to the realm of the dead. The moment of outward crisis comes for the Yoruba when Elesin’s self-sacrifice is stopped by the British District Officer who sees the act as a suicide that breaks civilized, legal, religious, and moral codes. What Soyinka alerts us to in the “Author’s Note” is to search for deeper human conflicts through a closer reading of the text. It was actually Elesin’s own pride and lust for the material goods of this life that caused his hesitation to commit the self-sacrifice. This moment of hesitation granted the District Officer enough time to disrupt the ritual. This story is extremely relevant to both postcolonial concepts of art and political/cultural self-projections by nations in a postcolonial situation. It contextualizes colonialism as a matter of modern history and allows art and culture to go beyond and deeper into the innate human soul to find its sources of creation. Art produced in a postcolonial situation even within the framework of colonial difference and oppression is not confined to finding its roots in this imperial opposition. Colonialism remains a framework of a story where the “threndonic essence” inherent to humanity can be created. The colonized must not always be seen as only existing in opposition to a colonial force. The self-definition of a culture can also arise out of its own cosmic history.

Soyinka and Philosophic Traditions: European and African

In Myth, Literature and the African World Soyinka discusses the intellectual history of the search for the African essence and whether the essence was destroyed for the majority of Africa during the colonial “clash of cultures.” Soyinka places himself in opposition to the search for “Africanness” by Negritude writers by proposing that the majority of Africans “never at any time had cause to question the existence of their — Negritude” (135). Soyinka identifies the basis of the misreading by the Negritude movement in their incorrect application of a supposedly universal set of western philosophical ideas to the colonial African situation:

The fundamental error was one of procedure: Negritude stayed within a pre-set system of Eurocentric intellectual analysis both of man and society and tried to re-define the African and his society in those terms. In the end, even the poetry of celebration for this supposed self-retrieval became indistinguishable from the mainstream of French poetry (136).

It must also be noted in light of this critique of western ideas that Soyinka is a student and contributor to the western philosophical and artistic traditions. Throughout his texts Soyinka uses the work of Nietzsche, Sartre, and Fanon as well as re-writing ancient Greek drama. Soyinka creates an ingenious parable where Descartes is written into a philosophic confrontation with an African and his famous “cogito ergo sum” is rewritten by the African:

Let us respond, very simply, as I imagine our mythical brother innocent would respond in his virginal village, pursuing his innocent sports, suddenly confronted by the figure of Descartes in his pith-helmet, engaged in the mission of piercing the jungle of the black pre-logical mentality with his intellectual canoe. As our Cartesian ghost introduces himself by scribbling on our black brother’s — naturally — tabula rasa the famous proposition, “I think, therefore I am,” we should not respond, as the Negritudinists did, with “I feel, therefore I am”, for that is to accept the arrogance of a philosophical certitude that has no foundation in the provable, one which reduces the cosmic logic of being to a functional particularism of being. I cannot imagine that our “authentic black innocent” would ever have permitted himself to be manipulated into the false position of countering one pernicious Manichaeism with another. He would sooner, I suspect, reduce our white explorer to syntactical proportions by responding: “You think, therefore you are a thinker, white-creature-in-pith-helmet-in-African-jungle-who-thinks and, finally, white-man-who-has-problems-believing-in-his-own- existence.” And I cannot believe that he would arrive at that observation solely by intuition (138-139).

Soyinka wants to dispel the idea of the “feeling intuitive African” in opposition to the “rational thinking European.” It is not a difference of reason versus emotion but a difference of world views and modes of thought. The African finds it ridiculous to compartmentalize the mind in this way. Soyinka rewrites the western obsession with the nature of the human subject as a neurotic weakness. It is immodest to reduce the existence of being to a human “particularism” of “thinking.” This passage is complemented by Soyinka’s play The Road. The character of the Professor is on a quest to find “the Word.” “The Word” or “the Scheme” carries both significations of Christianity’s complicity in colonialization and the Professor’s own obsession with compartmentalizing and consuming knowledge. The Professor is a delusional egomaniac who ironically resembles the ghost of Descartes from above, for the Professor evaluates the Africans on the Cartesian value of the written thought:

PROF: (speaking to SAMSON, to his mind a “authentic black innocent”): You are a strange creature my friend. You cannot read, and I presume you cannot write, but you can unriddle signs of the Scheme that baffle even me, whose whole life is devoted to the study of the enigmatic Word? (204)

The Professor is the neurotic Cartesian subject searching for the ultimate particularism of being: “the Word.” This obsession with the search for the knowledge of Death ultimately leads to the Professor’s destruction. However, opposite to the Professor is Murano, a mute. His silence is the antithesis of the verbose Professor craving the greater knowledge of being. Just as the Professor strives to carve up and consume more and more of Knowledge, Murano exists in a content oneness with the spiritual world. The Professor’s mastery of the Word never competes with the power Murano has through his silence. For while the Professor neurotically searches for the philosophic Word, Murano is attuned to the cosmic world through the ritual dance and evocation of the deities. Murano defies the logic of the western Word through the interconnectedness of the Yoruban cosmology of cyclic time. The unborn, the living, and the ancestral exist simultaneously and without definite boundaries. The Yoruban can access knowledge of  “the Scheme”  because of the cyclic transition that exists between death and life in the Yoruban cosmos unlike the western static idea of life and death. Soyinka sees the African artistic or cultural essence never being absent or dependent upon western ideas. It has been forced into a silent existence but never denied its own being. The African cultural identity is neither anachronistic nor a philosophical import but viable in the past and present of ritual theater.

Works Cited

  • Soyinka, Wole. Death and the King’s Horseman. New York: Hill and Wang,1975.
  • —. Myth, Literature and the African World. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1976.
  • —. The Road. from Collected Plays One. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.

Selected Works by Soyinka


  • Soyinka, Wole. The Interpreters. London: Heinemann, 1965.
  • —. Season of Anomy. Boston: Arena, 1973.


  • Soyinka, Wole. Aké: The Years of Childhood. New York: Vintage, 1981.
  • —. Ibadan: The Penkelemes Years. Altona: Spectrum Books, 1994.
  • —. The Man Died: Prison Notes. Brighton: Africa Book Centre Ltd, 1972.
  • —. You Must Set Forth At Dawn. New York: Randomhouse, 2006.


  • Soyinka, Wole. Death and the King’s Horseman. New York: Hill & Wang, 1987. 
  • —. The Lion and the Jewel. London: Oxford University Press Ltd, 1963.
  • —. Kongi’s Harvest. London: Oxford University Press Ltd, 1967. 
  • —. Madmen and Specialists. New York: Hill & Wang, 1987.
  • —. A Play of Giants. London: Methuen, 1984.
  • —. Requiem for a Futurologist. London: Rex Collings, 1985. 
  • —. The Road. London: Oxford University Press Ltd, 1965.
  • —. The Strong Breed. London: Oxford University Press Ltd, 1963.
  • —. The Swamp Dwellers. London: Oxford University Press Ltd, 1963.

Related Sites

Nobel Prize biography

Author: Joseph Wilson, Fall 1997
Last edited: May 2012