A Place for Post-colonial Literature in the Japanese English Curriculum

By Christine Wilby
A recent trend for Japanese universities to focus practical subjects considered useful for employment has led to a preference for English studies programs focusing either ‘qualifications’ (TOEIC TOEFL), conversation, or simple academic English, and to a resultant down sizing of literary studies that foster overall education and development. Continue Reading

Extensive Reading of Language Learner Literature as a Step to the Pleasure Reading of Unabridged Literature

By Motoko Fukaya
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An Effective Way to Use The Great Gatsby in the Language Classroom

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This paper will describe a successful way to use The Great Gatsby in the language classroom. When literature is used in the language classroom in Japan, typical Japanese teachers compel learners to translate English sentences into Japanese. Continue Reading


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Proceedings and Papers 2010

A Place for Post-colonial Literature in the Japanese English Curriculum

Christine Wilby


A recent trend for Japanese universities to focus practical subjects considered useful for employment has led to a preference for English studies programs focusing either ‘qualifications’ (TOEIC TOEFL), conversation, or simple academic English, and to a resultant down sizing of literary studies that foster overall education and development. It is my contention, however, that studying literature in English is not only within the reach of EFL students, but also vital for them in our continually globalizing world. Literature offers students a dynamic contact with the peoples of the world, past and present, and from these encounters opportunities to construct their own opinions relevant and relative to the world, to their own cultures, and to themselves. This paper outlines some considerations for implementing Literature in English studies, and illustrates the importance of studies in post-colonial literature with an example from the works of Janet Frame, one of New Zealand’s most celebrated writers.

Previously EFL teachers in Japan were mainly hired in English departments rather than in special EFL programs, where, in addition to conversation and skills classes, they took literature-based reading and writing classes using authentic, or only slightly adapted, texts. Now literature is being removed from the EFL teaching curriculum for reasons such as a lack of students signing up for literature courses, and students lacking a sufficient level of English to engage in literature, particularly with a native English speaker. This trend has forced universities to make pragmatic changes in line with globalizing trends and market forces to reduce literature instruction, as students appear to want only instruction of a practical type in a practical field that will lead to gainful employment.

With the separating of EFL from English literature and culture, physically (by department) and in terms of content, reading as a main stay of overall educational development has given way to reading as a tool for information search. This change is reflected in language used to refer to university studies: in the past a student “read” in a subject, this became “to study” in that subject, and now students “do” the subject. Reading then is being oriented to only practical sources of use: as context for learning grammar and vocabulary, and for enabling information search and preparation for class discussions, presentations and reports. It is not surprising, then, that emphasis is placed on learning only those reading skills useful in the tests and activities that act as indicators of language proficiency and achievement.

Literature Based Instruction

Literature teachers know that being able to respond to an authentic fictional text is a vital skill in the development of the well-rounded, educated, thoughtful member of society. It is my belief that EFL students need to be exposed to literature in English and be given the time to learn how to interact and respond to it on an individual level, and to communicate their responses and understandings to and with others. Certainly, it is a time-consuming activity, and one that does not lead to any particular, practical, or pragmatic end, but it is a vital one for the civilized educated world. I am not here suggesting that present reading programs be abandoned. The lack of sustained reading activities, and literature-based instruction in the unique conventions of their own language, means few Japanese students have any transferrable skills on entering university; thus basic reading skills classes in preview, predict, skimming, scanning, reading for gist, inferencing, and speed-reading, are indeed needed. To this however, should be added an extensive reading program to develop a love of reading, and courses to introduce English literary concepts such as plot, theme, characterization, symbols, and setting. Many other literary language aspects such as alliteration, metonym, simile, metaphor and personification should also be taught, and reinforced and recycled in reading and writing classes. Indeed, students still need skills work, but at some point they need to see how all this fits together by looking at a work of literature, where discovering meaning becomes the primary activity and the skills they have learned are for enabling this discovery, rather than as end in themselves.

A first step in considering literature-based instruction is to be clear on what is meant by literature. Although usually used to describe a unified body of work, for example, English literature, or the literature of science, it can be used to refer to an individual piece of work as in “this book is a wonderful piece of literature”, and for very practical, rather than literary concerns such as “I’m looking for literature on house-buying”. For the purposes of this paper, however, literature will be defined as: any piece of fictional written work that has been in some way critically acclaimed as literature at home or abroad, and has either stood the test of time, or is slated to do so. Furthermore, comments made will be focused to the classroom study of literature, and will not be addressed to the issues of general extensive reading programs. Since my particular area of interest is Post-colonial literature, the practical example of analysis offered is from this genre, through which I will highlight how post-colonial literature is relevant to today’s students.

Literature-Based instruction takes an authors’ original writings as the core text for exploring experiences, this eventually leads to an arsenal – a pool of experiences if you will – that aid the continuing development of literacy, and overall education. The activities are mainly of reading, discussing, interacting with the text, and perhaps writing a critique, and they are less likely to be, for example, specific grammar activities and multiple-choice questions. Clearly in an open field such as this, teachers take great responsibility in the selection of the book and in the role of planning, facilitating and supporting authentic learning experiences relevant to and within the abilities of their students.

As Wells, D (1990) indicates, children and young adults develop literacy (skills in reading, writing, thinking) by having real literacy experiences, and by being able to access the support of more-experienced individuals, who may be adults or peers. It cannot, however, just be left as a situation of…let’s read a work of literature and talk about it with the teacher, who is the expert. Teachers need to have an underlying theoretical and pedagogical perspective for their course and activities. For me, that perspective is the Reader-Response approach.


Coming to prominence in the 1970’s, Reader-Response Theory is an approach that sees texts as socio-cultural experiences, in which readers are the ones who transform the words on the page into meaning. That is, reader-response theory considers the reader’s interpretative process as central to the creation of meaning, and states “that a text has no effective existence outside of its realization in the mind of a reader … and therefore the meaning of a text must be activated by the reader”. (Quinn, 1999: 272)

Reader-Response theory counters the criticism that if meaning exists only in the reader a text could mean anything a reader said it did thus causing an unbridgeable relativism, by suggesting that readers and writers are governed by common formulations and rules of interpretation. In this respect the Reader-Response movement is influenced by classical Greek and Roman Rhetorical Criticism, which outlines and exemplifies the need for essentials of convention (in oratory for example), and also by Reception Theory, as outlined by Hans Jauss in 1967, which states that “since every text and being is historical, a reader approaches a literary text with assumptions about the type or genre it represents, its relation to other works of its time, and to the readers own experience of life”. (Quinn, 1999:276f)

However, since both of these perspectives require the reader to make assumptions of a cultural nature in order to form meaning, a task few of our students would easily be able to do on their own, the EFL teacher must consider the difficulties inherent in working with texts that embrace the social values and ideas of a particular culture. Reader-Response offers the concept of Interpretative Communities to address this issue. Recognizing that even within a culture, or a sub-culture, and certainly across cultures, there will be groups and communities with their own cultural assumptions, Stanley Fish (1980) suggests that readers should respond to the shared assumptions of an interpretative community in understanding a text; a task requiring the reader to know the norms and assumptions of the interpretative community. Students, then, need an introduction to the interpretative community, an extensive back grounding of cultural input, that aids their understanding of the world, their native culture and their place in the “scheme of things”. A student’s enjoyment and understanding of any piece of literature can be greatly enhanced by becoming “a member of the interpretative community”, and by engaging in supplementary studies on the cultural/historical background of the work under study.

Perspectives and Approaches

Although there are various exponents of the reader-response movement, ranging from the “hard”, which states a text has no meaning at all until the reader creates it, to a somewhat softer approach which sees interaction between the reader and the text as creating meaning according to shared formulations of socially constructed reality, a Reader-Response approach allows for the focusing of meaning from various genre, viewpoints and perspectives such as political, feminist, Marxist, phenomenological. Outlined here are two possible perspectives accessible to general EFL students:

1) A psychoanalytic view, “the reader responds to the core fantasies and the symbolic groundwork of the text in a highly personal way; while the text contributes material for inner realization which can be shared across consciousnesses … all this being made possible because we share a fundamental socio-cultural paradigm” (Lyre, 1996).

Since once again, the reliance on the shared socio-cultural concept could be problematic for EFL students, teachers may choose to add, or take, another viewpoint. For example:

2) A Hermeneutic view, in which “readers decode text according to their own historic worldviews, recognizing that an interaction will occur when their worldview differs from that of the one presented in any text they may be reading, thus creating both identity and strangeness” (Lyre, 1996).

Decoding Text

There are two foremost approaches, each with its own theoretical perspective, to decoding text and assisting with the interactive process that the EFL teacher may use to introduce the student to the conventions, or interpretative community, of literature:

1. The structuralist approach, in which the understanding of text is in terms of tradition and the conventions of a socially shared reality, along with an academic competence in genre and rhetorical conventions. The reader then decodes the text along set common lines. The previously mentioned introduction of English literary concepts and Classical Rhetoric are examples.

2. The post-structuralist approach, in which convention is acknowledged, but meaning is not determined by it, but rather by the play of the language and the nuances and contradictions of the conventions. The reader stands both within and without the assumptions of the conventions and deconstructs and constructs his own meaningful interpretation.

To unravel the post-structuralist approach it is necessary to note that according to its underlying Post modernist belief, there is no concrete world on which to apply language, rather language will shape our view of what we encounter and how we can think about it. Post-structuralism further tells us we understand not in absolutes but in intersubjectivity and intertextuality –that is we construct our understandings in semiotic and situational relationships with the speakers, writers and texts of language that we engage throughout our lives, and in so doing we bring our own understanding to discourse which we construct from our own interaction with it. This creates a level of relativity not only with others, but also with ourselves as we progress through our own lives coming into contact with other situations in which we can construct, deconstruct and reconstruct discourse and meaning. However, language itself is not static either and inevitably falls under the influence and change of its own evolving environment and world politics, in which the centers of power are constantly shifting. Even within the dominant language of an era, changes occur; loan words, phrases, and hybrid forms arise to aid connection to the world. Aspects of recorded language and culture that have changed do not necessarily disappear, but often become curios of the past and thus facets of national cultural capital, and of literary study.

The theory and philosophy underlining the structuralist and post-structuralist approaches is extensive and still being debated, however, for the practical purposes of teaching literature in EFL, the structuralist approach can be seen as a pre-critical perspective, useful in bringing the EFL student into the interpretative community. First it provides the reader with the skills needed to engage a text. Secondly, it provides the reader with formulations that are common to others and so creates not only a common point of departure for individual interpretations, but a means of sharing these interpretations with others, and thirdly, it allows the reader to engage a text in a more post-structuralist way, that is, to decoding interweaving aspects of the text and subtext in conjunction and opposition to his own, and others, personal and socio-cultural life experiences, knowledge, and understanding.

Finally, the Reader-Response approach fits the popular Vygotskian socio-cultural perspective of language learning, which sees learning as occurring by means of interaction between the individual and his environment (in the case of literature, this includes the text), in conjunction with scaffolding (assistance from more “expert” others). The student can then learn that which is meaningful to himself, and yet do so within the conventions of his discourse community (Fish’s interpretative community). This is not to say that these ideas are interchangeable, but it does give the teacher a means of enabling the EFL student to interact with a text and to construct his own meaning from it by way of tapping into the assumptions of shared conventions, and to helping students become more proficient at inferencing in English. Since the Vygotskian-interactive perspective forms the basis of much of the theory behind task-based learning, it also suggests a methodology for the teaching of literary concepts and conventions, and suggests they may be concurrent concerns in literature-based instruction.

It is a major challenge for teachers of EFL to find ways to help students interact with a text, but by taking an interactive reader-response approach, in conjunction with basic reading techniques, and by recognizing that reading is more than just a challenge of language skills, a teacher can introduce students to the rhetorical conventions of English, and thus help them to not only become good readers, but also members of the interpretative community of English readers. Such “membership” has a spin-off effect for the student in all other aspects of language and communication. Thus, in addition to helping the student become a more effective communicator in English, the practice the student has in reading class and the techniques and experiences he takes away for responding to a text will forever make reading and responding a more pleasurable and useful personal and communicative activity.

The relevance of Post-Colonial Literature

The selection of, or guidance in the selection of, a text is one of the literature teacher’s major responsibilities. It is here that I would like to suggest that those who are fortunate enough to have literature classes widen the sphere of their selected texts to include some considered to be Post-colonial. Post-colonial literature is variously defined and hotly debated, but here I will use a simple definition put forward by Laura Croft (2000: notes section 1)

Post Colonial literature is literature that emerges out of locations affected by an imperializing force, and the criticism that addresses this literature

Post-colonial literature offers an in-depth consideration of one of the greatest themes in literature; the concept of identity, specifically a lack of it, an attack on it, or a changing sense of it forced by the changes of a new order, and which often results in marginalization and physical and emotion trauma.

In our rapidly globalising world, migration, more economic than political, sends people around the globe in increasingly interrelated and interconnected networks; but it comes with a price: that of a time-space compression in which the traditional histories and purposes of imperial nation states decentralize and more and more people are faced with issues of unity and difference, both political and social, and of inbetweeness, and borderlessness. These same issues have long been the topics of post-colonial literature, as some writers focus the forging of new identities in new locations and others seek to find native identities after years of colonial subjugation. Thus such works can shed light on the processes of identity forming, maintaining, losing and gaining, in the globalizing process and, by extension, to the formation of world englishes. (Wilby, C. 2009)

Edwards and Usher (2008:9) similarly note the compression of space-time and the emergence of space metaphors in the process of globalization, noting how this gives rise to ’issues of position, borders and boundaries’, and raises questions of; who occupies space, of identity, of ownership, of loss, and of language and change. Edwards and Usher (ibid: 9) list spatial metaphors such as border crossing, speaking from the margins, spanning the abyss, occupying in-between spaces, diaspora space, actor-networks and peripheral participation as emerging metaphors in the discussion of globalisation. These metaphors have long been those of post-colonial writers, thus post- colonial literature can offer a rich source of investigation into the process and expression of globalisation in relation to location and locating. Janet Frame (1924 -2004), one of New Zealand most acclaimed authors, has much to say through a focus on these themes.

Janet Frame

Frame grew up in the 1930s depression years and suffered crippling poverty and hardship. Her family, however, was anything but defeated and Frame and her siblings, two of who died tragically in drowning accidents before the ages of 20, were exposed to a literary freedom seldom found in working class families. Frame, grew up to be intensely shy and spent much of her twenties in and out of mental institutions. She travelled abroad, to the “home” country (Britain) and began to write novels dealing with issues of identity, marginalization, loss and gain from the cultural centre. (Wilby, C. 2006)

Although her novels defy a clear literary definition, her place in literature is special. She wrote with a perspective now considered as belonging to post-structuralism long before the main names associated with this approach, such as Derrida, Foucout and Kristev, were writing about it, and yet she dealt with basically modernist themes of binary, and unequal opposites. Frame’s unique blend of the formats of structuralism and post-structuralism make her novels an excellent opportunity for students to discover these techniques and challenge their own assumptions. (Wilby, C. 2006, 2008)

Frame was, by her place (location/space and time period) relative to the center of the language she used, a post-colonial writer. As a writer of and in a settler culture, her novels deal with individual and national struggle for identity relative to both the center culture (Britain) and an earlier settler culture (Maori), but she placed a special emphasis on the constructive and deconstructive power of words in the creation and maintenance of identity and point of view. Such themes may seem complicated and difficult for students, making reading such a novel a daunting task. However, by taking a reader-response approach and supporting this with a study of aspects specific to Frame, NZ, and the situation of the novel, a teacher can lead a class to a greater appreciation of the aspects of the interpretative community of Post-colonial literature, and thus to the novel itself.

Elements of Analysis; entering the interpretative community

In their excellent book “The Empire Writes Back”, Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin (2005: chpt.2) deal with the use of language in post-colonial writing. In addition to identifying themes of colonized/colonizing, dominated/dominating, marginalization, ‘othering’ and change, they identify specific techniques commonly used for indicating struggles for/to/with identity, and for illustrating unity, difference, closeness and distance in Postcolonial literature.

1. Glossing – marking words with italics or quotation to signify cultural ‘gaps’.

2. Untranslated language – indicating cultural distinctiveness

3. Interlanguage -– in which words are left untranslated because they have become “a norm” of new space.

4. Code-switching – in which protagonists change their genres of speech to indicate status and position.

5. Syntactic fusion – in which speech traverses the grammar of more than one language.

6. Metonymic function – aspects that stand for a whole, for example, writing the local language in dialect phonetics rather than the standard English of the center to evoke a whole cultural experience or message about the situation and people in the story.

The selected example in this paper analyzes a sequence taken from page 33 of The Carpathians, Frame’s last novel, and focuses on the technique of glossing; item one on the list. The sequence highlights the compression of time and space, and the abrogation and appropriation of ‘the other’ in the negotiation of unity and difference where “each character equates survival with maintaining point of view, indeed [maintaining] being as a point of view” (The Carpathians, 1988:4).

The novel is set in 1980s rural NZ. The sequence is about an elderly lady on the brink of death. The woman is visited by her niece and grand-niece, only to find she cannot really communicate with them because the words of her language, and theirs, do not transfer smoothly, and she cannot express her point of view, which is the essence of her being. In the sequence she laments the passing of words more than her own impending demise as she recognizes this signals the passing of her time and space – her point of view, her identity. The aspects of analysis in the following sequence have been underlined; the other marked aspects appear in the original text of the novel.

Olga laughed, ‘oh yes, “long sock”. Never fear, Aunty Madge’ (Never fear!) ’Even I use words that are out of date. And where have all the creeks gone, and the paddocks?’ She leaned forward, her eyes glistening, almost accusing, for the dying are targets also for accusations.

‘They now say streams. And fields. And the Minister of Agriculture has been talking of the New Zealandisation of Fisheries!’

‘Oh Mum, don’t go on about it,’ Sharon urged’ At least you can still understand what people are saying. And the language is never dead anyway, it’s the people using it that can’t keep up. And you’re not so bad, Mum. These days you even say tena koutou or haere mai without saying Hairy My and looking nervous.’

“Creeks,’ Madge murmured. ‘A lost word.’

‘You see,’ Olga said. As if the blame were with Madge and others of her generation for losing the words, creek, paddock, footpath and others that were dying and being replaced.

This sequence deals with the three women’s recognition and acknowledgment of change. Madge, the oldest and representing the old centre (Britain), equates the lost words (glossed in the sequence) with her own demise and the passing of historical time. Sharon, the youngest and representing the new centre (modern NZ), places an emphasis on the new words (also glossed in the sequence) many of which are hybrid or Maori words, and Olga, representing the middle-aged, reacts to this loss and change by introducing several other “lost” words in an effort to connect with Madge while receiving praise from her daughter for making improvements in the use of new words. Olga, however, sees the loss of the words as being the responsibility of the older generation. She reacts with the frightening and angry realization that she stands between the old, whose words she understands, and the young, who do not understand them, and that soon she herself will become the keeper of the old centre. While both Madge and Sharon are clear as to their identity in relation to the changing words, Olga is unclear of her own point of view, indicating a sense of inbetweeness, and thus highlighting the compression of time and space felt in post-colonial societies forging new identities.

This sequence uses many examples of post-colonial technique. Particularly interesting, however, is Frame’s use of glossing. Madge’s glosses do not indicate difference from the centre, but rather connection to the centre and difference to the new space, whereas Sharon’s glosses indicate distance from the old space and connection to the new centre. Olga reacts by glossing both new and old words indicating her inbetweeness. This movement highlights the passing away of the old order, which is Madge’s point of view and which represents her identity. The words which express Madge’s point of view – keepsakes, death-bed nest-egg and long sock – are not just generational differences, they are all expressions from the centre language (Britain) and are largely incomprehensible to Sharon – who recognizes them (as the sequence develops) only as words “belonging to a Victorian novel”, and therefore a part of old time (of imperial history) and therefore of only a cultural curiosity. We thus have a sequence in which three women express three differing identities related to the time-compression occurring in a post-colonial setting.


The above sequence, I contend, is not beyond the ability of literature students in Japan. Certainly, presentation of the work is crucial; it should be presented in chunks (the example is itself a sequence from a novel), and should be deconstructed with reference to the students’ experiences of language change between their own parents and grandparents, considering what this means for their language, their points of view and the development or otherwise of their culture and their individual and national identity. Such a sequence is relevant to their lives and offers an experience to consider as part of the “store of responses” that encourages overall education and maturity in our students.

In conclusion, I would like to suggest the reading of post-colonial literature in English courses as a dynamic way for students to engage their own, and others, worlds. I would like to suggest that the reading of literature is a worthwhile end for EFL university students and that ample time, formal credit, encouragement and value should be given to the study of literature.


Ashford, B. Griffiths, G. & H. Tiffin (2005) 2nd ed. The Empire Writes Back – New Accents Routledge Taylor and Francis Group, London and New York. Chpt. 2

Croft, L. (2000) “The Plague of Normality”: Reconfiguring Realism in Postcolonial Theory, note 1 section 1.

Edwards, R, & R. Usher (2008) 2nd ed. Globalisation and Pedagogy- Space, Place and Identity Routledge Taylor and Francis Group London and New York p.9

Fairclough, N. (2006) Language and Globalization Routledge Taylor and Francis Group, London and New York p.166.168

Fish: A Brief History of Literary Theory III; The Reader Response Theory of Stanley Fish.

Frame J. (1988) The Carpathians, Vintage New Zealand, Random House Group p.4. 33

Lyre, J. (1996) Reader-response: Various Positions

Quinn, E. (1999), A Dictionary of Literary and Thematic Terms, Checkmark Books, New York

Wells, D. (1990), Literature study groups in a university methods class. In N.P.Padak, T.V. Rasinsji, & J.Logan (Eds), Challenges in reading: Twelfth Yearbook of the College of Reading Association (pp31-36). Provo, UT: College Reading Assoc.

Wilby, C. (2006) Understanding Janet Frame I: Introduction, Obirin Studies in English Language and Literature Vol. 46, Tokyo

Wilby, C. (2008) Understanding Janet Frame II: landscape and identity, Obirin Studies in English Language and Literature, Vol. 47, Tokyo

Wilby, C (2009) Post Colonial Literature and Globalisation- locating new centers, Obirin Studies in English Language and Literature Vol. 4

The Liberlit Journal of Teaching Literature