Can the Subaltern Speak through Postcolonial Historical Fiction?: A Study of Amitav Ghosh's Ibis Trilogy

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Jhangiani, Gauri, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Olla, Nasrin, AS-English (ENGL), University of Virginia

Writing postcolonial history has involved relying on the colonial archive. However, the colonial archive is a contentious source—either having deliberate omissions or detailed documents shaped by colonial ideology. Moreover, as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak notes in her germinal essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, the writing of history using such archives is also wracked with epistemic violence, in which the subaltern, a figure already made an Other, is not permitted to have a voice. The issue of making subaltern history visible has been a continuous and classic problem of postcolonialism. This thesis proposes an intervention in the practice of historical writing in the form of postcolonial historical fiction. While deriving facts from historical documents, postcolonial historical fiction uses the creative freedom literature provides to centre history of colonial periods on individuals. To illustrate this further, this thesis examines Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy, a series that elucidates the intertwining of capitalism, colonialism, and cultural interaction through trade in the period leading up to the First Opium War. The Ibis Trilogy, in its exploration of these issues through the lives of various characters across differing economic, social, racial and caste strata, creates a rich historical narrative that attempts to address the archival gap. This thesis, therefore, explores how postcolonial historical fiction, and specifically the Ibis Trilogy, engages with the problem of epistemic violence to serve as an alternate mode of writing and understanding history. It examines how Ghosh engages with representation of the subaltern through fleshing out the details of historical lives, examining the relation between subalternity and language, and the creation of alternate archives of history by the colonised within the text.

MA (Master of Arts)
postcolonialism, postcolonial historical fiction, postcolonial literature, historical fiction, archive, epistemic violence, colonialism, Amitav Ghosh, Ibis Trilogy, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Can the Subaltern Speak?, history, subaltern history, subaltern, Sea of Poppies, River of Smoke, Flood of Fire, Opium Wars, colonialism in India
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