7 Books About Colonialism

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines colonialism as “control by one power over a dependent area or people.”

Themes related to colonialism and its effects are explored by science fiction and fantasy authors as well as historians, because those genres offer fertile ground for experimentation with the laws of reality and human behavior. It's important to note, however, that there is a difference between colonialism and imperialism, although not all of the titles on this list fall strictly into the camp of addressing one or the other. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy offers further definition to the term 'colonialism':

The term colony comes from the Latin word colonus, meaning farmer. This root reminds us that the practice of colonialism usually involved the transfer of population to a new territory, where the arrivals lived as permanent settlers while maintaining political allegiance to their country of origin.

1. 'Things Fall Apart' by Chinua Achebe

This is a title that you may have encountered in high school, and there's a chance that you're less than fond of it as a result. But if you read Chinua Acebe a little too early, there's no reason why you can't revisit this Nigerian author for another shot. The dual stories in Things Fall Apart follow one man's detachment from the tribal culture in which he was raised and the impact of European missionaries.


2. 'The Vorrh' by Brian Catling

I reviewed The Vorrh here on LitReactor when it was re-released in the U.S., and it's one of the first titles that came to mind when I was trying to think of titles for this list. Catling has created an intriguing modern fiction that blends themes of colonialism with more surreal elements. It tells the story of a warrior named Tsungali who is ordered to hunt down former English soldier, Peter Williams. This will be difficult because Williams is attempting to become the first human to cross the Vorrh, a massive, magical jungle in the heart of Africa.


3. 'Midnight's Children' by Salman Rushdie

Midnight's Children tells the story of Saleem Sinai, who was born at the precise moment of India's independence. He is one of 1,001 children born in the midnight hour, all of whom have special gifts and are telepathically connected with Saleem. But as he grows, Saleem learns that his life is inseparably linked to that of his motherland, and his every act is mirrored and magnified in the events that shape the newborn nation of India. 


4. 'War of the Worlds' by H.G. Wells

Part of the lasting popularity of War of the Worlds likely lies in its analysis of real world issues through the lens of an alien invasion. Wells makes an outright comparison between the Martian invasion and colonial expansion in Tasmania. "The Tasmanians," Wells writes, "in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?"


5. 'Kindred' by Octavia E. Butler

Butler is a master when it comes to using the tools of speculative and science fiction to scrutinize historical and social constructs. In Kindred, a modern black woman is snatched from her home in California and transported to the antebellum South. The main character is drawn back repeatedly through time to the slave quarters. Every trip is longer and more dangerous until it is uncertain whether she will ever return to the present, or exist at all.


6. 'Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War' by Nathaniel Philbrick

This is the one nonfiction title I included on this list. Philbrick does an amazing job of creating historical narratives that are both informative and highly entertaining. Mayflower chronicles the nitty-gritty details about what it took to survive in the early years of the American colonies. 


7. 'One Hundred Years of Solitude' by Gabriel García Márquez

One Hundred Years of Solitude is the story of the rise and fall of the mythical town of Macondo, seen through the history of 'the family.' In the scrutinization of the many aspects of the family, all of humanity is reflected. In the growth and subsequent decay of Macondo, the reader sees all of Latin America.

Do you have any other books you would recommend to readers as they sit around the table this Thanksgiving? Let us know in the comments.

Leah Dearborn

Column by Leah Dearborn

Leah Dearborn is a Boston-based writer with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in international relations from UMass Boston. She started writing for LitReactor in 2013 while paying her way through journalism school and hopping between bookstore jobs (R.I.P. Borders). In the years since, she’s written articles about everything from colonial poisoning plots to city council plans for using owls as pest control. If it’s a little strange, she’s probably interested.

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postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words November 23, 2016 - 7:16am

Interesting list. I imagine it must have been hard to whittle down. There are a good number of First Nations, Inuit and Metis authors who weave the issues of past and present colonialism into their stories. Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King is my favourite.

The Ward of the End of the World by Mario Vargas Llosa - the republic of Brazil doesn't take kindly to empoverished villagers turning to Christ and refuting the republic as the antichrist.


postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words November 25, 2016 - 4:08pm

so sad this hasn't received more attention (maybe people don't want to think too much about colonialism during thanksgiving...).

I recall a couple of others. Cities of Salt by Abdul Rahman Munif (translated from Arabic). It portrays the lives of desert communities in north africa/arabia as international interest in the oil in the region begins in earnest.

A huge fantasy series that is hit and miss with its various arcs Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen has moments of genius, and moments that fall flat, alas. The good bits are well worth the effort, and by far the richest fictitious world I've ever read. The theme of colonization is woven throughout, with various characters belonging to a rough equivalent of the Roman Legion, others to tribal peoples (some of whom have magic). What's intriguing is that he never treats the urbane as superior to tribal nomads. One of his characters, a giant barbarian named Karsa Orlong, represents the anti-civilization elements. Mostly, he sets slaves free.

Tomson Highway Kiss of the Fur Queen and any of his drama all deal with the history and legacy of colonization, residential schools, and their legacies in Canada. There's loads of talent among First Nations, Metis, and Inuit storytellers: Lee Maracle, Drew Hayden Thomas, Joseph Boyden, Eden Robinson, Waubgeshig Rice, off the top of my head.