Unpacking the legacy of colonialism

Sri Lanka is celebrating its Independence Day today, which has sparked much controversy and debate. Some individuals question the significance of commemorating an event that took place seven decades and five years ago, when the country faces numerous pressing issues. Their concerns are understandable, but not entirely valid. Independence represents a pivotal moment in Sri Lanka’s history that fundamentally transformed the country in various aspects, including culture and economy.

Prior to Independence, the country was subjected to foreign invasions and had been ruled by a monarchy. These foreign invasions and subsequent changes brought about major changes to the country, and it’s important to remember and acknowledge this history in order to understand the present and plan for the future.

The significant development of literature in English in Sri Lanka did not occur until after the country gained independence from Britain in 1948. However, the origins of Sri Lankan Writing in English can be traced back to 1917, when the first English-language novel was published. While the literature written in English prior to independence may not be highly regarded in terms of literary criticism, it is still important to have an understanding of it in order to fully comprehend the literature that emerged after independence.

Rich literary value

In the years leading up to independence, the literary scene in English was gradually taking shape and by 1948, there was a sufficient body of work to establish it as its own field. Despite the fact that the earlier works may not be as rich in literary value, they hold historical significance and provide context for the evolution of Sri Lankan writing in English.

And that body of literature came to be known as postcolonial literature, which reflects the experiences and perspectives of people from countries that were previously colonised by foreign powers. It offers insights into the cultural, social, and political impacts of colonialism, as well as the process of decolonisation and the search for national identity. Postcolonial literature written in English in Sri Lanka has played a significant role in shaping the country’s literary landscape and cultural identity.

In her review of Professor DCRA Goonetilleke’s book Sri Lankan English Literature and the Sri Lankan People 1917-2003, Dr, Lakshmi de Silva appreciates the author for providing a global context for Sri Lankan literature. Professor Goonetilleke focuses on the growth of the literary canon in recent times, which has incorporated new interests such as postcolonial, black, feminist, cultural, and contemporary, through both controversy and resistance. The book provides an overview of the evolution of Sri Lankan English literature, explaining its emergence in terms of both social forces, such as the populist/nationalist revolution of 1956, and literary factors. Goonetilleke also examines the central problem faced by writers, which is finding a balance between their own cultural values, traditions, and experiences with Western literary traditions.

Imperial servitude

Salman Rushdie argues that English, like many other elements in newly independent societies, needs to be decolonised and reimagined by those who use it outside of Anglo-Saxon culture. Rushdie is optimistic that English can be transformed from a language of imperial servitude to one that reflects the experiences and realities of those outside of the Anglo-Saxon sphere. He cites Lorna Sage’s statement that postcolonial Anglophone literature is a centrifugal literature, written with a focus on elsewhere and even from outside of the Anglosphere. Rushdie believes that by making English pliant to the experiences of non-Anglo-Saxon people, it can be decolonised and serve as a tool for liberation.

Salman Rushdie envisions a language that has been freed from its colonial roots and repurposed to serve the voices of those who were once oppressed. English has now become an international language that enables writers from various nations to resist the legacy of colonialism through their use of the language and their writing. Postcolonial Anglophone literature has successfully recoded and creatively reinterpreted the English language.

After Sri Lanka’s Independence from Britain in 1948, the local languages of Sinhala and Tamil were reinstated as official languages. However, English has remained a common language of communication on the island and is often used in Government policies and practices. In the postcolonial era, these policies changed significantly, with the most notable change being the 1956 Language Act that made Sinhala the sole official language of the nation.

K. Sivathamby offers a precise explanation:

The term ‘post-colonial’ is interesting and has a double-edged sharpness. It implies that the country and the people in question are no more under a colonial rule. This would mean that they are politically ‘independent’. The term independent here only means independent of the colonial authority and are perhaps in a position to take their decisions. The other dimension of the word is more far-reaching. It argues that the colonial era is not completely over and there are very factors at work, which link these actions somehow or other to that colonial past.

The term postcolonial refers to the state of a country that has regained independence from colonisation and the features, including economic, political, and social, that characterise these countries and their approach to dealing with the legacy of colonialism. The impact of long-term colonisation has had a significant impact on the social and cultural structures of these societies, and this is referred to as the ‘postcolonial condition’. The term can also apply to the former colonisers, who were affected by their prolonged interactions with the conquered societies and the eventual loss of their colonies, which influenced their economic and cultural development.

The study of postcolonialism is a rich and complex field that encompasses a range of perspectives and interpretations. It encompasses not only the experiences of countries that have regained their independence from colonial rule, but also the lasting impact of colonialism on both colonised and colonising societies. By analysing the economic, political, social, and cultural features of postcolonial countries, as well as their negotiation of their colonial heritage, we can gain a deeper understanding of the postcolonial condition and its influence on the world today. Moreover, by examining the ways in which former colonisers have been impacted by their extended contacts with other societies and their eventual loss of colonies, we can gain further insights into the evolution of these countries and their relationships with the wider world. The study of postcolonialism, therefore, is crucial for comprehending the complexities of our world today and the lasting effects of colonialism on both colonised and colonising nations.

– Daily News Sri Lanka

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