Razia Parveen

Razia Parveen

Razia Parveen has a Phd in Postcolonialism, Culture and Identity. She is a supply teacher and an independent researcher in all matters regarding BAME identity, cultures and living in diaspora, and is the author of Recipes and Songs. 

Jane Eyre for the Black Lives Matter generation: The Girl with The Louding Voice by Abi Dare
Tuesday, 08 December 2020 11:06

Jane Eyre for the Black Lives Matter generation: The Girl with The Louding Voice by Abi Dare

Published in Fiction

Razia Parveen reviews the new novel by Abi Dare, which like Jane Eyre champions the marginalised female

This searingly beautiful novel explores the social injustices which run deep in modern Africa. Set in Nigeria, it recounts the story of a 14-year-old girl whose life is blighted by one tragedy after another. Born into a downtrodden family, Adunni narrates a story which initially breaks the reader’s heart – but then revives it through her unquenchable courage.

In many respects The Girl with The Louding Voice (GWTLV) serves as a 21st century re-imagining of the Charlotte Bronte classic, Jane Eyre. There is a striking defiance and a self-belief from a female protagonist which runs through both the novels. Jane says for example:

I am no bird and no net ensnares me. I am a free human being with an independent will. (ch.23)

And Adunni says:

 I am a somebody of value (p.225)

 Both protagonists are young females who reside on the margins of society – Jane is a poor orphan girl and Adunni is a poor black girl. Both are forced to endure disadvantaged childhoods by social forces beyond their control.

Both are also written in the first person by young female narrators. GWTLV writes in a voice which is non-standard English:

This morning, Papa call me inside the parlour.

He was sitting inside the sofa with no cushion and looking at me. Papa have way of looking me one kind. As if he wants to be flogging me for no reason, as if I am carrying shit inside my cheeks and when I open mouth, the whole place be smelling of it.  (p1)

Jane, in contrast, narrates her story through carefully constructed Standard English:

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs Reed, when there was no company dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it  clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further out-door exercise was now out of the question. (p.1)

The openings of both novels seem worlds apart in terms of settings, syntax and linguistic pattern. Dare’s novel is devoid of any traditional grammar, whereas Bronte’s complies with every grammatical rule set for standard English. But both begin their narratives with specific childhood experiences – one in early Victorian England, and the other in today’s rural Nigeria.

GWTLV tells the devastating story of a young girl who is sold into marriage so her father can pay the community rent. She chronicles the abuse she suffered as the third wife to an elderly man. When she runs away to a trusted friend, she is sold again as a domestic slave. Her time spent as an unwaged and underage house maid to an abusive and greedy millionaire couple only seems to seal her fate.

However, the kindness of an unknown neighbour provides her with renewed hope for a better future. It is here in the grand house that she begins to read some of the books on the shelves she cleans. Interestingly, as her literacy improves the reading material becomes the beginning of the latter chapters:

 Fact: Some of the earliest art sculptures in the world originated from Nigeria. The Bronze Head from Ife, which is one of the most renowned, was taken to the British Museum a year after it was discovered in 1938.

During her time as a housemaid Adunni visits her neighbour’s house, where she sees some artwork on the wall:

Got those paintings from the Nike Art Gallery. It’s an amazing place in Lekki,’ she says, pointing to one of the clay heads. ‘That scarred one is my favourite. It is a painting of the Bronze Head from Ife. A masterpiece. Do you like art?’

‘I read of it in the Book of Nigeria Fact, about how we were letting the British to steel our art,’ I say. ‘Where is the surprise?’ (p.221)

 The contentious issue of the British Museum taking works of art from countries colonized by the empire is a long-running one, and explored in detail by many cultural historians including Dan Hicks in The Brutish Museums. By bringing in the information about stolen artefacts, Dare has introduced her readership to what is sometimes known as The Great Cultural Steal. As a colonised nation, Nigeria’s cultural heritage has often disappeared, only for it to be put on display in European museums decades later.

This in turn leads us to Jane Eyre which is also a book about colonialism. It mentions the wealth of Mr. Rochester, built from the plantations of Jamaica, which is further explored in greater depth in the later prequel Wide Sargasso Sea – staple reading on all postcolonial courses. Jean Rhys’ novel gives voice to the marginalized and the protagonist becomes the ‘Other’.

In a sense this also best describes Adunni in relation to Jane Eyre. One can argue that Adunni is Bertha Mason and ‘the mad woman in the attic’ as Adunni, like Bertha Mason, is the ‘other’ to the fair Jane.

In the deep shade, at the farther end of the room, a figure ran backwards and forwards. What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight tell: it grovelled, seemingly, on all fours; it snatched and growled like some strange wild animal: but it was covered with clothing, and a quantity of dark, grizzled hair, wild as a mane, hid its head and face. (ch.26)

 The image of the now iconic ‘mad woman in the attic’ could serve as a lack of autonomy and freedom leading to mental and emotional trauma. At one point in Wide Sargasso Sea Antoinette says to Rochester, “there is always the other side, always”. Dare has weaved this other side into Adunnis’ story almost a century later.

Both Adunni and Jane are avid readers and see the value in reading and the importance in securing an education for girls, particularly poor girls. Jane is ‘caught out’ by her cousin John for reading:

I returned to my book – Berwick’s History of British Birds… with Berwick on my knee, I was then happy … (ch.1)

 This is echoed in Adunni’s experience:

 I want to be reading everyday, I say, feeling a pitch of happiness as I am remembering what Kite say to me about feeding my mind with reading of books. I bend my neck, trying to read the title name of some of the books:

Things Fall Apart
Collins English Dic-tion-ary
Africa Bible Com-men-ta-ry
A His-tory of Nigeria
1000 Prayer Points to Secure Your Marriage
The Book of Nigerian Facts: from Past to Present, 5th edition 2014 
(p.130)

 Both our protagonists are dedicated to self-improvement and see reading as a means of emancipation. Furthermore, both female narrators explore the limitations of social class and movement. Jane Eyre tells her reader:

It is vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquillity: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it...Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer too much rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex. (ch.12, p.116)

Jane Eyre can be seen as promoting the kernel of love at its conceptual centre, and GWTLV is also a love story. Both narratives show an indestructible bond to the very real and possible idea of hope. This becomes a mantra that Adunni tells herself when her life becomes unbearable.

In Jane Eyre we have a more traditional love story between Jane and Mr. Rochester, but we also have the empowering self-love that develops within Jane and in GWTLV. The Louding Voice becomes a metaphor for self-determination gained through education in a patriarchal world:

My mam say education will give me a voice. I want more than a voice, Ms. Tia. I want a louding voice (p.224)

At one point Adunni says: I wish I am a man, but I am not, so I do the next thing I can do. I marry a man. Both our heroines have the same spirit in them and believe that education is the best way for them to gain some semblance of freedom.

Within Adunni’s narrative she tells of other stories that she knows, like a Russian doll of words:

Asabi is one girl in Ikati that didn’t want to marry an old man because she was having real love with Tafa, one boy that working in the same Kassim Motors with Born-boy. The day after her wedding, Asabi was running away with Tafa but they didn’t able to run far. They catch Asabi in front of the border and beat her sore. And Tafa? They hang the poor boy like a fowl in the village square and throw his body to the Ikati forest. The village chief say Tafa was stealing another man’s wife. That he must die because in Ikati, all thiefs must suffer and die. The village chief say they must lock Asabi in a room for a hundred and three days until she is learning to sit in her husband’s house and not running away.

 But Asabi didn’t learn anything. After a hundred and three days of being locked in a room, Asabi says she is no more coming outside. So she stays in that room till this day, looking the walls, plucking hair from her head and eating it, pinching her eyelashes and hiding it inside her brassiere, talking to herself and the spirit of Tafa. (p.12)

As well as the horrific violence that Adunni endures, she also tells us of the gender inequality that runs through the heart of Nigerian rural life. Female powerlessness and the strength of patriarchy are forces both Adunni and Jane must contend with which recur through both novels. Jane Eyre has become a touchstone of feminist literature and for giving a voice to the oppressed female. Adunni’s tale in GWTLV equally deserves to become a beacon of hope for young black girls, and should be taken up by the Black Lives Matter generation:

What, you only see white people when you see the news?’ She forced a quiet laugh. ‘That’s not – I mean there are a lot of black people on TV in England an in – actually,’ she sigh, low her voice, make it somehow sad, ‘you have a point. There aren’t enough black people anchoring the news . . . or in parliament . . . or in top positions. Not enough. (p.185)

I walked about the chamber most of the time. I imagined myself only to be regretting my loss, and thinking how to repair it; but when my reflections were concluded, and I looked up and found that the afternoon was gone, and evening far advanced, another discovery dawn to me, namely, that in the interval I had undergone a transforming process; that my mind had put off all it had borrowed of Miss Temple – or rather that she had taken with her the serene atmosphere I had been breathing in her vicinity – and that now I was left in my natural element, and beginning to feel the stirring of old emotions. It did not seem as if a prop were withdrawn, but rather as if a motive were gone it was not the power to be tranquil which had failed me, but the reason for tranquility was no more. My world had for some years been in Lowood: my experience had been of its rules and systems; now I remembered that the real world was wide, and that a varied field of hopes and fears, of sensations and excitements, awaited those who had courage to go forth into its expanse, to seek real knowledge of life amidst its perils. (p.89)

Village life in rural Nigeria and life in at Lowood both have strict archaic and brutal rules and regimes to be adhered to.

One of the many complexities that Jane Eyre shares with GWTLV is the idea of having a sense of self-worth. Young Jane says:

to gain some real affection from you, or Miss Temple, or any other whom I truly love, I would willingly submit to have the bone of my arm broken, or to let a bull toss me, or to stand behind a kicking horse, and let it dash its hoof at my chest. (Ch. 8)

In a similar vein Adunni has a strong sense of self – respect running throughout the novel:

I am not wasted waste; I am Adunni. A person important enough because my tomorrow will be better than today.

 Adunni’s defiance resonates with Jane’s self-belief. This stance shines throughout the novel and allows the reader to take solace from their transcendence. It creates a powerful message which champions the marginalised female beyond the reins of patriarchy.

The wrath and love of the oppressed: The Book of Echoes by Rosanna Amaka
Wednesday, 28 October 2020 14:46

The wrath and love of the oppressed: The Book of Echoes by Rosanna Amaka

Published in Fiction

Razia Parveen reviews The Book of Echoes by Rosanna Amaka

The Book of Echoes by Rosanna Amaka is a powerful and politically potent narrative which subtly weaves the past into the present. It is a novel that shows the reader the inhumanity of Africans kidnapped and forced into slavery and resonates emotively in this year of the Black Lives Matter protests.

Amaka is from South London and has mixed heritage of Nigerian and Jamaican parents. This is her first novel and has apparently taken twenty years to complete. When you think of the subject matter this might not come as a surprise. The length of time it took to write this work partly reflects the chronology within the novel so the act of writing, like herstory, becomes a process which has taken many years.

 The story tells of two lives – Michael, a Londoner, and Ngozi, a Nigerian girl. The novel brings in many other political and emotional strands while telling their story. Ultimately, we have a present-day love story cocooned inside the real horrors of the past.

The horrific conditions on board the slave ships during the journey from Africa to the Caribbean known as the Third Passage is captured in all its searing brutality. It tells a compelling tale of black history and familiarizes the reader with a narrative that has hit the headlines this year thanks to protests such as those that brought down the Colston statue in Bristol.

The novel opens with voice of an African enslaved girl from the eighteenth century looking for her child in the London docklands. This narrative recalls some of the works of the great Toni Morrison, especially Beloved which tells a similar story of the haunting of a dead baby slave. Like Morrison before her, Amaka takes the motif of a single newborn baby to represent the collective identity of an entire people enduring the yoke of racism.

As the former slave comes to London in search of her daughter in 21st century London, we are introduced to Michael, who himself is the subject of cruelty and injustice. Just like the slaves of yesterday, Michael and his family’s fate are equally tragic and blighted by racism. As the story of Michael and his sister Marcia begins to unfold like an ineluctable Greek tragedy, the comparisons between the events of the eighteenth and twentieth centuries come into sharper focus. These two eras may be separated through time but essentially represent a painful continuity for black people in terms of oppression. The idea of the white man being somehow superior is very much part of the ideology behind slavery then, and racism today. Those wanting to know what has motivated the BLM protests this year can gain considerable insight from a reading of this text.

The novel is split into sections that are entitled with the name of the narrator. So the second chapter is called Michael for instance and recounts the death of that character’s mother and its devastating impact. He also recalls the Brixton riots of 1981 along with examples of police racism: 

The officer presses his knee into his back. Shut your fucking mouth wog, or I’ll shut it permanently. If I had my way, I’d send the whole bloody lot of you back on the next banana boat. Now get up (p.37).

The writer binds key historical events into the narrative making the events seem authentic and credible. However, the most innovative part of the narration is how Amaka entwines the voice of the ancestral slave into a seemingly linear narrative, like a vine:

And I look on, remembering that night in Trelawyn way back then, on the island of Jamaica when I was alive, the fields of sugar cane  ablaze with the revolts, burning, the fever of freedom, to fight till we lay down dead.

This voice is only for one paragraph but its effect on the narrative is very clear – the oppression of the past is very much embedded in the oppression of the present.

The second section of the novel is called Ngozi as she takes over the narrative but at the beginning of this section, for just over a page, we hear the voice of the ancestral slave girl:  

 At first glance, not much has changed in Obowi, not since – well, not since I left my baby boy Uzo in the shrine, way back when my yesterdays began, as far back as one of the village folk songs remembers..…these things hint at villagers’ past and present, at the sweat and tears, and at the ghosts and souls buried beneath the dust. (p.49-50).

We are reminded again of how the past hangs over the present like a spectre of memories.

This section cuts away from Ngozi and we hear the slave girl’s voice once more. The short section is entitled The Beginning and includes a passage where the slave girl narrates. This is the most harrowing and explicit part of the novel:  

I heard the sound of their whips against flesh, the sound as they hit the decks, shouting of foreign commands, and the crying and whimpering of those around me. And as I entered, dragged along by others, I looked up to the sky, looked up for my God, but he was nowhere to be found. As I went further into the hell, I caught his eyes, Wind’s eyes, and without words I begged him to save me, begging him to rescue me. (p.117-118).

Amaka here informs the reader not only of the historical facts but of the sadistic treatment the black slaves received at the hands of their white captors. The writer links the past to the present by allowing the slave girl’s voice and opinions to be heard about the now infamous statues that occupy city and town squares up and down the UK.  Her voice serving as remarkably prescient warning of the headline-grabbing scenes we witnessed earlier this year. These statues have memorably become a focus point for the current BLM movement, as targets for the wrath of the oppressed.

 I look up at the stern face. It’s strange to look up into the face of a man who caused your death, infected your life with his disease. I shiver and listen.

‘He was born in 1746. Robert…’

I often wonder if – no I don’t, I believe that history was truly invented for the rich and the learned. I look back at the group gathered at the statue, their faces expectant. They are young. They will never know they stand on the spot where I drew my last breaths. Their history has erased us. (p.118)

This voice is clearly angry at the offensive statues and firmly believes that they symbolize the suffering she and millions of others over the centuries have suffered. The fact that the statues of the very men responsible for this suffering are revered is an insult to the memory of countless lost souls.

We now move onto the third part of the novel’s structure, entitled Michael. Whereas in the first section we had the sixteen-year-old, we now have the older Michael:

these five years have been good to Michael. He is as tall as his sixteen-year old self could have hoped for, although not as much as his adult self would like. (p.123)

Here Amaka explores the reality of inter-racial relationships when it is revealed that Michael will only date white women:

'Listen, if you’re complaining about black women,’ continues Stanford, ‘then you’re also talking about black men – we are their fathers. All I’m saying is, what are you running away from?'…..

'then why aren’t you talking about it?’ asks Stanford. ‘Tell me this: you don’t like black women, what happens when you have a daughter, Michael? Even if the mother is white, she is going to be black – what sort of pride in herself are you going to teach her?' (p.156)

Amaka gives a reason from his past to explain his apparently strange behavior in the present. Again, the writer explores an issue which is very much in the spotlight in the 21st century, and has been debated by the BAME community for many years. Unfortunately, this issue has now been taken up by many right-wing groups and has been twisted into something divisive and contentious.

We then return to Ngozi’s story and then Michael’s again. It's interesting to note the final line of Ngozi’s narration:

Wind and I watch as it flies by and wonder in its wake (p.242)

….which then leads us back into the slave girl’s narration for a few pages. We then have Michael narrating again in a section entitled Ngozi. Next we have a break and a slave from Jamaica takes up the story:

That morning, on our first day in Jamaica, after they led us from the ship and I could no longer see him, I turned my head, looked ahead, like Wind was in the past. I did not think our paths would ever cross again. I thought I was to die, to be eaten by the devils. I did not imagine that the journey on the slave ship was the beginning of our story, not the end, that the world I left behind in the village would become a mere dream, a life lived by someone else.  (p.315)

The novel climactically brings the London- born Michael together with the Nigerian Ngozi. Their union speaks of the power of the past and tells of unspeakable truths. The book concludes with the voice of the past:  

 They, Michael and Ngozi, called to me. It’s time for my children to be united… But there still are parts of me, my own blood, scattered like kernels of corn from Sierra Leone to Virginia, from Virginia to Nova Scotia, from Nova Scotia to Rio, from Rio to London, from London to Jamaica, from Jamaica to the Bight of Biafra, and back round again. Over two hundred years we have searched, two hundred years since my death, and at last, they’ve begun to find each other. (p. 370)

This is a brilliant novel, which reminds us of how the fate of a people in the past can return to haunt their descendants in the present. It warns us of trying too hard to erase a history which is born out of violence and fear. But it is also an evocative love song from the oppressed of the past to those in the present:

I want you to know this, my child, that you were made in love. Your freedom was fought for among the resistance and revolts of the Islands, and the sheer will and desire to be free. You will have to look to find this but find it you will.

These prophetic words of love and acceptance complete a novel that has deservedly attained wide acclaim not just due to its literary merits but also its ability to shed light on crucial political questions of our time.

Giving a voice to the voiceless: Azadi, by Arundhati Roy
Friday, 02 October 2020 09:38

Giving a voice to the voiceless: Azadi, by Arundhati Roy

Published in Cultural Commentary

Razia Parveen reviews Arundhati's new book of essays

This is a hugely stimulating collection of nine essays of varying length which focus on issues related to the domestic and foreign politics and culture of the Indian subcontinent. Amongst the political ponderings, the world-renowned author explores the process of how the external world merges with the internal psyche for literature to occur. Arundhati Roy discusses the backdrop to her novel-writing and her increasingly powerful political essays, making it clear that both genres blend into one another, and that any supposed binary relationship between the two does not exist for her.

The first essay is from a 2018 lecture called ‘In what Language does Rain Fall over Tormented Cites?’ This was delivered at the W.G. Sebald Literary Translation event at the British Library. Although much of this essay focuses on the political situation in contemporary India, it also asks the question “which language should a non-English writer write in?”. Roy tells of interesting encounters she had while promoting her pioneering first novel The God of Small Things. The writer tells us how the colonial past still haunts the country today:

Fundamentally, India is in many ways still an empire, its territories held together by its armed forces and delivered by Delhi, which for most of her subjects, is as distant as any foreign metropole (p.11).

Critics of Roy have said traces of colonialism are there for the whole world to see within the writers of India today. Roy, however, sees her writing as a political act of challenging the postcolonial status quo.

The politics of writing and the writing of politics

These essays entwine the domestic politics of India with the art of writing, which she sees as an implicitly political act. This is a book essentially about culture: about the art of writing and how to write whilst living through times of political destruction. Roy has interwoven the personal and political spheres of human existence – a radical stance which also underpins her two great novels, The God of Small Things and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. She states in the essay ‘Language of Literature’ that:

the place for literature is built by writers and readers. It’s a fragile place in some ways, but an indestructible one. When its broken, we rebuild it. Because we need shelter (p.78).

The act of writing becomes a political one which cannot be separated from fiction, so literature and the political become irrevocably connected. One cannot survive without the other from her perspective. The great Marxist critic, John Berger, once said to her:

Your fiction and non-fiction, they walk you around the world like your two legs (p.79).

Roy asks:

Could I write as compellingly about irrigation as I could about love and loss and childhood? Not as reportage, but as a form of storytelling? Was it possible to turn these topics into literature? Literature for everybody – including for people who couldn’t read and write, but had taught me how to think, and could be read to? (p.87)

Roy clearly sees her political writings as an important form of narrative which is firmly embedded in the heart of literature. In order to fully appreciate these essays, the reader would be advised to become familiar with her two novels:

I knew that if The God Of Small Things was about home with a broken heart in its mists, The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness would begin after the roof had been blown of the home, and the broken heart had shattered and distributed its shards in war-torn valleys and city streets (p.88)

Roy uses her novels to amplify her political voice. She gives a voice to the voiceless – the poor, the oppressed, the outcasts of society surviving in the margins of the Asian sub-continent.

 In the novels, Roy addresses the politics of the war-torn region of Kashmir:

The story of Kashmir is not the sum of its human rights report…For a writer Kashmir holds great lessons for the human substance. About power, powerlessness, treachery, loyalty, love, humour, faith. What happens to people who live under military occupation for decades? What happens to language? The narrative of Kashmir is a jigsaw puzzle whose jagged parts do not fit together. There is no final picture (p.89).

Geopolitical hotspots become Roy’s characters and are given voices. She not only inhabits these worlds but almost becomes them, through the process of character-building.

The architecture of Indian fascism

The next two essays, ‘The Silence is The Loudest sound’ and ‘Imitations of an Ending’, explore the dire situation in Kashmir and the rise of Hindu nationalism within the wider Indian state. The recent set of legislation surrounding citizenship known as the National Register of Citizens (NRC) are compared to the infamous Nuremburg Laws of 1930s Germany. Roy informs the reader of the lives of people living under fascism and the BJP-inspired mob mentality daily. She chillingly writes that:

As the world looks on, the architecture of Indian fascism is quickly being put into place. (p.105)

By directly comparing Modi’s India to Hitler’s Germany, Roy not only jolts the attention of the reader, but also hands responsibility onto the reader to help avert another genocidal catastrophe. She is accusing Western powers of standing by as the Rome of secular India burns in the flames of sectarian hatred.

Roy recounts the case of a young man, falsely accused of a crime, who was murdered in broad daylight by a mob wielding sticks and axes:

The lynching of Tabrez Ansari illustrates just how deep the rot is. Lynching is a public performance of ritualized murder, in which a man or woman is killed to remind their community that it lives at the mercy of the mob. (p.122).

tabrez ansari

Tabrez Anzari

According to government records, lynching is becoming another pandemic in the country. The act of lynching demonstrates a terrifying balance between inclusion and exclusion of the mob and the community.

The smoking debris of Modi’s India

Why does Roy devote so much of her writings to explain in detail the politics of India? The reason which becomes clear is that her surroundings are the backdrop in her novels. Very much like nineteenth-century English writers such as Dickens and Gaskell, who depicted characters with a commentary on the Industrial Revolution, child poverty and the widening gap between the wealthy and the poor, Roy creates novels out of the  smoking debris of Modi’s India.

Another essay is the 2020 Clark Lecture in English Literature which Roy delivered earlier this year. This essay is entitled ‘The Graveyard Talks Back’. It is where her second novel is situated and is also a pun on the influential 1980s study of colonialism, ‘The Empire Writes Back’. Roy discusses how the geography of space can shape a novel. She writes:

I have given about the place for literature in the times in which we live, and about the politics of language, both public and private. (p.151)

In this essay, she shines a light on the physical act of writing. She explains the importance of her view from the window:

Some writers may wish to shut the window or move to another room but I cannot so you will have to bear with me, because it is in this landscape that I hear my stove and store my pots and pans. It is here that I make my literature. (p.153)

In the rest of the essay, Roy describes what is happening on the ground in Kashmir, which is integral to the narrative of her second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Roy also explains in detail the caste system, which remains a hugely controversial aspect of Indian society:

The principles of equality, fraternity, or sorority are anathema to the caste system. It’s not hard to see that the idea of some human beings are inherently superior or inferior to others by divine mandate slides easily into the fascism of a master race. (p. 163)  

Roy writes in this essay of how the internal and the external worlds of human experience are fundamentally connected:

We keep our complicated world, with all its seams exposed, alive in our writing (p.177) 

She talks again of the many similarities of the European fascism in the 1930s to the rise of Hindu nationalism in the 21st century. In her final essay ‘The Pandemic Is a Portal’ Roy, is optimistic for the future, not only for India but the world. She writes powerfully of how:  

Covid-19 has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could..…in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves (p.214).

 Roy ends this collection on a note of hope or at least the possibility of hope for the post-pandemic future. By referring to this pandemic as a chance for us to ‘let go’ of:

The prejudices and the hatred our dead rivers and smoky skies..(and be)…ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it. (p214).

After all the despair and sadness discussed in this highly readable collection, Roy is refreshingly optimistic that a better world awaits us on the other side of the portal.

In defence of GCSE poetry
Sunday, 16 August 2020 09:19

In defence of GCSE poetry

Published in Education

Razia Parveen criticises the government's decision to make poetry optional for study at GCSE level. The image above is of John Agard

The Tory government has recently announced that poetry will be optional for the 2021 GCSE exams. This retrograde decision will undoubtedly deprive thousands of children of the opportunity of learning about other cultures beyond Boris Johnson’s Little England. There is something particularly offensive about a largely white, privately educated group of privileged politicians deciding to obstruct access to the highest levels of literature to huge numbers of BAME working-class pupils in state schools.

On the current list is a diverse body of writers, both traditional English writers as well as contemporary poets that cover topics such as the Holocaust, diasporic identity, child poverty and Japanese fighters during WW2. Teenagers in their formative years are introduced to a multifaceted range of writers for the first time. For many students this will be their first encounter with a writer of colour or non-English writer. For instance, the haunting message of  Vultures by African writer Chinua Achebe provides an invaluable lesson on the consequences of racism:

Strange
indeed how love in other
ways so particular
will pick a corner
in that charnel-house
tidy it and coil up there, perhaps
even fall asleep - her face
turned to the wall!

...Thus the Commandant at Belsen
Camp going home for
the day with fumes of
human roast clinging
rebelliously to his hairy
nostrils will stop
at the wayside sweet-shop
and pick up a chocolate

for his tender offspring
waiting at home for Daddy's
return...

Praise bounteous
providence if you will
that grants even an ogre
a tiny glow-worm
tenderness encapsulated
in icy caverns of a cruel
heart or else despair
for in the very germ
of that kindred love is
lodged the perpetuity
of evil.

Classroom discussion which begins with an analysis of the poem leads to a discussion of the wider aspects of humanity, including the timeless contest between the powerful and the powerless, and the necessity to fight the scourge of fascism wherever it appears.

We, as teachers, can broaden the students’ learning experience by taking them to locations such as the Holocaust Beth Shalom Centre in Newark. The student feedback when I took a group there a few years was hugely satisfying with comments such as “the poem has come to life”, “I really understand it now” and “I didn’t know poetry could be this important”. By taking poetry off the table we are surely doing this generation of children a massive dis-service. This pandemic has already taken so much from us, and we must not let it take swathes of our cultural heritage as well.

For many years now, Ofqual has rightly facilitated the expansion of children’s minds through the poetry of Shelley, Browning, Eliot, Dharkar, Bhatt and many others. We have canonical works sitting beside contemporary poems by writers of colour, and children are shown the beauty of language through the medium of GCSE textual analysis. Many of these children have continued to study English Literature at university and then onto a lifetime of appreciation and love for the written word. A number of them, no doubt, go on to be teachers of poetry themselves and, thereby, the torch of learning is passed down through generations.

The importance of poetry in these difficult times is impossible to exaggerate. The popularity of reading poetry has surged during lockdown, due to the ability of carefully crafted verse to combat feelings of isolation and loneliness. Many are convinced that reading poems in times of crisis has a cathartic power as it promotes some peace of mind in a world that seems to be out of control.

For instance, William Blake in London speaks of child poverty occurring in English society during the Victorian era but this is a poem that also tragically resonates in the Britain of 2020:

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg'd manacles I hear

How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls

This poem explores themes of both yesteryear but also tells of the current crisis of child poverty and can facilitate important conversations about the impact of austerity in the 21st century. Many schoolchildren in the education system are living the reality of deprivation both at home and at school, so it becomes a poem that they can relate to, unfortunately. This poem is familiar to students of GCSE English and can therefore become an extremely powerful tool to generate discussions that go beyond the narrow focus of passing exams.

Anti-racist poetry

Making poetry optional now also takes away the prospect of many children going to the theatre for the first time. Many contemporary poets are happy to read their poems on a stage for GCSE students. Trips to the theatre organised and led by English teachers are now in danger of becoming a thing of the past. Many children, for example, listen to John Agard’s voice and hear the anti-racist poem Half-Caste come to life and sit in awe as he performs his work:

Excuse me
Standing on one leg
I'm half-caste


Explain yuself
Wha yu mean
When yu say half-caste

Yu mean when picasso
Mix red an green
Is a half-caste canvas?

Explain yuself
Wha yu mean
When yu say half-caste?

Yu mean tchaikovsky

An when moon begin to glow
I half-caste human being
Cast half-a-shadow

But yu come back tomorrow
Wid de whole of yu eye
An de whole of yu ear
And de whole of yu mind

An I will tell yu
De other half
Of my story

This poem is best appreciated when read out aloud and to have the author in person read his own words to an enthralled audience is an unmissable experience. I recall taking a group of mainly black working-class boys to see John Agard perform his poetry at the theatre in Leeds. For this cohort of children it was the first trip to the theatre, as this is a pastime they would normally associate with the more privileged.

It was the first time that these boys heard someone reflect their own sense of community identity and belonging through the power of the spoken word. This experience was crucial to their own sense of identity and connects to the Black Lives Matter movement, which has provided a moment of hope in these dark times.

We also experienced Carol Ann Duffy reading In Mrs Tilscher’s Class and the vividness of the classroom situation swirling around the children’s eyes as they sat enraptured:

You could travel up the Blue Nile
with your finger, tracing the route
while Mrs Tilscher chanted the scenery.
Tana. Ethiopia. Khartoum. Aswân.
That for an hour, then a skittle of milk
and the chalky Pyramids rubbed into dust.
A window opened with a long pole.
The laugh of a bell swung by a running child.

This was better than home. Enthralling books.
The classroom glowed like a sweet shop.
Sugar paper. Coloured shapes. Brady and Hindley
faded, like the faint, uneasy smudge of a mistake.
Mrs Tilscher loved you. Some mornings, you found
she’d left a good gold star by your name.

The scent of a pencil slowly, carefully, shaved.
A xylophone’s nonsense heard from another form.

You ran through the gates, impatient to be grown,
as the sky split open into a thunderstorm.

These experiences can stay with a child far beyond the examination period and allow them to question the world around them, potentially for a lifetime. These school-based excursions become memories firmly embedded in a generation of children. By taking poetry away from them, Ofqual has not only become the bogeyman of poetry but also the snatcher of memories.

Why and how education must be decolonised
Tuesday, 21 July 2020 15:53

Why and how education must be decolonised

Published in Education

Razia Parveen argues that pulling down statues should only be the beginning of a radical decolonisation of the educational curriculum

I didn’t know that. Why didn’t they teach us that in school? These are words many of us have probably heard in the wake of the pulling down of the Colston statue in Bristol and similar Black Lives Matter protests around the UK. As an Asian educator, I find the current school curriculum leaves little room for manoeuvre when it comes to teaching outside the parameters of the Gove-inspired curriculum. This government would prefer us to be actively kept in the dark about Britain’s imperial past. Many in this country’s black and Asian communities feel that  its history has been whitewashed for generations and that thanks to initiatives such as Black History Month and the recent BLM movement previously marginalized  voices are now demanding a more truthful account of this country’s impact around the globe. Far more needs to be done to educate children on how the British Empire experimented with Ireland and then stretched its talons across the globe from Africa to the Asian sub-continent. Decolonizing the curriculum means confronting the ugly truths of colonialism and the involvement of the British Empire in a string of crimes against humanity.

In Reni Eddo-Lodge’s monologue Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race, she explores the very reality of being black in Britain today. One aspect of her secondary education that stands out is the fact that she knows black history or herstory was completely ignored, and it was not until university and her second year when she took an optional module on the transatlantic slave trade that she learnt about this country even having a slave trade:

The Albert Dock opened four decades after Britain’s final slave ship, the Kitty’s Amelia, set sail from the city, but it was the closest I could get to staring out at the sea and imagining Britain’s complicity in the slave trade. Standing on the edge of the dock, I felt despair. Walking past the city’s oldest buildings, I felt sick. Everywhere I looked, I could see slavery’s legacy.

 Here she makes it clear to her readers that the elision of black history has resulted in an educational void at the heart of England’s real history. This glaring failure of UK education urgently needs to be tackled by a thorough decolonisation of the curriculum. Before we can remedy the problem, we need to accept the fact that this void exists and cannot be allowed to continue.

Shashi Thapoor’s Inglorious Empirechronicles the complexity of the involvement of the East India Company and the atrocities carried out in the name of Queen Victoria and the British state. The repercussions of these atrocities are being felt even today. It is remarkable that Throor argues in Inglorious Empire that:

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, India’s share of the world economy was 23 per cent, as large as all of Europe put together. By the time the British departed India, it had dropped to 3 percent. The reason was simple: India was governed for the benefit of Britain. Britain’s rise for 200 years was financed by its depredations in India.

We are presented here with an aspect of history that has so far been forgotten by the educational curricula which currently govern our schools and colleges of learning. The consequence of learning an essentially pro-imperial historical narrative creates what some literary theorists call epistemic violence (or cultural violence) against minority groups. A decolonisation of the historical record would allow future generations of students to experience the full picture of this country’s role in propagating slavery and systemic racism.

As many parents of schoolchildren will be aware, Poetry from Other Cultures is one of the headings for study in the GCSE curriculum. Verses such as Blessing, Half-Caste, Island Man, Limbo, Night of the Scorpion, Vultures, Nothing’s Changed and Sujatta Bhatt’s Search For My Tongue are discussed as part of a commendable attempt to decolonize the KS4 learning programme. This is to be applauded and BAME communities welcome the effort to address the current imbalance of cultural diversity. However, these rays of light are often undermined by the Gradgrind-style of teaching and learning fostered by the DFE’s cult of testing and examination.

If a true decolonisation of the curriculum is to happen then several measures need to be put in place. We need a space where an ‘unlearning’ of the hegemonic historical narrative can take place. We need more Equality and Diversity training rather than the current regime of one day every six months that can become a token gesture that skirts a more serious problem. The teachers themselves need to have the opportunity to return to the classroom in conjunction with higher education institutes, and rethink the narrative the Tories want them to deliver. Many educators feel a lack of knowledge in aspects of black and Asian history. This gap can only be filled with a new emphasis on programmes of professional development that reduce the administrative duties forced on them. As the current school system is already overburdened with monotonous monitoring and is close to collapse, a decrease in teaching duties is necessary, otherwise the status quo will continue. Only be the intervention of a radical rethink of priorities can overhaul the current system and allow for a decolonisation of the curriculum.

A decolonisation of curricula in higher education should mean many more modules on courses on black history. This would not only make for a more diverse course, but also allow BAME lecturers to take up posts in the sector. I am currently aware of numerous white lecturers teaching the slave era to lecture theatres full of black and Asian students. This is highly problematic and only serves to reinforce hierarchical prejudices. By employing BAME lecturers to teach on BAME subjects, not only would it diversify the teaching quota but also widen participation for students from this background.

As a BAME educator, I find the current GCSE English Language and Literature syllabus highly eurocentric, and almost traumatising in places. The texts that must be studied are a 19th Century novel, a piece of drama and poetry that have all been written from within the culture of the colonizers. There is little room for any teaching ‘outside the box’.  For instance, there is barely any time to divert from the prescribed reading list and dive into a James Baldwin story or a Maya Angelou novella. The school timetable is rigidly controlled by the demands of external assessment and leaves little scope to study these authors and others like them. Pulling down statues in city squares can only be a start of the decolonising agenda - we must now pull down prejudice and stereotypes in the classroom.