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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47.4 (2001) 855-886

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Postcolonial Complexity in the Writings of Rudy Wiebe

Ervin Beck

The fiction of Rudy Wiebe is increasingly being studied in terms of postcolonial discourse, an intellectual inquiry that has developed almost simultaneously with Wiebe's writing career. Recently Tony Tremblay has even claimed that the tendency for Canadian literature to become "consciously postcolonial" is due "in large part to Rudy Wiebe's cultural programme of re-imagining the West" (159). 1

In addition to his originary position, Wiebe represents a special achievement in postcolonial literature because of his unusual success, according to most critics, in depicting indigenous peoples. Unfortunately, criticism of his work has tended to divide into two different streams: one concerned with the religious content of his fiction about Mennonites and one concerned with his representation of indigenes. The result is that the full complexity of his postcolonial perspective has been obscured since Wiebe's representation of his own people's experience of oppression has been excluded from discussions of his postcoloniality. Wiebe's complexity includes two apparent contradictions: the difference between the way he represents his own people and the way he represents indigenous people, and the difference between his Christian position and the theory and criticism of mainstream postcolonialism. This [End Page 855] essay will clarify the complex variety of ways in which Wiebe is a postcolonial writer and suggest some ways of regarding, if not resolving, these contradictions.

Wiebe and Settler Culture

Wiebe's position in postcolonial discourse should first be described in terms of the paradigm that has displaced the obsolete notion of First, Second, and Third Worlds. Some postcolonial critics now suggest that we consider four redefined worlds. "First World" remains the designation for the dominant exploiters (usually capitalist European) of foreign lands. But instead of the term "Second World" designating socialist countries, "it now refers to 'settler'" cultures, that is, former colonies that were settled by colonizers, primarily from the First World, as in Africa, Australia and Canada. "Third World" refers to countries like India, where the British did not dominate by expropriating land for their citizens to settle on, but, rather, remained a ruling class imposed upon a reluctant people. 2 "Fourth World" refers to the indigenous people who were displaced by European and other settlers in Second World situations (Slemon 31-32). 3 Since the indigenes were frequently dispossessed, displaced, and even destroyed by the colonizing settlers, such cultures are increasingly called "settler-invader" cultures by postcolonial critics (Brydon and Tiffin 127). 4

Rudy Wiebe is best known as a western Canadian writer who depicts Canadian Indian experience; therefore, he and his fictional subjects clearly fit into the Second World and Fourth World categories, respectively. Most of his writing depicts a cultural situation similar to that depicted by many other noted "white" writers in formerly settler-colonized countries. These writers include Doris Lessing in Zimbabwe; Alan Paton, Nadine Gordimer, and Athol Fugard in South Africa; Isak Dinesen in Kenya; Patrick White in Australia; Margaret Atwood in Canada--and even James Fenimore Cooper in the United States.

In the light of postcolonial concerns, Wiebe's cultural position in these four worlds is politically more complex and morally more compromised than at first seems obvious. He is the youngest son of Dutch-Prussian-Russian Mennonites who immigrated to Saskatchewan in 1929, fleeing the deprivation, anarchy, and violence that accompanied the communist [End Page 856] collectivization of their land in Ukraine, which was then part of the Russian Empire. Wiebe grew up in a log house, speaking only Plautdietsch, on marginally productive land that was the former home of Crees and Metis, some of whom still lived on the fringes of the area where his family homesteaded. Although his writings on the early homesteading experiences of his family make no mention of Indian neighbors, his early awareness of white settlers' interaction with Canadian Indians must have been very much like that depicted in the Mennonite settlement of Wapiti in his first novel, Peace Shall Destroy Many.

In fact, the experience of his family in Canada...


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