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“The Postcolonial Should Perhaps Eat Itself!”

A Q&A with Professor David Richards on Postcolonial Literature

This is the third in a series of blog posts by guest contributor Nabina Das on Indian books and authors. In this post, Das interviews Professor David Richards of the University of Stirling.

Bio: David Richards is a Chair in English Studies at the University of Stirling in Scotland. Richards has an M.A. in English from the University of Cambridge, an M.A. from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge. He joined the Department as Professor of English Studies in 2006 after having held posts at the universities of Leeds and Birmingham and at the Open University, where he was the founding Director of the Ferguson Research Centre. He was the Deputy Director of the Centre for African Studies at Leeds and is currently the Director of the Stirling Centre of Postcolonial Studies.

Richards’ chief research interests are in the areas of colonial and postcolonial literature, anthropology, art history and cultural theory. His published work includes studies of individual writers, the representation of other cultures in literature, anthropology and art, cultural production in post-colonial cities, and discourses of the “archaic” in colonial and postcolonial cultures. He is also a member of the editorial boards of several journals. Along with Dr Gemma Robinson at University of Stirling, Richards has been spearheading the Charles Wallace India Trust fellowship in Creative Writing project since 2006; I am the current fellowship recipient.

Nabina Das: You’ve been teaching courses in Postcolonial Literature for a long time. Where did the interest start?

David Richards: It all started with James Joyce’s use of “myths” as a framework. All that I read as an undergraduate in Joyce’s work stuck to my mind. Later on came Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horsemen and such other works. I’m primarily interested in Anthropology. It is the African and Caribbean Studies that provided me the “lateral possibilities” of looking into postcolonial studies by the time I was out of university.

ND: You were at Leeds, where postcolonial studies started formally, right?

DR: Yes, at University of Leeds, where the first ever postcolonial studies began in the UK. The emergence of the Journal of Commonwealth Literature in 1966 was another turning point.

ND: Well, that’s been a long way. Now, there are clarion calls for death to postcolonial studies.

DR: With all my sympathies to the term, the postcolonial should perhaps eat itself! But then I don’t see myself in these debates. True, the Lyotardian meta-narrative argument shows what is passé…

ND: If you could explain that...

DR: Well, the postcolonial project tried to deconstruct “identity,” the notions of it – within what has become a political and academic nexus now. Notwithstanding the attempts of established power structures, the postcolonial project gave us a vocabulary to deal with literary texts as well as epistemological and political oppressions. That was a serious need.

ND: So, postcolonial studies had to begin somewhere, whether we want the term to exist anymore or not.

DR: It disconnected the audience a little but whether we retain the term or not, literatures from large parts of Europe and America easily come under it, not just texts from the Subcontinent or Africa. To group the latter together alone is incorrect.

ND: You’re aware how English language writing is on an upswing in India.

DR: I’ve heard a lot about it. A lot of new writing on the horizon. Language purists are rattled.

ND: What’s your say on that—I mean, the fact that language purists are worried?

DR: On the level of language, i.e. English, old positions are getting resisted now. We tend to see the same “produce” in English. Booker Prize, Commonwealth writing, and so on and so forth. It’s like seeing ourselves in the familiar mirror. We see what “we” want to see. Salman Rushdie was understandable. His writing certainly opened up the vistas. Now new things are happening.

ND: What are we leaving behind and what is coming in?

DR: Well, in the physical world, the stock markers of modernity – transport, rail, telegraph, post – are fast giving way to a world of hybridity. Not doing away with any of it, but redefining it all. New markers. Similarly, there are new writing, new expressions and new language texts.

ND: So our vision, the predominant one, is being challenged?

DR: We valorize Rushdie or other big names. There’s a reason. Then we are at a point where even if we think we are engaging, we tend to filter everything down to our narrow scopes. But I want to make it clear that there is no right or wrong with the perspective here, there is only a situation. We need to understand that and not spend time in mere semantics. Therefore I say, the postcolonial will eat itself! The term may go, but new perspectives will emerge.

ND: Do you know of the expression “white man’s burden,” or the baggage of postcolonialism? We use it kind of loosely back home...

DR: Tell me more about it!

ND: A bit of anxiety if we are doing it “right.” “High” and “low” in literatures are at loggerheads. The “brown sahibs” are spewing Queen’s English still. Not everyone’s sure whether to showcase culture or concerns. Meanwhile, publishers are just selling books, in larger numbers than before because the percentage of English readers-writers in India has grown phenomenally.

DR:: There is a compulsion among many to create an “authentic” dynamic of power culture that encompasses the postcolonial. In Chimamanda Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus, there are instances of this parallelism. She effectively shows the split –what one interprets and the other sees—in the characters of the father and the grandfather. The “authentic” is questioned.

ND: You’ve been in charge of the Charles Wallace India Trust fellowship in Creative Writing here at University of Stirling.

DR: Yes, from 2006 onwards. Gemma Robinson and I are involved in it. We make sure the visiting writer finds a comfortable and useful space away from her home.

ND: I’m really happy to be here! It’s a privilege.

DR: Not a privilege. You emerged from a big number of applicants; in fact, the largest pool of applicants we had this year!

ND: That’s heartening to know. Is this a growing trend? More writers want to have new writing experiences outside of their familiar zone?

DR: That’s only natural. But the growing trend is that, more and more diverse kinds of writers are applying for a CW fellowship.

ND: Travel writers?

DR: We already had quite a few of them send in their profiles. Things are changing, would change a lot in the coming years. More screenplay writers, and even graphic novelists are now entering the fray.

ND: Of course. Not just fiction writers and poets.

DR: And that’s how hybridity affects us. In a good way. In a way that signals new strengths.