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Attempts by writers and intellectuals in former colonies to create unique national cultures are often thwarted by a context of global modernity, which discourages particularity and uniqueness. In describing unstable social and political cultures, such "third-world intellectuals" often find themselves torn between the competing literary requirements of the "local" culture of the colony and the cosmopolitan, "world" culture introduced by Western civilization.

In Zones of Instability, Imre Szeman examines the complex relationship between literature and politics by exploring the production of nationalist literature in the former British empire. Taking as his case studies the regions of the British Caribbean, Nigeria, and Canada, Szeman analyzes the work of authors for whom the idea of the"nation" and literature are inexorably entwined, such as Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, C.L.R. James, Frantz Fanon, and V.S. Naipaul. Szeman focuses on literature created in the two decades after World War II, decades in which the future prospects for many colonies went from extreme political optimism to extreme political disappointment. He finds that the "nation" can be read as that space in which literature is thought to be able to conjoin two things that history has separatedthe writer and the people.

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