Some Dilemmas Concerning the New English Literatures
I should like to explore three fields of interest within this discussion of the New Literatures in English, these being: representation, Eurocentrism and the notion of hybridity. These are closely related and can be addressed in context with my interpretation of Atwood’s poem.
Opinion rages when speaking of the new English literatures. What the majority can agree on, however, is the importance for former colonies and dominions to establish their very own literary expression, in order to achieve genuine representation and confirm a national identity. In Canada, Africa, India, Australia, New Zealand, and the Caribbean, there is a distinct desire to stand apart from English roots or influence, on one’s own cultural and linguistic ground.
One of the considerable challenges to the new English literatures is Eurocentrism. Eurocentrism is a tradition of standards and representation which emphasises, and, indeed, holds superior, the culture of Western Europe, at the expense of other cultures. This includes, among other things, language, artistic expression and standards, and cultural values and identity, either drawn from, inherited from, or embedded by Europe through influence, colonisation, education and cultural indoctrination, and/or imperial occupation. How does one formulate genuine representation and identity when the language, tools and standards you work with are not your own?
Representation and the expression of identity are not limited to literature. The tradition of historical representation, as was taught in the colonies before independence, emphasised British history and Old Europe, and, significantly, European standards of civilisation and cultural values, refinement and progression. As represented by the monster-museum in Atwood’s poem. This is another aspect of Eurocentrism.
The question for the former colonies is whether one can circumvent the influence of the old world, as established as it is, or indeed avoid drawing from the old world for expression and cultural identity when your nation is relatively young, embedded with European standards and culture.
In Canada and Australia, the desire to differentiate from the old world has developed into something of an obsession. The old world has been called a “predator on the present” which taints and limits natural cultural development. Paradoxically, these countries that so stress the difference in culture and values between the old and new worlds give the appearance of the highest anxiety to abandon the old centre. British and old world culture, standards and norms have proved remarkably resilient. This is another way Eurocentrism makes itself known; through the reluctance of either Europe or the former colonies to let go of one another. Some have sought to explain this in that Canada and Australia have issues with abandonment and cultural cringing, being such young countries. Australia, where deported reject forefathers have not been forgotten, has struggled with a strange mixture of shame and grudge.
We hear an echo of this in Atwood’s poem; the feeling of insignificance and abandonment, the feeling of both the lack of direction and too much, i.e. ‘YOU ARE HERE’, and the simultaneous acceptance of and resistance to the authority of the Eurocentric historical tradition, symbolised by the byzantine dome.
In India and Africa, and the Caribbean, and to the indigenous peoples of Australia and New Zealand, the discussion is further complicated by a history of colonial oppression, the cultural pre-history to the Empire, and the stereotyping and fetishism of black or “primitive” culture. Here, the quest for identity and representation is not only focused on expression, but a fight against old and enduring prejudices. At least, some of these former colonies have an indigenous cultural history to draw from.
© 1996, 2002, 2018, 2019 Kirstin Sørensen