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Reading Classic and Postcolonial Literature

What immediately comes to mind when ‘classic literature’ is mentioned in an English lesson? Perhaps wistful Victorian orphans or spurned women running across a heath. The texts we find in the literary canon are almost entirely Western, and that should not come as any surprise: English is a ‘Western’ language after all. But against the backdrop of a postcolonial and globalized Hong Kong, it is high time we reexamine this and consider alternatives. Should we retain every book in the pantheon of classic works and study them for years to come? Or could we turn elsewhere to examine the classic literature we might have overlooked?

Literature that is commonly considered classic spans of time and literary trends. According to Harold Bloom, a critic famous for defending the traditional Western canon, the list ranges from Shakespeare and Goethe to Woolf, Freud and Neruda. This, however, does not seem enough. Perspectives and lived experiences of whole swaths of people are summarily excluded. And while it was touching and necessary for Daniel Defoe in 1719 to depict the skewed yet genuine friendship between the master Crusoe and servant Friday under dire circumstances, the time for empowered voices of the previously colonised and enslaved to speak for themselves has most definitely come. This is where postcolonial literature plugs a large gap, as what is considered ‘classic’ has yet to catch up sufficiently.

Simply put, postcolonial literature is ‘the literature by people from formerly colonized countries’, though it should be noted that it also includes work by previously ‘silenced’ groups on Western soil, such as African American literature. Toni Morrison’s Beloved, a novel inspired by the real-life account of a slave mother’s murder of her baby son, is an example of the category. The book, brutal and hopeful in equal measure, shocked and touched me in a way quite unlike any of the books I had read before. It was then I realised that I had never been introduced to or recommended any postcolonial (or for that matter, black) literature at school.

There is universal beauty, pain and truth to be found in works written about experiences that are all too unfortunately shared around the world. These serve as empowerment as much as cautionary tales against the horrors of oppression. It would therefore not be a bad idea for you to look up some postcolonial novels to read alongside our Key to Classics series the next time you feel ready for an adventure into literature.