“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

The concept of justice, wherein virtue is ultimately rewarded and vice punished, is tied to the ideas of fairness, and righting the past what one deserves. However, in the case of post-colonial countries, this idea fails to be realised, as the past would have to be undone or changed in order for true justice to be realised. Justice for such nations would entail undoing centuries’ worth of oppression at the hands of the imperial colonisers, and even then it would not be adequate, as cultural imperialism continues to exist in terms of culture. Therefore it would be physically impossible for countries that identify themselves as post colonies to see true justice, as not only are post-conflict reparations to that extent unfathomable (including not only the economic damage but also the sociocultural trauma as they do) unfathomable, but because the damage would have to be entirely undone for the justice to be true, which is not realistic. What one can do, however, is go back to the past, but not in an attempt to travel back to a previous state, as attempts to return to a ‘golden past’ are invariably futile, impossible and problematic. In this—an endeavour to recollect the past—a sense of closure can be achieved that helps to move onward and look to the future with a fresh and optimistic perspective, moving towards a new, better state of being. As the line quoted above, from philosopher George Santayana’s The Life of Reason, indicates, remembering and learning the past is essential to moving on from it. Since the past cannot be erased, one shouldn’t try to forget it or pretend it didn’t happen, either; one instead should remember it and, with that baggage and remembrance in tow, keep going onwards.

For the colonisers and the colonised, the idea of justice is obviously entirely different. The coloniser would see their plundering and pillaging acts as just or as something owed to them, as they see their colonisation as a favour, civilising the man labelled by narrow European sensibilities as savage. This idea is expressed in Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The White Man’s Burden,’ in which he posits that it is the whites’ responsibility as superior, enlightened beings to civilise the uncultured colonies, and colonisation is simply them fulfilling this burden they have been tasked with. Post-colonial writers however, who emerge from these subjugated nations, identify this as problematic and speak out: this act of speaking (through literature) is justice for the post-colony, that identifies the exploitation and the fact of its own needs as different from those of the West. They take up writing therefore as their tool to fight back against the empire, to represent their own needs and desires fully, to depict their way of life authentically and not through the eyes of the colonisers as it had been before, to reject the assumptions of the imperialists. Several writers chose to write in the colonisers’ language, to re-appropriate the symbol of oppression but not let it oppress them anymore. They instead use it to empower themselves and own it unapologetically, instead of letting it silence them which was the aim for the colonialists, as Spivak explains in her essay ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ Chinua Achebe, for instance, wrote that English unified the African continent, as the separate tribes would otherwise constantly be at war with each other. In India too, where there are over 1652 languages, the English language ties the country together, and is used as an agency to de-colonise the mind. There is a need to make clear that Western sense of logic cannot be applied without modification to understand Eastern culture; a new logic is needed, outside the ambit of the West’s understanding, and can be achieved through literature.

The element of fantasy also becomes important to post-colonies, as the justice that cannot be arrived at in reality can be actualised in fantasy. Therefore, through literature, nations that have been subjugated can come to fathom an idea of fairness, and so can they have justice in literature, in the realm of fantasy. Postcolonial literature in particular, and not any form of writing, makes use of the domain of magical realism, which embraces magic in the rational world. Writers incorporate magic into an existing world, rather than create a new one, so that modern political realities can be approached from a fresh perspective, by injecting fantastical elements, and bringing fables, folk tales, and myths into social relevance. Magical realist writers like Marquez and Salman Rushdie fuse concepts of Western and indigenous, urban and rural, through the use of hybridity. For them, writing is justice as they are able to speak out, “write back” to the empire and break the silence they had been imprisoned under (explored in Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin’s work The Empire Writes Back). This is why a nation is identified as ‘post-colonial’ as soon as it begins to see the imperialist as the other, since freedom of the mind is the most essential, with writers playing an important role by challenging the assumptions of the colonisers and voicing their own perspective. Magical realists, Latin American writers in particular, break the “years of solitude”  by presenting their work as a voice, speaking out from a silenced land. They retell history in from their own point of view, as Rushdie does in Midnight’s Children, allowing readers to accept that their reality is different than the one colonisers represent, and their work can be understood in the true sense only with a different lens, since the imperialists are unable to see thing from the subaltern’s point of view.

Works in English or in indigenous languages cannot be fully comprehended by the West to the extent that native readers can, even in translation, as the sociocultural context is relatable only to those that experience it, as the oft-translated works of Indian writers Ismat Chugtai and Saadat Hasan Manto reveal, and so writers are able to reclaim their culture even while adopting the language of the coloniser. In this manner, the mind can be truly decolonised, and this is the purpose writers in the postcolonial set-up fulfil: to remove the lingerings of colonisation not from the physical space, which is the domain of freedom fighters and activists, but from culture and thought. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o argues this in his collection of essays, Decolonising the Mind, writing that language had been used as a tool of oppression but by taking it back from those that use it against the colonies, it can be made possible to reclaim culture, identity and history, and by reclaiming history, the first step towards justice is taken. Namvar Singh also suggests in his essay of the same name that removing the impact of colonisation from culture is necessary: physical independence is not enough. Justice, in literature, thus becomes about an accurate representation of reality for some writers  who resent the villainisation of the imperialists but also do not glorify their nation as perfect, since they believe that every nation, be it Western or Eastern, has its own share of issues, and theirs is deserving of representation, flaws and all. Adichie’s and Achebe’s works have been applauded for their authentic, lived representation of African life, not misrepresenting the continent as ideal and flawless (unlike Achebe’s understanding of the Negritude movement), but just as problematic and real as any other nation and so worthy of celebration for what it is, with Adichie’s work bringing in ideas of gender as well.

Franz Fanon explores, in Black Skin, White Masks, what gives the black man (or any subjugated colony) the inferiority complex that makes them accept the whites’ word of their own superiority. He postulates that there is no interiority, or anything beneath the skin that differentiates humanity— the skin represents everything. He contradicts the view some postcolonial critics take, that there is more than just skin and so one shouldn’t discriminate based on skin colour, as he finds that to be the same as the argument of the coloniser. As Edward Said explains in Orientalism, the first step toward subjugation is to establish a difference from the ‘other,’ so as to paint them as inferior. However, by presenting that humans are nothing more than their skin, he makes the statement that one’s skin is not indicative of any deeper essence; it is just that: skin. By making this radical claim, he rejects racial discrimination, as the skin by his definition would not symbolise any difference. He does not however provide any answers as to why then the black man feels the need to adopt a white mask, claiming that one must arrive at the answer for oneself, and not seek external assistance or validation. This self-serving overcoming of insecurities and complexes, for Fanon, is justice.

Postcolonial literature as a genre therefore is not always consistent, with different interpretations by writers around the world. It is tied to the ideas of equality and freedom, as a literature born out of the struggle of colonised peoples for these abstract concepts. It is the literature “of the underdog,” as John Yang puts it, that deals with a struggle to de-colonise beyond mere political independence. It deals with subjugated peoples, brutalised and exploited for centuries by European colonisers, finding their voices and standing up for themselves. The potential of justice therefore is what postcolonial writers struggle to achieve, and not justice itself. It is enough for the potential of it being recognised, as true, full justice is not possible since, as a fluid concept, justice cannot be seen in binary terms as either achieved or not, or in Biblical terms as either distributive or retributive, from the Books of Ezra to John. Instead, as Amartya Sen writes, social justice should be understood as existing to a matter of degree, and should correspondingly be evaluated along a continuum. Furthermore, he argues that we do not need a fully established abstract ideal of justice to evaluate fairness, as there is no one transcendental idea of justice. It is, as this essay points out through various instances, different for everyone, on the basis of their location, gender, sexual orientation, race, class, time period, or simply individual expression.

Works Cited

1. Achebe, C. Things fall Apart. 1958.

2. Adichie, C. N. Half of a Yellow Sun. 2007.

3. Block, E. J. ‘Biblical Ideas of Justice in Post-Colonial Fiction.’ 1994.

4. Fanon, F. Black Skin, White Masks. 1952.

5. Kipling, R. ‘The White Man’s Burden.’ 1899.

6. Marquez, G. G. One Hundred Years of Solitude. 1967.

7. Rushdie, S. Midnight’s Children. 1981.

8. Said, E. Orientalism. 1978.

9. Santayana, G. The Life of Reason. 1905-1906.

10. Sen, A. The Idea of Justice. 2009.

11. Singh, N. ‘Decolonising the Mind.’ 1992

12. Spivak, G. C. ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ 1983.

13. Thiong’o, N. Decolonising the Mind. 1986.

14. Yang, J. ‘Representation and Resistance: A Cultural, Social, and Political Perplexity in Post-Colonial Literature.’ 1999.