Adélékè Adéẹ̀kọ́, Amrita Dhar, and Amrita Sen

Shakespeare in the “Post”Colonies and Postcolonial Shakespeareans at Work

 

Interview audio

Published on 26 September 2023.

Interview transcript

 

Introduction

Amrita Dhar 

Hello and welcome. My name is Amrita Dhar, and I am the Director of the project Shakespeare in the “Post”Colonies which is hosting a series of interviews with postcolonial Shakespeareans from around the world.

In this pilot conversation of this series, I speak with my collaborators and co-Principal-Investigators for this project, Professor Adeleke Adeeko, who is also my colleague here at The Ohio State University, and Dr Amrita Sen of the University of Calcutta, about the origins of this project, about our extended engagement with Shakespeare, and about our common commitment to matters of justice, equity, and postcoloniality.

 

Conversation

Amrita Dhar  

Leke and Amritadi, would you mind introducing yourselves, please?  

Adélékè Adéẹ̀kọ́

Thank you, Amrita. Thanks for putting these together. My name is Adeleke Adeeko. I teach in the English Department at Ohio State, and I also teach courses in Africana Studies.

Amrita Sen 

And I am Amrita Sen. I am Associate Professor and Deputy Director of the UGC HRDC, University of Calcutta. And I am affiliated faculty with the Department of English, as well as the Women’s Studies Research Centre at the University of Calcutta.  

Amrita Dhar 

We’ve come together today across different parts of the world, and very different time zones, to have a discussion about what Shakespeare means today in the twenty-first century for us in places and spaces of postcolonial inheritance. I want to start, Leke, by asking you: you are a scholar of postcolonial studies, can you tell our listeners, what postcolonial studies is, please? What is postcolonialism? What is postcoloniality?  

Adélékè Adéẹ̀kọ́

I chuckled when you are asking the question, because I have read so many books on the topics. [laughs] There are books and books on what is postcolonialism, what is postcoloniality. It’s really, really difficult to say one, that postcoloniality is this as opposed to that. I always tell students that when you see the question “What is…?,” that should tell you that a lot of things is left out. But what I always circle on as the central themes… I always rely on Gayatri Spivak, her book on the Critique of Postcolonial Reason. I always go back to that book, because the way I read it, she introduces some terms that cuts across postcolonialism as an ideology, or as a pedagogy, or as a way of approaching texts across time, from Chaucer to Grotowski. Or as a political reading of a particular set of texts and a particular set of time in Anglophone, or Francophone, or areas that used to be occupied by Europeans. So, for example, African American, African literature, South Asian literature, Indian literature, in postcolonial literatures. Sometimes I include New Zealand, because they are also postcolonial. We could also include Australia. As postcolonial locations. And when we study that, their works, you can study them as postcolonial.   

 

Book cover for A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present, by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.

A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Harvard University Press, 1999)

 

But three axioms that I took from Gayatri Spivak. Sanctioned ignorance. The ignorance of Europeans, of colonizers who visited those places, who knew nothing, and started with ignorance, and privileged that ignorance as important. [laughs] They didn’t know about Australians, and they made grand statements about Australians. And said, “They are not like us.” They didn’t know about India, they made grand statements about India. And Africa. So that’s sanctioned ignorance, a major topic in postcolonial studies, which… I would like to think about it. She also speaks of the creation and foreclosure of the native informant. “Native” is an invention of colonizers. The natives, they didn’t call themselves natives. So now, when you create this “native,” what you create them so that you move on, can carry on with what you want to do, because you don’t grant them any recognition other than that you invented them. So, nothing legal can proceed from them, nothing permanent, nothing essential can come from them. So, you create and foreclose the “native.” Then when you create and foreclose them, you make them “Other.” [laughs] They’re different, permanently different. And when you create that, so that you can govern… But in the process of doing that, the native actually spoke back.

So, it’s that context of creating.. not creating knowledge, people, interactions. And as far as Spivak is concerned, it’s not just these spaces, it goes into Kant, you find postcoloniality in Kant, the presence of enlightenment philosophy. You’ll find it in Marx, you’ll find it in Freud, she found it in Derrida. I find that very, very encouraging, an approach very encouraging in that another analytic about Shakespeare, or the Romantic writers. [laughs] So, she extended postcolonial studies, postcoloniality to be far more encompassing—and more incriminating—of, of, of European ventures in other places.  

Amrita Dhar 

Thank you. And for our listeners who might not be acquainted with the debates in the field, or even about the emergence of the field of postcolonial studies as such–you are a more senior scholar than I am, I am an early career scholar, you are a more senior scholar than I am–for these listeners, can you talk a little bit about your trajectory as an academic and a scholar in postcolonial studies? It wasn’t even always called postcolonial studies. Now, there is a distinction that we make between post-colonialism and postcolonialism, all one word, without a hyphen. Can you talk about this emergence of the field of postcolonial studies and the distinction between post-colonialism and postcolonialism, please?  

Adélékè Adéẹ̀kọ́  

Post-colonialism (with hyphen) generally relates to what used to be called literatures in English in places other than US, North America, and England. Like British Commonwealth. That is, “post-.” Things that came after colonial ventures in those places. That’s the one with a hyphen. And whatever, the reaction, the debates that developed out of that interaction, or domination of other people. Then there is the one without hyphen. That’s the one that I was summarizing earlier. That occupation, domination, taking other places, in terms of global historical development, started at a point that its effect is not just in the British Commonwealth or those “other” places. That you will find it in England itself, that it includes… To understand postcolonialism without hyphen, onw will have to look for, to study, for example, Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, the founding text in the development of English novel. With an, a story that is, I mean, cut through, from the beginning to the end, with colonial ventures. Stories that Europeans told themselves. So that you would have nightmares of what did they did to other people. So, without the hyphen, you incriminate Kant, Immanuel Kant. Without hyphen you incriminate Marx. Marx was not a colonizer. Marx did not go to colonize, did not endorse colonialism. But some of his thoughts are influenced by, by things that dominate colonial studies. So, with a hyphen, that historical, history-specific. Without hyphen, it becomes a thought. The general body of thought that grew as a result of global interactions.

 

The cover of the first edition of The Life and Strange Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, written by Daniel Defoe.

The Life and Strange Adventures of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (London, 1719)

 

Amrita Dhar 

That’s very helpful, because that kind of capacious critical analytic is indeed, what our project is grounded in.

I want to turn this conversation now to you, Amritadi. The name of the project that we have, Shakespeare in the “Post”—“post” being within scare quotes— Shakespeare in the “Post”Colonies. We thought about this name precisely because we wanted to signal something about this post-, or after of colonialism being rather suspect, rather not-true, that colonialism is fully over, and now we are in post-colonial days. Can you talk a little bit about the “post”colonies as a distinct category for thinking about our work with Shakespeare?  

Amrita Sen 

Right. One of the things, I think that we are… the term that we’re not also talking about, which is somewhere in the back of our minds continuously throughout this project, is, of course, questions of decolonization and questions of decoloniality. And, as some of the major scholars and theorists of decolonization, they point out that the “post” of post-colonialism is also somewhere or the other imbricated with neo colonialism.  

 

The cover of the book Against Decolonization: Taking African Agency Seriously, writteb by Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò

Against Decolonisation: Taking African Agency Seriously by Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò (Hurst Publishers, 2022)

 

Adélékè Adéẹ̀kọ́  

Yeah. 

Amrita Sen 

And we are talking about geographies and polities that are not homogeneous, that perhaps never were homogeneous, that are now structured around nation states. Not just in the erstwhile colonies. I think this is really important to remember. And I’m thinking here of Mark Netzloff’s wonderful book, England’s Internal Colonies. And so, these sort of fractured, marginalized entities within erstwhile colonial spaces, but also within the metropole, itself, is also something that needs to be confronted, needs to be acknowledged. And I think it is this complex political as well as economic trajectory that we were talking about, and thinking about. And how Shakespeare enters into this conversation, because in some geographical locations, like India, for instance, Shakespeare transmission was associated with the transmission of English language, and was intended to create a new class of Indians, a more privileged class of Indians. And this class, of course, still survives and continues. I would argue, that you know, both you and I are members of this class, and this is our legacy, right? The fact that we have learned how to curse is perhaps evidence of a lesson well taught. But then, the other question is, what about other groups, other sections that were not part of this intended new class? Is Shakespeare relevant for them at all? And I suspect that these questions of political disenfranchisement not just of India, but, but of the other global polities. And I’m deliberately avoiding the term “nation” here, because nation is one type of imagined community. But I think that our project—and the interviews that we are conducting—is aimed precisely towards unpacking or at least disrupting some of our common notions about the postcolony, and the postcolonial condition.   

 

The cover of On the Postcolony by Achille Mbembe.

On the Postcolony by Achille Mbembe (University of California Press, 2001)

 

Amrita Dhar  

That brings me very nicely to my next question. You are a scholar of early modern studies, and you specialize in Shakespeare studies.  

Amrita Sen 

Yes. 

Amrita Dhar 

As a scholar of early modern English literature, and of Shakespeare studies, what would you say are the main questions today in the field of Shakespeare studies? Where is it now? This project is being held at The Ohio State University. And we have to admit that the big centre of power for Shakespeare studies is very much still along the US-UK axis. So, what are the main questions both in this US-UK axis and in other parts of the world, such as South Asia, which we both come from, and which is where many of our urgencies for this project first emerged for us?  

 

Photograph showing a street sign with the name of the street, Shakespeare Sarani, first in Bengali and then in English.

Street sign of Shakespeare Sarani in Kolkata; photograph courtesy of Suman Roy

 

Amrita Sen 

Right. So, to begin with… Around the 1980s, there was the first shift within the field of what was then known as Renaissance studies. And it coalesced quite well with a renewed impetus towards postcolonial theory. And we have the first postcolonial lens that is turned to the early modern period. Not just Aimé Césaire talking about Caliban, but a sustained theoretical approach. And so, you have Ania Loomba, Kim Hall, amongst a host of other amazing scholars who turn to travel literature, turn to travel narratives, bring in a plurality of texts, that mess up, in a really good way, the field, so to speak. We’re seeing something similar now, with RaceB4Race. And the larger renewed need to engage with questions of race and questions of colonialism in the early modern period. And actually going back even to the Middle Ages, right, and to look at coloured bodies during this period. My own project of course, you know, yes, I’m a Shakespeare scholar, but I’m also someone who looks specifically at directions of the East Indies and the early East India Company during this period. So, my own work specifically is very postcolonial. But I think Shakespeare studies has the other side to it, you know, that early modernists are also actively engaging, and that is Shakespeare adaptation.   

 

 

And here, I would say that when it comes to the subfield of global Shakespeares—which has really come into its own over the past several years—the rhetoric is largely dominated by certain geographical regions, including South Asia, actually. And I would love to hear more voices in global Shakespeares from the underrepresented geographical areas. But when it comes to global access, where in Shakespeare adaptation studies, then I’m really not sure where the centre lies. I mean, I guess definitely Anglo-America, but then with really strong nodal points in South Asia and East Asia actually, where really amazing archival work is being done. So, I think there are twin aspects to, to being an early modernist. We have our two feet in two very different centuries, the early modern and then the contemporary period.  

Amrita Dhar 

Yes, this is perhaps why we are in a rather exciting moment, in a way, for undertaking this project. I want to ask now, for all of us, we are all people of postcolonial inheritance, and we all grew up and did our college education in very different parts of the world… Schools here in the US… I am sitting in central Ohio right now. Schools in the US often carry a very serious Shakespeare component. But I, Amritadi, you and I grew up in Calcutta, and we did our undergraduate studies at Jadavpur University in West Bengal, India.

 

A photograph showing an overhead shot of a pond with water-lily leaves, and on the shore, a bench around a tree and a person walking under an umbrella.

The Jadavpur University Gate 4 pond as seen from the balcony of the Department of English; photograph courtesy of Aritra Chakraborti

 

Photograph showing a corridor with wall signboards and rooms on either side; the walls are blue-grey (bottom) and white, with some graffiti.

The corridor of the Jadavpur University, Department of English, one unusually deserted evening; photograph courtesy of Abhijit Gupta

 

Leke, you grew up in Ijebo division of Ogun State, and did your undergraduate studies at Obafemi Awolowo University, in Ife, Nigeria. Yet all of us, with our childhoods and early adulthoods elsewhere—not at The Ohio State University where this conversation is being hosted right now—we have all had an introduction to Shakespeare long before we came to participate in the US Academy. Leke, let me ask you first, can you talk about what your Shakespeare journey has been like? And could I ask you to reflect on this particular bequest of colonial education?  

Adélékè Adéẹ̀kọ́

It’s a long story for me, but I remember vividly that it was a book prize… You know, schools, and telling you you’re good… Yeah. And I received the book prize [laughs] in Primary Three, what we would call third grade in American dialect. And the book is titled Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare. That is the title of the book. Nigeria was already independent by the time I went to school. Nigeria became independent in 1960. So, Primary Three, the third grade, that was 1966. For me. At the end of the school year, I got that book as a prize. And actually, this morning, I went online to Google whether it was a real book or if I just imagined it. And actually, the book exists. But the one that was given to me as a first prize that school year had abridged narrations, abridged retelling of Shakespeare stories. I remember reading that over the Christmas break before school resumed, for the fourth grade.   

In high school, Shakespeare is required as part of the literature curriculum. I remember reading Macbeth. I remember for the upper level, we had to read Julius Caesar. For A Level, it was Troilus and Cressida. I don’t even remember anything about that play anymore. [laughs] So, at every level of education–this was decades after Nigeria’s independence–Shakespeare was required as part of the literature curriculum. By the time I got to college, things were already changing because Ife, Ife was a radical campus, especially the Literature Department. It’s like what happened in Nairobi in 1971, when they wanted to abolish the English Department. Ife did not abolish the English Department but created the Department of Literatures in English. So, that they removed all literature out of English department and moved them. So European Literature, English literature, became just one of the literatures. So, by that time, Shakespeare was no longer central in college. Because I did a double degree in Education and English, I was required to take classes in Shakespeare. Because you are going to teach high school. So you still need to learn Shakespeare for those kids who you are going to teach when you leave the university.   

So that’s been my story. It’s, it’s still that actually, Ife, though, because of this post-colonial (“post” as after colonization) and the effect on curriculum… That was a major debate in the, what you call the postcolonial world. I think in the global South, I think Ife was the third, that was 1977, Ife was the third institution to create a Department of Literatures and Language. I think there was one in Australia, there was one in Nairobi, then Ife was the third. Though there are reversals now. So that’s been my story. As something you have to absorb, and there’s something you are trained to reject. So, it’s both [laughs], it’s like a poison that cures. That’s been my experience, oh, something that cures that also kills. That’s been my experience of Shakespeare through schooling. And I’m not sure we can escape that legacy. This, this book, The Example of Shakespeare, written by one Nigerian playwright (he is deceased now). He writes in the classical world. But he argued in that book The Example of Shakespeare, that actually Shakespeare gave the language of verisimilitude to African novels in English. So, that whatever, from Achebe to anyone, that you have to trace the use of language, that they approach the need to Shakespeare’s use of English. And you cannot avoid it as long as you use English as a literary language on the African continent.

Amrita Dhar

Wow. Who, who is…?

Adélékè Adéẹ̀kọ́

I’m not sure Shakespeare is going to go away.

Amrita Dhar

No, no…

Adélékè Adéẹ̀kọ́

John Pepper Clark. Then I think towards the end of his life, he added as, his Ijo ethnic name. So, John Pepper Clark Bekederemo. He wrote many plays, and also, he was a very fine poet, too.  

Amrita Dhar 

That’s fascinating. And it brings me back to how things are at this moment at our university, where you and I, Leke, work. Where Shakespeare still is a requirement of the degree of the major in our discipline, in our Department of English. And the fact that students who are training in English and Education continue to have a Shakespeare requirement, because they too will have to know certain things in order to teach.  

Amritadi, what has your journey in Shakespeare been like? You and I are closer generationally. And of course, in geography there is so much that we share. Can you talk a little bit about what your journey in Shakespeare has been like, please?  

Amrita Sen 

So actually, I remembered reading a childhood Mary Lamb’s version of Shakespeare. Leke, just listening to you. But it was in school that we started reading Shakespeare. The original texts, or even if not initially original text, then texts that were simplified, but still kept more of the language of Shakespeare in place. And this would be around class 7, 8, 9. We were reading Macbeth properly. We had an amazing English teacher who would let us run wild with it, which maybe helped. The education Board that we were following was West Bengal’s own indigenous education Board, where if you were in a government school, then English would be taught when you started sixth grade.  And so, in our Class 10 exam, the English was really very basic. Like simple grammatical sentences. I, of course, had not been sent to a government school, but was actually sent to one of the most privileged of the girl’s schools in the country. It is still the same. And so, I learned my ABCDs before I learned my Bengali alphabet. So, my school of course embarked on a path of dual curriculum, I think would be the best way to phrase it. So, they would follow a really whittled down English just to ensure that we will be able to appear for our Board exams. But then we had to read Julius Caesar in the original. And I remember getting my first copy of Spenser’s Faerie Queene, in the original, as, again, prize for English in school. So, they were really serious about this. So, way before I got into university, we already had a fair, fair dose of, of English literature and of Shakespeare. 

And ironically, once you cleared your class 10 and you were in 11, 12—again, this is under the West Bengal system—you could choose between English A and English B. And English A is basically pre-college English. And it was basically a preparation for a full-on English Honours syllabus. So it was like a huge leap. And obviously, that’s what we all opted for because that is what we had been trained for. And so, transitioning into college, into university, at that point did not seem that artificial at all. But yes, my school carried on this dual curriculum where it ensured that not just Shakespeare, but you know, other figures of the English literary canon were also taught. And, of course, all of this was going on when West Bengal world was under a very different government, and there was a lot of emphasis on vernacular learning. But obviously, as we all know, the questions of class and access and privilege also entered into whenever we’re talking about language of instruction. We were actually punished if we spoke Bangla during school hours, apart from the forty minutes reserved for Vernacular class. I don’t know whether your experience was the same in school. Was it?  

Amrita Dhar 

In North America, Native people who have lost entire languages talk about this all the time, that they were meant to lose their linguistic inheritance. And they were taken away from their families.  

Amrita Sen 

Mm.  

Amrita Dhar 

You and I, we did not go to residential schools.  

Amrita Sen 

No. 

Amrita Dhar 

The violence is not at all that extreme. But it’s… 

Amrita Sen 

No. Right. And, of course, I hear what you’re saying… And what complicates this even further, was that then, in the course of our forty minutes of Vernacular that we were getting from school, we were expected to know Bankimchandra, and Meghnad-Badh, and read all of that in the original, so as not to lose out on the vernacular literature. But my question, of course, is: how do you imagine that these young girls would manage to get to the bottom of that amazing body of literature, if you only devoted like forty minutes out of an entire school day to the language? I think those of us who’ve learnt the language and learnt the literature learnt it because of other reasons. Which reminds me, my father actually took French for his school exams, for his Board exams, rather than Bangla, because my grandparents weren’t quite confident that his Bangla was up to scratch. So, he learnt French instead. And my mother, who had a completely different upbringing, was the one who brought in Bengali literature and Sanskrit, into all of that. Because of my mother, those are things that I was exposed to from a very early age. Because my mother couldn’t sing, she would recite Sanskrit poetry to me at bedtime.

Amrita Dhar 

I sometimes wonder about this on my own behalf. How is it that I came to own Shakespeare? And I think a big part of it is language. That I did not come to Shakespeare first in his language. I came to Shakespeare first in mine. So, by the time I went to college for English Honours–you and I both did English Honours at Jadavpur University for undergraduate studies–by the time I came to do my college education and learnt about Shakespeare as a sixteenth- and seventeenth-century person living in early modern England, with his professional life in London, and so on, my basic emotional response was, “Very well, that’s good for him, but Shakespeare is still mine. I know what I need to do with my Shakespeare.” Shakespeare was mine in a way that was inalienable because of the introduction that I had had with Shakespeare, and also at the same time, someone like Mahasweta Devi, someone like Bankimchandra. Just how intermeshed everything became…

 

Title page of Bankimchandra Chattyopadhyay's novel Kapālkundalā (Kolkata, 1818), a novel carrying key elements of the Tempest story.

Title page of Bankimchandra Chattyopadhyay’s Kapālkundalā (Kolkata, 1818), a Bengali novel carrying key elements of the Tempest story.

 

Conclusion

Amrita Dhar 

If you enjoyed this conversation, please subscribe to this podcast, spread the word, and leave a review. Do take a look also at our project website at shakespearepostcolonies.osu.edu for materials supplementing this conversation and for further project details. Thank you for listening, and until next time, for the Shakespeare in the “Post”Colonies Project, I am Amrita Dhar.