After Empire: Postcolonial Short Fiction and the Oral Tradition

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The spread of the English language as a consequence of imperialism and English's popularity as a lingua franca in the age of globalization have significantly broadened the range and timbre of short stories written in English. This chapter examines ways in which the short story has been refashioned by Anglophone postcolonial writers, with a particular focus on how the incorporation of oral elements has reinvigorated the genre. In African and Asian societies that were subjected to British colonization, the transformations that the short story has undergone have been particularly influenced by traditional tale-telling modes. In the Anglophone Caribbean, where the majority populations are Afro-Caribbean descendants of slaves and Indo-Caribbean descendants of indentured labourers, the lines of cultural continuity have been more fractured, but there has also been an uneasy, yet highly productive dialogue between the conventions of the English short story and the oral traditions of local communities. The genocide of the pre-Columbian indigenous peoples of the region left few survivors to bring their narrative traditions into print, but the fiction of Guyanese-born writers Wilson Harris and Pauline Melville has brought aspects of their legends into the short story. Elsewhere in the Americas and in Australasia, despite suffering violence and dispossession at the hands of settler populations, indigenous voices have survived to articulate the experiences of their communities in short fiction.

The vast range of themes and forms to be found in African short stories makes it difficult to generalize about ways in which writers across the continent have employed the genre, but some commonalities exist. In pre-colonial sub-Saharan African societies, tale-telling was a lynch-pin of cultural continuity, serving as a vehicle for imparting ethical instruction as well as a medium of entertainment, and the griot, or storyteller, occupied a revered role in communities, acting as the oral repository of their collective wisdom. Postcolonial African writers have sometimes seen themselves as the linear descendants of griots, charged with a similar responsibility to educate the recipients of their work, while also entertaining them through the power of story. However, as Helon Habila points out, ‘It's a sad but apparently undeniable fact that the short story has always taken second place to the novel in Africa.’
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge History of the English Short Story
EditorsDominic Head
PublisherCambridge University Press
ISBN (Print)9781316711712
Publication statusPublished - 2016

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