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The Best Postcolonial Literature

recommended by Anjuli Fatima Raza Kolb

Epidemic Empire: Colonialism, Contagion, and Terror, 1817–2020 by Anjuli Fatima Raza Kolb

Epidemic Empire: Colonialism, Contagion, and Terror, 1817–2020
by Anjuli Fatima Raza Kolb

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Postcolonial literature brings together writings from formerly colonised territories, allowing commonalities across disparate cultures to be identified and examined. Here, the University of Toronto academic Anjuli Fatima Raza Kolb recommends five key works that explore philosophical and political questions through allegory, personal reflection and powerful polemic.

Interview by Cal Flyn

Epidemic Empire: Colonialism, Contagion, and Terror, 1817–2020 by Anjuli Fatima Raza Kolb

Epidemic Empire: Colonialism, Contagion, and Terror, 1817–2020
by Anjuli Fatima Raza Kolb

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What is postcolonial literature and why should we read it?

There are two separate but connected fields that I’m drawing these postcolonial books from.

First, there’s the intuitive definition of postcolonial literature, which is basically just literary work produced in formerly colonised nations by the people who live there. Already you can tell that this is a complicated category – is Albert Camus a postcolonial writer because he was an Algerian Pied-Noir? His siting in Algeria is as important as his identification with the French canon. So ‘postcolonial writing’ crumbles at the slightest touch when we use geography and history in order to define it.

What’s more useful to me is thinking about postcolonialism not as a historical definition or geographic category, but as a method—an approach that is explicitly about the liberatory politics of oppressed peoples. So I’m going to talk today about books that I would put in both camps at once.

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Geography is rendered complex by postcolonial criticism. What we understand to be national borders that were put in place at moments of decolonisation, especially in the 20th century, are so artificial and often fraught. Think about, for example, the Biafran war, or the partition of Pakistan and India. Our current national categories don’t tell stories about the communities that come together under colonialism. So postcolonial literature and theory are important archives for understanding the politics of the present. That’s why I spend so much time thinking about them.

That makes sense. There is, necessarily, an extraordinary range of standpoints and issues discussed in postcolonial literature. But I think we can see some common threads running through the books you’ve chosen to recommend. Shall we discuss Aimé Césaire’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal, or Notebook of a Return to the Native Land? This being a meditation on the cultural identity of Black Africans in the French Caribbean.

It is. This poem is probably my favourite work of literature that I’ve ever read.

That’s quite a recommendation!

It’s a kind of unshakeable beloved on my bookshelf and in my teaching.

Aimé Césaire was a Martiniquan Marxist and politician. He was a teacher. Later in life, he became mayor and deeply involved in debates around what should happen at the end of French imperialism. He wrote another really significant book called Discourse on Colonialism, a work of political theory published in, I think, 1950.

Notebook of a Return to the Native Land was published first in French, in book form, in 1947. But it was written in 1936 and conceived in Europe, while he was far from home. Césaire, as a Martiniquan French subject, went to France for his schooling and at the end of his studies was on vacation in the former Yugoslavia, looking out at the Adriatic Sea. He had the Homeric epics, particularly The Odyssey, in mind, but was also drawn back over the waves of imaginary waters to his homeland in the Caribbean. He wrote it upon his return to Martinique. So it’s a book-length poem that tells the story of what it feels like, as a French-educated subject, to return home both with new eyes and eyes that have a deeply intimate relationship with the Caribbean.

In postcolonial discourse this journey and the thinking it occasions is referred to as the ‘colonial detour narrative’: the colonial subject is educated in the metropole and returns home as a person both in it and separate from it, and has been immersed in this painful canon that has taken them away from, to borrow Césaire’s already complicated term, “native” forms of art and expression and music and dance.

“Geography is rendered complex by postcolonial criticism”

So the plot is: here’s what it’s like to come home, to be back for fall, then Christmas. That makes it sound like a Hallmark movie, but the B-plot is: how is my poetry, my poetic voice, carrying these multiple traditions that are in conflict with one another? And: what do I see about the violence of canonical literary subjects that’s changed my relationship to the ferocity of my revolutionary imaginings?

The poem ends with this really beautiful reimagining of history—goes back to an idea and an image that’s informed by the history of the Haitian Revolution of 1804—and imagines the slave ship cadavering itself in the harbour. Almost to think about what it would be like to exist in that state of postcolonial natality, where the subject is standing free on the prow of a boat, astride the Atlantic’s trade network, dismantling those routes of the Atlantic trade of enslaved peoples. It’s a revolutionary fantasy.

The language of this poem is absolutely stunning. It’s rich with botanical knowledge, and it does all kinds of amazing work with Homeric tropes, and really, really interesting historiographic plunges, and indelible scenes that are very beloved. Students find this poem really, really hard the first time they read it—and then they fall in love with it. Usually by the third time.

André Breton called the poem “nothing less than the greatest lyrical monument of our times.” Clearly you agree.

Absolutely, yes. Breton really fancied himself a kind of imperial discoverer of Césaire’s genius, for the purposes of white surrealism. So that preface is a little hard to teach. But I do agree with that!

Yes, that’s an interesting point. So often you find with the ‘classics’ of postcolonialist literature they include an endorsement in the form of a cover quote or introduction by some big gun from within the colonial tradition. I guess saying something to the effect of: ‘they’re OK; they’re with me.’

I’ve been thinking about this so much in the wake of some really interesting, evidence-based work about how comparison books (or comps) are used in the still extremely white publishing industry. Let’s just call them all features of white authenticating machinery, right?

Actually, my copy of Césaire’s Notebook has a blurb from Robin D.G. Kelley, who is a Black Studies scholar, but certainly Sartre and Breton were used to sell this poem in France when it was finally published in French, ten years after it was written. And so, too, with many of the books we see by colonial and postcolonial writers, Black writers, non-white writers. It helps so much if you get a blurb from a famous white writer. And the publishing industry in New York and in London runs, to an extent, on people saying things like: ‘the narrator of this novel is the Philip Roth of feminist south India.’ Please no!

So the point of comparison is the unmarked subject of the white man, and then we go from there. We still have this problem.

I suppose as well as this revealing something of a cultural hierarchy it does too also help bring people to books that otherwise they might not discover. ‘If you enjoyed X, you might like Y.’

Yes, totally. It goes two ways, right? It’s welcoming to audiences who might find it too foreign or too scary. But it also was a way of holding out other writers of colour from thinking that there’s space in the industry for all of us.

Your second book is Frantz Fanon’s A Dying Colonialism. We’ve featured his book Black Skin, White Masks on our site previously. This book examines the Algerian Revolution.

Yes. I saw that you had Black Skin, White Masks. And I know that many readers looking at this interview will likely have read or at least heard of The Wretched of the Earth, which is Fanon’s massive tome of political theory. But I love A Dying Colonialism.

It’s French title was L’An V de la Révolution Algérienne, or, The Fifth Year of the Algerian Revolution. It was published in 1959 and translated into English, I believe, in 1965—so after the end of the Algerian War of Independence. It’s a collection that really does the range of things that I love the most about Frantz Fanon.

Fanon was a student of Aimé Césaire. Also born in Martinique, and educated in France. He was studying psychoanalysis. He wrote Black Skin, White Masks as his thesis, which is part of the reason why it’s such an insane book. People have so much trouble with it. I always try to remind my students: this is student writing! It doesn’t know what it’s doing at every moment, but it’s absolutely worthwhile trying to understand it!

Anyway, he refined his politics and his philosophy, and went to Algeria to join the revolution and to practice psychiatry. This is an interesting twist to the Césaire colonial detour—unlike his teacher, he didn’t go back to Martinique, he joined a completely different revolution. And not where the West African slave trade originated, but Muslim North Africa.

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He became part of this nationalist struggle and joined the FLN, the Front de Libération Nationale, and really saw something different about the evils of colonialism, having served in the Second World War for the French nation.  So fighting for freedom in Europe, under the condition of not having national liberation or full citizenship in the French nation state really spurred this whole international drive towards the end of imperialism—as it did in the United States for the civil rights movement.

A Dying Colonialism, for me, is the coolest book because it really attaches all these big abstract theoretical philosophical movements that he was undertaking in the other two books to practices on the ground in the everyday of the Algerian revolution.

There’s a chapter on the role that the veil plays in gender politics and the Algerian liberation struggle (its successes and failures on the question of gender are still hotly debated among scholars!). There’s a chapter on the role of radio that I think is really interesting in terms of how media can be deployed as revolutionary tools. Then there’s a beautiful chapter on medicine in the Algerian revolution, and the status of imperial medicine, the motives of the non-compliant patient. For us today, that’s an especially interesting set of questions that’s often left out of Fanon criticism, but is something I look at in my own book in depth.

Just while you mention it, let’s talk about your new book. This is Epidemic Empire: Colonialism, Contagion, and Terror, 1817–2020.

Epidemic Empire is, at bottom, a study of the metaphor of the terrorism epidemic. This is language that was everywhere in the ten years following September 11. I started doing a little bit of investigation to see whether taking that metaphor literally would lead me anywhere in the historical archive, and indeed it did: it turns out that the modern instantiation of this figural relationship between anti-state insurgency and the idea of contagion was linked to 19th-century discourses about the Indian uprising in 1857. Then—in coincidence—cholera was raging throughout the Empire, and it brought into being this new discipline called epidemiology, around 1850.

The way epidemiology approached its objects was through a multi-voiced or synoptic kind of perspective. It’s difficult to tell the story of something that emerges all over the place at once. We can go hunting after origins, go chasing after etiology, but what is more difficult is tracking what it looks like at a sort of ecological level. Epidemiology, essentially, was codified in order to do that work. Initially I had some interesting scenes to thinking about—fictional ones and historical ones. I realized though, that to understand how knowledge and power were working in tandem in this period to produce today’s common sense Islamophobia, I needed to find the archive and narrate the invention of epidemiology as a colonial practice.

So the first third of the book works out how colonialism—particularly the British endeavour in India, which then kind of exported it to Ireland and the typhoid crisis that followed the famine there—invented an idea of disease that would shore up the borders of empire. Administering  healing, whether it was missionary work and spiritual healing or medical work and physical healing, was the centuries-long excuse for the continuation of empire. We still hear people saying things like, ‘we brought the railroads,’ right? That kind of discourse. You’d be worse off without the modernisation of colonialism, etc. So the book tells the history of how that metaphor originated in the Indian context, criminalising and pathologizing Muslim subjects—through the language of disease containment—and their roles in the national uprisings that led to independence.

“It’s bizarre how much resonance there is between 1817 cholera writing and 2008 terrorism writing”

The relationship between epidemic and terrorism went underground from some years and then re-emerged in the Algerian revolution of the 1950s and 1960s. So the second part of the book tells the story of how the archive of Algerian independence both draws on the 19th-century history of Indian independence movements, and then crystallizes what will become the 20th century story about Islam and contagion, and how they always seem to go together. There was a screening of Gillo Pontecorvo’s pseudo-documentary The Battle of Algiers film, about the early years of the Algerian Revolution, at the Pentagon in 2003 as a kind of training film for military personnel doing counterinsurgency operations in Iraq.

The question for me was: is it a sort of lazy resonance, or is there real deep historical continuity between these moments? Again, it turned out that the medicalisation of the colonial body in French Algeria had both antecedents in the 19th century and resonances in our lives in the present moment. So, finally, the third part of the book looks at how diasporic South Asian Islam exists in literary archives, and then how it appears in policy archives. The sixth chapter of the book is a deep dive into Salman Rushdie, his writing, and how he presents a notion of Islam and how that changes over the course of his career in relation to health, disease, contagion, and affiliation.

In the final chapter of the book, I turn to the big tomes of our national history, or neo-imperial national history: The 9/11 Commission Report, The Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture… almost as, like, legacies of those earlier medical writings from the early 19th century. It’s honestly bizarre how much resonance there is between 1817 cholera writing and 2008 terrorism writing.

So that’s the arc of the book. The argument I’m really trying to make is that this metaphor, wherever it comes from and whatever its spirit, has profoundly material consequences for our political present—and has literally shaped our global politics. And certainly, it has led to the catastrophically disorganised response to an actual pandemic. The metaphorical epidemic has meant pouring trillions of dollars into an endless war rather than providing, for example, universal healthcare to the citizens and residents of this neo-empire.

And, infamously, the US’s pandemic early warning program.

Absolutely. No, no, it all went on drones in the Middle East and Afghanistan. On counterterrorism at home and abroad.

The third book you’ve chosen for this postcolonial literature reading list is a little bit different. This is Maryse Condé’s I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem. Readers who are not aware of this book might have come across the character of Tituba before in The Crucible, or the history of the Salem witch trials. I’ve seen I, Tituba described as a “collision of fact and fiction”.

That’s a beautiful way to put it. I love that. Condé is a Guadeloupian writer, and this novel was published in 1986 in French, and translated into English in 1992—by her husband, actually, Richard Philcox.

This book is so cool. As you said, some readers—especially New Englanders—will know Tituba from The Crucible and a number of children’s books that circulate in North America. I had one I loved as a kid by Ann Lane Petry, a Black writer from Connecticut, called Tituba of Salem Village. Tituba was a Bajan figure, an enslaved woman who appears in dotted lines in the archive of the Salem witch trials, as a vector of unreason or irrationalism, of Voodoo practices or alternative medicine.

Condé doesn’t only write historical novels, but this is a beautiful historical novel that takes up archival gaps, the spaces between what we can and can’t know about historical figures, particularly those that weren’t from white wealthy families. She does a kind of imaginative reanimation of the figure of Tituba and explores deeply the power that this figure held.

Some recuperative critics will go back to this archive and say: ‘What are you talking about? She was just a normal black woman living amongst white girls. She didn’t infect them. She didn’t cast spells.’ But Condé’s take is a little different. She revives Tituba to locate an incredibly powerful spirit that is rageful—rightly rageful—that has experienced sexual violence, experienced enslavement, whose body is traded on a literal market. And because of these experiences, she’s vested with this power that comes from her relationship with her own ancestral matrilineal inheritance.

“Condé is challenging what we categorize as science, what counts as knowledge”

She speaks to her own dead mother in the novel, she speaks to her child. And there’s a really interesting meditation on women’s knowledge: practices like herbal medicine, midwifery, meditation, massage… Condé is challenging what we categorize as science, what counts as knowledge, through what we now understand to be effective, integrated indigenous and sometimes non-Western health practices.

What comes out in this novel is both a kind of crazy archival surrealism, but also a serious theory of what a more cohesive and generous practice of care might look like. It’s almost as though she’s brought back as a kind of balm or healing figure—not just the character Tituba, but the novel itself—as a means of suturing a history back together, a surgical practice of recuperation.

And, also, it’s just a lot of fun. It’s really funny, and there’s tons of, like, vengeful explosive dramatics. There are sarcastic takes on unsympathetic, snivelling white characters… It’s just a joy to read and a joy to teach. My students often really, really love this. We frequently work on writing curses and spells afterwards. A way of thinking about how language can call something into being, the way music, for example, can literally bring a crowd to its feet.

That’s great to hear. Because I’m not sure that people expect fun and entertainment of postcolonial literature. Or am I being unfair?

No, it’s a great point. There’s the sense that with postcolonial lit we need to be prepared to, like, put on our big girl pants and get ready for something really serious and political. When we encounter postcolonial criticism, there’s so much serious work to be done. But it’s also the case that many postcolonial critics have existed in what W.B. Dubois calls ‘double consciousness’—we might call it, more casually, nowadays: ‘code switching’. To be in that space already is to inhabit a pretty great register of satire, of irony, of gallows humour.

One of the greatest pleasures of being a critic of postcolonial literature is how very funny and joyous a lot of it is. I don’t mean to make light of the profoundly political and philosophical work that many of these writers are doing.

We also see this impulse in less traditionally studious places, like on Instagram: ‘Black girl magic’, ‘brown joy,’ ‘queer flourishing.’ These are things that are happening in the poetics of anti-colonialism. If you’re going to critique power, you also need to be holding hands and dancing with the people you love.

Pleasure is in these books. There’s certainly pain, political pain. But also a profound sense of community and attachment. And fun and hilarity. Plus righteous rage quickens the heart, so that part is good too.

And, as I think you were gesturing towards when you were talking about code switching, linguistic acrobatics.

Totally. All of these writers that we’ve been talking about so far are multilingual. Like, not just in multiple colonial languages, but also oftentimes multiple local languages, and dialect and pidgin and hybrid languages. So they’re very fun to watch on the page.

So: book four. Nuruddin Farah’s Maps, the first of the three novels that make up the Blood in the Sun trilogy.

You can certainly read it as a standalone, and I teach it as a standalone novel. Farah is a Somali writer who had been living in exile for decades at this point. His work is deeply political. It’s also incredibly sensitive to the political dynamics of the Horn of Africa. So this is a really different story of colonialism to the one we get in basic training—you know, which countries were where and what happened after the Berlin Conference.

Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti all have a different colonial history less well known to readers of English literature—both between those nations and also with the relationship between Italy and France. Somalia’s largely Muslim population also complicates the postcolonial dynamics, particularly after the East African bombings of the late 1990s. So prior to September 11, there was already a lot of heat, internationally and militarily, in that part of the world, and what we would call counter-insurgency or anti-terrorism.

Farah’s novels take up all of these questions really beautifully. I chose Maps for this conversation because I think it allegorises the complexity of colonial boundary drawing and what implications that has— linguistically, in terms of ethnonationalism, in terms of postcolonial conflicts inherited from these artificially drawn boundaries.

There’s a way in which the West often tells a story of postcolonial failure. We even use the term ‘failed states’ to describe crises or vacuums of power, which are often direct results of neo-imperial intervention and economic coercion. It’s been extremely important to me to me, both in my own work and in the way that I teach other postcolonial writers, to open up that language and look at, for example, the CIA files on Somalia and conflict alongside a novel like Maps.

Maps tells the story of confusion. It approaches its subject from the point of view of a child, and it does so not to soften or render digestible or easy the conflict, but in fact to highlight how incredibly grave the shifting borders of national identification are in these moments.

“Love is rendered impossible under certain conditions of political exploitation”

The child is adopted from the Ogaden, a contested space of Somali Ethiopia, and his relationship with his adoptive mother is an allegory of Ethiopian-Somali relations and how these dynamics work against and through national borders. It’s also a contested space in terms of loyalty to his other family members, his blood-relations.

The plot emerges in these bizarre flushes of information; disorientation is part of the point of the novel. You get an incredibly strong grounding and education in the affect of postcolonial migrancy. What’s harder to identify is whether loyalties are permanent: whether a political position is one you can cleave to for a lifetime, or even a month. What has to change in order for political loyalties to shift? To whom can or should our work belong as revolutionary postcolonial subjects? Which leaders can we follow—and up to what point?

The novel works through all of these questions via the relationship between this child Askar, whose name means ‘the great one’, and his mother. The mother’s body becomes a feminised and abused allegorisation or metonymy for the region. Not a national body, but a regional body, who—this is a spoiler—meets a terrible fate.

It’s so beautifully rendered, for we then read the novel back for the sense in which the mother, Misra, whose name means ‘cosmos’ or ‘universe’, is being partitioned way before she encounters the political violence that will take her life in the end. This is a loyalty test and a loyalty punishment, but the motives and allegiances are deliberately obscured. The novel invites further research but it also one of those breath-taking books that works entirely on its own as well.

One thing I love about the novel is that it’s not soft on anyone by obscuring those motives and allegiances. It just brings our mind to something different—not the headline version of a complex postcolonial history, but rather how the brutal border-legacies of colonialism ruin the intimate relations that we can have with others. And how love is rendered impossible under certain conditions of political exploitation. I love the novel so much for that.

I am 100% sure that Farah is going to win the Nobel at some point. These books are magical, deep and like nothing else I’ve read before.

If people read Maps and love it, what other Farah books would you recommend?

Literally all of them. Don’t stop!

We touched briefly earlier of how colonial powers are often depicted as ‘civilising forces.’ I think that’s something that is touched on again in our fifth book—

Well—because you raise that issue, I will first say that Farah has a novel precisely about the conundrum or trap of international aid. It’s called Gifts. It’s funny, sharp, incisive, so good. It updates the 1980s story to a more 1990s scene of Somalia as a crisis space, and the international gaze. ‘What are the gifts of empire,’ is a question that is taken up with a razor wit in that book.

Oh, great. So the final text on our postcolonial literature reading list is Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s 1988 essay ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, and the accompanying commentary that can be found in Can the Subaltern Speak?: Reflections on the History of an Idea, edited by Rosalind C. Morris.

What a notorious and totally radioactive essay. People talk about it all the time. I suspect very few people have really read it, or read it more than once, which you must. I have my first-year university students take a crack at it and they’re always this lovely mix of angry and stunned and mind-racing.

Gayatri Spivak is one of the Subaltern Studies Collective members. She is also a founding theorist of postcolonial criticism, although she identifies herself as a Europeanist in her scholarship. Readers of Five Books will almost certainly have heard of and even read Orientialism—although I also suspect a lot of people don’t read all of Orientalism. That’s a more classic work of postcolonial theory. ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, though—it’s really important in a different way. It weds feminist practice and anti-capitalist practice to the project of postcolonial theory and criticism, right from the beginning.

The Morris book collects a number of essays about this. There are two versions of ‘Can the Subaltern Speak,’ and the long version is here. Then there are responses from Partha Chatterjee, from Ritu Birla, from Rajeswawri Sunder Rajan, from Pheng Cheah. Not only are these readers really careful about what that essay means, but the complexities of the essay are really teased out in these adjacent pieces.

I think what makes this book really, really useful—in some ways even more useful than the standalone essay—is that it helps to contextualise what the meaning of that essay has been. Almost like a conference, or a really good chat around a dinner table. And the essay itself is incredibly important. It’s also often overlooked that the essay is not about some abstract oppression Olympics where the subaltern stands in for the most abused person at the bottom of the social ladder. The subaltern describes a low-level military figure, so not in fact the completely disenfranchised or totally indigenised or the mute. Spivak borrows the term from Antonio Gramsci. The right question is not: ‘who is silenced’ or ‘who is censored’. The question is, what epistemic conditions—or what approach to reading—can enable us to hear, interpret and register the politics of the subaltern.

The lynchpin example of this essay emerges from Spivak’s own family history: her great aunt Bhubaneshwari Bhaduri commited suicide. She was a member of a nationalist liberation movement. There was no suicide note, but there was blood on her undergarments; she hanged herself during her menstrual period. The question for Spivak becomes: is this an interpretable sign? Is this semiotic? Did she want to make sure—and the argument that she makes is—that her family members didn’t chalk up the suicide to pregnancy, that they didn’t think, ‘oh, she lost her virtue, and had to kill herself because she wasn’t married.’ So it was insisted upon as a political act, an act of sabotage or counter-counter-insurgency, rather than feminine shame.

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To read that gesture or that sign for Spivak is both an act of violence to one of her own family members—she’s like, ‘no, no, it doesn’t say why she did this’—but also that you have to take a leap. It’s not the project of postcolonial criticism to dig, dig, dig, dig, dig until you can, like, listen to the tiniest little voice ever. It’s always going to be an act of transformation.

We are not anthropologists or recorders, we are literary critics, and taking that position seriously helps us move away from a fantasy of objectivity, or a fantasy of rescue. I learned so much from her.

In this essay, and all her work, she’s really against the inherited objectivity of Western study. I mean anthropology, I mean sociology, I mean literary criticism: the idea that the critic can somehow get rid of their own subjectivity and biases, and thereby access the truth. This essay really taught me what it means to approach a truth without ever imagining that you can get there. To approach a listening. To approach recuperating something from the archive as an act of transformative care.

The Condé novel does this as well, but in fiction. So I love this essay so much for that reason, and I love this book that Ros Morris put together, because it makes that essay resonate, and shows us how it has already resonated.

By reading these contextual essays, you think it helps tease apart all the possible meanings and all the possible knowledge that we can gain from it.

Totally, totally. And it also, you know, it gives Spivak a chance to talk about how her thinking has changed. She’s so clear on the fact that thinking can be both precise and subject to revision. That holds us to such a high standard but also never pretends that we get it right, once and for all.

As a closing question: given the broadness of postcolonial experience and identity—geographically, culturally—could you spell out why it’s helpful to consider all this literary output under a single heading?

Thank you so much for that question. There’s a very narrow answer, which is that the alternative for scholars and the publishing industry is ‘world literature’—and world literature is used by universities and publishers as a way to offer a sort of cruise-ship style buffet of differently-spiced objects. It’s very consumerist, and it’s extremely depoliticising.

The condition of coloniality shaped the modern world and brought together the politics of Irish subjects and Indian subjects and South African subjects and indigenous people in North America, Liberation theology in South America. These people, informed by various political and local contexts came into conversation not just in books or print culture, but literally at conferences and international strategy sessions for political self-determination. For example, the Bandung conference in 1955, where Richard Wright and Adam Clayton Powell gathered in Indonesia with Jawaharlal Nehru and leaders from across the decolonizing world!

So Third Worldism and anti-imperialism used the worldwide map of imperial expansion to create an anti-colonial politics. I’m also talking about, like, the relationship between the Black Panthers and Filipinos in San Francisco, as the American empire continued the tradition of the British and French empires in making enemies who love each other, and can be in a community together. I think that’s such an important resource to return to when we try to imagine the end of the immanence of capitalism.

Third Worldism really was about the conflict between the First—i.e. capitalist—and the Second—i.e. Communist—Worlds. It’s not just a way of saying poor countries. The ‘third world’ came into being to resist being forced into political alignment and refusing to get involved in the Cold War. Geopolitics have been reshaped so profoundly since the end of the Cold War—we don’t have those three world categories right now. But we do have, I think, something like a global population of the economically and—this is crucial—ecologically dispossessed who have the potential to join forces once again in a kind of rising anti-capitalism and rising anti-imperialism.

So for me, putting postcolonial works from around the world into conversation with one another is a kind of promise to myself and my students that this project can’t be won in, like, tiny ethnonational contexts. It’s one of cooperation and of recognising the resonances and beauty between these practices that are inseparably both political and aesthetic.

Interview by Cal Flyn

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Anjuli Fatima Raza Kolb

Anjuli Fatima Raza Kolb

Anjuli Fatima Raza Kolb is Associate Professor of English at the University of Toronto, where she teaches postcolonial literature and theory and poetry. Her academic research explores how science, medicine, natural history, and other kinds of colonial knowing reshaped literature, culture, economy, and politics. Her first book, Epidemic Empire (University of Chicago Press, 2021) uncovers the history behind the dead metaphor of the 'terrorism epidemic,' by looking at documents of public health, policy, immigration law, novels, poems, films, and more. Her poems, translations, and essays have appeared in various venues and are in conversation with the traditions of Urdu poetry, contemporary queer poetics, and lyric memoir.

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Anjuli Fatima Raza Kolb

Anjuli Fatima Raza Kolb

Anjuli Fatima Raza Kolb is Associate Professor of English at the University of Toronto, where she teaches postcolonial literature and theory and poetry. Her academic research explores how science, medicine, natural history, and other kinds of colonial knowing reshaped literature, culture, economy, and politics. Her first book, Epidemic Empire (University of Chicago Press, 2021) uncovers the history behind the dead metaphor of the 'terrorism epidemic,' by looking at documents of public health, policy, immigration law, novels, poems, films, and more. Her poems, translations, and essays have appeared in various venues and are in conversation with the traditions of Urdu poetry, contemporary queer poetics, and lyric memoir.