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Ondaatje and Colonialism

University English departments across North American and Europe went through spasms of change during the 1980s. Gone were the genteel groups of musty scholars who argued about the derivation of words or the formal unity of well-studied texts. Instead, departments became roiled in a series of -isms: feminism, Marxism, the new historicism, African American studies, Chicano studies, and even so-called queer studies. Scholars staked out political and social territories and began to interpret the classics through the lens of labor, capital, gender, sexual orientation, and the like.

As you can imagine, the tweedy dons were none too pleased. But their kind was already passing into the haze of emeritus positions. So too did the estabilished canon: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and Yeats. That collection of classics seemed to dwindle to insignificance in the face of so many "rediscovered" novels and poems from the Harlem Renaissance, the antebellum south, or the countryside of Ireland.

One movement found a way to reinvigorate studies of the old canon of literature while keeping the new lens on literary studies. It began with the likes of Edward Said at Columbia, scholars who sought to look at the West's literature through the filter of what became known as "colonialism": that is, the profound movement in the West to conquer and own the world, the spread of its economic principles across the globe, the clash of its culture with others, both at home and afar.

What happened: cultures knocked up against each other and competing voices proliferated. So classic texts--Shakespeare's tragedies, Hawthorne's romances, T. S. Eliot's poems--came to be seen as multi-voiced. That is, they contained voices of the dominant culture as well as voices of the oppressed, a social or political unconscious "underneath" the words (as it were). Think of some of the books we've read. For example, "My Antonia" seems to include both the dominant culture's male-oriented vision of the American Midwest, as well as a sly, feminist critique of Jim Burden and his overly romantic soul, both of these "voices" competing for air in the novel. "Huck Finn" includes both the voice of the dominant, white South and of the African-American experience, buried under (and even in) Huck's words.

In other words, power slips through the fingers of those who hold it. In the cracks, other voices emerge, sometimes simultaneously with the dominant social structure's codes, mores, ethics, and assumptions.

Soon, certain postmodern authors began to play self-consciously with multiple-voiced narratives: they tried to set up texts that could escape their own grip. One of the best at this complicated task is the Sri Lankan-born, Canadian writer Michael Ondaatje. Through a series of poetic, open-ended memoirs and novels ("Coming Through Slaugher," "The English Patient"), he has attempted to trace the colonial impact on narrative itself, to show the competing voices that arise when a dominant power structure is laid over an indigenous culture.

We can talk more about this at book group--and probably will--but I ask you to think about "The Cat's Table" as a chorus of voices, all connected to Michael, the narrator, but also connected to the larger power play of Ceylon, its colonization by Great Britain, its liberation as Sri Lanka, and its struggle to become a modern country in the mold of its Western colonizers.

Think about the overlayering of voices that must arise when a more powerful culture is draped over an established culture. Think about the African American experience in the slave-holding south. Think about the Protestantization of Catholic Ireland. Think about the coming shift, not in the dominant straight culture, but in gay culture as same-sex marriage becomes the law of the land. Think about the ways women in corporate American must learn to speak in more than one voice. In other words, think about both the capital and debt of colonialism.

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