Postcolonialism and Canada: A Readingof Margaret Atwood's Surfacing and Alias Grace

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Postcolonialism and Canada : A Reading of Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing and Alias Grace.

Historians, literary critics, and social scientists use the idea of post colonialism to examine the ways, both subtle and obvious, in which colonization affects the colonized society. Notwithstanding different time periods, different events and different effects that they consider, all postcolonial theorists and theory admit that colonialism continues to affect the former colonies after political independence. By exposing a culture's colonial history, postcolonial theory empowers a society with the ability to value itself.

The most questionable aspect of the term "postcolonial" is the prefix of the word, "post." In order for there to be a postcolonial period, colonialism must have experienced a finite end within the colony. Despite the official recognition of national independence in their countries of origin, the books we have read suggest a more pervasive, continuing colonialism, a more prolonged interaction between British and its colonized societies.

Canada is one of the major countries which have been under the colonial rule for a considerable period of time. During the latter part of the twentieth century, Canadian writers have looked at the effects of colonialism on the original native population. The culture of the indigenous peoples and the oral tradition used, was for a long time on the verge of being eradicated, as the enforced language of the colonizer became the accepted norm. As many contemporary authors believe that they have been marginalized, they argue that they are similar to the tribal inhabitants, becoming “...spectators, not elements in what goes on” (Weibe: 274). As Canadians they are forced to use a language which is for the most part alien, employing words which have meaning for a metropolitan audience but have little relevance within a Canadian context.

This essay is an attempt to analyze and understand the quest for their own identity and theirs efforts at adapting to their new colonized identity. The texts in reference are Margaret Atwood’s novels, Surfacing and Alias Grace.

The novel Surfacing demonstrates the complex question of identity for an English-speaking Canadian female. Identity, for the main character, has become a problem because of her role as a victim of the colonizers. She has been colonized by men in the patriarchal society in which she grew up, by Americans and their cultural imperialism, or neo-colonialism as it has come to be known as, and the Euro-centric legacy that remains in her country although the physical presence of English and French rulers have gone.

Feminist and postcolonialist theories share much common ground due to their examination of the voice, and the position of, the subaltern in society. Their critiques of, and struggles against, domination by the white male has led to their alignment and discussions about their similar problems and strategies. Since the 1980s, there has emerged a divergent element to feminist postcolonial theory which has focused on the 'double colonization' that women colonized by both race and gender have suffered, leading to questions of  which should be dealt with first, the discrimination they have suffered for not being white or not being male. What is presented by Atwood's Surfacing is the ambivalent nature of patriarchy, cultural imperialism and geographical colonization and how this combined colonial experience has left the victim with feelings of displacement and disconnectedness from their language, history and culture, which in turn has led to a fractured sense of self and a desperate need to regain and reclaim identity.

The damage caused to those who have been colonized  is explored by Atwood through her focus on how one individual has been affected, effects and issues of colonization, language, history and culture. The examination of their problematic nature for the protagonist of the novel identifies their place in the feminist postcolonial discourse, their importance to an individual's construction of identity, and how vital our sense of self is to our mental well-being. Surfacing does not deal with the physical act of colonizing a country, but instead it focuses on the aftermath and the mental colonizing that still exists, long after so called decolonization has occurred. This I think is a much more insidious form of colonization and control as it leaves the colonized with words that do not express their ideas, a displacement from the country or cultural group to which they belong and a past which they feel disconnected from.

Just like the feminist movement, postcolonialism has always been concerned with language because of its importance to identity formation and also its use as a weapon to subvert patriarchal and colonial powers. It is recognized as one of the most fundamental aspects of our being and therefore fundamental to these discourses that recognize the importance of identity. As the Post-Colonial Studies Reader states, '…the colonial process itself begins in language.' (P.S.R: 283) The reason for this is its ability to control, either by displacing native languages or imposing certain standards and signs that become the 'norm'. Language is the medium we use to establish order and describe our world and if this is made problematic, or displaced, then our relationship with our world and our position within it also becomes chaotic and unclear. The question then arises of how to overcome such control and that results in two main solutions, either rejection or subversion. Recently theorists and writers have tended to opt for the latter, using language as a set of signs that are invested with meaning, and if new meanings are assigned and new uses invested, then it is virtually changed into a new language, one that remains recognizable.

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Atwood incorporates many of these ideas about language into her novel and from the outset we are made aware of the whole question of language for Canadians. The issue is initially presented to us, and indeed to all who travel from English to French Canada, or vice versa, by the sign that reads 'Bienvenue' on one side and 'Welcome' on the other. This sets up one problem of communication that exists for Canadians, who, because of their colonial history share a country but do not have a single common native language. There thus arises a very serious and personal communication ...

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