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. 

A Female Text in Flight: Review of A Ghost in the Throat
Tuesday, 07 September 2021 19:36

A Female Text in Flight: Review of A Ghost in the Throat

Published in Fiction

‘A Ghost in the Throat’ is a beautiful and poetically penned love-letter from one writer to another. It is an intriguing concoction of history, romance, sorrow, skullduggery and the importance of language all wrapped up in lyrical prose and delivered, like a gift, to the reader.

We are presented with a young mother who is obsessed with a poem she read as a teenager. The story reveals the parallels she perceives between her life and a historical character within the poem. The piece of literature that she becomes obsessed with is the infamous Caoineadh, a long narrative poem which has been deemed by writers including poet Seamus Heaney as the greatest piece of English literature ever written.

The novel has echoes of 'Jane Eyre' as it addresses issues regarding womanhood, female identity and female resilience in the face of seemingly all-powerful patriarchy. Early in the novel the reader is confronted with the protagonist’s view of women through the male writer’s gaze:

Maurice was Eibhin Dubh’s older brother, inheritor of the house they grew up in, and the distributor of the family wealth. As one might expect, the letters between these brothers slant towards the concerns of men: military politics, trade arrangements, finances, and so on, but there are occasional references to the lives of women to be found there, too. I decide that I will return to these texts and commit an act of wilfull erasure, whittling each document and letter until only the lives of women remain. In performing this oblique reading, I’ll devote myself to luring female lives back from male texts. Such as experiment in reversal will reveal, I hope, the concealed lives of women, past, always, but coded in invisible ink.

Our narrator reveals that the female character in the poem:

Wife of Art O’Leary Aunt of Daniel O’Connell. How shifty the academic gaze places her in a minuscule shadow, as though she could only be of interest as a satellite to male lives.

This tells us of the narrator’s rebellious streak as well as needing justice for when she saw a crime being committed. The reader is taken by the hand and led on a journey into the lives of a historical fictionalized playbook. The long narrative poem written over a hundred years ago begins with:

My steadfast love!
When I saw you one day
By the market-house gable
My eye gave a look
My heart shone out
I fled with you far
From friends and home.

The narrator of the book then begins telling us the story of the forgotten woman- herstory needs to be told as a matter of urgency. For the poem is recorded and tells us the stories of the men-how they lived and died but we are not told anything of the women. The writer has clearly decided to redress this injustice and reveal the fictionalized lives of the women in the infamous tale.

The book is well researched and informs the reader of the tradition of those in Ireland to keep hold of the ‘wants’ of their colonial masters. For the Irish people:

They spoke English, wore clothes of English fashion, and conformed to more or less to English customs in everyday life; but they hankered tin their hearts after the lost lands, the tribal rights and privileges, and in moments of excitement used the Irish speech they had first learned.

The writer brings a political dimension into the novel via a linguistic study or culture of the past and present day Ireland. By saying the character has chosen to speak in her master’s tongue the narrator seems to be critiquing this choice. The question of belonging and identity is very much embedded within the language we speak and the writer brings this to the surface issues of cultural identity. The very idea of ‘hankering after lost lands, tribal rights and privileges’ speaks powerfully of British colonial violence and the notion of nostalgically looking back on the past.

The young female narrator life is weaved into the lives of the characters within the poem. The narrator becomes a mere bystander. She has become the very fabric of their lives in order to sustain her own life in the present. She tells the reader:

I don’t know what it’s all for, but I keep going anyway, in the misguided hope that if I can simply exhaust my obsession it might come to bore me, eventually…
Perhaps I’d stumbled upon my true work. Perhaps the years I’d spent sifting the scattered pieces of this jigsaw were not in vain; perhaps they were a preparation. Perhaps I could honour Eibhlin Dubh’s life by building a truer image of her days, gathering every fact we hold to create a kaleidoscope, a spill of distinct moments, fractured but vivid. Once this thought comes to me, my heart grows quick. I could donate my days to finding her, I tell myself, I could do that, and I will.

This ‘obsession’ of our narrator is one journey the reader is also taken upon, and every minute detail becomes a breathtaking insight into the lives of the characters in the poem. The narrator’s life is very run of the mill; we have a young married woman with small children who sees her own life in parallel to the characters of the poem. The characters are embedded within the narrative and often become the real people in her present life. The past bleeds into the present and asks the reader the age-old question: what is the truth and what is fiction? Real events of Irish history become fictionalized by the narrator and blended into the narrative. The young mother interweaves her heartache to that of Art O’ Laughaire’s (murdered male) wife:

People of my heart,
What woman in Ireland
From setting of sun
Could stretch out beside him
And bear him three sucklings
And not run wild
Lost Art O Laoghaire
Who lies here vanquished
Since yesterday morning?

 The sorrow at losing her husband in the 18th century is paralleled to the heartbreak in the 21st Century felt by the narrator. The main voice we hear is that of the young mother who makes multiple hospital visits and leads an apparently ordinary life in the 21st Century. Interestingly, we do not know about the father/husband - his absence from this text is painfully obvious. She envelopes her own tale with the 18th Century poem now known as The Lament for Art O’ Laoghaire into a female text. The reader is introduced to the female of the poem but her story becomes invisible and we are taken on a journey to discover Eibhlin Dhubh’s story. The poem reveals the death of the male and husband to Eibhlin. It is just his story that we are given- Eibhlin becomes a side character. We hear her voice in the poem but it is from the viewpoint of the male gaze:

My steadfast love!
When I saw you one day
By the market-house gable
My eye gave a look
My heart shone out
I fled with you far
From friends and home

Till Art O Laoghaire comes
My grief will not disperse
But cram my heart’s core
Shut firmly in like a trunk locked up
When the key is lost.

Women there weeping
Stay there where you are,
Till Art Mac Conchuir summons drink
With some extra for the poor
--- ere he enter that school
Not for study or for music
But to hear clay and stones.

We are introduced to Eibhlin’s voice through the voice of the male writer but in this debut novel we journey into her life, which merges the political history of Ireland with its treatment of women over generations. The politics of the country becomes the very heart of this story and inevitably the book itself. The author of the novel is a product of Ireland’s turbulent history and this manifests itself in the Caoineadh, as well as The Ghost in the Throat.

At one point in the story the writer weaves we are told of another tale; so in fact this text becomes like a Russian doll, for it is folklore wrapped within a tale within a novel. The narrator tells the reader of an old tale that she heard as a child:

Long ago, deep inside the cliffs at An Rinn, there was a lios. One day, a man clambered down, not knowing what was within. Suddenly, the cliff opened and hundreds of bees flew out. Then a small man emerged and brought him inside the cliff and down a tall stairs. At the bottom was a room where he found many fairies, all singing and dancing. For three years, he was held there, and when at last he left, they gave him a pot of gold. I got this story from my mother. Age 40.

Whenever I return to this tale I feel it surge into a vessel of sound. Rewind it. Listen again, now: hear the heave and hurt of the sea

The narrator tells the reader this tale to not only provide us with an entertaining yarn but to inform us that the present is firmly embedded in the past. She refers to this oral tradition as ‘a female text in flight’.

What this vignette tells the reader is the importance of ‘oral storytelling’ of the past to present day culture. The past is weaved into the present throughout the novel bringing the complex history of Ireland and its people into the forefront. The tradition of Irish oral tales is one which is reminiscent of the great Irish poet, Yeats.

Where My Books Go

by W. B. Yeats

All the words that I gather,
And all the words that I write,
Must spread out their wings untiring,
And never rest in their flight,
Till they come where your sad, sad heart is,
And sing to you in the night,
Beyond where the waters are moving,
Storm darkened or starry bright.

This is a novel which tells us another story; one tale haunting another writer’s words. Within this text ghosts of the past mingle with spirits of the present whilst keeping alive the Irish tradition of storytelling.

Political upheavals such as the ramifications of the Penal Laws brought into Ireland by the English colonizers are weaved strongly into the fabric of the novel. The voice of Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill is heard as a grief-stricken wife of Art Uí Laoghaire. He is killed for defying the colonizers’ laws, and becomes a martyr for the people of Ireland including his wife who believes he was murdered by the state of England.

As the narrative progresses the reader is presented with a deeply personal account of a historical political event, immortalized in rhyme. The voice of a woman who lived in the 18th Century brings alive the voice of a woman who lives in the 21st Century. The idea of women passing down a sense of belonging and more importantly providing a long-forgotten voice is present throughout this book. Ultimately the reader is presented with women being empowered by giving other women a voice. This is very much identical to the Irigrayan concept of ‘cyclically gendered empowerment’.

The ongoing conflict between Britain and Ireland provides the strong political and social background to this novel. In parts this dispute simmers to the surface whereas elsewhere it remains in the background, haunting the worlds of both the women writing decades apart.

Dogged: A class-conscious novel about the working-class predicament
Sunday, 25 April 2021 08:47

Dogged: A class-conscious novel about the working-class predicament

Published in Fiction

Razia Parveen reviews Dogged, by Emma Purshouse, published by Ignite Books

This beautifully written book reflects and celebrates the beauty that lies in every woman. The narrative follows the lives of a group of working-class women along with the heartache and struggles they face. The main protagonist is a woman in her seventies and the reader is invited into her quite brilliant life. This aspect in itself is refreshing due to the usual absence of mature women as leading characters in works of fiction.

The novel opens with a dream-like sequence which seeps into the genre of magical realism:

Her emerging wing- just the one- unfurls itself in a grand gesture and then fails against her back. It is large and black. It is oily, tarry, nicotine-stained, and the feathers are stuck together. “Bloody dreamin agen,” she thinks as she awakes. (p.7)

The narrative is splattered with melancholic reminders that infuse the writing reminding the reader the fragile stoicism of the protagonist:

It’s more difficult to suck the smoke in than it used to be (p.11)

It is written in an absorbing style and narrated by someone who has a wonderful eye for detail. The writer knows her setting very well. By naming local streets and giving directions Purshouse not only paints a clear picture of the location but also tells the reader that she is immersed in the geography of her setting:

The self-harming Black Country wore its scars of road, rail and canal like badges of honour….(p.10)

.....in the distance the traffic on the Birmingham New Road whirs, and hums and sirens wail. (p.11)

Purshouse makes observations which reflects the lived experiences of many working class people:

she probably doesn’t even have a bank account Nancy is judging Marilyn by her own standards. Nancy hasn’t got a bank account, but then what would be the point? She doesn’t have any money.

The idea that these two ladies do not possess a bank account is both funny and sad. There is humour present throughout which adds to the melancholy of the situation. This is systemic in a capitalist system which disallows social mobility and is in essence melancholic, and it underpins a sense of doomed self-prophecy.

The most striking aspect of the novel is the spoken language of the characters. Purshouse has, very wisely, decided to retain the vernacular of the Black Country in the dialogue:

More tuh the point, ow um yow? What ya done tuh yower fairce?..... 

“Wheyer’s yower Daniel ?”says Nancy  (p.21)

This gives the characters not only a sense of belonging but adds to the emergency of their situation. Using the local dialect combined with these characters adds to the fragility and harshness of the working-class predicament. The class-conscious nature of the novel is what makes it a true reflection of a group of people, and makes it into a piece of social and political commentary which might stick in the throat of a reader from an entitled background.

One of the main characters Nancy makes a rather poignant remark about her marriage:

The Emmerdale theme tune begins. “Bloody rubbish! Dunno wot we play the licence fower!” chunters Billy. Sometime, somewhere down the years, they’d both started speaking in exclamations (p.30)

It is a very astute observation by Purshouse and essentially telling of the demise of the relationship and Nancy has simply settled for this truth:

Billy and Nancy are sitting in silence, licking their wounds. The argument had developed into a violent tongue-lashing. Verbal recriminations cutting through the air like fencing foils. Every jab, thrust, and barbed comment hitting home. Years of petty marriage misdemeanors flung backwards and forwards. Cutting. They were both still singing like salt had been rubbed in their re-opened sores. (p.46)

Purshouse’s observation here of a relationship is very common in traditional marriages, where the wife seems to be trapped by a sense of duty and socio-economic pressure. The book thus lends itself to very feminist interpretation. It then becomes rather easy to view Nancy as a female hero who has suffered greatly because of her class and gender.

There is a comical element to the story which is amusing on the surface but look beneath and it is a sad truth. For instance, at one point in the novel Nancy has to apply for passport photo and it must be countersigned by a professional. This is a barrier for her as she muses who can sign:

Bloody professional! who did Nancy know? Bernice had known her a good forty years. Marilyn had. Billy had. But publicans, depressed temporary agoraphobics, and retired foundry workers can’t sign passport photos. (p.66)

This dual use of comedy and sadness runs throughout the narrative and becomes a style which Purshouse has adopted to tell the story of the working class and its women. This is a central theme which runs like a river throughout this debut novel, but it is one which will be familiar to readers of her poetry. However, one striking difference is that this novel has given Purshouse more scope to write about and comment on the working class, women and the dichotomous nature of living a life filled with the pursuit of something but never quite clasping it.

Near the end of the novel we are given another astute observation on the marriage of Billy and Nancy:

As a couple, Billy and Nancy, had underestimated time. They’d underestimated passing of the years. They’d underestimated the damage that the empty spaces can do if they aren’t spoken about. They’d definitely underestimated each other. (p.236)

After a lifetime of being married, the reader is left wondering if they were ever really together? The ‘empty spaces’ are literally thousands of miles as one is on the way to Australia whilst the other sits on a beach in Rhyl. They remain worlds apart. Purshouse’s debut novel holds a mirror up to a class of characters who ultimately remain with the reader long after the last page is read and the book closed.

 

Magical bodies, memory and writing: a review of The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehsi Coates
Thursday, 04 February 2021 10:08

Magical bodies, memory and writing: a review of The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehsi Coates

Published in Fiction

 Razia Parveen reviews Ta-Nehsi Coates' debut work of fiction

The Water Dancer is stunningly lyrical as well as heartbreakingly sorrowful. We are given the narrative of a young man living in the American South during the slavery era and seeking freedom with other former slaves including the legendary Harriet Tubman. We are given a slave narrative, in the tradition of Frederick Douglass, as a memory never to be forgotten. Coates, however, innovatively weaves magical realism into this story and creates a spellbinding and powerful tale of emancipation that resonates with the Black Lives Matter protests of our times.

The story envelops strands of the literary genre known as magical realism, which can be found in much Latin American literature of the 60s and 70s. It is a style which can elevate an ordinary situation or human into the extraordinary. Coates has integrated this technique into the narrative of Hiram, the protagonist, and thus entwined two writing genres to create one very powerful narrative of the slave experience.

The novel is split into three sections each marked by Roman numerals, reflecting the journey of the slave. Hiram, is at the heart of the novel and like a tornado sweeping through the landscape he relates other lives in the swirl of those caught up in the horrors of slavery:

My other cellmate was an old man. His face was lined by the ages, and upon the ocean of his back I saw the many voyages of Rayland’s whip. …At any moment in the day, whenever the mood struck, these men would pull the old man out and compel him to sing, dance, crawl, bark, cluck, or perform some other indignity. And should his performance dissatisfy any of them, they would wail on him with fists and boots, beat him with horse reins or carriage whip, hurl paperweights and chairs at him, or each for whatever else was at hand.

Here we have the brutality and indignity of slavery laid bare for the reader. This book is not an easy read, and it makes the reader work. The novel begins with the ominous epigraph:

My part has been to tell the story of the slave. The story of the master never wanted for narrators - Frederick Douglass

 Coates does not waste any time in his crisp narrative and structures the opening of the novel to reflect the immediacy of telling this story:

And I could only have seen her there on the stone bridge, a dancer wreathed in ghostly blue, because there was the way they would have taken her back when I was young, back when the Virginia earth was still red as brick and red with life, and though there were other bridges spanning the river Goose, they would have bound her and brought her across this one, because this was the bridge that fed into the turnpike that twisted its way through the green hills and down the valley before bending in one direction, and that direction was south. (p.3)

This opening not only introduces us to Hiram and the horrors of slavery but also the intense relationship of mother and child, and the themes of water and memory which will become central to this narrative. One other aspect central to this novel is the land itself – the beauty and horrors of the Southern plantations themselves. Hiram attempts to flee the brutality of his life with a girl called Sophia, who makes it clear to Hiram that she wants total freedom from all men regardless of their colour:

But I will like you a heap less if your plan is for us to get to this Underground and for you to make yourself up as another Nathaniel. That ain’t freedom to me, do you understand? I noticed then that her hand was on my arm. And that she was squeezing it firmly.

“If that is what you want, if that is what you are thinking, then you must tell me now. If that is your plan to shackle me there, to have me bring yearlings to you, then tell me now and allow me the decency of making by own choice here. You are not like them. You must do me the service of giving me that choice. So tell me. Tell me now your intending.” (p.111-112)

Sophia makes a reference to the famous Underground Railway, a nod to the dangerous work of the slave resistance network and the bravery of the great Harriet Tubman. Her legendary tales of rescuing slaves from the Deep South and bringing them to the North is given a magical twist. Hiram joins her revolutionary Underground Railway, moving the enslaved to freedom and taking them out of bondage to the liberated air of the North.

Sophia also takes a stand for not only enslaved women but gender equality here. Her character is very reminiscent of the anti-slavery campaigner Sojourner Truth and her celebrated speech ‘Ain’t I a Woman’:

I have as much muscle as any man and can do as much work as any man. I have plowed and reaped and chopped and husked, and can any man do more than do. I have heard much about the sexes being equal; I can carry as much any man and eat as much too, if I can get it. I am as strong as any man that I now. As for intellect, all I can say is, if woman have a pint, awt and a man a quart – why can’t she have her little pint full. You need not be afraid to give us our rights for fear we will take too much – for we can’t take more than out pint’ll hold.m - (Truth’s original speech at the Women’s Rights Convention held on June 21, 1851, taken from The Anti-Slavery Bugle, vol. 6)

Sophia’s monologue to Hiram is reflective of Truth’s speech here, allowing comparisons to be made regarding their situations. So was Sophia’s character based upon Truth? As like Truth, Sophia became an emancipated slave. Truth became one of the many friends of Tubman and the Underground Railway is weaved into Hiram’s narrative adding to its educational power. After failing to flee from his captors, Hiram is rescued by agents of the Underground Railway:

“But freedom, true freedom, is a master too, you see – one more dogged, more constant, than any ragged slave-driver,” she said. “What you must now accept is that all of us are bound to something. Some will bind themselves to property in man and all that comes forthwith. And others shall bind themselves too justice. All must name a master to serve. All must choose. We have chosen this, Hawkins and I. We have accepted the gospel that says our freedom is a call to war against unfreedom. Because this is who we are, Hiram. The Underground.” (p.155)

Hiram becomes an agent for the Underground Railway working alongside other agents as well as Harriet Tubman. She also builds friendships with other famed abolitionists including Frederick Douglass, Thomas Garner and Martha Coffin White:

So, I was trained to be an agent, trained in the mountains at Bryceton, Corrine’s family stead, along with other new agents recruited for the Underground. You will forgive me for not saying much about my fellow agents. Those who are mentioned in this volume are either alive and have tendered their permission, or have gone off to that final journey to meet with the Grand Discerner of Souls. We are not yet past a time when scores are settled and vengeances sought, so many of us must, even in this time, remain underground. (p.163)

The tradition of singing songs is much praised and held in great esteem by Hiram and the older members of the enslaved family:

Going away to the great house farm

Going up, but won’t be long

Be back, Gina, with my heart and my song.

(p.88)

 Songs were sung as a tool to remember family members who had perished before them. These were melancholy, yet full of the hope of freedom to come. The songs that are being sung are in the same tradition as those ancestors on the plantations and the slave ships coming from Africa:

“It’s a story,” she said. “was a big king who came over from Africa on the slave ship with his people. But when they got close to shore, him and his folk took over, killed all the white folks, threw ’em overboard, and tried to sail back home. But the ship run aground, and when the king look out, he see that the white folks’ army is coming for him with their guns and all. So the chef told his people to walk out into the water, to sing and dance as they walked, that the water-goddess would take ’em back home." (p.379)

Coates employs the technique of telling a story within a story; nestled within the story of Hiram are snippets from the life journey of many people that he meets along the way. For instance, when Hiram is captured he is imprisoned along with an old man who narrates his life in enslavement:

Tonight, the old man, for some reason, felt the need to speaks…That was a time when a good man could make himself a family, and could witness his children, and children’s children, the same. My grand-daddy saw it all., yes, he did. Brought here from Africa…I could tell you stories boy….. (pps.128 &129)

Within these stories Hiram continues to educate the modern reader into the grotesque inhumanity of slavery. The style of magical realism employed by Coates is in stark contrast to the brutal realism of the descriptions of the horrors of slavery. When you construct magical bodies alongside the brutal reality, only then can the reader experience and understand the world created by Coates. For the connection between the two styles, as tangible as it is, allows the world of the Hiram to come surging into our present. Just prior to Hiram meeting the old man he is captured as he walks along the street:

 When I awoke I was, once again, chained, blinded, and gagged. I was in the back of a drawn cart and could feel ground moving beneath me. I cleared my head and knew exactly what had befallen me, for I heard all the stories. It was the man-catchers – known to simply grab coloured people off the street and ship them south for a price, with no regard to their status as free or in flight from the Task. (p.214)

 As the novel closes, we see Hiram return to his former life and through the process of ‘conduction’, take back Sophia and the woman who had become his mother, Thena. ‘Conduction’ is recalling of a memory which then allows the person to ‘jump’ long distances in an almost supernatural manner. Hiram is one of the few agents of the Underground Railway that can perform this feat besides Harriet:

The thing works on memory, and the deeper the memory, the farther away it can carry you. My memory of that Holiday night is tied to Georgie, and it’s tied to this horse that was my gift to him and his baby. But to conduct y’all that far, I need a deeper memory, and need another object tied to that memory to be my guide. (p.380)

 Memory becomes the most important commodity between the enslaved for it is memory which both enslaves and liberates them.

Corrine Quinn was among the most fanatical agents I ever encountered on the Underground. All of these fanatics were white. They took slavery as a personal insult or affront, a stain upon their name. They had seen women carried off to fancy, or watched as a father was stripped and beaten in front of his child, or seen whole families pinned like hogs into rail-cars, steam-boats, and jails. Slavery humiliated them, because it offended a basic sense of goodness that they believed themselves to possess. And when their cousins perpetrated the base practice, it served to remind them how easily they might do the same. They scorned their barbaric brethren, but they were brethren all the same….(p.370)

 Coates’ style is very reminiscent of James Baldwin – the American orator, writer and civil rights campaigner of the civil rights era.  Both write with compassion and in doing so understand convey the effects of slavery upon the individual body and soul. Baldwin wrote about racial segration and humanity in compelling and very similar terms:

Yes, he had heard it all his life, but it was only now that his ears were opened to this sound that came from darkness, that could only come from darkness, that yet bore such sure witness to the glory of the light. And now in his moaning, and so far from any help, he heard it in himself – it rose from his bleeding, his cracked-open heart. It was a sound of rage and weeping which filled the grave, rage and weeping from time set free, but bound now in eternity; rage that had no language, weeping with no voice – which yet spoke now, to John's startled soul, of boundless melancholy, of the bitterest patience, and the longest night; of the deepest water, the strongest chains, the most cruel lash; of humility most wretched, the dungeon most absolute, of love's bed defiled, and birth dishonored, and most bloody, unspeakable, sudden death. Yes, the darkness hummed with murder: the body in the water, the body in the fire, the body on the tree. John looked down the line of these armies of darkness, army upon army, and his soul whispered: Who are these? Who are they? And wondered: Where Shall I go? - from Go Tell It On The Mountain, by James Baldwin

Both these writers, decades apart, possess an uplifting style which makes their characters’ internal monologues sound like a fiery sermon delivered in a church. This is highlighted as the enslaved people turned to the church for a sense of relief. This is present in The Water Dancer when songs are sung:

Oh Lord, trouble so hard

Oh Lord, trouble so hard

Nobody knows my troubles but my God

Nobody know my trouble but my God

 It went on for verse after verse, taking the song from trouble to labor to trouble to hope to trouble to freedom. When I sang the song the call, I changed many voice to the sound of the lead man in the field, bold and exaggerated. When I sang the response I took o the voices of the people around me mimicking them one by one. They were delighted these elders, and their delight grew as the song extended verse after verse….(p.20)

 It was hope found in something to believe, which Hiram’s narrative is trying to tell us. By interweaving historical life experiences of iconic figures of African-American history, Coates has constructed a novel which is both a harrowing slave narrative and a tale of magical transcendence. He has shown the power of storytelling through the variety of characters which walk on the land of the Deep South:

The summoning of a story, the water, and the object that made memory real as brick: that was Conduction. (p.358)

Coates has kept alive the memory of an earlier generation of anti-racist resistance in a narrative which delivers powerful lessons for the same struggle in the 21st century. The Water Dancer is written poetically, mingling fiction with non-fiction. Coates is the Toni Morrison or James Baldwin for the Black Lives Matter generation of today.

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.