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Caryl Phillips, J. M. Coetzee, and Michael Ondaatje: Writing at the intersection of the postmodern and the postcolonial

Renee Therese Schatteman, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This study examines the novels of Caryl Phillips, J. M. Coetzee, and Michael Ondaatje, writers originally from post-colonial countries—St. Kitts, South Africa, and Sri Lanka respectively—who explore the ambivalences engendered by colonialism rather than conforming to a one-dimensional understanding of postcolonial literature which focuses exclusively on the reactionary nature of this type of writing. What enables these writers to transcend the simple binarisms of colonizer and colonized and to concentrate on the ambiguities of the postcolonial condition is their use of postmodern stylistic elements which emphasize complexity and irresolution. Phillips embraces postmodern fragmentation by segmenting his fiction into multiple, often unrelated stories. In opting to juxtapose fragments of stories, Phillips matches his narrative form to his thematic interest in the dislocation experienced by people of the African diaspora. The first chapter examines The Final Passage, Higher Ground, and The Nature of Blood to demonstrate that fragmentation becomes more deeply embedded in Phillips's narrative structure as his novels advance. Coetzee's fiction is reflective of a postmodern aesthetic in its unreliability and indeterminancy. This stylistic feature enables Coetzee to address postcolonial concerns in South Africa where the reliability of any subject position has been undermined by rigid racial divisions. The second chapter analyzes Coetzee's various types of narrative voices: the untrustworthy narrator whose views are clearly objectionable (Dusklands); the unreliable narrator whose perspective is limited (Waiting for the Barbarians); and the unreadable narrator who escapes any certainties (Life & Times of Michael K). The third chapter explores Michael Ondaatje's use of a self-conscious playfulness with language. Ondaatje incorporates magic realism, intertextuality, and a poetic perspective in his novels, which are either situated in one particular setting (In the Skin of a Lion) or in a plurality of locals (The English Patient, to highlight the bizarre and traumatic circumstances that mark the postcolonial experience of exile and to depict the way that his characters' lives tend to be mythic in scale as a consequence. In turning to the intersection of the postmodern and the postcolonial, Phillips, Coetzee, and Ondaatje convey a highly nuanced understanding of postcolonial existence and of the human condition.

Subject Area

African literature|Literature|Caribbean literature|Canadian literature

Recommended Citation

Schatteman, Renee Therese, "Caryl Phillips, J. M. Coetzee, and Michael Ondaatje: Writing at the intersection of the postmodern and the postcolonial" (2000). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9960787.