p r o f i l e                                                 April 29-May 5, 2005



Nadia Butt

Here’s a man who’s shaping the postcolonial discourse

East meets West: Robert JC Young in Egypt

Robert J.C. Young is one of the leading figures in postcolonial studies and a pioneer in the work of popularising it for wider audiences. My participation in the International Conference of Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies in Malta (March 2005) gave me a chance to meet him personally – a man of supreme intellect, whom I had already discovered through his publications on postcolonial issues. Married for 16 years to a British-born Pakistani, and with three children, Robert, as a result, seems to enjoy a certain understanding of our cultural set-up.

‘I have been to India many times but never yet to Pakistan. I would like to visit it one day to have a first-hand experience of the people and the country’, he told me. Born in Hertfordshire in England in 1950, and brought up in Buckinghamshire, Robert is Professor of English and Critical Theory at Oxford University. He obtained his DPhil in 1979 from Exeter College, Oxford. His major works, translated into many languages, include: White mythologies: Writing history and the west (1990), Colonial desire: Hybridity in culture, theory and race (1995), Torn halves: Political conflict in literary and cultural theory (1996), Postcolonialism: An historical introduction (2001), Postcolonialism: A very short introduction (2003), and The idea of English ethnicity (forthcoming). Analysis of colonial discourse was initiated by the groundbreaking works of Edward Said, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Homi K Bhabha, and became known as ‘postcolonial’ theory with the publication of The empire writes back in 1989, jointly written by three Australian professors. ‘Postcolonial theory deals with the reading and writing of literature written by colonised or formerly colonised peoples. It focuses particularly on the way in which the literature of the colonising cultures distorts the experience and realities, and inscribes the inferiority of the colonised people; and, secondly, on literature by colonised peoples, which attempts to articulate their identity and reclaim their past in the face of that past’s inevitable otherness.’

When I asked Robert what made him enter the field of postcolonial studies, he gave me two reasons. As professor of literature, he said, he was always interested in theory, especially through literature, but felt that theory itself was working within particular restraints: ‘People in the West did not look at cultures outside European ones and they thought that world history was the history of European expansion…. Secondly, ever since I was young, I was interested in different cultures, in what we now call ‘subaltern cultures.’ For example, at the age of 13, I became interested in African-American blues singers, which at that time was very unusual. Their songs involved what we now call the Black experience – of racism and so forth. Although our situations were very different, I identified with them and the experiences they articulated, perhaps because I never felt that I fitted into any class myself. I have always identified with people outside the mainstream. I grew up in the South of England, which was very white and very English. English culture was not mixed at all as it is now. I wanted to discover this other world which at that time was an imaginary world for me in many ways but one whose experiences I could relate to.’

Robert Young at Wadham College, Oxford

In his youth, Robert went to Paris after school which brought a big change in his life. It was the time of the May 1968 uprising when the western world was concerned with the Vietnam War, especially the plight of South Asia. ‘I was very much aware of the whole issue of Western involvement in non-western countries. After my experiences in Paris, I got very interested in Marxist theory, but I found the non-western world was always missing.When I read Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), I saw why that was so – but Said also offered a way of reconnecting the west to the rest of the world. Many of my friends, especially at graduate school, came from that other world. Homi K Bhabha, my very close friend, influenced me a lot as he gave a critical mass to the idea of working on these issues. After these experiences, there was no going back for me to a singular English culture – rather, I have found myself spontaneously empathising and putting myself in the position of being outside my own culture.’

For Robert, postcolonial literature, though a recent phenomenon, has a wide scope in western academia: it is very popular among young students, many of whom want to do PhDs in this area. However, he is aware of the general tendency to consider modern literature not as respectable as classical literature. He reveals that until 1969, in Oxford, students studied literature only to 1900. Even now modern literature is taught only in the first year. At Oxford, until very recently, no postcolonial literature was included in the course. Since then, he has been involved in transforming ‘English literature’ into ‘Literatures in English’. ‘In the twentieth century, you have to reconceptualise the subject itself. The biggest weakness of writing about postcolonial literatures is that little historical knowledge about these countries exists.’ Robert impressed me both for his profound knowledge of colonised cultures, and for voicing the hidden injuries inflicted on them by colonisers in his writings. His most prolific work, the vast Postcolonialism: An historical introduction, enunciates postcolonial theory through case-studies of the freedom struggles in Latin America, Africa and India. Commenting on the western subjugation of third world cultures in general, and Pakistani culture in particular, he said, ‘As my wife belongs to the Ahmadi community, many in her family have migrated from Pakistan to escape persecution… All over the world power structures exist in one way or another, whether it is the first or third world, and postcolonial theory provides an opportunity to challenge these power structures and to think outside (western) dominant culture.’ In discussing the role of religion in shaping societies, Robert argues that a major weakness in postcolonial theory is a lack of concern with Islamic cultures. ‘Even in Orientalism, while Said sympathises with Islamic cultures, in the end, as a Christian, he goes back to the great Christian humanist tradition. Ideas within the postcolonial field may not necessarily fit in with Islamic belief. The Rushdie affair points to these differences.. In my own work, I try to address these missing connections with the Islamic world. My last book, for example, emphasises the cultures of the Middle East and the Maghreb. I try to push into the domains that the postcolonial has hitherto disregarded.’

Robert has lectured on postcolonial questions in countries all over the world. In spite of reaching the apex of his career, he is a man of mild and humble disposition.. ‘I like to spend my time with my family, especially, at the weekends… I spend many afternoons on the football field with my son!’ Though an icon of scholarship, he does not consider himself a typical university man.. ‘Neither of my parents went to university, though it was they who enabled and encouraged me to go myself. Perhaps for this reason, university is still not quite me. I do not come from such a background... I was the first person in my family to go to university. That is one reason why I sympathise with those who do not have all the advantages in this world. I am very lucky and feel privileged to have had the chance to work in a university but I constantly think of those whose situation is so very different. These are the people I feel closest to.’

Robert’s contributions in the area of postcolonial theory are an important step in helping us to perceive the ambivalent divisions of culture and its Other. He believes that postcolonialism, viewed positively, opens a dialogue between opposing cultures – which is a must, not only to make sense of human history but also of our constantly changing world.

Nadia Butt wrote this article exclusively for TFT from Germany.