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Pedagogy 2.1 (2001) 109-112
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Postcolonial Theory and the Undergraduate Classroom:
Teaching "The Red Convertible"
The language of literary theory often appears too technical for the undergraduate classroom, its ideas too abstruse for students grappling with the complexities of the literature itself. Yet theory is crucial to understanding literature's historical and cultural significance, as well as its perpetuation of, or resistance to, conventional notions of class, race, and gender. Postcolonial theory interrogates such issues particularly well by acknowledging that throughout history white Western culture and values have been imposed on people of color, most viciously in the colonization of Africa, India, and Native America. Postcolonial theory, then, examines how colonized people resist their colonization, either by rejecting it outright or, more often, by manipulating the colonizer under the guise of submission. Yoking together issues of empire, ethnicity, and cultural production, postcolonial theory compels readers to question what is valued in different cultures and why. Studying the Native American writer Louise Erdrich's (1984) short story "The Red Convertible" through postcolonial theory, for instance, fosters students' appreciation of pertinent issues regarding marginalized groups in American society.
"The Red Convertible" concerns two Chippewa half brothers, Lyman and Henry. Lyman narrates the story of Henry's death shortly after Henry has returned home from Vietnam. He begins by describing the death itself and then backtracks to establish the close bond that he and Henry shared. They worked, traveled, laughed, and fought together until Henry's psychological devastation after his captivity as a prisoner of war. Throughout the story Erdrich depicts the indomitable spirits of two young Native American men and the desolation wrought on them by white American values. The brothers' [End Page 109] red Oldsmobile convertible is a symbol of their financial success and is integral to Henry's brief recovery and ultimate demise. For students to see this connection, however, they must do more than passively accept the story's portrayal of Native Americans. They can look at the facts--the brothers live on a reservation, are intermittently employed, lack an intact nuclear family, and engage in some awfully strange behavior--but they must go further to appreciate Erdrich's decentering of stereotypical images of Native America.
Locating the story in a postcolonial framework allows students to do this. They must ask the questions through which literary discussion develops into cultural critique. Why do the brothers live on a reservation? Why are there no viable long-term jobs for them? Why are they not in college? Why would they blow their cash on a car when they could apply it to their education or to fixing up their house? The answers lie not only in the encroachment of white values on Native America but in Native Americans' modes of resistance. Lyman and Henry are acutely aware of what outsiders think of them. Their "strange" behavior actually mocks and attacks racist generalizations about Native Americans. Students rush to view Henry's fatal leap into the river as suicide, yet through a postcolonial reading of "The Red Convertible" they begin to understand his desperation and the myriad ways white society compels his tragic means of salvaging his identity. Ultimately, students question the implications of one culture's attempts to define another. Even when stereotypes appear benign or perhaps complimentary (e.g., Native Americans are very spiritual), their fabrication by those outside the culture makes them inherently pernicious. Studying the work of postcolonial theorists establishes this premise.
Students learning to recognize the shortcomings of stereotype will find Edward Said's ideas lucid and straightforward. In his groundbreaking Orientalism Said (1979: 5) states that "locales, regions, geographical sectors [identified] as 'Orient' and 'Occident' are man-made" through "a tradition of thought, imagery and vocabulary that have given [them] reality and presence in and for the West." Orientalism is Said's name for a "way of coming to terms with the Orient that is based on the Orient's special place in European Western experience" (1). It opens the gateway for discussing such issues as the West's ingrained images of the other...